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For an Uncontrolled Cinema
Film Culture, No. 22-23, 1961, pp. 23-25.
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Presented in partnership with Anthology Film Archives
In 1908 a newsreel was made showing Tolstoy talking to petitioners on the veranda of his home at Yasnaya Polyana. And though it is a remarkable sight, how frustrating that one cannot hear what he is saying to these people! And herein lay the problem. How could you record human relations without that uniquely human means of communication — speech?
The art of the cinema was to develop for a good half of its total life without speech. Four films are reasonably typical of this period: Potemkin, The Kid, Nanook, and The Eternal Triangle (starring Mary Pickford). Most people will agree that Potemkin is fascinating but very odd when one looks at it today; The Kid and Nanook work perfectly and seem strangely contemporary; and The Eternal Triangle appears utterly ludicrous. Yet I think it is the latter film that is the grandmother of what we consider the normal theatrical film of today.
Potemkin represents one of the most exciting developments in the history of film. A film form was developed which was in effect a marvelous visual language. A great amount of attention has been paid to these techniques which came to be called 'montage'. A body of theory did grow up around montage and it did seem to many that film-making was coming of age and would henceforth have an elegant theoretical base to lean upon. Pudovkin wrote "Film Technique" and Eisenstein wrote "Film Sense" which gave what appeared to be a general approach to film-making.
However, when sound-on-film made its appearance, an appalling fact became very evident — one no longer needed a visual substitute for speech. Theories die hard and there are still many film theoreticians who cling to the 'golden age of film-making.' Perhaps they should look again at Pudovkin's first sound film to see how empty this new situation left him. To quote Roberto Rossellini: "... in the silent cinema, montage had a precise meaning, because it represented language. From the silent cinema we have inherited this myth of montage, though it has lost most of its meaning."
There was one ancient art form that lent itself perfectly to the silent cinema and that of course was pantomime (in all its forms, including slapstick). It didn't really matter how the filming was done so long as you could see the pantomime. The Kid is still running all over the world. It needs no words and has no 'foreign' versions. The pantomime artists of this period achieved a worldwide following that has probably never been equaled.
Ever since the invention of the 'talking-picture' it has been blithely assumed that films are an extension of the theatre, a marvelous gadget that allows you to change scenes in an instant, yet retains the fundamental aspect of theatre in that you cause a story to be acted out before an audience (the camera) under controlled conditions. Control is of the essence. The lines are written down and learned by the actors, the actions are rehearsed on carefully selected or constructed sets and these rehearsals are repeated over and over again until the resulting scene conforms with all preconceived conceptions of the director. What horror É None of this activity has any life of its own. If anything, it has far less 'spirit' than a production in a theatre because the tyranny of technique is far greater than in the theatre. True, if you rented an empty theatre nothing would happen of itself ... no play would spontaneously take place ... but as a play is prepared it does seem to take on some life of its own, partly because its form emerges during rehearsals. Whereas a film succumbs to the tyranny of Production Efficiency and is torn to fragments to make things more convenient for the camera. If two utterly unrelated scenes are to be made in the same locale they will be made consecutively even though they will end up at opposite ends of the picture and require completely different emotional responses from the actors.
In a recent interview with the late André Bazin, Jean Renoir complained: "É in the cinema at present the camera has become a sort of God. You have a camera, fixed on its tripod or crane, which is just like a heathen altar; about it are the high priests — the director, cameraman, assistants who bring victims before the camera, like burnt offerings, and cast them in the flames, and the camera is there, immobile — or almost so — and when it does move it follows patterns ordained by the high priests, not by the victims . . ." Both theatre and the vast bulk of film-making as we know it are the result of control by these "high priests" and it is not surprising to note that many of our leading film directors divide their time between the theatre and motion picture production.
Many of us have, like Renoir, become "...immensely bored by a great number of contemporary films..." If we go back to the earliest days of cinema we find a recurrent notion that has never really been realized, a desire to utilize that aspect of film which is uniquely different from theatre: to record aspects of what did actually happen in a real situation. Not what someone thought should or could have happened but what did happen in its most absolute sense. From the four examples I gave, Nanook comes closest to it, and it is for this reason that it will never outdate. However, it too was limited by the lack of sound.
As far back as 1906 Leo Tolstoy noted: "... It is necessary that the cinema should represent Russian reality in its most varied manifestations. For this purpose Russian life ought to be reproduced as it is by the cinema; it is not necessary to go running after invented subjects ..." Here is a proposal that has nothing to do with theatre. Tolstoy envisioned the film-maker as an observer and perhaps as a participant capturing the essence of what takes place around him, selecting, arranging but never controlling the event. Here it would be possible for the significance of what is taking place to transcend the conceptions of the film-maker because essentially he is observing that ultimate mystery, the reality. Today, fifty years after Tolstoy's death, we have reached a point in the development of cinema where this proposal is beginning to be realized.
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