(This article is the text of the Key Note address given by Robert Crusz at the International Seminar of the 2nd International Film Festival Bangaldesh, held in Dhaka from 1st to 9th December 2004)
“Films! Films! Whatever the hell happened to movies?……Remember I make movies, not films!” (from The Legend of Lylah Claire / Robert Aldrich / 1968)
I would like to suggest that the time has come for a change in terminology. What is this thing called “Film” whose expansion we wish to talk about in the areas of communication, documentation and enter-tainment ? Does such a thing called “film” exist anymore ? Is it the expanding domain of film which should be talked about, or should we be talking about the ubiquitous pre-sence of “the moving image” in our so-called globalized world of today ?
I would argue on one level that using the term “moving image” or even the traditional term “movies” makes more sense in this electronic age of ours where the majority of people watch films in the magnetic VHS format or the digital DVD format, and where the moving image has become so much a part of daily life in all sorts of forms, mainly as dispersed by the advertising, music and information technology industries.
Any dictionary, such as the Oxford English Dictionary, will tell us that the word “film” means a “thin skin, sheet, coating or layer”. All of us have the traditional understanding of “film” as the end result of a process where a strip of celluloid, layered with light sensitive chemicals, is first “exposed” through a camera to record a series of actions, and then, after a complicated developing process in chemical baths, is run through a projector and displayed to us on a screen, usually in a darkened room or hall. As you know, the word “cinema” comes from the French term “Cinematographe” which was the name used by Auguste and Louis Lumiere to patent their combined camera, projector and film printing machine which was used on 22nd March 1895 to show a short film called “Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory”. This is considered by some historians to be the world’s first effective theatrical projection of a film, if not the world’s first moving picture itself (ref: David A. Cook, A History of Narrative Film, New York, WW Norton & Co., 1981, p 10).
It is interesting that this first moving picture projection device combined the camera, the developer and the projector in the one unit. It was the size of a 4 foot tall cupboard or rack. The DVD camera systems of today also combine these three operations. We seem to have come round full circle to where we started, albeit in a more technically efficient way.
Apart from the problems now faced in defining ‘film’ and ‘cinema’ from the technical point of view we also have to reckon with its definitions as a social practice, and pay attention to the socio-cultural changes in the film-going habits of people, and how the “cinema” is experienced by audiences today. When I was a child, going to the cinema was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life. The whole process of the day-long preparation, traveling to the cinema hall, standing in the queue, waiting in the auditorium for the first bell, then the second bell, watching the curtains open as the lights went down and then seeing the film on the huge screen which was many times bigger than me, and also looking forward to the peanuts and icy-chocs during the interval – this was what the cinema meant in those days. We were in another world – the so-called ‘real’ world outside did not exist during those few hours. It is still the same in parts of the world today but increasingly this experience is being replaced by going round the corner to the video rental store (no need to dress up for this), choosing a VHS, VCD or DVD from the hundreds available, then coming back to the house, and watching it on that small box called the television. The phone may ring, if the film is boring or too scary, we can fast-forward to the next scene, we can stop the film and make a cup of coffee or go to the bathroom – daily life in all its complexity can and does intervene. Thus today, we no longer “go to the cinema” – watching a ‘film’ is nothing special, it becomes another part of our daily routine.
So, given this new world we live in, can we continue to legitimately define and understand “film” and “the cinema” in the traditional way ? As Filmmakers, producers, distributors, as audiences and viewers, as critics and jury members at film festivals, should we refuse to give in to the dilution of definitions and cling to the idea of pure film and pure cinema ?
As far as I am concerned, it is the “moving image” which is our reality today. It is everywhere. It is the generic term for the species we see on video bill-boards, in video cell-phones, the surveillance cameras, plus the other more obvious examples such as on the Internet, in the cinema, on television, on DVD’s etc. etc. It is the domain of the “moving image” which is expanding.
However, having said all this, if we are to retain the concept of “film” (and I think we can), then it will perhaps be because of the continued dominance of one crucial aspect of film practice in almost all instances where the moving image is used, namely the dominance of NARRATIVE. Whether it be a thirty second commercial, television news, travel programmes, educational or development documentaries etc., the urge to tell a story continues to be the norm. Perhaps then only in this sense could we retain the concepts of ‘film’ and ‘cinema’ and discuss the expansion of their domain in today’s world.
The “moving image” and Communication
Communication is considered to be a “social affair”, and as Colin Cherry goes on to explain, it is the capabilities of human LANGUAGE which predominates the various systems of communication available in the animal world, of which we humans are part of;
“The development of language reflects back upon thought; for with language, thoughts may become organized, new thoughts evolved. Self-awareness and the sense of social responsibility have arisen as a result of organized thoughts. Systems of ethics and law have been built up. Man (sic) has become self-conscious, responsible, a social creature” (see Cherry, Colin, On human communication, Cambridge, Mass:, MIT Press, 1957, pp3-9).
The communication process itself has been the subject of serious study since the early part of the 20th century. Shannon and Weaver’s simple 1949 linear model of communication which showed a person (the sender) sending a message through a medium to another person (the receiver) has been scrutinized, critiqued, elaborated, and superceded by other models and theories which take into account the signs and symbols of language use, the problems in transmission of meaning, and the ideological and power relationships intrinsic to the communication process which is not simply a one way process but back-and-forth and multi-directional ( “helical, transactional, interpersonal, and intrapersonal” – O’Sullivan et.al. [Eds], Key Concepts in Communication and Cultural Studies, London, Routledge, 1994-2001, p185). When Marshall McLuhan made his significant claim in the mid-1960’s that “the medium is the message”, what he meant was that “the personal and social consequences of a new technological medium in itself are more significant than the uses to which it is actually put – the existence of television is more significant than the content of its programmes” (Key Concepts, p 176).
In other words, far from being a mere tool or a neutral path through which the communication is passed, the medium of this communication itself, in all its institutional aspects is loaded with significant meanings. The understanding of a “language” has been broadened so that we can now talk about the “language” of dress, of food, of interior design, of advertising, the language of photography, of film or the moving image etc. The very ‘language of the communication’ therefore, and not its content, becomes problematized. We can understand then that an image can give (but not always) more information than a verbal or written communication. A moving image in turn can give more information than a still image. A moving image with sounds and dialogue and perhaps written texts, when taken all together, can in turn then convey greater meaning. In one sense I am referring here to the mise-en-scene of movies.
But does the mise-en-scene convey that much more information ? Could it also be argued that, when so much meaning is given, there is no possibility of interpreting it in any other way. Somehow, more becomes less. One is forced to understand the meaning in the near complete way it has been presented. Meaning is fixed. There is no room for any other creative, alternative or oppositional readings by the viewer/listener.
It is exactly in this sense that I see how the ‘domain’ of the moving image has expanded in this world of increased, instantaneous global communication. The economics and culture of globalization uses the moving image in every way possible. We’ve now got cellular phones which can record and transmit moving video pictures. For the IT-led corporate world, backed up by broadcast television and the advertising industry, the moving image has become its standard bearer. For them the moving image is the message – the message that the globalized life is the good life which (nearly) everyone can enjoy and share ! Within this globalized communications world it is difficult to insert alternative, critical or oppositional ‘moving picture’ practices. It is perhaps only in the field of documentary that such practices have been and still are possible.
Documentation / Documentary
We have all recently become aware of a resurgence in documentary filmmaking specially through the publicity surrounding Michael Moore’s films Bowling for Columbine and Farenheit 9/11. It has been claimed that the documentary film form is undergoing an unprecedented revival, specially in the USA. The cinema, both as an art form and as a commercial business, was born in a somewhat pre-historic version of the documentary format. The Lumiere brothers’ film of 1895 mentioned above, was a record of a real event, an “actualite”. It ‘documented’ workers leaving the Lumiere factory. The French word “documentaire” means an educational travel film. The Kinetoscope Parlours in New York, which had rows of Edison peep-show viewers and the Lumiere’s cinematographe showings to audiences in the basement of a Paris café, in the late 1890’s, all had sequences of “topicals” – filmic records of live events, which people paid money to see. So the relationship between the moving image and so-called real life was forged from the beginning.
The term ‘documentary’ for formally structured non-fiction films was coined by the British filmmaker John Grierson in a review he wrote for Robert Flaherty’s Moana, a film on life in the South Seas island of Samoa in 1926. Grierson went on to define documentary as “the creative treatment of actuality”. He developed the documentary movement “to bring alive to the citizen the world in which his citizenship lay, and to bridge the gap between the citizen and the community”. Grierson believed that the “documentary idea demands no more than that the affairs of our time be brought to the screen in any fashion which strikes the imagination and makes observation a little richer than it was. At one level, the vision may be journalistic; at another, it may rise to poetry and drama. At another level again, its aesthetic quality may lie in the mere lucidity of its exposition” (ref. Richard Boyle, “Basil Wright’s Song of Ceylon”, in CINESITH 2, 2002, p 5)
In the article quoted above, Boyle goes on to make the crucial point that documentary filmmaking developed as a reaction to the public boredom with “actualities” or mere filmed real events. The public demanded the narrative format in documentaries as well – a format they had flocked to see in the fiction films of the early Hollywood pioneers like Edwin S. Porter and D. W. Griffith. So once again we return to narrative and who will argue against the fact that today, the rapid expansion and dominance of the moving image in the majority of our communication and entertainment systems is due to the use of some form of ‘storytelling’.
The “moving image”, Narrative and Entertainment
It is perhaps in the entertainment industry that the moving image has had its biggest impact and seen its greatest expansion. In the very beginning, film was used to entertain people – to occupy them ‘agreeably’ (according to the dictionary definition). The cinema began as, and has always been, a leisure activity. Money was made, and the technology able to develop from celluloid to digital image making, because people wanted to be entertained and “the moving pictures” have now become one of the leading, if not the leading, money-making enterprises of all time.
Once again I would argue that it is narrative which is at the heart of the huge success of all the cinema industries around the world – Hollywood, Bollywood, Hong Kong, etc. – and at the heart of all the other communications-based industries like advertising, the music industry, the fashion industry, the travel industry, the IT industry etc, who use the attractions and seductions of the “moving image”, to entertain the global community with a view to sell their products.
Storytelling perhaps goes back to when humans first started communicating meaningfully with each other. It has been argued that because narrative exists in so many cultural forms (novel, film, theatre, mythology, painting etc.) it appears ‘as natural as life itself’ (Lapsley and Westlake, Film Theory: An Introduction, Manchester, Manchester Univ. Press,1988, p 129). It is in this naturalizing process that the narrative function of the cinema retains its entertainment value and thus its attraction and hold on the audience. This has spilled over into all the other practices where the “moving image” dominates the communication process. Even television news uses storytelling techniques. Were not stories been told when we saw the bombs dropping on their targets during the first Gulf War, and during the horrific attack on the world Trade Centre in New York on September 11th 2001? Weren’t those embedded journalists ‘narrating’ real events in the “Classic Hollywood Style” (set up / conflict / resolution) during the invasion of Iraq ?
As the moving image extends its domination across the different cultures of our present world, we see how the essential quality of film and the cinema, mainly NARRATIVE, has been retained as its driving force. Apart from its use in fiction – in the written, theatrical and filmic forms – narrative is also a feature of non-fictional stories like broadcast news. It is also implicit in still images, for example in paintings, advertising and in news photographs. Ask any child what his or her painting or drawing is about and you will get a whole story ! Theoretical attention has focused on “the ways we make sense of ourselves and our daily lives by means of narrative strategies: there are structures and well-established forms in which we can render ourselves and our lives as narratives (stories)……(it) is a pervasive cultural practice.” (op.cit. Key Concepts, p 195). So perhaps it is in this sense that we can argue the case that the domain of film is expanding.
Robert Crusz is the writer and filmmaker and co-ordinator of the Tulana Media Unit of the Tulana Research Centre for Encounter and Dialogue in Kelaniya, Sri Lanka. He is the editor of CINESITH, the English language International film journal from Sri Lanka. Based in Colombo, Sri Lanka.