home
reviews
essays
search

Essays

Some Filmmakers are Gangsters

 


Every dollar has a certain nervousness attached to it.

-  Abel Ferrara, 1995

 

Almost every discussion of independent cinema has, as its explicit or implicit backdrop, a quite totalitarian image: the movie studio, or the ‘studio system’. That studio system can either be the capitalist corporation – where money rules; or the communist/socialist state authority – where ideology rules. Either way it is an image of social control: the deadly machine into the artist delivers himself or herself, signing away their life on the dotted line of the iron-clad contract, giving up their will. Alongside the movie studio, perhaps the other great mythical image in the ‘war for independence’ is the final cut – that guarantee, so longed-for and so hard to retain, that every image and sound of the finished work belongs there because the filmmaker wanted it exactly that way, and no other way. Jim Jarmusch boasts that he ‘always has final cut’, and indeed owns the negatives of all his films; Martin Scorsese didn’t have final cut – or rather, only within severe limitations – on Gangs of New York; a director such as Raśl Ruiz has the right to final cut only intermittently – and, indeed, he scoffs at the idea of a pristine ‘director’s cut’ when a film always goes through so many collective post-production tinkerings, versions and processes.

 

At the heart of every argument about cinematic independence – for it (the artist’s path), against it (the producer’s intervention) – is an assumption about compromise. Chris Marker – one of those figures who seems to have miraculously escaped any interference to his small, personal works – brutally remarked in 2003 that ‘politics, the art of compromise, bores me to death’. He was speaking, of course, of a particular kind of politics, a politics of creation or of culture – culture arrived at through (often fraught) negotiation between multiple partners. One reason that the mainstream film and television industries, in virtually all countries, have always been keen to trumpet the death of the auteur is that the auteur is inimical to the labyrinthine ‘chain of command’ that determines negotiated creation: the script (however brilliant) must be rewritten by a team, that work must be recast by an editor, the editor is answerable to the producer – or, more usually, a string of executive and associate producers, the studio bosses who sit above the producing team … and so on. There is still power, still control, still a ‘final say’, but, in what I am calling negotiated creation, this power is disguised, mystified, obfuscated, made to seem like the ultimate and accumulated wisdom of an optimum ‘group think tank’ …

 

Ultimately, money talks, money has the power. This is the case whether we are talking about the studio system, small business capital, government subsidy or a person-to-person loan. This is the final, mythic battleground upon which all talk of independent cinema comes to graze: the ‘lone artist’ versus the almighty dollar. But the power or control that comes with money signifies dependence, pure and simple, rather than the Holy Grail of ‘artistic freedom’. Every dollar has a certain nervousness attached to it, said Ferrara – and a certain demand, too. There are so many fictions and documentaries (like Chris Smith’s immortal American Movie [1999]) which are about the ‘degree zero’ of independent filmmaking – movies made with money from family or friends, from selling one’s car or house, from begging for a bank loan, from maxing out a credit card – but which detail, hilariously, all the unforeseen demands and compromises that enter even at this level of production: just as the director thinks he has achieved the visionary freedom of a Coppola, he has to cast his financier’s best girlfriend or dog or Rolls Royce in a prominent role … And let’s not even begin to get into the colourfully sordid history of ‘product placement’ in cinema, which goes all the way from the biggest corporations flogging their wares on the neon billboards of blockbuster movies right down to the smallest family business wanting to see its ‘investment up there on screen’ and its humble appliances advertised for cinematic eternity …

 

Can cinema exist without money? The truthful answer is: sometimes, but almost never. There are films, experimental films made by one person, with no economic resources whatsoever. I know avant-garde filmmakers in Australia and other countries who haunt the rubbish bins outside film facilities or old audiovisual libraries: sometimes they find minutes or hours of discarded footage, and they cut them up into pieces and splice them into new collages: the result is one print, and no bill. That is, until they want to show their art brut film in another country, and have to pay for the postage … Cinema history has many stories of filmmakers being given, for nothing, unused rolls of film stock that are about to be trashed, because they are unstable, or black-and-white, or useless within some ‘big’ production set-up: this is how Philippe Garrel shot L'Enfant secret (one of the greatest masterpieces of all) at the end of the 1970s – but he had to wait three years, for a government grant or industry prize, to be able to pay to get it out of the laboratory …

 

Sometimes filmmakers are rich, and they fund their own careers, while their money (from business or family legacy or both) multiplies itself elsewhere and keeps the art afloat: that was the case with the great and prodigious Jean-Daniel Pollet, for instance. Sometimes filmmakers are clever specialists, ‘official service providers’ for the film-arm of an anthropological museum/archive or a scientific institute/laboratory – that was what allowed (respectively) Jean Rouch and Jean Painlevé to work uninterrupted, for fifty years, in complete freedom, on their visionary ethnographic or scientific films, five minutes or five hours long as their subjects dictated … The only problem being, for we spectators today, that the distribution/exhibition sector of the film world never really got a hold of their specialist works, making them very hard to see, until a DVD producer can get to the decaying reels in the hidden vaults of the financing institutions …

 

And ‘some filmmakers are gangsters’ (as Ruiz once remarked to me), specialists at hustling, at forcing money to flow, at games and threats and bluffs, like in a high-stakes card game. Like Rossellini (who managed never to spend a cent of his own on anything, not even his hotel bills), Godard, Fassbinder, James Toback, Béla Tarr … the gangster tales abound: contracts on napkins at Cannes, a gun to the head of a recalcitrant producer, secretly making three films out of the budget for one, keeping a part of the production process for drug dealing or gun-running on the side … And then there are the sadder cases of filmmakers who were maybe never enough like gangsters to make the game completely work for them, like Orson Welles. I once met a filmmaker who seriously planned to finance his next feature film through massive but minutely calculated gambling at the casino and the horse racing track: the film was never made, while the debts only got deeper …

 

The happiest stories in film history – the real rather than mythic film history – are about directors who have very understanding producers, very good and mutually beneficial director-producer relations. Ken Loach and Rebecca O’Brien (who arranges the small budget so that Ken can do his required 50 improvisatory takes of everything), Manoel de Oliveira (or Ruiz) and Paulo Branco, Jacques Rivette (or Straub/Huillet) and Pierre Grise … Sometimes, the director is his or her own canny producer, or co-producer: Barbet Schroeder, Pedro Costa, Catherine Breillat, François Truffaut (who famously said that a filmmaker must be an artist in the morning and a businessman in the afternoon). This is an ‘art cinema’ situation, to be sure (where the producer respects the artistic right and integrity of the director, and makes it possible for them to create as they want to), but it usually evens out, in some practical business sense, at another level: the team-work depends on the calculation of eventual sales through Film Festivals, through DVD and television, through the possibility of appealing (through this ‘track record’ of cultural acclaim and commercial viability) for some government support, as with the ‘advance on receipts’ system in France, or the tax breaks offered to film investors in Australia …

 

Mention of government subsidy brings with it another set of paradoxes relating to independence and control. In a country such as Australia – like in other places where a vaguely socialist ‘arts bureaucracy’ has enormous sway over the life and death of theatre groups, small galleries, experimental media venues, and so on – money is sometimes given generously, but it is never given freely: always, there are strings attached, which come in the form of faintly ‘ideological’ advice that must be heeded or (in the most dramatic and extreme cases) production will be frozen. The ‘consultation processes’ involved can be as Byzantine as in the Hollywood studio or glamorous television channel: the script is rewritten and redrafted – with shots of life-saving money for filmmaker kept ‘on hold’ through the years of this essentially literary imagining – and undergoes many industrial assessments and reports; representatives of the government bureaucracy monitor the rushes, the rough edit, the final edit, giving advice at every step … And their advice is determined by a vague but powerful sense of the cultural zeitgeist: the ‘stories the nation needs to be told’ or the kinds of characters it can bear; the kind of filmic style which is deemed innovative and challenging but not too difficult for the average art-house viewer … Needless to say, such advice tends – in the age-old tradition of all bureaucracy – to the bland middlebrow, middle-of-the-road of mainstream culture, the safety zone of compromise. At this point, another kind of filmmaker-gangster is born: the kind who can trick the bureaucrat, who can take the money and run, who can somehow make the system work for the artist, rather than vice versa.

 

We often hear or read, in discussions of independent cinema, the moment when the great mythic dichotomies – artist versus system, freedom versus money – suddenly break down. Commentators are left wondering: in some Asian countries like Malaysia, for example, where there has not been a studio system per se since the 1970s, hasn’t almost all cinema been independent, i.e., put together on a film-by-film, small business model? At this point, the discussion switches to attitude: the argument that independence is a ‘state of mind’, or a political attitude, or a creative position. Unfortunately, this switch – as necessary as it is to grasp the complexity of different production situations around the world – does not guarantee any definitive clarity in the terms of our discussion: the reason that dreadful terms like indiewood (for ‘independent Hollywood’) have come into circulation in trade bibles like Variety magazine is that even the richest capitalist entrepreneurs can lay claim (if they so choose) to an ‘independent attitude’, and any film can market itself as one made ‘outside the system’, in the spirit of artistic freedom …

 

It was once said that, to understand cinema, you have to ‘follow the money’. Not that money only goes one way, flowing from the powerful down to those that it subjugates; the flow of money, and its effects, can be perverted, multiplied, tricked, rolled over … and sometimes it can even work in a fair, benign, mutually beneficial way. That is what so many films about ‘the individual versus the system’ have dramatised or made rich comedy from: The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, For a Few Dollars More, Real Life, Go Go Tales … Ultimately, we are only going to grasp the travails and possibilities of an independent cinema if we go straight to the very filmic image offered by Jean-Pierre Gorin: ‘Cinema has always been lying in the middle of the circus ring, being fucked over by the clowns and the performing seals …’ In other words, cinema is the endless, sometimes tawdry, always materially real struggle – a struggle which is life-giving and death-giving – with money, compromise, control, and the possibility of freedom.

 

© Adrian Martin October 2007


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search