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A HUNDRED YEARS, A MILLION MILES

By Hunter Cordaiy

INTRODUCTION
Entertainment? Art house? Mass market? Socio-political tool? Are filmmakers leaders or followers of the market.

An old man sits in a director’s chair. Behind him is the backdrop of a spectacular desert valley. Off camera, a young interviewer asks a series of questions which the interviewee scoffs at as being irrelevant.

The conversation is a testy encounter between the elderly master, John Ford, and the young critic-soon-to-be-director Peter Bogdanovich, in Martin Scorsese’s Centenary of Cinema Episode One. Their conversation is symptomatic of the schism that has been created between the production of films and their critical reception in the last 50 years.

"The result has been a change in the structure of the film marketplace"

John Ford may have been pretending that he didn’t understand Bogdanovich’s questions, or thought they were pretentious because to him (Ford) such ideas were intuitively felt rather than analysed and explained.

In part this exchange between Ford and Bogdanovich represents a generational difference and the key to that gap is film education. Bogdanovitch belongs to the first generation who went to film school and were able to study rather than only look at films. This fundamental shift in the way films are seen - from pure entertainment to an understanding of cinema as an aesthetic, psychological and political experience has transformed the industry and its audience.

This process, begun halfway through the century of cinema, has created the hierarchy of films which we now regard as the list of masterpieces and a supporting list of films which have a contributing role in the development of genres and aesthetics.

The result has been a change in the structure of the film marketplace, dividing it into mass, and art or independent; the rise of film education and publications; the sustained experimentation with the film image and cross-over into other art forms and intellectual disciplines; the expansion of the star system and attendant publicity machine into a style and media business.

Another way of expressing this particular condition is by quotations - Abel Glance in 1927, proclaimed optimistically "the age of the image has arrived" and then in the 1960’s Jean-Luc Godard affirmed that cinema was "the truth 24 times a second" while more recently, Brian de Palma sees cinema as duplicitous: "lies 24 times a second".

John Ford would not recognisee this description as being ‘the film industry’ that he worked in all his life, though like many critics, he might well be underwhelmed by much of the new cinema.

So the questions must be asked - what is the state of cinema now on the edge of the next century, and why is it that audiences continue to vote at the box office and video shop for ‘classics’ as much as this week’s mega-hyped hit feature?

A HUNDRED YEARS, A MILLION MILES: PART 1

TO MARKET

Everyday I take my wares to the marketplace, to paraphrase Bertolt Brecht. This is a living truth for anyone involved in the movies. It is often a truth writers, directors and actors do not want to acknowledge as governing their existence, but it dominates their daily creative lives.

"I am constantly amazed by the inanity of the storylines"

The impression most film goers have of increasingly larger numbers of films being made and released is true - there is a plethora of choice, of what might be called narrative options. And this is the clue to the scale of the deception - these are merely shadow options, ghosts of the originals, the living dead of genre in the most simplest form.

As a critical writer on the cinema I am constantly amazed by the inanity of the storylines which are trumpeted in the media releases that literally pour into my mailbox. In recent years I have become nostalgic for the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when from Blow Up to Taxi Driver, from the height of Godard to the best of Bergman and Wajda, cinema seemed to be actively creating the market rather than merely pandering to it.

The argument for the innovation of these directors can be made on two levels - aesthetic and political contribution, and their measurable expansion of the film market. Casual research on the back page of film magazines of the period will reveal the distribution patterns of what we now call the art house - 16mm copies of Bergman, Warhol or Antonioni, released by niche distributors.

This is no longer the case. Pedro Almodavar, for example, who might reasonably be a contemporary equivalent of these early art house directors, is a style and fashion icon whose films are slavishly supported despite their unevenness. Similarly Hal Hartley is idolised by film audiences on the strength of the ‘wit’ of his dialogue alone despite the increasingly banal nature of his images.

"The market for such politically regressive ideas is vast"

What the boutique market does achieve, and very effectively is a greater degree of cultural diversity than otherwise would exist in the film distribution circuit. But there is also a well known law in politics and commerce- to neutralise the enemy invite them to join your Party or Board. So it has happened to independent film-making ...there are few mavericks, no new truly provocative or aesthetically avant garde directors on the scale of Dusan Makavejev, Lindsey Anderson or Chris Marker.

Nor is there much of a market for political films, even in the America industry which once produced The Parallex View or The Candidate, where the political process was exposed with all its flaws To many of the current releases assume the audience is powerless, relying on an automaton like the Robocop to clean out the social scum.

The market for such politically regressive ideas is vast, and spreads beyond natural and national borders. On hundred years after its birth, the cinema is at anew cross roads, where it must decide through its creators and audience, wether it will feed an insatiable audience who simultaneously can now experience the same images through the mechanism of a monopolised market, or wether it will see value in niche experiences which might not have the economies of scale of the globally distributed images but can still have, proportionately, considerable economic leverage.

The appeal of the classics, the sense of nostalgia that sees Casablanca remain one of the most popular films of all time, is not necessarily to do with its enigmatic storyline or its romantic idealism but with being seen as unsullied - and perhaps born of old fashioned entertainment motives . . . until, that is, it was colourised.

"Many would say that cynicism, populism and fashion have taken over the industry"

The art house directors who became famous as authors of films and created the staple curriculum of thousands of film school courses around the world are old men now no longer making the running except in a respectful critical sense. They belong to an era when the cinema stood clearly apart form television, and film images were not available on computer or the Internet, and personal video cameras were not accessible.

To be a film director was an elite professional position, a privilege to grapple with high art and politics. There are few directors today who might make this claim - Peter Greenaway perhaps - and many would say that cynicism, populism and fashion have taken over the industry. This doesn’t mean that from the new array of delivery systems a new seriousness will not emerge - I know that it will - but its precise form and market are as yet, unknown.

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Urban Cinefile commences a three part series by HUNTER CORDAIY exploring the state of cinema after 100 years by looking at these themes:-

1. THE MARKET PLACE

2. FILM EDUCATION

3. CINEMA AS SOCIAL MODEL

"The impression most film goers have of increasingly larger numbers of films being made and released is true - there is a plethora of choice, of what might be called narrative options. And this is the clue to the scale of the deception - these are merely shadow options, ghosts of the originals, the living dead of genre in the most simplest form."


Below: scenes from Blow Up, Antonioni’s seminal film of the 60s: "cinema seemed to be actively creating the market rather than merely pandering to it."







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