In The Room: Lost Cinema, Post-Cinema, Post-Traumatic Cinema

By Chris Petit

in-the-room-1.jpgIn the Room

This is not about that fashionable subject, death of cinema, but is about the ‘after’ of something, a shift which is probably too early to identify yet, other than by hairline cracks.

I am curious to know exactly when cinema as I understood it ended. Because something has passed, not only in the obvious transitions from film to tape and from analogue to digital. There’s a more personal history.

Was it when such London cinemas as the Academy and Paris Pullman closed in the 1970s and 80s? Was it, specifically, on June 10, 1982 when Rainer Werner Fassbinder died, on the day the Rolling Stones were coming to play in Munich. Or was it the day the brothers Weinstein decided to go into film production. Or was it when film editors stopped using Steenbecks, and cutting became non-linear? Or was it Robert Mitchum and James Stewart dying on the same day? Or was it that day in 1968 when an anonymous hand wrote on a wall of the Sorbonne: Godard: the biggest jerk of the pro-Chinese Swiss. Or was it the day I worked out that Antonioni’s entire career had been a ploy to talk women into rooms and get them naked. Or was it Quentin Tarantino’s first day of shooting? Or the night producer Don Simpson and Paul Schrader sat in a Porsche in Hollywood, snorting cocaine and discussing aesthetics, morality and God? Or was it the day David Lynch dumped Isabella Rossellini? Or was it, or was it?

I’m not saying that cinema per se is better than anything else, that 35mm is better than 16mm, than video, than hi-8, than digital. It’s all images. I have no preference anymore for cinema over television or DVD, though I once did.

The showing of a film used to be sacrosanct, more than now, the preserve of the projectionist, for whom they built a special private room.

Since VHS anyone can get their hands on film, play it back and forward, speed it up and slow it down, and look at it in the same way they can look at pornography.

Since the arrival of the virtual age, something has happened to time and, perhaps more important, to the unfolding of events in time. Everything has become both faster and slower. In my own case I find my powers of concentration have increased when dealing with background or detail, but overall attention-span has shrunk. Also at some point I stopped watching the foreground in movies. As in life, I became distracted by what was in the background, as though the real meaning of the film was to be found hidden in the way a street looked or the arrangement of furniture in a room or the way extras were grouped.

Most films are designed to counter two key modern impulses, boredom and drift, which is when I usually get interested. Out of idle fascination I started to take photographs of films, but only the backgrounds or details, because it seemed that a view in a film or picture is just as much of one’s personal landscape as a view in life. These pictures reminded me of the part of filmmaking I enjoyed most: wandering around, scouting locations, more purposeful than a tourist, trying to match what was on paper and with house or landscape that looked the way you imagined. I liked the recce photographs and Polaroids that got stuck on a board. These searches were always surprisingly tiring (like walking around an art gallery) but pleasurable, a sense of random days. After the locations were found I was never so interested again until the editing, often thinking, why can’t we leave it at that.

Still on the subject of time, I realised recently that nearly everything I did in connection with the appreciation of art was determined by how long something took: the length of a book or a film or a piece of music. By contrast, I was always uneasy in hung space because I never could work out how long you were supposed to look at something for. Now I question the length of films: why 90 minutes, why two hours? Even a two-and-a-half minute rock and roll song, I just wait for the line or phrase that makes the song and switch off to the rest. I haven’t listened properly to the Stones’ Satisfaction for years because the opening riff says it all.

We live in an age of fragments, samplings, recycling.

So too I often prefer someone else’s account of a film to the film itself, as in, for instance, the interview in the catalogue where they talk about stones in Badlands. Once that discussion would have sent me back to the film. Now the reference is enough.

Maybe this is post-modernism.

in-the-room-2.jpgIn the Room

I have nothing against Hollywood. It is what it is. A reflection of the country that produced it: giantism, aggression, insecurity. Apropos of that, I find myself wondering if the giant supermarkets come before the outsize people or if they’re a product of the giant supermarkets. In the equivalent of the chicken and the egg, which came first, the super-obese people or the loaded trolley? Most American films come now in one size only: XXL. Dragged down by their own obesity: monster productions, buried under the weight of cast and crew, whose end credits last longer than a short story.

In the City of London where I live I see crews working: 50 people standing watching one actor walk away from the camera. Whole streets taken up with film-crew vehicles and you know from the size of everything and the look of the donuts – there is always a table of donuts – that whatever s being shot is going to be no good because all the energy has gone into sorting out the parking permits.

Cinema in general has become like bad tourism and third-rate package holidays.

But let’s make an exception for the Bourne films. They kick-started back into a life a dead formula – the US-Euro thriller – and an even deader franchise, Robert Ludlum (remember The Ostermann Weekend? The last nail in Sam Peckinpah’s coffin). As to how they acquired their pace, the answer is in the dvd extras: it’s where all the mid-shots end up. The films’ basic grammar is a punch, counter-punch of wide shot and close-up, with enough multi-camera set-ups to eliminate any fears about continuity.

As someone who has made films and occasionally still does, I have to accept that cinema no longer means what it once did. Certainly, the time of American cinema has passed and it now functions as little more than different forms of vanity projects. One very useful point of the catalogue interview is to show that an alternative cinema can exist with no reference to Hollywood. And, as the interview also notes, the ideal US format now resides not in cinema but in television, with shows like The Shield.

As for that strange act of sitting in the dark, watching other people’s projected fantasies, I usually end up these days questioning myself as much as the film, asking: isn’t this a substitute for experience rather than legitimate engagement?

Okay, let’s rewind: one of those shots of a calendar with the months and years falling away, going back down the years. Even as a child, the formula for cinema – 24 frames a second – was easily graspable. It was a projection, a forward throw, and however much one marvelled at its magical properties, I knew from an early age that it was a mechanical process, involving spools, ratchets, sprockets and reels. And, as long as the projectionist didn’t get the reels in the wrong order, what followed was a straightforward, physical unfolding. The same was true of editing, as became apparent years later when I started making films. I was always reassured, and amazed, that the reel one started assembling on day one became, however much it got changed, part of the finished film.

I remember Herr Srp, an editor with no vowels in his name, always making his sound cuts on hard consonants rather than soft vowels as convention dictated. He cut backwards, playing the reels in rewind, running them through his white-gloved fingers, testing the timing of the cuts by feel. We cut in a studio in Berlin where Fritz Lang had worked, not far from where Rudolph Hess was still in prison.

It seems like a very easy time, those days before image-overload and communication saturation. Today everything has been shot to death. The skies have been turned into vast, invisible electro-magnetic slums, full of image banks of forgotten and discarded data, the celestial equivalent to land-fill sites. I now search for meaning only among the most banal of images. Watching daytime TV. Words cannot describe what it’s like watching a seven-year-old property programme at eleven in the morning. And how many times, exactly, has Friends been repeated? How many times can you repeat a repeat before a new word is required?

Daytime TV is perfect state of lethargy. It resists analysis, mostly invites no response whatsoever. It is both virgin: a state beyond preview; and terminal: a life-support machine which doesn’t require you to pay attention even. The sensation is not unpleasant. It is not threatening. It’s mildly narcotic. Which is why junkies watch so much of the stuff. It produces only the tiniest twinge of panic, a foretaste of what awaits us in that Richard Branson Rest Home for the aged where the dying reverie won’t be the promised flashbacks of life past life but blips from that phantom hinterland of repeats and the unrepeatable: dead TV.

In their book Mavericks of the Mind, David Jay Brown and John Lilly discuss the notion that the drug ketamine, an animal tranquilliser with hallucinogenic effects, renders the brain directly susceptible to TV transmissions. Lilly goes so far as to claim that once when taking the drug he found himself inside a TV soap opera, taking part in it as if it were reality.

Surfeit. Repetition. Repeats. A world in which more means more of the same. In cinema too: the money-grabbing sequel barely bothering to hide bankruptcy of imagination. Always the same film made to the same formula. On a wider cultural level, the death of content. We barely bother now with what something might be about. We have become afraid of content, especially in the world of art where it has been replaced by the business of curation.

I would argue that only two kinds of cinema are of interest now: post-cinema and lost cinema. And for these I propose, not entirely seriously, the generic title of Post-Traumatic Cinema.

Lost cinema includes all the films that were never made and all the films that were made but either died of neglect or failed to survive.

It is possible that image virus might render the present age, which has been almost buried by an avalanche of images, with no record of itself. Emulsion is volatile and unstable. VHS is now prone to strange cancers. A photographer I know lost his archive after his server fell victim to a war between two storage companies. Maybe these images, intended as a permanent record of ourselves, will turn out be have been leased only, leaving behind as little as the prehistoric age.

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Post-cinema is what happens when the individual filmmaker reaches that interesting and increasingly tenable state of being unable to or not wishing to make films anymore. Then you move into other forms and spaces, as we have here. We move into strange rooms which might be replicas of something that have existed in cinema or built in anticipation of a film to be. We move into different forms of fabrication. We move into forms of retrieval and archaeology, where the ideal is a projection, or a piece of music, in an empty room.

The trouble I have always had with art installations is that they rarely amount to more than one idea. Either you get what that idea is or you don’t. The real problem is if you do get the idea there isn’t much more to get than if you don’t get it. This kind of installation even when it aspires to cinema ignores or disregards the rich complexities of its grammar and language, for example, by slowing down an existing piece of footage, where the only two responses can be: ‘Oh wow!’ or ‘So what?’

I prefer projects which have either no idea, and aspire to perfect blankness, or have too many ideas. Where at least there is resonance. The ideal is a hybrid of the two, like these rooms, which suggest multiple narrative possibilities, as well as their opposite, absence of any narrative at all, just empty space.

One line of approach which suggests itself from this is exploring the memory of cinema rather than cinema itself, shooting ‘takes’ or making sets which amount to fragments of a film that may one day exist or might once have existed. Where film is no longer conditioned by a single projection or linear unfolding, but can exist in a spatial dimension, a labyrinth of images in which it is possible to become lost, where the past co-exists with the present, not conditioned by flashback, and where the image is released from the tyranny of narrative.

The great American film critic and painter Manny Farber, author of Negative Space, rarely said what a film was about. He was barely interested in any synopsis of the storyline. Instead he wrote about films in terms of space, whether geographical, psychological or metaphysical. He described the terrain of the film as though it were a landscape, looking, for example, at Fassbinder’s Merchant of the Four Seasons with the eyes of a man who had studied the paintings of Fra Angelico and saw the connection.

These rooms subscribe to ideas that run deep in the history of the image, both still and moving. They subscribe to Aget’s photographs of 19th century Paris, of which it was remarked that his unpopulated locations looked like scenes of crimes waiting to happen. In this they anticipated the modern surveillance grid, diaries kept by machines, also waiting for the crime. These rooms subscribe to the idea of the false setting of the set. I am reminded of Godard making Une femme est une femme. He found an apartment belonging to an old couple which he negotiated to film in, but the couple got cold feet. Rather than find another – and it wasn’t remarkable or unique – Godard decided to recreate an identical apartment in a film studio. His cinematographer Raoul Coutard was looking forward to working in a studio for a change, with the advantage of movable walls to give him more space to moves and overhead gantries for his lights. Except Godard insisted that the set be an exact copy of the original, with nothing allowed to move. However, he did concede the ceiling to Coutard for overhead lights, but not for long, arguing that his actress Anna Karina didn’t usually go to bed in a room with no ceiling and nor should she now and ordered a ceiling to be nailed to the set.

There’s a related story which I also pass on because I can’t decide what it says about Godard. They were shooting Alphaville, night interiors, and he was not paying the crew any extra for shooting nights and soon they went on strike, forcing Godard to shoot by day using blackout. To all intents, the results were indistinguishable from the real thing but Godard screamed that he was being sabotaged by his crew, and Coutard, realising how much Godard felt constrained by the need to work with others told a colleague, ‘He’d like to swallow the film and process it out of his ass – that way he wouldn’t need anyone.’

These rooms subscribe to the notion of murder rooms and to the idea that a formula TV show like The Shield might be as good as anything else around, better even. They subscribe to the poetics of space, as proscribed by Gaston Bachelard, who wrote that to remember all the doorways through which one has walked is to remember the story of your life. As extension of that, they subscribe to the notion of threshold, calling to mind that master of the doorway, Fritz Lang: see Glenn Ford and Gloria Graham behind the door in Human Desire. They subscribe to the network of associations that form in the movie-colonised collective unconscious. They are lucid and opaque at the same time, transparent and mysterious. They subscribe to the notion of detective fiction: how to ‘read’ the room and what that means. Rooms as containers of memory and film moments, rooms that become a museum, in memory of cinema. But beyond a point it is up to the viewer to give them meaning. For those with a secular faith in the power of the image they become quasi-religious spaces, like way-stations or a shrines. For the Jansenist they confirm Robert Bresson’s belief that true cinematic art is based on fragments. They remind me of a quote by the exile German director Max Ophuls who said that ‘happiness is not fun’.

Rooms about films, the product of factories of dreams, salvaged as dream fragments, clips, anecdotes and allusions. We are not longer dealing with cinema in terms of what it is about by way of synopsis or narrative or what-happens-next or thumbs up or thumbs down. We are more in the world of Chris Marker’s La Jetée in which a man is sent from the future back into a past to try and make sense of it. Into rooms that are about time and erased memory, with cinema the bridge between.

And if it were up to him to retrieve a message to take back to this next world it might be from Don DeLillo, who wrote that history comes down to people talking in rooms.

And how would they see these rooms, this future world? Would they know Brecht? Would they know he once wrote, ‘human aspiration only makes me smile’? Would they see these rooms as a comment on the pointlessness of meaning and art. Would they know about Graham Greene, and would they understand his belief that success is only failure deferred.

I am always struck by how Hollywood for all its insistence on being an escapist medium was obsessed with death, to the point of being casual about it. Actors had to become practised in faking death.

But as cinema progresses the roll call of the actual dead grows longer. Which death of all his rehearsed deaths did Robert Mitchum as he lay dying think of, if any. Out of the Past?

Barthes has written poignantly on the several layered meanings in the photograph of a condemned man. How much does an actor’s real death change the meaning of a film he or she has been in and how we watch it? A lot, obviously, when the actor is the subject of a death cult, such as James Dean. But generally, as the generations pass, it becomes a phantom medium. However escapist it is, there is no escaping death. In one way, all film becomes a ghost story, the one about the haunted screen, which is also a shroud.

And this history and these rooms become about what didn’t happen as much as what did – a history of all the films that were never made.

Chris Petit is a filmmaker, novelist and critic. He is currently making a new film on the relationship between England and Germany.

This paper was originally delivered in Zurich in 2008 alongside a book launch for Roth/Stauffenberg's Based on a True Story, about their locations / installations / rooms, ‘filmsets’ where the light and the soundtrack change on a loop of 3-4 minutes (pictured; RothStauffenberg; Based On a True Story, Edition Patrick Frey Zurich, 2008);