A collection of various documents, such as transcriptions
of conferences, readings, discussions.
The End Of Cinema
By Ronald Bergan
With the consensus that last year's Cannes Film Festival
was the worst for a generation still ringing in our ears, it is worth
considering that this was only a reflection of the general crisis in cinema
today. So this is not another post-mortem on Cannes, but on cinema itself.
At Cannes, Peter Greenaway controversially declared "the
age of cinema is dead... I cannot think of a single truly great movie
made in the past 40 years… I have to go right back to Powell and
Pressburger to find multi-layered visual cinema and films that explore
the cinematic language."
Actually, it was the prescient Jean-Luc Godard who pronounced cinema dead
33 years ago with the final title of Weekend, which reads "Fin du
Cinema." And, in a way, for anyone with an interest in films "that
explore the cinematic language" and film as a radical, contemporary
art form rather than a commercial enterprise (i.e. Hollywood), cinema
reached an impasse in 1968.
It should be remembered that the birth and growth of cinema
was almost immediately parallel to the birth and growth of modernism in
the other arts. The French New Wave extended modernism for a few years
after the movement was gasping its last breath at the end of the 1950s.
Film is generally at its best when it recognises its roots in modernism
i.e. when it rejects conventional notions of realism, disengages from
bourgeois values, and questions the primacy of narration. As Robin Wood
wrote, "The first duty of a radical filmmaker is to shatter the dominant
modes of representation – to destroy the illusion, to overthrow
the tyranny of narrative."
In 1918, Louis Aragon wrote that "cinema must have
a place in the avant-garde's preoccupations… if one wants to bring
some purity to the art of movement and light." Writing about film
in 1916, Hugo Münsterberg discussed the unique properties of cinema,
its capacity to reformulate time and space, a critical issue that would
be the focus of much of the theoretical discussion of cinema for the next
40 years, namely, the tension between realism and formalism.
Riccioto Canudo, the Italian-born French critic, who had
written an essay The Birth of the Sixth Art as early as 1911, saw cinema
as "plastic art in motion" and argued in 1926, that cinema must
go beyond realism and express the filmmaker's emotions as well as characters'
psychology and even their unconscious. The formalist possibilities of
cinema were expounded by French "impressionist" film-makers
and theorists, Louis Delluc and Jean Epstein, and underlined by the montage
theory expounded by the great Russian filmmakers in the 1920s.
For Lev Kuleshov, meaning, significance, and emotional impact
came about by relating and juxtaposing individual shots. Eisenstein, who
wanted to film James Joyce's Ulysses, went beyond Kuleshov by theorising
and demonstrating his "montage of attractions", one of collision,
conflict and contrast, with the emphasis on a dynamic juxtaposition of
individual shots that forces the audience to come to conclusions about
the interplay of images while they are also emotionally and psychologically
affected. Rudolf Arnheim felt in Film as Art in 1933 that the very unreality
of cinema as its greatest asset and the plasticity of its image as its
major claim to art.
From the beginning, film artists working in the new medium
understood that its strength was not in conventional narrative, something
literature or the theatre could do better. While commercial cinema, especially
Hollywood, continued with the conventions of 19th century literature and
theatre by producing illustrated novels and "opened-out" plays,
modernists looked towards non-narrative film form or considered narrative
as secondary to style. They disturbed the accepted continuity of chronological
development and attempted new ways of tracing the flow of characters'
thoughts, replaced logical exposition with collages of fragmentary images,
complex allusions and multiple point of view. They resisted the commercial
film in favour of "art cinema" to equal the other arts in seriousness
This so-called "art cinema" included such movements
as German Expressionism, Russian Contructuralism, Surrealism and Dadaism.
Avant-garde artists like Man Ray, Hans Richter, Fernand Leger, Oskar Fischinger
and Walter Ruttmann made films influenced by Cubism and Abstraction. Beside
such monuments of modernism as Pablo Picasso, Arnold Schoenberg, Marcel
Duchamps, Walter Gropius, Andre Breton, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Antonin
Artaud, Oscar Niemeyer, Bertolt Brecht, Karl-Heinz Stockhausen and Samuel
Beckett, can stand names from cinema such as Luis Buñuel, Robert
Bresson, Carl Dreyer, F. W. Murnau, Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Abel
Gance, Jean Renoir, Jean Vigo, Federico Fellini, Alain Resnais and Jean-Luc
Technical advances like fast film, sound, Technicolor, CinemaScope,
lightweight camera equipment were used to look into new ways of expression,
in contrast to today when we are supposed to admire technical wizardry
for its own sake. In the mid-20s, Abel Gance had anticipated many of the
technical advances, such as the wide screen, by 30 years. Dynamic montage
and deep focus had reached their apogees with Eisenstein's October (1928)
and Renoir's The Rules of the Game (1939) respectively. Max Ophuls' Lola
Montes (1955) and Jacques Tati's Playtime (1967) have been unequaled in
their use of space on the wide screen.
The French New Wave directors took advantage of the new
technology that was available in the late 1950s, which enabled them to
shoot in the streets with hand-held cameras and a very small team. They
deconstructed conventional narratives by using jump cuts, improvisation,
and quotes from literature and other films. Resnais rejected a chronological
structure completely in Last Year At Marienbad (1961).
In 1960 alone, some 18 directors had made their first features
in France. At the same time, Italian cinema was at its glorious height
with Fellini, Luchino Visconti, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Michelangelo Antonioni.
Among the winners at the 1960 Cannes film festival were Fellini's La Dolce
Vita, Kon Ichikawa's Kagi, Antonioni's L'Avventura, Ingmar Bergman's The
Virgin Spring and Buñuel's The Young One, films that were not afraid
to enter unchartered territory.
However, the experimentation elements of the French New
Wave soon became assimilated into mainstream cinema. Many of the technical
and conceptual advances of the Italian, Czech, British and other New Waves
were transformed into the clichés of film-making. Truffaut incorporated
more traditional elements into his films while Godard became increasingly
political and radical in his film-making, leaving so-called commercial
filmmaking after Weekend. Innovators such as Miklos Jansco, Bresson, Fellini,
Antonioni, Bunuel, Nagisa Oshima, Satyajit Ray, Shohei Imamura, Kon Ichikawa,
Akira Kurosawa and Bergman had already done most of their best work before
1968. It seemed as though realism, which had dominated film for decades,
had finally triumphed over formalism. It was the beginning of an era of
self-reflexive and referential genre cinema, one aspect of what was soon
to be labeled postmodernism.
According to the Hungarian critic Bence Nanay, "the
films of Antonioni, Godard and Resnais are strictly speaking narrative
films, but more importantly, they represent a fragile balance between
non-narrative avant-garde films and narrative films. This fragile balance
disappeared by the beginning of the seventies. On the one hand, not only
Hollywood, but also the so-called European art-house cinema produced conventional,
non-avant-garde narrative films, on the other hand, some non-narrative,
uncompromising, but hard to distribute experimental films (by Steve Brakhage,
Michael Snow etc) were being made at the periphery. The middle ground
There have been comparatively few really inventive and original
post-1968 directors. Most films continued in the same antiquated way using
outworn narrative techniques. It is rather like a serious composer still
writing in the sonata form, a poet writing in iambic pentameters, an artist
still painting like the German Romantics or an architect building in the
neo-Gothic style. Of course, there have been some superb films and filmmakers,
free from American hegemony, that have enriched the cinematic language
in the last 40 years, but the pickings have got slimmer and the golden
age has not returned.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders
gave a brief renewal to German cinema in the 1970s. There were a few individuals
who made an impact such Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Paradzhanov in the
USSR and Andzej Wajda and Krzysztof Kieslowski in Poland but Eastern European
cinema gradually lost its way as did Italian cinema. At the same time,
for signs of renewed hope, one had to look further afield, mainly to the
former French colonies of Africa with films by Ousmane Sembene and Med
Hondo, which contained anticolonial narratives.
The only revelations in the 1980s were the "Fifth Generation"
of filmmakers from China, the leaders of the group being Chen Kaige and
Zhang Yimou. Certainly, in the 1990s, the centre of creative cinema moved
from the USA and Europe to the Middle and Far East, and to the Third World
generally, the most amazing phenomenon being Iran, which emerged fresh
from not being exposed to Western films.
In the last decade of the 20th century, digital cameras
enabled more people to make features than ever before and allowed Dogme
to have its day. But the digital revolution has thus far produced only
two great works, Alexander Sokurov's The Russian Ark and Jean-Luc Godard's
Eloge De L'Amour.
Today, the most original living directors, Manoel Oliveira
(95), Eric Rohmer, Alain Resnais, Chris Marker, Ousmane Sembene, Ingmar
Bergman and Miklos Jansco are over 80; Godard, Rivette, Jean-Marie Straub
are over 70; and Theo Angelopoulis, Danielle Huillet and Abbas Kiarostami
are over 60. Who have we left of a younger generation to challenge the
accepted aesthetic norms? Indubitably, Sokurov (52), Bela Tarr (48), Aki
Kaurismaki (46), Wong Kai-Wai (45), Jia Zhang-Ke (33) and the Makhmalbafs
(Mohsen, 46 and Samira, 23). But where are all the names that could have
tripped off the tongue pre-1968?
And where are the film critics who could help form and lead
opinion in these times? If there is a crisis in films, then there is equally
a crisis in film criticism. Most film criticism is primarily descriptive,
anecdotal and subjectively evaluative rather than analytical. Because
Hollywood-led mainstream cinema is so overweening, and newspapers and
magazines are forced to give them predominance, serious critics need to
encourage any signs of life in the remnants of what used to be called
The problem is that, unlike music, films are not divided
into "pop" and "classical". No music critic is expected
to review both Blur and Boulez. Unlike other critics, film critics have
to review every piece of commercial vomit that Hollywood, though not exclusively,
throws up into their laps every week. It is equivalent to asking a book
reviewer to write about airport bestsellers rather than literature, to
review a Tom Clancey pot-boiler rather than a Milan Kundera novel. Or
sending the food critic every week to Macdonalds with the occasional visit
to a gourmet restaurant.
There is an answer. On the lines of music criticism, one
critic should review "pop" movies, while another, with some
education in Film History and Theory, should review more aesthetically
challenging films. The latter would acknowledge the valuable contribution
made to film criticism by the "ists", often scoffed at by the
philistine press - linguists, semiologists, psychologists, Marxists and
Professor Ira Konigsberg has summed it up well. "Theorists
and critics still have much to say on the nature of filmic representation
and film as art by further examining film form, technique, and style,
but they must get beyond the terminology and concepts of literary narratology.
The interface of technology and art in the cinema, which has only begun
to be explored, offers the possibility of theoretical ramifications that
could change our way of thinking about film both as a medium and as a
cultural and social phenomenon. Through such investigations, we may come
closer to understanding the unique properties of film and the medium's
impact on viewers and to achieving the language for cinematic discourse
that theoreticians and critics began to search for three-quarters of a
Peter Greenaway recognises that films are not seen in the
same way as they used to be, and that "films go to people nowadays
rather than people going to films." Taking advantage of the new age
of communication and a new young audience familiar with the multi-images
of the internet, Greenaway's new film, the 125-minute The Tulse Luper
Suitcases Part 1, sometimes splits the screen into fragments, introduces
texts and talking heads into the wider frame in the manner of CNN on television.
It will be followed by two more features, a television series of sixteen
40-minute programmes, a website and video games, with 92 DVDs to accompany
each of the 92 suitcases presented in the film.
A few years ago, Chris Marker, always an innovator, made
a CD-ROM called Immemory, only playable on Macintosh computers with operating
systems 7.5 through 9. Composed of stills, film clips, music, text and
fragments of sound, it is over 20 hours long and can be viewed in many
Both Marker and Greenaway are attempting to come to grips
with this new way of watching films, and it might eventually bring into
being the first masterpieces of the new age, keeping alive some hope that
"modernist" cinema will be resurrected.
Ronald Bergan, a FIPRESCI Vice-President, teaches Film
Theory and Film History at Florida International University and is the
author of several film books, including biographies of Sergei Eisenstein
and Jean Renoir. At the moment he is editing a book of François