Cinema Militans Lecture
IS FAR TOO RICH AND CAPABLE A MEDIUM TO BE LEFT MERELY TO THE STORYTELLERS
IMAGINARY DUTCH FILMS
by Peter Greenaway
A young German painting-apprentice from Freiburg is
swimming in a canal among the fields outside Delft on the morning of October
12th 1654. He is German, he believes in cold baths to help the circulation and
he is obeying instructions from his father to keep himself clean. He can see the
spires and buildings of Delft against the sky and at 10.15 exactly, he is
surprised and horrified to see the city burst into flame. Four seconds later, he
is deafened by three loud reports and four seconds after that, a shock-wave
brushes over him - he can feel its warmth on his bare skin. He has become a
witness of the Great Delft Gunpowder Explosion.
Without apparent cause or motive, a powder-magasine
has blown up and destroyed a third of the town. The buildings and churches
continue to burn for two days. There are many casualties. Three of them are
painters. Their names are Van Eester, Frans Peck and Carel Fabritius. At the
time of the explosion, all three of them were working in their studios. Van
Eester was working on a view of the Singel Canal, Frans Peck was painting a
portrait of Marietta, his wife, reading a letter and Fabritius was painting a
genre-piece called The Skittle-Game. Van Eester had both his arms blown off,
Frans Peck was blinded, and Fabritius, after eight hours, dies of respiratory
collapse - his lungs burnt out. All three painters will not paint again.
The young German painting-apprentice from Freiburg -
pulling on his clothes - rushes off across the fields to Delft to assist in the
terrible aftermath of the explosion - carrying buckets of water, manning the
water-pumps, lifting out the wounded, closing the eyes of the dead,
administering tourniquets, comforting the dying.
In a temporary hospital of tents rigged up away from
the burning buildings, he makes the acquaintance of the three painters -
fetching them water, changing their bandages, hearing - in all three cases -
their curiously over- detailed accounts of the tragedy. He finds out about their
last paintings - and, idly at first - then with gathering interest - he pokes
about the town's wreckage and eventually finds enough blackened and ragged bits
of painted canvas to make him think he can reconstruct the their last paintings.
He is puzzled and a little anxious at what he finds. He asks questions which
help him make an interpretation of what the paintings convey.
He discovers that Van Eester's painting of the
canalside includes the figure of a woman making a lewd grimace as she bangs the
dust out of a rug - she is non other than Marietta, Frans Peck's wife and almost
certainly Van Eester's mistress. Fabritius' painting - amongst other things -
depicts a man urinating against a wheelbarrow - "the wheelbarrow" is
Van Eester's nickname on account of the way he walks - pushing his belly before
him. Whereas the letter being read by Marietta in Peck's painting contains a
libellous account of Fabritius's plagiarism.
The young German student realises that each painting
demonstrates both fierce competitive relationship and a vitriolic personal
animosity between the painters. He is very imaginative and especially interested
in seeking symbolic meaning - that - after - is why he persuaded his father to
let him come to Holland to study in the first place - knowing full well how the
Dutch secrete so much metaphorical meaning into their painting.
Further examining the reconstructed paintings - along - with others he has discovered - he finds significance in images of burning candles, conspiratorial meetings, secret letters, barrels of black-powder and he is lead seriously to suspect that the painters themselves - each independently and in his own way - were responsible for the terrible explosion and that the whole tragic event sadly and terribly backfired.
However - the remaining painters of Delft - not to miss an opportunity - soon pull themselves together and begin to make good money painting scenes of the explosion, The German student is appalled - especially since he is constantly being asked to describe his eye-witness account. He remonstrates and harangues the painters on their lack of compassion and their reprehensible opportunism - he begins to make accusations that the explosion was a conspiracy organised by the painters of Delft to stimulate business.
One morning, the German student's dead body is found
floating in a canal in the outside Delft.
With an acknowledgement to the dependable, fixed and
rigorous characteristics of the alphabet, this address is pedantically organised
according to its 26 letters - where the vowels are the substance and the
consonants are the supporting comment.
Or maybe it's the other way around.
I am a film-maker... not a film-critic or a
film-theorist... and I much prefer to be making films than talking about them
and since the most satisfying and stimulating part of the film-making process
for me, is in the conception of a new project, to amuse me, and hopefully to
amuse you, as well as talking about films I am going to speculate about the
conception of some new ones - five new ones - one for each of the vowels of the
Taking full note of this particular location and occasion -
I can still say without any special pleading - that there is considerable
evidence in my film-projects - both completed and uncompleted - of a fascination
with Holland, Dutch culture and Dutch painting.
Especially Dutch painting. Taking liberties with time-synchronisation and with authorship - it is Dutch painting of the Golden Age - the 16th - 17th and 18th centuries - that is the subjects, content and starting point of these five new films.
I am a practising film-maker of a minority persuasion who
has had the good fortune - due to a certain set of circumstances - not least the
support of the Dutch Producer - Kees Kasander - who is sitting among you - to
make very personal films that have not been obliged to reap large financial
rewards or court enormous popular support. In the eyes of some - this may
disqualify me from making any statement about the health of the cinema - or what
cinema should be - or could be - or where cinema should go.
On the other hand those who believe that cinema is a game
of cost effectiveness in a medium of popular entertainment.... and seek great
financial rewards by straining and manipulating to be popular invariably for me
produce works that are dull or worthy or worse - usually much worse.
However you can hear all the time how I qualify even the strongest statements for I am only too aware the subjects is fraught with contradictions, ironies and paradoxes - and after all my personal cinema - practice uses contradiction, paradox and irony as its first major substance.
Remembering the exhortations of Menno ter Braak, the
inspiration of these lectures, I would like to speculate in public about some of
the characteristics of a cinema that I personally wish to see and wish to make -
and maybe such subjective aspirations may illuminate more general areas.
First of all ....
j I want to see films made with the freedom that a writer
or a painter has with his material - which questions whether it is necessary for
the cinema - all cinema - to pretend to be the popular medium of entertainment
many people still think it is.
k I want to see films that are prepared to operate as much
through an approach to the intellect as to an insistent on making an emotional
empathy with its audience.
l I want cinema to regard the audience as an intelligent
ally and not patronise it.
m I want to see a cinema that is a cinema from the ground
up - not a cinema that has first to find life in a book or a play before it can
be a film.
n I want to see films take and acknowledge their rightful
and relevant place in the continuity of Western visual culture - and not remain
separate from it.
p I want cinema to be recognised as the artform it is. It
continues to surprise me that many - who should know better - do not do so.
q I would like to see films that are designed to have a
longer screen life than six months and can be infinitely and repeatedly
viewable. I would like to see each film seriously invest in its own artistic
r I want to see a cinema that is prepared to be
experimental and speculative and innovative.
s I want to make and see films that acknowledge themselves
as films and do not attempt to pretend to be slices of reality or windows on the
world - which are dubious and unobtainable at the best of times.
t I want to see films made deliberately for the big screen
which employs a different language that that employed to succeed best on
v I want to see and make films where the form or structure
of a movie is given as much thought as its other content.
w It is has been that cinema is the bastard offspring of
the novel and the theatre - with painting as the godfather - have they got the
patrimony the right way around?
I want to enjoy a cinema that is not prepared solely to
rest on its proven laurels as a story-telling vehicle - for cinema is far too
rich and capable a medium to be left merely to the storytellers.
In making these declarations I know that I am putting
myself on the firing-line - for being a practising film-maker - the aspirations
can be directly compared with the films - unlike the film-critic or the
film-theorist who seldom offers a product to demonstrate his or her opinions and
therefore often has power without responsibility - an envious position - and in
England often abused.....
I can take some license and permission from Ter Braak - who
gently approved of film-makers who could develop the awareness to know that
their creations still often by no means came abreast of their aspirations - he
knew that "consciousness of the form precedes the realisations".
Which brings us to the letter E - a vowel.
The painter Cornelius Gooch painted cows. He was a
cow-painter. His father had been a herdsman, his sisters were milkmaids and his
wife had been a dairymaid. Only his brother had broken the mould - he built
boats - rowing-boats for the canal ferrymen.
Gooch enjoyed cows - he enjoyed their docility, their
smooth, short-haired backs, their soft muzzles, the hang of their swinging
udders, the sharp horns, the moulding of the cow's flank with the indentations
of the rib-cage. He enjoyed the problems of painting them against the wide sky
and the distant spire of Dordrecht cathedral. There is - it must be admitted - a
certain similarity in all his cows as though he was painting from a model. Gooch
was a methodical painter - perhaps a rather pedestrian painter - and although
the cows would stand or sit comparatively still for long hours chewing the cud -
Gooch had problems because he was so slow. Although he picked the most docile
cows he could find - they still moved too much for him.
To help him solve his problem - he asked his brother - who
was a carpenter and built rowing boats - to construct him a cow. He built it
like the frame of an upturned boat and covered it with leather and cow-hide.
From close up the model cow looked quite convincing - if a little stiff. It was
hollow and light and Gooch loaded it into a cart and took it out to the fields
each day - setting it down among the grass. The other cows grew quite used to it
- though the bulls remained restless. Sometimes Gooch was a little disappointed
- on bright days when the sun shone straight down at noon without shadows - the
cow model looked a little lifeless. It was his wife's idea to climb inside and
animate it a little. She was a large, docile woman with sweptback ginger hair, a
large bosom and a pale cream skin. The wooden frame of the model cow was quite
malleable - though very warm on summer days and a tight fit - for Gooch's wife
was a large woman - she sometimes had to take a few clothes off to make herself
His dealer learnt with surprise and not a little amusement
of Gooch's strategy and passed details of it on to his clients who were
intrigued - so much so - that the prices of Gooch's paintings that featured the
wooden cow - possibly with its occupant - fetched higher prices than the rest of
his output. To make sure that his clients stayed intrigued, Gooch's agent
actually dropped hints that Gooch should make his cows even more wooden. Gooch
Sometimes afterwards his wife gave birth to a son - though
none saw it. The son was called Michael and he spent his whole life in an
attic-room above Gooch's house near the cathedral - a room which shook when the
bells of the cathedral rang on the hour, on the quarter hour, on the half hour -
and whenever the bell-ringer could find an excuse. It was suggested that little
Michael - not surprisingly - was deaf - that he could not feed himself on
account of his unusable hands - that the plasterwork of his room was pitted with
scratch-marks - that he had horns.
It was said that he was kept in the attic-room close to the
bells to hide his deep mournful cries and that Madame Gooch took up painting
sheep to pay the bell-ringer.... these and many more speculations were voiced in
Dordrecht for it is a town of much imaginations.
I am suspicious of those crusaders in anything and
apologist, who, in the guise of claming to be disinterested in anything but the
good of the cinema - insist on solutions and strategies as though the cinema was
one single phenomenon - whereas what they are doing is attempting to justify
their own film-making practice .....
.... for there are a considerable number of film-making
practices - all of them valid in their own lights - a spectrum that stretches
from - on left - home-movies - to experimental esoteric projects, to a cinema of
personal statement - often referred to with inexactness as "the
art-film" - to middle-budget popular entertainment to extravagant
multi-million projects over here on the right ... left and right have here - for
the most part - no particular political significance .... I have chosen to work
somewhere to the left of the centre of that spectrum - in a cinema - that is
defined as existing between experimental and art cinema.
I would suggest that all these different types of cinema
have actually needed one another - and still do need one another - for their
overall common good. Great commercial talents have invariably started modestly,
young audiences are often attracted into the cinema for the first time by
undemanding material - to become more discriminating at a later stage - the
example of popular cinema encourages personal amateur experiment - the public
cinema by its presence and creations of cinema-going audiences subsidises the
less obviously financially profitable projects by providing the whole
complicated business of distribution machinery - and so the cycles go round and
around creating a total film culture.
However - I cannot resist one observation - I can believe
that the seed-corn of the total film culture has always been that part of the
spectrum that has variously be called the art-film or the independent film or
the film of the auteur or the personal-signature film - all the titles are
unsatisfactory - but I think we all know what is intended by them.
The popular commercial cinema has been, and is constantly
being revitalised, by their example. Hollywood gains from capitalising on their
talents, directors, risks and imagination. The long succession of talent to the
commercial cinema - for those who want to exclusively support it - provides
irrefutable and innumerable examples.
Therefore - I believe - that they are beholden to
acknowledge and support the personal-signature cinema - the art-cinema - for
their own continued fruitful existence - that the seed-corn should be nurtured
and encouraged - with all the risks and failures it entails.
However I also believe it should be encouraged and
supported for its own sake - for - and here comes the flagrant bias - it is the
only really progressive cinema we have.
That's the end of the general harangue - all else I have to
say is much more personal and highly subjective.
Irritated by ill-informed critics whose model of cinema is
so fixed, passive and conservative - for a long time I believed that they should
be obliged to declare their credentials, their pedigree and their idea of cinema
as a preface to every public statement they made - thus putting into some
perspective what came after.
Such advice should be made applicable to me now.
Accordingly, before discussing each of those twelve
aspirations for a personal cinema - I should make twelve bold declarations - six
of these declarations are historical, four social and two temperamental - an
obsession with numerology should not disturb anyone - numerology, classification
and taxonomies are my cinema-practice's second major substance.....
So ... I am English ... I am a product of the 1960's, I had
a literary education, I was trained as a painter, I entered the film industry by
way of the documentary cutting-rooms, I believe the Western World's greatest
thousand movies have all be made cheaply ... and made by individuals and not
committees. I believe that all films have equal representation in the great
cinema in the sky. I believe cinema is an artform and do not think that cinema
is still the great popular medium of the twentieth century. My favourite
contemporary author is Borges and my favourite contemporary painter is RB Kitaj.
I am English and therefore allied - and associated - and an
heir to a long tradition of interest in Natural History ... some ecological
responsibility and ... certainly a romantic notion of landscape. A celebrated
English contribution to European landscape is "the English garden" -
whereas the French contrived a garden with mathematical precision - frank and
candid in its artificiality - the English garden - rolling parkland,
theatrically placed groups of trees - rivers dammed to make ornamental lakes...
was an artificial affair but constructed to look natural - designed with studied
negligence to look real - rather like the tradition of English film-making - the
manufacture of artifice arranged in the pursuit of naturalism.
Although it is said that the English landscape has been
more painted, drawn - and now filmed - than any other landscape in Europe - it
is true that English culture has always been - and still is - more literary than
painterly - on account of which - maybe - Trauffaut was right - if a little
ungenerous - in saying that "English cinema is a contradictory term".
I am English - and the English - generally - do not feel
comfortable with an "intellectual" approach to the world ... maybe the
"anti-intellectual" stance would be more easily comprehensible if the
English were not also allied to a tradition of phlegmatic understatement and
irony - which are decidedly cool attitudes ... and to a reticence to demonstrate
feeling - but both the anti-intellectualism and the reticence probably come
together to explain why the English are supposedly good at games which
conveniently mask and conceal demonstrative emotion under rules and regulations
....... yet - it is a mark of their irony that, having invented the
gamesmanship, they then say that what's important is not winning - but taking
part .... but that could again be an attitude that prevents disappointment on
losing .... another concealment...
I am a product of the 1960's .... history makes the decades
too tidy - for me the sixties was only five years long - 1963 to 1968. I had
discovered European cinema with Bergman's Seventh Seal some six years before and
I virtually stopped going to the cinema six years after - about the time when
Godard went into self-imposed ideological exile - but the five years of 1963 to
1968 contain I suppose all the strongest influences on my film-making practice -
an introduction to the music of Reich and Glass - and the composer Michael Nyman
- a personal re-discovery of English landscape ... especially in Wiltshire where
all my earliest films were made ... the creation of Tulse
Luper, the influence of Conceptual Art, Land-Art, the discovery of heroes
like RB Kitaj, Borges ... the purchase of a first camera and seeing Hollis
Frampton's film Zorns
Lemma and Alain Resnais' film Last
Year at Marienbad.
I had an orthodox literary education and a much longer
unorthodox one - with all the pitfalls. I wanted to write - my early models were
not English but French - especially and initially Robbe-Grillet - which gave way
to an enthusiasm for list-making and other devices that tend to subvert
I was trained as a painter, and still - as you may have
noticed - have a healthy respect for that occupation ... as a student - I was
accused of being too literary. Not being excited at objective observational
exercises like life-drawing - being impatient at having to make things look real
and life-like - I chose to paint murals - an indication perhaps of wishing to
create images on a huge scale - as on a huge screen - and I spent nearly a year
up a ladder on scaffold - not a situation of much social promise. I am grateful
that every single mural I painted has now been painted out.
I started earning a living in the film industry by
accident. The Central Office of Information is a peace-time continuation of the
Crown Film Unit that virtually invented the word "documentary" and
spawned film-makers like Jennings, Gierson and Cavalcanti. I entered the
film-industry through its cutting rooms - starting at the bottom - emptying the
film-bins - and eventually became a film-editor - cutting many thousand of feet
of film a week - making documentaries about every subject imaginable - the
approach was little short of manufacturing propaganda for the British way of
life but the subject matter was often bizarre - and so cancelled out the
jingoism, rendering it virtually harmless and certainly often making it surreal.
A fascination for exotic statistics, non sequitur events and elaborate red
herrings started here - however - I have never thought that any red herring is
completely red ....
I believe that the West's greatest thousand movies of all
time have been made cheaply. Though there never could be any substantiation that
all cheap movies are good - there never has been a guarantee that large
expenditure can make quality - in fact there is tendency to believe that it
erodes it. I believe that the most interesting and valuable and influential
films are made by individuals - large sums of money suggest too much
relinquishing of control - and therefore committee-made films.
I believe that all films have equal representation in the
great cinema in the sky. It is not the money or the logistics or the
circumstances that make the movie - but the imagination, inspiration, vision and
conviction of the maker ..... so it is reasonable to make direct comparison
between the movies of - say - Snow, Resnais and Spielberg. Having to pay
super-prize money to big stars, having to use 16mm short-ends, having to make a
movie in five weeks instead of five months - are all no special ban to being
entered into a single competition as far as quality is concerned.
In 1663, the young surgeon Mies van Copt falls in love with
a pair of knees. They belong to a woman in a painting - "A Woman Bathing in
a Stream" that he sees in a lawyer's house where it has been left as a
credit-token. The young surgeon makes an investigation and finds that the woman
in question is the housekeeper of the painter of the picture. He finds out her
address and is about to introduce himself with a reasonable invented pretext
when he finds the painter's front-door is covered in black crepe. The woman is
dead. She died suddenly. Her name was Hendrickje Stoffels and she was the
mistress of a painter called Rembrandt van Rijn. The surgeon is distraught, he
contrives to get her body to a morgue on the assumption that he will conduct an
Mies van Copt is lavishing attention on the knees and other
parts of the anatomy of Hendrickje Stoffels when he is interrupted by Rembrandt
who has come to insist on being present at the autopsy. Trembling - the young
man brings himself to bring the knife to the body, despising both himself and
Rembrandt for doing so. He is full of retrospective jealousy and he hatches a
plot to accuse Rembrandt of poisoning his mistress. He makes out a good case
that she was poisoned by being persuaded to swallow constituents of Rembrandt's
colours - especially flake white and burnt umber. Van Copt experiments with the
pigments - giving them to cats, dogs and rats - there are accidents - his
sister's child falls ill.
The surgeon - helped by his lawyer-friend - presents his
case - it is accepted by the State prosecution.
On the following day, whilst the surgeon writes up his
notes in a room close to the morgue - Rembrandt sketches him through an open
window. Apparently bearing him no ill will, Rembrandt engages the surgeon in
conversation - perplexing and embarrassing him with his friendliness.
The case goes ahead. In the courthouse, Rembrandt is sombre
and phlegmatic; he spends his time drawing the jury. The jurors are delighted.
There is not enough evidence to convict. Cleared of suspicion, Rembrandt returns
home to nurse his private grief.
The miserable surgeon is filled with remorse. He decides to commit suicide. He drinks a concoction of the poisonous pigments and goes to the morgue where he lays himself down tidily among the corpses for the following day's anatomy-lessons - a sheet over his head - his toes ticketed. The next day Rembrandt is present at the cutting up of his body at a noisy anatomy-class.
I want to see and make films that are prepared to operate
as much through an approach to the intellect as to an insistence on making
emotional empathy with its audience.
The majority tradition of American - and English - and
European cinema has - by and large - been based on the ability and desire to
tell a straight story well. The core of this story-telling is the late nineteen
and twentieth century novel with characters operating on recognisable
psychological patterns with an overall concern for morality - a morality that
varies little from a resolution towards goodness. The genres of this cinema are
largely well-defined and the moving force is practically always achieved through
Whilst this has been going on for some eighty years, the
other arts of the West - have been progressing with other things - exploring,
expanding, being innovative, regarding the moral obligations of art from a
hundred different angles, breaking away from the old genres, inventing new ones
- engaging in questions of style, revitalising the various languages - literary
Dominant cinema persist in the idea, largely enshrined by
the significance of the system of actors and acting - that emotional
identification is a necessary formula. People want - in the conventional wisdom
- to be "moved" when they go to the cinema - what do they get? - well
- for the most part - they get the familiar manipulative emotional cinema - they
get sentiment masquerading as emotion - they get well-honed situations that
massage prejudices, that comfort by repeating what is familiar - providing the
same reassuring emotional experiences by the same recognisable methods...
Are there alternatives? Of course there are. What about a
cinema that does not start with "characters", that does not start with
plot - that does not brand itself in advance as a "weepie" or a comedy
or a horror-picture or a thriller? Instead of an exclusive mass-appeal to
emotional catharsis - what about a cinema that makes an appeal to some
rationality, some delight in ideas, some alternatives to feeling everything - to
thinking something? Cinema is not just a vehicle for the performance of actors -
it is so much more than that - it operates as a total work where the performance
of actors and the possibility of emotional empathy are only a part of the
pattern of things.
If they believe that cinema is only a vehicle for actors
pretending to be real people in so-called real-life situations - then I believe
that film-makers and film-audiences settle for too little - they are too easily
satisfied. Perhaps their expectations would be better realised in the theatre.
Cinema is not the theatre - the theatre may exclusively be the actor's medium -
the cinema is not - the cinema is a great deal more than the sum of actor's
performances. All painting is not just portraiture.
I want cinema to regard the audience as an intelligent ally
and not patronise it.
I was never very keen on those theatre-experiments where
the audience is supposed to participate – I am not very keen on those
theatre-in-the-round jobs where part of audience can look at another part of the
audience - I don't particularly like it when a film has an interval and the
lights go up. I like to go to a cinema and sit in the seat one second before the
film begins.... and if it were possible I would instantly leave the cinema the
moment the film ended.
Which is all to say that I have no thought of especial
camaraderie with an audience to the extent of provoking it into any sort of
discussion, argument or debate. I would like to respect the audience's right to
their own deliberation on the subject.
The purpose - my purpose - is not didactic or educative -
as some may think when a cinema of ideas is mentioned. The cinema that I enjoy
to watch and to make - often works on a sort of basis which says - what happens
if you put this idea with that one - consider the implications of this
phenomenon with this attitude. How would this turn out if you did it like this?.
On one sort of level - it is not unlike a conversation - or in literary terms -
a ruminative essay on a given subject wrapped around a narrative - which
hopefully - entertains. And entertains on all the cinematic levels possible.
In that sense, I would like to regard an audience as an
ally - a conversational ally - that is not obliged to be "moved", or
manipulated or tricked or coerced into anywhere he or she doesn't want to go -
that can retain some detachment from events - and can find evidence of a tone
which says - look this is a film - a fabrication - which embraces all sorts of
information a subject for your enjoyment. What I'd particularly like you to
enjoy is visual, sensuous images made up of light - which is the only true
cinematic characteristic - that is not ignoring what others have said or
suggested or done - in a world that is constantly fascinating and bizarre
........... against this background - here is a narrative - an artificial
construct that holds all the information together - not so you should only want
to know what happens - but be just as interested in how it happens ...........
However - such a model for cinema is not too familiar.
I have watched people leave the cinema when a film of mine
is being shown ... and I have observed that there are often three separate
audiences in one - the first part of the audience - usually small - leave very
quickly - maybe within the first ten minutes - sometimes sooner - I get the
impression that they go straight to the box-office and ask for their money back
- I presume - no doubt to comfort my discomfort - that they have somehow been
misinformed and have come into the wrong cinema expecting something else...
The second part of the audience leave around 40 minute mark
- about a third of the way through the film - this must be around ten o'clock on
an evening performance - so I comfort myself by presuming that they have a train
to catch or the baby-sitter won't stay after 11 o'clock - which is unlikely
because most audiences don't need baby-sitters because they haven't got babies -
because they are under 25 .... this second group is larger than the first lot
and much more worrying because they have obviously given me the benefit of the
doubt - and found the film seriously wanting .... they stayed until they could
obviously stay no longer. I am convinced that they are the most dangerous -
because they leave determined to tell everyone how bad the movie was and how
they walked out of it
The third part of the audience stay. But by and large I still don't know how they think. I remember going to a film where the audience rocked with appreciative laughter from start to finish yet sixty per cent of them returned a questionnaire saying that the movie was indifferent and they would probably have forgotten it within 24 hours ...
Where does the idea for a film come from? The history of
the cinema suggest that most of the ideas come from other art-forms - from the
theatre - from the novel - from other literary sources - diaries, television
adaptations - even from opera. The second large category would be from biography
- faithful, unfaithful or fictionalised. Then from so-called real-life events
.... and then ....
.... and at a very small percentage of the total film
spectrum - can there be said to be ideas that are conceived and fashioned
entirely for the cinema. Does this matter? After all it is difficult to accredit
Shakespeare with an original plot. I think it does matter.
First of all it suggest that cinema continues to be a
bastard art - unable to conceive its own material, to give birth to its own
children. Secondly, using material from other art-forms unconsciously tends to
imprint the cinema product with aims, format and function of the original
literary form - that is why the majority of cinema is constructed around the
telling of a story through psychologically-motivated characters that is lifted
wholeheartedly from the late 19th century and early 20th century novel. Dominant
Western cinema can be said to be the history of the illustrated, dramatised
Thirdly - it is common wisdom that a good book rarely makes
a good film - so that a good work - and if it is a good work then it must have
depended on its success on its marriage of form to content to language and
structure - is deconstructed from those parts it was good in - it does not seem
to me a worthwhile job to do this - destroy the very reasons for its creative
success - and it may quite possibly destroy the book's value even further - how
much evidence is there that a bad or indifferent film can destroy the readership
of a good book?
The simplest answer as to why cinema is arranged like this
- is mainly to do with minimising risks on a known and calculable project or
capitalising on a product that already has achieved success. If this wasn't
demoralising enough for cinema... much more disappointing is the fact that
writers do not seem to want to write directly for the cinema - or if they do -
they do so in an attitude of some patronage - simply and often cynically to make
money. There is also a curious antagonism - more then once I have heard a
screen-writer complain with some vehemence that his screen-play was badly or
indifferently filmed - and it was the last time he was going to write for
someone else to direct - the result - the writer goes back to the novel - sells
the novel-rights to make a film and film is poorer and beholden again to
Does cinema have to start with the written word at all?
Does the cinema need writers? Godard suggested that scripts were only good for
producers to raise money. Employing a writer - certainly makes a film-director a
different animal - perhaps only an animal who interprets - and not a primary
creator - a conductor and not a composer.
The cinema has been around for some ninety-odd years and -
certainly in the West - shows many signs of decay. Ninety-odd years is a good
span of time for an art-form - about the length of 14th century fresco painting
- about the length of the Golden Age of Dutch easel painting - both of which
relate intimately to a political and social success of a certain kind - when the
history of cinema is written - will it too been seen to be linked to a political
and social success of a certain kind.
Art-movements seem to obey - like everything else - the
orthodox laws - conceptions, birth, adolescence, maturity, senility and death -
and the signs of decay are always similar. There are always certain common
characteristics. Thinking primarily of the visual arts including architecture -
the characteristics are - the mass departure of popular interest, a general
complacency at the centre of things, a shrill and often bad-tempered nostalgia,
a repetition of motifs and a tendency to decorate and embellish rather than
invent, costlier and more costlier productions as tough to compensate for
invention, entrenched antagonism to new ways of thinking, a movement towards
grosser and grosser forms, a peculiar parochialism at the centre of things so
that more power is held by less sophisticated personalities, no new technical
innovations - restrictive practices and Ludditism to protect what's already
there, financial losses sustained by diversification and growth of parasites -
growing bodies of critics and theorists and dogmatist on the increase - turning
the art into politics, setting up polarised camps, making things respectable,
inventing private languages, setting up academic bodies ...
... many of these signs are present in contemporary film
culture - it would be entertaining to think them all through with examples -
like Hollywood spending vast sums of money in the belief that costlier movies
are good exhibitions ventures - like the ceiling of Roman Baroque churches in
the last throes of the Counter-Reformation - swirling with twenty thousand
extras in a strained attempt to convince the world it knows best .....
Three characteristics are specially relevant and
interesting - the exodus of the popular vote, a new technology and the growth of
the parasites ... the last is the least important and the most ironical - and
the one we can be most amused by ....
In Britain there now exists more film festivals than there
has ever been before, more educational centres for film, more newly-invented
film-studies curriculums for official state examinations - such that
fourteen-year olds can study in depth - movies that you would have to be 18 to
see in the cinema ... and a move to enshine the dying film-culture in the
building of museums - like the recently-opened London Museum of the Moving Image
for example - perhaps a sure sign of the parasites arranging themselves around a
The proliferation of film festivals in the West - with an
almost proportional decrease in cinemas ... is an extraordinary and peculiar
phenomenon - and not just a little cynical - where towns and cities and banks
and institutions are using film as an adjunct to their tourist activities - it's
now possible for a film-director with a tolerably good festival-film to travel
the world - with all expenses paid - from festival to festival without ever
touching home-ground .... discussing his film - with help of translators - in
thirty different languages - meeting mayors and aldermen and Ministers of
Culture and arts-administrators and police-chiefs and politicians - even prime
Ministers - who couldn't tell a Godard from a Fellini .... but always - always -
accompanied by the same travelling circus of international film-critics and
film-experts and film-journalists and film-culture parasites ......
But the connection between the exodus of the popular vote
and the new technology is the crucial centre of the phenomenon - together they
are not actively stabbing the patient but just preparing to let him waste away
through starvation ... but does it matter? I would say perversely - and loudly -
in the long run - No - it does not. I certainly want to continue to create
moving images that are bigger than human scale - that are a wrap-around
phenomenon in the dark - minor spectacles that engulf you with image and sound -
but what is important is not the details or the method of the technology - what
is important is the inventive and innovative desire to make images that
interpret the world in some fashion. This activity will inevitably continue -
and the chances are that the vocabulary to do this will increase. The vocabulary
has been increasing since Lauscaux - I see no reason now why it should go into
reverse because the cinema is dying ....
..... which is all to say - that cinema is no more - and no
less - than part of the development of the long pursuit of philosophic
speculation of the world through visual means ... and that it must take its
place in that continuity - so that we can consider its best products as further
examples in that tradition - so that - for example - we can feel easy about
making qualitative comparisons between Rembrandt's Nightwatch and Eisenstein's
Ivan the Terrible.
A rich and fat Dutch merchant dealing in spices,
aphrodisiacs, bulbs, saffron and silk is fascinated by the small animals that
return accidentally with his cargo marmosets, parrots, toads, butterflies. He
keeps them on board, looking after them with great diligence and affection,
apprehensive that the port authorities will ask that they be destroyed. The
merchant has a demanding wife who waits impatiently for the cargoes to come in
and takes the best silks and furs as soon as the ship docks; it is largely
through her money and her dowry that the merchant has prospered - he is fearful
that she will scorn his small menagerie.
The merchant secretly pays and encourages his subordinates
to bring him back more animals - which he temporarily puts in a quayside lock-up
until he can spirit them away to his hidden zoo outside Haarlem. He is cheated
and extortionately fleeced by the cargo-masters - but he is so engrossed - he
either doesn't notice - or he doesn't care.
From collecting harmless exotics he takes to collecting
larger monkeys and then primates. On one return of cargo - there is a special
specimen awaiting him - he warily approaches its cage in the hold of an old and
leaky ship – it’s a pygmy. He is fascinated - he begins to spend large sums
of money on perilous adventures to collect further specimens - exotic natives -
giraffe-necked women - obese Bantu. He soon has a considerable collection in
cages - a reprehensible activity - but in his own lights - he treats them with
great care and gentleness. In his credulity he is presented with fake "wildmen"
- vagrants blackened with pitch and tanning-oil. Despite all his precautions -
his lascivious, greedy wife discovers his collection - and takes an unhealthy
The merchant becomes hopelessly entangled - paying
blackmails to various people for fear of discovery. Some of his animals are
threatened and several are stolen and drowned. His wife gets mauled and is
affected with a compromising disease that keeps her in noisy misery.
One day in despair - his funds almost depleted - with the
last possibility of staying solvent in his grasp - a silent ship comes in - with
a small crew - the cargo is for him - he parts with his last
mortgage-possibility - there is nothing in the ship .... he searches - convinced
he has been cheated.
At the back of the hold - he finds a unicorn shining in the
dark. He watches it - a rare animal - so rare one has never been caught before.
In the morning, the merchant is gone - a huge hole has been
broken through the side timbers of the ship. In the dawn sunlight - the fat
merchant is seen riding away across the water on the unicorn.
There are still those who say cinema is just an
entertainment medium devised to while away leisure time. There are other who say
cinema is an art - but then says it's pretentious when it attempts to tackle
something they would be perfectly happy to pay attention to in the theatre.
Cinema is always pretentious - a film is never real - but a
game of pretence that the audience has agreed to play when it willingly
exchanges money for a ticket for a seat.
I would feel happier with the prejudices of the first
category than with the sloppy-thinking of the second.
Menno ter Braak said that - "the simplest things have
to be said in an embarrassingly loud manner". Perhaps a better thing to do
- is not to shout - since that probably either frightens or antagonises - but to
keep repeating the simplest things - "Cinema is an art" - and
persistently prove this truism by making good examples.
I want to see films that are designed to have a longer
screen life than six months and can be infinitely and repeatedly viewable with
A producer has said that if an audience cannot completely
understand a movie the first time round - then the movie has failed. I am not
for movies that deliberately mystify for the sake of being difficult but I am
intrigued by films that give their meaning up slowly.
The cinema - once upon a time - used to be arranged so that
you could sit in your seat all evening and watch the film go around three times
- I sometimes anticipated with great delight the prospect of doing just that.
I'd like to make a movie where an audience would be pleased to stay and watch
three times over in one sitting.
Repeated listening is important - even necessary - for the
success of much music. Poetry is designed for multiple re-readings. Novels are
reread. The second and the third and maybe the fourth time of reading a book or
viewing a film are not necessarily the same experiences. To watch a film from
the start - having already seen it all the way through - is a different
experience that seeing it through the first time.
The simple advice given of course - is buy or rent the video - and then reviewing is painless and unlimited - but I think if a film is designed for the big-screen - that that is the place where it should be seen.
As a whole cinema takes few risks - it could be described
as a conservative medium. When the risks are taken - they almost certainly are
in content - never in structure, rarely in style - the psychological
story-telling mode - event followed by investigation into cause or characters
examined to find motive - is ever present - von Kleist is not a favourite author
- and the style is realism - with maybe three degrees of experiment permitted on
either side - in dominant cinema - legitimate stylism is permitted with music
- the risk in content - a little more sex - a little
blasphemy a new social issue previously taboo - have probably be thoroughly
explored years before - probably in the novel or the play that the films springs
from in the first place - hordes of the righteous would never picket the
bookshops like they'd picket the cinema: Cinema will normally only take the risk
after the risk has been taken for them ...
I have found that television - British television - and not
only Channel four - have taken far more risks than the cinema is prepared to -
and risks in style and structure - Ironically of course - the product of those
risks probably reaches a far larger audience than product in the cinema - so
again why should cinema take the risks - if television will take them for them -
another example of how the biting edge has been taken away from cinema ....
The cinema - more than any other art - is an artifice, a
trick, an artificial affair, a sleight-of-hand, an illusory activity ... and the
mechanics of that illusion - unless you are very innocent or unobservant - are
patently obvious. As you sit in the cinema you can see how that illusion is
manufactured - as that beam of light travels above your head and hits the
Compared to this trickery - the theatre or the ballet or
the opera will always give you at the very centre of the work - flesh and blood
- complete with human dimensions that are recognisable and palpable and frail.
Painting, sculpture, literature will always give you finite objects to touch,
hold and hold on to - to preview at your own pace and in your own time.
And yet the collusion between the tricks of light in a
darkened space and the participation of an audience is probably never greater in
any other art form. A large group of people - often thousands strong - agree to
suspend disbelief and play the game - a game now learnt over 92 years and 95
days if we count from Lumiere's first showing of that railway locomotive on the
28th December 1895 ... so that collectively as an audience we know the rules -
and the collection of rules are very, very sophisticated. We do not move to get
out of the way of Lumiere's train as that first audience is supposed to have
done, we do not worry for example, that within half a second a woman can be a
quarter of a mile a way and then so close you couldn't hide her mouth with a
double-decker bus ... or worry that a woman with an face that big would be
eighty metres away from her feet.
Agreeing to sit in the dark and face in one direction for
anything up to two hours are the three simplest rules in the game of cinema -
the screed of necessary regulations and conventions and rules to obey and
observe after that - would fill a rule book as large as a telephone directory.
With such artifice at stake and such a sophisticated game
to be played - why put it at the service of reality when you can experience
reality by touching the man or the woman in the seat beside you or by simply
walking out of the cinema into the street?
I enjoy those films ... and wish to manufacture those films ... that are wholly film works ... films that acknowledge their own artifice ... that self reflexively demonstrate their artificiality - that do not pretend to be a window-on-the-world or a slice-of-life but acknowledge and accept that what they are is only a film and nothing more than a film ... that plays wholeheartedly the game of cinema. This sort of film has great self-knowledge and obeys the Sophoclean injunction to "know thyself". To do that is to play the audience the biggest compliment possible.
I remember being very irritated and disappointed when I
first saw a feature film of mine on broadcast television. The film had been
devised and constructed and manufactured very explicity for the cinema and the
television screen did not at all serve it well.
Despite careful and sympathetic transference of the film to
video tape for television transmission - much was inevitable lost. Stylistic use
of symmetry was disturbed, careful colour-coding was coarsened. Night-scenes
disappeared into a blue-grey gloom, blacks became grey. The overall deliberate
static quality of the shots became unsatisfactory since what was there to be
looked at and examined and speculated on - was basically invisible.
However - to complain is to waste everyone's time - and the
lesson in some ways is now understood - there is nothing to be gained from
abhorring the differences between the two media. I believed at that time that if
the cinema had the full use of the whole range of the alphabet - all the
consonants and all the vowels - the television was only allowed the vowels - I
have since understood this to be a very unsatisfactory analogy - because the two
media have different sets of vocabularies, almost different syntaxes and
certainly a different grammar.
The television screen - and this must mean the average
domestic television screen sitting in the corner of the living-room without
stereo-sound - prefers the close-up, is uneasy about deep black, doesn't like
bright reds, cannot cope with moving bright lights against blackness, is very
sympathetic to camera movement, cannot guarantee symmetry, cannot readily convey
really complex sound-tracks - is not good at holding together sudden extremes of
colour and tonal contrast.
The majority of films are now - sooner or later - seen on
television - television pays for their manufacture - directly or indirectly.
Consequently it is no surprise that many film-makers now
make the cinema product with an eye to its appearance on the TV screen - the
compositions are arranged to always fill the centre of the screen - a television
safe cut-off area is marked out on the camera view-finder - a restless camera is
preferred to a static one - brightly-lit close-ups are carefully modelled
against contrasting backgrounds - there is the strictest minimum of wide-shots -
night-scenes are invariably extravagantly overlit - extravagant amounts of
detailing is curtailed. A new special language is developing for drama on TV -
it is curiously like a shorthand.
A competition is held every year for the most successful
rendering of Rembrandt's painting of the Nightwatch as a live tableau. Any group
of people can enter - and mostly they are amateur theatrical clubs,
youth-organisations, city-guilds and art-appreciation societies. The rules are
severe and the judges are very strict - as befits the live reconstruction of a
national asset. The prize is modest - the kudos of winning is the main benefit.
The aim of the competition is to reproduce with its twenty-five-odd characters
as exactly as possible - which is not necessarily that easy - since there are
many dark and ambiguous areas in the painting and some imagination is required
to fill them sympathetically. The final tableau has to be held for three minutes
and it is not enough just to get the poses, costumes and accessories correct -
but to achieve the spirit of the piece, its lighting and its mood. Another added
conundrum was that the painting has been cut down from its original size and two
narrow strips of canvas have been lost or destroyed. Marks are added to the
score for the tableau which most sympathetically recreates the two narrow
All kinds of personal academic animosities, theatrical
bitchiness, thieving of props, artistic traumas - are usual characteristics of
the competition. One year - amongst four other entries, three aggressively
competing theatrical groups clash dramatically - there are fights and bloody
noses. On the day of the competition - during the silent three-minute staging of
all the groups in the great hall - there is a pistol-shot and one of the
competitors - in the tableau that most deserves to win - lies dying.
An investigation at once takes place and it soon becomes
apparent that it is far from an easy mystery to solve. Not only are there many
people impersonating the same characters from the painting - but an examination
of the various life-histories of the historical figures of the painting becomes
necessary. Eventually the murderer is narrowed down to one of the figures in the
missing side-panels - but it becomes clear that no-one can be convicted because
the essential evidence of the original missing side-panels is necessary and they
have been lost years ago. And yet ....
I first started making films at a time when many
independent film-makers in Northern Europe and America and Canada were concerned
with creating a non-narrative cinema - most of whom incidentally were in some
way supported or indebted to the activities of the late Jacques Ledoux of the
Some would say that the history of European culture in the
20th century has been an experiment in denying the art forms their life-blood -
music without harmony, painting without figuration - the non-narrative cinema of
the early sixties was perhaps now trying to do the same - cinema without
narrative. It was doing this - for positive reasons - it was reacting against
the two dominant characteristics of cinema - the building of a film around the
actor and around the plot.
To throw the narrative out was to throw away the cement,
the binding- structure that holds the material together - so some other device
or structure had to be found to replace it. Some film-makers turned to music
which seemed a cheat since the structure would then be someone else's - some
looked for more universal structures - frame counts, time counts - equations
between film-time and real-time following Godard's F W T T F F S dictum that
Film Was Truth Twenty-Four Frames a Second - there's a metronomic structure
based on some Holy Writ of cinema. ....
I - along with others - used number counts, repetitive
cycles, simple equations, various symmetries, and of course - wryly - the
alphabet. The alphabet has become the structuring device of Western academic,
political, social and bureaucratic life. We are all placed in the universal
order of civilisation according to the initials of our surname.
I soon realised that I had limited use for a non-narrative
universe - even if it could be constructed - which I doubt - since anything that
moves through time could be said to have a narrative.
However - these experiments in neutral structural form
stayed with me and are important to me still - because that way I need not be
exclusively in the thrall of narrative which I have always found to be an
ephemeral thing anyway - capable of taking you anywhere without design - why
have three characters when you can have four ? - why keep the hero alive when
you can kill him?
The abstract neutral structures are like templates for a
grand design - on which like graph-lines charted on a grid - we can present any
life, information or proposition.
I enjoy those art-works where the marriage between content
and form are demonstrably shown to be in balance - where the form is in evidence
showing through the bones of the content - like the rib-cage of the cow that
holds and shapes the animal but does not exclude your attention to it - I enjoy
that rigour ... and am irritated and disappointed by the subservience of so much
film to sloppy, ambling, amorphous structure.
As you may have guessed - I take a great delight in
painting. It represents for me - among much else - an enormous fund, as good as
being in exhaustible - of problems and solution. Every sort of problem and every
sought of solution. Admittedly there is no sound - or at least there wasn't
until Rauschenberg introduced a transistor-radio in to a painting in 1959 - a
rare experiment and not on the whole pursued.
The problems embrace every branch of experience - and each
problem posed has been solved in some way - otherwise you wouldn't have the
painting. This activity has been carried out by individuals working alone and
for the most part in uncharted waters. You may say that there have been examples
of more than one painter working on a single canvas - but they are almost as
rare - comparatively - as Rauschenberg's transistor-radio.
By and large it is the most successful solutions that have
survived for painting has quite strict disciplines. Paintings - unlike
architecture or literature - are easily disposed of physically - and if they do
not in some measure solve the solution they set themselves - in the end and
before very long - they get lost, they disappear - though - like small coins and
hairpins - no one may consciously see them go .....
The problems that a painter is set or sets himself can be
social ... political, religious, educational ... or personal - cathartic,
erotic, narcissistic .... technical - questions of representation, accuracy and
logistics .... aesthetic ....
There is at least two thousand years of evidence of finding
solutions of how to boost a monarch's status, depict a religious experience,
make a worshipable icon, stimulate patriotic thoughts, make a fat man thinner, a
small town taller, a wealthy man responsible and a beggar dignified, how to fix
an ephemeral landscape or a flower or a face, how to stimulate sexual appetite
or cool it, how to show distance, epitomise geometry, explain geography, how to
sit eight people around a dining-table so that every face can be seen - how to
..... and all these solutions are immediately tangible as
objects - they are physical and visible - they can be held and touch and the
viewer can choose his or her own time in which to view them . . Although of
course often the language needs studying - they are never completely
incomprehensible like Sanskrit Seven, Old Babylonian, Hartilease Linea B or
Tasmanian or for that matter - like Dutch to an Englishman that hasn't learnt
Dutch - Dutch paintings are readily comprehensible to Englishmen.
What is particularly exiting is that very, very few
paintings by their nature are linear - that is to say – very, very few
paintings are not telling the viewer many things at one and the same time.
I am aware - as I am sure that you are too - that the sort
of cinema under description is riddled with paradoxes and characteristics that
seem scarcely reconcilable.
The first paradox. I believe there is much evidence to
suggest that the cinema is dying - yet I want to continue to make films for the
cinema. How do I reconcile that?
The second paradox. The cinema that will support smaller
and more - independent movie-making is financed very largely through television
- indirectly through the current state of the film-distribution system which
needs foreign television transmission finance - and very directly through direct
television funding support. Although there are projects that I am making and
would like to continue to make exclusively for the small screen - I do not want
to make feature films that are made, composed and scaled exclusively for the
A third paradox. I want to make a personal-signature cinema
which has no guaranteed response at the box-office - but I want to make it with
all the professionalism and expertise and vocabulary that can be expected of the
fully funded dominant cinema ... and in a basically conservative medium that
believes the cinema is a vehicle for psychological drama and linear narrative, I
want to take all manner of risks - in content, in structure, in style, in
provocation, in speculation.
How can these paradoxes be reconciled?
An interruption for a vowel - the letter Y.
A religious melodrama.
On the night of a comet when the wells are miraculously full of sweet water, assisted by three superstitious peasant midwives, a son is born without effort to a saddler's wife in the upper rooms of a town house in Schinnen. The afterbirth is speckled with gold.
The birth of such a beautiful, healthy child to a 47-year old, plain women with a large purple birthmark on her face is seen as something of a miracle. Gossip suggests that she is not the mother of the child at all.
The woman has three daughters of 18, 15 and 13 who at once idolise their baby brother - and the father - only modestly successful as a saddle-manufacturer is feted for this apparent fecundity. A wet nurse is employed for the child because the mother is unable to feed it.
The proud sisters and the father and the midwives - against the mother's wishes - parade the beautiful baby in the streets as a talisman of fecundity. Gullible peasants touch the baby and squabble over possessing its urine-soaked swaddling.
The success and popularity of the event gives ideas to the eldest sister - and she plans to exploit the situation - especially when she is given money by a wealthy childless women to collect a phial of the child's spittle. She consequently rents the child out to bless houses with fecundity. Soon the child is in demand at weddings and conceptions, by the apothecary for aphrodisiacs, by the maimed to be blessed. Dressed in elaborate clothing and sat on a throne in the local cathedral, the child is paraded around the outlaying villages by the 18-year old who now wears fine clothes and looks - quite consciously - like an image of the Virgin Mary. The child blesses orchards and nut-groves, fields, stables, pig-yards, new roads, windmills, dykes - even chicken-runs. The local church is sceptical - especially so in the person of a priest and his illegitimate neurotic son who is training for the priesthood.
The 18-year old sister is so successful she begins to claim that the child is hers - she almost completely convinces herself. Then she begins to make claims for a virgin-birth for which she is ridiculed. She permits a public examination of herself to enforce her claim which is half-believed by the credulous - and after failing to bribe the wet-nurse to go along with her plans, she intimidates her, keeping her under lock and key. The wet nurse is now the only person who has the child's true welfare at heart.
The 18-year old sister arrogantly taunts and argues with the conceited and sceptical priest's son and then gradually falls in love with him. She dreams of some image of Holy married but carnal bliss - with him as Joseph. But she is in a quandary - because he does not believe her story of virgin-birth and could not consider marrying a deflowered virgin.
The girl is now rich - the three sisters parade in fine clothes causing jealousy and enmity. The 18-year old behaves like a queen - but to get the priest's son to marry her - she finally tells him that the child is not her mother's - taking him to see her mother in what by now is virtual imprisonment. The mother - fallen into a decline and old passed her years is unconvincing proof. The priest's son now believes the child is the sister's but that she must have whored to conceive it - consequently he treats her like one - with the child as silent witness. Soon after he is gored by a cow in labour - an ironical death not missed by the sceptical. The 18-year old is distraught - the church thinks that she is a witch - the villages think she is exploiting the child - and the child is taken from her and placed in the care of the wet-nurse under the guidance of the church.
The church begins to capitalise on its asset - selling the baby’s bodily fluids for exorbitant amounts. The sister - envious of the wealth, and seriously disturbed by her grief for her lover - creeps into the cathedral one night and smothers the child on the altar-steps. She is arrested. She claims virginity again because a local edict declares that a virgin cannot be executed. To find a way out of the legal problem - the priest arranges for the girl to be locked up in the local guard-house with the visiting militia who oblige the legal requirements - and the girl dies of exhaustion.
Her mother is hung and the father commits suicide, the two sisters are taken into prostitution. The baby lies in state in the cathedral until rival townspeople strip the corpse and dismember it for trophies.
Within weeks, the town withers, the wells dry up, the crops
burn, the steeple falls killing the priest, the militia die of cholera. And the
wet-nurse retires to a nunnery.
It has been said that photography was the best thing that
could have happened to painting because it cleared the ground to allow painting
to get on with what it did best - it is no accident that the growth in the
popularity and significance of photography coincided with the European move
towards non-figurative experiments which have gone on in painting throughout the
whole of this century - and therefore gone on in design and therefore entered
into every single part of our lives .... perhaps television, by the same or
similar means, can clear the ground to allow and encourage cinema to do what it
is best at. Which means that by no longer shouldering the responsibilities of
being a popular medium, cinema can become investigative and vigorous again -
going places where it has never been before, exploring new ground, rethinking
the whole relationships of image to sound to narrative.
However, I think that the world's public will not give up
the sensation of a big screen in the dark very willingly - though you might not
have to leave your home to experience it - and what I look forward to - already
it is beginning to happen - is the making of a marriage - not a fixed financial
marriage of convenience - but a true technological - and for me - most
importantly - an aesthetic marriage - between the big screen and television -
using both languages and visions to create something entirely new, rich and
strange. It was a brand-new technology that created the cinema in the first
It is impossible to reserve technological change allied to social habit - the nostalgics are wasting their time - but the demise of the cinema doesn't matter in the end - what matters is the long continuity of the desire for the visual expression of ideas and dreams and visions - and nobody is going to suppress, destroy or lose that. It is always going to leave evidence.
Cinema Militans Lecture 2003