Viewed from the outside, the film world seems permanently enslaved to fashion. One minute, it’s all romantic comedies in the multiplexes, then westerns come back, then science-fiction. But the style of movies follows technical trends too. In the 1980s, editing speeded up. In the 1990s, widescreen and shallow focus were all the rage. Today, a survey of the movie map shows that cinematic realism is in vogue.
In Cannes this year, more movies than ever were documentaries. The best-reviewed film of recent months was Time Out, an understated French realist masterpiece about a man pretending that he has a job. Mexican cinema bounced back to acclaim and box office success with the semi-improvised sex and sociology film Y tu mam? tambi?n. Paul Greengrass’s documentary-style Bloody Sunday was hailed by many. The intimate character films of Eric Rohmer formed the big recent retrospective at the National Film Theatre. There is an international consensus that the most interesting place for a movie to be at the moment is close to the contours of the real world.
This is a surprise, if only because that place is a minefield. Make a film about an invented love affair in the Moulin Rouge and the sky’s the limit. You have no facts to worry about, no great themes to represent, because the real world barely makes an appearance. But turn to Derry in 1972 or to the Kennedy assassinations, Watergate, apartheid or Vietnam, and politicians, activists, the military, eyewitnesses, journalists, lawyers and historians will give you a kicking for your factual errors, misrepresentations of characters, political bias or failure to tell the real story. (See the recent exchange in Prospect between Mark Huband and Mark Bowden over Black Hawk Down.)
Movies have always whispered “trust me, believe me” to the people sitting in the dark and until the 1960s at least the audience did what they were told. Perhaps if movies hadn’t then rewritten history for their convenience, screwed around with truth so much and used the look of documentaries to spin out any old duff lies, they would now be trusted more. As it is, mainstream cinema has often let down the real world by its disinterest in it.
Take a daft example. You can’t get dinosaur DNA from a bug in amber. Individual genes, yes, but the whole chain? Impossible. Nevertheless, Jurassic Park was made and we got the kids’ dinosaur revival fad. In All the President’s Men, Alan J Pakula’s account of Watergate, the contents of Washington Post wastepaper baskets were shipped to California to be placed in the movie set’s replicas. Full marks for this ultra-if slightly gaga-naturalism, but it didn’t help the film capture reality. All the President’s Men suggests that Bernstein’s and Woodward’s lives were in danger, when they weren’t. It also asserts that this great upheaval in public trust was a result of the researches of two journalists. The political investigation which ensued, where the real revelations took place, was ignored. Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde claimed that the two killers made Robin Hood-style donations to the poor. Not true. Oliver Stone’s JFK claimed that Kennedy was planning to pull out of Vietnam. Not true. In Mississippi Burning, the blacks are downtrodden while, in the real life events of 1964, they organised and cast freedom ballots in large numbers. These are all American examples. John Sayles in that country and Ken Loach in our own have a far better track record. But they are exceptions. In the main, few countries have fared much better in attempting to make films which bear witness to reality.
Yet audiences lap up the truth-bending fictions of cinema. Tucked into stories, brought to life by actors and suffused with feeling, untruths in cinema are mostly undetectable. If an extra wears a wristwatch in Cleopatra, as one did, we can have a laugh at how easily it spikes Hollywood’s grand plans to take us in. But factual inaccuracies in films are like chameleons adapting to the colour of the leaf they’re sitting on. They bed down and wait for our scopophilic glance to scan and move on. We are too entranced to notice and, anyway-we want to believe. Producers know this, of course, especially the old timers, the mainstreamers untroubled by ethical dilemmas. Many agree with ?ber-screenwriter William Goldman’s formulation that in movies it doesn’t matter what is true, what is important is what appears to be true.
David Puttnam, producer of Chariots of Fire and The Killing Fields, chairman of Columbia pictures from 1986-1987, recently argued in the Guardian that movies are shirking their moral responsibilities to deal with real subjects, to engage with the pressing issues of the day. Aware of cinema’s ignoble history of tackling important subjects, he none the less called for film-makers to walk back onto the minefield. Is he right? Should movies try again? Should we be developing scripts about Rwanda, 11th September, Le Pen and Ahmedabad? And making them accurate?
My answer is… perhaps. This is not because I am unsure. The Battle of Algiers and Come and See are models of how to capture the dynamic of the real world on film. The first, made in 1965 by Gillo Pontecorvo, portrays an anti-French terrorist cell in Algeria a decade earlier. The second, made in the Soviet Union in 1985, tells how a Belorussian townspeople are massacred by the Germans. Both are engaged films and, I trust, the sort of work of which Puttnam would approve. But my answer remains equivocal because the carcasses of rotten, well-meaning films are stacked high in that minefield of reality. Think of almost every film about Vietnam, Northern Ireland, the cold war and the second world war.
My problem, too, is that I do not believe that cinema should be in the service of anything, not even the need to explain the most appalling events of our age. But is there something in this intense, seeing-is-believing, big screen medium which pre-disposes it to portraying the real world? This requires a glance back at the history of ideas about the movies.
The first decent account of the evolution of cinema was written by two young Frenchmen: the poet and critic Robert Brasillach and his friend, Maurice Bard?che. Forty years from the invention of the movies, B&B’s Histoire du Cin?ma, published in 1935, defined a canon and the principles by which movies might be understood. The Museum of Modern Art (Moma) in New York had the book translated into English, and the cinematheque attached to Moma collected according to its recommendations. The B&B book had an unacknowledged thesis which is still held by many critics today. It is the formalist position; the argument that movies are like dreams or cubist paintings; that there is something fundamentally unreal about the nature of cinema.
In the first decade of the movies (1895-1905), this was not obvious. Film-makers photographed stage plays, events occurring in front of the camera, and street scenes. People marvelled at how lifelike was this “kingdom of the shadows.” But as the medium evolved, it began to discover editing, close-up, tracking shots. In doing so, it became more formally cinematic. What was done with lenses and lights, on set and at the cutting table, was as important as what took place in front of the camera. Brasillach and Bard?che lauded the editing of DW Griffiths’s films, the close-ups in The Passion of Joan of Arc, the camera angles and exaggerated design of the 1919 silent classic, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. People who argue that the shower scene in Psycho or the opening shot in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil are cinema at its most original have inherited B&B’s formalism.
The influential art critic, Clement Greenberg, said the same thing about all art: it is not the job of visual media to describe the outside world so much as generate their own worlds. He lent weight to the idea that movies were not merely a derivative of photography or theatres but that cinema was an entirely new medium with its own aesthetic principles.
Then came the second world war and, rather awkwardly, B&B’s 1943 revision of their book which contained anti-semitic references. A few years later, Brasillach was hanged for wartime collaboration and Bard?che married Brasillach’s sister. The ground was opened up in France for a new theory of cinema. After years of embargo, Paris was suddenly flooded with American movies and there was something different about them. In films like John Ford’s Stagecoach, William Wyler’s The Little Foxes and John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon there were fewer camera moves and more concentration on what was happening in front of the camera. Two films in particular pushed these techniques to their limits. Welles’s Citizen Kane and William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives became the focus of a principle of cinema which was diametrically opposed to B&B’s.
Ironically, given the subsequent reputation of Hollywood, American cinema inspired the theory of realism. The theorist was Andr? Bazin. He argued that the essence of cinema did not lie in technical trickery. Nothing extraneous to the action was permitted. Bazin went further, arguing that cinema must not distort or escape from reality; that cinema is at its best when it approaches the psychological realism of the 19th-century novel. With this in mind, his followers looked back at silent movies and discovered a new canon. Out went the high style of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari; in came the documentary realism of Robert Flaherty’s 1922 Nanook of the North.
The arguments of Bazin coincided with the fact that nearly every national cinema had, in the post war years, lurched towards realism. The Italian neo-realists led the way with Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero (1947) and Visconti’s The Earth Trembles (1948). Ozu in Japan, and the new Indian film-makers took their cameras out of the studios and onto the streets. Many used non-professional actors, off-the-peg costumes and natural lighting. They told stories about social devastation and recovery. They answered Jean Paul Sartre’s call for “engaged” art. B&B formalism virtually disappeared. After the second world war, it seemed immoral. Billy Wilder edited archive footage from Dachau and Belsen, John Huston made his extraordinary documentary, Let There Be Light, about traumatised soldiers and even the arch-technique man, Alfred Hitchcock, put down his fancy equipment and made films about the war. Jean Renoir, of whom Bazin approved, was given to saying, “you must leave a door open on the set so that reality can come in.” In the 1960s, Pier Paolo Pasolini called cinema “the stupendous language of reality.”
By the late 1940s, the big “nature of cinema” debate had been established. Lines were drawn between the pre-war, B&B formalists (who would have had no time for Puttnam’s arguments), and the Bazinian realists (much more Puttnam’s cup of tea). Very broadly, this ding-dong corresponded to the political right and left respectively.
There were some flies in the ointment, however-two of the biggest were Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. In 1940s Britain, they were the banner-carriers of another kind of cinema altogether. Call it the “personal expression” position. While Carol Reed was making masterpieces of human darkness and devastation (Odd Man Out and The Third Man), Powell and Pressburger gave us Black Narcissus (1947), set in a windswept convent in the Himalayas, and The Red Shoes (1948), about the ruinous obsession between an impresario and a ballerina. Two more stylised films it would be impossible to imagine. You might, therefore, think they fit into the B&B argument that anti-realist films are best. No. Events in their films are often pure fantasy, but they are never purely formal. The B&B and Bazinian positions dispute the question of whether cameras and sound can capture reality, but ultimately they both take objective views of cinema as an art form. Powell and Pressburger’s films, by contrast, fit neither end of this dichotomy. They grow out of the inner visions of the film-makers rather than a sense of whether the camera is a truth teller or a styliser. The fantasies of Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes are also honest accounts of the effects of desire and jealousy.
This is the third possibility of what cinema can be: a medium of personal expression. This third way was again theorised by a Frenchman, Alexandre Astruc. His most telling idea was le camera-stylo, by which he meant that a director writes with the camera, as an author does with a pen. A shot of a street is not just that, but describes how a film-maker feels about the street. Astruc’s arguments about personal film-making enrich the great examples of personal movies, from Eric Von Stroheim’s obsessive silent epics such as Greed, through Alfred Hitchcock’s films of the 1950s, to Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate and the entire careers of Martin Scorsese and David Lynch.
The “personal expression” position became the auteur or authorship theory and, many producers argued, had the cataclysmic effect of encouraging directors to think of themselves as artists. The result was the “new wave” of Godard, Truffaut and Rohmer in France, Oshima and Imamura in Japan, Ghatak and Satyajit Ray in India, Bergman in Sweden, Antonioni and Fellini in Italy and Cassavetes, Scorsese and Coppola in the US. Even the mid-1990s “Dogme” manifesto launched by the Danes Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, which saw directors vowing not to use fancy tricks, can be traced back to Astruc.
Looking back from the 21st century, most experts would say that none of them-B&B nor Bazin nor Astruc-were right. Or, rather, all of them in some way expressed a truth about cinema. Their ideas form a triangle within which every film can be positioned. Just as cubism was a stage that painting had to move through in order to investigate its nature, so cinema had to undergo its own exploration. The B&B approach to film was that exploration; it established a foundation without which no film can work. Building on this foundation was Astruc’s camera-stylo theory. Almost no one in the film world today would deny that great films require great personalities behind them, although personal statements have to be smuggled into big budget cinema. And, at the third point of the triangle, is Bazin’s idea that cinema has a God-given gift to capture something of the real world. But cinematic realism is limited. The fact that movies have a gift for it, isn’t to say that it is in the nature of cinema to be real. Animation, Eisensteinian editing, Hitchcock, Bollywood, MGM musicals come as easily as, say, the Omaha Beach scene at the beginning of Saving Private Ryan.
To say that these three positions are, more or less, equally valid, may appear to be saying nothing. But there is a deeper truth, informing all the points in the triangle. This is the geometry of the triangle: film is just a language. And like a language, it can do technical, realistic or expressive things but there’s nothing innately formal or realistic in it. It is reality neutral.
It is important to defend cinema’s right to be reality neutral against Puttnam’s echoing of Sartre that it should be engaged. A shot of a dog resembles a real dog more than the words “dog” or “chien” resemble one. So, yes, it has this special talent. But cinema history tells us that movies are not necessarily at their best when they use it. We must not require a shot of a dog to mean only a boring, literal, unironic dog.
The question of what cinema can do is easily answered-almost anything. The question of what cinema should do, depends entirely on the political or historical context. Given cinema’s social penetration, the fact that it captures the individual attention of billions of people each year, if it does not engage, especially when times are tough, then it is failing. We cannot, surely, allow it entirely to flounce away from what’s happening in Israel, the slums of India, Le Pen, Aids.
In the engag? camp you have Ken Loach, Jean Renoir and Pier Paolo Pasolini. Those for whom either formalism or personal expression are the real duties of cinema, you have David Lynch, Baz Luhrmann, Alfred Hitchcock, Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese. Reconciling the two sides is where things get interesting.
Take something important in the real world and ask three questions. What if film-makers didn’t deal with it? What if film-makers dealt with it, but badly? And what if some film-makers dealt with it successfully, and left other people to make other kinds of movies? Consider the gassings at Auschwitz-Birkenau between 1943 and 1945. Film-makers didn’t have to engage with these atrocities and for obvious reasons at the time, they didn’t. There isn’t a single existing still or moving image of the operation of the gas chambers. This fact leads to further questions: would there be Holocaust deniers if there had been? Would there have been room for doubt? The absence of film helps fuel the case of the doubting Thomases.
On to the second scenario, where the subject was treated, but badly. In the television series Holocaust, the process of inserting the Zyklon B gas into the crematoria was so badly portrayed technically-a guy climbs a ladder and pops it in-that revisionists and neo-Nazis had a field day. They watched those scenes and laughed. Granted, this is mainstream television rather than cinema but the dilemma remains the same: audiovisual culture’s slipshod populism led to simplifications which cheated the audience and, no matter how well intentioned, created a new postmodern vagueness around its subject.
What about the third scenario, when cinema tackles the situation and apparently gets it right? Schindler’s List had the technical brilliance of Steven Spielberg and cinematographer Januscz Koszinski, a source novel like Schindler’s Ark, a budget to realise their ambitions, a seriousness of tone, a largely receptive press and a credible back-up programme funded by the Shoah Foundation which is videotaping Holocaust survivor testimony on a massive scale. Still, a few aesthetic mistakes, like the girl in red and the sentimentality of the last act, makes it a flawed work. It is accused of subtly Hollywoodising its subject. The argument to engage falls down if the form is bungled.
It is a sign of weakness when cinema goes all out to deal with the real world but then allows the message to overrun the medium. When content dominates, you can hear B&B whispering “what about form?” Form and history are uneasy bedfellows. Form pulls away from content, runs rings around it. Puttnam’s The Killing Fields had a big political impact; David Lynch’s Blue Velvet seemed purely personal. Which is best? Or, a rather harder question: which is more valuable to our culture?
Here’s what I think. We should take the Shoah Foundation interviews, for example, and give them to someone like David Lynch or Baz Luhrmann (who made Moulin Rouge) to make a film out of them, a kind of montage. To make the most valuable, engaging films, each point of the B&B/Bazin/Astruc triangle must play a part. As Truffaut argued, a film must say something about reality and about cinema. So you take the raw survivor testimony, reconceive it, connect to it personally and splash it on the big screen in a shockingly new way. No sensitive violin music, no earnest voiceover, no archive, no shots of raindrops dripping from barbed wire in the death camps. Or ask Scorsese to make a film about Rwanda. Give Jane Campion free reign on 11th September. Chantal Akerman on Le Pen. And what about the Coen brothers on Ahmedabad?
A few films which are perhaps central to this debate are nevertheless special cases. They are a small but very important breed: films which have actually changed the world. The first two were produced for television: Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home, made in 1965, which told the story of a young woman who loses her husband and child and becomes homeless, was part of the process that led to the setting up of Shelter. A Chinese documentary called Heshang was an epic telling of the history of the Yellow River civilisation, the impact of which contributed to the reform movement in the late 1980s in China and to Tiananmen Square. Finally, a film called Repentance by Tengiz Abuladze, made in the Soviet Union and (belatedly) released in 1987. Its veiled account of Stalinism so affected Gorbachev and Shevardnadze that it convinced them to accelerate their reforms. If more films were like this one, I’d be with Puttnam. But there’s one salient fact about Repentance. It was not a realist film.