Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Death to Uncinema

Cinematic is always a term that’s bothered me, because it implies a notion of the uncinematic – suggesting that there are themes, subjects, treatments, styles which don’t belong on a cinema screen.

To me, the notion that some subjects and styles exist outside of cinema – or at least should be placed outside – is horrendously reductive. Surely cinema is about possibilities, new ways of seeing and representing, new twists on old stories (and there are only old stories)? The idea that a piece of work made for cinema can be criticized on the grounds of it being ‘uncinematic’ seems to me to reveal an inherent belief on the part of the critic that the essence of cinema can be reduced to fit within a certain set of parameters.

But what is ‘cinematic’? What might be these parameters? Does it mean widescreen? (all of the Dogme 95 films were shot in Academy ratio – as were most films up until the 50s) Does it mean expansive in location and action? (His Girl Friday is totally setbound throughout) Does it have to have a film star in it? Does it have to be shot on 35mm? Does it have to have a sense of showing us other worlds/lives to which we might not have access? Or does it just mean ‘not TV’?

I think this idea of the cinematic has evolved through a constant comparison/rivalry between cinema and TV, and has grown in currency (at least in this country) since the rise of the Hollywood blockbuster (and the subsequent rise of the Hollywood arthouse blockbuster.)

From the early 50s days of ever-more widescreen formats, it seems as though cinema has always had a chip on its shoulder about what it can do that TV can’t – emphasizing the differences rather than the similarities. This isn’t to deny that there aren’t differences between TV and cinema – they are obviously experienced differently, one lends itself more towards the episodic, while the other towards the self-contained – but they are both, on a very basic level, composed of image and sound presented on screen. And with technology changing constantly, even the gap between cinema quality and television quality is diminishing, with HD perhaps being the first leveller between them.

But, as the means of presentation have grown ever closer, so the need to come up with something inherent in the medium which sets it apart has also grown. Hence the idea of ‘the cinematic’.

Cinematic is an indefinable, nebulous term – perhaps deliberately kept so. It’s like charisma – it’s only identifiable by its presence or absence in a particular case and is largely subjective.

But it’s also a term that seems to be prevalent in a lot of discussion about films in this country – people define the films they want to fund as being ‘cinematic’ or ‘not TV’.

(In a related note, there are apparently two classes of actors in this country – TV actors and film actors. TV actors won’t be cast as leads in films because they are ‘too TV’ and film actors won’t work on TV unless it’s a prestige, ‘cinematic’ production.)

It’s as though there is a belief that other people can do ‘cinema’, but in this country we’re always attempting (and often failing) to achieve their standard. ‘It’s a bit too much like TV’ is a common criticism. Translated, this often means – it’s got a domestic setting which isn’t an urban wasteland/crack-ridden council estate/aristocratic mansion (which often seem to pass the test by virtue of being ‘cinematically’ grim/luxurious).

British funders seem to be very afraid of using a domestic setting for a film – they see it as inherently ‘uncinematic’, as being what TV does. But do these people watch TV? TV does crime, science-fiction, romance, comedy – often in intensely visual ways – and none of those are off-limits or necessarily uncinematic. Maybe it’s just the idea that a contemporary British drama in the cinema isn’t going to grab an audience – and there aren’t that many examples to disprove it.

But surely if a contemporary drama can attract 5 or 6 million viewers on the BBC or ITV, then what logic would suggest that a large proportion of those people wouldn’t want to see similar dramas at the cinema?

Maybe it comes down to a lack of confidence in film-makers, a lack of belief that a director working to produce something for the cinema will be able to properly utilize the medium without accepting this nebulous notion of ‘the cinematic’. It seems a peculiarly British concern.

Michael Haneke’s recent film Cache (Hidden) has been a big success at the British box office, taking over £1m. Although trailed (at least in this country) as a kind of thriller, the film is really a drama/essay about race, guilt and politics. It takes place almost exclusively in domestic settings – a middle-class apartment, a working-class flat – the only vaguely non-prosaic setting being a TV studio – and even this is modeled after the middle-class apartment. But in execution it shows itself to be about much more – it is an essay on watching, what it does to and means to the watcher, what we as an audience understand to be the meaning of how and what we are shown.

Could this film be made in this country? If you were to pitch something with the same setting and action (even with the same themes and preoccupations) you’d probably be looking at an ITV two-parter (probably starring Martin Kemp and Sarah Lancashire)

Of course, there is an argument to say that the film is inherently cinematic because its being made by an intensely cinematic director. Though the settings and action might be largely prosaic, the treatment and execution are anything but. Would this leeway be applied to a British film-maker, though? In my experience, producers and execs are afraid of a film being ‘too TV’ by virtue of its setting and action (or the volume of its dialogue), and are keen to push the idea of making it, on paper, more ‘cinematic’.

Cinematic how, though? Cinematic like Tarentino (who certainly doesn’t want for dialogue)? Or like Spielberg? Or Welles? Mabye. But cinematic like Renoir? Or Bresson? Or Fassbinder? Maybe not.

And this is where it seems reductive – cinema has a rich and diverse history, encompassing any number of styles and treatments of material, any number of settings and locations, from vast western landscapes to boxy urban interiors. Why, in this country, would we want to set limits on what cinema might be? Is there such a fear (or snobbery) about being ‘too TV’ that the industry has to fight to set itself apart? Or have we fallen for an idea, developed from America, that there is an inherent ‘glamour’ to filmmaking that needs to be upheld? Films need to be ‘sexy’ - in the media version of the term – kind of like cinematic, in that it means something exciting, non-prosaic, something cool. Like cinematic, ‘sexy’ is also, crucially, ultimately indefinable outside of a reference to a set of pre-existing (and often conflicting) examples. Can you make it a bit more Tarentino? Have you seen Wolf Creek – can you make it a little like that? Y’know, a bit more sexy, a bit more cinematic…

In this country, we always seem to look to other places for our sense of what cinema is and where it should be going – we don’t seem to be willing to set an agenda ourselves. It’s hard to think that there are many countries in the world who look to Britain for inspiration in terms of filmmaking, in the same way that British filmmakers look to America or Japan or South America.

Maybe the fact that we appear to have a stronger notion of uncinema than we have of cinema is what causes us to be less adventurous, less forward-thinking, less inspirational than we might be. If we were to break apart the notion of uncinema, then maybe we would start to see the types of films that we value from other countries. Forget about the idea that something might be ‘too TV’ or not ‘sexy’ enough. If it’s made for cinema, it’s cinema, end of story.

No comments: