(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2004)
An obvious question came up again the other day: why wouldn’t my interest in cinema translate into a desire to make my own movies? Over the years I’ve sometimes thought of buying a camera; at least once I came this close to doing it. This was in the pre-DV days when one would have needed a projector, a constant supply of film, and God knows what else. As an aside, it’s rather beguiling how stories of shoestring filmmaking - for example Mario van Peebles’ recent Baadaaaaas – emphasize the simple challenge of obtaining enough film (the celluloid itself) to make the movie. Maybe I’m idealizing it, but it seems to me that such sensitivity for the scarcity of the basic raw material couldn’t help but inspire better work. That may be my ascetic side talking though.
Anyway, I’ve never taken the step, for a combination of reasons. Basically, I haven’t felt a compelling need to do it. There’s nothing inherently problematic about being happy as a committed spectator/commentator, unless you get neurotic about the “those who can’t do, teach” thing. There’s not much appeal to dabbling with home movies, and I don’t see myself hustling around raising money to make my breakthrough masterpiece, so what’s the point?
Mechanics of Filmmaking
An even greater problem might be the fear – it could even be a conviction – that I wouldn’t be any good at it. I completely believe whoever it was that said that making a bad film is just about the hardest thing you could ever imagine, and that making a good one is just a bit harder. I always feel a little guilty – truly I do – when I throw out lofty criticisms (say, like calling De-Lovely’s Irwin Winkler a “chronically inadequate director” the other week); that’s how easily Billy Wilder’s “Close but no cigar” line becomes something like “Close, so here’s a kick in the ass.” But as Michael Cimino said, somewhere in the middle of running up a record budget overage on Heaven’s Gate, if you don’t get it right what’s the point? Anyway, I’m not the most meticulous or patient of craftsmen, so there’s no particular reason to think I’d have any natural talent in this area.
Yet another problem – I actually think that if I had the mechanics of filmmaking too much in mind, even as an amateur, it would detract from my enjoyment of watching movies. This is how it works for me with writing fiction – because I also have occasional ambitions in that area, I have almost no desire to read anyone else’s (unless, oddly, it’s in French, where that problem doesn’t apply). I can envisage myself dwelling too much on how this or that wasn’t quite right. I do that now in the normal course of movie watching, but the observations come and go more loosely than they might if I kept analogizing to my own amateur efforts.
In this regard, I think of Martin Scorsese’s documentary on Italian cinema (I haven’t seen his Personal Journey through American Cinema), containing wonderful commentaries on ten or fifteen films in particular. I recently rewatched Luchino Visconti’s Senso – a film that occupied no particular place in my mind – in the light of Scorsese’s observations, and found it utterly transformed. Scorsese is also famous for incorporating references to a myriad of films into his own work, apparently without diluting his own sensibility – but then he’s Martin Scorsese. I’m not sure I could as easily switch between practitioner and connoisseur.
More on Before Sunset
Despite all that, I’m currently thinking more than I have for a while about taking the plunge. Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset, which I wrote about last week as a near-exemplar of a certain kind of cinematic purity, may have been a key contributor to this mindset. Linklater’s film is mostly just two people talking, but for much of the time it makes you wonder why you’d ever want anything else from a movie – and described in terms of the raw elements, it’s something that anyone could do. Of course, it’s also true that in terms of the raw elements, anyone could sit down and write a novel to rival Philip Roth.
But because Linklater’s film is so deceptively simple, it focuses you on the mechanics of the filmmaking process in a way that more ostensibly complex productions might not. At one point, we see Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy from the front, walking along, and a runner comes up behind them. Hawke glances over his shoulder as the runner approaches. Then there’s a cut so that the camera’s now behind them, and we see the runner come by and run off ahead. It seemed to me that the timing was a little off; that he took too long to appear in the second shot, given his apparent proximity in the first. I’m sure they considered it painstakingly, so it might just be me, and it was only a matter of milliseconds, but it took me outside the film for a while.
But this only served to make me reflect on how seldom that happens, and I actually appreciated the fact that the illusion, the immersion that pulls you dreamily along, had been temporarily suspended; all the better to weigh the miracle of it occurring at all. Watching Before Sunset, I thought on occasion of directors like Ozu and Bresson and Dreyer – directors who happily forego some of cinema’s flashier possibilities, because they realize that those possibilities are merely ones of cinema, not of life. Once my mind goes there, I can’t think of anything more thrilling than engaging with that process for myself. Just on the most basic level of organizing shots, of experimenting with montage and juxtapositions, it seems irresistible,
Of course, I’d be better off starting off with short films, rather than trying to launch into a Pickpocket or Ordet. I’ve been watching a lot of short films this year on DVD – Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren, and a collection of Roman Polanski’s early student works. I’ve written about the Brakhage films here before – they’re brilliant, but not the project I have in mind (they’re also, even more clearly than many other works, specifically products of film, not of digital technology). Deren’s allusive Meshes of the Afternoon suggests some directions, but maybe that territory’s been fully occupied already. Polanski’s films are astonishingly accomplished, already recognizable as his own. In all these cases, the works’ brevity facilitates an appreciation of their great craft. The possible directions are endless.
And then there’s the possibility of documentary, or of essay films like Chris Marker. The very fact that I can consider all these possibilities probably tells you a lot about where this is likely to go – unfocused dabbling, collapsing in inertia. But even more than the road to hell, the road to bad cinema is surely paved with good intentions.