THE STATE OF THE ART
“Where is the cinema going? It’s going wherever anyone wants to take it. It’s there to be ridden like a fucking chrome horse.”
THE WORLD IS DOOMED
Let’s get the bleak, broad analysis out of the way first:
The corporations have this business sown up.
Between Time Warner, Sony, News Corporation and a handful of others, control over an overwhelming majority of the global film market is in the hands of a few huge companies. With a practical monopoly over distribution, these companies can not only effectively prevent indigenous filmmakers from accessing international audiences; they can hog their domestic audiences as well.
The cultural effect of this over the past decades has been to create a global audience with a highly specialised set of tastes: people the world over, acclimatised year in year out to the same few cinematic forms promoted by the same few corporations, assisted by a likeminded broadcast media (in some cases run by the same corporations), gradually coming to accept these few forms as representing a sort of cinematic normality; simply the way films naturally tend to be.
The issue here isn’t American imperialism, since Hollywood is internationally peopled and its owners are, by nature, supranational; nor is it a case of their products being inherently negative (in and of itself, Snakes on a Plane is probably as harmless as its equivalent in toilet graffiti): the problem is the way in which they muscle everything else out of the picture, and by virtue of their omnipresence and homogeneity, create a false standard for cinema.
What gets marginalised isn’t one genre or another, since the very idea of genre is a product of the corporate (Hollywood is perhaps too local a term now) model of cinema—but fundamentally different forms of film. This is the real tragedy, since in actuality, as French critic Nicole Brenez has pointed out, the corporate model is the true marginal entity, representing as it does such a tiny portion of the spectrum of film form. But when such an entity pervades everything, it starts to look less like one particular specialised form, and more like the natural order of things—and arguing against this can oftentimes feel like trying to get fish to see water.
It’s common knowledge that corporations like to control as many stages of their production process as possible—Sony, for example, now own the films, the technology they’re made with, the means by which they’re distributed and for the most part the technology you watch them on. But it’s rarely dwelt on that these guys effectively manufacture their audiences as well. Marketing phrases such as “audience building” are not chosen arbitrarily. Some will argue that audiences are still free to choose—but real freedom is predicated on knowledge and choice, and in the current environment neither exists in a meaningful way.
In this world, the indigenous filmmaker who wishes to access the corporate-run distribution system has no choice but to cater to these specialist tastes, and, frankly, it doesn’t look like this is going to change. While government measures could protect indigenous film on a domestic scale to an extent—by instituting quotas on Hollywood imports, for example—no-one other than France or Iran seem to have the guts to implement such measures. As for the wider world, without imposing serious international regulations on Murdoch and friends, film culture seems fated to limp along as a negligible side effect of their business decisions—and since such restrictions have not been imposed to tackle the far graver problems caused by corporations, we probably shouldn’t hold our breath. Independent filmmaker Andrew Bujalski sadly hit the nail on the head when he said: “there’s nothing wrong with the art form that the dismantlement of capitalism wouldn’t fix.”
YOU ARE NOT
I wanted to get the bleak analysis out of the way first, as briefly as possible, because, essentially, none of the above really matters. Nor should it be of concern to anyone engaged in film culture—be you filmmaker, critic or viewer, or (like myself) all three. The biggest problem isn’t the undemocratic, monopolised nature of film distribution, or the prevalence of corporate control over culture—the biggest problem is that people treat them as such, as if these issues are some material impediment to their own lives. They don’t have to be.
From a filmmaking point of view, it’s blatantly clear at this stage that there is nothing stopping anyone from making a great film; all the technology one needs can now be purchased within a 4 digit price range. Distribution (and as an extension, any significant profit) is, of course, emphatically another story; and it’s not unusual to find filmmakers catering to corporate-built audience expectations in an effort to get on that bandwagon—then when interrogated, replying with that age-old refrain of “hey, I gotta eat.” (When someone gave indie filmmaker Frank V Ross this excuse, he concluded that if that was the case, he must logically be following his own self-financed, undistributed filmmaking path because he’s “gotta starve”.)
But the real controlling issue here isn’t economics, or diet—but motivation. Why make films? Why watch them? Why write about them? Moreover, why aren’t these questions ever asked? Why is Section 481 debated endlessly but a national debate is never initiated on the purpose of film, or art in general, in our lives?
The first point to make is that film can be whatever you want it to be. It can be mindless distraction, cultural conditioner, political propaganda, even an act of terrorism—it is, as Abel Ferrara so eloquently put it, “there to be ridden like a fucking chrome horse.” In and of itself, and especially in an age where moving images are as ubiquitous as running water, the cinema is nothing special: just another global commodity; a case study for economists, an opportunity for investors and a playground for technicians. If it means anything, it’s because of how we use it, how we watch it, how we write about it—and why we engage with it at all. The why is the key here, and the only way to account for the continued existence of the likes of the aforementioned Frank Ross, working outside of and with disregard for the corporate cinematic world. As Nietzsche put it, “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.”
In order to outline some of these typical driving forces, it’s necessary first to establish a few basic assumptions about people. We are, in a lot of ways, a lazy species. We like things easy, tending to favour the path of least resistance. This is the case in mental more than physical terms; a hard day’s work is much more approachable for most people than attempting to create and rely solely on their own thoughts, feelings and beliefs—especially in consumer societies where you can acquire ready-made ones so easily. Even when we do forge our own ones, we tend to hold on to them too tight: the fundamental flux that is life can be pretty scary to deal with compared to our comfortable bite-sized ideas about it.
If we accept all this as accurate—and recognise that the world is polluted with examples of the trouble it gets us into—it seems logical that we should want to work on these problems. We need to be more proactive in our lives; we need to develop greater awareness, intelligence, sensitivity; we need to understand more—above all our own ignorance—and we need to, as Roberto Rossellini put it, try our hardest to be ourselves. The only alternative is to be someone else’s idea of a person; to buy the corporate model of identity along with your corporate-model movie. As American critic Ray Carney put it, “We are not born free. We have to achieve it. We have to struggle for it – against a thousand alien entanglements.”
Film is one way to work towards this—and at this point I should probably admit that this piece isn’t really about the many functions of film; it’s about this single, invaluable function of which film is merely one tool. In some cases, it’s not even the most appropriate one: sometimes what’s needed is a confusing argument or a swim in the sea, not another film; different means to the same end, essentially.
There are countless ways to put this invaluable function (and likewise it can lead to a billion different forms of expression)—John Cassavetes called it “rendering your own life clearer”; in Andrei Tarkovsky’s formula, it is “to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul”; Rossellini made films “to free men from their conditioning” and to “to demolish [his] own ignorance.” None of these descriptions are complete, and their meaning is probably only ever really understood through action. But what’s clear is that once this motivation is in place, the question of corporate global dominance becomes largely incidental. Why should that stop you trying to become more fully alive? Even the “eating imperative” becomes somewhat qualified, since a good meal’s not worth much if your life has no meaning.
So far I’ve spoken from the filmmaker’s perspective—but all of this is equally true of the viewer. Every audience member has the choice to treat cinema as a distraction or as an experience to move them forward in their lives. This is very different than getting ideas or messages out of films which, while not without cultural value, is essentially a journalistic enterprise. Film, in its most invaluable function, is less a medium for ideas than a stimulus for action. As Walt Whitman said, “A great poem is no finish to a man or woman but rather a beginning.” In fact, Ray Carney argues “the mistake is to look to movies for any answers at all. All movies can really do is point out problems, pose questions, set us tasks to do. …. They can inspire us to try harder. But they can’t give us answers. They can’t do the work for us. We have to do it all.”
Critics have, perhaps, the greatest responsibility in this situation. In how they choose to write about cinema and what functions they choose to attribute to the “chrome horse”—what they demand from films and what they refuse to accept—they have the capacity to set the tone of our culture. Almost more importantly, in choosing which films to pay attention to, they are drafting tomorrow’s film history. In an age where media democratisation has brought supply almost to infinity, canons distinguishing the wheat from the chaff are more necessary than ever—but, to focus exclusively on films that have been picked up on the corporate distribution circuit, as most film journalists do (giving ample page-space to even those distributed works they deem utterly without value), is to let Sony and Time Warner set the boundaries of the discussion. Some of the most wonderful films of today’s cinema are being made outside of these limits, and unless they are picked out, distinguished and described, they’re in danger of being forgotten. Pick up any publication today and see who’s living up to that duty.
We all have a tendency to blame someone else for the state of things—filmmakers bemoan simplistic audience tastes (then pander to those tastes anyway), audiences lament the homogenous fare hitting their local cineplex (then buy tickets for one of them anyway)—and critics usually blame both of them (then review all of it anyway). But, ultimately, we get the films we deserve—and we get the audiences we deserve.
Anthony Minghella spoke in Dublin earlier this year about the problem of making films for modern audiences. He explained that, since the general public’s attention span is constantly dwindling, he’s obliged to keep the lengths of his shots and scenes at corresponding lengths. Minghella seemed oblivious to the fact that this was rather like lamenting the obesity problem and then stuffing fast food in people’s faces. As Tarkovsky once wrote, “If you try to please audiences, uncritically accepting their tastes, it can only mean that you have no respect for them: that you simply want to collect their money; and instead of training the audience by giving them inspiring works of art, you are merely training the artist to ensure his own income.” Goethe said it more pointedly: “If you want an intelligent answer, ask an intelligent question.”
I chose my words carefully at the start of this article when I said “the corporations have this business sown up”. That’s because the business is the only part they can ever truly get their hands on. Film the art form is in the unfortunate position of happening to have the same name as a very capital-intensive multinational industry. This causes all kinds of confusions, and necessitates terms that in any other creative medium would be completely superfluous (can you imagine talking about “art poetry” the way we talk about “art cinema”?) But really, this industry that happens to have the same name as our art, should be of no consequence to us—or at least shouldn’t influence our own actions—as filmmakers, critics or viewers. Why lend an abstract, global analysis of a corporate-controlled industry more reality than our own firsthand experience, our own attempts to learn and grow? Thinking that way just gives them more power. The conglomerates may own the distribution system, but it’s up to us whether they govern our imaginations as well.
The ultimate point here is that the state of film culture can only be assessed individually—not because it’s a matter of personal opinion, but because it’s a matter of personal responsibility. We create it—by the films we choose to make, choose to watch and choose to write about. In Tag Gallagher’s words, “a culture needs constant renewal by each individual.”
It is, in a very real sense, up to you.
This article has been published in Karnival magazine and the Manilla Bulletin.