Sunday, July 5, 2009

On Film Conservatism

  Cinema is the most forgotten medium in the world. Films are being redefined, reformatted and forgotten. But so is all other media, for that matter. Why remember that old T.V show, when there’s a new one just like it, except much better? Why remember that popular song that played on the radio three years ago when the new singers are played much more often? Why remember what it’s like to purchase a book and hold it in your hands, when now you can download it from the Internet or listen to it as an audio book?

             Cinema is the most flexible and ultra-modern of art forms. Flexible, meaning it can adapt itself to any event or situation or incorporate any art form and still function as cinema; ultra-modern in that is the archetypal product of the twentieth century, the result of decades of technological achievement. It is obvious enough to accept the premise that films made today still share a lineage with silent films from the turn of the century. However, just as most people would agree with this, there are constant steps being taken to divorce film from its’ history and traditions as far as possible. As a result, cinema has become quite a different beast today than it was when the Lumiere Brothers screened their first films in 1895. Even that word, ‘Cinema,’ is perceived as outdated, snobbish, and in reference to something else altogether. But there are simple souls out there who are in love with the feeling of being intoxicated by moving imagery and will do whatever it takes to spread that feeling. There are obsessive, lonely, activist types of movie-lovers who believe that Cinema must mean exactly what it has always meant. Film conservatives believe that film can never be removed from its’ origins entirely, and that it is inappropriate to try and do so.

            Before I continue with this essay, I must get a few points out of the way.

·      Film conservatism has nothing to do with political or social conservatism.

·      Film conservatism is a term I have made up. (Whereas film preservation has been commonly used.) It is, however, a summation of various attitudes that have long existed and have been widely talked and written about. I may leave out essential ideas about the preservation of cinema, and some of the ideas presented are only debatably conservative. I mainly attempt to summarize the attitudes and principles as I observe them.

·      I will not attempt to define the opposing ideology to film conservatism, which is, I suppose, film liberalism. What I will say is that the polar opposite of film conservatism is the idea that anything at all shot on a camera that records moving images is legitimately cinema; that any format is appropriate for watching movies; that all the means of production and distribution of movies should be made digital, because it is easy to use, cheaper and faster; that there is no sense in watching films of the silent or early sound era, because they use outdated technology, come from outdated cultural perspectives and look bad compared to movies made today.


Film conservatives broadly believe in the preservation of the moving image. This naturally coincides with the need to preserve early cinema, because it best exemplifies the aesthetic development of the moving image. Early cinema does, of course, have broader historical value, and film conservatives wish to preserve this as well. But the moving image takes precedence over any historical, cultural or theoretical significance an old silent film might have. History, theory and culture can be taught in school and communicated by word of mouth or reading a book, without having to watch any actual movies; they are huge entities of which film is only a piece. Moving imagery, on the other hand, cannot be communicated in any way other than watching it. Once a piece of moving imagery is lost—as little as a few frames, as much as an entire film—it is gone forever, and no textbook or oral summary will be able to bring it back.

To understand the root of film conservatism, first we must look at the properties of a moving image.

              The most important property of a moving image is simply the way it moves. When people watch a film, they feel as if they are watching a reality unfold before their eyes, just like the realities they watch unfolding in their daily lives. Each individual shot appears to happen in a real-time frame, only cut short, or expanded on by the director for the sake of moving the story ahead. Yet it is not happening in real time. Some shots are in slow-motion, some are in fast motion; a shot of someone walking out a door might be cut in two and spliced in to different parts of the narrative; an entire shot might be repeated, maybe more than once. The ability of the moving image to play with time in ways both subtle and violent is one of the few advantages cinema has over other art forms, and good cinema manipulates time in ways that are exciting and consistent.

 The other advantage of motion is that it is physical in nature and imparts physical feelings to the viewer in a faster and more direct way than, say, a book can. I can relate a good example of how movies do this; when I saw Michael Haneke’s Cache (2005) in theaters a few years ago, the entire audience gasped and jumped in their seats when the character Majid meets with a confused Georges in his apartment, and, in a static shot, takes out a knife and slits his own throat, spraying blood on the wall. The shot continues for several more minutes, with a stunned Georges pacing around the apartment. This is what motion in cinema can do to people, through its sheer suddenness and, in this case, a still camera capturing violent motion. I am not suggesting all good motion is violent; I am suggesting that all directors must be magicians who work primarily with motion and stillness. The best of these kinds of images often involve, like Cache, a static camera and last longer than thirty seconds. (Movement of the camera is itself important, but can distract one from the essential motion; that is, what is happening within the frame). But there are many exceptions; there are numerous films, such as Battleship Potemkin (1925) that are displays of conservative imagery in very short bursts. Regardless of presentation, motion is the most essential of the two core elements of cinema.

            The other core property of moving imagery is photography. For is a moving image actually in motion? No, it is in fact a series of photographs taken very quickly to give the illusion of motion. Photography was invented more than fifty years before cinema spawned from it and the debt that all movies owe to photography will never end. Looking at a good photograph, one sees an image of pictorial interest, similar to the way a good painting is pictorially interesting; the objects are arranged intricately, the shading, chiaroscuro and depth of vision compliments the subject, the picture in general is suggestive of a world much bigger than the one it contains. Ideally, a good film provides images of pictorial beauty and poetic motion; however, it is all really just photography. Films have paid homage to their photographic roots in various interesting ways; for example, Chris Marker’s La Jetee (1962). Paying homage is always a healthy thing to do; in films, it reminds the film director and viewer that, no matter what the director does, all cinema is an illusion to begin with.


(The Lumiere Brothers, Arrival of a Train, 1895)

Of course, since these are the core properties of moving imagery, then every film inherently contains them. But this is not the point; it is how they are used that makes a film conservative or un-conservative in its imagery. If a film is comprised of talking heads of characters doing nothing and saying nothing that will lead to anything, then neither the motion nor the photographic properties of the images are being utilized. If a film contains only clichéd images—I think of them as Dead Images-- that have been seen millions of times and have stopped working or never worked at all, then they are being misused. If the director has used wild camerawork and deliberate obscurity as an end in and of itself, then they are also being misused. The sole way to utilize these properties of the moving image is to find new, exciting images as often as possible and see if they tell a story that is strong enough to forsake wild camerawork, talking heads and dead imagery.

            This belief in moving imagery is the only reverential, eternal belief film conservatives have; it is the reason why film can never be fully divorced from its’ origins. Everything that follows is a practice that naturally stems from these beliefs. Film conservatives, however, are not concerned with subjective elements of films such as plot, theme or characters. Any ideals imposed on a film’s content would be not only dangerously elitist, but would make film conservatism too much of an ideology. Film conservatism is a loose ideology. It is as a practice that it becomes stronger and more complex.

A film conservative practices preserving movies, seeing the forgotten yet surviving early movies, promoting love for these movies—whether it be through writing, discussion or film screenings-- and always looking out for more motion, in everyday life as in film. Ideally, a film conservative daydreams about movies. In this case daydreaming itself is a practice. But even as a practice almost nobody these days is never a cheater. Many people, for example, dedicate much of their spare time to indulging in their love for silent films, while at other times, they indulge in their love of The Sopranos. A runner may also enjoy driving, but he puts running above everything else and takes it more seriously than anything else in his life. A film conservative practices film preservation and enjoys modern communications on the side, and from whatever distance he sees fit.


             Theater is the one element of film that is subjective—some films are theatrically influenced, some are not—which film conservatives do want to preserve. There is one important thing cinema took from the theater: the movie theater. Sitting in a dark room in front of a big screen is the only proper way to watch a film. When the projector shines the light of the movie on to the screen, it is a source of enchantment that cannot be reproduced on a T.V screen or elsewhere. It is the most direct and intense way to transmit images to the viewer and demands more attention from the viewer than a DVD does, where one can pause it whenever they like. When the movie is over and the audience steps out in to the sunlight, that very act of leaving a darkened room where they have been sitting for two hours preserves the mystery of what they just saw. It also gives them more inclination to intelligently discuss it. I am not a psychologist and some of this is only guesswork; but for people who love movies and are used to seeing them on a big screen, I will always believe it is the case.

            The need to preserve movie theaters leads in to the skepticism, or outright contempt, film conservatives have of the small screen mediums for watching movies; YouTube, Netflix, digital downloads, iPods and, at the start of it all, Television. Television would not be here if it were not for moving imagery; at the same time, nothing has done greater harm to moving imagery than has television. It has reduced images of human interaction to talking heads, reduced a storyline told through a sequence of imagery to a casual thing one can point and laugh at, intercut with commercials. Out of T.V came new technologies, such as the one’s just mentioned, for personalizing the experience of watching a movie to the degree that one can control it at their own will and be completely isolated. Perhaps one of the other virtues of watching a movie in a theater was the way one shared the experience with other people (hence the great Cache scare), but this is all but gone with Television and its spawn. The point of the technologies that followed—such as iPods and Netflix DVD’s—is meant either personalize the experience of watching a movie even more while making the screen even smaller. But their’ inventions never had anything to do with letting people watch movies in the first place; they had to do with the market mentality that produces a wider range of convenient choices. These convenient choices are all too conducive to taking motion for granted.

            New tools for producing cinema have also come about in great quantity and film conservatives are often skeptical of these too, or at the very least wish to preserve both film stock and film projection. Film stock—with its grain, its ability to scratch and tear, its physical delicacy, and its original, haunting format, Black and White—is a sacred element to cinema. First of all, it serves as the best way a filmmaker can get training in the precise and physical discipline of making a film. Unlike digital, one has to choose the right stock, load it in to the camera, run it until the film can be exposed to light and light the room accordingly. These and other mini-steps play in to a pattern that is simply lost with digital filmmaking. And the images can be stunning. A good 35mm print will still outdo what any digital movie can do in terms of complex imagery, and this includes the pristine slickness of Hi-Definition. 35mm film can be soft, fuzzy, slick, pristine, unreal, ultra-real; for all intents and purposes, it can do anything (and 16mm, for all it’s comparative limits, has a rugged, blotchy look that cannot be replicated digitally either). For filmmakers, all digital cameras, and especially Hi-Definition, give the filmmaker a false sense that everything will go according to plan. The idea that all one must do is press a button, and gets to see what they have shot immediately afterwards distracts filmmakers from the fact that good images are often achieved purely by chance, or through intense preparation; the ease with which the camera can be operated is largely beside the point. More than anything, using film keeps us aware of the photographic nature of the moving image. Just looking at a strip of film, one can see the individual stills that make up a shot. One must be aware of how many frames per second they are shooting at and how this will affect their images. These qualities are not gone with digital filmmaking—which translates the frames-per-second concept in to pixels-- but they are taken for granted.

            As a culmination of these and objectives, film conservatives want to preserve silent film. Silent films are the reason for everything that followed, and the best one’s are the purest expressions of motion in existence, which cannot be repeated. Watch how Buster Keaton jumps from train car to train car in The General (1927), loading the cannon that will fire at the train ahead of him before scrambling back on to the roof of the other car. Watch how Maria Falconetti tilts her head and begins to weep in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Watch how Max Schreck creeps along the deck of the ship in Nosferatu (1922), peering down below with an expression of absolute menace on his face. These are some of the essential images of silent cinema and the fact that the films overall look dated—in plot, acting, costumes and much more—is either beside the point or makes them even more endearing. Some silent films were made with only a bare minimum of title cards, and others—like Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924)-- were made with none at all. The earliest silent films were shot with static cameras, forcing us to focus on the essential motion occurring within the frame, rather than the camera’s presence. The notion of images telling an entire story, substituting gestures for dialogue and visual cues for music, is what most people mean when they talk about pure cinema, and the best sound films pay reverence to this model of storytelling, even with their use of dialogue, music and background sound. Nowadays, silent film needs to be more rabidly preserved than ever, even the bad ones (how are we supposed to know the lineage of bad imagery otherwise?). It has been estimated that only about 10-15% of films made during the silent era survive today. Many more have badly damaged prints that are essentially unwatchable. Only a few minutes of one of the first features, Ned Kelly and his Gang (1906) survives. Murnau’s earliest films are lost; so are several of Lang’s.

One strand of film conservatism is a strand of film-lovers stuck on the repetitious mourning of cinema’s lost greatness. At least since the late 20’s, lovers of film have felt that their medium is in trouble. First film started dying when the advent of sound came along in 1927; then it got in trouble when color poked its head in to movies in the late 30’s and early 40’s. Then it got in to trouble, according to the French at least, when in the 1940’s and 50’s, too many films of what Truffaut called ‘the cinema of quality’ were being produced in France and not enough expressive, anti-studio, movies. Some say there was a resurgence of cinema in the 1960’s and 70’s, when great auteur films started being produced in mainstream America and the foreign film market was booming; then it apparently died again in 1995, when Susan Sontag wrote that cinema was dead because cinephelia had died and even if great films continued to be made, they would be fewer and fewer. In 2001, Paolo Cherchi Usai published a book called The Death of Cinema: History, Cultural Memory and the Digital Dark Age. Most recently, it has been pronounced, if not dead, then in another grave condition on the pages of Sight and Sound. In 2007, following the twin deaths of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, Peter Matthews wrote in the magazine that the deaths of the two filmmakers signaled an end of an era of ‘unbridled cinematic masterpieces.’

Any sensible lover of movies realizes that cinema has always been evolving and there isn’t much we can do to change that. The fact is, it is only because cinema has evolved that film conservatism exists. In its very first days, cinema was a sideshow attraction for the poor who wanted to pay a nickel to see a cheap, short spectacle. The progressive idea that films were art did not come about until directors such as Griffith began making major technical innovations and writers such as Vachel Lindsay began to consider it a sort of art form for the masses. No film lover would consider movies to be decadent sideshow attractions anymore. In the early part of the 20th century, film preservation was simply not as much of an issue anyhow, precisely because the medium was still less than fifty years old. As it is now, another strand of film conservative is the conservative who still has progressive ideas about cinema, as I myself do. I will agree, for instance, that digital filmmaking is an interesting form of democratizing moving images, and has much potential which are still unexplored. I like digital projection, just as long as I can still see it on a big screen. Film conservatives must recognize the limitations of anything new that comes along in cinema, while recognizing that it is not a worthless innovation so long as it a) uses the basic properties of the moving image as the primary way to tell it’s story and b) does not take traditional cinematic technique and presentation for granted. Recent films that I can think of that utilize the moving image in traditional ways, while using recent technology and experimental storytelling techniques are Michael Winterbottom’s In This World (2003), Gus Van Sant’s Gerry (2002), or any of Bela Tarr’s films. For that matter, films that utilize the moving image in more radical and harmful ways are David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999), The Wachowski Brother’s The Matrix (1999), or David Linklater’s Waking Life (2001).

           Some of the men and women who have taken their practices beyond daydreaming and in to the realm of filmmaking, criticism, teaching and general preservation are as follows. One of the first film conservatives was Rudolf Arnheim, a theoretician who derided the advent of sound film as an un-pure form of cinema. Lotte Eisner, a German critic who wrote The Haunted Screen, a definitive account of German Expressionist cinema, was a great preserver of her country’s unique early cinema. Andre Bazin, founder of Cahiers du Cinema and perhaps the greatest film critic of all time, was a true film conservative-cum-progressive. He believed in the moving image intensely, as is apparent from reading any of his pieces, but he also believed that the cinema was naturally progressing towards a more naturalistic form, dominated by long-takes rather than montage. Carl Theodor Dreyer was one of the most conservative film directors ever; he never made a film that was not in black and white and resisted using sound as anything that did not serve the image in all his later films (his first sound film, Vampyr, is basically a silent film with a soundtrack tentatively added). Werner Herzog is a director who never shoots with anything but film and whose films all, in one way or another, pay tribute the silent cinema (namely German Expressionism) and the basic athletics that make up the moving image. More recent directors such as Bela Tarr and Guy Maddin are establishing a direct link with more traditional, or in Maddin’s case archaic, cinematic practices, such as only using black and white film stock, using silent era editing equipment and even making several completely silent films (again, Maddin). Susan Sontag was a film conservative to the point of becoming a reactionary; one must only take a look at her aforementioned ‘Death of Cinema’ essay to see why. The first description of cinema, metaphorically, was Plato’s ‘Parable of the Cave,’ even though he did not know it; the men trapped in the cave and watching shadows on the wall might as well be the audience in a movie theater. Delmore Schwartz’s short story In Dreams Begin Responsibilities is another great story about the uniqueness of watching movies which, with its plot essentially being about remembrance of what came before, is subtly about remembrance of what came before in cinema as well. Those who clean up film prints and restore them to their best look are film conservatives in the most direct sense; they are literally preserving celluloid as their job. Anybody who runs a silent film program, who is a film archivist or film historian, or just a lonesome cinephile, is practicing film conservatism.

            I believe in the simple concept that says if you want to change something and know about it’s past, then the change will be for the better; if you want to change something and don’t know or want to forget it’s past, the change will be for the worse. This concept arguably applies to every facet of our society and film is a facet where change is taken too lightly. New cameras, such as The Red One, are being developed with the apparent intention of surpassing all cameras that came before, even claiming to ‘Render obsolescence obsolete.’ Marketers are more concerned with updating DVD to Blue-Ray to digital downloads on to one’s computer, rather than finding a way to incorporate this technology in to traditional big-screen projection. On the website, a studio business executive recently said that in ten years time, there will not be traditional movies, but more integration between video games and movies, where people can interact with the movie as they would a videogame. At the same time, there are many steps being taken to conserve film; there are silent film organizations like the National Film Preservation Foundation and festivals like the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, longstanding independent theaters that mostly screen cinema from the early and middle periods of the 1900’s, DVD distributors like Kino and the Criterion Collection, which are tirelessly cleaning up neglected prints and rereleasing them.

As a Film Conservative, I am hopeful, but I still do not know what movies will look like twenty years from now. I realize that the medium is always changing, but that it is important to mitigate change. I advocate complete independence from the studio system, as well as individual autonomy within the studio system, so that filmmakers are enabled to find original images. I value motion, literal and figurative, but especially literal. I think of the Lumiere Brothers and Griffith as my three fathers. I like to hold film in my hands and run it through my fingers.



(Edward Muybridge, Man Running)



I am indebted to the sources:

-Introduction to American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents Until Now, Lopate, Philip, pages 1-3; Literary Classics of the United States, New York, NY, 2006.

- The Film Critic of Tomorrow, Arnheim, Rudolph. From Film Essays and Criticism, Wisconsin University Press, 1997.

- A Century of Cinema; Sontag, Susan, originally published in The New Yorker, 1995.