LONDON — Dutch helmer George Sluizer, best known for 1988 thriller “Spoorloos” (The Vanishing), delivered the Variety Cinema Militans Lecture in Utrecht on Sept. 27.
The lecture, one of the highlights of the Netherlands Film Festival, has been delivered by some of Europe’s leading filmmakers, including Peter Greenaway, Krzysztof Zanussi and Agnieszka Holland.
It takes its name from a 1926 essay by Dutch film critic Menno ter Braak, in which he argued that cinema had earned the right to be taken seriously as an artform.
This year’s lecture, which is sponsored by Variety and forms part of the Holland Film Meeting, was introduced by the magazine’s London news editor Leo Barraclough. It was delivered by Sluizer to an invited audience of Dutch film professionals, festival guests and film students.
The following is an edited version of the lecture.
2008 VARIETY CINEMA MILITANS LECTURE BY GEORGE SLUIZER
To put myself and you in the right spirit, let me start this Cinema Militans Lecture with a quote by the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa: “The only attitude of a superior man is to persist in an activity he recognizes as useless, to observe a discipline he knows is ‘sterile’ and also utterly ‘inconsequential.’ ”
Keep this in mind if you hear inconsistencies in my thoughts, or a touch of anarchism…
When the festival asked me for this lecture, the first thought that popped up in my head was that I had to be present at a friend’s funeral, in this case Menno ter Braak’s, and that my task was to say goodbye to all those ingenious and wonderful people who invented cinema and film art.
“Cinema” is, or I should say was, a thing of the 20th century. The film d’auteur died recently with the death of Bergman and Antonioni.
The word “militans” makes me think of the Russian revolution and filmmakers like Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov.
In 2008, do we still need to devote our time to theories regarding film language, structure, style, editing, camera positions and all the other things we studied and were curious about 50 or 75 years ago?
Today, the business of images for mass consumption is responsible for 95% of the media industry, including film for maybe 2% or 3%.
Should we be nostalgic about the avant-garde filmmakers and essayists of the 20th century? No. Their way of filmmaking is now past history: very seldom today can we see films that remind us of the craft of “direct visual storytelling,” cinema that produces images that in principle need no explanation with words.
Cinema is ruled by other media: television, DVDs and the Internet, and whatever is invented next.
The Internet has many more consumers and much more influence than cinema ever had, and therefore it also has much more power. The new technologies determine and rule the business. They are responsible for the new way of communication between the people of the world.
Let me flashback for a second and recall what happened since the films of Carl Dreyer or Pasolini were slowly but greedily devoured by the Supermen and Dark Knights of today.
We became interested in other things: football, and pop and rock music became popular and important.
From an economic perspective, there is no point in investing in a delightful, memorable, challenging or subtle film, except if the product has a chance to make money. Politically speaking, art is unnecessary, because one does not need art to survive.
The need for spiritual and artistic nurturing seems to have faded. It lives on mainly because some people need to fight the triumphant materialism and crave for emotions and emotivity as a proof of their existence.
Some money is spent on arts to keep a proper conscience. But given the amount of money spent on defense, medical care, security etc., I am not sure that our governments, if we closed our eyes, would not push artists back in the attic like a century ago.
Is such an attitude degrading to the artists and to art? Is it good that politicians decide what to care about and to protect? I don’t think so. It’s not their job.
There are two processes that human beings cannot stop as long as they are alive: one is breathing and the other is thinking. Thinking makes us present to ourselves; thinking is the main component of our identity. Thoughts are the only assured possession we have. Thinking is supremely ours, and buried in the uttermost privacy of our being. No other human being can think my thoughts for me.
Therefore, politicians, funds and managers should not be held responsible or take decisions about human creativity and the creative process. It’s us, the ordinary people, we citizens, we craftsmen, who should be in charge and decide what we want to make and what we need to see.
To start with, our attention and our interest should focus on the incredible progress in scientific, technical and technological inventions. This obliges us to rethink our concepts of culture and cultural values.
Can we still make films for audiences in a world where most human beings seem not to be at ease, unadapted, stressed, out of context, lost, in panic or in shock?
There is a dichotomy, a deep fault between our old classical education and the speed of technological development. The two don’t match anymore. The abyss grows.
What we have to learn is to think, something not usually taught in schools. To stay in sync with tomorrow, to learn to think, we have to learn. We have to re-adjust our mental education and mental training. Can we, for example, conceive of a society in which thinking is rationed… restricted to certain hours of the day, like food in the war was?
If we want to be happy, we have to work on our mutation, to accept living in a world where the creative principle resides in mathematics, and where we have no difficulty feeling at home in a methodical, technological environment, without becoming robots.
Mutation, if I may illustrate with a simple example, is to teach children to like the plastic, concrete and metal in their playgrounds in the city, instead of missing the trees and flowers in nature, if their parents can’t afford to travel to the countryside.
In the past, our religious, philosophical or ethical concepts helped us survive. We felt reassured about the essential problems of life, the eternal, the infinite, life and death… and so on.
Now we have to give up those faded intellectual and emotional thoughts and ideas. The new technologies will probably never give us reassurance, certainty or safety. So we have to model for ourselves new ways of thought and thinking.
As we know, human thought does not like emptiness. We have to avoid the black hole of emptiness. A task for the arts… and film?
If we are lazy and take a break from thinking, our “me,” who we are, will come apart. A combat will be triggered between the emotional and the scientific that may lead us to despair.
Just imagine for a second that we had interplanetary communication, or if the experiments with the big bang tell us totally new things about the universe and our planet. Wouldn’t we have to modify and redefine our moral issues? And therefore also the content of our films?
Anyway, to come back to our Western world of today, it is evident — like it or not — that growth is the key to survival. In our so-called democratic capitalistic countries, the state and big industries have the power. The question is: How fast do we want to grow? And, do we care if we create victims on the way?
It took Europe more than 200 years to grow from a “no one” voting continent to an “everyone” voting continent. How many years did we need to go from film to tape, VHS, DVD, Internet, Blu-ray, laser. Not so many.
So, what are the consequences for the filmmaker, who might start a film on digital to finish it a short time later in another technical medium, to be distributed in another technique agai
How does the filmmaker fit into a system where economic power and mass communication lie in the hands of those who decide how we consume the goods?
The filmmaker has to adapt to new machines and new content if he wants to produce and create.
But, creatively, no filmmaker, however skilled, can fully realize the transfer on to his film of his internal vision. Those of us who seek perfection chase an always unfulfilled dream of thought.
In fact, we are all lured and pampered, “forced” if you prefer, every one of us, into the social and political values that are profitable to the state and to other powerful organizations. They provide the entertainment — we don’t.
Is “entertainment,” by the way, another word for putting to sleep the minds of the audience? Or, if we watch the entertainment, will we suffer from brainwashing and eventually from brain damage? Should we have our brain medically checked after watching some of the TV programs?
One thing is sure: to be invaded day by day with stupidity, permissiveness, violence, sex if not perversion is sometimes amusing, but not always pleasant for those that recognize that banality and vulgarity are important attributes of the media and modern cinema. As my remarks should tell you, I am an optimistic fundamentalist!
I have a feeling that the minds of the audience are getting more and more confused and that they have difficulty in distinguishing reality from fiction or from fake. The consequence of this “confusion” is that the viewers lose the sense of a coherent vision and that makes it very easy for an audience to be conditioned and accept what the market suggests to them.
Just look at some film posters and compare the slogans on the posters with the content of the films. The slogans are preferably exploitative, use words like kill, death, sex, erotic, terror, etc. Words to attract the audience often on false premises as the content of the film is usually somewhat different.
Why is it necessary to cheat the audience? To be dishonest? And is the audience indeed so naïve and easily manipulated that they won’t go to a film with a fitting and adequate slogan? Why do we all stay willingly immature?
This silly juggling and fooling leads to a misunderstanding of pictures and to an impoverishment of human relations.
Education is needed!
What can we understand by the term “cultural”? Is culture similar to indoctrination or is culture the same as alienation? Alienation being the distance we create between the essential values and ourselves as human beings.
Can we or should we try to improve the situation? If our goal is to humanize our society, then a real human should be someone who can express his personal qualities and someone who is true to himself. Many of us have, however, a feeling of resignation: that we can’t avoid “wrong” things or “wrong-doing.” The church and our educators, family and school, have reasoned mankind into doing “good” and refused to take into consideration their vices, which belong to the world of demons. To clarify my point of view, I say that the most human quality of man is his inhumanity.
We should not be blind or blinded, and know that like rats in a cage, we move and move, run around, but we finally always return to the same place. It’s a bit like philosophy, which is in a way a waste of time. We think and think and think in the course of thousands of years, but we don’t change anything essential in our actions or behavior.
In capitalistic society, where money keeps the individual in the position of a non-free person (some consider themselves slaves of the system), moral decline is the logical consequence of our way of life.
So, can we do something about our indoctrination or about our alienation? Can we change culture? We can, if we are willing to be critical about the world we live in, to accept no compromise, to reject preconceived ideas and the choices imposed by family and society.
We should realize that our sense of values are not ours, but that they are defined by others, partly by the legislators we voted for.
One of the main questions I asked myself when writing this paper was: can we integrate religion, philosophy, arts and science? I doubt it. Science takes a much faster road than the other three, and soon science will take over all power. Probably, in the future, our brain will eliminate everything that is not connected to scientific knowledge. Moral concepts, the idea of good and evil for example, will alter or disappear.
By the way, morals only exist within the human race, not in the world of animals. To kill thy neighbor does not enter the mind of a bee, but the bee will kill without hesitation the queen-bee, if there is a queen too many. The community of bees take the decision. Not the individual killer.
Politicians, moralists, idealists who desire to make social changes, should promote new forms of education, new forms of culture. Redefined without passion but with rationality.
One of the ways to redefine culture is to accept and acknowledge that every humanbeing is unique, and each of us original. We look alike, but we are different. Every child has some resemblance to his parents, but he/she/it is not identical to the parents. Human beings want to share feelings and emotions with each other, but we should not forget that, even in moments of deep intimacy, the lover cannot embrace the thoughts of the beloved — “What are you thinking? What am I thinking” — as we make love. We shall never know.
The closest, most honest of human beings, remain strangers to each other. Thought veils as much, probably far more, than it reveals.
That doesn’t make it easy, so we and the community play safe.
Society prefers to obey existing structures and it has decided that the structures — where people are treated equally or similarly — are more important than “imagination” or a “spirit of innovation.” Society is always busy protecting stability, and not evolution. Education is a way to keep the status quo.
Some centuries ago, when man stepped into new historic times, that is when documents, mainly written documents, were established, and administration and bureaucracy appeared, our evolution slowed down. We do not want to favor evolution anymore, but prefer to keep the solidity of our thoughts and social structure. It is also the time when the majority of people became “victims” of a minority who wanted to keep their privileges. Real, full integral education would resolve the differences between majority and minority.
Some of us think there are profound intellectual differences between men… or women. In reality, there is not much difference in mental capacity in people. But there are deep cultural differences, which give us the impression that one person is more intelligent than the other. What one person ignores or does not know, another knows or understands. Ignorance is not useful to anyone, except to those who take advantage to dominate others.
If we really want to move on, to be in connection with our times, we should give more attention to scientific and biological facts than to psychological notions. Mathematicians think first in general terms, then in particular terms. A logical order.
The arts, on the other hand, don’t have to be logical, they can be a mess, mentally deficient, inconsistent and beautiful, and sometimes even poetic.
Again I plead for education! But to learn what?
The only profession we should learn is to be a human being. That takes a lifetime, so we have to devote a whole lifetime to this profession.
If we want to know, to acquire knowledge when we are small. We will keep our curiosity for knowledge when we become older.
We could quite easily improve our situation, if we cared and devoted time to our need of identity, our need of orientation, the need to build a bridge between our humanity and bestiality.
We, human beings, are a special kind of animal because we use our brain both to think and to feel.
How do our s
enses play a part in all this?
It is evident that eyesight is the most essential of our senses. Well, we start our life by seeing. To see is the first step in the learning process. To remember what man learned, he had to invent words, language.
Being a filmmaker, I’ll limit myself here to the power of visuals. Images, including cinema images, can teach us all we need.
Let’s compare images to language. Languages have taken thousands of years to develop. We translate all our observations and mental processes into words. The images we produce are only ornaments attached to language. We illustrate our language with images. That is quite a different process to direct vision, which I mentioned at the beginning of this lecture.
Seeing does not explain or prove. Language has the possibility to prove. Seeing cannot. It is direct, real and it cannot lie. Didn’t God create the word so we could lie to each other?
I think that when we finally learn to see, many of our actual problems will diminish or disappear. Direct vision will help us become conscious of the fact that sex and death will be more of a guarantee of the richness of the human race and of our evolution than we care to believe now. We have to see who we are, to learn who we are, to enjoy who we are, and not to be confused by all the different and contradictory opinions we encounter.
What I am trying to say is that we should search for a better and more definite balance and reach greater harmony. If we are willing to participate in the adventure of knowledge, it will bring us consolation and courage. As we know, we are the only living species who by their biological constitution want to dominate the planet and the space we live in. We want to decode and master the universe, a tiring and often destructive exercise at times.
Man invented work, basically an absurd evolution, sometimes also an inhuman one, because in work we tend to lose touch with our true nature.
But, on the other hand, work provides us with a lot of leisure time. Today, we spend more time in leisure than in work, and in the near future, I would not be surprised if we had 90% of leisure time in the week. Time enough to solve big problems. Time which we don’t have now, seemingly.
The biggest problem to tackle is the co-existence of one billion people who are comparatively rich and 8 billion who are poorer. Or getting poorer. To try to solve this imbalance, we study our diseases: recession, underdevelopment, inflation, unemployment, terrorism, drugs etc. What are the result of all these meetings, conferences: a lot of talk and not much action or change. Drastic remedies are avoided. Politicians don’t dare or are incapable or lazy.
Do we really wonder why and how our planet got sick and its inhabitants weary?
Let’s take a look at ourselves, observe why we do what we do. What are the main motives of our actions? I name them: desire and fear.
We are torn between the two. Fortunately, the incredibly fast scientific development of the last 40 years provides us with an answer to a lot of problems if we care to think carefully.
Education leading to knowledge will obliterate all the incoherences we are accustomed to. We have to disregard the emotivity and sensibility that define us today.
Most cultural manifestations, be it in the theater, movies, plastic arts or the press, present a loss of lucidity sometimes close to alcoholism. When we pronounce the word “culture” today, we think automatically in terms of nice images, tragic images, savory, warm artistic, ornamental efforts. The cultural disciplines I am referring to now have nothing to do with real knowledge. Science is sometimes even considered an enemy of the arts. Propaganda and marketing, very popular today, distance us from concrete knowledge. Democracy gambles on the emotions of the people to win them for the cause of democracy, rarely defending reason and logic, which are not popular. All cultural activities, festivals, exhibitions, biennales, in short, all artistic manifestations, are an exaltation of abstraction and emotivity, which means in fact “alienation.”
For clarity’s sake, by alienation I mean any process by which the human being becomes estranged from himself, the individual deprived of his humanity.
If we care to know to what extent we are alienated, we should just remind ourselves of the overdoses of cultural debates, conferences, pure intellectual exercises, artistic, critical or psychological games, to which we lend ourselves willingly …like myself today.
Everybody can notice that there is quite an opposition between the number of people who deliver emotional, sensitive, intuitive, spiritualistic values and the few who think scientifically. Strange in that regard is the paradox we encounter in our society: the great majority of people are adepts of materialism…with handkerchiefs for the tears.
This education I mentioned tends to inculcate respect for existing public structures. It does not take into account the critical and civic capacities of the individual: it leads to obedience or submission but not to responsibility. Museums, libraries, concerts of classic music, artistic collections intimidate quite a number of individuals.
In conclusion, if we consider “education” to be the promotion of existing ideas, then we should conclude that such an education is insufficient and instead go for “integral education.” Everything should serve everybody.
Imagine gathering knowledge without exams and diplomas. And living well afterwards. Without problems!
We need to make better use of our potential intelligence. And slowly but surely the new education will lead to a greater collective wisdom.
We know for sure now from what biology has discovered that the brain of every human being living on this planet, whatever his race may be, has the same surface, the same number of nerve cells, the neurons. Their quantity is evaluated at 10 billion, and their network can produce about 100,000 billion connections. Therefore, everybody who is part of humanity has virtually an equivalent intelligence. (I realize that numbers are not necessarily equivalent to quality.)
It’s the cultural and social differences that mean certain people know more than others. By upgrading the cultural level, among other things, we can diminish or even eliminate those differences. To achieve that goal, the industrial powers and politicians must want it.
Unfortunately, hardly any economically oriented group wants to adopt a scientific method of information and disperse knowledge so that we could profit from the intelligence of everyone, of the whole human race.
To my knowledge, nothing is done in that field. We still lean on the old premises, utilizing emotivity, the passionate tendencies of man, methods of seduction and demagogy. The world is overloaded with opinions and empty of intelligence. Sentimental motivation has the upper hand over knowledge.
Have we deserted our human nature? We created schools to guide us on the road to life. But what have the schools given us? We have become active members of society. But the schools have not taught us to judge or reform our society. Only to contribute. Schooling teaches us how to become specialists, doctors, engineers etc., but from the day that we have a profession we renounce our right to be totally human.
Work has its bad side. I am a workalcoholic, so I should know.
Today, we are full of illusions. We have lost our bearings. We are more alienated than we have ever been.
We suffer from an illness that is called semi-culture; this semi-culture being broadcast or distributed by the different means of communication. Film and TV produce semi-culture: the illusion of knowledge and the illusion of feeling.
The mass media is not engaged in knowledge or understanding, but is busy conditioning people.
The semi-culture is worse than ignorance, because it is an illusion.
Every day, we are fed with stimuli and news. The groups who feed us with the news belong to the dominant groups. They ha
ve to make money at all costs and to reach sufficient numbers of viewers. This explains why they search for the sensational, blow up every bit of news, repeat every item until one is brain-dizzy.
And due to the need to be fast, the news is often half-true or superficial. A lot of problems and subjects are discussed in all kinds of field, but usually we do not have the knowledge to solve the problems. It is preferable to fake the solutions than to admit the lack of knowledge. If we don’t understand what’s happening, we will never eliminate collective ignorance.
At the end of the day, we have to choose between the sweet consolation of the arts, the magic of dreams and the restlessness of science. Or, said with a sneer, should we live in “drunkenness” or knowledge?
To help us dream, we should remember that the great currents of thought from Socrates to Marx and further, that all philosophies had a common thought: trust mankind.
Mohammed, in his own way, said the same, and I quote: “The variety and multiplicity of intelligences is the proof of our existence and the generosity of God.”
Today, science echoes: it has proven the multiplicity of intelligences. We should profit from this richness. It should lead to an authentic and harmonious participation of all individuals in society. Film and the media in general should also profit.
I end with another quote: “Learn, because we will need all our intelligence. Flutter your wings, because we will need all our enthusiasm. Organize, because we will need all our strength.”