Cinema and I
by Maxim Bessmertny
October 27th, 2016
Born in the USSR, I came to Macau at an early age in 1993, and grew up in an environment surrounded by artists and art lovers. Inevitably, this led to many adventures in art, music and eventually led to my love of cinema. Once that happened, I could not but try to make my own little projects. This essay is not an objective point of view. It’s a debate, between my subjective inspirations in cinema and how it has been manifested in the real world. This is my understanding of the film industry, it’s glorious past, its current shortcomings, its potential and what it could become.
Early Beginnings and Silent Cinema
The beginnings seem entrepreneurial. It was Edison sold a patent to various businesses who would operate kinetographs – small cinemas at world cultural fairs. Kinteographs were used to show short vignettes of something happening – a lot like modern day ‘GIFs’ and ‘Boomerangs'. But what truly created magic, was when artists saw the potential of the kinetograph – the ability to tell a narrative story using moving images and moving actors.
D.W. Griffith developed the modern day language for what cinema is now: the wide shot and the close up. But it was comedian storytellers like Charles Chaplin through the means of characters like the tramp and Buster Keaton’s buffoons that really got me into cinema from my earliest memories. The language they used in the 1910s and 1920s slowly evolved with developing art movements of the time and experimentation in Norway, Sweden, Germany, Russia. German Expressionism gave way to filmmakers like F.W. Murnau who presented visions of horror and sent audiences screaming with his 1922 film Nosferatu. Fritz Lang made Metropolis (1926), a science fiction epic that has had as much influence as Michelangelo Buonarroti had on sculpting during the Renaissance. Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin shocked the world with its vivid crowd scenes and collective suffering. What cinema did back then was convey emotions, and entertain audiences – it became everyone’s activity of choice to go to the cinema. Its appeal became universal early on, with certain short films such as The Great Train Robbery (1903) scaring the wits out of people as they a projection of a train make its way towards them and the audience reacted as if it were real. It was purely visual – and that was 100% of its beauty. That still is the beauty of silent cinema – images tell us what words can’t. Moving images do the job tenfold and convey a literary narrative when the editing is done right. Unfortunately, editing as an art form has been forgotten since the advent of the digital camera given the never-ending capacity of its memory cards and the misconstruction of the cinematic language. What was once the art of the assembling images together in a sequence to tell a story has become so vague and democratised that videos and films are simply spliced together in a rushed manner, without focusing on the importance of SHOT SIZE and SHOT narrative.
The 1930s and 1940s
In the late 1920s, sound arrived. Finally, actors were able to speak and be heard. Inter-titles were no longer necessary and dialogue became all the rage. But the leaders of cinema knew that it was only a tool to help the image become stronger, just like music was. Certainly, Fritz Lang knew it with his 1931 film M, where the scarce use of dialogue but the prevalence of footsteps or door creaks is the very thing which makes the film so enthrallingly creepy and yet immersive.
Hollywood had already created its Silent Stars, mostly immigrants and many of them from the Russian Empire, but now had to find actors that could speak the English language and whose voice would be suitable for the picture. Lots of actors lost their jobs and were forgotten – Gloria Swanson’s character in Sunset Boulevard (1950) being such an example. But out of this new addition to the cinematic language, new artists emerged throughout the world. With the rise of fascism and communism, countries used the audio-visual medium as a propaganda tool – Hollywood was not exempt – it had its own agenda and the scripts being put into production were an example of this (How Green Was My Valley by John Ford,1941). Adaptations of classic novels, theatre plays and operas were all the rage.
There was an enormous boom in filmmaking worldwide. Amongst my favourite filmmakers to come out of this time were Jean Renoir whose 1937 film La Grand Illusion was an ode to peace, an anti-war statement, celebrated in France and foreshadowing nationalist massacres throughout the world as well as imperial and nationalist aggression leading to a world that was soon engulfed in a war like no other. Eisenstein made Alexander Nevsky, an epic 12th century tale that Stalin financed in order to promote Russian patriotism to fend off military expansion by Germany.
Throughout the 1940s and in the post-war period, the mood of the audiences in America had changed. With false promises made to stay out of the war, the general populace’s mood dimmed. They no longer believed in the propaganda they were being shown. Screenwriters took advantage of this cynicism and approached it with a touch of hard boiled detective fiction. Film noir was born. Movies like Citizen Kane, Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, The Postman Always Rings Twice and post war European movies like The Third Man and Night and the City showed the mood not only of the filmmakers but the desires of the audiences. War Survivors and exiled artists moved from their beloved Europe to make films in America, only to understand that the American audiences did not have the same cravings, as did the Western Europeans. At such a time Julien Dassin (known for his 1955 heist film Rififi) made propaganda documentaries in New York whilst Jean Renoir was searching for a job after completing his masterpiece The Rules of the Game (1939).
Italian Neorealism was born around the early mid Forties. Films like Visconti’s Ossessione (1943), De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), Rossellini’s Rome Open City (1945) showed the world that films could be made outside of the studio environment – shot out on the streets, with a leaning towards documentary-realism.
The desire for film noir dissipated during the 1950s as Technicolor was beginning to dominate the cinema screens, and a demand for flashy entertainment films arose – the good old musicals of the 1930s came back into fashion. Orson Welles continued to struggle to make movies and eventually made Touch of Evil (1958), which inspired The French New Wave led by filmmakers Godard and Truffaut among others. Meanwhile in Italy, Antonioni and Fellini made their first films as directors and erected a monument on the world stage of cinema. The western world was introduced to Akira Kurosawa in 1954 when he made Seven Samurai, an epic tale of survival and a metaphoric anti-war statement and one of the greatest films ever made.
Cinema in Europe and Asia was developing with inspiration from realities of everyday life. Even Hollywood took notice and began to shoot on location more often. One of the great noirs of the time was made, The Sweet Smell of Success, shot in beautiful black and white in New York City in 1956 and told the story of a newspaper columnist who made money by manipulating his press agent, intimidating politicians and smearing anyone who stops him from getting what he wants. The filmmakers of the world had something serious to say. They wanted to be noticed not by their camera movement skills but by the struggle of their characters. Satyajit Ray showed the world his poetic view of India in Pather Panchali (1955). Russia would show the world The Cranes Are Flying (1957), a tale of broken hearts during the Nazi invasion of the USSR.
The Cold War had reached its height by 1962. A parody of the world leaders responsible during these times has been immortalized in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964). There was a mix of enthusiasm for world change as soon as Kennedy took office – but events were unfolding faster than ever – revolutions in Vietnam, China, the Cuban Missile Crisis and Kennedy’s assassination led to a worldwide paranoia. The mood was foreshadowed in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), a title which unlike what most believed to be literally mean The Sweet Life was actually pure dramatic irony. Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960), and Kurosawa’s High and Low (1963) hastened the mood of the times. The TV series Mad Men illustrates this period of the 60s quite well with rampant commercialism for products and an unending stream of revenue coming in from consumers buying into the American Dream. Revolutions in Paris in 1968 had further exacerbated the divide between an unequal world – the fat cats of capitalism fill their pockets while most of Asia, Africa and Europe accumulates debt.
The 1970s and 1980s
It was in the late 1960s and throughout 1970s that the new generation of American filmmakers, otherwise known as the film school generation, broke new ground with their storytelling – using smaller budgets and shooting on location, sometimes with stolen cameras (a legend about Werner Herzog), filmmakers like Scorsese, Lucas, Spielberg, Coppola, Pakula, De Palma and many others drew audiences back into the cinemas to watch and debate about the paranoia of the 1960s, the disillusionment of wars that had nothing to do with the average American but which the military industrial complex forced the country into in order to stay out of recession. Epics such as The Godfather began what would become known by 1976 as the blockbuster – exemplified by Jaws, Star Wars as well as Apocalypse Now – the latter, an epic which took 4 years to make and nearly sunk the entire film crew, cast, the director as well as the studios who backed it. But it is because of the courage of these filmmakers, their joie de vivre and their ultimate goal of searching for truth that we are still able to enjoy such timeless stories and films today. It is unlike the predicable, politically correct, profit driven economy of today’s major box office draws.
The 1980s were a period similar to the 1960s, with a Cold War getting increasingly hot. Filmmakers such as Oliver Stone would tell stories that showed us the unseen side of America, a money hungry America that was at war again to save its own capitalist empire. Ronald Reagan’s deregulation policies led to an explosion of greed on wall street, affecting the rest of world. This is best captured in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987). Greed was good and it was rampant. Politically, the world was almost at peace when Gorbachev and Reagan had come one handshake short of a worldwide nuclear disarmament. But history would run its course and show us the mistakes of the past being repeated, just as they had been with Truman and Stalin in 1945 and Kennedy and Kruschev in 1962. Stone’s very own documentary The Untold History of the United States illustrates these moments very lucidly.
Consumerism in the 1990s and 2000s
Police dramas, Alien sci-fi, Friends, The Simpsons, Michael Mann, Wong Kar Wai, Zhang Yimou, David Lynch, David Fincher, Independence Day. These are the words that pop into my head as I remember the 1990s. Certainly the rise of indie filmmakers such as Christopher Nolan and Wes Anderson led to magnificent films being released through the festival circuit worldwide and bolstered the veracity of the independent film route. Alejandro Iñarritu’s Amores Perros (2000) illustrated the viciousness of surviving in Mexico City. It led to everything else that he’s made ever since, including Birdman (2013) and The Revenant (2016), each of which I consider modern day masterpieces but much misunderstood by a vast majority of audiences worldwide.
It’s almost as if filmmakers of this era became known for their locations, the cities which they lived in: Wong Kar Wai’s Hong Kong, Zhang Yimou’s Shanghai, Michael Mann’s Los Angeles, David Fincher’s San Francisco. It became clear that the 1990s were a decade of expanding wealth throughout America with its huge export of blockbuster films.
Since the rise of digital technology, filmmaking has become accessible to almost anyone. Easy access to information via our technological devices allows anyone to get a head start at almost anything. Certainly with filmmaking this is the case. But this is also an illusion – if everyone can make a film, there is no way that every film could be seen. The world of streaming has given the viewer a small choice of films. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime are some of the few streaming websites on a pay-and-go basis that stream a selection of films. But not all films are available. Certainly not most of the ones I’ve mentioned.
The Death of Culture
In his collection of essays entitled The Death of Culture, Mario Vargas Llosa made a statement which has resonated with me every since. Culture, he says, used to bring people together – this would mean that people had an agreed consensus on what was genuinely worth talking about – for instance, the novels of Balzac, the symphonies of Beethoven, the short stories of Hemingway, the plays of Shakespeare, the films of Fellini and the paintings of Rembrant. The cinema played an important role in Vargas Llosa’s life, he says, since it would bring him and his friends together and also bring new people together and eventually everyone would debate and discuss films being released that focused on the issues of the times. Since the Renaissance, this has happened with theatre, architecture, painting, classical music and literature. But with the democratisation and easy access to anything and everything, everyone has their own bubble of knowledge, their bubble of experience and their selective widgets of curiosity. Certainly, everything has become easily accessible, but the cinema and music that brought people together in the past has been totally lost in this huge mega brain of information that we are swimming in, confused and unclear about where the world of culture is today. I definitely agree with him on that. But I would also add that it is more important than ever to have guidance, particularly for the younger generation. Not just parental guidance but I.G. (no, not Instagram) – Intellectual Guidance - to be inspired and taught by example. This is done by thinking, deciding and then doing. It is by persistence in one area as opposed to the attempt to become jack of all trades. After all, by the failed example of dictatorship, great leaders of the world in ages past have understood that one cannot conquer all nations by force but only by example (Nelson Mandela).
I believe that it is a spirit of cultural entrepreneurship that will be the saviour of cinema. Every city and country should have its own film entrepreneurs working along with its filmmakers. By entrepreneurs I also mean distributors. It is clear that many films are being made. But where on earth do all the good ones disappear to? Why is it that an adult living in Macau or Hong Kong has to list through 30 mediocre films to reach a film of some value, a film that will inform, touch and teach something and not just entertain and brainwash?
It seems like it’s come a time for filmmakers to branch out from directing, producing, editing and writing and move towards entrepreneurship and create networks of international collaboration. An industry should be united in a common cause for the creation of social benefit and the creation of goodwill, not merely profit. Profit is the antithesis of filmmaking and this is exactly what has led to the death of culture, as Mario Vargas Llosa mentioned. So in my opinion, networks of collaboration between public companies, private enterprises and film festivals should be created. They should be open for all and they should be meritocratic. This will lead to the much needed revamping of storytelling – both its content and the way in which stories are told. The fact that there is an opportunity to make untold stories told against the ignorance and unwillingness to learn from the past is tragicomic. Furthermore, cinema and filmmaking does not have a nationality. It is a global phenomenon that has influenced and shaped our understanding of this world for the past 120 years. I hope that with the focus on its historic importance, the art form develops for the greater good.
My inspirations and beginnings
Macau has inspired me in many ways. The old adage: a gateway of East and West. The clash of cultures. The battle for harmony and civilization. The dichotomy of old and new, historic and gaming empire. The mixture of respect for tradition but the need for innovation – this has inspired my filmmaking habits too. It inspired my films Tricycle Thief (2014) and Sampan (2017) and numerous screenplays. And it is through screenwriting that I began to understand why some films work and why others don’t.
The screenplay is the blueprint to a film. It is the writings upon which every director depends. It is also the guide for the cast and the crew. As one famous director: a bad director can make a passable movie with a great script. But even the greatest of directors cannot make a good movie from a bad script. Screenwriting is an art form that needs to be studied and practiced judicially, just like the anatomy of the human body is studied by a painter.
This brings to mind a few screenwriting teams: Team Kurosawa, which included the director himself, Shinobu Hashimoto and the leading reader and 'guard tower’ Hideo Oguni. (together they wrote screenplays for some of Kurosawa’s masterpiece films including Ikiru, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood and The Bad Sleep Well.); Team Fellini, included Fellini himself as the narrative driver, Pinelli as the poet and Flaiano as the social realist (together they wrote just a few of Fellini’s greatest films: I Vitelloni, La Strada, Nights of Cabiria and La Dolce Vita); The Coen Brothers have written together for their entire career; Oliver Stone co-writes all of his films with different writers. And of course, the great solo screenwriters who wrote on spec or were commissioned to prepare the screenplays which later were developed by producers and directors: Robert Towne (Chinatown), Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver), Aaron Sorkin (Social Network), Steven Gaghan (Syriana). There is no formula for a successful screenplay. But there is discipline and respect for tradition. It is through his intellect and through understanding the zeitgeist of the times that the screenwriter connects with a director and the audience.
The approach to writing involves mastering the craft. A great screenwriter is like a great craftsman – theme, character and plot are layered in order of importance to achieve the desired effect. A screenwriter who goes beyond his craft and becomes an artist can be seen in the example of Fellini’s script from Nights of Cabiria (craft) to La Dolce Vita (art).
For cinema and storytelling to survive in the age of algorithms, it has to adapt to technology as it already has done – most cinematic content can be seen online, on any of the devices created by big corporations. People are free to choose. But that is not necessarily good for the filmmaker. Pandering to the audience is not the filmmaker’s job. The filmmaker, director, screenwriter, producer, editor, production designer, actor, and sound editor’s first task is to story – the shape of stories has been determined from ancient Greece to Harry Potter. The writer is responsible for penning objective truth which is an almost impossible task given that he writes through a subjective lens. But the task is laid out through theme and character and the narrative is told in the form and structure of plot necessary to tell the particular story at hand. Live life, and you’ll be able to retell it or so the saying goes.
For cinema to thrive, there must be a new cohesion of people who are well read, understand classics and not only aware of pop culture. This should include people from all industries. The main task is that in a global, internet connected world with seemingly endless options, one becomes confused and doesn’t know where to start. But not to worry. Neither does anyone else. What’s important is to start from somewhere honest and to work with individuals with whom you have a certain connection. If you have noble intentions, follow your intuition. It will guide you through difficult times and set your path for your future. The irony is this: you must find a way to live as well as be truthful to yourself and that may mean you may need to find where the demand is – if that is outside the industry of filmmaking, so be it. It’s a sort of Plan B: do something which can bring income. Make associations with people inside and outside of the industry. With the possession of knowledge, culture, experience, an international outlook and an understanding of the necessity for a sustainable world without greed and fear, your greatest gift to the world is to truly and fully be yourself. You must be able to survive. If you can do that and have the energy to share your vision of the world, then there’s a film.
Written by Maxim Bessmertny