Alternative Cinema Essay

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The term alternative cinema has certain connotations. To many, it is notalternative, instead it is the way cinema was meant to be viewed, in that theviewer should be able to define the film in their own personal terms. In thefollowing essay, I will firstly examine what the term alternative cinema means,and secondly how Brecht’s theories are evident in many elements of the filmsthat have been pigeon-holed as alternative cinema.
The word alternative isdescribed in Collins English Dictionary as: “Denoting a lifestyle, culture,art form, etc. , regarded by its adherents as preferable to that of contemporarysociety because it is less conventional, materialistic, or institutionalised,and, often, more in harmony with nature. “(Makin, 1992) This is an extremelyuseful definition, as the word ?alternative’ has been used to describe aform of medicine or therapy, and even forms of energy. ?Alternativemedicine’ examines the persons physical well-being, and uses acupuncture,feng-shui, massage, and many others, as techniques to alleviate disease. ?Alternative energy’ is energy created from what surrounds us, such as,wind, the sea and the tides; it is energy that brings us in alignment withnature. The word ?alternative’ in these forms looks at natural processesfound in nature.
A number of films from around the world can be pigeon-holed asalternative cinema, that is, the cinema that rejects the mainstream approach offilmmaking. It is not a particular method of making films because many of thesefilms are very different from each other and use differing approaches. alternative cinema does not look at a particular way of doing things but aparticular way of not doing things. the Brechtian aspect of making films centreslargely on the theoretical and creative side of film-making, therefore, many ofthe films said to be alternative, in terms of production, cannot be discussed interms of the work of Bertolt Brecht.
Bertolt Brecht was born in Germany in 1898,and has been cited as the driving force behind what is commonly known as the?epic theatre’. Brechts’ ethos centred around bourgeoise theatre, whichthrough the elaborate sets and acting style helped to allow the audience toconsider what they are seeing, rather than a simple attempt to create reality. The bourgoise theatre did this by presenting storylines and characters that theaudience could empathise with and not presenting a simple construction ofreality. The audience were pushed to evaluate the piece and no longer treated itas simple entertainment. I once stood, with a friend, in front of a painting bythe Italian painter, Gustave Cailebotte. The painting was called ?Paris: On ARainy Day’, and to me the painting’s use of drab colours and suffused light,plus the details of Cailebotte’s characters, distinct in the foreground yetblurred in the background, gave me a sense that I was a Parisian walking throughthose streets.
I could not focus on what lay beyond, and was justsingle-mindedly getting to where I was going. The rain had turned Paris into acity that conflicts with the Paris that we all know, a Paris that welcomes youwith open-arms, a friendly Paris full of sunshine. This to me was theanti-Paris. In short, my belief was that Cailebotte was attempting to expressthe wonder of Paris through challenging what Paris is not.
My friend on theother hand believed that Cailebotte was destroying the notion of Paris as a citywhere the sun always shines, where the scenery is beautiful and the streets arefull of friendly faces. This to him was the back-end of Paris, where the localsnever wore smiles and walked about their daily business unaware of how the otherhalf lived. This to him was the real Paris. This incident perfectly illustratesthe essence of alternative cinema, enabling the consumer to personally interpretthe film. It should be possible for two people to walk out of the film withtotally differing views on what they have just seen. It is up to the audience tounravel the film, not the film to unravel itself.
Brecht himself remarked thatEpic Theatre: “turns the spectator into an observer, but arouses his capacityfor action, forces him to take decisions. . . the spectator stands outside,studies. ” (Brcht, 64) When the Hollywood studio system started in the 1920s,certain techniques and standardised operations grew from this. Up until thispoint most film-making was said to be experimental.
However, with the advent ofthe major five studios (Paramount, MGM, RKO, Warner, Fox) and the minor threestudios (Universal, United Artists, Columbia), a divide between what can beclassed as ?alternative’ and what can be classed as ?mainstream’ cinemaappeared. There was an ?assembly line’ technique of production within thefully integrated studios and their sole aim was economical rather than artistic. Mass production was the vogue. Henry Ford made cars for the masses – the studiosmade films for the masses. The studios tried to open a fictional world and dragthe audience inside by hiding the technical side of film-making.
They wouldobide by specific rules of operation, such as the 180? rule (A line is drawnthrough the action in which the camera cannot cross, thus keeping the rightperspective on the action) and the 30? rule (The camera cannot cut to more thanthirty degrees around the axis of an object), to name just a few. Temporalcontinuity kept the story flowing in the right direction, and all thesetechniques helped the audience to be totally absorbed in the action on screenand to believe in the fictional narrative. In contrast to this, it was Jean-LucGoddard who remarked that his films are “more essayistic lessnarrative than ever before, have become a continuous free-form commentaryon art, society, memory and, above all, cinema. ” (Romney, J) This way ofthinking was largely foreign to Hollywood and the mainstream film-makers, andthis quote typifies the ethos of the alternative film-makers. To exemplify themethods of the mainstream filmmakers versus the alternative filmmakers we cansimply look at the film, Cape Fear. The 1962 version of this film by J.
LeeThompson works on the Hollywood ethos of equilibrium. The sugar coated portrayalof family life, is soon followed by the disequilibrium caused by the entry ofMax Cady and then the film ends with the equilibrium that returns when Cadydies. In the 1991 version, Martin Scorsese, its director, who although notgenerally classed as an alternative filmmaker, is classed as an auteur in thathis films are personal journeys, and express personal beliefs. His version ofCape Fear begins with a family already in disequilibrium and the entry of Cadyexacerbates this. Cady eventually dies and an equilibrium is found that was notevident at the beginning.
The film of Scorsese can be seen as working in themainstream because of the happy ending but still does not follow standardisednarrative procedure. This method of working is indicative of the modernfilm-makers’ move away from what is generally thought of as mainstream, andinstead illustrates a newly realised technique of storytelling. Peter Wollenremarks that “The beginning of the film starts with establishment, which setsup the basic dramatic situation – usually an equilibrium, which is thendisturbed. A kind of chain reaction then follows, until at the end a newequilibrium is restored. ” (Wollen, 99).
Scorsese’s Cape Fear does appear tohave an economic purpose above everything else and closure gives the mainstreamfilm its own reality, with nothing existing ouside its own bounds, and no needto reach ouside this perimeter to find closure. Mostly, Mainstream cinema isfictional entertainment and its aim is to be unchallenging and above allenjoyable, with social and political issues largely ignored and evenbiographical and true-life films presented as simple representations, all thisdiffers from what the documentary film and alternative cinema is trying toachieve. The acting style withing the Brechtian film should have an?alienating effect’ on the audience. The actors would use various techniquesto seperate themselves from the characters they were playing.
Lines weredelivered as if simply quoting from the script, which had the effect ofseperating the actor from the part they were playing. It would disregard the 4thwall of the theatre and address the audience directly. I will now look at Germanexpressionism (commonly cited as alternative cinema) and in particular RobertWiene’s Cabinet of Dr Caligari. This film displays many elements of Brechtiantheory, with it’s distorted view of reality. One reviewer started his critiqueby saying: “Is the film what it is on the surface? Is Francis a madman who hasconcocted the story? Or is it yet again reversed, with the framing device anepilogue which illustrates how corrupt power protects itself? or, again, can anypart of the story be believed? Could some aspects be true and others false?. .
. The speculation produced in the minds of the audience have the same effect asthe scenery: they put everything off-balance. No one can be trusted. In thisway, the message about crippling power and the nature of authority is evenstronger because of its actual mentally disorientating quality.
” (Brown, 98)The film poses questions. It’s dream-like quality avoids a realist take andtherefore lets the audience pose its own questions and then answer thesequestions, therefore in effect forming its own reality. The actors useexaggerated gestures to externalise the characters’ emotions. The audiencediscovers the characters’ emotions without being sucked into the world thatthe characters inhabit. This style of acting was seen as a response to methodacting, a style developed by Stanislavsky between 1910 and 1920 and taken up byactors such as Marlon Brando and Dustin Hoffman in modern cinema. Germanexpressionism used the actors as an extension of the sets, making apsychological link between the two.
The expressionist movement was clearly analternative to the mainstream and was similar in many ways to Brecht’s epictheatre and in that respect can be called alternative cinema. However, it isdifficult to class German expressionist filmmakers as Brechtian in approach,although there are similarities. German expressionism does not succeed inbreaking the fictional barrier, it distorts what is recogniseable enough toincrease the impact of the film. German expressionism along with soviet montage,(and especially the films of Sergei Eisenstein) both bear similarities withBrechtian theory, however, this is seen as more by coincidence rather thaninfluence. It was with the emergence of the French new-wave that Brechtianismwas embraced fully.
Filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Goddard focused largely on theaudiences’ relationship with the action on screen, and their main aim was topush back the boundaries that the mainstream cinema up until then had promoted. in 1959 Jean-Luc Goddard released A Bout de Souffle (Breathless) whichillustrated how he was trying to experiment in film. Goddard has attempted toremove many of the techniques used by mainstream film-makers to pull theaudiences into the filmic reality, and he has replaced them with characters thattalk to the audience, a total removal of transparent editing, and ananti-illusionist method of acting. The film is a milestone in world cinema for anumber of reasons. Firstly its style of editing which, according to John FrancisKreidl: “does not allow the viewer – like in the normal Hollywood film viewingexperience – to set up a preconceived notion how to take a shot and assign to itmeaning. Shots are cut in ways that confound anticipation the exact opposite ofthe way the classical Hollywood film of the 1930’s sets up each successivegroup of shots.
Every act by the hero of “Breathless”, Michel Poiccard,seems as if he had just, on the spur of the moment, decided to do what hedid. ” (Kreidl, 80) Michel as a character often comments upon himself as acharacter in the film, which distances Michel from the filmic world, and letsthe audience ask questions themselves as to what they would do. Michel haschosen to go one way, would we have done the same? Whilst Michel asks questionsof Patricia, her vagueness in answering them allows the audience to step in andanswer them for her so giving the audience a feeling of participation, a feelingthat this is not reality and therefore we are allowed to enter the world andchoose the outcome. The cinematographic technique is ahead of its time, withinnovations in the jump cut (a few feet of film is cut in random places) and thequick cut (short shots are cut out that break up the continuity of a givenscene). With these shots the audience is invited to fill in the missing gaps.
Inone scene Michel is seen lying in Patricia’s bed, and in the next he iswalking out of the bathroom. The film also uses highly professional actors invery amateurish situations which does not ring true, (the same situation wouldarise if amateur actors were in professional situations). This technique adds tothe falseness of the film and the involvement of the audience. In 1967 VentD’Est was released. The French New-Wave had already petered out but here was afilm that embraced Brechtianism wholly, as Brecht remarked, “Character isnever used as a source of motivation; these people’s inner life is never theprinciple cause of the action and seldom its principle result; the individual isseen from outside. ” (Brecht, 64) Vent D’est involved characters talkingdirectly to the camera, different characters using the same voice, and differentvoices for the same character.
Therefore, a distancing from reality occured andas an audience, we, rather than following the plot in a logical fashion, have toforce our own perception onto proceeding to garner our own meaning from what wesee. Jean Marie Straub followed Brechtian theory closely in his work. His firstfeature film, Not Reconciled, begins with a Brechtian quote, “Only violenceserves where violence reigns” and Bordwell and Thompson remarked that”Straub. . . films invite us to consider the actors not as psychological beingsbut as reciters of written dialogue.
We thus become actively aware of our ownconventional expectations about film acting, and perhaps those expectations arebroadened a bit” (Bordwell, 97) Not Reconciled uses the theory that fiction inthe context of another time period was inevitably alienating for the audience. In short, each period of history has its own beliefs and values inapplicable toany other, so that nothing can be understood independently of its historicalcontext; Brecht called this ?Historicization’. In Not Reconciled, thenarrative flits around between differing time periods and does not clearlyseperate each period from the next, therefore, alienating the audience from theevents on screen. The actors in Not Reconciled spout their lines as if recitersof written dialogue. Through this the audience, become aware of the expectationsof film acting and then they broaden these expectations which again helps toalienate them. Brecht only briefly toyed with the film industry, making the leftwing communist picture Kuhle Wampe, yet his theories were applied liberally bythe French New-Wave cinema and can be seen as early as German Expressionism.
TheGerman New-Wave cinema of the 1960’s also displayed many of BertholtBrecht’s theories, with directors such as Alexander Kluge displaying theseideas in films such as Disorientated. The film Disorientated was typified byepisodic narrative, alienating acting and the seperation of sound and image. alternative cinema is not just a term used to describe French, German and Sovietcinema, although these were simply the countries most renowned for this type ofproduction. Countries such as Brazil, Iran, India and Britain have all producedfilms classed as alternative or new-wave.
The Brechtian philosophy, if used inthe production of film, will nearly always get the film the title of alternativecinema because the concepts of pleasure, spectacle and identification all take abackseat whilst the differing concepts of alienation, sporadic and episodicnarrative take the front seat and help the audience to understand the film onmany differing levels. Many barriers have been broken down in recent years withdirectors such as Quentin Tarantino offering Jean-Luc Goddard as a majorinfluence in his work. Yet he is still classed as Mainstream because his filmsgain high box-office receipts, although, at the same time, garnering ?cult’status. The film-makers that emerged through the seventies, for example StanleyKubrick, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Copolla and Arthur Penn, all displayedprominent anti-Hollywood threads. Yet their box-office returns proved that theso-called Hollywood rules of production set up in the studio years, can beignored and a specific effect achieved.
These directors were great innovatorsyet still gained huge box-office returns, which forged the alliance between thealternative and the mainstream. Hollywood is still concerned with the economicside of film-making yet it has been shown to be possible to innovate and alsoside with the mainstream movement. BibliographyMakins, M (Managing Editor) (1992) Collins: English Dictionary. HarperCollinsPublishers Bordwell, D & Thompson, K (1997) Film Art: An Introduction. McGraw-Hill.
Willett, J (1964) Brecht on theatre. Methuen. Cook, P (1999) TheCinema Book. Elsaesser, T From anti-illusionism to hyper-realism: Bertolt Brechtand Contemporary Film. Brewser, B (1975-76) Brecht and the Film Industry. Screen.
16(4). Heath, S (1975-76) From Brecht to Film: Theses, Problems. Screen. 16(4). MacCabe, C (1975-76) The Politics of Seperation.
Screen. 16(4). KuhleWampe. (1974) Screen. 15(2).
Kreidl, J, (1980). Jean-Luc Godard. Boston: TwaynePublisher. Internet Resources Romney, J. Praise be to Godard.
The Guardian/TheObserver Visited Apr 2000 URL: http:// www. filmunlimited. co. uk/ Feature_Story/interviewBrown (1998)The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. The Magic of the Movies Visited. Apr2000.
URL: http://members. aol. com/aechrist/6/das. html Filmography A Bout deSouffle (1960) Directed by Jean-Luc Godard. Written by Jean-Luc Godard. French:Les Films georges de Beauregard, Imperia, Societe Nouvelle de cinematographie,societe Nouvelle de Cinema.
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) Directed by RobertWiene. Written by Hans Janowitz & Karl Mayer. Germany: Decla-Bioscop KuhleWampe (1932) Directed by Slatan Dudow. Written by Slatan Dudow & BertoltBrecht.
Germany & Switzerland: Praesens-Film AG, Prometheus Film. NotReconciled (1965) Directed by Daniele Huillet & Jean Marie Straub. Writtenby Heinrich Bolle & Daniele Huillet. West German: Unavailable.
Vent D’Est(1969) Directed by Jean-Luc Godard ; Jean0Pierre Gorin Written by SergioBazzini ; Daniel Cohn Bendit. French: Film Kunst, Anouchka Films, Polifilm.

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