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Sunday, June 08, 2008

Why Filmmakers Need to Know the History of Cinema

Tim Sharp, a classmate of mine during filmmaking classes in Perth sent me a really good article of his where he emphasized why a filmmaker should know his cinema history, and lamented that the lack of this awareness contributed to the sad state of affairs seen in the current Perth filmmaking scene. When reading his article, I felt that the issues he discussed are pretty universal. So I definitely recommend this to anyone who has anything to do with the film industry, or wants to do something with it.

Here are some nice quotes that I agree with:

If a filmmaker is not aware of the past of his craft, he/she inevitably produces work which does not evolve and dies as soon as it is created. Looking at the pantheon of great movie directors, there are two key components which are essential in their skill; a mastery of their craft and a knowledge of the context of their work. More vitally, the filmmakers who are recognised for reinvigorating or pushing the medium in new directions all share the inherent and extremely deep understanding of the history of film.

Being aware of the history of cinema allows a director to truly surprise the viewer and deliver to us that delight of the unexpected. This knowledge of history is most important due to the fact that every cinema goer is actually unconsciously aware of many developments in film..

... films made even as little as fifteen years old seem slow and boring to an audience more attuned to hyper-kinetic image assembly. This has made the watching of “older” movies or “weird” movies seem like exercises in tedium and yes, to begin with it can be. Yet I believe that it is essential for all filmmakers who are serious about making something worthwhile and lasting which will impact the audience and remain with them and form a part of their collective memory to learn the history and context of their craft. The lasting mainstream movies such as Star Wars, Indiana Jones, The Terminator, Scream, Alien etc all share the common foundation of construction upon what has come before and the reinvention of old tropes to generate new meaning.

All of the filmmakers who produced these works not only merely knew about the past of cinema, they attempted to consume and process as much as possible. They consciously built upon ideas and concepts from past films, not just ones from the past five years, but movies as early as the 1900s and as diverse as Japanese samurai movies, B movies from the 40s, Swiss Surrealism , Sigmund Freud’s theories on sexuality and countless other sources. They serve as indelible proof that film must be aware of its own history if it seeks to exist for any longer than the moment it leaves the editing suite.

Now, go read the rest of "Now, Where Was I?" - Unwitting Amnesia in Contemporary Filmmaking.

Sure, many stuff from the past are 'boring', I'm no elitist cinephile who can go around saying that Eric Rohmer's Robert Bresson's MOUCHETTE is an incomparable masterpiece with a straight face (I seriously dozed off despite watching the film in double speed, but realized in amusement that the 'rape' scene in James Lee's BEAUTIFUL WASHING MACHINE most probably came from Mouchette's rape scene), I still shudder when I think of Godard's MY LIFE TO LIVE. The French New Wave is a hit-or-miss affair for me. I couldn't stand the aforementioned films, yet I liked ALPHAVILLE, 400 BLOWS and most recently, CLEO FROM 5 TO 7. If I were so highbrow, I would've gone off to watch Pedro Costa's COLOSSAL YOUTH instead of MY GIRLFRIEND IS A CYBORG last week. But then, to limit myself only with the 'more watchable' contemporary classics (say, stuff from the 90s onwards) will definitely, in my opinion, limit my own film vocabulary.

I'll give a simple example: Look at Tarantino. It's not as if he pulled PULP FICTION or KILL BILL out of his ass. The guy has a lifelong love for the old martial arts and samurai classics, and he integrated his passion for those films into his own. If he hadn't given a crap about that particular history of cinema, he's probably gonna continue working in a video store.

Lady Snowblood, quite a major influence for KILL BILL

It's one of the reasons why I always try to do an extensive research before making a film. CHICKEN RICE MYSTERY, light and fluffy as it was, was really a play on the noir genre. Knowing that contemporary noir films are much too self-aware or postmodern, it's not really enough to watch only the more recent film noirs, or other films that borrow noir elements, like BRICK, LA CONFIDENTIAL, or the many parodies of the noir aesthetics that have immersed themselves into modern pop culture, for my research.

So I ended up watching THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) and THE THIRD MAN (1949) as well, and would've went for more if I had more time. But I have to say that watching these two helped immensely with the filmmaking (the ending of THE THIRD MAN inspired the way CRM's ending was executed). Not tooting my own horn and saying that CHICKEN RICE MYSTERY is great, just that I could've done worse. Because it helps to know that film noir isn't just having a private eye sitting in his dingy old office visited by a mysterious femme fatale, and then getting embroiled in a dangerous case where the protagonist has to, of course, deal with shady people of the underworld for their investigation. Film noir is like this... and more.

Maltese Falcon trailer

The Third Man trailer

Ditto with filmmaking, I guess. It's really like that. And more.