Sunday, October 16, 2011

Absolute Freedom?

Around ten years ago (maybe more), while shopping at a massive used-book store with my family, I ran across a series of books titled Projections, which served, according to the cover, as a forum for "Film Makers on Film-Making". There were ten volumes in total, and I bought all of them, immediately drawn to cover images such as De Niro as Jake LaMotta and Wallace & Gromit, despite the fact that the actual contents wouldn't really appeal to me until much later on, when names like Resnais and Fuller and Almendros meant something. When I eventually rediscovered these books while cleaning out my old room one day (they were quickly forgotten about after the initial purchase), I wiped off the dust and devoured all ten volumes in short order. Edited by director John Boorman and Walter Donohue and released annually (for how many years I'm not sure, I know there are at least 5 volumes past the 1-10 that I own), these books were veritable potpourris of literary content related to international film-making: profiles on and conversations with various directors, cinematographers, screenwriters and scorers, directors writing essays on various aspects of the art and their careers, published diary entries from the productions of movies, and so on. One volume is colored blue, with an image from Wong Kar-wai's Fallen Angels on the cover, and is almost entirely devoted to criticism, with many essays on the state of criticism as well as classic writings from various notable critics all compiled together. That one is probably my favorite.

Anyway, my favorite recurring feature in these books is one called "The Burning Question", where a rather grand and open question is posed to and answered by a number of different directors. One of the Burning Questions that I found most interesting was the one from Projections 1, dubbed " Absolute Freedom?", which posed to directors: what would you create with an unlimited budget and no obligation to distributors? Naturally, many of the directors evade the question with the concession that indeed limitations play a critical role in the creative process. With those who indulge the premise, it is interesting to see where their aesthetic, political, biographical, and revisionary priorities lie. Still, others answer with more frugal, practical solutions of what to do with this unheard of freedom. The bottom lines of the question however remain fascinating: where is the division between freedom and limitation in inhibiting and feeding creativity? Is there worth in a film no one will ever see? With the recent creation of Jafar Panahi's This Is Not a Film - unseen by me, but by most accounts a Great and important work, made and smuggled out of Iran under intensely repressive conditions in the face of Panahi's recent jail sentence - the role of freedom in the process of cinematic formation is certainly a topic that has been in the air of late. I've scoured around online, and have not come across any Projections content provided anywhere, so below I offer a full transcription of this particular Burning Question entry. I think it's an interesting read.

(from Projections 1, edited by John Boorman and Walter Donohue, first published in 1992 by Faber & Faber)

The Burning Question: Absolute Freedom?

It is often said that film is the art of the possible. Budget limitations, our concern for the audience, for the financiers, and for the critics shape and define the movies we make.
   But suppose the situation was otherwise. Suppose a film-maker had an unlimited budget, and no obligation even to distribute the completed film. What would he or she do with this freedom? 
   We are seeing at the moment the dilemma of Eastern Europe, where the collapse of the state subsidy structure has forced film-makers to confront the whole question of artistic freedom. Before the collapse of Communism, film finance was provided by the state, but they were restricted in what they could say. Now they have freedom of expression, but are constrained by the demands of the market. As Milos Forman has said about the difference between working in Czechoslovakia and in the United States, 'In Eastern Europe it is like being in a zoo -you are kept in a cage, but you have a roof over your head and someone feeds you every day; in the US it is the jungle -you are free to go where you like, but everyone is trying to kill you.' Does being freed from the cage, or protected from the jungle, freeze the imagination or set it free?
   We asked a number of directors from all over the world the following question: If you were given an unlimited budget, and were under no obligation to distribute it, what film would you make?
   The response was ...
Arthur Penn
Not unlike the prisoner long confined to a solitary cell, when confronted by your postulation of a film with unlimited budget and no necessity of distribution -the door of the cell flung open and freedom offered -I cling to my tiny, familiar prison space. My imagination refuses to venture forth to freedom.
   Vague voices: 'tennis without a net', 'the art of the impossible', 'set out to make a masterpiece and halfway through all you want is to finish'.
   But wait. If I goad it and shame it, my imagination finally slips into the light and produces a
vague image of a film.
   It is a film about the end of the first millennium of the Christian era, AD 1000. Widespread fears of the End of the World and the Last Judgement abound. Desperate efforts made to cleanse souls and expunge records. New religious intensity burns fiercely. Destroy any infidels that come to hand. Pilgrimages to the highest mountains in order to be 'the first'.
   And then the day, and the day, and the day and then the day ends.
   Oh well. We have another thousand years. What shall we do with them while we wait? Perhaps we have failed in our zeal. Let's kill more infidels.
   'Knights Ho! Let's have a crusade! OK, all you guys in armour up on those horses. No, no kids, we don't want any kids now. OK, lower Sir Knight on to his steed! No! Tell those kids if they behave themselves they can have their own crusade, but they have to behave! All right, forward! We ride east! No, east!'
   OK, so we lost the crusades, but wait till the next to last reel when we have the Gulf War. We'll get back at those guys. This movie goes on until we win - or lose!
   Listen, Boorman and Donohue, you were the ones who gave us licence to make a film of unlimited budget and no obligation to distribute. In me it produces a movie without end. I can't stand the freedom..
   No, give the obligation to wrap an actor by a certain date, a time to finish, an insistence of choices. 'Wait for this light and those clouds to clear or use that time to devote to a fragile scene yet to be shot' - that decision makes my heart beat faster and my armpits damp.
   I can suffer the fools and their finances. Give me choices to make and I can begin to force a film into existence; carve out of chaos some vestige of order and allow it to declare its form.
   I need restraint, limits; above all choices.
   We all want more time and money and 'freedom', but give me unlimited quantities of any, and I sneak back into my cell and blink the harsh light out. 
    My movie goes away.

Samuel Fuller

 The Lusty Days - Romantic action-comedy
San Juan - Action-comedy

Jane Campion
With my unlimited budget and obligation-free distribution I would explore portraiture. First, a self-portrait; then, if I enjoyed doing that and thought it revealing and curious, I might move on to others. I'm mostly interested in what's a Human, and what sort of one I am - for starters.
   Finally, I would finish with an adaptation - first for the stage - of A Portrait of a Lady, then do a film version. I'd do it as a play first because I think it's a very performance-intelligent novel and I'd like to get a sense of its overall dramatic strength and delicacy, as well as a feel for length and dramatic adaptation. I'm in love with novels. I particularly like the last third of A Portrait of a Lady. I am chastened, however, as many adaptations don't thrill me.


 In such Draconian conditions, it is, I am sure, impossible to be able to choose a subject or to direct a film.

Krzysztof Kieslowski

 I don't believe in absolute freedom. In practice it is impossible, philosophically unacceptable. We direct ourselves to get freedom and every time we realize we can't reach it. And, looking at it in this way, the goal is not as important as the means of attaining it: it is not possible -thank God! - to achieve our goal. So it is obvious that I am favourably disposed to compromise. And not because it is useful. First of all, because I don't know the answers, and in making films I ask questions. Questions and doubts, lack of self-confidence, curiosity and amazement that everything goes on in a natural way - all this puts me in the position of an observer and a listener. I change my script very often - the scenes, dialogues or situations - because I can see that people around me have better ideas, more intelligent solutions. It doesn't disturb me that these are other people's ideas. When I have accepted and chosen them, they become mine.
   As a film director I am realistic. I am using the world of events and the world of thoughts, and I
treat them equally. I am also realistic in my approach to the work. I respect my producer, money and, above all, my viewer. Not just because I have to. I do so because I want to. In my opinion, the production of a film - however costly - has its own morality. And I am trying to obey this morality, because I want to obey. A cup of coffee may cost 1 1/2 dollars, may cost 3 or 5 dollars, but when it costs 120 dollars, drinking this coffee is immoral. It is exactly the same in the production of films.
   The film I want to make is the film I am able to make. There are no others. I don't think of other films. I don't have a million viewers waiting at the entrance of the cinema, but I need to feel that someone needs me for something. And even if I make films - like all my colleagues - for myself, I'm looking all the time for somebody who tells me, like a fifteen-year-old girl in France, 'I saw your Double Life of Veronique.' Then I want to see it several more times. For the first time in my life I have seen and I have felt that there is something like 'soul'. So, if I were not concerned about this girl's opinion, there would be no reason to take the camera out of its box.

Claude Miller
Ulysses by James Joyce.

Francesco Rosi
Orlando Furioso by Ariosto.

Kevin Reynolds

I have always been fascinated with war as a human creation and how each generation perpetuates it. In particular, I am fascinated with the scale and tragedy of the Second World War. I think in centuries to come the Second World War will take on the epic proportions of the Trojan War or the Crusades and I would love to do the quintessential Second World War movie as I think it would be portrayed, say, 500 years from now.
   I would take one character - a young American paratrooper - and watch him leave home, train, cross an ocean for the first time and then experience the entire conflict through his eyes. It would be almost surreal in style and choreographed to the achingly poignant music of Shostakovich's 7th, 8th and 9th Symphonies. It would take months to shoot and cost fifty or sixty million dollars.

Denys Arcand
Before shooting anything I would need to do some research. In fact, a great amount of research. This research would imply months - make that years - of skiing in the Alps, the Rockies and the Andes. Then I would have to do some scuba-diving in the Red Sea, near the coast of Belize and in the Philippines. I would also need membership privileges at Wimbledon and a box at Salzburg. I would have to be permanently accompanied by a Thai masseuse, an Italian mezzo and several other stunning beauties. A private aeroplane would probably be required, and a yacht would be nice also. At this moment, I cannot reveal the exact nature of the research itself, but since the film is not going to be distributed and the budget is unlimited, why are you worrying?

Istvan Szabo
I would most like to make a film of the story of my family during the last 150 years. Their fate shows exactly the birth, development and systematic destruction of Central Europe's bourgeoisie and intelligentsia by the twentieth-century dictatorships.
    Magical love and career stories reveal changing morals, desires, passions and purposes under the various social systems.

Ken Russell

A film called 'Space Gospel'. I wrote it in collaboration with Derek Jarman, revealing the New Testament as Amazing Science Fiction.

Sydney Pollack

 It will perhaps seem strange for someone who usually makes big-budgeted, large studio films to say that it would be impossible for him to make a film with an unlimited budget. Frustrated as I may be with whatever limitations there are, it is, for me, those very limitations that serve initially to point me in a direction to solve the creative problem. I'm afraid I would find my imagination not up to the challenge of working with no limits whatsoever.

Mike Figgis

Unlimited budget? What a terrifying idea. Big budget equals large crew equals a sea of unknown faces on a never-ending pay cheque equals loss of artistic control because it is hard to exchange intimate ideas with strangers. It is hard enough to relate to a small crew.
   It has been my observation that small projects are harder to finance and distribute than larger ones.
   Unlimited budget? OK, very low. Enough to pay a small, dedicated crew and some unknown actors. I'd probably shoot Super 16mm.
   No obligation to distribute? This is a tough one. I'd see no point in making a film that wouldn't be seen.
   As I move from project to project the truth becomes clouded. There is a seemingly logical idea that each film should cost more than the one before. In fact, there is no real connection between the ability to say something with a camera and the idea of unlimited budget.

Louis Malle

Pretty much what I am doing now. Unlimited budget would give me the opportunity to reshoot everything I've done if I didn't like it.

Ettore Scola

 I've made low-budget films and ones with high budgets, but I am not concerned with cost: my imagination is not fired up nor dampened down by the financial aspects of film-making. At this moment, if I had an unlimited budget, I might use it for many 'small' films.

Vincent Ward

Would an unlimited budget and no obligation to distribute the film freeze my imagination or set it free? (Your very question leaves me writer's-blocked! But this, I suspect, has much to do with a fear of hexing any project truly close to my heart.)
   I'd love to make Apocalypse Now 2 (and call it Apocalypse Later). Or do one hundred episodes of One Hundred Years of Solitude - and make it in Virtual Reality (especially the scene where everybody in the village loses their memory). But most of all, I want to make Perfume - in Odorama.

Paul Verhoeven

Art is communication. Without distribution - without an audience - any form of art is senseless.
   An audience is necessary, but that should not be translated into 'concern for the audience'. I've never felt any concern for the audience, which has sometimes pissed off the audience, but that's communication too. Budget restrictions can be a bit of a strain, but generally speaking a movie gets the budget that it deserves - the remaining restrictions induce creativity.
   So: an unlimited budget is as much nonsense as a symphony of ten hours. How much art can we stand?
   I strongly feel that in due time you can make any movie you want for a realistic budget - minus 10 per cent.

Michael Verhoeven
As I was never in the situation to really do a movie like I want - because of constant lack of money - I would feel free free! And I would do my next film as always ...

David Byrne
The way in which the question is phrased forces one to imagine something out of the ordinary: a very expensive film that the public never sees. I guess these things exist. I imagine a documentary on atrocities 'produced' by Hitler and Goebbels. A very boring epic mini-series on atomic testing produced by the United States Department of Defense (we've seen the standard stockshot of a building being blown away and 'observers' watching a Nevada test ... but there is lots, lots more ... and worse). Obscure medical tests and clinical films. Industrial films. Huge productions shown only to potential investors and stockbrokers.
   But what would I do?
   For me, the constraints have always been an essential element in the creative process. Whether those constraints are budgetary or my own limitations, it doesn't matter. They force one to make something where there was nothing. The limitations become advantages. An itch that must be scratched.
   And, although we constantly push against those constraints, and complain and feel put upon, most mega-budget spectacles (but not all) impress us only with their audacity.
   I have avoided the question.

Zhang Yimou
I would like to make a film about the Yellow River - about the people who live and work on it. It would take me at least ten years to make it. I have no idea how long the film would be, probably as long as the Yellow River.

Gus Van Sant

My relation to budget is a funny one, in that the less money that I have, the more creative I have to get to overcome limitations. Actually, the limitations themselves make a film look a particular way. So far the budgets that I've had have been enough to do what I want to do. I imagine that if I were given an unlimited budget, and was under no obligation to distribute it, I would get horribly out of control and make a mess of things, then try to buy my way out of my mistakes.

Richard Lowenstein

 All forms of creative expression involve a degree of compromise. The mere process of bringing an ethereal thought process into the physical world must involve some degree of compromise, whatever the medium might be.
   Film, along with most art-forms, is unshakeably bonded to the desire to communicate, the desire to touch another person in some way. This bond rigidly fuses the need to distribute to the need to create.
   These days creative elements involving cast, script, music, subject matter and the like tend to be influenced, if not controlled, by those who hold the purse strings and those who control the distribution outlets.
    Freedom from the constraints of distribution is, therefore, more importantly a freedom from the bureaucratic vagaries of certain funding bodies and distribution companies.
   Liberation from this would, indeed, be a liberation of profound proportions.
   The removal of budget restrictions, however, is an invitation to egomania. A budget has a responsibility not only to the script, the film and the creative talent involved in the production, but also to the state of the society around us. The budget has a moral responsibility not only to reflect what the script, film-maker and crew are attempting to do, but to also reduce the level of compromise to a reasonable level.
   The most obvious advantage would be the availability of adequate amounts of time for the actual processes of the film-making. Acting, lighting, camera, sound and script development all tend to suffer in the low-budget area of film-making.
   So, to answer the question - without distributors or budget restrictions, my themes and ideas wouldn't change, it's just the ability to bring them out into the real world with a minimum amount of compromise that would be improved.

Paolo and Vittorio Taviani
Unlimited freedom of choice can paralyse the ability to choose. Often limitation is a spur to the imagination. But, playing along with your impossible game, here is our impossible desire:
   To have enough capital to secure the services of the team - actors, technicians, etc. - for two years. This would allow us to shoot at our leisure; to rethink every detail from one shot to the next, like our master Charlie Chaplin; to look at the film a year after it has been finished and reshoot anything that falls short of perfection.
   This is our impossible desire ... Yet the film that is closest to our hearts is San Michele aveva un gallo, which we shot in four weeks, with 14,000 metres of film.

Terry Gilliam

I consider myself one of those fortunate film-makers who have never been given all the money they want to put their ideas on film. I have always preferred to work within financial limitations. I realize this sounds like rubbish coming from the maker of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, but it's true.
   From the beginning, I haye been convinced that I have always been saved from mediocrity by lack of money. When we embarked on Monty Python and the Holy Grail, we planned to make a 'real' Knights of the Round Table film. We were keen to be proper film-makers, showing that we, too, could make the kind of epics we had grown up watching - Ivanhoe, Robin Hood, Camelot - with knights swashbuckling around the place on great steaming chargers. But, because we didn't have the cash for a spectacle on that scale, we had to get rid of the horses and, in their place, substitute coconuts, banged together by each knight's over-worked page, clip-clopping behind his master who, in turn, pretended to be riding an imaginary horse in the way children do. With that one desperate leap, the film took off into its own world, freeing us from the need to compete with other medieval epics on their terms, allowing us to create our own twisted version of the Middle Ages. I'm certain that with horses and our inexperience we would have become bogged down in logistics and the need for a 'normal' reality and would have produced a less unique and funny film.
   Budgetary limitations also helped make Brazil far more intriguing and disturbing than it would otherwise have been. We had to try to create another world by adapting existing objects we could buy cheaply, instead of designing our ideal world and then building it. With 'found' objects there was always an element of surprise and a constant need to adapt preconceived ideas. Familiar objects took on new shapes and meaning. The world became a distortion of our present world, not some distant place which could be brushed aside easily as a fantasy. Because of a lack of loot we used posters to create the world beyond the immediate view of the camera. We could imply what else was out there without having to show it.
   A kind of claustrophobia could be maintained while still creating the feel of a complete world. With sufficient money I would have built incredible flying machines, extraordinary trains, fantastic boats which would have looked wonderful but, in the process, would have distracted from the atmosphere that proved to be so critical to the effect of the film.
   The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was different from my other films in that, for the first time, I was working with a producer who claimed he would provide everything I ever wanted. The fact that he couldn't and didn't created a living hell. I was, and still am, very literal about taking people at their word and holding them to their promises. However, when, as is inevitable in these situations, the shit hit the fan, we were forced to close down while Charles McKeown and I attempted to trim the script. The pain was quite unbearable at the time but, when you are forced to destroy your work in an attempt to save it, certain creative magic occurs.
   Originally, the moon sequence involved thousands of giant characters all with detachable heads. It was conceived as a Cecil B. DeMille extravaganza with great crowds, much singing and dancing and feasting - all during an eclipse of the moon. The yearly eclipse provided a chance for everyone to forget everything and start again with a clean mental slate. Unfortunately, the celebration resulted in a lot of heads becoming separated from their bodies and then being unable to remember where they belonged. The sequence ended in a grandiose, outrageously spectacular slapstick chase with the Baron and friends riding and attempting to control a giant palace guard's headless body as the eclipse and the King pursue them.
   Attempting to keep the film alive, we cut the moon's population down to two, King and Queen. In doing so, it concentrated our attention on the detachable head phenomenon and resulted in a very bizarrely literal interpretation of the problems of Cartesian mind/body duality. What was originally a lot of ideas jumbled together in a slightly rambling, but spectacular, sequence became one very clear and much funnier idea that was exactly to the point, and far more original.
   You might ask, "Why didn't we see these "better" solutions when we were writing the script?" Answer: 'Because we didn't have to.' There was no pressure to limit our imaginations. We were creating a world where anything was possible. Our imaginations soared, but not necessarily towards the best possible film. That's why I'm happy trying to work within a budget
   With all my films, but in particular Brazil and Munchausen, I have been able to work completely free from restrictions at the script stage. It is only the reality of making the films within financial restrictions that creates the catalyst that triggered some of our most creative work. It also provides the excuses for why the films aren't perfect.
   Total freedom would put an unbearable onus on me to make perfect films and that, in turn, would freeze me creatively. Backed up against a financial a wall, I can dare to take outrageous chances and daring leaps that are far too intimidating when all the money in the world is available. I need a budget to fight against: it makes my imagination work twice as hard.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Signature Shots: Raoul Walsh

One of Raoul Walsh's signature shots is a medium two-shot with the actors cut off around the waist, and favoring a lot of gazing and some occasional bold body language. It's a shot that's continued to assert itself with a shocking amount of personality over and over again in varying contexts throughout my steady diet of Walsh pictures over the last handful of months, and the moment it pops up on screen, there is no doubting the author of the picture being viewed. It's become something of a minor obsession for me lately - the question of what gives this fairly common, simple setup such a unique presence and vitality in the hands of Walsh? I suspect it is connected with the idea of Walsh's cinema being one of the individual, or to be more accurate, runaway individualism. Characters drawing from an endless and unexplainable well of restless, eccentric determination repeatedly populate the Walsh oeuvre, so much so to the point that a great number of conversations that take place in the Walsh world can barely be considered conversations, so littered are they with agendas and selfish motives. Thus, it becomes something of a rarefied mini-event in a Walsh picture when a pair of characters actually engage with each other in an honest and meaningful way through language, instead of simply talking past one another, and the frame of this signature shot seems constructed around this awareness. Additionally, as Tag Gallagher points out in his Senses of Cinema piece on Walsh, "Walsh’s cinema is not presentational like Griffith’s, or self-reflexive like Godard’s. It is interactive." Walsh's actors make a point to cheat their chests out towards the camera during these special scenes, giving the viewer not so much the impression of eavesdropping, but of participating in - or, more accurately, of being asked to participate in - a conversation of which their inclusion seems imminent. The actors consistently seem, through this deliberate blocking strategy, on the verge of turning their gaze towards the camera at any moment to address the viewer. Similar to the sing-a-long at the end of The Strawberry Blonde, or Jackie Cooper firing his slingshot at the camera in The Bowery, these moments are gestures towards the audience, acts of inclusion. An interactive cinema of the individual. In other words, a remarkably generous cinema.

Images from top to bottom: Sailor's Luck (1933); The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945); The Bowery (1933); The Yellow Ticket (1931); Me and My Gal (1932); Under Pressure (1935)