FOCUS by Ilona Halberstadt with Peter Wollen (from PIX 1, 1993)
Cinema is the art of the twentieth century and the open medium par excellence. As we approach the century’s end, it is natural to wonder how the cinema will fare in the century to come [and now we are in the twenty-first century we can address this question anew]. Will it be absorbed into a vast multimedia, multinational, multifunctional empire of commerce and technology, along the lines suggested by Murdoch or Matsushita, delivered into our homes (or our virtual reality goggles, if we go out for a walk) by satellite technology and fibre optics? Or will the new technology and crossover of the media keep renewing its relations with the cinema which persists today, which brought so much pleasure, which carried so many hopes, which changed so many lives and which, spawning live performance/expanded cinema, takes us out to the current of life?
Today, cinema seems more and more divided into two: general release films and festival films. In between there is a narrow band of festival successes and industry mavericks which serve as a kind of causeway, linking the two together. General release still mainly serves the purpose it always did – public entertainment for the millions, especially on holiday weekends – but it also acts as a showcase for the video industry which is slowly overtaking and ingesting it.
Video is an industry devoted more and more to private rather than public pleasures, to consumer niches and personal shopping (and an industry which is going to be transformed when films come down the telephone line). At the same time, it is an industry with its own shadow self – video art, with one foot in television, the other in the art museum.
Meanwhile, festivals have multiplied enormously since the days when they launched Antonioni, Godard, Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray on the world – in one sense, they have become marketing devices for films whose markets have not been pre-sold, in another they have become archipelagos of art, lying somewhere offshore the vast continents of commerce. This opens up possibilities for unusual programming in new contexts as with the Art and Experiment section of the London Film Festival.
And then there is technology. Probably, in the end, digitization will bring cinema and video back together again and their period of divergence will look like a temporary separation rather than a final divorce. Meanwhile, film and video still provide different kinds of experience, with a different kind of image and a different kind of viewing situation. We need terms like ‘moving image’ (or ‘moving audio-visual image’) to cover the difference between film and video, but also to indicate that, deep down, they are parallel arts, just as photography runs parallel to painting or print-making.
If cinema is to survive as an art, it is time to go back to basics, to ask what moving images really mean and do. First and foremost, it is time to go back to looking and listening, not as automatic processes, but as human acts, undertaken by living, thinking, feeling, experiencing viewers.
We need to cherish a cinema that asks us to be attentive, to be patient, to be observant – to use our eyes and ears actively and inquiringly and reflectively, rather than simply as funnels through which audio-visual material is poured into our receptive minds.
Second, we need a cinema which is variegated and diverse, which resists the tendency to the lowest common denominator which, Hitchcock long ago pointed out, a global industry demands. This is not to disparage general release films in their entirety – it has always been true that Hollywood, against its own intentions, produces some great film-makers and astonishing films. But the drive to valorize ‘popular cinema’ has succeeded only too well, so that it has been forgotten that the thrust was to recognize quality and diversity everywhere.
Any art needs variety in order to thrive; it depends on cross-fertilization, on the circulation of innovation in unexpected directions, on crossing borders, hybridity and nomadism.
Especially, as we move towards a global media industry, it is crucial to look at the films which are produced everywhere in the world – films made in Papiamentu, Bengali, films with a sense of a local and vernacular film idiom, film responding to the particularities of different cultures. This does not in any way mean the same as ‘national’ cinemas, the proprietary label under which such films enter festivals. It is more a question of personal films, introducing new aesthetics and arising from specific contexts in multicultural societies, rather than imitations of a globally successful and hence always an already determined cinema. Most of world cinema is not widely distributed. Yet it has given us the films of Ritwik Ghatak, Ousmane Sembene, Kumar Shahani and Flora Gomes, which will be discussed in future issues [work in progress], as well as the work of the film-makers appearing here [PIX 1]. These are the new cosmopolitans.
For viewers, it is a question of being curious and inquisitive, and willing to be astonished and fascinated and intrigued by the different and unexpected, as well as baffled and confused. After all, as the global market shrinks the world, it also throws us all together in new ways, socially and artistically.
We also need to look at the margins where, without the dominant film-making cultures, individual film and video makers (or small groups and collectives) still try to find new and alternative means of expression, with low budgets and low expectations of critical or commercial success. This is not a question of building a citadel against commercialism or ‘dominant ideology’. It is a question of creating and trying to safeguard and expand a sphere for innovation and personal expression. We should cherish the work of the individual, obsessive, idiosyncratic and artisanal.
There will always be the need for a sphere of work which is directly under the control of the artist(s) rather than the norm of industrial production. To some extent, of course, there are areas of personal control within the industry itself; but these too are often found on its edges, in areas where new technology is being developed or new genres of film and video are being created.
Finally, in times of change and crisis, as we look forward to the future, it is important to take a walk backwards into history. Both the industry and the avant-garde have a rich heritage of film-making, much of which is neglected and forgotten, pushed back into a slot of ‘archive treasures’. In reality, these ‘archive treasures’ are more contemporary and more innovative than the mass of films made today.
The history of art is not one of continuous development. It is a history of continuous rediscovery of the past, without which art withers and dries up. The past is our best resource for the future, not in its accepted version, which simply reflects present prejudices, but in its byways and overlooked corners.
Stefan and Franciszka are exemplary artists, whose work and ideas come suddenly alive when rediscovered. Stefan Themerson’s The Urge to Create Visions, with its surprising juxtapositions of ideas, words and images reveals and stimulates the art of cinema. The Themersons’ work of translation from medium to medium, language to language, was a strategy for questioning received ideas, revitalizing questions of truth, and considering, in Stefan’s words, that life not art is Dada. Culture, they knew, is a vital need as basic as survival itself. They could not imagine a society without the wish to create. They were pioneers of the kind of essential cinema which we still need and from which we still have much to learn.
They asked crucial questions, to which we still need answers, but they knew that, in the end, questions need to be constantly reformulated. Our identity – as people, as artists, or as viewers – is not something fixed we find at the end of our journey. As Stefan Themerson showed in his fable of Peddy Bottom, it is something we create and which changes while we journey and, as in their story of the good citizen, we must go on affirming that art and life can converge and everyone is potentially an artist, however unexpectedly.
Looking at films, making films, writing about films – are simply different, interlocking forms of creativity, each playing its part in creating a culture. That is what PIX believes and why we have set out, with you, on this journey, into the unknown of the film.
- Stefan Themerson, from The Urge to Create Visions, Warsaw1937/Gaberbocchus Press, Amsterdam 1983
- Patrick Bauchau, Peter Wollen and Ilona Halberstadt, The Broad, Oxford, circa. 1959, photo: Cas Oorthuys
- Franciszka and Stefan Themerson, The Adventure of a Good Citizen, Warsaw 1937