Saturday, October 11, 2008



Here are my thoughts after reading Film as a Subversive Art.

First - I was looking for an overview on Modernism in film and the radical avant-garde. This book fills the bill perfectly.

There's a great danger in reading a book like this that you'll become intoxicated by the ideas and get lost in them and decide that traditional narrative filmmaking is useless and foolish, and that the only appropriate response to the scientific and philosophical issues of the modern world is existentialism, expressed through various modernist tendencies like Absurdism, Nihilism, Minimalism etc. I think these movements are extreme reactions against the traditional approach.

The ideas expressed in the opening chapter of the book are very extreme.... life consists of instability, no security, nothing but horror vacuui - the universe and people are unknowable etc. Ok, I know modern discoveries have upset the old secure concepts about space and time and identity, but come on... it's not THAT bad! The things modern science and philosophy has showcased have always been true and always been part of our world.... it's just that in the past we were able to ignore them officially and only feel them at certain troubled times.

For most of us, stability and security are the norm, only interrupted a few times in a lifespan by the chaos of unemployment or war or some other factors. Some people of course live in a world that's constantly subject to upheaval.... the poor for instance, or those born into a war torn environment or subject to cruel religious or political systems.

I'm part of the safe, secure bourgeois middle class for whom life is mostly stable and continuous. Space, time and identity can be comfortably conceived in the traditional Newtonian/old world ways and expressed in traditional narrative style. And yet, I AM drawn to SOME of the ideas expressed in the book... in particular mixing up the timeline and creating non-realistic worlds. I also like the idea of allowing characters their mystery, but not in presenting them as completely bizarre. So I'm not interested in progressing too far along the line of radicalism... more in just a little scrambling of the simple straightforward timeline and the clear understanding of character and plot. I feel like spelling these things out too explicitly is like talking down to the audience, assuming they don't have the intelligence to understand something a little mysterious... like writing a big-letter book for very young children. And I think the kind of storylines I want to create are decipherable with a little effort.... I suppose I like the idea of a viewer being able to construct (or re-construct) the story in a way that makes sense.... to solve the puzzle. I don't want it to be too hard.... they're only watching a movie after all! This is the Marketa Lazarova approach.

I also have an interest in another type of movie.... basically a dream movie. For films like that I'd go farther along the scale of radical deconstruction of traditional film form. A dream movie can take place in a constantly shifting environment that's far from realistic. But this kind of film isn't something I can write about.... the language-processing part of the brain is lost in this territory.... you can't know how you'll approach a film like this until you do it (conceive it anyway.... which can be done largely visually but not expressed through written or verbal language). But now, thanks to this book, I have more knowledge of how to approach it, how to think about it.

Narrative films provide nice, comfortable entertainment. Especially traditional Hollywood movies.... with happy endings, and where nothing ever has a lasting consequence.... if you're a hero or a villain you can massacre people and never suffer a twinge of guilt or suffer any legal or moral consequences. (Well, depending on when the film was made, and in what genre). Safety and security and fuzzy warm feelings are the stock in trade for Hollywood and its imitators. I think that's precisely why the avant-garde and radical filmmakers do what they do... it's a radical and reactive rebellion against the nice cozy warmth and security.

And yes, life does have its chaotic side, its moments of stark terror and sometimes long periods of suffering or grief. Chaos does exist, and yes, for the most part Hollywood ignores the fact - pays only feeble lip service to it... makes it something that can be fought against and conquered by the end of the movie with no lasting ill effects. But these movies serve a good purpose..... they reinforce an illusion of stability and the idea that love can conquer all, that hard work or heroic action can stave off chaos or push it back into the darkness where we don't need to deal with it. By reinforcing these positive ideals it gives people a sense of security - even people who might live in a state of chaos can enjoy a good movie and, at least for a while, feel better for it. Why make them suffer through difficult, negative movies that refuse to let them forget their pain?

I realize the radical filmmakers aren't interested in providing pleasant entertainment. I guess that's the question I need to answer for myself.... do I want to be an entertainer or an 'important' artist? I know I'd rather make cool little movies that people like than make films that make people feel bad. But as an entertainer, there are great lessons to be learned from what was once radical and revolutionary. So it might be fair to say that my main use for these modern techniques is just to add a little spice to my otherwise pretty traditional, entertaining flicks. And yet, as soon as I wrote that, something in my mind flinched. I don't want to close the door on the possibility of going more radical. I think about Street of Crocodiles and I know it wouldn't be as good if the Quays had only "used modern techniques to add a little spice to their otherwise traditional film". So I'll keep myself open on the issue... why choose a side? I don't really believe in polarized opposites anyway, I think that's a weird oversimplification when in reality there are many positions along a scale, and in fact people's opinions might be different enough that they can't really be measured on a scale. They're ambiguous and mysterious. Hmmm... see, I really do believe in a lot of the modernist ideas. And in this case, as in many others I'm sure, it doesn't mean a retreat from safety and security, but rather a blossoming from polarization and a move toward inclusiveness or at least acceptance. So it's not really as simple as "TRADITIONAL = WARM/FUZZY >>> MODERNIST = CHAOS/TERROR".


Shelley Noble said...

u iz smartz. I'm glad we have our very own intellectual stomp motion radical auteur in our online midst.

Things have been good to those of our American generation. Maybe that's why we can spend so much time making art instead of surviving.

bRYEnd_of_the_schtick said...

(^ how now boing boing:
quite old:
very warm and fuzzy absurdism

(^ straight from the period being complained about:

(^ don't fall for ANY rule book being thrown at you.
(^ they alll help but hinder if they become bibles to which one turns no matter what.

(^ whut?
(^ eXactlevis.
(^ this is a storyline. straight ahead: but says much.

Darkstrider said...

I've been a bit surprised to learn that a lot of people won't even open a book of theory or "directions" on how to make movies or tell stories, because they're afraid it will brainwash them and they'll lose their individuality.

My strategy is to just keep reading them... all of them. They complement and contradict each other, leaving you not sure which way to turn, which is sort of where you were to begin with, only now your head is swirling with ideas to pick from, none of which now take any special precedence over the others. it's the concept of "a confusion of alternatives". So where do you turn when there are 12 different ways to achieve the same thing? instinct baby, instinct.