Monday, September 17, 2012

A Letter To Friends

This is a response to the preamble of Shooting Wall Issue 5.

Cineastes should not imagine themselves apart from the same drift toward mediocre filmmaking which we collectively suffer. While we should fight for a place for the Straub/Huillets, Catherine Breillats, Pedro Costas etc., the work that these people make should not be confused with revolutionary film making. These people are staking out territory far away from the battlefield. They are allowed to exist for this reason. If they brought their political convictions any close to the main event of the arenas of mass media they would have serious problems.

Michael Hanake defends his style claiming he wants to give his audience the kind of credit and agency propaganda denies them. What's missing from this stance is how we deal with the loss of autonomy that comes with an interaction with mass media. Much has been written by about what media has done to modern man, how it has broken up his experience, and made him incomplete. The broken pieces are circulated and made use of in the broader society, and the incomplete man fits into that society like a puzzle piece. We still haven't seen what kind of tyranny this ingratiation is going to result in, but in the wake of Snowden leaks we can guess. The horror of this kind of integration is as old as the Enlightenment. Making men into units seems to be a necessary consequence of unifying them. That unification is very powerful and has been systematically exploited in the state project, capitalism, the world wars, and the mass media. We can regret at the same time what this power could have been used for if we had true democratic control over it - which is to say, if we all actively recognized or part and participation within these alienated experiences, as Walter Benjamin does when he regrets that WWI was a bloodbath rather than a bridal bed.

I almost want to lump Hanake not with film fans, but the kind of readers who don't watch movies at all. Reading is a dramatic move for personal autonomy. Reading is work, and the pain of reading is the pain of tearing away from common experience, of moving against the rhythms that work on us, against the teeth of the gears that turn the gears inside us as we wander through an environment of total abstraction (how often are you surrounded by squares, how often is the soundtrack of your environment pop music, etc.). The readers who don't watch movies recognize the loss of autonomy cinema engenders, Hanake makes a cinema for these kind of viewers. This is a cinema for individuals, not societies, for exclusive politics at best and mere cultural capital at worst.

I think (hopefully) we can all agree that a great movie can be a popular movie. North by Northwest and Vertigo came from the same author, destined for the same place, and the same audience. This doesn’t mean we have to make films like Hitchcock did, what I’m saying that mass media is an arena that will accept a lot more diversity in content than people are now being offered. The American public may not enjoy a Kluge film like The Indomitable Leni Peikhart where characters recite passages from Dialectic of Enlightenment on screen (though Kluge chose the most accessible and poetic passage, unlike a Godard and Gorin who expect their audience to sit through the labor statics of the Marxist TV which is Tout Va Bein (which they ironically made to leave the self described intellectual ghetto of the Dziga Vertov Group)) but you can make great films, films capable of giving people a language for their experience, while at the same time starting with the consideration of all of the great classic hollywood filmmakers - what does this mass of humanity want when they go to the movies? The moral-Marxist consideration of who the members of this crowd has taken the form of breaking down and challenging the images that seek to integrate these people. Rather than breaking these images, we need to fight with them, but fight for them too - and do so in the public arena, and not in the dark corners we've all retreated to.

An artist can’t close himself off from conversation, even in a medium that functions on monologues. We have to, at the same time we see a movie, take note of the audience. Who shows up is part of the conversation. If the people showing up are not who we want to reach we have to speak differently.
I recognize the heroism of the Staub/Hulleits who chose to be articulate in their politics rather than accessible. It took them 10 years to make their first feature because they absolutely refused to any of the compromises that would have come with the money they were offered to make it. I respect that kind of film making, but I regret more the authors who lost their livelihood mid career for the sake of much simpler, sub rosa politics. I'm think of Terry Gilliam torpedoing his career while fighting to keep the downbeat ending of Brazil. You’d be hard pressed to find a film with a more vibrant visual representation of our world which breaking apart as a matter of course of its overcomplication, with its Harry Tuttles whose crimes are fixing what’s broken. There's also the case of the crucifixion of Michael Cimino, which occurred at a moment in time when model of the vertically integrated film industry was poised to return from its brief period of dormancy (the period we call New American Cinema), as now the theaters and distributors weren't just controlled by the studios, but the studios themselves were relatively small subsidiaries of large conglomerates. The firey demise of Heaven's Gate (one of the best films of the period, a Western that one could mistake for science fiction at times the world it imagines is so strange) paved the way for the loss of autonomy of the autuers during this demonic reintegration.


We’ve all been drifting off to sleep down the path of our automatic habits, moving toward absolute values – fine art toward its fineness, purely capitalist cinema toward its nihilism and control -  and everyone toward greater complication and isolation.

This so called digital revolution is not so much a revolution as a fissure point. Great sins follow great epiphanies. Many elements are still in play but we have to fight to define how these tools will be used or they’ll be used to reassert the same hegemony, only serve to extend the oligopoly's control. We need to wake up to what this technology is before they do. Or, more accurately, we need to realize that the work we do now to define these technologies is work we're doing for the people who could use these technologies to exploit us.

It’s already happening. Independent distributors no longer advance filmmakers money for films, but expect to be presented with films fully finished, made by filmmakers who have their own gear and edit on their own computers. Many cameramen are losing work to kids whose parents were able to buy them the newest digital camera. The next danger is the app space which will both replace television and be the finally form of digital distribution for independents, a space that is defined in a much different way than the open and non-hierarchical internet. That, or we can hope that the current model of the vertically integrated film industry falls apart on its own and the studios vacate the real world entirely, breaking open the artificial constraints on competition in the theater business. We can hope theaters the micro theater movement (made possible by digital projectors and distribution) is a part of this.

Instead of proceeding deeper down the ruts of our traditions of quality, let's be organized to fight for territory that has not been defined yet: the internet living room and vacated theaters. We have some tangible weapons at our disposal: file sharing, the still open, evolving shape of the internet that no one with a bird's eye view of the process could possibly understand, anticipate, or control, the ability of the integrated mass of humanity on the internet to still organize itself, to make use of the power of that integration, and the general over-eduction of this generation, which we can use to not only find a means of filmmaking as cheap as pen and paper but a style as cheap as pen and paper. This was the great lost lesson of the European and Japanese film revolutionaries of the 60's. Though there are exceptions, the most sustainable way to make revolutionary films is figuring out how to make them cheaply. I'm sure on this last point my friends at Shooting Wall can agree, but what my friends at that zine lack is a real devotion to understanding how hard it really is to make a film without lights like Godard or to shoot without regard for continuity like Kar-Wai Wong. Making good, cheap films requires a certain sense of humor, a sense of poetry in awkwardness that grows domestically in countries where money for films has always paled in comparison to American cinema, and the difference has always been there on the screen. This senisibility, in America, has always been an export, and much of it has been so far lost in translation.

Rather than aimless battle cries that reach out toward the ends of infinitely extending values of perfection, let's have real program to decide for ourselves what matters, as arbitrarily as Bresson and Ozu did. The point in film theory is not to be right, no one wins in arguments about art. The point of a revolution is to address structure and context. Our structure has ruptured, mainly the fixed game of the film industry. That rupture will heal. The context is the suffocating context we suffer in the wake of post-post-modern iconoclasm. If there is one common image in the galleries of Chelsea it's disharmonious piles of crap. Everyone is looking for energy in some new destruction, in more far reaching complaint, in unassailable, sustainable positions of complaint. The speculators who drive the uncontrollable, arbitrary growth of the artworld are counting on artworks being the only investment that survives after an empire falls. But future generations will want to wade through our art as much as they'll want to wade through our landfills. We have to hope something else can animate art, and if we look back over film history we can see plenty of authors who found strength in actions more substantial than  unlikely if not impossible moral standards.

If I could pick an image for my generation it would be a bird helplessly flapping her wings trying to pass through a window pane. We're missing something, but our eyes don't offer us any evidence of what it is. Critique can't find that object, critique only accounts for the light that passes through it. Critique is useful, but critique that takes too much pleasure in itself is dangerous. The surgeon who takes too much pleasure in finding tumors may get bored when he finds none during exploritory surgery and the patient may wake up without her outy belly button. Subsequent patients might end up with missing ears and toes before he's final reprimanded. As much as we should learn for disease, we should learn from health. Otherwise our process is set against cutting down everything that grows.

So let's return to the central arena and remember what grew there - the Hitchcock's, the Lean's, the Cimino's, the Truffaut's, ad infinitum - and fight for our place there too.

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