Johnson on MacDonald

 

FILM-PHILOSOPHY

ISSN 1466-4615

Volume 3 Number 52, December 1999

 


 

Margaret E. Johnson

A Non-Critical Review

 


 

 

Scott MacDonald

_A Critical Cinema 3: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers_

Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998

ISBN 0-520-08705-4 (cloth)

ISBN 0-520-20943-5 (paper)

481 pp

 

In the introduction to _A Critical Cinema 3_ Scott MacDonald acknowledges that one of his goals in the production of this rich set of interviews is to be uncritical. He writes, 'I mean to honor efforts and accomplishments too often ignored by the public at large and even by those who consider themselves specialists in cinema history, rather than to provide anything like an expose' (10). His mission to introduce independent filmmakers to an audience often lacking familiarity with such a wide array of creators is laudable. Indeed, MacDonald displays his awareness that many of his readers may be altogether lacking the basic knowledge of not only what independent films mean, and what their purposes might be, but also what, in fact, independent films are.

 

Although independent filmmakers have drawn an enormous amount of attention in recent years -- as major mainstream actors have offered their performances for low salaries and the films have received major notice at the many film festivals that cater to independent films -- the filmmakers included in this volume are frequently not among this newly recognized crowd. Their work fits into a variety of categories, from the avant garde and experimental, to the poetic and abstract. All of these types of films, along with others listed by MacDonald, are what constitute the critical cinema; 'film forms . . . capable of surprising viewers and catalyzing critique -- by filmmakers with limited economic means' (1), that is the focus of the book.

 

Perhaps the greatest strength of this collection of essays is the wide range of filmmakers interviewed. [1] Rather than attempt to produce a set of thematically connected pieces, MacDonald opts for variety, giving readers the opportunity to learn about films that may appear startlingly new in their content or style. However, this variety is also what makes the collection seem, at times, to be a bit scattered. And the long periods over which the interviews took place also contribute to this lack of cohesiveness. With the earliest of interviews taking place in 1991 (and a portion of the interview with Amos Vogel from 1983), the terrain in which these artists work may no longer provide the same type of backdrop. While it is useful to know what the attitudes toward filmmaking were like at that time, the establishment against which many of these directors were working may be quite different now, and these differences are not always explored. While the interview with Vogel, the creator of Cinema 16, the groundbreaking venue for showing independent film, is one of the collection's most exciting, a good deal of it is set within a context that is much different from the ones in which the majority of the filmmakers currently work.

 

The interviews were conducted in a variety of ways: in person, on the phone, by mail. In addition, MacDonald takes portions of public talks or interviews by others and incorporates them into his own. As a final adjustment, MacDonald adds, when he thinks necessary and appropriate, comments that were not made by the filmmakers, but which MacDonald believes to reflect adequately their thinking and to further a point. While his play with the form and structure of the interview complements the inventive nature of the films at the center of the book, the liberties taken with accuracy draw into question some of the more valuable moments of the text.

 

The fascinating interview with Vogel starts off the collection. While not a filmmaker himself, Vogel's theater was highly instrumental (from 1943-63) in giving viewers access to many small and experimental films. His astounding knowledge of film informs his thinking, allowing him, more than any other artist in the collection, to offer invigorating and thoughtful ideas about film as art. He provides, for example, an astute observation about why contemporary art film, unlike other forms of contemporary art, lags behind in viewer appreciation and support. He explains: 'When you look at a very advanced kind of modernist painting, you can decide whether you want to look for one minute or for half an hour, or just turn away . . . With film you're a captive' (27). Vogel manages to ponder the role of viewer in relation to film in ways that transcend specific films. The issues that Vogel considers in his interview reveal the most contemplative and critically astute moments in the collection of essays.

 

His interview also provides a rather insightful description of the challenges which met viewers in trying to see a wide array of foreign and avant garde films fifty years ago. The incredible lack of outlets for non-Hollywood films appears to far outweigh the current struggles of filmmakers and their attempts to distribute their work and find their audience.

 

Yet even while a change in the reception of independent film has taken place in the second half of this century, one vital point that this book repeatedly suggests is that access to much experimental film is still denied to most of us. John Porter, who works almost exclusively in Super-8, and William Greaves, whose most famous work, _Symbiopsychotaxiplasm_, has had only a handful of showings, find themselves with limited, if enthusiastic, audiences. The interviews with these filmmakers, in particular, exemplify the challenges in finding significant outlets for their powerful projects.

 

Much of Porter's work found a viewership at The Funnel, a Toronto theater focused on showing all but 35mm film. His observation that people come to this theater from the United States and other countries suggests the extraordinarily limited distribution possibilities for such films. The very volume of films created by Porter (over 200 movies as of 1993) also calls into question how we define art and the art object. The seeming deluge of film from Porter might be the very thing that keeps him from receiving significant recognition from the larger film community. It is an odd situation that the use of Super-8 both allows a filmmaker to gain access to the creation of art, but also serves to deny that artist an opportunity for full acceptance into the realm of the filmmaker.

 

In Greaves's case, the economic burden severely limited the completion of _Symbiopsychotaxiplasm_, resulting in a three-year delay before the film was able to be shown. Due to a variety of other difficulties that Greaves details, the film was never officially released. Though it has been presented at special screenings over the years, the challenges Greaves faced prevented the film from finding full recognition.

 

The experiences of Greaves and Porter are repeated in slightly different ways by most of the filmmakers interviewed, and the economic and distribution hardships form the primary sub-text of the volume. MacDonald brings up the issue of financing in most interviews, indirectly reinforcing that many of the day-to-day activities of these artists is taken up in the business side of their work. Though this situation is true for most of the filmmakers, the text leaves these strands hanging for readers to recognize and consider.

 

One of the few weak spots in _A Critical Cinema 3_ is the lack of a larger consideration and critique of the concerns that continue to affect (and often overwhelm) the filmmakers. Though economic and distribution issues are discussed repeatedly through the interviews, nowhere does MacDonald stop to synthesize material that reveals itself in the conversations. While, of course, other writers might pursue these issues in significant works, MacDonald has an amazing opportunity to do it in this text. Rarely do readers have the voices of so many fine filmmakers in one spot, and the missed chance of pulling together the primary concerns and observations of the artists interviewed is notable.

 

If this text sees a second edition, the one suggestion I would have is for the addition of a conclusion to draw together the recurring points, to assist readers in locating the connections among the filmmakers and their interviews. In part, this might help readers comprehend the inclusion of filmmakers whose experiences are as disparate as that of Porter, who reels off hundreds of short films, and Sally Potter, who, among the filmmakers included in this volume, has had the most success in crossing over to 'mainstream independent' audiences.

 

The interview with Potter took place not long after the release of _Orlando_, the highly praised and widely viewed adaptation of the Virginia Woolf novel. Since the time of the interview and the completion of the book, another of her films, _The Tango Lesson_, has also found its way into a large number of theaters that show prominent independent films. All of this is not to say that Potter has had an easy time funding and producing films, but unlike most of the filmmakers MacDonald interviews, she has a more mainstream following and has the attention of the popular press. (And in keeping with the popular press, MacDonald pursues a line of inquiry about Potter's sexual identity and its relationship to her films.) By closing the volume with the Potter interview, MacDonald ends on a high note, implying that the success that Potter has experienced is available for all who create critical cinema.

 

The Potter interview, with its discussion of her early experience with film and the specifics of her most important films, is typical of the structure of most of the interviews. The primary focus is usually generative. The directors often explain their backgrounds and entries into filmmaking, and then, when discussing particular works, offer their reasons for crafting the films and particular scenes in specific ways. In short, they interpret their films for MacDonald and the readers. The benefits of such explications are largely self-evident. Because many of the films of the critical cinema confront and reject the expectations of viewers, they demand a great deal of knowledgeable effort on behalf of the viewers to understand fully the various levels of meaning. With the director's own commentary to guide us, we undoubtedly have an opportunity to rethink the films we've seen and, perhaps more importantly, to develop a desire to search out the films with which we are unfamiliar. The bulk of this explanatory material would be most useful, I think, for film students trying to develop a sense of composition. The point-by-point description of the mise en scene elucidates the detailed process that goes into the construction of a film. [2]

 

While impressive for all readers interested in film, _A Critical Cinema 3_ is slightly less valuable for those not studying the process of filmmaking. Because the focus rests primarily on the physical act of making film rather than on the effects of the films produced, the book does not venture into the realm of contemplative discourse enough to break new ground. Its main value is simply in creating exposure for the eclectic set of filmmakers interviewed, all of whom have different goals in the making of their films. [3]

 

During the moments when the filmmakers do stop to consider the more philosophical implications of their work, the interviews reach their pinnacle. Of enormous interest is a moment in an interview with Martin Arnold who, when explaining aspects of his film _Piece Touchee_, claims that the 'cinema of Hollywood is a cinema of exclusion, reduction, and denial, a cinema of repression. In consequence we should not only consider what is shown, but also that which is not shown. There is always something behind that which is being represented, which was not represented' (354). This statement, meant as commentary on Arnold's own films, also serves as a description of the work of all the artists in this collection. As they find their own places in the world of film, they offer up cinematic difference, providing a space for the invisible, the silent, the ignored. Their own films are those which include parts of life and art which are not shown to most film viewers, not shown in most film. And it is in this way that the filmmakers, and their interviews, have so much to offer.

 

Certainly, in _A Critical Cinema 3_ we have a signpost for the millennium, a place that points back toward the struggles our artists have had to bear in this century and directs us to the possibilities for film in the next century. While I have small reservations, enumerated above, about some elements of this text, I find that my own inclination, like that of MacDonald, is to encourage readers to break out of their critical shells momentarily and enjoy the opportunity to learn more about the ways in which films that challenge, overwhelm, and at times frustrate us came about.

 

Idaho State University, Pocatello, USA

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. Those interviewed are William Greaves, Jordan Belson, Arthur Peleshian, Charles Burnett, Hara Kazuo, Peter Watkins, Ken Jacobs, Nick Deocampo, Mani Kaul, Craig Baldwin, Gunvor Nelson, Christine Choy, Rose Lowder, Peter Hutton, Valie Export, Patrick Bokanowski, Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, Elias Merhige, Aline Mare, Cauleen Smith, John Porter, Raphael Montanez Ortiz, Martin Arnold, Ken and Flo Jacobs, and Sally Potter.

 

2. Also of extraordinary value to film students and film historians are the filmographies and bibliographies provided for each of the filmmakers at the end of the volume.

 

3. The styles and goals of these filmmakers are often vastly different. Ortiz, for example, has a strongly political and/or social purpose in his filmmaking. He thinks that film 'is one of the places where our culture most believes it has established what this culture means, what it is about, and where it should be going. It communicates these assumptions in the resonance between us and that information on the screen, at the nervous-system level. I found a way to re-mystify that experience and . . . relocate it back into the sacred' (339). Arnold, on the other hand, privileges sound in his films as a way of exploring silence and other elements that are often overlooked.

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1999

 

Margaret E. Johnson, 'A Non-Critical Review',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 52, December 1999 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol3-1999/52johnson>.

 

  

 

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