Film’s constancy: analytic dreamers

Ponderings on cinema


The following text was written in the first week of this year’s September. It was finished and sent off to the Utrecht Film Festival on Monday 10, 2001. A day later all I had written seemed so painfully unimportant, irrelevant, superficial. Reality has surpassed our imagination, again. And once more, fear is invading our daily lives. But maybe art is one way of defense. Maybe speaking about it can clarify that. So I’ll speak about cinema and think about peace.

Analytical Dreaming

It has been quite a while since Jean-Luc Godard claimed it was necessary to “film and transcribe our train of thoughts,” and yet this very demand sums up nearly everything I want to say today. Filming my train of thoughts is something I have been trying to do for years, whereas transcribing those thoughts in written form is a completely different story.

Most of the people who succeed in writing something substantial about the cinema, the ones who are able to express their thoughts clearly in an essay, certainly do a better job than I can do. As a rule, I content myself with being a film maker whose prime concern is to make films. Talking or writing about films should only be of secondary importance to me. Of course, that is just a pretence. It is no coincidence that Godard’s creed refers to the intermingling of both processes. People who do not think about the cinema will have nothing to offer it. On the other hand, people who think about the cinema must be able to express their thoughts. The French cinephile Jean Douchet, who has written a great deal of highly informative texts about the cinema, once wrote: “Art is thought, concretized, materialized, sensualized thought. When thought is absent, there is nothing at all.”

So that’s how it is. Everything else is mystification, a cover-up, a diversionary tactic. Art doesn’t go anywhere before the thought process begins. And that goes for my department, too, film making. Thinking is what first draws our attention to art and encourages us to strive for it. Sometimes I sit down and make a note of everything I’m thinking, because I want to know exactly what I am striving for. In film making; in life.

Even though the description of this topic for the “Cinema Militans” lecture series may be quite vague, I wish to take a very specific approach. I am fascinated by Menno ter Braak’s longing for the “absolute film.” What would that be today? The “absolute film?” What has happened to the cinema in the meantime? And what films do I myself dream of?

At this point I have to ask myself the question that always comes up when I’m talking about the cinema, a question I ask myself again and again, almost as if it were a touchstone: What does a film have to achieve to make me want to go to the cinema to watch it? And even more important: What does it have to achieve to make me want to watch it again?

You see, the film that invites me, that literally forces me to see it again is the only genuine proof that motion pictures are more than just the movement of light on the retina accompanied by acoustic impulses, more than just a pleasant diversion from everyday life. Dealing with films is a challenge – like the exciting and unpredictable encounter with a mysterious and complex being, another person, a character that seduces and confuses me, that gets me involved. This is how certain films become “favorite films.” The outstanding feature of “favorite films” is that we want to see them again and again. They never bore us.

A truly “favorite film” is no diversion from everyday life. In fact it celebrates life itself, and in so doing it becomes a friend, a companion, who, at best, will stay with you for the rest of your life, constantly revealing new facets. It has to be able to reflect my diffuse feelings as well as my specific interests. It has to be able to cope with the bizarre balancing act I’m engaged in: On the one hand, I want to be absorbed by it, to digress, to dream, and, at the same time, I want it to make me thoughtful, to stir me, to challenge me to the point of contradiction. It must be just as familiar to me as it is strange, a never-ending enigma. And it must be able to age with me, without falling behind.

Is that possible? Of course it is. You know that. And everyone one of you carries that film around with you, in your head and in your heart. I, too, have lots of favorite films like that. Sometimes they don’t seem at all interested in matters of “universal significance.” Sometimes they are completely, uncontrollably, radically personal. And yet somehow, automatically, the horizon opens up and what is “personal” never becomes “private,” because, in the end, they are always there for me and not just for their own self-satisfaction. They are saturated with a specific, personal perception of the world. They try to translate the atmosphere of those singular dreams, the design of thoughts, that “inner voice” into a film language – and, during the course of their search, they discover the universal essence of their topics and conflicts. They come from all over the world. They speak thousands of different languages. From so faraway, and yet so close, they try to extract an image of human existence. And every one of them invites me to reflect in the mirror of its own subjectivity.

Those are the films for life. They grant you a perpetual look behind the mirror:

I see myself through them, and I see them through myself. I call them the films of the analytical dreamers.

The analytical dreamers satisfy my longing for the “absolute film.” Still, I am certain that the highly critical Menno ter Braak wouldn’t have accepted many of them.

So what does reality have to say about it?

1. Contrary to many of my colleagues – or also to my predecessors in this lecture series – I do not feel generally concerned about our medium. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, there is no serious contender in sight that could threaten film as the dominant medium of the present, the leading platform of communication and the most popular of all art forms. Nevertheless, two very different main settings have established themselves for the presentation of films: the cinema, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the home monitor, be it a computer or a TV screen.

Both systems owe their existence to film, but each system is forced to struggle with very different risks and side-effects.

While the cinema, even in its least charming variation (the multiplex), has always maintained the aura of a place of pilgrimage for the imagination, the private picture monitor is increasingly taking on a bizarre multifunction: it is supposed to inform us (news), work for us (computer), serve as a means of communication (Internet), enable us to experience the present (live broadcasts), relate undemanding everyday stories (series and films made for TV) and substitute for the cinema (when feature films are shown).

The monitor at home must be capable of doing everything. It is our incessant chatterbox, a companion that apparently knows how to satisfy our every need. By simply pushing a button, we can switch from kitsch to culture, from politics to musical, from comedy to drama – depending on our given mood.

It has often been criticized that the moviegoers’ freedom of movement is restricted at a cinema in a temporal and spatial sense, but I am now actually beginning to see this as a blessing. At the cinema there is no remote control which would enable me to chop up the composition of a film.

Nonetheless, I admit that contemporary popular films have become incredibly “chatty” and are anxiously dancing the dance of attractions, spurned on by the viewers’ threat to “turn it off,” at least emotionally. Certainly, that has always been the case, but the omnipresence of television has intensified the problem.

It seems as if the hysterical speed of zapping is to be surpassed. More and more often, one popular, top-rated film after the other rushes past, losing track of its narrative qualities in the wake of takeover strategies. At the same time, the panic seems justified: films run for shorter periods of time at the cinema; proceeds have to be collected faster; films end up much sooner on home monitors thanks to one of the growing number of secondary providers (video, DVD, Internet, Pay-TV, Free-TV).

All the other films, specifically the ones that might be future “favorites”, are fighting a much more fundamental battle: namely, they are trying to get into the cinema in the first place. In addition to that concern, there are loads of problems dealing with production possibilities, financing and organizational structures.

But, to tell the truth, those are only the secondary problems of cinema. Its constant battle with economic and often political pressures also ensures its position as the most modern and contemporary art form today.

As the world becomes increasingly and hopelessly entangled in a hyper-complex construction of economic pressures and dependencies, a massive contradiction has developed in regard to peoples’ needs and aspirations. And no other art form reflects this conflict more explicitly than film. Within the cinematic production process and, of course, (even more distinctly) within the production process of television programs, there are a number of unequal opponents pitting their strength against each other: economic pressure versus freedom of ideas, fear of poor ratings versus narrative variety, stock market insanity versus intellectual risk.

And so there are always films, and perhaps a growing number of them, which only adhere to (supposed) economic guidelines, and which are increasingly deprived of a personal identity.

But there are also always films, and perhaps a growing number of them, which adhere to an idea and which try to “film the train of thoughts.”

For instance, the ten most recent films I’ve seen at the cinema are:

CODE INCONNU (Michael Haneke), AMORES PERROS (Alejandro Inarritu), YI YI (Edward Yang), HARRY UN AMI QUI VOUS VEUT DU BIEN (Dominik Moll), IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (Wong Kar-Wai), INTIMACY (Patrice Chérau), DIE INNERE SICHERHEIT (Christian Petzold), REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (Darren Aronofsky), LOS AMANTES DEL CIRCOLO POLAR (Julio Medem), ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (Steven Spielberg).

You cannot seriously expect me to speak of a cinematic crisis.

2. Technology and Democracy

The extensive discussions which have taken place in recent years concerning technological progress in the production of films have been characterized by the vocabulary of change. A “new epoch” of image reproduction is immanent. “Film will never again be what it was before.” We are experiencing the beginning of the digital “revolution.” Film makers from Paul Schrader (who gave a lecture here at the “Cinema Militans” in Utrecht in 1992) to Wim Wenders (speaking this year at a symposium in Paris) keep emphasizing that we are in the midst of a fundamental structural change. Wim Wenders even went so far as to say, “The digital revolution… is reinventing cinema from scratch.”

Digital or analog picture reproduction? Celluloid or electronic data carriers? No matter how hard I try, I am simply unable to determine any truly convincing immaterial differences between the pictures’ different material consistencies.

Is there really some fundamental aesthetic discourse lurking in this issue?

As long as the moving picture is conceived, realized and edited before it is viewed – no matter how extensive the production may be – the actual basis of the artistic process remains untouched. What is the difference, for example, between digital and analog editing? In practice, the difference is very small – it is primarily quicker, just as an analog editing table made in 1980 is more practical and versatile than one made in the twenties. And yet, the films which were made in the eighties were not necessarily edited more expertly than those made in the twenties. When it comes to complex montage, who is truly able to keep pace with Vertov, Eisenstein or Murnau?

The theoretical difference between analog and digital reproduction may be plausible; the one is a copy, or better: the image of a picture; the other is its translation. But how has this fact affected reception? Basically, not at all. Our perception of narrative film patterns doesn’t consciously differentiate between the various manufacturing processes. We react primarily to what is depicted and to its effect. Of course we notice aesthetic differences and take them into consideration during our examination. But the fact that I am inspired by a film does not depend on the material the film is made of and its technical possibilities but on what the film maker does with the film material and its technical possibilities.

It depends on people (a human being) and not on material.

A digitally produced film, such as FESTEN (by Thomas Vinterberg) became a worldwide success – relatively speaking – because of its powerful screenplay, its impressive actors, its surprising and shocking twist and its well-made and suitable aesthetic translation. Certainly, every technical decision leaves its mark on the style of a film, its personal style, but from the standpoint of the viewer,

what distinguishes the digital camera from the film camera? It creates a certain characteristic, and either you think it is suitable or it isn’t. Just as I feel it was suitable to shoot LAWRENCE OF ARABIA on 70 mm and not on Super 8.

What is most important, FESTEN tells a story; just as Renoir’s LA REGLE DU JEU tells a story. Both concepts even have comparable elements. At first glance, FESTEN naturally looks more contemporary, more acute – but that is especially because it belongs stylistically to a specific current movement which was only able to emerge as a result of digital development. But does that really make FESTEN a “more modern” film? No matter what, in both cases we are, in the end, just dealing with a film: on the screen we experience in both cases the visual “imitation of life” in the form of a narrative chain of dramatic moments, shot from a subjective point of view.

So, what is meant when someone says in reference to the new technologies:

“The entire landscape of film is about to be shaken up completely.”?

Here is one more example: A while ago I saw two films, one right after the other, on the same evening: DANCER IN THE DARK (by Lars von Trier) and THE WRONG MAN (by Alfred Hitchcock). It was an interesting coincidental double feature: Both films play with spiritual, sometimes religious implications, describing the suffering of heartwarming “good” people, so-called angels, who are sent to the hell of Earthly reality in order to find their own way of salvation.

I had naturally expected the opposite – but the forty years which lay between the making of those two films was hardly noticeable. And the most irrelevant aspect of all was the film technique. On the contrary: Strangely enough, the digitally created unusual authenticity of DANCER, which the filmmaker struggled to achieve, did not seem to be as up-to-date as the sensitive mixture of a documentary report and a nightmare which characterizes THE WRONG MAN.

Without a doubt, DANCER IN THE DARK is still a remarkable film, but the fact that it was shot with digital equipment is not decisive. It was simply the best cinematic means that Lars von Trier could use to give the film the effect he was aiming to achieve.

I can only convey my own experiences as a filmmaker – I am not able to detect any principle difference between the approach I took ten years ago and the approach I take today – in regard to technology. Of course I am delighted that many things are easier, but, at the same time, all these new cinematic accessories, no matter if they are digital or not, are only the tools and not the substance of the film. I am not any less impressed by KING KONG, which was shot nearly 70 years ago, than I am by MATRIX, even though the special effects in the Wachowski brothers’ film may be more invisible. But, when it comes right down to it, both films derive their power from their substance, and that is not technical. It comes from thinking.

Something, however, I am particularly excited about is the way access to the medium has been simplified by the progress made in digital video technology. The thesis that technology can democratize art (Schrader) applies today in so far as nearly everyone can produce projectable pictures. Everyone can be a film maker. That is wonderful, because it means that much, much more can be discovered. There is now a long list of films which were made possible thanks to this new simplicity and the financial freedom of the new media, and the list is full of remarkable strokes of luck.

But they are still “films” and not some nameless new futuristic substitute for film.

Once again, Godard comes to mind with his question:

“Why is it that technology is the sister of emotion, and necessity the sister of freedom?”

4. Whenever I happen to witness the discussion that flares up again and again about films and their diversity being in danger, I often tend to agree with people’s reservations. But then suddenly I ask myself: What are we really afraid of? To tell the truth, I am not afraid of television’s omnipotence, or being swamped by the new media. I am not afraid of seeing too many American and too few European films, or of not receiving financial support for my own films. The only thing I am afraid of is not being able to discuss the issue anymore. I am afraid of losing ideas and standpoints, afraid of that vast emptiness in the film world’s minds as a result of a creeping intellectual exhaustion, a political rigidity, a clinging dependency on economic pressures, and an immovability which can creep its way into the cinema as a virus, because the cinema is always in danger of thoroughly adapting to the realities.

People who make films with the main intention of wanting to make lots of money will simply make films (if they succeed) which will first and foremost make money, and which will, incidentally perhaps, but more coincidentally, be a film. The film itself is the by-product. The goal is to make a profit. Financially, films like that do well in and together with our neo-liberal reality.

But it is also possible to make a film with the main intention of making a film which only aims to be just that, a film, and which, incidentally perhaps, also earns money.

The goal is to make a film. The by-product is the money, what it costs. Profit is the inspiration.

So, hopefully I will continue to think by imagining, and focus by digressing. Analytical dreaming. At cinema; for cinema.

And then film and transcribe the train of thoughts.

(Director Tom Tykwer delivered this speech at the Variety Cinema Militans Lecture 2001 at the Netherlands Film Festival on Sept. 23.)

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