CINEMA AS MAGIC: Notes Towards Reinvention

[What follows was written in response to the issues raised in the previous essay, "Cinema as Crime".]


The British Situationist-influenced blogger Wayne Spencer has written lucidly about his disillusionment with the radical potential of art. Immersing himself in the improvised jazz scene, Spencer had

became intrigued by the notion … that the relations within freely improvising music ensembles and between such ensembles and the audience constituted a radical prefiguration of liberated, non-capitalist social relations. I also became convinced that reductionism’s refusal of the arbitrary conventions of tonal music and the loud and frenetic activity characteristic of certain sectors of contemporary society were subversive in nature.

However, in the end, he “found it impossible to escape the conclusion that the political significance I imputed to the music existed only in my imagination.” He extends the analysis to cinema, expressing an interest in the work of Béla Tarr among others, but concluding that

the films themselves offer no remedy for this evisceration of life, and neither do the practices of those involved in making and making available the film, consisting as they do of raising large amounts of state or private institutional money; constructing over time an aesthetic object under the hierarchical control of the director and various specialists; engaging in sustained conventional publicity for the benefit of capitalists, institutional managers and the passive public in order to secure and promote the release of the film; placing the film to be viewed in isolation by strangers who disperse afterwards; and then finally returning to the beginning of the cycle simply to repeat the process once again. It was necessary, I concluded, to step beyond the world of film. In order to negate the life the films portray, it is necessary to negate the world of which the making, showing and viewing of such films is an ordinary and supportive part.

There is a severity to Spencer’s logic that can easily be seen leading to nothing but a joyless inertia; as Situationist scholar Ken Knabb debated with Spencer, there is a danger of painting yourself into a corner in which you ”hesitate to engage in anything whatsoever because virtually any sort of activity could be seen as representing some sort of compromise or cooption”.  But the extremity of his conclusions nonetheless pinpoint some of the contradictions in most conceptions of radical cinema, and also some of the potential criteria for a new formulation. It’s also only really a hair’s breadth away from the restless and passionate dissatisfaction that inspires some of the greatest cinema, the kind of stubborn refusal to settle that has Peter Whitehead talking about his work as “acts of agression against film”, or John Cassavetes saying sometimes he wants to “take the camera and break it for no reason except that it’s just an interference”.


Cassavetes is a good place to start in addressing some of the inaccuracies in Spencer’s dismissal of the cinematic processs, since his approach was one of the earliest and most influential models of a “prefigurative” method of film production (see my piece on Ici et Ailleurs for an earlier discussion of this idea). Cassavetes did not, for the most part, spend time “raising large amounts of state or private institutional money”. His best films were paid for out of his own pocket (something much more viable today than it was then), with nobody to answer to but his own collaborators. Which leads to the second point: Cassavetes was not focused on “constructing over time an aesthetic object under the hierarchical control of the director and various specialists”. As Ray Carney put it in relation to Faces (1969), Cassavetes’ work

represented a critique of business values in its methods of production as much as in its subject. How it was made was Cassavetes’ reply to the bureacratic forms of interaction that he had clashed with in the previous years. The mutually supportive relationships of the family replaced the compartmentaliseation of the bureacracy as the model for interaction. Cooperation replaced competitiveness. Responsiveness was more important than starring. Enjoying the processs was far more important than being concerned with the financial viability of the product.

Likewise, specialisation was not a word Cassavetes understood, as attested to by his consistent use of friends and amateurs for key roles both behind and in front of the camera—and his effusive encouragement of his collaborators’ input and autonomy, no matter what their position. In his own words:

What’s basically wrong with Hollywood is that you cannot really have teamwork. I couldn’t make a good film without it. Once you set up an employer-employee relationship, you divide people. It’s only when there’s nothing or everything to gain that each gives completely with faith in the film.

This is not to paint the Cassavetes set as some kind of anarchist utopia, or to deny that power dynamics were in play. Cassavetes could be a tyrant on set when he wanted to be, and even at his gentlest, his presence was obviously a determinant factor in many ways. But the distinction is that these tumultuous relations took place in a consensual context based on trust and mutual respect rather than economic coercion; the distinction between working for a boss you hate because you need the money and working with a teacher because you want to learn.  Commenting on the development of a child actor in his late film, Love Streams (1985), Cassavetes gave one of his highest compliments: “He’s starting to think for himself”. Provoking this kind of autonomy in his collaborators wasn’t always done in a politically correct manner. On working with Lynn Carlin on Faces, he recalled:

I took her once, I was going to kill her, had my hands around her throat. The crew had me like this. I said, “Where is the kitchen knife?” I mean, there isn’t anything you shouldn’t be able to do to get people to do the kind of work that they need to do. They know if it comes from kindness or sweetness. Lynn probably feels that I helped her a great deal. I really didn’t. I was very tough with her, but not about acting. I was tought because I knew she was dependent upon me. So I was tough not to give her a damn thing, so that she had to think for herself. 

The kitchen knife notwithstanding, perhaps a good vocabulary to frame Cassavetes’ practice within is American social worker Mary Parker Follet’s theory of power-over vs. power-with:

It seems to me that whereas power usually means power-over, the power of some person or group over some other person or group, it is possible to develop the conception of power-with, a jointly developed power, a co-active, not a coercive power. … Every demand for power should be analysed to see if the object is ‘independent’ power or joining power.

The “aesthetic object” that resulted was often the last thing on Cassavetes’ mind: the emphasis instead was on the pleasures and growth that could be gotten out of the process itself and one of the reasons Cassavetes was so beloved by his collaborators was that he never hoarded these benefits for himself. While Cassavetes may have virulently rejected politics in the conventional sense, the implications of his approach are clear, and occasionally self-professed:

I hate leaders. We should all lead ourselves. The leaders tell us these are the facts and the facts are horseshit. They’re not facts. Whose facts? Whose truths? You have to use your own truth.

The contemporary kin of the Cassavetes approach are multiple. From more direct heirs such as the prolific and tireless Rob Nilsson to the recent spate of young American filmmakers including Frank V Ross and Joe Swanberg (let’s give the M word a rest), notions of  a more family- or community-orientated production process have taken roots in independent filmmaking. Filmmakers such as Wong Kar-Wai, Terence Malick and David Lynch (the three most experimental filmmakers working in Hollywood today) have balanced large budgets with a style of filmmaking that prioritises improvisation, endless script revisions and an overall approach that is exploratory and emergent in nature. On the other end of the scale, avant-garde cinema has developed various models parallel to Cassavetes’ more theatre-influenced ensemble. Jonas Mekas integrates filming as an organic part of daily life, as natural and potentially social an activity as having lunch, with an equivalently modest but grounded ability to enrich our vision and engagement with the world. Jack Smith and Vivienne Dick, as I’ve written on before, turned film shoots into festive spaces for play, in which individuals are allowed to hide, reveal and reinvent themselves at will. 

Arin Crumley and Susan Buice, the duo behind Four Eyed Monsters (2005), are examples of an excessively contemporary reworking of Mekas’ everyday model. Their film, a re-enactment of the heavily mediated means with which they began to date each other (they met on MySpace), is less interesting than the rawer series of video podcasts they created to chart the impact of the film and its promotion on their relationship. Drawing on exhaustive documentation of their affairs, fights and traumas, these pieces seem to effortlessly jut back and forth from one person’s point of view to the other, sometimes hovering in a strange virtual (intersubjective?) space inbetween.  To talk of filmmaking as an alienating or objectifying process in the context of something like this seems inappropriate, or at least too simplistic. As I argued for my “TVs & Bodies” programme, in a highly alienated and technologically-entrapped social context, cinema can perversely, be a way of re-engaging with the material world. Crumley and Buice seem to reach a level of communication in their relationship that may not have been possible without cinema. If the FEM podcasts are occasionally overwrought or navel-gazing in their affects, they are still at heart an earnest and interrogative attempt to find an “authentic encounter” through cinema.


Spencer’s critique of cinema’s public position is harder to argue with. While many filmmakers eschew the process of ”engaging in sustained conventional publicity for the benefit of capitalists, institutional managers and the passive public”, the end result of “placing the film to be viewed in isolation by strangers who disperse afterwards” is rarely questioned on any level.

Jon Jost’s point about conventional political cinema—that, upon leaving such a film, viewers will do nothing but “ponder a bit, adjust their clothes [and] feel a bit good about themselves for having sat through this serious and difficult-to-take … film”—is, for the most part, just as true for any kind of film, no matter how formally radical. It’s true to the extent that this kind of inertia is determined much more by the context in which these films are seen than the properties of the films themselves. In an echo of Situationist critiques, The Newsreel collective dismissed the use of the new Lincoln Centre venue in 1960s New York because it was

a museum of static objects; its performances are designed, like its buildings and its decor, to inspire reverence for showpieces, rather than to seek an organic relationship to audience.

A comparable critique could be levelled at our arthouse cinemas, while multiplexes obviously situate whatever “content” they exhibit in a deeply consumption-oriented form. To paraphrase Ray Carney: if you play Bach in supermarkets, you only succeed in turning Bach into supermarket music.

Whitehead claimed that “Obviously the artist helps to create a climate in which some kinds of ideas develop into action.” Or at least they should. It seems to me that the real failure of all of the filmmakers discussed in the previous post, was that they didn’t really try to find—or create—social contexts to put their works into.

The Newsreel was somewhat innovative in these terms, developing an alternative distribution network through activist networks across the country and emphasising the importance of discussion surrounding the screenings, led by the filmmakers themselves when possible. Simply throwing the films out into the world, without concern for the context in which they were received, was considered “a liberal lapse, trusting aesthetic power to do what only political organizing could actually achieve”. Before the group became institutionalised in the mid-1970s, there were even more ambitious context-creating plans proposed. In an undated document recently released by a few original ex-Newsreelers, a proposal for a new kind of film festival is outlined:

Festivals, in the days before they were transformed into merchandising gimmicks, were community enterprises, periodical celebrations of events of common interest. We would like to see these values experimentally restored, because by these means we might be able to discover new audiences, new forms for film, new relationships between filmmakers and their audiences, and new social uses for films. Yes, we believe New York should have a film festival, in fact we insist that a festival is essential for the growth of films and the formulation of film ideas. To be a true festival, however, the New York Film Festival should:

      1. Show all films free
      2. Conduct screenings all over the city… in theaters, churches, schools, community centers, in parks and in the streets
      3. Selection of progams by filmmakers, modulated as time progresses by expressions of needs and interests from within the local communities
      4. Continue year-long, creating a regular relationship between people and the films they see rather than the engulfing confusion of a two-week “season”
      5. Create forums where films, filmmakers and audiences can interact either through discussions or by other means that might be defined within the forums themselves

It’s hard to say to what extent a statement like this (signed solely by “Newsreel”), was widely supported among Newsreel’s members, Robert Kramer included. Either way, by the end of his life, Kramer’s outlook had shifted to the other end of the spectrum. He still believed, á la Cassavetes, that filmmaking itself could be a radical endeavour, but getting the work seen was not a concern.  As Kramer put it:

For me, every movie was in itself the creation of a community. … But I had no idea what the possible repercussions on the spectator would be. I didn’t know who would see my films. In the end, my strategy was of a message in a bottle. A cry whose echo would no doubt never be heard. In my relationship with the world and with others and in my idea of society, I have always been profoundly alone.

When indie filmmaker Caveh Zahedi accepted an award for “Best Film Not Playing at a Theatre Near You” for his I Am a Sex Addict (2005), he discussed the fatigue that sets in among many filmmakers after the completion of a film and how this weakened independent cinema.

We don’t need to wait for permission to get our films into the world. If we have the resourcefulness to make a film … we have the resourcefulness to get it out into the world. And I think we need to make that part of our sense of what it is to be an independent filmmaker.

There are two arguments for this expansion of the role of the filmmaker: 1) because getting “our films into the world” is an economic imperative which can enable us to make more films, and 2) because getting “our films into the world” is in some way part of the filmmaking process for us; that is, getting these films to connect with an audience is actually part of why we do this. 

That may not sound like such a radical notion, but for those of us concerned with film-as-art first and foremost, any mention of the audience can cause serious trepidation. For anyone who has been to film school or pitched an idea to producers and financiers, this should be understandable: talk of “the audience” is one of the primary rhetorical justifications for the censorship—and encouragement of self-censorship—of aspirant filmmakers. After four years at Ireland’s National Film School, I’ve been trying to exorcise myself from the whole debate on this blog through the “Dear Audience” series, building up an arsenal of historical figures on my side of the argument. The main point is that any artist that tries to cater to an audience’s supposed tastes even if it contradicts his owns sensibility is betraying the very thing that makes him an artist in the first place. The Irish filmmaker Maximilian le Cain has put it this way: it’s “not about rejecting the idea of communicating with people through the films but, rather, not falling into the trap of becoming a slave to trying to please an inevitably faceless and intimidating idea of The Audience”. But one can fully respect this sense of autonomy and still argue the importance of finding ways to facilitate this communication. The artist Claire Pentecost has some interesting things to say about this state of affairs:

Once at a party in New York I asked a very successful painter what his day was like. He flashed a big smile, “I get up in the morning and I do exactly what I want.” It’s understood that painting is exactly what he wants to do and he paints exactly how and what he wants to paint. He has a loft in the city and a house in the country near where his friends, other successful artists, have houses in the country. Autonomy achieved.

And what if this understanding of autonomy is deeply unsatisfying to us? What if we are not interested in the typically individual location of freedom and material well-being, but would rather forge and foster a shared autonomy?

This observation of the insularity of many artists from social concerns is echoed by Wayne Spencer’s descriptions of the jazz world:

While many of the musicians were very pleasant individuals, almost none seriously regarded the music as having a substantial element of political praxis. Their perspectives were aesthetic, and their goal was the production of merely artistic performances and objects. Far from challenging the wider socio-political order, they sought only to find ways of operating within a framework of commodification, hierarchical social relations and cultural institutions that was largely taken for granted or viewed as unchangeable. …  In short, I recognised that the individuals involved in improvised music may in some instances have disdained the dominant society but their musical practices did not challenge that society. Moreover, neither musicians nor audience felt any great concern about the accommodation they had reached with the society.

Le Cain identifies with French filmmaker Leos Carax’s adage,  ”I make films for ghosts and dead people”. He calls it “an image to address myself to, the sense of an ideal- the history of cinema that came before us and continues to unfold”. As one of Ireland’s most gifted and prolific filmmakers, and in a country where there is almost no receptive outlet for his work, one can hardly begrudge him this. As Pentecost acknowledges, ”For most people who become artists the encounters that decided their fate were with the process itself,” not an audience. Additionally, in the absence of fertile ground, the idea of creating a “shared autonomy” may sound like a Quixotic goal that could do nothing but compromise the individual autonomy one already possesses. You can’t “challenge society” by yourself and in the absence of that possibility, you might as well make art. Spencer’s insistence on negating “the world of which the making, showing and viewing of such films is an ordinary and supportive part” strikes me as potentially nothing but inertia-inducing hot air. The ever-sensible Knabb provides the clearest rebuttal:

A total critique means that everything is called into question, not that everything must be totally opposed. Radicals often forget this and get caught up in outbidding each other with increasingly extremist assertions, implying that any compromise amounts to selling out or even that any enjoyment amounts to complicity with the system.


There is a lot going on these days that can be seen as the roots of a “shared autonomy” in cinema. One of the causes of this is the rapidly shifting economic bases of filmmaking, something producer Ted Hope has been perceptively blogging about. Hope seconds Zahedi’s proposal for an expanded sense of the filmmaker’s practice and suggests learning from the more advanced models that have been developed in music:

Music is different from film because musical artists seldom ever bet it all on each new album. Musicians expect the fans that they developed with one effort to come back for more, but here in the film world, we are reinventing the wheel each time. Today musicians work to engage their audience for the long term, for the long tail, but the film business remains a series of one-offs. If a diverse film culture is going to flourish in this country, we have to move to a new model where filmmaking is a process, an ongoing conversation between the filmmakers and their various audiences.

This is manifesting in different ways, from the anachronistic to the futurist. The uncanny actor-director Crispin Glover refuses to allow digital copies of his films to be made and ensures that they are only screened in his presence, often paired with his spoken-word performances and followed by exhaustive Q&As. Glover’s point of reference for this practice is not post-Web 2.0 economics but 19th century Vaudeville, coupled with an evident sense of responsibility towards his collaborators, the film itself and the context in which it is shown. While Glover’s approach is socially engaged, it still ensures that the focus is always squarely on Glover. But there are more reciprocal and decentralised practices worth considering too. 

The most creative and accomplished use of the internet to create contexts for a film has been, in my opinion, Crumley and Buice. Self-distributing Four Eyed Monsters, they managed to book screenings of the film across the US based on audience interest that had built up through the release of their podcasts. The whole endeavour generated a level of engagement and interaction between viewers and makers that, as a model, has the potential to be either radical or lucrative depending on where you go with it. Arin Crumley has said they built “a relationship with our audience the same way we built a relationship with each other”, and considering their relationship began on MySpace and progressed through host of other digital and analogue intermediates, this may be true. The question is to what extent this form of relationship offers a genuine intersubjectivity—Debord’s “authentic encounter”—and to what extent it is merely a DIY recapitulation of the Orwellian rhetoric of mobile phone ads (”connecting people”, etc.) But, at the very least, it certainly seems these practices can feed into the creation of real spaces and situations.

My own colleague, Esperanza Collado, has done important work inspired by the Lettrist and Expanded Cinema practices of performative exhibition contexts, most recently in her Cinema… Corpus vs. Cerebrum event which took place in Thisisnotashop in Dublin last year as part of her Márgenes festival. This kind of spatial set-up—much more prevalent in the dance and performance art worlds than film—questions the physical and social implications of the way we usually watch films. In her own description:

The idea was to destroy, or at least raise questions around, the loss of corporeal awareness conventional screenings impose on the audience by breaking the double-sided point of view in cinema generated in its elemental bifurcation: projector and screen, which occur simultaneously before and behind our eyes, our heads. Ultimately, by producing a tactile experience of cinema in which the image becomes flexible and nomadic, the gallery space was literalized (as opposed to a cinema space where one is encouraged to forget the space one is in during projection) through the use of its different planes as projective surfaces, while the attention was equally drawn to the different activities that took place around the projection and the resulting projected material.

The nature of the films suitable for such a context are essentially limited, and the logic of such an endeavour seems inexorably to lead (and Collado would no doubt approve) to the destruction of cinema itself, a moving beyond it altogether into something new. Sometimes a film just needs you to sit down and see it, but experimental projects like this still represent an all-too-neglected model of how cinema can be used to create a social space.

Straying outside of the world of film, the Continental Drift project, initiated by Brian Holmes, strikes me as a unique non-institutional attempt to facilitate dialogue between art, activism and academia. While the somewhat specialised vocabulary and complexity of their dialogues strikes me as an unfortunate barrier to entry for many, it still looks very promising, and it seems to me such creatively focused forums of discussion (which explicitly non-commercial festivals such as Márgenes and the Lucca Film Festival can also be seen as providing) are the most viable starting point for any kind of ambitious progression of these ideas.

In effect, what I’m fumbling around for here is an approach to the exhibition of films equivalent to the Cassavetean method of making them. In one of my last mammoth posts, I talked about making connections as being the most important cultural activity. Now I’m beginning to think that creating spaces in which connections can be made is the most important thing.


If there’s an anxiety that has motivated all of these musings, it is undoubtedly, in common with Whitehead, the niggling suspicion of film’s inherent limitations. As Pentecost wrote, “Spectatorship may cultivate an infinite spectrum of desires, but under any regime offers only limited forms of participation.” On this point, the Situationist critiques must be addressed head-on:

Revolution is not “showing” life to people, but bringing them to life. A revolutionary organisation must always remember that its aim is not getting its adherents to listen to convincing talks by expert leaders, but getting them to speak for themselves, in order to achieve, or at least strive toward, an equal degree of participation. The cinematic spectacle is one of the forms of pseudocommunication … in which this aim is radically unfeasible. 

Of course, for me, the abandonment of cinema, or art in general, is simply untenable. I’m just not going to do it. And if I need to make an argument for that, I can always defend myself with Ken Knabb’s common sense wisdom once more:

“The spectacle” is not some totally evil entity, it is simply a social-historical process that happens to have gotten out of hand in recent centuries (or more precisely, it is a symptom of the extreme development of another such process: capitalism). There’s nothing inherently wrong with people passively looking at things (as if “active” was always good and “looking” and “passive” were always bad). 

The bottom line is, as Godard said, “the camera makes possible certain things,” and no ethics valuing a diversity and multiplicity of subjectivities can disregard that. But the reinvention of cinema, the interrogation of everything about how it is made, how it is used and presented, the contexts into which it is put….this is all important and necessary, and to that end I like putting all these things up for grabs, to discuss and negate and remake. 

It should be acknowledged that art should always embrace a diversity of visions and experiences, some of which will inevitably exceed any practical application or justification and even sometimes lack any context adequate to their powers—visions and experiences that are valid and valuable in and of themselves, without needing any defense on social or political terms. But such intricacies are not irreconcilable with the social possibilities the Situationists imply when they say: 

Art can cease being a report about sensations and become a direct organization of more advanced sensations. The point is to produce ourselves rather than things that enslave us.

This does not seem impossible. To love art is to love reality but also be dissatisfied with it; it is “a passion for reality” in the sense of “passion” that Daney applied to cinema. To love art is to love subjectivity, diversity, difference and dialogue…. to love art is to love the expansion of all these things in and between ourselves.

As Whitehead put it in one of his optimistic moments:

… Film can be the medium by which we could regain contact with the world. It can, if used properly, not alienate us from the world, but bring us back to it.

And for me it seems vital to make people look for a real world again. Otherwise they are in danger of being engulfed by a world of prefabrication, a world that has as its blue print for construction, the control and development of our needs, not only to survive, but permanently to compete, to have more than everyone else. In other words, to possess more of that prefabricated world. And this total loss of any inner life will mean the total loss of humanity as we would still like to think it might become.

At the moment, I have no specific proposals for where to go with any of this. In fact, for the next while, I think the most important thing for me to do is work on refining my own filmmaking practice, to try to create something worthwhile enough to start thinking about finding spaces for it. But I am drawn to the notion of the “expanded filmmaker” that Ted Hope advocates, and feel like I’ve already been impulsively drifting in that direction for a while now.

In Knabb’s opinion,

The best projects are those that are worthwhile for their own sake while simultaneously containing an implicit challenge to some fundamental aspect of the system; projects that enable people to participate in significant issues according to their own degree of interest, while tending to open the way to more radical possibilities.

The best projects have yet to be dreamed of.

[Stills from Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies, Cassavetes' Husbands, Godard's Ici et Ailleurs, Crumley and Buice's Four Eyed Monsters and a photo of the Situationist International in 1957.]

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