Groping towards Terms and Conditions

If I had been to Film School I guess White Space in a Painting would have been made in what would have been the equivalent of my first term. The Drama Sessions would have been ongoing throughout my first and second year. Low Down Alley Blues would have been shot at the end of my first year. Violin at the end of my second year and Where Fairyland Begins during the first term of my third year. Of course, this is silly. But I like to use such an imaginary timeline to comfort myself with the notion that I’ve been engaged in a period of learning and in order to be able to measure in my own mind some kind of progress. I’ve learned a lot, mostly via a whole glut of mistakes. But then I’ve never been worried about making mistakes or even of making a fool of myself. I don’t really know any other way of learning. Right now, however, the most important thing for me is that I feel that I’ve arrived at the end of a two year period that might best be characterized as one of deferring. I am at last clear about the sort of films I want to make and although I’ll always listen to the opinions of others, always consult and collaborate, the only thing that matters is that the film that I want to make gets made. Previously, if someone with the requisite experience had come to me to say that such and such was impossible I would no doubt have deferred to their greater technical knowledge. Now I would tell them that ‘impossible’ simply means they haven’t found a way of doing it yet, that they need to think round corners, find a new angle or even damned well invent something.

And so, in my ‘third year’ and with all sense of a need to defer happily evaporated I arrive at Terms and Conditions.

Terms and Conditions

A sort of Journal of Progress though obviously there’s very little progress to report at the moment. Early days. A notion constituting a beginning. A start, at least. Foundation. Basis. Genesis. People have enquired about taking on the job of Art Director and DoP. I’ve met with a very good DoP. Actors have asked to be involved. Two have been cast. At this stage, ideas percolate, fizz, firm up, take hold, hopefully, eventually, head towards a fixed point on what can often feel like a continuously shifting horizon. Motto:

Never break a convention for the sake of it. Never retain a convention for the sake of it.

godards-passion-movie-poster-1982-10203751331. The other day I watched Passion, a 1982 film by the French director Jean-Luc Godard. It was interesting for all sorts of reasons not least the fact that it had no plot or rather the plot was so fragmented, so embedded in a variety of what at times seemed disparate actions, as to be hardly decipherable. Surely a plot must provide a sense of continuity. Surely the plot is the story, is what the film is about and for that reason must be easily comprehended. In Passion, (‘the story of…’ ‘about…’) a Polish filmmaker attempting to make a film that has no story and that therefore no one wants to buy, (and actually it’s not ‘about’ that either), Godard eschews this convention. Indeed, one could say that Godard’s whole career, from À bout de souffle through Bande à part, Éloge de l’amour, right up to Notre Musique, was spent eschewing or undermining conventions, of subverting the rules and regulations encapsulated in should and ought. A plot is a fictional construct that bears little resemblance to reality, life usually being messier and more open-ended than the standard plot allows for. For Godard, the traditional plot form was often too small for the intellectual and emotional content at the heart of his films so that in consequence they were simply permitted to spill over the edges and out of the frame. If the framing structure proved inadequate to compass the idea then clearly it was necessary to shift or rebuild the structure. Think film. Re-think film.

If the above makes it sound as if Terms and Conditions will be without a plot or story then I must disabuse anyone of that notion. There will indeed be a storyline, a narrative thread. But if I am not willing to reference Godard’s Passion I certainly am his Une Femme Mariee, for instance, or his Vivre Sa Vie, films which allow for a breaking of conventions within a more recognizably conventional, which is to say essentially narrative, structure.

Never break a convention for the sake of it. Never retain a convention for the sake of it.

For Godard every idea demanded to be considered on its own merits which meant in practice that it frequently warranted a different way of being expressed. In Anglo-American cinema this is hardly ever the case. Though there have been many great films produced by the Hollywood system, indeed some of them would be on my personal list of all time favourites, – In A Lonely Place, It’s A Wonderful Life, Vertigo, the shamefully undervalued The Swimmer, – it is nevertheless a system that rarely deviates from what it knows it does best: entertain. A formula was found at some point in the early days of cinema and the ingredients have stayed more or less the same ever since resulting in schematic constructions built piecemeal via working methods that have been shown to succeed in ensuring box-office returns.

2. A few weeks ago I watched Curtain, the final episode of Poirot. Scene: two men in conversation in a garden. Approximately two minutes and consisting of approximately eight cuts. Three shots of a man speaking; three reaction shots; a couple of two-shots, one square on, one from a slightly high angle. Why? Perhaps a fear that the audience would get bored if deprived of the ubiquitous cut-aways? Whatever the reason, we were presented with the unsurprising, a way of doing things so utterly commonplace, that most audiences would not have given a thought to what it was they were seeing. What we accept, schematic constructions, a well-worn blueprint, conventions retained for the sake of it, is ultimately a matter of habit.

“Habit is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit.”- Samuel Beckett.

Contrast with:

MPW-54822Taste of Cherry by the director Abbas Kiarostami. Scene: a man enters the cabin of a security guard ostensibly to have a cup of tea. A conversation ensues. But there are no two-shots, no cut-aways, no reaction shots. Indeed, we never see the security guard at all, we only ever hear his voice, his part of the conversation. Breaking convention for the sake of it? No. Kiarostami had decided that the security guard wasn’t important, that the focus had to be kept on the attitude, the agitation, of the protagonist. It was a considered decision based upon what was deemed to be the emotional essence of the scene. The same thing happens in Margareta Lazarova by the wonderful Czech director Frantisek Vlacil. A man talks, we see the reaction of those to whom he is talking but we never actually see the man himself.

 3. Here are two sentences:

“I love you and want to marry you.”

“I hate you and want to kill you.”

Of course, the difference in meaning is enormous. But the syntax is exactly the same. The form is that of subject, object, verb. Unfortunately, however, this linguistic structure, the grammatical and syntactical rules, does not reflect the meaning that the words convey. ‘Love’ is in diametrical opposition to ‘hate’ but this difference is not reflected in the shape of the sentences. We thus find ourselves imprisoned by the limits of language, by its unyielding form. This is why writers such as Joyce, Beckett, Woolf applied themselves to re-fashioning and re-ordering words on a page in an effort to make language conform to meaning. This is why the Oulipo writers of France, those like Queneau and Perec, tried to find “new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy” as a means of triggering ideas and inspiration. It sometimes feels as if the artist’s perpetual quest is to discover some way of escaping from a language that, by its very nature, refuses to allow us to be free. (This desire for expressive freedom is equally true for those in the fine arts. For instance, Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase was an effort on his part to escape the two-dimensionality of space and the motionlessness of time in painting).

Language is totalitarian. Filmmakers such as Godard and Kiarostami are not alone in attempting to liberate themselves from, if you like, this ‘dictatorship of the sentence.’

largeposter_3155I find the director Alain Resnais very difficult. Though one of my favourite films is his Last Year at Marienbad he made absolutely no concessions to his audience. Film, like every art, exists to be communicated. But that doesn’t mean to say that an audience has to be spoonfed. To do that would be to infantilize, it is essentially an implied insult. Resnais never spoonfed. Take Muriel. What is happening in Muriel? What could it be said to be about? (‘About’ again. “What is it about? What is the story about? What is the film about?” This word ‘about’ is itself a kind of delimitation and envelopment). Ultimately it is, I suppose, ‘about’ time or more specifically memory and for Resnais the question was how best to portray that? Memory works as discrete fragments so that the type of formal syntactical structure as evidenced by the sentence hardly applies. When Marcel in Proust’s ‘Remembrance of Things Past‘ bites into the madeleine, a banal event that sparks off a powerful memory from his childhood, the action is associative, not linear, as from A to B, but all at once. So, a scene from Muriel that I find fascinating: Three people walk down a street at night. They talk about this and that, about the town for instance. Suddenly Resnais interjects with scenes of the town in daylight. We return to the three people at night, their faces first in repose then exhibiting fleeting expressions of anxiety, each face, each person separated from the others. The juxtaposition of images of day and night has already given us a feeling of unease for appearing to ignore continuity or at least an expected symmetry of shots but this has merely served to reflect the growing uneasiness of each of the characters. Dispensing with the mere linearity of a walk, a movement through space and time between two points, Resnais has instead employed an associative method in which space and time resonate with meaning for his characters, reflecting something of their inner condition. He has broken with convention in order to explore underlying tensions and emotions.

4. I would say, though time and again I would expect counter-examples to disprove me, that generally speaking a major difference between Anglo-American cinema and that of many other countries, those in Europe certainly, is that between a linear style of film making and an associative. (And immediately I can think of my own counter-example in a work such as Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives). As I say, generally speaking American and British cinema proceed along lines that can be metaphorically exemplified in the form of the sentence. They tell a story from A to B of the kind subject, object, verb. They have a beginning, a middle and end and usually in that order. This means that whilst it might be true that the content of any such film may surprise us, the structure, the formal elements enclosing it, rarely do. We know what to expect. There is no subversion here so that from a perspective of familiarity the audience feels comfortable.

CriesThat subversive sensibility, a willingness to experiment, that is frequently a hallmark of European cinema and was certainly so in the various New Waves of the 1960s can be seen at play in the works of such filmmakers as Tarkovsky, Antonioni, Resnais, Bergman, Godard, Pialat, Dreyer, Bresson and so on. Subversive in the sense not of a fatuous attempt to be avant-garde or cutting-edge but in the goal to prioritize feeling and intellectual analysis over a simplistic and predictable sequencing of events. For them, philosophies of feeling expressed as fragments of being, (philosophies of Being expressed as fragments of feeling), constitute the ‘plot’ because it is in these that ultimately we discover humanity with all the associated ideas of what it means to be human. On many occasions this has led to an almost faithful rendering of the idea concentrated in the Latin tag “Ut pictura poesis,” “as is painting so is poetry.” As is the picture so is poetry. As is poetry so is film. In the same way that poetry resonates via different nuances of meaning, the various poetic forms helping to articulate those meanings, (only compare E.E.Cummings with Robert Frost, Walt Whitman with Richard Wilbur), so decisions about the form of a film will assist in the extrapolation and elucidation of meanings that go far beyond the merely informative. It was to this end that Antonioni directed that the trees of a nearby wood be painted red in his film Red Desert, (a decision that on this occasion failed to live up to expectation due to the paint appearing black in the camera lens), and that Bergman’s choice of colour in Cries and Whispers (above) was of paramount importance as it reflected the emotional journey of each of the protagonists.

(Speaking of Red Desert, just see how the choice of landscape location creates an immediate association with the lonely and alienated lives portrayed in the film:)




The Shining5. I’ve already mentioned an exception to my generalisation regarding the division between Anglo-American linearity and European associationism in the work of Terence Davis. Another exception is Stanley Kubrik with his film The Shining. In 1980 The Shining was released to almost universally poor reviews. The consensus seemed to be that it broke all the rules for what a horror film should be. The main complaint was that so much of it used wide shots in bright light. Surely this was the very thing to destroy tension as the horror genre functioned best in tight, dark, claustrophobic spaces. It was as if the confines of Dracula’s coffin had become a metaphor for the form of the horror film in general. Kubrik’s decision to subvert this was courageous and revolutionary. And, of course, we now accept that it worked. The very openness of the hotel in which the action takes place creates a sense of isolation, of alienation, that is wholly unnerving. Kubrik did not break convention for the sake of it but because he realized that isolation in space with all the resulting paranoia and hallucinatory paraphernalia that such isolation can engender, as in a desert for instance, could be as terrifying as enclosure in a restricted area.

6. Making it clear. I love many American films (though fewer British; some of Ealing perhaps, early Hitchcock). Just as there were certainly two great ages of French cinema, (1930s and 1960s), I would suggest two equally great periods for Hollywood, (1930s-40s and 1970s). Equally I can enjoy the slick professionalism of a Terminator, a Robocop or an X-Men. With such pictures I don’t have to think because I know what to expect. Thinking is not required of me and I certainly never feel enticed or badgered to do so. As a passive spectator I can switch off, awed by the special effects, only ever presented with a breathing space in preparation for the next inevitable set-piece. Sometimes I’ll enjoy an ‘indie’ movie by Wes Anderson (Rushmore) or Alexander Payne (About Schmidt) or Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation) or Hal Hartley (Simple Men), taking pleasure in their wry humour, sassy dialogue and oddball look at life. But, whether studio or independent, the form of these films is essentially the same. The language structure, the traditional syntax remains firmly in place. (Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich; Adaptation) appears to want to attempt to circumvent this familiar pattern but in my view he only succeeds, when he succeeds at all, by making his films look strangely akin to extended music videos). Under present conditions, Godard’s questioning of convention would hardly be countenanced either in the big studio productions or the smaller independents, (in any case, an ‘indie’ is usually only ever as ‘indie’ as its investors allow it to be. The extended battle that Alexander Payne had to endure in order to get his film Nebraska made in black and white is a recent example). To return to the point. There are times when, like everyone else, I am content to lie back and luxuriate in formal predictability, in linear storytelling, as an antidote to the stresses of work and of life in general. But I must say that it is the considered breaking of convention, and I emphasize ‘considered’, that I find most exhilarating and fundamentally satisfying. It is those directors who instead of fitting their voices to ready-made conventions have not been afraid to re-mould the conventions to fit their own particular voices, that I find most rewarding and worthy of recurrent interest.

Never break a convention for the sake of it. Never retain a convention for the sake of it.

7. Terms and Conditions. I’ve no interest in conventions. On the other hand I have no particular interest in ignoring them. So: a film script, not a film but a script, a template for a film. It lists a number of things that happen. It hints at certain relationships. It suggests certain emotions. At each juncture, with each shot, questions arise the answers to which, the solutions to which, must be focused inevitably towards the truthful dissection of those relationships and emotions. In the end, as directors from Godard to Ozu to Dreyer to Bergman emphasized, it’s the truth of the film that matters.

I like this: Alexander Payne never uses storyboards. Instead, he and his team watch films together to try to get the feeling of the movie they want to make. I like that. That’s nice. But then again, I also like storyboards.

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