Why the Internet is the New Frontier for Filmmakers

It was probably La Blogotheque that first gave me the impression that films on the internet could be just as amazing and awe-inspiring as what you see in the cinema. In particular, it was the video of Lianne La Havas ambling through a Parisian market as she plays “No Room For Doubt” on her electric guitar.

The mix was amazing, we’re in this public place, but the camera hugs her face so that we feel like we’re there with her. We don’t feel like the public who appear in the backgrounds either smiling, or ignoring her.

When I first started making content for the internet I was trying to emulate these videos, and so I gorged myself on them. They were often very roughly shot one-take videos, and truth be told you could skim through twenty videos before finding one gem. But that gem was something else.

Vincent Moon was the man responsible for kicking off La Blogotheque but actually by the time that Lianne La Havas video came out, he had already taken off on a new adventure. He became a sort of international Alan Lomax, recording performances of music around the world. And one video in particular still hits me with how emotional and beautiful it is. If this isn’t cinema then I don’t know what is.

There have always been people who say “this is not art” or “that is not cinema”, but the greatest artists in the world don’t fear technology and what it can bring to their art form. There are some who believe it’s only a film if it’s eligible for an Oscar, but why limit yourself as a viewer to such a degree? If you’re a creative then limiting yourself like that makes even less sense.

Lenny Abrahamson – Ireland’s Realist

Around the time that Room won the Audience Award at the Toronto film festival back in September, I figured it would be worth doing a video essay on Ireland’s premiere film director.

News reports at the time stated that audience approval in Toronto was a good indicator that Oscar glory lay ahead for Room, and having followed Abrahamson since his television show Prosperity played on RTE I hoped I’d be able to educate international audiences who may not be familiar with his pre-Room output.

But as award shows came and went, Lenny’s remarkable directing performance in Room went unrecognised. It didn’t look like the world would be too curious about another outsider director who failed to get nominated.

Then 16th January rolled by and – to the audible shock of the gathered audience at the announcement ceremony – Lenny got nominated for a best director Oscar. Deservedly so, in my opinion. So here I take 4 and a half minutes to try and shine some light on this director who, I’m sure for some, seems to have appeared from thin air.

Arnold Schwarzenegger: The Greatest Film Actor of All Time

This video essay was conceived in part thanks to a great article I read a few months ago, titled “The Decline of the American Actor”.

The article, written by Terrence Rafferty, basically attempts to split apart the myth of great acting; that it is something that can be taught, or that is observable. It’s mainly the reframing of Marlon Brando, not as a prodigy of Method acting, but as a person with a unique energy, one which was not necessarily improved by his training.

If energy was the most important thing for acting, this opened up the field for a lot of actors who don’t claim any Method training. I thought of Gene Wilder, Groucho Marx, Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Chan, Leslie Nielsen, Cary Grant; all actors who I think were brilliant, but who never went outside their comfort zones the way we’ve been taught good actors should.

Cary Grant in particular was one whose under-appreciation irked me. How could an actor star in so many brilliant films, and not be considered a great actor?

The reason I made the video essay on the topic of Schwarzenegger was because I think he’s a harder sell than those other actors. But ironically he’s also the one that the most amount of people will be able to understand his appeal. What I mean is his line delivery and interactions are often imperfect, but everybody has seen and loved him in a film. It seems like nit-picking to not consider him a great actor just because his appeal is nothing like that of Marlon Brando.

Schwarzenneger now styles himself as a man who went to America and made his fortune, and watching interviews with him, he is quite lucid about his own appeal. But at the same time, nobody asks him about acting. So many of his interviews are about weightlifting and politics, as if acting is something he lucked into.

But James Cameron saw his appeal, as did Paul Verhoeven and Bob Rafelson. So if you don’t think Arnold Schwarzenegger is the greatest film actor of all time before you watch this video essay, I hope that by the end of it you at least see why he should be considered a candidate.

Capturing the Moment: In Search of Adequate Images

The Werner Herzog quote about adequate images always stuck with me. His call for people to treat imagery with a greater respect seemed important to me, and he obviously put a lot of weight in it himself, clear from how apocalyptic his language was.

But figuring out what exactly adequate imagery looks like was not so well defined. Clearly there was something lacking in a huge amount of our visual media, but it was easier to describe what doesn’t qualify as adequate imagery than it was to describe what does.

I read a Pitchfork article about people who use camera phones at gigs and it got this video essay going. I didn’t want to demonise the people who shoot the gigs they attend, but I could never understand it. The quality of the images they get is terrible as is the sound, and I could never imagine wanting to actually look at them, so why on earth do these people attend gigs just to miss any profound moments they might have experienced by trying to capture it and watch it later?

It made more sense to me to try and explore this desire than to finger-wag, and so tying in Herzog’s concept of adequate images I attempted to link the desire to film a gig with the desire film-makers have to create images. The difference being one group is professional and the other is not.

In particular I wanted to bring the video essay around to A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, easily one of the best films I saw this year and one that I believe is packed with adequate images.

One image I specifically enjoyed was how the veil is used by the director Ana Lily Amirpour, an Iranian-American. In Iran the veil is a symbol of oppression (or modesty, depending on who you ask) but Amirpour transforms it here into a vampire’s cape. As the main character stalks the streets at night, preying on sexist men, she is a realisation of a misogynist’s worst fears; a man-eating woman who wears the uniform of her oppression with a biting irony.

I don’t think people who film gigs with their cameraphones should be chastised, but I do think they are robbing themselves of the opportunity to really engage with art. We all feel that because we can all make little films now that we should. Whereas the truth is the same now as ever it was; that it takes years of practice to get good at it.

Anybody can make a great art work, but they can’t do it over night, nor by chance. And the first step to creating great art is to engage with great art. That’s what I was aiming to express in this video essay.

Out of Time: Museum Hours & The Art of Life

Jem Cohen’s recent release Museum Hours, takes an interesting look at life, art and history in Vienna from the vantage point of the city’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. The film has a cinematic kinship with Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark in the manner in which both films use the museum as a place to discover and live the past. However, where Sokurov’s has one overarching experimental idea in the form of a single take, Cohen experiments with form relentlessly, jumping from voice-overs to conversations to documentary-like museum tours and beyond to expand the range of what the museum as an institution actually represents, outside its original conception or the mandates of the curators.

The Vienna of Museum Hours is unromantic, concrete, blank like a canvas. Cohen is not attempting to dazzle us with surface beauty, he is trying to make us wonder by making our eyes and our minds wander. His method is outlined explicitly when a museum tour-guide argues with a museum-goer about the paintings of Bruegel. She believes that in none of Bruegel’s vast paintings (she describes as documentary-like but anyone who has explored the pictures in a Where’s Wally? book will see the similarities with Bruegel) is the actual subject matter the point. For example, the painting ‘The Conversion of Paul’, she believes, is as much about the boy under the tree with the helmet covering his eyes as it is about the conversion of Paul. With this in mind Cohen shoots his film. He dedicates a shot to this boy in the middle of the painting. Later he dedicates a shot to some discarded clothing on the streets of Vienna, or to three bored teenagers in the museum itself. They are all of equal importance in the larger picture.

Have A Look Around

The Louvre opened on 10 August 1793, displaying works of art that had heretofore never been displayed to the public. Until this time art was visible only to the rich who displayed it on their walls as possessions, the way the middle-classes now display artefacts collected from their travels, bought from street-side vendors. As places in which conservation and education could take place, the intentions focused on both the past and the future, the museums became places for both the academics and the public.

But today there is a feeling of exclusivity around art museums. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that people nowadays expect the acts of looking, interpreting and understanding to be almost simultaneous as it is when they watch the most popular movies. Films like The Hangover operate on simple laughs and instantaneous rewards. When you see a naked Chinese guy jumping out of a car boot you don’t have to stop and think about it like you do when Groucho Marx recounts his trip to Africa in Animal Crackers: “We took some pictures of the native girls but they weren’t developed, but we’re going back again in a couple of weeks”. That’s the kind of joke that makes the connections in your brain rework, changing the meaning of words and possibly questioning whether you’re offended or not. The meaning doesn’t knock you over the head, it has to be thought about, which is why some people who attend museums, particularly the famous ones, seem to consider relentlessly photographing everything they see to be an apt form of engagement, rather than thinking what is the meaning and what are my reactions to it.

There’s no exclusively “right” way to engage with art, but the mentality of feeling compelled to visit a museum and photograph everything you see – for what? to show it to your friends? “I saw this,” – is a sad and vacuous imitation of an experience, exactly identical with people who record gigs on their phones rather than using their eyes and minds to allow it to affect them in some way. My own favourite museum is the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, as it houses one of the biggest collections of Impressionist paintings on the planet. The Impressionist idea of painting light rather than solid objects is, to me, a fascinating one. In this style Monet clearly had the most soul but there’s something endlessly endearing about Degas’ ballerinas or Renoir’s girls. These paintings, in complete opposition to Cohen’s film, express the surface beauty of the world, telling no stories and giving no real insights into the characters, which in a way is a liberating kind of art where the world is inherently both beautiful and meaningless.

Step Outside

This way of not engaging with art in museums is symptomatic of a way of taking the world completely at face value, a thing Jem Cohen tries to get beyond with the decidedly unbeautiful photography of Vienna in his film. There’s a moment in Wim Wenders’ Alice in the Cities in which Rüdiger Vogler photographs the front of a house and when he sees the polaroid he laments that the camera never captures what he sees with his bare eyes, that is, whatever it was that gave him the inspiration to point his camera in the first place. For Cohen the potential for inspiration is everywhere. When he points his camera it is not to say “look at this, it’s so deep and profound and moving,” it’s more to say “here is our world” and if you find something in it that sticks with you then that’s your business.

Of course anyone who has ever wandered the streets of a city, familiar or unfamiliar, knows that inspiration is only ever a breath away. Where you look when you walk the streets changes your experience. If you (as you sometimes must in a city like Dublin) watch only the footpath, then how will you ever see the scenes of life that play out through the shop windows or in the side-streets or on the tables and chairs in front of the cafés? What do you miss when you block out the world with your headphones or by staring at a phone screen? Replicate your experience of life by buying a ticket to Museum Hours and doing just that. You’ll understand the film just as well as you understand how to live.

The most essential idea Cohen puts forth in this film is that there is nothing in our day-to-day experience that is truly negligible. Of course we feel moments of exalted joy above what we deem to be “ordinary” but where we set the bar of the everyday is completely up to us. There is a piece of graffiti in Temple Bar that is scrawled unevenly in marker on the wall of a building that reads “In the streets of Dublin, where I met my love…” that I honestly feel if it were to disappear tomorrow I would miss far more than if the Mona Lisa was carried off in the night. As feeling thinking humans it is within our capabilities to decide for ourselves what we find to be the remarkable things in our lives. It is a personal compulsion we all have, that too often is suppressed in favour of conformity and hollow conceivable experiences.

Nothing quite captures this idea with such brilliant simplicity as the Simon & Garfunkel song ‘A Poem on the Underground Wall’. It is about the word “fuck” that someone has scrawled in crayon on a subway wall, nothing to inspire much reflection – Holden Caulfield had a particularly depressive reaction to a derivation of that piece of graffiti on a wall in his sister’s school – but for Paul Simon taking that extra moment to consider the story behind the word, not even the personality of the writer but the actions that led to the writing appearing on the wall, transforms the initial reaction – the one Holden builds on and gets depressed by – and makes something out of it, not something good necessarily but something not malignant either. Like this, Jem Cohen’s latest film is a wonderful attestation to the act of stepping outside and having a look around.

My full review of Museum Hours can be found here: http://www.meg.ie/museum-hours