In this episode of my podcast, Dr Johnny Walker joins me to talk about the book he is writing about the video rental boom of the 1970s and 1980s in Britain. We talk about how home video impacted the film industry in terms of new market opportunities, influencing future filmmakers, and also its effect on Britain’s working class and South Asian communities.
A Commentary on Ray Carney’s “The Religion of Doing” (1994)
Ray Carney’s The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies (Cambridge University Press, 1994), has recently helped me to crystallise some thoughts I have been pondering on film style, and my own positive or negative reactions to the aesthetic approaches of particular directors. It has also prompted a re-questioning of my own approach to making films. What follows is a commentary on “The Religion of Doing”, the concluding chapter of Carney’s book.
The following quotes lifted from the chapter from relate to Cassavetes’ body of work, but I think there are indicators and lessons that we can apply to a broader range of films and filmmakers whose styles are unconventional, messy, or even incoherent.
‘The American critical tradition is premised upon a conception of artistic expression entirely different from that to which he (Cassavetes) subscribed. Almost without exception, American film critics take for granted that art is essentially a Faustian enterprise – a display of power, control, and understanding. In a word, their conception of artistic performance is virtuosic. They prize mastery, arrangement, and prowess. They assume that a work’s greatness is traceable to its ability to limit, shape and organize what the viewer sees, hears, knows, and feels in each shot’ (Carney 271).
Writing on cinema, from academics, critics, and fans, most often focuses on the ‘virtuosity’ of not only the director, but also the writer, and the cinematographer’s (and every other part of the crew) ability to ‘manipulate what the viewer knows and feels’ (272). Assessing a film and the performance of its creators is reduced to evaluating the extent of their ‘control and mastery’ (272). How does this standard method of gauging the effectiveness, or even brilliance, of a film extend to those directors who exhibit a lack of control within their own work, and whose style might be erratic, jarring, tonally inconsistent, and arrhythmic?
Some of my favourite filmmakers exhibit these latter tendencies. I am thinking of directors such as Sergio Corbucci, Sergio Martino, Lucio Fulci, or Doris Wishman or James Glickenhaus, as well as fairly middle of the road figures like John Hough, or lo-fi mumblecore filmmakers like Joe Swanberg or Kentucker Audley. Clearly, these directors are completely diverse stylistically and thematically. Why then, do they tend to resonate with me artistically far more than ‘Masters’ such as Hitchcock, Lang, Welles, Kubrick, or the Coens? Why have I placed them all together within the same sentence (which must be the first time in history they have been collected together)?
The answer for me is in the narrative, character, and visual ‘gaps’ their films contain, into which the viewer (me, in this case), can insert themselves and ponder the set of varying potential ‘meanings’. Their films are given ‘meaning’ by the viewer filling the gaps left by their looseness. This looseness is a result of both intentional creative choices taken by the director, as well as sometimes enforced by the logistical or financial constraints under which they are making their films. The cinematic Master, who maintains absolute perfect control over the creative direction of their movies, does not aim for textual gaps, in which interpretation of the image or moment can vary.
In relation to the Masters like Hitchcock, Lang, Sternberg, and Welles etc, Carney writes;
‘the virtuoso tradition is essentially a celebration of knowing. [Their] films create worlds in which everyone and everything of importance can be understood, and is understood. Characters are presented and scenes arranged in certain shorthand ways to facilitate understanding – to eliminate mysteries and uncertainties…the screenwriters, actors, crew, director, and the viewers all participate in a community of psychological, emotional, and intellectual knowing. A large part of the critical and commercial appeal of such works is precisely that they allow the viewer and reviewer to feel that they are part of this cult of complete and perfect knowledge. The central narrative project of these works involves moving from being “out’ to being “in”, from confusion to clarity, from doubt to certainty’ (272/273).
Cassavetes, Carney writes, was fundamentally opposed to this conception of both the process of creating movies, as well as their ‘function’ (273). For Cassavetes, the whole process and purpose was to ‘get lost’, and be ‘forced to break your old habits and understandings, giving up your old forms of complacency’ (273). Cassavetes cultivated this atmosphere both on set in how he made his movies, and on the screen in what ended up as the viewing experience.
The directors I admire are not necessarily attempting the same results as Cassavetes. Some, especially Glickenhaus or Hough, appear on the surface to be attempting to achieve some form of mastery and control over their pictures, given how they often replicated more critically successful commercial films. Their enforced financial constraints, and ensuing logistical difficulties helps to create the general atmosphere of incoherence in their finished works (I reject all accusations that they lack talent, by the way). Others, like Fulci and even Swanberg, achieve a level of control and mastery but for artistic different aims, and where narrative ‘looseness’ is the art.
Carney continues: ‘What is wrong with knowingness is that it removes us from the stimulating turmoil of experience. It separates the individual from the scrambling confusion of living because it figures a set of understandings worked out in advance of the event’ (273). Carney is probably accurate when he suggests that Masters such as Kubrick ‘did their living and thinking, and when they reached a certain point of clarity and resolution they summarized it in their work. They used the filmmaking process to paint by numbers they had determined before they ever studied the dailies’ (276). Cassavetes, by contrast, used the process of making films as life, rather than about life.
There are a couple of things to say about this. Firstly, I am not certain it is possible to apply the same analysis to the filmmakers I have mentioned as being some of my favourites. Most of them were/are creating from a position of attempting to achieve a particular effect, even if that is something as loose and vague as improvising a character and narrative situation through an actor’s performance. Instead, I think Carney’s analysis here is useful for us as viewers of film. Rather than watching films to know, or to give over to the Master’s control of what we see, hear, and how we respond, we can watch to interact and to see viewing itself as an active participation that can have varying and unexpected results. This process, if undertaken properly, is a creative one, and involves the removal of intellectual consideration from the act of viewing in favour of instinctive feeling. (In Artists in the Audience, Greg Taylor explores some of these creative approaches to viewing far more deeply and considered than I am attempting here).
Secondly, my approach to making films aligns with that of Cassavetes (by coincidence only – I would not call myself a fan of Cassavetes, if only because I am unfamiliar with a lot of his work). Rarely do I enter into a project with well defined narrative aims. The key to making this a successful creative method is to be more open and accepting about the process and to do so with greater intention. I need to be willing to work within the uncertainty of the process, and to work to drop all anxiety about its effectiveness or to concern myself too much with the final product or results. Too often in the past I have undertaken a project with the aim of achieving a particular effect or end product, but also with a vague but active, organic, and open minded investigative and responsive approach. I am unsure how successful the results have been in these cases where I have combined methods. They have been useful as an exercise, but less so as a finished film. This last sentence itself may be evidence of too much anxiety about process.
(I realise that I am talking to myself here, and that this last paragraph might not be of use/interest to anyone else).
Carney writes that ‘the Faustian filmmaker sets out to display an intellectual and emotional mastery of experience, to follow a plan of action, to bend experiences to make a series of predetermined “points” ’ (280). For Cassavetes, however, ‘there is only exploring and moving on, with no end to the process of experiencing, and no goal to reach’ (280). The finished film was not important, and what mattered was the experience of production, with the finished film ‘examples of the experiences themselves’ (280).
This is a programme of action to bring to the viewing of films that deviate from total creative mastery, and a way of engaging with movies that do not fit traditionally recognised patterns of artistic ‘quality’. And for me if no one else, it is a method and ethos I should become more comfortable with when making films of my own.
In this podcast, television historian Amanda Reyes joins me to talk about the American TV movie of the 1960s up until the 1990s. We discuss its relationship to cinematic genres, and in particular how they often mimicked the subjects of exploitation films, resulting in TV movie versions of rape-revenge, horror, women in prison, among others. Like much of exploitation cinema their narratives also frequently dealt with topical subjects, and they were made on often meagre shooting schedules and with low budgets.
Amanda’s book on the subject, Are You in the House Alone, is published by Headpress, and her Made for TV Mayhem podcast is available here: https://tvmayhempodcast.wordpress.com
In 1962 Alan Lovell wrote that the ‘anarchist cinema’ was ‘immediately relevant to our world of power states, mass murder, torture, protests and revolts’, an observation that is as true today as it was then.
The difficulty comes in defining this ‘anarchist cinema’. This is a problem that people like Lovell, and most notably Richard Porton, and a small handful of others, have attempted to resolve. My own study into the subject resulted in me writing the imaginatively titled The Anarchist Cinema (Intellect, 2019). In this book, I argue that cinema is an inherently capitalist artform, and so finding unambiguously ‘anarchist’ films made within the institution of commercial cinema was, if not impossible, bound up with contradictions around need to generate profit, as well as a film’s conflicting and varying ‘message’. Interpretation of any film differs according to the point of view of the person watching, the time it was made, the ideological stance of the filmmaker, or any other factor that could affect how we understand a film. Therefore, hardly any film can categorically be said to be this ‘ism, or that ‘ism. It is most often just a matter of how any individual decides to interpret what they see in any given moment. (There are exceptions of course. Not many would content that The Eternal Jew, for example, is anything other than virulently anti-Semitic. That was the point of it, after all.)
In The Anarchist Cinema, I argue that while commercial cinema contains these paradoxes, those interested in anarchism could still engage with mainstream films by looking at moments within them, rather than as a whole, and noticing moments that exemplify anarchist theory, or even by enjoying inspiring depictions of on screen ‘anarchy’. Ultimately, any anarchist notion of cinema would take into consideration the distinction between film as individual object, and the institution of cinema as a broader cultural enterprise that combines capital, industry, artistry, and a multitude of different fan responses. I argue that something can become part of an ‘anarchist cinema’ if it is used to help conceive of or conceptualise anarchism. This might be a commercial film that contains anarchist imagery, art films that propagate an anarchist message (even if for only part of its running time), and individual moments that can be co-opted for an anarchist cause. Any of these can even include material that is contrary to anarchist theory, but which can be used in support of a particular point or argument.
Jean Luc Godard once said that making political films was not the issue. What was the issue was to make films politically, meaning that the process of production and the experience of viewing has to deconstruct and create possibilities beyond depicting political events or making an argument in narrative form. With this difference in mind, one wonders what counts as ‘political’ film today. How will cinema respond to the sort of political upheaval witnessed over the past week in the USA, where citizens have protested, demonstrated, and rioted against continuing police brutality and the murder of George Floyd by uniformed police – captured, as is increasing the case, on camera by onlookers? Mainstream films inspired by this awful crime and its aftermath will undoubtedly contain positive messages. These imaginary future movies may even stir up anger and be used to dictate future social policy (though this would be unusual). But I make the claim that if films based around these events and those like it are to have genuine political relevance, they cannot just attempt to replicate what has happened so as to affect an emotional response in the viewer. Nor can they do so by merely recreating the methods by which these events have been conveyed to the world, namely by mimicking the thousands of hours of mobile phone footage capturing what is happening first hand.
For cinema to have political relevance it should not only subsume the aesthetic influence of the vibrant and terrifying footage shot by nearby citizens and which we are consuming on social media, but find some way to successfully incorporate the actual footage as well. It should also find some way to credit those who have produced the images. Because it is no longer medium specific, film cannot just rely on replicating the world using its traditional methods, used to direct emotions and reveal information in ways that create a ‘satisfying’ viewing experience. No dramatisation can do justice to that which has happened to George Floyd or the ever increasing numbers of people like him. Nor can a film do justice to the understandably angry response of citizens that followed, if it relies on singling out (possibly fictionalised) individuals and weaving tragic or inspiring stories designed to create our empathy with the protagonists on screen. Our knowledge and understanding of this method of narrativising softens any real world relevancy of the message, because we understand it as a ‘Hollywood’ technique. Films that do this are part of the history of cinema, not part of the fabric of political and social developments, and so we contextualise them differently when watching.
This does not mean that only documentaries can respond to the sort of happenings and uprisings we are seeing. Fictional and dramatised versions can find ways to utilise the actual footage shot by protestors and bystanders as part of their narrative, but should do so by accepting that the citizens who shot the footage are also actual creative filmmakers, and not just as collectors of raw material for ‘proper’ or ordained filmmakers to do what they want with. These citizens using their cameras have, after all, contributed to our collective memory and understanding of events not only by being in the right (or wrong) place at the right time, but also by selecting what to shoot and when, and by shifting angles and altering framing by which to create the maximum impact for viewers. They also sometimes provide commentary on what is happening, with full awareness of the possibilities for interpretation and misinterpretation. The importance of citizen shot footage to journalism is now fully accepted. Is there potential for a similar acceptance within cinema?
There are, of course, forerunners in these developments. Spike Lee, for example, demonstrates the importance of real world imagery within fictional narratives or dramatisations of historical events in films like Do the Right Thing, Summer of Sam, and BlacKkKlansman. There are almost certainly other directors I am unaware of who do similar or even go further than Lee. The question moving forward is how will citizen filmmakers be credited, financial or otherwise, for their contributions. Also, how will the rights of those captured in the footage be protected in terms of their privacy and personal safety. I do not yet know the answer to this, beyond directly compensating the creator of every clip utilised or somehow getting every face seen in the clip to sign a release form. But if commercial cinemas (including not just the often unfairly maligned ‘Hollywood’, but the often just as derivative commercial cinemas of many other nations) cannot find ways to compensate and collaborate with the very people who are creating how we view the world – those who are documenting these events often under extreme stress, and while sometimes putting themselves in danger for a greater cause – then perhaps cinema should stay away from attempting to profit off the back of them.