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A Streetcar Named the Movies, or:
The Cinema Considered, Uneasily, as a Fine Art
(From the Vantage Point of a Small Country)

 


This script was broadcast on my regular program (1995-1997), “The Week in Film” on Radio National (Australia), on 13 May 1995, to mark the centenary of cinema celebrated worldwide that year.

 

I find myself strangely uneasy and skittish on the occasion of the centenary of cinema. Of course, I do not begrudge any opportunity to publicly shout about and celebrate this medium that I love. Let us celebrate the centenary of cinema every damn year, if it means that more old movies will be shown, that more serious books on film will be published, that there will be more discussions, events and general awareness of this Seventh Art.

 

So what is my problem? It has something to do with a word I just uttered: art. This centenary seems to me to mark a moment when the cinema is supposed to be, finally, a completely accepted and legitimated art form. Just as popular newspapers and magazines have been busting a gut lately publicising Harold Bloom’s canon of the world’s greatest literature, now we are seeing lists everywhere of the greatest films, the greatest filmmakers, the greatest artistic achievements of the medium. The roll call is undoubtedly impressive: Orson WellesCitizen Kane (1941), Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953), John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954), Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) … Chaplin and Keaton, Garbo and Dietrich, Cary Grant and Brando … all the usual suspects.

 

In passing, let’s note an immediate paradox: the matter of considering cinema’s achievement hits not only the objection that, as a medium, it is (relatively) too young – but also the conviction, held by an increasing number of pundits, that it is in fact dying young – a twentieth century phenomenon that may not last much into the twenty-first, given the enormous technological changes now taking place on the fields of audiovisual production, exhibition and consumption. Let’s bracket this futurological media speculation, however; we are sure to get it wrong, anyhow.

 

When I say that the cinema is (despite, or perhaps because of, its vaunted decline) being currently legitimated as an art, I mean High Art, or perhaps Fine Art – just in the way that painting, music, theatre and the rest are considered High and Fine Arts. However, I cannot help wondering if this show of accepting film into the great canon of culture in this centenary year is, in fact, a kind of ruse – a display that hides a less comfortable truth. This truth is that the cinema has never really been accepted as a legitimate art form by the folks who make these sorts of decisions, ever. It has been accepted enthusiastically as a popular art form, as entertainment, as popular culture, yes – but that acceptance is of a very different order.

 

People who hear this lament or complaint of mine often buck at my initial assumption. How can I really say that the cinema has not been accepted as a legitimate art form? There are organisations and institutions everywhere devoted to cinema in a lofty, ideal sense. Newspapers and magazines are bursting with coverage of film. In the universities and in intellectual forums, there is a crossover between film and literature, philosophy or the other arts like never before. There are new multi-screen cinemas opening every other week. There are more specialist film societies and film festivals, more eagerly attended than ever before.

 

Furthermore, the home video revolution has created a vast pool of film fans who are specialists in all kinds of arcane movie genres. The idea that film directors are auteurs, expressive authors who create and express themselves through this medium – this used to be a truly radical, avant-garde idea, mocked all throughout the popular press (“Hitchcock, Samuel Fuller, Jerry Lewis – these are artists? You’ve got to be kidding me!”). Now, we can never read enough about sacred contemporary names like Martin Scorsese, Jane Campion or Quentin Tarantino. Even the lowliest Movies on TV guide screams at us that the old John Wayne on the box at 3am in the morning is an astounding classic directed by some immortal Hollywood maverick.

 

Again, I can’t begrudge any of this, because my life as a filmgoer is enriched by all of it. My very presence on Australian national radio, delivering this little sermon – me, who likes reading abstruse theory and watching avant-garde epics as much as I enjoy musicals, action films or trashy comedies – depends on each and every one of these enlightened advances in our public, cultural sphere.

 

But let us tote up a few cold, hard facts concerning the relation between cinema and high culture – at least as it is lived in a small country such as Australia, or (to be more specific) any capital city in Australia, as distinct from New York, Paris, Vienna or London. Art galleries and museums will still have almost nothing to do with film. They embrace video art on banks of monitors, they’ll go ape over multi-media interactive computer pieces, they will even show old 16mm reels of famous painters talking about their famous paintings until those decidedly infamous reels break apart and rot – that is, if they can still hunt down a rare 16mm projector in working order. But they will almost never show that astounding John Wayne classic that was on TV at 3am.

 

You will even have trouble getting to see the Welles, the Kurosawa, the Dreyer and all the rest of the great film canon at your nearest major art gallery. These sites of culture are, usually, simply not equipped to show movies in a proper context. They have decided, in a gesture of pragmatism, to leave the job to others. But nobody else, no other worthy organisation or institution, really has the resources or the energy to do that job, either. So, as a result, the ongoing celebration of film as art is a very piecemeal, periodic affair in many countries – there’s a special event here, a retrospective there, an occasional classic restored and reissued – but nothing at all substantial or consistent, nothing that really adds up and keeps going.

 

Some countries – those countries with a tradition of support for such things, as in Germany – do, of course have very fine Cinémathèques and film museums devoted to the restoration, circulation and promotion of all types of cinema. But we are speaking about the countries that lack such a tradition; and Australia, in this regard, is the proverbial sticks. I have been hearing, for much of my adult life, about the high hopes for a grand Australian Cinémathèque project as part of Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art; I hope I am still alive to see it, one day, launched. [2018 Update #1: 23 years later, still waiting on this dream.]

 

What about the universities? You can learn about the film all over the place, in many kinds of academic departments – fine arts, literature, languages, cultural or media studies, social sciences. I have met many teachers and students alike totally into film as a lifestyle, an amateur passion or a scholarly pursuit. But the academy, like the art gallery/museum, is – deep down – nervous about film, and does not really know what to do with it. Cinema studies in Australia went from being a boom area in tertiary education to a marginal elective, in hardly more than a decade between the mid 1970s and the mid 1980s. There is not, I believe, any single department named anything like Cinema Studies – I mean just cinema, not ‘Cinema, Media, Television and Screen Studies’ or somesuch combination, in Australia today: the discipline has been adopted, then shoved back out onto the streets, by various umbrella-like, administrative conjunctions of the arts, humanities and social sciences in the years since the mid ‘80s. And the only nation-wide professional association of educators who could have stood up for it went belly-up in 1986, with the merest rumour of its ever-imminent resurrection circulating now and again. [2018 Update #2: there is, at least, as of 2010, a Screen Studies Association of Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand.]

 

So why is there so little respectability for the movies?  I think about this a great deal, and it brings out deeply ambivalent feelings. On the one hand, I become sad and angry that film, in all its forms and genres, does not have the respectability it deserves. What cinephile on the planet has not, at some point felt this same, rising anger of indignation, whenever and wherever they are? But, on the other hand, I am perfectly happy, in a wicked and somewhat perverse way, that film is an unrespected, undigested, often ignored form. Why so?

 

Cinema is a scandalous art. It scandalises categories, canons, historic notions of what a proper art should be and what it should do. It is a hybrid art, an impure art. One of my favourite filmmakers, Raúl Ruiz, made a brave declaration of this type that I admire without limit: “I will not be somebody who tries to bring dignity to cinema. I am sure cinema does not need such a thing”. (1) Another filmmaker, Jean-Pierre Gorin, went even further:  the cinema has “always been fucked by everybody … It’s lying out there in the ring of the circus, being fucked over by the clowns, by the acrobats, by the performing seals …”. (2)

 

What kind of image is that for our glorious, one-hundred-year-old art, our child of the twentieth century? A true image, I believe. The cinema is a necessarily compromised and sullied art, first and foremost because it has always been a business at the same time as it has been an art. It is this indissoluble bond between dirty money and creativity in the movies that makes High Culture so uneasy in its presence.

 

Of course, there is money involved – sometimes a great deal of it – in many public productions of High Art. But the accounting tends to be successfully kept in the back room, away from the public eye. Movies, like pop songs or kids’ toys, scream marketing, merchandising, consumption, production values, big salaries for the stars. It is a naked aspect of the cinema, this exploitation factor. Even the so-called art cinema cannot conceal its heavy marketing aspect (on the film festival circuit, for instance) in the contemporary world.

 

Another aspect of cinema that prevents it from becoming a fine art is tied up with its life as an entertainment form, as popular culture. The cinema is spectacular. It is more like the circus or vaudeville in this regard than chamber music recitals or paintings hung in solemnly lit gallery spaces. Cinema plays to an audience; it is exhibitionistic. This show-off performative quality is at the heart of most movies.

 

This fact is obvious – more than obvious – but it is often denied. I recently stumbled upon an article about the French director Jacques Rivette, who made that very artistic (and indeed very great) film La Belle noiseuse (1991). This article suggested that “because (Rivette) is so true to his medium, because he is so little a showman, his films have a seriousness and an integrity”. (3) Seriousness, integrity: we hear these words a lot in highbrow discussion of film. But even the most purist, most minimalist, most self-consciously artistic movies – like those of Robert Bresson or Andrei Tarkovsky, Marguerite Duras or Paul Cox – tumble into moments where they play with the audience or wink to it, sliding in a gag or some ostentatious bit of business with expert, showbiz timing. And how I adore these moments – it is suddenly like we are all in the circus ring, you and me and Herzog, with those naughty clowns and acrobats and performing seals. With spectacle comes vulgarity.

 

The late and great film critic Andrew Britton once speculated that the cinema “has its decorum, but it is the decorum of an art form which was, and was felt to be, intrinsically indecorous”. (4) Britton chose to celebrate (as I would, too) the advantages that movies – particularly popular Hollywood movies – have enjoyed “as a result of being considered beneath the contempt of cultivated bourgeois taste – and thus not answerable to its canons”. (5)

 

Besides, there is another good reason why it is very hard – impossible, finally – for anyone to cut a decent canon out of the movies. Cinema history is one big ruin. This also comes from the fact that it is a business, sometimes a fly-by-night business. Nobody really knows the extent of the movies made all over the world in the last one hundred years. So many are lost, buried, forgotten. So many have never even been re-screened since their first releases. We fling around names like Kurosawa or Satyajit Ray like we really know what the crème de la crème of world cinema history is. We believe we already have come to know the identities of the fittest, the greatest, who have risen above the great dross of common movies. We believe this just as we believe that art galleries show us the greatest art, the art that deserved to survive – the masters that Robert Hughes calls the “unwearying tribunal of the dead”. (6) But cinema history laughs at us (and our very weary tribunals) all the time. It keeps turning up great directors like embarrassing corpses in our backyards, from countries and periods we never thought twice about. We suddenly discover that there was Ritwik Ghatak in India who was greater than Satyajjt Ray, that there was Miko Naruse in Japan who was at least the equal of Ozu. We suddenly learn to respect traditions and genres – like Italian comedies or Hindi musicals – that we had blithely dismissed for decades.

 

The cinema will never be an ideal art, a pure art, such as we fool ourselves that other arts are ideal and pure. We can never properly get a fix on the movies. Idealists of the cinema – again, people such as Bresson or Tarkovsky in their written meditations on the medium – always held out the hope that the best of the cinema could be cleanly separated from the worst of cinema, not to mention the vast middle ground of cinema. Even more idealistically, they held out a hope for a future cinema – a truly artistic cinema, unfettered by commercialism and vulgarity – which would one day realise all the rich possibilities of this form. We read this again and again in the classic textbooks, that the cinema is not yet an art, not yet a language, not yet free. Yet what Bresson feared in his worst nightmare is true: the cinema is all here and now and, we are “obliged to like in a lump all that is projected onto the screens”. (7) Only the philosopher Gilles Deleuze dared to put a happy face on this situation: “The cinema is always as perfect as it can be, taking into account the images and signs which it invents and which it has at its disposal at a given moment”. (8)

 

For me, the unique character of cinema as a mongrel art is faithfully reflected in the writing, reviewing and criticism of cinema. This world of criticism, too, has its circus of compromises, and its vulgar turns. What unkind people say is perfectly true: film critics are parasites and voyeurs, lost souls who live ghostly half-lives. They can also be, at the same time, romantics and poets. Film criticism has a scattered, irrational quality. As a matter of fact (and of principle), I treasure the putdown once made by Ira Konigsberg in relation to the critic Michel Mourlet: “A gem of a 1960 French New Wave piece … in which poetically powerful adjectives soar above taste or reason”. (9) Sounds good to me!

 

Very few film critics have any kind of Olympian distance, any kind of “long view”, on the mass of movies that they happen to see. Jean-Luc Godard commented that, as a young cinephile, the experience of cinema overwhelmed him because it seemed like “a place without history”; he added that when Éric Rohmer “saw Nicholas Ray’s Bigger than Life [1956] and a film by Murnau, I’m not sure that he talked about them with the clear notion that Ray came after Murnau”. (10) But that kind of fuzzy free association across times, spaces, periods and countries is one of the things that has kept film criticism alive and crazy, not embalmed like some doctrinal art history.

 

I remember well, in my personal history, why I came to love film so much, particularly in reaction to literature, which I studied for a few months at a teacher’s college back in the 1970s. For when I read the great works of English literature and sat down to compose my term essays on them, I, too, was overwhelmed by the thought that there was nothing I could say about them that hadn’t been said better in a thousand books and articles before me. Even if I tried to say something different or outrageous, my old-fashioned teachers were poised to gently guide me back to the proper interpretations in the proper textbooks.  

 

Movies, on the other hand, were a wide open world. There are a million movies, high and low, that no one has ever written about. You can join these movies up in absolutely any way you please. During my first ear at teacher’s college, when I dropped English Lit and pledged myself to the movies forever, I met an inspiring, quite mad guy. He was obsessed with surf movies – the beach party genre of the 1960s. He was compelled to see them all, annotate them all. He found secret, sacred auteurs where you or I would only ever find anonymous, forgettable hacks. All the great paintings, all the great books of the world, became mere reference points for him, background data that might serve to illuminate the richness and complexity of these amazing surf movies. For his literature tutor, he handed in a comparative essay on the shower scene from Psycho (1960) and William Blake’s “The Tyger” (no kidding). Sounded good to me!

 

This young man wasn’t being especially perverse or ironic: he was just a poet in love. So it’s to this exemplary cinephile, and to the vulgar, illegitimate art he claimed as his own, that I dedicate this reflection in the centenary week in film.

 


NOTES


1. Raúl Ruiz, quoted in Adrian Martin, “Never One Space: The Cinema of Raúl Ruiz”, Cinema Papers, no. 91 (January 1993), p. 30. back

 

2. Jean-Pierre Gorin, quoted in Raymond Durgnat, “Nostalgia: Code and Anti-Code”, Wide Angle, Vol. 4 No. 4 (1981), p. 78. back

 

3. I have lost the source details for this quotation, but I seem to remember it was written by an Australian literary reviewer, or general arts journalist, probably around the Australian release of La Belle noiseuse (1991). back

 

4. Andrew Britton, Britton on Film: The Complete Film Criticism of Andrew Britton (Wayne State University Press, 2008), p. 456. back

 

5. Ibid. back

 

6. Robert Hughes, Nothing If Not Critical: Selected Essays on Art and Artists (New York: Vintage, 2001), p. 402. back

 

7. Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematograph (København: Green Integer, 1997), p. 78. back

 

8. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), p. x. back

 

9. Ira Konigsberg, “Cinema of Entrapment: Rivette’s La Religieuse (1966) from the Novel by Denis Diderot”, in Andrew Horton & Joan Magretta (eds), Modern European Filmmakers and the Art of Adaptation (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981), p. 120. back

 

10. Jean-Luc Godard interviewed by Serge Daney, “Godard Makes [Hi]Stories”, in Raymond Bellour & Mary Lea bandy (eds), Jean-Luc Godard Son + Image 1974-1991 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1992), p. 160. back

 


© Adrian Martin May 1995


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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