Sight and Sound magazine
June 1993


Graven images

Suspicious of cinema, sympathetic to Warhol, Nick Currie (aka Momus), musician and composer, reflects on Ozu, Dreyer and Bruce Willis

I feel terribly churlish saying this, especially in a cinema magazine. But I've looked back over my life and I can't say I've been obsessed by any film. I'm not sure I even like cinema very much.

There may be cultural reasons for my cinephobia. As a Scot, a member of a 6 per cent ethnic minority in Britain, I'm particularily sensitive to the exercise of cultural power. As a post-Marxist I have to keep vigilant against seduction by my political enemies. I also have very little fat on my bottom and find long sittings in cinemas an ordeal. I have a short attention span and hate naturalistic narrative. Am I the only person with these feelings? Should I seek medical help?

My suspicion of cinema may well be a relic of the fierce Calvinism of my ancestors. My grandfather, a member of the Plymouth Brethren, forbade my father and uncle to visit the cinema, citing the Old Testament's ban on the worship of graven images. Imagine growing up in the 30s and 40s without ever seeing a Hollywood film! Somehow this seems almost as great an achievement of cultural resistance as my mother's grandparents' feat of continuing to speak Gaelic until well into the twentieth century. Both Hollywood and the English language still reek to me of imperialism.

The other great evil for the Brethren was alcohol, and I'm always struck by those frightening adverts for Martini and Bacardi. Then the druggy iconography film companies use to represent themselves - Palace Pictures' gleaming heroin needles were particularly sinister - suggests that film people are all aspirational drug barons. Often the films which follow seem to have been written by cokeheads: the typical Hollywood high-concept movie, full of clever vigour and remorseless action but spiritually and emotionally dead, has to be a by-product of cocaine abuse. Cinema seems to turn writers, the humanist heroes of the pre-cinema age, into bound aphids, milked of their ideas in exchange for drugs.

I think of people like Kafka and Brecht, and how cinema treated them. Brecht dreamed of being a director and wrote many scripts. But his concept of the Smoking Cinema, in which proletarians would sit back in lucid detachment, puffing on cigars and engaging in dialectics rather than letting themselves be dragged into the action, never caught on. The most bitter experience of his life was his exile in Hollywood, culminating in an interview with the UnAmerican Activities Commission.

Kafka too has never been done justice on screen. Welles' The Trial turns the book's labyrinthine cabbalism into a stylish thriller. I haven't seen Soderbergh's Kafka, but the thought of Jeremy Irons as K is enough. I have seen brilliant theatrical readings of The Trial, though, which repay Kafka's own debt to Yiddish folk theatre. As Robert Bresson says in his Notes on Cinematography, "the mixture of true and false yields falsity (photographed theatre or CINEMA). The false when it is homogeneous can yield truth (theatre)."

Cinema evolved at the opposite pole, aesthetically and politically, from the stylisation and detachment and respect for the audience shown by Brecht and Kafka. Cinema is Wagner's Gesamtkunstverk realised: a melding of sound and vision and drama in a horrible maelstrom designed to sweep away all resistance. It is the triumph of image over idea, of spectacle over sensuality. Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will and Brecht's Kuhle Wampe resemble each other because cinema forces them to express a single aesthetic.

The ultimate anti-Wagnerian must be John Cage. Instead of the focused power of overwhelming spectacle, Cage proposed an art which left life as inconclusive, random, complex and unpredictable as it found it. Some of us actually like life's indirection, and do not require 'directors' to put spurious shape and meaning into it. To those of us who think this way, cinema is life with all the interesting bits taken out. It strips the strangeness from everything. By this token all cinema is like Look Who's Talking, which gives a baby the voice of Bruce Willis. Cinema gives everything the voice of Bruce Willis (or Depardieu, or De Niro). When we see De Niro as Walter in Oliver Sacks' Awakenings, as Frankenstein and no doubt sometime soon as a quark in Spielberg's A Brief History of Time, we see a whole range of experience homogenised. And yet we know that many directors cannot make films without big-name stars as security for their loans.

Was it always like this? Surely the early days of cinema were exciting? I read interviews with Carax and dutifully sought out Dreyer. I found his work heavy and slow and soporific. Entranced by the young Japanese director Kaizo Hayashi, I trekked in the rain to Croydon to see Ozu's Tokyo Story, hoping that the famous 'pillow shots' of traditional Japanese cinema would be a revelation. They weren't. I saw what I always see at the cinema: photographed melodrama. But from a lower angle.

Cinema is a product of the modern age, a sort of propaganda targeted at the industrial masses. Modernist cinemas were the factories in which value was reproduced. In post-modernism we have less respect and more choice. We zap through the cable channels looking at people's teeth and toupees. We no longer have the patience for narratives and messages. "I watch TV," said Andy Warhol, "and they have a 50s movie next to a 60s movie and a 70s movie. I look at the shoe styles." Warhol never realised his television ambition, a Cagian cable channel called 'Nothing Special' in which a camera would be aimed casually at a street corner. But we have plenty of Nothing Special around us. Especially when we dabble aimlessly with computers.

I got a real taste of what Melies and the Lumiere Brothers must have felt when I uploaded my first Quicktime movie by modem from a bulletin board. It took two hours to arrive over the phoneline and ran for 20 seconds, a flickering, jerky box at the centre of my Mac screen showing the Rodney King beating set to a Tracey Chapman song. And yet it is precisely the weakness and pliability of multimedia which fills me with hope. Nobody will ever be bludgeoned by a Wagnerian CD-ROM. Computers put sound and vision at the disposal of the user, who becomes an editor and director, charting a unique way through a maze of video and music, words and annotations.

Less is more, and not just because with smaller budgets come greater freedoms. Opaque arts, arts which problematise and fetishise their own modes of representation (and anyone who has used computers knows they fit this dark category) offer richer possibilities for imagination and for the mastery of artists. Moving colour photography never struck me as a very interesting way of representing the world. I love, say, the games Picasso and Klee played with line. Few directors have taken the same liberties with film. I'm delighted to have worked with one who has. Derek Jarman's forthcoming film about Aids and blindness (boasting a Currie-Jarman composition called 'Cocksucking Lesbian Man'), uses only Yves Klein blue for its whole 90-minute duration. No images, no action and yet we see all the riches of Byzantium.

Maybe cinema missed its calling, got swept off-course by money and drugs. It's often struck me that with its photographic realism, its lingering attention to surface, its fetishistic concern for the details of clothes and flesh, cinema's true vocation has always been pornography.