When I was in my late teens – we’re talking fifty years ago here – there was an enormous interest in what was then known as avant-garde cinema. This essentially – though not exclusively – meant films that were not in English; and it particularly meant the works of two directors: the Swedish Ingmar Bergman, and the Italian Federico Fellini. In a manner that was somehow analogous to the progression, increasing sophistication and complexity of successive Beatles’ albums, each new film by these directors pushed the envelope of what film could do and was about. These were not films you could see only once. By now I have watched many of them over twenty or thirty times, finding, each time – the way one does with a Shakespeare play – an entirely new work of art, which speaks to you at the level of a heightened comprehension coming, presumably, with age and experience. I find this to be rarely true of anything in contemporary cinema. David Lynch is a notable exception, with works like Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Mulholland Drive being easily comparable to the masterpieces of Bergman and Fellini. There are a few other directors – Russians, Koreans, Vietnamese – whose names and films will be largely meaningless in North America, since they are hardly ever screened in any form – unless they happen to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Film; and even then they will mostly be available as DVD.
When I first came to America, in the seventies, I recall being astounded that most people with whom I spoke about cinema had no knowledge of Bergman or Fellini, less still seen their films. For a time, it seemed as if Woody Allen was the only filmmaker who recognized the genius of these men, and his clever, astute parodies of their work reveal the depth of his understanding. Allen is someone who has never made a bad film; yet he has also never made a great one. The reader may have noticed that he is, in addition, one of the very few American directors whose credit always reads Written and Directed by Woody Allen. This implies that he also gets what they call in Hollywood ‘final cut’ – in other words, he gets to decide what the finished and edited version of his own film will look like. As a writer – although I have worked, and often happily, with editors – I cannot imagine the final manuscript of a book being anything other than one of which I approve. David Lynch always has final cut of his movies – with the one exception of Dune, an unmitigated box-office disaster – and has said that allowing anyone else to determine what a finished work should be is like a painter allowing some total stranger to daub whatever he or she feels like onto a finished canvas. Being a painter himself, Lynch knows whereof he speaks. Yet this system, of denying a filmmaker the right to make his own film, is what prevails in Hollywood, which is little more than a gigantically expensive machine for churning out the kind of entertainment most people want. The budget for Big films today is equivalent to an investment in some kind of sizable industry. Advertising budgets often exceed production costs – frequently a sign of desperation over what test-screenings have proclaimed to be a likely dud. There is even a list of actors and directors organized in order of their box-office and DVD potential. One assumes that a downward movement on this list is as catastrophic an event in Beverly Hills as a bad credit-rating or school report. But when someone has emptied studio coffers of hundreds of millions of dollars into a project, I suppose you cannot be too careful.
I have my own experiences of Hollywood – which I shall save for posthumously-published memoirs, in order to avoid the litigation that seems an even larger business there than movie-making – and one experience, common enough to be safely mentioned, is that producers, who wield all the power, are incapable of reading film scripts. This is odd, since by far the least expensive way of making a bad film into a good one is at the script stage. If you cannot read a script, however, imagining it as a movie in your mind, you will have trouble conveying to the writer what further work needs to be done to the 120 stapled pages lying on your uncluttered desk. What a producer requires of the writer and/or director is a ten-minute summary of the project, ideally on the lines of what is termed ‘high-concept’ – something easily grasped by an imbecile, such as ‘my mother is a car’. Another popular query is ‘what does the poster look like?’ In other words, how facile will the marketing campaign be? I cannot imagine Bergman or Fellini subjected to such treatment, just as I cannot picture the New York literary agent presented with a manuscript of James Joyce’s Finnegans’ Wake…and then reading it, wondering who would be the optimum publisher for such an unusual work.
At least most literary agents can read, and also have some respect for writers. In Hollywood, the writer is very far down the food chain, often regarded by producers as an irritant, somehow necessary, yet soon to be replaced, like other irritants – actors, directors, etc. – by computers. Often, a script will be passed on to other annoying writers; and, as a last resort, to that most annoying of all writers: the one who wrote a very successful film. This writer will be paid a fabulous sum just to add some pizzazz to the dialogue, or maybe to concoct a few new scenes. Such writers frequently decline to have their name included in the credits – possibly from shame at tampering with a colleague’s work, or from embarrassment over being associated with a venture that nothing can save. The money was good, though. And the producer, who has no idea whether the script is good, bad, or even a little better than it was, feels he has done everything in his power to make this blueprint for a film a masterpiece, now turns his attention to attracting major stars and top-notch directors for the project. Since many agencies handle actors, directors, and producers – even the occasional writer – the ‘package’ is not infrequently put together under one roof. It is not difficult to envisage the pressure, abuse, and rampant mediocrity that such an arrangement is heir to.
It is, thus, no coincidence to find that the few auteurs – a word for which, curiously, there is no English equivalent, and meaning ‘writer-director-and-final-cutters – in American cinema find their financing and autonomy abroad. David Lynch, for example, mainly in France and Italy. Jim Jarmusch – whose Dead Man ranks as a masterpiece – apparently all over the place, from Latvia to Japan. I have no idea where the great Russian director, Tarkovsky, gets his funding, but I am certain it is not in Hollywood. A place where final-cut is rarer than a good film is not a place where cinema is regarded as an art form. It is that simple. A place where the tribulations faced by Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock are infamous is not a place where film is regarded as an art form. A place where Aldous Huxley – then the preeminent English novelist of his day – has to be interviewed regarding his suitability to adapt a Jane Austen novel is not….etc. A place where a producer insists that his writer give Romeo and Juliet a ‘happy ending’ is not…etc.
Yes, there are indie films and festivals for them, whose reviews and prizes do much to assist their transit to DVD form. Rarely are they screened by the major cinema chains. Many are good, but, I suggest, few, if any, are great. The independent cinemas that do screen them will also soon be out of business, since distributors are now insisting on a change to digital projectors, which means a cost outlay of some $200,000 for high-quality equipment – far beyond the reach of most, if not all, small cinema owners. It also means that we shall not be able to watch many films as they were supposed to be viewed, on celluloid film. You might well wonder why someone who is legally blind would give a damn about films. I do, in fact, own a digital projector, which, with its ten-foot screen, enables the 5% of vision I have in one eye to derive some pleasure from DVDs – usually, I confess, of films I saw when I could see. Subtitles are, however, impossible; and dubbed versions vary horrifically in quality.
My concern here is more with films that I do not see, rather than with those I do, or did. The extremities of violence and imbecility afflicting big box-office attractions clearly knows no bounds. The old maxim of no one ever going broke underestimating the stupidity of the public has always proved itself true. Yet filmmakers in other countries than the U.S.A. have managed a degree of restraint with the depths they are willing to plumb. As a result, Europeans, for example, have developed a far more sophisticated taste in movies than Americans. The Cannes Festival, for instance, generally awards its top prize to a film that is, by any standards, good, at the very least.
The 17th century essayist, Francis Bacon, wrote an essay on theatre, regarding it as a means of educating the common man through entertaining him. Shakespeare’s plays – with a few exceptions, such as, surprisingly, Hamlet – were extremely popular. It is no exaggeration to say that one could acquire a reasonable, if not profound, education simply by studying Shakespeare’s works alone. The same cannot be said of the thousands of films ever produced by Hollywood.
The issue is intrinsically related to the difference between the esoteric and the allegorical. In the West, we understand allegory, which is generally fairly obvious, possibly thanks to the New Testament. When Jesus talks of a man and his vineyard, we know he is not offering agricultural advice. The esoteric is not so straightforward, proffering a wisdom or insight beyond any easy summation; indeed, often beyond the grasp of words at all, yet, nonetheless, comprehended directly by the heart or soul. This is why Shakespeare’s plays always seem new and different with every performance or reading. This is why Grimm’s Fairy Tales seem to reveal ever-deeper depths when read from seven to seventy. It is also why David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive constantly unveils levels of deep and spiritual mystery previously unnoticed; and why Bergman’s Persona or Hour of the Wolf continually present the viewer with nuances and complexities unnoticed in any number of earlier viewings. Such works do not tell us what to think, but rather that we should think. They are mindful entertainment, as opposed to the mindless variety, through which Hollywood performs society an immense disservice; indeed, one amounting to a crime against humanity.
David Lynch, who was, to me, the great hope for American cinema, seems to have abandoned traditional filmmaking altogether, initially concentrating on productions for his old website–which now seems to be entirely given over to the sale of music CD’s that he appears to be making. Inland Empire, which still baffles me, although I know it contains riches somewhere, was shot with $300 non-HD digital cameras, with no formal screenplay. Presumably Laura Dern comes a little more pricey than that. But, Mr. Lynch, I think you have proved conclusively that a film does need a script – but I may be missing the point.
The avant-garde in film probably began with things like Le Chien Andalou, a collaboration between Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, and containing what I always considered the most terrifying sequence in any film – a razor blade slicing into a human eyeball – even before I personally witnessed it during the five operations on my own eyes (yes, friends, you cannot have anaesthesia during such operations – a fact they omit to tell you the first time – which means you actually see the scalpel coming down). The esoteric developed more slowly and later, however, reaching its apogee with Bergman, whose only film in English is The Serpent’s Egg, is still the most profound statement on the Nazi Holocaust ever made. A little like Lynch, Bergman stopped making films later in life, preferring to direct for the stage and opera instead. He had done all he could do with film. I sincerely hope that David Lynch does not abandon us in such a fashion quite yet. If he does, it has still been an exhilarating ride. Even Dune is not as bad as he imagines it is – although one wonders where the Director’s Cut has got to.
A FILM I REMEMBER AS REMARKABLE YET HAVE NEVER BEEN ABLE TO FIND IN DVD:
Herostratus : written and directed by Don Levy. It was a contemporary update on the legend of Herostratus, who burned down the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus in order to gain fame. Ironically, the Judges decreed that his name be struck from all records, as if he had never existed. He is only remembered because Alexander the Great invaded on that same day. This director also made another film called The Experiencer, which I never managed to see. I believe that Levy taught film at the London Royal College of Art, or somewhere equally prestigious. Any information on him and his films would be most gratefully received.
With love, as always, Paul William Roberts.