The Most Important Film Book of 2014: Film Manifestos and Global Cinema Cultures
Literally hundreds of film books cross my desk every year; I review books on every imaginable genre, director, movement or filmic era on an almost daily basis for a variety of publications, but every so often, a book appears that instantly commands my attention as a work of inescapable importance. Film Manifestos and Global Cinema Cultures: A Critical Anthology is such a volume. Running to a staggering 680 pages, and yet priced in hardcover (!) for a mere $85/£65 on Amazon, this collection of film writings from the dawn of cinema to the present day, edited by Scott MacKenzie, is one of the most inspirational and informative volumes I’ve ever come across, because it highlights the constant need for renewal which typifies the cinema, potentially that most compromised of art forms. It is, indeed, one of the most important volumes on the history, theory and practice of the cinema ever compiled.
The struggle between capital and creation is an ongoing one, even with the advent of digital cinema, and yet it is more than ever vitally important that artists reclaim the cinema, making films that challenge and enlighten the viewer, and break away from established orthodoxies of cinema production. Most of the texts here were written by filmmakers, actual practitioners of the cinematic arts, and they are direct calls to action, even if they (blessedly) contradict each other, and often insist that only “they” are correct in their approach to the cinema. This is the sort of conflicting chaos that creates the most interesting and lasting films in cinema history; films born not out of the studio system, but out of warring, marginalized factions, working with outdated equipment, insufficient funds, no distribution, and nothing more than a vision, and a desperate desire to get the vision recorded by any means available.
At the same time, MacKenzie also includes censorial and political documents that seek (or sought) to constrain the cinema, such as Joseph Goebbels’ thoughts on Creative Film (Germany, 1935) an odious Nazi supremacist manifesto; or Ayn Rand’s equally doctrinaire Screen Guide for Americans (USA, 1947), which among other things commands filmmakers “don’t smear industrialists,” “don’t smear wealth,” and “don’t deify the common man”; William Randolph Hearst’s polemic Red Films: Soviets Spreading Doctrine in U.S. Theatres (USA, 1935), attacking Sergei Eisenstein, among others; Archbishop John McNicholas’ Legion of Decency Pledge (USA, 1938), declaring certain films absolutely beyond the pale on pain of mortal sin; and even a section from Kim Jong Il’s rambling and bizarre “film theory” text On the Art of the Cinema (North Korea, 1973), which despite its sheer circular insanity offers valuable insights into the mind of a dictator obsessed with the cinema.
Broken down into thematic sections rather than presented chronologically, Film Manifestos and Global Cinema Cultures presents a hitherto unavailable theoretical history of the cinema, as written, primarily, by those who practiced it. These filmmakers are theoreticians, but they are practical theorists, who seek to put into actuality the values and aims they espouse in their writings. Thus we have in the opening section of the volume, on the avant-garde, such essays as The Futurist Cinema (Italy, 1916) by F.T. Marinetti, Bruno Corra, et al.; The Lenin Decree (USSR, 1919) by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, nationalizing the Soviet cinema; the brilliant The ABCs of Cinema (France, 1917–1921) by Blaise Cendrars; WE: Variant of a Manifesto (USSR, 1922) by Dziga Vertov; the preface to Un chien andalou (France, 1928) by Luis Buñuel; An Open Letter to the Film Industry and to All Who Are Interested in the Evolution of the Good Film (Hungary, 1934) by the experimentalist László Moholy-Nagy; the highly influential essay Light*Form*Movement*Sound (USA, 1935) by experimental filmmaker Mary Ellen Bute, who is often overlooked by film history; the wildly idiosyncratic and cheerfully insane Prolegomena for All Future Cinema (France, 1952) by Guy Debord, calling, more or less, for the abolition of all conventional cinema; and numerous other essays.
In this section, there’s also the famous call to arms by Jonas Mekas and other allied American experimental filmmakers that would become known as The First Statement of the New American Cinema Group (USA, 1961); Ron Rice’s deliciously anarchic remarks on the Foundation for the Invention and Creation of Absurd Movies (USA, 1962), documenting the production of his classic feature film The Flower Thief (1960) which was shot on leftover World War II aerial gunnery film donated by none other than “B” movie mogul “Jungle” Sam Katzman; George Kuchar’s 8mm Film Manifesto (USA, 1964); the Cinema of Transgression Manifesto (USA, 1985) by punk filmmaker Nick Zedd, created in the teeth of the advent of the structuralist movement, advocating a return to sloppy, violent, cheap and personal cinema; the impassioned Open Letter to the Experimental Film Congress: Let’s Set the Record Straight (Canada, 1989) by Peggy Ahwesh, Caroline Avery, et al, decrying the erasure of women filmmakers from cinema history, and a whole lot more.
The sheer depth and complexity of the volume, however, is never off-putting, because rather than trafficking in film theory devoid of any concrete result, or theorizing which in the end valorizes itself at the expense of the work it is supposed to be examining, such texts as The Archers’ Manifesto (UK, 1942) by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, What Is Wrong with Indian Films? (India, 1948) by Satyajit Ray, Buñuel the Poet (Mexico, 1951) by Octavio Paz, French Cinema Is Over (France, 1952) by Serge Berna, Guy Debord, et al., Some Ideas on the Cinema (Italy, 1953) by director Cesare Zavattini, the justly famous A Certain Tendency in French Cinema (France, 1954) by François Truffaut, the Salamanca Manifesto & Conclusions of the Congress of Salamanca (Spain, 1955) by Juan Antonio Bardem, the Free Cinema Manifestos (UK, 1956–1959) by the Committee for Free Cinema, The Oberhausen Manifesto (West Germany, 1962) by Alexander Kluge, Edgar Reitz, et al., and an untitled manifesto from the Oberhausen Film Festival (West Germany, 1965) by Jean-Marie Straub, Rodolf Thome, Dirk Alvermann, et al. all led to active cinema practice; the creation of new films that challenged and/or overturned conventional models of filmmaking.
Women filmmakers such as Yoko Ono, the aforementioned Mary Ellen Bute and Peggy Ahwesh, as well as the pioneering cineaste Alice Guy-Blaché, who more or less single handedly created the cinema with her early narrative La Fée aux choux (1896), and then graduated to one reel, and then multi-reel films with color and sound years before D.W. Griffith stepped behind the camera in 1908 with The Adventures of Dollie, as well as essays by Claire Johnston, Laura Mulvey, Yvonne Rainer, Annie Sprinkle, and such groundbreaking documents as the Statement of African Women Professionals of Cinema, Television and Video (Burkina Faso, 1991) by the FEPACI (Fédération Panafricaine des Cinéastes) group, as well as the Puzzy Power Manifesto: Thoughts on Women and Pornography (Denmark, 1998) by Vibeke Windeløv, Lene Børglum, et al. are also well represented here.
Nearly all of these texts were written by filmmakers; in nearly all cases, they were preludes to periods of furious artistic activity, which shaped the cinema of each country represented for decades to come, and can still be felt today. More importantly, these texts embraced chaos, contradiction, ambiguity and the concept that there is no such thing as “stable ground” in the act of artistic creation, and most of these writings are intentionally conflicted, giving themselves over to internal struggle, questioning, revision, and the inevitability of change. All also decisively reject the profit motive, and the passive commercial cinema which has come to dominate international cinema at all levels, and seek to create a cinema for the people, by the people, and of the people, by any means necessary.
Over and over, these essays impress upon the reader that anyone – anyone – can and should make a film, just so long as that film carries with it the honest intent of the filmmaker, and is uncompromised by the supposed realities of the marketplace. It’s a cinema of dreamers, for sure, but in the manifestos of Lars von Trier, also included in the volume, as well as other filmmakers, we can see that these precepts can indeed be put into practice, if only one has the tenacity to pursue one’s vision.
The international, pansexual, multiracial editing of the volume is truly remarkable, because in the end, no one group or country dominates the proceedings, and no group seems to have been left out. Students, practitioners and theorists will find much to agree with here, and much to disagree with as well, but MacKenzie presents it all with an even hand, and just enough background material to place things in a solid historical and theoretical perspective, without presuming to speak for, or even criticize – and this is absolutely essential – those whose words he includes here.
MacKenzie is not here to judge; he wants to present to the reader the words of those who have made, and theorized, and talked, and argued about cinema practice, theory, and history, and MacKenzie allows them all ample room to speak for themselves, and lets the conflicts, opposing viewpoints, and polemic language exist in a free space that encourages the widest possible range of viewpoints.
Frankly, I have never seen a volume quite like this, which does not have some sort of theoretical axe to grind; it presents Nick Zedd, for example, who is all for freeform trash filmmaking, and then Hollis Frampton, whose elegantly designed films are as far from Zedd’s work as one could possibly imagine, but refrains from taking sides. There are opposing viewpoints here, and that’s fine with MacKenzie. Everyone gets to say whatever he or she has to say, without censorship.
In reading through this volume, I recalled the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, in his late masterwork Twilight of the Idols, Or, How to Philosophize With the Hammer – “I mistrust all systematizers and avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.” This, of course, is the central problem with such theorists as Baudrillard, Foucault, Lacan, Jung, Derrida and the like – all claim to have some sort of insight as to how people, things, events and ideas should and can be ordered, and thus superimpose a grid on whatever it is they seek to examine, which ultimately tells us more about the system of analysis than that which is ostensibly being considered. They all seem beside the point now, in an era that fetishizes inert theory, and encourages analysis over action.
That’s what makes this book one of a kind, and utterly valuable; I’m going to use it in a course next year, as the one central text to unpack a variety of supposedly difficult films, which are in fact not difficult at all; they are simply created outside the system of capital values. In sum, Film Manifestos and Global Cinema Cultures emerges as a new sort of critical anthology, privileging no one but including all, erasing national and international boundaries as the artificial constructs they are, creating a space in which women and men of all creeds, nationalities and ethnicities are equals – a truly revolutionary volume in every sense.
Art is born out of confusion and uncertainty, as one rejects the known and strikes out into the void – to create what? That’s the central theme this collection returns to time and again; that 2+2 can equal 5, that one can make a film out of nothing, that the most important thing in cinema is to be true to one’s self, that all that is known is simply prologue to the future.
There are all the usual suspects here, of course, like Jean-Luc Godard, who comes off as rather dry and authoritarian in contrast to some of the more passionate work in the volume; but then again, his essay in the volume, What Is to Be Done? (France, 1970) resulted in the creation of his classic examination of the blue-collar workplace, and the responsibility of students to support workers, in his brilliant British Sounds aka See You at Mao (1970). Make no mistake about it; this volume is a call to action. In a world of cute cat videos on YouTube and throwaway escapist entertainment at the multiplex, it’s both useful and refreshing to remind one’s self that the cinema can be, and often is, so much more.
Wheeler Winston Dixon writes regularly for Film International.