Metaphysical Thoughts – Cinema and The Deceased

Astoria auditorium, Mr Parker the projectionist arranged the coloured stage lighting, pink on the right and green on the left

Despite the morbid approach to the title of this short rumination, we will discover that the deceased can offer a plenty in the way of cinema. Not least, if we are talking literally, the thousands of great lives that cinema can relive etc., but on a more metaphysical level, the way that cinema shares a time and space with those who have passed. Cinema exists but only in so far as the dead exist in the present. I am not saying that cinema is a spirit (though this could be an interesting investigation), but rather that cinema continues its life hidden in the depths of our subconscious. The characters that we experience and that feel so real to us will always be dead; they cease to exist from the moment they are conceptualised. They are fictional, but more thoroughly, the moving-image does not breath, i.e. once an image is captured, the subject is no longer there (alive). This is most frustrating for audiences – we are witnessing a theoretical death.

A way to reach this conclusion is by primarily basing one’s ideas on memories. We witness and remember a film much like we do our own memories. Firstly, the material of a film can be transcribed as the physical rendering of memories. The memories of the writer, director, or whoever you wish to favour as auteur in the filmmaking process. Memories belong to the imaginary and cinema is one great big orgy of the imaginary. Secondly, when reflecting on a film, we process it as a lived experience, in a similar way that we may re-process an important meeting that took place last week, for example. It would, therefore, suggest that our minds are fooled into thinking that the cinematic event was a real event, Suspension of disbelief, and so on. But, I argue that the cinema becomes a real memory, intermingled with all the other chaos in our life. If you can think of something and it makes you feel or act, then the effect is very much a real one.

How does this fit in with the deceased again? The simple answer is that the deceased live on in our memories too. One might counter argue that the deceased actually did live once upon a time; so then how come cinema can exist on equal terms of time and space? This is very true, but there is still something missing. The cinema has lived, but only in a far shorter and more present moment of occupying the auditorium. It is a scattered life and not comparable to the consistent timeline of a human life, it is only able to exist in conjunction with our existence for ninety minutes or so (unless we sit through multiple viewings).

Yet sill, this is beside the point, we are talking about the time and space occupied after the spectacle, the space occupied by our mind re-processing the event. The cinema is deceased, but it can be remembered. Even if we revisit the cinema, it will still be a mortal experience. But, we are lucky, as we cannot revisit our deceased friends, or whoever they may be, yet we can dip back into the dark for another ninety minutes. Remember though, the cinema never did exist in the first place, it tricked you into thinking it did. It is like having a heartfelt dream of your loved one only to wake up to the shattering reality that they are actually deceased.

Note: I frequently use cinema to refer to film. This is because cinema can refer to the entire medium of film rather than an individual perspective of a particular film. It is also because any theories in cinema of spectatorship should be based on you sitting your butt in the auditorium and not in front of your bloomin’ mac-tosh!

For good measure, here, embedded, is a daring documentary on Michael Haneke that you might well enjoy:

 

“We owe it to ourselves to go out and do it!” – NFTS graduate Shady El-Hamus talks film directing

Skyhigh

Do you want to know a lot about directing films? Then chat with Shady El-Hamus, a recent graduate in directing fiction from the National Film & Television School (NFTS), or modestly read on and decrypt the messages below.

Shady’s short films focus primarily on relationships within the family and how pressures from one’s background, social status, and psychology all impact one another. After watching Over Zonen (About Sons), winner of the Dioraphte Award at the 2012 Netherlands Film Festival, I felt compelled to contact Shady and discover more about where he came from and how he manages to create such a compelling drama in the space of 15 minutes. The film secured Shady a place at the NFTS in the UK to study his craft in safekeeping for two more glorious years.

There was no one anecdote that secured Shady’s interest in filmmaking, rather both his parents have been writers and actors for years, so an impressive feat for accomplishing artistry must come as second nature. More specifically, Shady always loved storytelling and film fell into this love quite naturally. But, at eighteen, he admits not entirely understanding much about the process other than that a director essentially tells the story. However, the film school in Amsterdam (a 4 year BA) divides writers and directors – a long time to commit to one discipline! Despite enrolling in writing, Shady’s desire to direct his own scripts surpassed the schools regulations and he was able to convince the school to make Over Zonen. Without this go-getting attitude, film directing (and NFTS) would never have happened – I believe this is the case for anyone getting into the business – you have to have an element of single-mindedness that allows you to do what it is you actually want to do.

In a dream world, Shady does want to find a co-writer, another mind that can gel with his own to explore the many themes that he is curious about. Two minds can be greater than one. If you find someone with qualities you lack, for example, then it is likely to be most prosperous working with another writer. Let us not be misinformed, Shady is adamant about his love for collaborating, it is clear from his thoughts that it would not otherwise be possible to become a director. A director works with many people, something that Shady believes should be an enjoyable experience and come effortlessly, collaboration as a kind of disclosure. Shady targets another interesting thought that you have to be positive in order to be and stay creative. He then goes on to say that communication should go beyond language. It is a matter of getting other people inside your head. Whether right or wrong, this director understands how to work and evidently knows how to achieve what he wants – a bridge more fundamental in the craft than arguably anything else – essentially understanding yourself, “your mind”.

Shady has been fortunate (and wise) enough to focus solely on directing his films without wearing the producers hat too. The producer is not just the person to hold onto all the logistical and budgetary baloney and to force him or herself away from screaming in public, but actually to aid the director in vision, according to Shady’s welcoming experiences. He believes a producer should guide you in the right direction, “to keep you on the right path” throughout rehearsal, production, or whenever. But, the producer needs to understand first what the director is trying to achieve, and then help him to reach that specific goal. Shady is incredibly humble and talks about a habit of getting carried away with actors, or being overcome with excitement in the moment, and, therefore, finding someone who can remind him of a scene’s essence, or the core of the film, broadly a sustainability, is the most valuable asset that a producer can have.

When talking with Shady about actors, he underscored some central characteristics that are essential to a director. He explained his method, but then concluded with the philosophical truism that “everything will always be different.” And, therefore, the director “must have a very progressive state of mind.” It sounds quite simple really – just don’t be a conservative! But, we all know it is never that easy to give up that little piece, or a core idealism, that you wrote on that one long stormy night at 3 in the morning. Another interesting point is raised when thinking about the language used to engage with actors. It should never be from an audience’s point of view, but rather always that of the character. For example, “This guy is an asshole,” shouts a young lad at the screen – a very judgmental comment, but the director should not shout at the actor, “play an asshole!” There is no one way an actor can know how to play an asshole. The character just needs to know the why of what he is doing and the audience can judge in any which way they feel is appropriate. A director would be at a complete loss if he or she started making direct judgments about a character. Give Shady a message if you need this bit explained better!

After a chat about our favourite filmmakers, Shady talks crucially about coming at autership and cinephilia, as it were, from a place of theme. Watching a director for whom you recognise a certain theme within. “To me, that means that they have something to talk about.” Theme is not like style; style resides on the surface, whereas theme runs deeper, and ever deeper. It is enthusing to hear Shady talk about theme with such profundity. “The story is the vehicle, the ride… the theme is the core… not present, but existing in there somewhere.” Shady also believes that it is theme that essentially allows a film to be “timeless and universal”, look no further than Yasujirō Ozu for a few examples. It seems there are no bounds to the philosophy of film and its makers!

Fairuz

The reality is that the director is on a suicide mission. They have to clench the confidence to carry a bag of elephants up a mountain and not be told otherwise. No matter what it is that they are carrying, it has to SAY SOMETHING. “What is it that you want to tell me?” Shady realises that a film had better be good and say something if you are asking people to pay a tenner and relentlessly sit in front of a big screen for two hours. This is the responsibility of the director. A director needs to be truthful if they are taking on this task. If not, then “why the hell are you saying it?” There needs to be a REASON, “you need to know what you are saying, and you need to know how to say it.” There really is now nothing more to say! That is directing folks!

Here is an overview of talking points and insights from our chat:

  • Preparation is key for the director – Know what you are saying and how to say it!
  • The task of the director is to get other people inside your mind. This is the art of collaboration. Enjoy collaboration – You have to be positive in order to be creative!
  • Becoming a director is a gradual process of discovery. Shady discovered directing by screenwriting and views this story component as essential to directing. In other words, learn to write too!
  • The importance of theme – the story is the vehicle for the theme that runs far deeper than any style. Theme is often what resonates most with an audience’s understanding. Remember: understanding and enjoyment are two separate things, for example, one might connect with Tokyo Story thematically, and yet be more entertained by Mad Max: Fury Road.
  • For young Tarantino’s – the story will determine your style, not the other way around!
  • The director’s responsibility – the material needs to be personal in order to be truthful. Although, personal does not need to mean autobiographical!
  • Actors are collaborators too. Shady uses the analogy of giving road directions when speaking to actors – be clear and know where you are taking them. Also ensure that the actor understands what you as the director want to achieve.
  • The producer is not an enemy, they are there to guide you in the right direction and keep a tab on that core driving the film.
  • Last advice: Stick to it and make sure you are prepared; rarely does one get a second chance in film directing!

Be sure to watch Over Zonen online, for free, right here:

 

Metaphysical Thoughts – Cinema and our fellow existence

stardust-memoriesDo you ever find it bizarre that we all exist in the same time and space? I am talking about the living, not the deceased. The deceased are much like cinema, but more on that in a later article.

We exist and we are often very concerned and consumed by this existence. Consequently, our burgeoning thoughts might be entirely self-centered. Yet, there are billions of other people equally wrapped up in similar thoughts at precisely the same moment in time. What does this mean? I have absolutely no idea.

But, do you ever ponder what another person is doing as you ponder it? They could be living their life in any shape or circumstance imaginable. You will never know, but you will always know that something is happening. I can’t work out if this is a freedom or an absolute affliction. How can it be that other people seem so free, yet, as individuals, we are wholly stuck with ourselves? I am not saying that we should all be Siamese twins. Rather, one of the many reasons is surely that our mind cannot belong to anybody else; I am focused on mind, not body. Our mind is a sole benefactor of our own being that can never ever, ever, ever be accurately distilled, or shared, by another individual. A sad truth, it seems.

This is where cinema comes in. I am not saying that cinema has the power to distill far away cognitions with unqualified accuracy, but actually I am, because cinema has no life in reality to tell us otherwise. In other words, the cinema (the character up on the screen) can’t turn back around at everyone in the auditorium and say, “Hey, actually that isn’t how I was feeling, you inconsiderate bastard!” Instead, we are free to interpret cinema by our own choosing. Yes, the arts really are liberal.

purple_roseForgetting this psychological insight, I want to return to my opening concern regarding time and space and suggest that cinema breaks apart our existence amidst this cosmic conundrum. When we watch characters on the screen, they do no longer exist in the same time and space as us (unlike our imaginary friend on the other side of the world) because they exist in a space of non-existence – the silver screen. We can think about these characters long after the show and know that they do no longer exist parallel to us, but that their effect can still be felt. Their effect might even be felt more than those, in reality, who exist as our friends and neighbours. These characters always exist in a completely altered reality of time and space. This is a profound magic trick that the cinema has been employing since its birth and one that has been interpreted in many ways through the history of film studies.

However, I want you to look at the trick from the bizarre perspective of why people in our real lives are all exactly in accordance with our own time. Don’t take this too scientifically (the laws of the universe can easily explain this), but looks at it more critically from a philosophical perspective. We are all living in the same moment. Being (a Martin Heidegger term for the universe – apologies for my painful simplification) can never escape from being (our own self), and vice versa. As this is the case for indefinitely ever after, we can begin to see cinema as it prevails to a utopian status! A simple conclusion: cinema is far more important, and more metaphysically demanding, than we may believe.

Written by Charlie Bury

A couple of film recommendations that shed light on some of these thoughts:

 – Stardust Memories (Woody Allen, 1980)

The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen, 1985).

CINEMA THINKS – Cinema and the Philosophical Project of Alain Badiou.

France - "Vous aurez le dernier mot" - TV Set“There is something interesting in cinema because we cannot reduce it to a conceptual definition.”

The above quote from renowned contemporary philosopher Alain Badiou opens up a world of theoretical enquiry into cinema as an art form and where it might be heading. However, as always, targeting the specifics of this interesting ‘something’ is not an easy task. This article will break down Badiou’s thought on cinema and hopefully open a way for more exciting thought on the cinema and appreciation of such art works.

We begin by asking the interminable question “What is Cinema?” It is an everlasting question because there is no definite answer. If cinema is an art form, then why can’t it be conceptually defined like all other arts? If not defined, then what is the special ingredient? For example, poetry is an attempt to say what cannot be said, theatre is a battle to form an external relationship between human beings and an audience, and painting aims to create the visible from the invisible – these are the fundamental ideas that promote and invoke these arts. There will always be further ideas on such a quest, but it is clear that cinema holds no such distinction. I always like to argue that cinema is a collective of all these ideas and that’s what makes its individuality eternal, it is never shaped by a definition, and therefore there can be a positive infinity in cinema production.

However, as Badiou makes clear from my previous assumption, cinema itself is a very complex question and therefore cinema as an art must also be a very complex question. It is rather simple really: cinema is complex, so hence anything we wish to attribute to cinema (philosophy, art, psychology, archaeology etc.) will also become complex. A philosophy of the cinema is a complex idea; we can never really know what cinema is. Badiou even attempts to postulate cinema as the “history of complexification of itself.” These layers inherent to cinema form a unique relationship whereby the spectator falls under the spell, or inside the cinema according to Badiou, but without knowing its real signification. Cinema is essential in the collective existence of today’s world and yet it continues to be something that we have no firm notion off – certainly from a theoretical standpoint, but arguably by way of practice also. Is this not a very dangerous idea?

Badiou_Cinema

 

Whenever we are considering the thing of something, or the what is, we need to retrace our passage back to some custom of historical antiquity. Plato is a good denominator to begin with, especially for cinema. With philosophy we are on a search for truth in life, or a true life, something that is pure and in accordance with our entire make up. How does cinema impact this quest? Can cinema be true to life? These questions are inscribed into every film, and it often comes back down to the spectator’s ability to suspend their disbelief: to give themselves whole-heartedly over to the sequence of images and sounds on the screen. If they can do this then the images they witness are true, at least true to themselves. Even so, this it too general, we need to look beyond the spectator and take the films at face value. What makes a good film? How can we identify good film with art and philosophy?

If Plato were alive today, he would probably be feeling very ill. We cannot escape images today. The famous cave allegory was a false reality for Plato, but it is the founding movement of cinema: moving shadows cast themselves across the walls of the cave once backlit from a great beam of light. This was a conviction of truth: the composition is an illusion! Illusions cannot be so! Here is the answer: cinema does not claim to be such a false reality, cinema knows very well that it paints a grand composition of illusion, and its images are no substitute for contamination, they are didactic images that speak off new formations and new bonds of knowledge! In other words, cinema is an answer for finding the truth in irreality; cinema knows that it lies, but it is a lie of edification.

Cinema is alive and speaking to us. Cinema has possibility, it is an art of possibility perhaps, and this is why it must have a relationship to philosophy and vice versa. Because cinema is so alive, it is constantly in battle, a fight between art and non-art. It is here that Badiou can draw out his belief that “cinema thinks”. By way of this vision in which a contemporary world battles with art through film, we are able to distinguish the good films from the bad. If, permitting to Hegel also, art is something of the past and cinema takes on a contemporaneous position as the ‘impure art’, then through constructing a successful conflict of images one has created a good film. This conflict is within the images themselves as well as the audience because the images require contemplation and are often ‘vulgar’ or disruptive. Cinema is therefore not a peaceful art and furthermore, this aforementioned fight between art and non-art is allowed to erupt between its fences. We can then resolve, in line with Badiou’s claims, that the more impure the artwork/the film, the greater the present battle is within the image itself and the better the film!

MelancholiaWhile this is all very metaphysical and might seem dismissible to most audiences, Badiou has targeted the underlying causes for our connection with the image from a strong philosophical standpoint. The point of most significant is this totalisation of cinema: cinema as the non-essential but all-permitting feature of new possibilities and limitlessness. Cinema creates new evaluations and new participations in dialectics. For example, great music can be given a new education in films. Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia features music from the prelude of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The music is played at different points throughout the film and at each instance is inscribing new meanings onto the image. There is battle with the image and the music is forced to engage in new directions. The range of possibility is astonishing. It is here that cinema takes a form of judgment on all the other arts.

Badiou is telling us to “go to the cave.” We must approach cinema as a means and become involved in the democratic dialectics of our modern education. If none of this speaks to your way of thinking, then you must focus on the idea of possibility: the search for possibility. Cinema makes the search possible.

 

Author: Charlie Bury

 

You can watch the full video that inspired this thought below.

The Secret Language of Film

jean-claude-carriere

Most people have probably never heard of Jean-Claude Carriere, but he is the man behind over seventy-five ingenious screenplays and a long time collaborator with Luis Bunuel (they worked together on Luis’s late work from Belle de Jour to The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie). Carriere says it himself, “If you want fame, don’t be a screenwriter.” Despite writing numerous great screenplays and stage-plays, he has also written a few novels and books on film. I want to bring attention to his book The Secret Language of Film. It is a fruitful read, rich in allegorical poetry (he is indeed a Frenchman) and insight into the language of cinema and its audience. Carriere begins by telling us to keep our “eyes open” to cinema and what he has to say in his book.

Carriere raises all the key questions of film theory (ontology, aesthetics, critique etc.) yet he doesn’t dwell on them and offers invaluable insights passing most of his attention onto us, as the ever-important audience of this medium. He moves from our perceptions of the real into how we dissect time through the medium and finally how it cheats us and may end up cheating (or obscuring) history, as we know it. This may sound like a lot to take in at once, but Carriere is vigilant in his approach, giving visions into his own case studies and experiences as an avid cinemagoer and writer for the medium.

Carriere wrote the book in 1994, before the on-slaughter of digital cinema and proliferation of online media. But, he has his senses about him and talks a great deal about the attention span of audiences and audiences becoming desensitized to images, at which time television was the main culprit. Leading on from this, Carriere is clearly concerned with the over emphasis of the technical and technique; he points out that story is always more important. Of course, today this is a big debate, with stunning visuals at the forefront of cinema. For an independent filmmaker, the big question is commonly should I put more of my budget into camera so we can shoot with an Arri Alexa instead of a Canon C300? Or, should we put that extra expense into validity for the story, for example locations, cast or costume? Or, should I just not worry about this at all and focus on the script!

Another big question this raises though is whether modern audiences are actually more concerned with the visual aesthetic than anything else. Put them in front of a grainy, 3 by 4 black and white movie and you will probably find your answer. Or, look to the recent Gravity that swept up awards this year for its visual beauty (of space), but which fooled many critics into thinking it had a script worth its weight.

On a more positive note, Carriere, the screenwriter that he is, fits in some top tips on the craft amidst his discussion about the language of film. After all, a film is initially the written word, a completely different language – say hello to the screenplay. Or, as Carriere duly discloses, swiftly say goodbye! A screenwriter should be aware that “what he is writing is fated to disappear, a necessary metamorphis awaits it.” This metamorphis is principal photography of course. “A screenplay is always the dream of a film,” in this case, producing the film is simply about making the best compromises one can make. In other words, choose the compromises wisely, as there will be plenty, and you should have a good film. I like to think of this in terms of the pure nature of filmmaking, that of copying what is real. You can’t expect reality to lend itself lightly to being contrived of its origin, thus, expect some ramifications.

One of my favourite lines in the book comes again, from this notion of bleaching the real. “Writing a story, or a screenplay means injecting order into disorder.” In other words, a screenplay is clearly structured whereas life is not; in most cases life is wondrously unpredictable. However, of course there needs to be some unforeseen drama in a screenplay, to cite Hitchcock, “drama is life with the dull bits cut out.” It isn’t often that in a film you will find long sequences of someone on the toilet, brushing their teeth, hanging up the washing, or going out for their groceries (unless you are watching Michael Haneke; he adores the “dull” bits – this is not a disservice however, Haneke turns the meaning of “dull” on its head).

To gather this drama, Carriere suggests that the screenwriter be completely open to letting their imagination wonder, we are talking of the following extremes: “Imagine everything; he must kill his father, rape his mother, sell his sister…” and the list goes on. As screenwriters, we must welcome everything. Carriere talks of him and Luis Bunuel telling each other their dreams first thing in the morning, this session would be followed by a read of the daily papers for stories. At the end of the writing day they would split, Bunuel would go off for his cocktail and Carriere would meet him there half an hour later, in which time they would both have to come up with a story and pitch it to one another. No wonder the two came up with some charming ideas, the lesson here is don’t seclude yourself, interact with others (and the media) and certainly don’t visit the Overlook Hotel, at least not in the winter season.

Finally, I want to comment once more on the perception of the audience, in this case, the audience’s eye. Carriere raises an easily overlooked question, “is the eye truly supreme?” Cinema and its contingency of the real are wholly based on the fact that it is a visual medium, one that mechanically represents reality. It is placed there before our very own eyes, up on the big screen, but what is so special about it that the written word can’t convey? Is the written word more real? On this notion of seeing, we must not forget the power of what is not seen, a key device at the disposal of any director. This doesn’t necessarily have to be ambiguous signals (an example of the ambiguous would be in Casablanca when Rick and Isla may or may not have had sex during a three second dissolve to a shot of the airport tower at night and then back to Rick’s room), but it can, on the contrary, be very obvious and even barbaric. An example of the barbaric would be if I, as the director, just showed the face of my victim as the murderer slowly goes about sawing through her legs. I could hold this shot for as long I wanted, maybe five minutes or so to really show the extent of misery and trauma that my character is going through. But, then I really would be Michael Haneke!

I have only touched on some of the theoretical offerings in this book. Though rather speculative, Carriere is certain to provide ample example and experience. You may also have a laugh or two.

You can find the book on Amazon here.

And, just for fun, below is the trailer for one of my all-time favourite films (written by Luis Bunuel and Jean-Claude Carriere): Belle de Jour.