An old man sits in a
director’s chair. Behind him is the backdrop of a
spectacular desert valley. Off camera, a young interviewer asks a
series of questions which the interviewee scoffs at as being
The conversation is a
testy encounter between the elderly master, John Ford, and the
young critic-soon-to-be-director Peter Bogdanovich, in Martin
Scorsese’s Centenary of Cinema Episode One. Their
conversation is symptomatic of the schism that has been created
between the production of films and their critical reception in
the last 50 years.
"The result has been a
change in the structure of the film marketplace"
John Ford may have been
pretending that he didn’t understand Bogdanovich’s
questions, or thought they were pretentious because to him (Ford)
such ideas were intuitively felt rather than analysed and
In part this exchange
between Ford and Bogdanovich represents a generational
difference and the key to that gap is film education.
Bogdanovitch belongs to the first generation who went to film
school and were able to study rather than only look at films.
This fundamental shift in the way films are seen - from pure
entertainment to an understanding of cinema as an aesthetic,
psychological and political experience has transformed the
industry and its audience.
This process, begun
halfway through the century of cinema, has created the hierarchy
of films which we now regard as the list of masterpieces and a
supporting list of films which have a contributing role in the
development of genres and aesthetics.
The result has been a
change in the structure of the film marketplace, dividing it into
mass, and art or independent; the rise of film education and
publications; the sustained experimentation with the film image
and cross-over into other art forms and intellectual disciplines;
the expansion of the star system and attendant publicity machine
into a style and media business.
Another way of
expressing this particular condition is by quotations - Abel
Glance in 1927, proclaimed optimistically "the age of the
image has arrived" and then in the 1960’s Jean-Luc
Godard affirmed that cinema was "the truth 24 times a
second" while more recently, Brian de Palma sees cinema as
duplicitous: "lies 24 times a second".
John Ford would not
recognisee this description as being ‘the film
industry’ that he worked in all his life, though like many
critics, he might well be underwhelmed by much of the new cinema.
So the questions must be
asked - what is the state of cinema now on the edge of the next
century, and why is it that audiences continue to vote at the box
office and video shop for ‘classics’ as much as this
week’s mega-hyped hit feature?
A HUNDRED YEARS, A MILLION MILES: PART
Everyday I take my wares
to the marketplace, to paraphrase Bertolt Brecht. This is a
living truth for anyone involved in the movies. It is often a
truth writers, directors and actors do not want to acknowledge as
governing their existence, but it dominates their daily creative
"I am constantly amazed
by the inanity of the storylines"
The impression most film
goers have of increasingly larger numbers of films being made and
released is true - there is a plethora of choice, of what might
be called narrative options. And this is the clue to the scale of
the deception - these are merely shadow options, ghosts of the
originals, the living dead of genre in the most simplest form.
As a critical writer on
the cinema I am constantly amazed by the inanity of the
storylines which are trumpeted in the media releases that
literally pour into my mailbox. In recent years I have become
nostalgic for the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when
from Blow Up to Taxi Driver, from the height of Godard to the
best of Bergman and Wajda, cinema seemed to be actively creating
the market rather than merely pandering to it.
The argument for the
innovation of these directors can be made on two levels -
aesthetic and political contribution, and their measurable
expansion of the film market. Casual research on the back page of
film magazines of the period will reveal the distribution
patterns of what we now call the art house - 16mm copies of
Bergman, Warhol or Antonioni, released by niche distributors.
This is no longer the
case. Pedro Almodavar, for example, who might reasonably be a
contemporary equivalent of these early art house directors, is a
style and fashion icon whose films are slavishly supported
despite their unevenness. Similarly Hal Hartley is idolised by
film audiences on the strength of the ‘wit’ of his
dialogue alone despite the increasingly banal nature of his
"The market for such
politically regressive ideas is vast"
What the boutique market
does achieve, and very effectively is a greater degree of
cultural diversity than otherwise would exist in the film
distribution circuit. But there is also a well known law in
politics and commerce- to neutralise the enemy invite them to
join your Party or Board. So it has happened to independent
film-making ...there are few mavericks, no new truly provocative
or aesthetically avant garde directors on the scale of Dusan
Makavejev, Lindsey Anderson or Chris Marker.
Nor is there much of a
market for political films, even in the America industry which
once produced The Parallex View or The Candidate, where the
political process was exposed with all its flaws To many of the
current releases assume the audience is powerless, relying on an
automaton like the Robocop to clean out the social scum.
The market for such
politically regressive ideas is vast, and spreads beyond natural
and national borders. On hundred years after its birth, the
cinema is at anew cross roads, where it must decide through its
creators and audience, wether it will feed an insatiable audience
who simultaneously can now experience the same images through the
mechanism of a monopolised market, or wether it will see value in
niche experiences which might not have the economies of scale of
the globally distributed images but can still have,
proportionately, considerable economic leverage.
The appeal of the
classics, the sense of nostalgia that sees Casablanca remain one
of the most popular films of all time, is not necessarily to do
with its enigmatic storyline or its romantic idealism but with
being seen as unsullied - and perhaps born of old fashioned
entertainment motives . . . until, that is, it was colourised.
"Many would say that
cynicism, populism and fashion have taken over the
The art house directors
who became famous as authors of films and created the staple
curriculum of thousands of film school courses around the world
are old men now no longer making the running except in a
respectful critical sense. They belong to an era when the cinema
stood clearly apart form television, and film images were not
available on computer or the Internet, and personal video cameras
were not accessible.
To be a film director
was an elite professional position, a privilege to grapple with
high art and politics. There are few directors today who might
make this claim - Peter Greenaway perhaps - and many would say
that cynicism, populism and fashion have taken over the industry.
This doesn’t mean that from the new array of delivery
systems a new seriousness will not emerge - I know that it will -
but its precise form and market are as yet, unknown.