Fellini’s death in November last year triggered off a period of mourning – not only for Fellini himself but also for the passing of a cinema which the mourners had loved and which each felt in their own way they had helped to create. With a rolling of heads and drums, the occasion of his death turned itself, if only for a moment, into an open invitation to a festive encounter with the past – a time when European film-makers were, by their sheer power, dimming the lights of Hollywood and film-going had transformed itself into an almost weekly appointment with various lords of misrule.
Cinema then seemed to be a site where life’s daily priorities could be continuously redrafted, for in the overwhelming presence of God, Family, Nation and Order, it provided one of the few spaces where one could see what other choices could be made and what these choices could lead to – depending, of course, which film your friends or enemies had last defended or attacked.
Along with these memories and burning looks cast on Fellini’s coffin came also the plaintive questions: why has cinema become so thunderingly dull? Why is it no longer full of personalities? The answer, regretfully, was staring them in the face – the clowns had become kings and the jesters marginalised philosophers. Fellini and company had worked their disorders in a once-ordered world where images were still scarce, cinema rivalled the altar, aesthetics had a grounding in morality and the image was still moored to a cinema that had discovered and was still discovering the world. One was then only just beginning to feel ill at ease in an over-interpreted world, and we were not yet living in a time when wanting to believe had taken over from believing.
The shamans of cinema did not have to work in the overheated stock exchange of images that is now called ‘The Media’. Working between the immediately experienced and the not-yet-conscious, the shamans’ images were inscribed with a sense of the ‘possible’ – a presentiment of future freedom and doubts.
And yet the mourners, looking at the photographs of the coffin and pleading for a return of that cinema, could not come to grips with the sad fact that a combination of official recognition and reward, and the new and ever-increasing traffic of images, had robbed our shamans of their power and the cinema of its sting.
What’s more, the community of shared critical assumptions which one could either agree or disagree with and which had done so much to make that cinema live, has all but disappeared. As in everything else, the last heartbeat of the 19th century finds it difficult to throb in the 21st. The shamans themselves were aware of this. The dreamers of I Vitelloni had become the lost and disabused souls of Fred and Ginger; the nihilist Pierrot Le Fou, who was so keen to necklace himself with dynamite painted Cezanne blue, was now fighting suffocation by graven images; and the wanderers of L’Avventura had now to ‘blow up’ reality in order to see it. The world had moved on. What had once been a feeling that one could not miss at any cost a visit to the cinema had given way to that always and permanently delayed gratification of ‘seeing the video’. The cinema was no longer in the grip of that fever which had done so much to activate and legislate our dreams in the 60s and 70s.
If one wanted to measure the distance from where we had once been to where we are now, one only had to go to a cinema in the outer reaches of London on a cold evening in November. There, sitting with ears plugged and eyes firmly shut in order to protect oneself from Auntie Beryl and her bloody Bacardi rum – death by 1001 repetitions – one was suddenly woken up to see the hero of Bertolucci’s film Before the Revolution kneeling down to help his girlfriend pick up what was left of her necklace. Momentarily confused by this sudden invasion of cinema history in the middle of a normal flow of commercial communication, one was left wondering if the projectionist, in a fit of terminal boredom, had decided to show clips of his favourite films or if the Odeon was about to announce a sudden change in its exhibition policy. Then it came – on the picture appeared ‘Harvey Nichols © Bertolucci’. Deflated and angered at being so roundly ‘had’ by the clever-dicks from the cultural wing of an advertising agency, one was still left exhilarated at seeing the normal flow of communication being interrupted.
The danger of history when it visits us at an unexpected moment is akin to being visited by a ghost, even if, regrettably, the ghost in this case was dressed by Harvey Nichols and was really there only to sustain Bertolucci’s apparently ghostly bank balance. Still, as with Fellini’s coffin, the same question of unfulfilled promises punctured the screen, or at least provoked the questions: what do we do with these ghosts? How on earth do we live with them?
The advertisers had at least been bright enough to see that the desire and the promise to re-awaken the light so present in the 60s and 70s could be recycled to create the image of an upper-crust department store in the 90s. The journey that started from a set of brooding and edgy desires and ended up being consecrated as the ‘Channel 5’ of shopping is, of course, a contradiction which haunts the politics of the 70s and 80s. The dreams which had so innocently been dreamed up by sitting knees-up, or knee-deep in cigarette ash, had now seeped away from the mourners’ beloved screens to be vapourised in the grand liberal corruption and technical explosion of the 90s. Cinema was no longer one of the measures of our humanity, but had become the measure of ourselves in a cultural market.
When a debate about culture is discussed in terms of Keats vs. Dylan, it is not ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ as a poem that is suddenly brought forward to disturb our order of things, but it is Keats as a standard-bearer, a label, that is marshalled on stage to mark us off from the Dylan label and its standards. ‘High’ vs. ‘Low’, ‘Low’ vs. ‘High’ – the poem disappears, specificity gives way to cultural position, the life and effects of the poem are killed off by the team colours that it’s dressed in. (Keats, who was dismissed as belonging to the ‘Cockney’ school of poets, would have died laughing and not of consumption.) In the same way that, in such a debate, the poem evaporates in the heat of the battle for cultural ranking, the image on our screen now so often thins out, burned as it is by the inscribed codes of its production, revealing nothing but the bare bones of a cultural or commercial transaction. Cinema has, of course, always functioned like this. But what had once been an almost silent appeal made behind one’s back (as it were), had now become an all-too-visible iron net of hooks, come-ons and golden handcuffs – the market as a slave-driver (ratings) rather than a (benign) host. When Fellini’s mourners accuse the cinema of being thunderingly dull, they are really talking about a cinema where the transaction being offered is so evident that it robs the spectators of their innocence and therefore of the potential for surprise. They are being continuously winked at because it is assumed that they all know too much to know anything more. The ‘beautiful’ shot is there to compensate for the lack of new realities or for the sheer dullness of the realities depicted. The speed of editing ensures against boredom, and cinematic ‘effects’, instead of cinema tout court, are there to secure cinema’s position in the image market. That is the true import of the journey undertaken by Before the Revolution. Desire translated into a consumer label – an order of things created albeit unconsciously, but nevertheless there, by the mourners and their ghosts.
All this is taking place amidst a traffic of images that has made the image almost a surplus to our requirements. The sheer multiplication of tapes and films divided by the number of channels and then subtracted from the total of cinemas has created an absolute haven for commercial and cultural administrators – all in place to marshal these images in some semblance of commercial and cultural order. They are the image controllers qualifying and quantifying and giving the permission to land, and when the images land, these controllers then turn themselves into custom officers – Art Cinema this channel – Commercial Art this one – Art/Commercials turn right – European Cinema straight ahead – Popular Cinema this way – Genre this and Genre that – declare your references. Experimental cinema – can we open your bags? Label and order, and then having done that, divide the spectator, quadruplex him and leave no surprises.
This intense competition has scattered the dream life of cinema to the four winds. One senses that each film, in order to get off the ground, has had to make so many barters and trade-offs that by the time it has hobbled onto the screen, its original idea is all but covered up in IOUs. And films which are not built on this infrastructure of IOUs have a hard time getting shown. And yet, as with the eruption of Bertolucci’s film, there is now not only a welcome space for surprise, but there is also a real need for a cinema that will make one fly out of one’s designated niche; a cinema that will unfreeze that icy and now constant experience of being addressed only as a social construct for the benefit of the market; a cinema where the tension between a world that is being illustrated and a world that is being illuminated can make us live again in that dream-state so necessary to our very breathing; a cinema, therefore, that will hurl itself against that current order of things, a cinema that is not a calling card for a career but a cinema that will march straight past this present Praetorian guard of cultural and commercial administrators and by so doing will deliver once again that wonderful surprise – that which is still possible.
Indeed, this cinema is a cinema that is now being born. Maybe now no longer a movement, but a series of moments – a moment of Wenders, a moment of Jarman, Hartley, Egoyan, Loach, Kieslowski, Figgis, Oliveira – a cinema then that has in common only a need to confront the new realities, as opposed to by-pass them by conforming to the supposed needs of the market. So a cinema that will not have to refer to itself for sustenance but one that again discovers the world we are living in.
This issue of Vertigo, which ranges across different cinematic times and territories, is dedicated to debating ‘what is possible’.
But the living are wrong
In the sharp
Distinctions they make.
Angels, it seems
Don’t always know
If they are moving among
The living or the dead
Rilke, ‘In Memoriam’