Volume 2 - Issue 1 - Vertigo’s Back

By Vertigo

When we started the magazine, one of our central aims was to promote diversity – aesthetic independence rather than an essentially technical economic independence. Sylvia Harvey’s article sketches in the historical background to the latter change in meaning. Our focus on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the implications of its runaway success, reveals an opposition between conflicting responses which feeds into this debate: is it a triumph for non-western filmmaking, or a skilful negotiation of the demands of the market place? Roger Crittenden’s engagement with the differences between European and Hollywood filmmaking is another approach to these central issues, which have a history which stretches back to the earliest days of Hollywood’s rise to economic dominance.

A central concern is that commercial priorities, determined by the box office and audience ratings, should not stifle the possibility for new forms to emerge, nor channel expectations into global conformity. In this country, a watchful eye needs to be kept on changes proposed for broadcasting regulation in the recent white paper. The convergence of funds into one agency, the Film Council, also needs careful monitoring if we are not to find ourselves following the pattern described by Philippe Carcassonne, where a dominant mainstream is opposed to a cultural ghetto. Equally important is the political will to back strategies which will promote work of artistic ambition, even when it is unfamiliar to the audience. The fact that this field of work escapes easy definition, and is habitually ascribed “cultural” as opposed to “commercial” value, often condemns it to the margins. Rod Stoneman, from the Irish Film Board, advocates the importance of moving beyond such simplistic oppositions and, in times of timidity, setting criteria to encourage creative risk-taking.

One aspect of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's success is the way it plays boldly to the current taste for extravagant special effects. Some lovers of digital technology have responded to the film’s beautifully choreographed aerial duels with the complaint that: “You can almost see the wires!” Conversely, some filmmakers still find potency in Godard’s notorious account of the nature of photographic truthfulness. Thus, in Time Out recently, Jim Jarmusch used Godard’s seminal aphorism to hail the films of Cassavetes: “I’m ready, fully prepared to absorb ‘truth at 24 frames-per-second.’” Jarmusch was clearly hailing the psychological revelation that can be generated by improvisation for the camera, something which transcends the “imitation of an action” which constitutes the performance of an actor or actress. This seems to be the idea underpinning the notion of the “soul” behind “the face” invoked” by Godard’s fictional photographer Bruno. Vertigo welcomes the prospect of the forthcoming retrospective of Godard’s work at the National Film Theatre. The juxtaposition of Ang Lee’s aerial combats and Godard’s essayist’s approach to filmic imagery suggests another strand of history, that reaching back to the “realist” theories of cinema, particularly that of Andre Bazin, with its emphasis on spatial integrity in the staging, filming and editing of the action, underpinned by his account of what he called “the ontology of the photographic image”.

Obviously such considerations are relevant to the practice of documentary. Godard started making films when most documentary action was staged. The crucial issue was whether the actions had been documented, and their inclusion in a film thus justifiable. Thus Godard used to talk of the documentary dimension in the work of some fiction filmmakers, the fictional dimension in some documentaries.

In today’s context storytelling techniques usually associated with fiction are deliberately used in documentary to maximise the dramatic impact of the material. Whilst this can be used to great effect, it has also resulted in some of the worst trivialisation of people’s lives, as evident in the hybrid form astutely labelled “docusoap”. Whilst “docusoap” has little in common with feature documentary it is one of the forms of popular, factual entertainment which has driven this form from the schedules. Alex Woode, former programmer for the Sheffield Documentary Festival, makes an impassioned plea for the theatrical release of these films. From an economic point of view much would have to change for documentaries to survive in the cinema. Even in France, where some fifteen to twenty documentaries receive theatrical release each year, the future would seem to lie in video release and in non-commercial circuits, notably libraries, rather than through commercial channels. However, if selected documentary features were given the financial support necessary to find their audience, there might be more success stories to join films such as One Day in September (Kevin Macdonald) or Buena Vista Social Club (Wim Wenders).

Contributors from another field of our audio-visual culture are also calling for a change in exhibition and funding policy to develop their work. Many artists working with the moving image are struggling to find a representative place in the few galleries available to them, and this in spite of the interest shown in events such as the Live in Your Head exhibition held at the Whitechapel Gallery last year. As Felicity Sparrow argues, there is also a conspicuous absence in our museums and educational institutions of the extraordinary work of artists who have been experimenting with film since the early twentieth century.

The editorial board of Vertigo would like to thank all its contributors. We shall continue to exist both as a lobbying voice for change and a publication. If you have any feedback on the articles please write or email us at our registered address.