Wednesday 30 June 2010

Film, politics and cinema diplomacy

As a film scholar and film enthusiast I'm sometimes torn. Torn between my love of cinema and my feeling that cinema isn't really that important and that I should devote my time to saving the world or something. This is of course very silly, but what's funny is that it is usually people who are not in cinema that tells me so. People who are studying international relations or medicine or other worthwhile things.

But I needn't feel guilty for to begin with, there's room both for the studying of film and doing "good deeds", whatever that might be. But what people tell me is that film is such an important and ubiquitous art form, and there's need for people such as myself to study it, to explore and explain it, and keep track of it. Since most people have a deep relationship with films, it's only good and proper that somebody look after their interests.

The other thing, and something which my talk with Mohsen Makhmalbaf last week underscored, is that film in itself can be used for political purposes, that cinema is a tool, which can be used for good and for bad. Propaganda film is the most obvious example, but all kinds of cinema has long been used for other things besides entertainment. Makhmalbaf is of course a very political filmmaker, and now, with the situation in Iran being what it is, he's living in exile in Paris, together with his immensely talented (and charming) wife. (More on them in my next blog post.)

I have also used films for political purposes. When Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 I was furious, and I wanted to do something about it. But what? Well, the one thing I could do, bring a film festival to Tbilisi, to show my support. So I did that, with the help of the Swedish Embassy.

So there you go, I need to stop whining and perhaps even be proud. But I could also do more to make the two things, cinema and politics, come together. Partly by doing what I would call "cinema diplomacy", like what I did in Tbilisi, and partly by using the one to explain the other. Discussing cinema by using politics, and explaining politics with the use of cinema. The fight starts here.

(Speaking of cinema diplomacy, here's an article from Los Angeles Times, in March last year, about Hollywood and Iran. This was of course before the political situation exploded after the election last summer.)

Tuesday 22 June 2010


Most children are being taught in school how to read, and most, at least in the more developed countries learn how to do it. But some are more literate than others, and some are illiterate. Due to such things as genetics, personal problems, bad teaching, some will never learn, or will at best learn to read just a few basic things. But at least it's something that is being taught almost every day in school. Many are also taught different languages, so at least they can read, write and speak more than their mother tongue.

But that is not the case with learning how to read movies, there are no proper efforts to teach us cine-literacy. That is something that seems to be more or less taken for granted that you needn't learn, that perhaps we have some innate ability to understand movies. I would argue that we don't. We learn to understand movies by watching them and as long as they play by the rules of our cultural context. The more films we see, the more we understand them. But only up to a point. If we don't have an open mind, or an interest, we won't understand the more complicated things, or the more unfamiliar.

At the SCSMI conference one paper, by Todd Berliner and Dale Cohen, talked about how we understand continuity editing, and they took as an example a scene from The Philadelphia Story (1940), where three characters drive up to a house, get out of the car and press the doorbell. Then a butler appears and opens the door. The question was how do we understand that they stop the car in front of the house we saw in the previous shot, and how do we know that there's a door there. In one shot, from the point of view of the door, we see them approach and press the doorbell, and the next shot we see the butler open the door (which we hadn't seen previously). My take on it is that we understand these things because we've seen many films so we know subconsciously how they are constructed, and also because the setting is one which is a part of our cultural context. But if we were to imagine a person who comes from a culture which doesn't live in houses and has no knowledge of the existence and functioning of doors, that person would not understand anything.

It might be regarded as an extreme example, but I think there are similar things going on when people from Scotland watch films from Iran, or people from Brazil watch films from Burkina Faso, and neither likes it nor understands it. And it's not only a question of different cultures, there's also a difference in time. Someone born in the 1970s might have difficulties understanding parts of a film from the 1940s, even if it's from the same culture and country that that person was born in. This is something that probably partly explains why some films that were very popular many years ago, have now lost their general appeal.

In order to be universally cine-literate you need to be fluent in many languages and knowledgeable about many cultures and the history of those cultures. Beyond the cultural context, which might be seen as a vital part of cine-literacy, as is language skills to common literacy, there are also technical and narrative aspects that need to be considered. Here again, exposure and an open mind is of the outmost importance. Some films are too complex for some people, so that they don't understand what is going on. Indeed some films are too complex for most people, which is probably because these films are so rare that we are not able to get enough exposure to them for us to be able to understand how they operate.

It's not only narrative and storytelling devices that can be difficult. Sometimes the mise-en-scène can be difficult to comprehend as well and arguably, most people who didn't understand it probably doesn't know that they didn't understand it. They were focused on the actors and the dialogue, as perhaps most are, so that they didn't pay attention to the space around the characters. And here comes one of the most intricate and perhaps more challenging aspects of what I mean with being cine-literate. If you only focus on story, actors and dialogue, you have only seen half of the film. Film is a visual medium, and everything in the image counts for something. But so many, including scholars and distinguished film critics, are so focused on the words and the gestures that they're almost half-blind to what goes on.

This is something I believe can explain a lot of wildly contradictory interpretations of films, and why person A might love a film that person B hates. One of them was just not paying as much attention to what was going on as the other. If they had, they might not have liked the film as much as they did, or the opposite, they might have liked it much more. I'm not saying that someone will not be able to appreciate a film if that person is not cine-literate enough, but I am saying that someone's experience might be very different if they were fully skilled in the art of watching films.

I'm not advocating that schools start extensive film studies programs, partly because it can be difficult to teach, and partly because there's no way of testing these skills. You can easily do a test to see if somebody's French is good or bad, but it would be much harder to have a similar test for cine-literacy. One thing might be to ask questions about what people were wearing, what colour the wallpapers had, what motivated the various characters to do whatever it was they were doing, and so on. As soon, though, as we go beyond questions of wallpaper colours it becomes more subjective and difficult to decide what is right or wrong. But it's also a question of DNA, RNA, luck, interest, ambition and personal circumstances that will decide how cine-literate you'll become, as is the case with your ability to learn how to read, write, do mathematics and play tennis and so on.

I do think though that it would be a good thing to at least make school children aware of these things, and let them debate and discuss films analytically. Since they will be of a different generation than their teachers, and hence perhaps more cine-literate in young contemporary cinema than the teachers, it might be beneficial for students and teachers alike.

Analysing and interpreting films is not only subjective. There's of course objective empirical research, but more relevant here is the fact that interpretations might be more or less valid. And the more cine-literate you are, the more valid will your interpretations be. But perhaps the most central thing, and the one most often forgotten, is the fact that when it comes to ideological, psychological and moral interpretations, there are no straight and definitive answers. Films are infinitely more complex than they appear to be, even the silliest high school comedy, even to the most trained eye.

Thursday 17 June 2010

SCSMI-conference report

So I'm back in Scotland after the conference and the additional visits to Washington and New York. It was most refreshing to get away and exchange ideas with a wide selection of film scholars, and I've now got an idea for a book about cinema. But more on that later.

For those of you who don't know what SCSMI stands for, it's the Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image, which aims to be a interdisciplinary society for the studies of films and TV, bringing together film history, psychology, philosophy, cognitive science, with perhaps a special interest in audience reception. The many papers presented at the conference covered most aspects of cinema and as is often the case, some of the papers were rather bad, but more often than not, good and interesting ideas and discoveries were presented.

It's always been my opinion that the more varied background you have, and the more angles you use when discussing cinema, the better and more enlightening the research and the interpretations will be. However, the vital thing is that you have a good command of film history. One of the most common fallacies in film criticism and film theory is the "novelty fallacy", i.e. the mistaken belief that what you have discovered is something new that hasn't been there before. I don't mean new in the sense that nobody has written about it before, because that might very well be the case, but new in the sense that this is something that filmmakers haven't done before. Because in 9 cases out of 10, it has been done before. Now, I've written about this before, but since this lack of historical perspective and knowledge is so agonizingly common I'm constantly reminded of it, and feel the urge to mention it yet again.

The other thing that struck me at the conference was how common it was, as, again, is so often the case, to state the obvious.

But this criticism of mine sometimes seems to be mostly due to my demand of perhaps unreasonably high standards. And I mustn't dwell on it too much.

What I did really like was, as alluded to in the beginning, the wide scale of topics being covered, and that for example sound was discussed in a very good and penetrating way, as was music. Sound and music are two fields that I feel is still not getting enough attention. Another thing I liked was that both film and TV were discussed, and I made me decide that from now on I will no longer hold back on writing about TV, which I've previously done, for reasons that are obscure even to myself. TV and cinema go hand in hand, and to understand the one you need to understand the other.

Among other things I really liked was a paper by Lars-Martin Sorensen about Yasujiro Ozu and the meanings of Ozu's repetitive patterns. It gave me some useful ideas for my own thoughts about authorship, and hence for my thesis. But the highlight of the conference was, I believe, a paper on embarrassment by Robert Blanchet. It was more about psychology and emotions than about films, but very interesting and informative, and for some perhaps thought-provoking.

So, to sum up, by bringing together people from various disciplines, the combined effect was one of constant stimulation and interest, and by beginning with looking at the films and then draw conclusions from them, rather than taking some theory and trying to apply it to a film, it brought a lot more food for thought and came to more relevant conclusions than is the case with so many other presentations, essays and books I've endured over the years.