Toward a Liberation of Cinema


(1) Histoire de détective (Charles Dekeukeleire, 1929)

In the case of cinema, the economic component cannot be separated from the cultural. As a form of expression, it is truly on a modern footing. To write, a pen is sufficient. To paint, a piece of canvas and some tubes of paint. But shooting a film involves very complicated and expensive equipment, laboratories, an enormous length of photographic material, and the cost of this can only be redeemed if one reaches a very wide audience. Nevertheless, film has been able to achieve an extraordinary success in a short time (proof that this invention responds to certain needs of our society), which has moreover only provided a firmer basis for its growth and an increase in its economic demands. Cinema has become one of the most interesting economic-cultural complexes of our time. Due to the fact that enormous interests are at stake here (moral interests because of the movie-goers), the conflict between capital and the crowd is brought out here more sharply than elsewhere. Of course, it addresses the needs of a tremendous clientele: two hundred and fifty million spectators each week. Due to the amount of capital it works with, the film industry is the fourth largest industry in the world (one hundred thirty billion working capital). It must therefore serve the material interests of millions of shareholders as well as the spiritual interests of hundreds of millions of clients from all walks of life for whom cinema has very often become the only source of cultural education.

Here the situation becomes tragic. For in order to make more and more profit – which is the holiest aspiration for every trade association – the trade associations must produce films that meet only one requirement: to appeal to the largest possible number of spectators. It is no longer possible now in our society, which is so divided religiously and culturally, torn apart by imperialism, nationalism, and class struggle, to find themes approved of by everyone. Proof of this is the fact that every more or less original attempt is immediately suppressed by censorship of all kinds – official and secret censorship – and delivers the worst monetary results.

For the trade associations, the temptation is therefore great to speculate on other factors, or rather, they have to. And so the firms have begun to create an almost religious mood around the studio: through clever advertising they have succeeded in shrouding the leading actors in a haze of murky emotion. And so as not to disturb the mystery, film has moved further and further away from real life.

At first the “star” was merely a wondrous being no one knew much about, except that she had lived an extraordinary life. Afterwards, she became an idol, wearing regal or extremely whimsical clothing, having money and cars in abundance, and leading an exasperating life. After the attraction of the mysterious, the curiosity about smouldering situations had to do. The role of the specialized press – including the so-called Catholic press – has not been the finest in that matter. To convince ourselves of this, we only have to flip through film magazines: very obligingly they print the most suggestive photos, and on the pages intended for correspondence with the readers (which, by the way, only too strongly radiate the morbid sensuality that the cinema has fostered), a thousand and one pieces of information are given about the stars of the day, about the colour of their eyes as well as about their most personal matters.

On the other hand, the film industry in its present form and organization has reached the maximum in terms of clientele. It is now desperately trying, not to reach even further, but to maintain the positions it has conquered and already undermined. Those who blame film magnates for the demeaning stupidity of their output inevitably get the answer: “The public demands it.” But were that true, the film industry wouldn’t be making the sudden leaps it’s making now. That’s another of the bluffing methods that the film magnates have the press work out on command. In reality, the film industry lives hand to mouth, through a series of subterfuges. To lure back the public, which had had enough, sound film was released four years ago. The principle of that invention had been known for a long time, but the plan to apply it didn’t yet exist. First the earliest owners of film had to be ruined, then they got around to quickly bringing sound film to market, without making the necessary technical improvements, as cronies of some of the big electricity trusts that now dominate the film industry.

However, sound film – whose devices are still not quite up to scratch – has brought with it a sharply delineated decline as far as the art value of film is concerned. The public has had enough even sooner than with silent film, and a return to the latter does not seem unlikely. Also, the big companies, whose interests are linked to sound film, go so far as to give up their entire silent production to destruction by official contract. Intellect and feeling are thus considered a commodity. Locomotives are already powered with grain, now combs and men’s rubber collars will be made with film. And in order to prevent the public – which is to be caught by its curiosity – from abandoning sound film, as long as this merchandise still yields a profit, the inventive patents concerning colour film, stereoscopic film, television, will be bought up at a high price – to be put away under lock and key.

In this way, scientific research is restricted, the tool itself is sabotaged, and the spectator, who, after all, provides the firms with the money with which to obtain those patents, is deprived of the new enjoyment that those inventions would bring him.

With all these tricks, the companies still do not succeed in selling their production completely; some of the most important ones even have to stop production for several months of the year. In France (and because of the backlash, in Germany) the local producers are trying to get a law passed that would limit the import of foreign films. All these measures, which seem almost unbelievable to us and which take us back to times of psychological repression while the film wants to be a means of expression and culture, clearly prove how deep the industry is in the doldrums.

Film production has reached a stage of oversaturation that – since a radical change of method is impossible – makes at least an agreement to limit production urgently necessary. But such a limitation would be tantamount to suicide, for then the attempts at innovation would be free to assert themselves, and these would be all the more likely to succeed, since the present production keeps the public enthralled only with very superficial connections. For those companies, there is only one way out: to excite the public, to always present it with new idols in an ever-accelerated way (in America, the system of “several stars in a film” has just been introduced), so that the films become ever more numerous, ever more expensive, until everything runs out.

On the other hand, a few independent filmmakers are attached to the studio in order to keep the intellectuals and the unruly on a leash. They are granted a certain degree of freedom, behind which nevertheless lies an essential slavery. This is shown again by the statements of René Clair, whose latest productions everyone knows at least: Le million and À nous la liberté.

Thus a double aim is achieved by this manoeuvre: dangerous competitors are excluded from the market, and with the help of strong young forces, who are otherwise strictly bound in their work, the best is obtained from a technique, which without them would produce the most miserable results. In reality, the entry of a few poets, who therefore lose their independence, into the studio – the best, such as Eisenstein and Dreyer, do not allow themselves to be caught – gives the impression to the best part of the public that those directors and the public are very immature of mind, as to not to see for themselves that the slavery in which the director works is the sole cause of the mediocrity of the film, and to believe in the possibility of a better production under the prevailing conditions.

Originally, the film economy could hold the dogma: the ideal film is the one that is liked by everyone. At the time, it had to pursue only one goal: to keep general interest up around the new invention. But that has now been achieved. However, the movie moguls have stuck to the first method and, since their psychological insight does not extend very far, they are still of the blissful opinion that the public even appreciates the scenarios of the movies they produce – William Hays’s statements in this regard are typical.

No precautions were taken so that the process, once the interest in the invention itself waned, could be renewed. We are thus faced with the paradoxical situation that the leaders of an industry must themselves sabotage the tools in a premeditated way if they are to remain masters of them. A hopeless attempt, now that the fragile bond – the curiosity – between the people and the studio, is broken.

Nowadays, the avant-garde film (by this I mean the movement of groping and searching that has arisen outside the commercial studio), having studied along logical lines the technical possibilities of film, tries to discover randomly a point of reference with the people. It is ahead of the studio due to its independence; it is not bound by any commercial calculations and can therefore face in all its magnitude the question of cinematic reform.

Inevitably, entering this new field will be accompanied by new shortcomings. The director’s task in this art, of which neither the spirit nor the form are fixed, has not yet been clearly defined. Already, eager filmmakers have had to give up after two or three years of effort, because they were suddenly faced with new problems they couldn’t cope with.

The task of the director has already undergone more than one upheaval since the birth of cinema. The first was between 1912 and 1920 by commercial film itself with William Hart, David Griffith, and Abel Gance in the lead. The director’s task was initially much like that of an orchestra conductor. Everything that could be gleaned from literature, painting, theatre, and architecture was incorporated into the film as well as possible to achieve the effect of the photogénie. But such a production was bound to turn into disorder; each of the elements – actors and scenery in particular – sought to gain priority, and so film lapsed into anarchy. Out of reaction, out of a need to purify production, they then threw out all those difficult to handle elements and the director now adhered to the principle of abstract film; he sought to create a pure mobile geometry with light and dark. During that first period, he wanted to be the physicist of the photogénie, during the second he became its chemist. For these experiments, the director was free to ignore the general public. Film also became more and more inaccessible to the crowd, understandable and enjoyable only to a small circle of insiders. However, once those trials had given him a thorough knowledge of technique, the director naturally returned to nature, to man. He returned to the street. It wasn’t the street of the studio that fascinated him, the street of cardboard, but the real street where life teems in a thousand forms, where it can be caught and filmed directly. The trials of the second period demanded relatively little money. But now the filmmaker must turn to the public again, not only to revive it in film but also to release the capital that will allow him to process the material, which – for the first time since cinema existed – is as wide as the whole world. And now an essential goal must be pursued: the establishment of a direct link between people and technician (I no longer say between people and studio).

Works such as À propos de Nice, Elysium, Zuiderzee, by the Frenchmen Lods and Vigo, the Russian Kaufman, and the Dutchman Ivens, clearly show how far cinema has come today. Those films already mirror some sides of popular life. But it is an urgent requirement that these productions, which today are only shown in limited circles, reach the people. In that way, they would gain support and significance. Through the increasingly active participation of the people, it will become possible to portray the most diverse and least known forms of man. In this collaboration between the people – who are at once spectators and actors – and the technician, I see the germ of cinematic development in the future.

I have shown how this conception has historically imposed itself on the filmmaker. But the very destination of cinematography, its importance as a tool, as an artistic means of expression, had to inevitably point toward those views. Indeed, what makes the cinematograph interesting is that it allows us to record mechanically, for artistic use, things that our eye does not perceive or no longer perceives. The filmmaker, who films life, gives us a more accurate view of that life. He has documents at his disposal that are more truthful than the recordings of memory, which are often distorted by prejudice. This again shows how much the studio – which puts life on another plane through theatrical means – stands in the way of the true task of cinema. The lens has revealed to us the correct view of certain merely physical manifestations. Thus the lens has corrected the error of the animal painters, who represented a trotting horse with all four legs off the ground. That the close-up and the microscopic shot reveal unknown vistas to us we already knew. But cinema’s task is not only to open new vistas to us in the purely physical realm: its main purpose must be to do this in the realm of our spiritual life and social existence. Thus the way is paved for the film to play an active role.

Films of the same nature as those of Vigo, Lods, Kaufman, and Ivens also exist in Russia, where Dziga Vertov founded a very important school called “Kino-eye” many years ago. That school operates under the supervision of the Soviet government and has produced more than a hundred films. These were shot with ample resources and capital and are, by that very fact, much more complete than what was created here with limited and sometimes ridiculously low resources. Those films, shot in the streets, in the factory, in the fields, represent workmen and farmers as they were surprised at their work. The very careful editing gives the film a universal, poetic character.

But theoretically that film is no further ahead than ours. It remains a means for the director and the Soviet state to spread their cultural thoughts. As a result, they impose a mental limitation on the film, so that it cannot fully accomplish its task: to capture the things we do not see or no longer see.

Today, the filmmaker should first and foremost aim to come to the aid of the people in the discovery of themselves.

After the “Kino-eye,” the “Kino-mind.”

Thus the filmmaker is given a task similar to that of a cathedral builder: to provide the building itself according to a leitmotif that springs from the deepest popular belief and then leave to the people the care to furnish and animate the building, to populate it with an army of statues, ornaments, and stained-glass windows, with all of its mythology, its life, and the vegetation of its time.

We are on the threshold of a great, popular time for cinema. We have come this far by the inner logic of things and by the bankruptcy of commercial cinema.

This is an opportune moment to renew, to rail against the subjugation of the mind to a trust system, the dependence on the machine, the selfishness that restricts the intellect.

And also to reassign a social task to the poet, who for so long has practiced “art for art’s sake.”

Image from Histoire de détective (Charles Dekeukeleire, 1929)

This text was originally published as ‘Naar een vrijmaking van de Kinema’ in Dietsche Warande en Belfort, 1932.

In Passage, Sabzian invites film critics, authors, filmmakers and spectators to send a text or fragment on cinema that left a lasting impression.
Pour Passage, Sabzian demande à des critiques de cinéma, auteurs, cinéastes et spectateurs un texte ou un fragment qui les a marqués.
In Passage vraagt Sabzian filmcritici, auteurs, filmmakers en toeschouwers naar een tekst of een fragment dat ooit een blijvende indruk op hen achterliet.
The Prisma section is a series of short reflections on cinema. A Prisma always has the same length – exactly 2000 characters – and is accompanied by one image. It is a short-distance exercise, a miniature text in which one detail or element is refracted into the spectrum of a larger idea or observation.
La rubrique Prisma est une série de courtes réflexions sur le cinéma. Tous les Prisma ont la même longueur – exactement 2000 caractères – et sont accompagnés d'une seule image. Exercices à courte distance, les Prisma consistent en un texte miniature dans lequel un détail ou élément se détache du spectre d'une penséée ou observation plus large.
De Prisma-rubriek is een reeks korte reflecties over cinema. Een Prisma heeft altijd dezelfde lengte – precies 2000 tekens – en wordt begeleid door één beeld. Een Prisma is een oefening op de korte afstand, een miniatuurtekst waarin één detail of element in het spectrum van een grotere gedachte of observatie breekt.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati zei ooit: “Ik wil dat de film begint op het moment dat je de cinemazaal verlaat.” Een film zet zich vast in je bewegingen en je manier van kijken. Na een film van Chaplin betrap je jezelf op klungelige sprongen, na een Rohmer is het altijd zomer en de geest van Chantal Akerman waart onomstotelijk rond in de keuken. In deze rubriek neemt een Sabzian-redactielid een film mee naar buiten en ontwaart kruisverbindingen tussen cinema en leven.