May 2011, arsenal cinema

Magical History Tour – Manifestos and Pamphlets


This month the Magical History Tour focuses on militant-flaming manifestos, ironic-sarcastic texts, and merciless settling of accounts – the attempt to narrate the history of cinema, as always partially, from the perspective of its manifestos. An ideal program for the beginning of the new year, since all compiled texts demand a new start. All texts deal with no less than the fundamental renewal or liberation of cinema from the constraints of commercial, aesthetic and narrative conventions, with proclaiming a new cinema that reflects political, social and artistic conditions and takes a personal and artistic stand. We have attributed to each manifesto one or two films that either "cinematically" adapt the texts or are mentioned in them and are usually from the authors themselves. To give information, but mainly to "manifesto" and its content in a due way in regard to its function, the texts of each event will be distributed at the box office.

In 1995 Lars von Trier, in a press conference on the 100th anniversary of cinema, handed out a fire-red flyer: the manifesto of the recently founded collective of the Danish film directors Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg, Kristian Levring, and Søren Kragh-Jacobsen called DOGMA 95. In it, the signatories criticized contemporary cinema's increasing alienation from reality. The future films of the DOGMA collective will counter this by strictly adhering to a 10-point "vow of chastity". The firm set of rules allows only the use of hand-held cameras, shooting to be done only at original locations, without props and set designs, without using artificial light or filters. Until the group dissolved in 2005, more than 30 "certified DOGMA films" were produced internationally. We will show the first two DOGMA 95 films, FESTEN (The Celebration, Thomas Vinterberg, DK 1998, Jan. 1 & 2) and IDIOTERNE (The Idiots, Lars von Trier, DK 1998, Jan. 3 & 4). With an erratic hand-held camera at first almost preventing orientation in space and among the protagonists, FESTEN shows the course of a patriarch’s 60th birthday. When the son publicly accuses his father of having sexually abused him as a child, abysses open behind the upper-class façade – the banquet hall becomes the venue of a merciless settling of accounts. IDIOTERNE portrays a group of adults who, in a kind of experiment, act as if they were mentally disabled. Besides provoking their surroundings, their aim consists in reaching an ideal state of innocence. The border between insanity and play increasingly blurs.

The so-called Oberhausen Manifesto from 1962 is probably the best-known German post-war film manifesto. In a comparatively short yet highly self-confident text, the 26 signatories declared their "intention to create the new German feature film. (…) We have concrete intellectual, formal, and economic conceptions about the production of the new German film. We are as a collective prepared to take economic risks. The old film is dead. We believe in the new one." The "old film", the film industry of the FRG producing highly conventional movies for the masses, had reached a low point in financial terms as well at the beginning of the 1960s. The first full-length feature films in the spirit of the Oberhausen Manifesto were produced in the mid-60s. The New German Cinema caused a national and international stir: varied in regard to style and content, keen to experiment, and with a merciless and sharp view of Germany, its society and policies. On Jan. 5 and 6 we will screen a number of short films by some of the signatories of the Oberhausen Manifest: LEHRER IM WANDEL (Alexander Kluge, 1963), GESCHWINDIGKEIT. KINO EINS (Edgar Reitz, 1963), WENN ICH CHEF WÄRE (Hans-Jürgen Pohland, 1962) and others.

"I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality." In his first Manifesto of Surrealism from 1924, André Breton defined Surrealism as a "psychic automatism", in which the free play of thoughts should not be controlled by reason. The intensive dealing with dreams, fantasies and emotional worlds was to lead to perceiving a superior reality. The key film of Surrealism is L'ÂGE D'OR (The Golden Age, Luis Buñuel, F 1930, Jan. 7 & 8), created immediately after Breton’s second Manifesto of Surrealism. The flood of images, metaphors and symbols in L'ÂGE D'OR was a provocative pamphlet against the social order of the time and led to a storm of protests on the side of the church and the state. "L'âge d'or is the only film in my career conceived and created in a state of euphoria and enthusiasm, of vertigo for overthrowing things … It was the epoch that engendered such a spirit, and I didn't feel alone: The entire group of Surrealists stood behind me." (Luis Buñuel)

LE SANG D'UN POÈTE (The Blood of a Poet, Jean Cocteau, F 1930, Jan. 9 & 10) was shot the same year and is often attributed to Surrealism. For Cocteau himself, his film was rather a "realistic documentation of unreal events." The bursting chimney at the beginning of the film is a symbol of breaking all cinematic rules pertaining to space and time. A film full of poetic ideas, bizarre contradictions, paradoxical inventions, and dreamlike, unreal episodes.

Less known is the manifesto of a group of Taiwanese directors, filmmakers and journalists surrounding Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang, who in 1987 formulated their concern about Taiwanese cinema and simultaneously called for enhanced film policies and adequate support for independent productions. Cultural policies, public media and film criticism were asked to no longer regard cinema as a propaganda instrument or a high-circulation social event and to no longer condescendingly look down on filmic forms going beyond the mainstream. Held in a comparatively mild tone, but unsparingly revealing in the accounts of individual examples, the manifesto is not only an impressive proof of the commitment of parts of the Taiwanese film scene, it is also the foundation stone of the Taiwanese New Wave. The mentor of this movement was doubtlessly Hou Hsiao-hsien, whose BEIQING CHENGSHI (A City of Sadness, Taiwan 1989, Jan. 11 & 12) shows the fate of the country reflected in a family's path of life. The sons of an extended Taiwanese family, a young nurse who loves the deaf-mute youngest son, as well as her brother are caught up in the country's unrest and confusion after Taiwan became a pawn in the power struggle between National Chinese and communists. The film was the first Chinese-language one to be awarded a main prize in Venice in 1989. Alongside Hou and the younger Tsai Ming-liang, Edward Yang, who died in 2007, was Taiwan’s most important director. His fourth movie, A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY (Taiwan 1991, Jan. 13 & 20) addresses the insecurity, violence and destruction dominating the life of members of a youth gang in Taipei in 1961/62. When a 14-year-old schoolboy gets caught between the frontiers of enemy gangs, the murderous fights escalate. The content-related conflicts are aesthetically reflected in the virtuoso interlacing of different styles.

In the shadow of Sergei Eisenstein's manifesto Montage of Attractions published in 1923 stands Manifest on Sound (1928), which states: "The dream of sound film has come true. The whole world is talking about the silent object that has learned to talk." But "an incorrect notion of the possibilities within this new technical discovery might not only obstruct the development and perfecting of film as art, but also threaten to destroy all of its current formal achievements. (…) Any correspondence between sound and the visual montage components harms the edited piece by detaching it from its meaning. (…) Only a contrapuntal use of sound in relation to the visual montage component will allow for new possibilities in the development and perfecting of montage." An impressive example of practically implementing the contrapuntal use of sound is Vsevolod Pudovkin's first sound film DESERTIR (USSR 1933, Jan. 14, introduction Eunice Martins: “From Eisenstein's Manifesto on Sound Film to Silent Film Improvisation" & Jan. 19), in which the soundtrack develops an autonomous rhythm independent of the images. Partially shot in Germany, the film is about a dock worker who becomes a strike-breaker, but is then given a second chance by his communist colleagues.

Dziga Vertov is not only one of the most important pioneers of early film history but also one of the first film theorists who became known above all for his path-breaking writings on documentary film and his militant manifestos. In We. Variant of a Manifesto (Vertov, 1922), he writes: "WE proclaim the old films, based on the romance, theatrical films and the like, to be leprous. - Keep away from them! - Keep your eyes off them! - They’re mortally dangerous! - Contagious! (…) WE invite you: - to flee the sweet embraces of the romance, the poison of the psychological novel, the clutches of the theater of adultery; to turn your back on music, - to flee out into the open…" WE is also the founding manifesto of the kinoks, a group of young documentary film directors surrounding Vertov. "We call ourselves kinoks - as opposed to 'cinematographers', a herd of junkmen doing rather well peddling their rags." For the kinoks, what is fundamental and most important is "the filmic perception of the world" with the help of the film camera, the kinoglaz (kino-eye), which is more perfect than the human eye. The introductory text to Vertov's best-known film CHELOVEK S KINO-APPARATOM (The Man with the Camera, USSR 1929, JAN. 16 & 17, on the piano: Eunice Martins) also resembles a short manifesto: "This experimental work aims to create a truly international, absolute film language based on the total delimitation from the language of theater and literature." What follows is Vertov's variant of a big-city symphony: a flood of images that illustrates the various facets of a day in the turbulent life of Moscow.

With similarly aggressive words as Vertov, yet in terms of form and content oriented more toward the movement of Free Cinema or the Nouvelle Vague, the New American Cinema Group positioned itself in 1960 with a manifesto that ends with the following statements:

"Common beliefs, common knowledge, common anger and impatience binds us together. (…) we have had enough of the Big Lie in life and the arts. (…) We don't want false, polished, slick films—we prefer them rough, unpolished, but alive; we don't want rosy films—we want them the color of blood ." The joining together of a group of New York-based independent filmmakers, producers and distributors surrounding Jonas Mekas, Kenneth Anger, John Cassavetes, Shirley Clarke, Emile de Antonio, and others had the aim of creating a discussion and distribution platform for artistic, avant-garde, independent cinema.

COOL WORLD (Shirley Clarke, USA 1964, Jan. 22, 23 & 24) ranks among the pivotal works of New American Cinema. The unconciliatory, cinema-vérité-style portrayal of a group of Harlem teenagers, whose daily life is shaped by discrimination, disputes, drugs, petty thefts, and violence, was shot at original locations with lay actors.

REMINISCENCES FROM A JOURNEY TO LITHUANIA (Jonas Mekas, USA 1971, Jan. 27) – a filmic poem by the "director" of the New American Cinema Group as testimony of a journey to the past, to the origins, the sources: those of his family background and of the medium.

Even if there is no legitimate, central manifesto of the Nouvelle Vague, two manifesto-like texts by François Truffaut from his time as a film critic count as important precursors of the French movement. The article A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema from 1954 is a sarcastic analysis of the weaknesses of established cinema that adheres to the "tradition of quality". In the second text, published in Arts magazine in 1957, Truffaut defends the concept of auteur film and ends with the words: "The film of tomorrow appears to me as even more personal than an individual and autobiographical novel, like a confession, or a diary. The young filmmakers will express themselves in the first person and will relate what has happened to them (...) and it will be enjoyable because it will be true, and new (...) The film of tomorrow will be an act of love."

Two years later, Truffaut produced his masterly debut: LES 400 COUPS (The 400 Blows, F 1959, Jan. 29 & 31) With the story of 12-year-old Antoine, who becomes delinquent and winds up in a penitentiary, Truffaut narrates his own youth in an encrypted and totally unsentimental fashion. In his text from 1954, he stresses the "novel conception" in Robert Bresson's LES DAMES DU BOIS DE BOULOGNE (F 1945, Jan. 26 & 28), which, despite his work with professional actors, is quite evident in comparison with later films, opulent images and elaborated camera movements. The tragedy of a woman taking revenge on her ex-lover, forcing him to marry below himself, is reduced to what is essential, beyond any apparent realistic staging, and reveals a keen eye for social conditions.