We Shall Be Released


In 1948, the French filmmaker and theorist Alexandre Astruc prophesised the age of the caméra-stylo or camera-pen. In his time, Astruc rightly intuited the first signs of a technologically simple, intimate kind of filmmaking available to all people – a form of filmmaking that would capture the smallest vibrations of personal sensation or reflective thought. “A Descartes of today”, he wrote, “would already have shut himself up in his bedroom with a 16mm camera and some film, and he would be writing his philosophy on film”. What an image! Descartes the grand thinker like some sullen teenager in his bedroom, filming at close quarters whatever object or shadow that crystallised his inner reasoning!


Astruc was not a fool. He knew that he was conjuring was still a dream, an ideal, a wish that could only be glimpsed. “The economic and material difficulties of the cinema”, he mused, “create the strange paradox whereby one can talk about something that does not yet exist; for although we know what we want, we do not know whether, when, and how we will be able to do it. But the cinema cannot but develop”. He was right. Just over a decade later, Astruc’s admirers in the Nouvelle Vague film movement seized upon the solution to one particular “material difficulty” of cinema – the heavy bulk of the 35mm camera that could not easily be carried or freely moved. Because of developments in documentary filmmaking and television news reportage, 16mm cameras then became easier to manage, to hold in the hand – and fewer movie lights were needed to register a visible image on the celluloid.


But the cinema, even in this liberating period of the 1960s, was not yet truly free. The dream of a caméra-stylo was yet to fully materialise. First factor: even if someone could film comparatively cheaply and quickly, cinema was still governed by the complex (and often expensive) work of the laboratories and other post-production facilities. The raw film left the hands of the maker and entered a highly professionalised, rule-governed world of developing, grading, editing, mixing – both for image and soundtrack. Film artists like Astruc were still a long way from getting their hands on the “means of production”; only a few truly avant-garde figures such as the American Stan Brakhage developed an entirely artisanal means of working with the celluloid material itself, straight out of their 16mm or Super 8 cameras.


Second factor: the “economic difficulties” that hampered Astruc’s own career as a filmmaker remained in force for a long time to come: although the Nouvelle Vague had its canny (and sometimes rich) benefactors to serve as producers, feature-length filmmaking stayed a prohibitively costly enterprise. On the twin terrains of money and technology, Hollywood would always be the winner, effortlessly vanquishing (or absorbing) any short-lived low-budget challengers for the attention of the international mass audience. And – despite Astruc’s hopeful vision, and despite the examples of ‘one man band’ artists like Brakhage, or tenacious individuals like Orson Welles who could work with a tiny team of two or three people – most films still needed an elaborate crew of many technically-skilled people. Descartes alone in his bedroom with a camera, whether in 1948, 1968 or 1988, may not have been able to achieve very much!


The first challenge to this system of domination came with video, beginning in the 1960s: video artists, political ‘guerrilla video’, and community education groups all around the world. The image-and-sound form was freed from the laboratory: yes, now it was possible to easily shoot, edit and mix on equipment owned by a collective or a University. The technical quality was not great – and many of the works made on video, from the 1960s right through the 1980s, have now literally crumbled into dust – but the energy and the inventiveness were there. Like the avant-garde cinema – or, in the 1990s, the Pixelvision (toy camera) works made by Sadie Benning as part of the Queer Culture movement – video had to create and mobilise its own audiences: in schools, art galleries, at political meetings, and on special, community-run TV channels.


So, slowly, from Astruc’s dream at the end of the 1940s through to the 1990s, a process of democratising the tools of filmmaking took place: first with production, then post-production. But it was the final phase – access to mass distribution and exhibition – that eluded all the various, successive practitioners of the caméra-stylo.


Now let us leap to today, over a decade into the 21st century. We can shoot images easily: on small cameras, even on our mobile phones. We can upload them to our computer to edit the images and mix the sound. We can take the ‘found footage’, the images and sounds of others, and recombine them easily, inventively. And with a click of a button we have a vast exhibition/distribution network: YouTube. As well as the many other kinds of screening platforms (streaming, downloading, linking) available through the Internet.


Former Nouvelle Vague star-auteur Jean-Luc Godard sums up these revolutions in his Film Socialism (2010): images are captured via every possible cheap technology, and the result is released on-line, as well as on DVD and in movie theatres and film festivals. Godard has joked that, rather than use the traditional, old-fashioned means of getting a film onto the world’s screens, he would now rather hire a few adventurous young people to parachute random copies of the disc out of a helicopter perched above any or every part of the world.


The Internet brings us vast – almost infinite – riches. It does not differentiate between the good and the bad, the high and the low. Every week, I am stunned by the jewels of global, experimental, political and other kinds of cinema that my students at the University find, watch, download and share with their friends. The history of audiovisual production is open and available in a way that it has never been before. Our picture of what constitutes the history of world cinema is rapidly changing, based solely on what we are now able to see.


Of course, the Internet also brings problems, difficulties, blind spots. Disgruntled commentators say it is a swamp, a territory without a map or a guide. But Internet users, many of them devoted to this medium as a new educational tool, are constantly developing new methods of putting up signs, pathways, recommendations. The Internet doesn’t reduce us all to the same, all-consuming social unit: it encourages customisation, individual exploration and appropriation.


I regret that artists (living or dead) are often unable to collect on the copyright held in their work. But, on the other hand, would we even know the work of so many obscure filmmakers, if it were not for the wholesale copying and distribution of their works? Adventurous, avant-garde filmmakers like Marcel Hanoun in France or James Benning in USA – no matter how old they are – have decided to use this system to their advantage, rather than resist it. Hanoun put dozens of his major works online before his death in late 2012, and Benning jokes that, on the day he dies, “all will be released”, his entire life’s labour.


Sure, these filmmakers have long cherished the materiality of celluloid, projectors, people gathered in dark rooms, and all of that. But they also know that the Internet offers them a chance at resurrection. And isn’t that what we are all looking for?


© Adrian Martin September 2011/January 2013

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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