Alternative Cinema Essay

The term alternative cinema has certain connotations. To many, it is not
alternative, instead it is the way cinema was meant to be viewed, in that the
viewer should be able to define the film in their own personal terms. In the
following essay, I will firstly examine what the term alternative cinema means,
and secondly how Brecht’s theories are evident in many elements of the films
that have been pigeon-holed as alternative cinema. The word alternative is
described in Collins English Dictionary as: “Denoting a lifestyle, culture,
art form, etc., regarded by its adherents as preferable to that of contemporary
society because it is less conventional, materialistic, or institutionalised,
and, often, more in harmony with nature.”(Makin, 1992) This is an extremely
useful definition, as the word ?alternative’ has been used to describe a
form of medicine or therapy, and even forms of energy. ?Alternative
medicine’ examines the persons physical well-being, and uses acupuncture,
feng-shui, massage, and many others, as techniques to alleviate disease.

?Alternative energy’ is energy created from what surrounds us, such as,
wind, the sea and the tides; it is energy that brings us in alignment with
nature. The word ?alternative’ in these forms looks at natural processes
found in nature. A number of films from around the world can be pigeon-holed as
alternative cinema, that is, the cinema that rejects the mainstream approach of
filmmaking. It is not a particular method of making films because many of these
films are very different from each other and use differing approaches.

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alternative cinema does not look at a particular way of doing things but a
particular way of not doing things. the Brechtian aspect of making films centres
largely on the theoretical and creative side of film-making, therefore, many of
the films said to be alternative, in terms of production, cannot be discussed in
terms of the work of Bertolt Brecht. Bertolt Brecht was born in Germany in 1898,
and has been cited as the driving force behind what is commonly known as the
?epic theatre’. Brechts’ ethos centred around bourgeoise theatre, which
through the elaborate sets and acting style helped to allow the audience to
consider what they are seeing, rather than a simple attempt to create reality.

The bourgoise theatre did this by presenting storylines and characters that the
audience could empathise with and not presenting a simple construction of
reality. The audience were pushed to evaluate the piece and no longer treated it
as simple entertainment. I once stood, with a friend, in front of a painting by
the Italian painter, Gustave Cailebotte. The painting was called ?Paris: On A
Rainy Day’, and to me the painting’s use of drab colours and suffused light,
plus the details of Cailebotte’s characters, distinct in the foreground yet
blurred in the background, gave me a sense that I was a Parisian walking through
those streets. I could not focus on what lay beyond, and was just
single-mindedly getting to where I was going. The rain had turned Paris into a
city that conflicts with the Paris that we all know, a Paris that welcomes you
with open-arms, a friendly Paris full of sunshine. This to me was the
anti-Paris. In short, my belief was that Cailebotte was attempting to express
the wonder of Paris through challenging what Paris is not. My friend on the
other hand believed that Cailebotte was destroying the notion of Paris as a city
where the sun always shines, where the scenery is beautiful and the streets are
full of friendly faces. This to him was the back-end of Paris, where the locals
never wore smiles and walked about their daily business unaware of how the other
half lived. This to him was the real Paris. This incident perfectly illustrates
the essence of alternative cinema, enabling the consumer to personally interpret
the film. It should be possible for two people to walk out of the film with
totally differing views on what they have just seen. It is up to the audience to
unravel the film, not the film to unravel itself. Brecht himself remarked that
Epic Theatre: “turns the spectator into an observer, but arouses his capacity
for action, forces him to take decisions… the spectator stands outside,
studies.” (Brcht, 64) When the Hollywood studio system started in the 1920s,
certain techniques and standardised operations grew from this. Up until this
point most film-making was said to be experimental. However, with the advent of
the major five studios (Paramount, MGM, RKO, Warner, Fox) and the minor three
studios (Universal, United Artists, Columbia), a divide between what can be
classed as ?alternative’ and what can be classed as ?mainstream’ cinema
appeared. There was an ?assembly line’ technique of production within the
fully integrated studios and their sole aim was economical rather than artistic.

Mass production was the vogue. Henry Ford made cars for the masses – the studios
made films for the masses. The studios tried to open a fictional world and drag
the audience inside by hiding the technical side of film-making. They would
obide by specific rules of operation, such as the 180? rule (A line is drawn
through the action in which the camera cannot cross, thus keeping the right
perspective on the action) and the 30? rule (The camera cannot cut to more than
thirty degrees around the axis of an object), to name just a few. Temporal
continuity kept the story flowing in the right direction, and all these
techniques helped the audience to be totally absorbed in the action on screen
and to believe in the fictional narrative. In contrast to this, it was Jean-Luc
Goddard who remarked that his films are “more essayistic [and use] less
narrative than ever before, [and] have become a continuous free-form commentary
on art, society, memory and, above all, cinema.” (Romney, J) This way of
thinking was largely foreign to Hollywood and the mainstream film-makers, and
this quote typifies the ethos of the alternative film-makers. To exemplify the
methods of the mainstream filmmakers versus the alternative filmmakers we can
simply look at the film, Cape Fear. The 1962 version of this film by J. Lee
Thompson works on the Hollywood ethos of equilibrium. The sugar coated portrayal
of family life, is soon followed by the disequilibrium caused by the entry of
Max Cady and then the film ends with the equilibrium that returns when Cady
dies. In the 1991 version, Martin Scorsese, its director, who although not
generally classed as an alternative filmmaker, is classed as an auteur in that
his films are personal journeys, and express personal beliefs. His version of
Cape Fear begins with a family already in disequilibrium and the entry of Cady
exacerbates this. Cady eventually dies and an equilibrium is found that was not
evident at the beginning. The film of Scorsese can be seen as working in the
mainstream because of the happy ending but still does not follow standardised
narrative procedure. This method of working is indicative of the modern
film-makers’ move away from what is generally thought of as mainstream, and
instead illustrates a newly realised technique of storytelling. Peter Wollen
remarks that “The beginning of the film starts with establishment, which sets
up the basic dramatic situation – usually an equilibrium, which is then
disturbed. A kind of chain reaction then follows, until at the end a new
equilibrium is restored.” (Wollen, 99). Scorsese’s Cape Fear does appear to
have an economic purpose above everything else and closure gives the mainstream
film its own reality, with nothing existing ouside its own bounds, and no need
to reach ouside this perimeter to find closure. Mostly, Mainstream cinema is
fictional entertainment and its aim is to be unchallenging and above all
enjoyable, with social and political issues largely ignored and even
biographical and true-life films presented as simple representations, all this
differs from what the documentary film and alternative cinema is trying to
achieve. The acting style withing the Brechtian film should have an
?alienating effect’ on the audience. The actors would use various techniques
to seperate themselves from the characters they were playing. Lines were
delivered as if simply quoting from the script, which had the effect of
seperating the actor from the part they were playing. It would disregard the 4th
wall of the theatre and address the audience directly. I will now look at German
expressionism (commonly cited as alternative cinema) and in particular Robert
Wiene’s Cabinet of Dr Caligari. This film displays many elements of Brechtian
theory, with it’s distorted view of reality. One reviewer started his critique
by saying: “Is the film what it is on the surface? Is Francis a madman who has
concocted the story? Or is it yet again reversed, with the framing device an
epilogue which illustrates how corrupt power protects itself? or, again, can any
part of the story be believed? Could some aspects be true and others false?…

The speculation produced in the minds of the audience have the same effect as
the scenery: they put everything off-balance. No one can be trusted. In this
way, the message about crippling power and the nature of authority is even
stronger because of its actual mentally disorientating quality.” (Brown, 98)
The film poses questions. It’s dream-like quality avoids a realist take and
therefore lets the audience pose its own questions and then answer these
questions, therefore in effect forming its own reality. The actors use
exaggerated gestures to externalise the characters’ emotions. The audience
discovers the characters’ emotions without being sucked into the world that
the characters inhabit. This style of acting was seen as a response to method
acting, a style developed by Stanislavsky between 1910 and 1920 and taken up by
actors such as Marlon Brando and Dustin Hoffman in modern cinema. German
expressionism used the actors as an extension of the sets, making a
psychological link between the two. The expressionist movement was clearly an
alternative to the mainstream and was similar in many ways to Brecht’s epic
theatre and in that respect can be called alternative cinema. However, it is
difficult to class German expressionist filmmakers as Brechtian in approach,
although there are similarities. German expressionism does not succeed in
breaking the fictional barrier, it distorts what is recogniseable enough to
increase the impact of the film. German expressionism along with soviet montage,
(and especially the films of Sergei Eisenstein) both bear similarities with
Brechtian theory, however, this is seen as more by coincidence rather than
influence. It was with the emergence of the French new-wave that Brechtianism
was embraced fully. Filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Goddard focused largely on the
audiences’ relationship with the action on screen, and their main aim was to
push back the boundaries that the mainstream cinema up until then had promoted.

in 1959 Jean-Luc Goddard released A Bout de Souffle (Breathless) which
illustrated how he was trying to experiment in film. Goddard has attempted to
remove many of the techniques used by mainstream film-makers to pull the
audiences into the filmic reality, and he has replaced them with characters that
talk to the audience, a total removal of transparent editing, and an
anti-illusionist method of acting. The film is a milestone in world cinema for a
number of reasons. Firstly its style of editing which, according to John Francis
Kreidl: “does not allow the viewer – like in the normal Hollywood film viewing
experience – to set up a preconceived notion how to take a shot and assign to it
meaning. Shots are cut in ways that confound anticipation the exact opposite of
the way the classical Hollywood film of the 1930’s sets up each successive
group of shots. Every act by the hero of “Breathless”, Michel Poiccard,
seems as if he had just, on the spur of the moment, decided to do what he
did.” (Kreidl, 80) Michel as a character often comments upon himself as a
character in the film, which distances Michel from the filmic world, and lets
the audience ask questions themselves as to what they would do. Michel has
chosen to go one way, would we have done the same? Whilst Michel asks questions
of Patricia, her vagueness in answering them allows the audience to step in and
answer them for her so giving the audience a feeling of participation, a feeling
that this is not reality and therefore we are allowed to enter the world and
choose the outcome. The cinematographic technique is ahead of its time, with
innovations in the jump cut (a few feet of film is cut in random places) and the
quick cut (short shots are cut out that break up the continuity of a given
scene). With these shots the audience is invited to fill in the missing gaps. In
one scene Michel is seen lying in Patricia’s bed, and in the next he is
walking out of the bathroom. The film also uses highly professional actors in
very amateurish situations which does not ring true, (the same situation would
arise if amateur actors were in professional situations). This technique adds to
the falseness of the film and the involvement of the audience. In 1967 Vent
D’Est was released. The French New-Wave had already petered out but here was a
film that embraced Brechtianism wholly, as Brecht remarked, “Character is
never used as a source of motivation; these people’s inner life is never the
principle cause of the action and seldom its principle result; the individual is
seen from outside.” (Brecht, 64) Vent D’est involved characters talking
directly to the camera, different characters using the same voice, and different
voices for the same character. Therefore, a distancing from reality occured and
as an audience, we, rather than following the plot in a logical fashion, have to
force our own perception onto proceeding to garner our own meaning from what we
see. Jean Marie Straub followed Brechtian theory closely in his work. His first
feature film, Not Reconciled, begins with a Brechtian quote, “Only violence
serves where violence reigns” and Bordwell and Thompson remarked that
“Straub… films invite us to consider the actors not as psychological beings
but as reciters of written dialogue. We thus become actively aware of our own
conventional expectations about film acting, and perhaps those expectations are
broadened a bit” (Bordwell, 97) Not Reconciled uses the theory that fiction in
the context of another time period was inevitably alienating for the audience.

In short, each period of history has its own beliefs and values inapplicable to
any other, so that nothing can be understood independently of its historical
context; Brecht called this ?Historicization’. In Not Reconciled, the
narrative flits around between differing time periods and does not clearly
seperate each period from the next, therefore, alienating the audience from the
events on screen. The actors in Not Reconciled spout their lines as if reciters
of written dialogue. Through this the audience, become aware of the expectations
of film acting and then they broaden these expectations which again helps to
alienate them. Brecht only briefly toyed with the film industry, making the left
wing communist picture Kuhle Wampe, yet his theories were applied liberally by
the French New-Wave cinema and can be seen as early as German Expressionism. The
German New-Wave cinema of the 1960’s also displayed many of Bertholt
Brecht’s theories, with directors such as Alexander Kluge displaying these
ideas in films such as Disorientated. The film Disorientated was typified by
episodic narrative, alienating acting and the seperation of sound and image.

alternative cinema is not just a term used to describe French, German and Soviet
cinema, although these were simply the countries most renowned for this type of
production. Countries such as Brazil, Iran, India and Britain have all produced
films classed as alternative or new-wave. The Brechtian philosophy, if used in
the production of film, will nearly always get the film the title of alternative
cinema because the concepts of pleasure, spectacle and identification all take a
backseat whilst the differing concepts of alienation, sporadic and episodic
narrative take the front seat and help the audience to understand the film on
many differing levels. Many barriers have been broken down in recent years with
directors such as Quentin Tarantino offering Jean-Luc Goddard as a major
influence in his work. Yet he is still classed as Mainstream because his films
gain high box-office receipts, although, at the same time, garnering ?cult’
status. The film-makers that emerged through the seventies, for example Stanley
Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Copolla and Arthur Penn, all displayed
prominent anti-Hollywood threads. Yet their box-office returns proved that the
so-called Hollywood rules of production set up in the studio years, can be
ignored and a specific effect achieved. These directors were great innovators
yet still gained huge box-office returns, which forged the alliance between the
alternative and the mainstream. Hollywood is still concerned with the economic
side of film-making yet it has been shown to be possible to innovate and also
side with the mainstream movement.

Makins, M (Managing Editor) (1992) Collins: English Dictionary. HarperCollins
Publishers Bordwell, D & Thompson, K (1997) Film Art: An Introduction.

McGraw-Hill. Willett, J (1964) Brecht on theatre. Methuen. Cook, P (1999) The
Cinema Book. Elsaesser, T From anti-illusionism to hyper-realism: Bertolt Brecht
and Contemporary Film. Brewser, B (1975-76) Brecht and the Film Industry.

Screen. 16(4). Heath, S (1975-76) From Brecht to Film: Theses, Problems. Screen.

16(4). MacCabe, C (1975-76) The Politics of Seperation. Screen. 16(4). Kuhle
Wampe. (1974) Screen. 15(2). Kreidl, J, (1980). Jean-Luc Godard. Boston: Twayne
Publisher. Internet Resources Romney, J. Praise be to Godard. The Guardian/The
Observer Visited Apr 2000 URL: http:// Feature_Story/interview
Brown (1998)The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. The Magic of the Movies Visited. Apr
2000. URL: Filmography A Bout de
Souffle (1960) Directed by Jean-Luc Godard. Written by Jean-Luc Godard. French:
Les Films georges de Beauregard, Imperia, Societe Nouvelle de cinematographie,
societe Nouvelle de Cinema. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) Directed by Robert
Wiene. Written by Hans Janowitz & Karl Mayer. Germany: Decla-Bioscop Kuhle
Wampe (1932) Directed by Slatan Dudow. Written by Slatan Dudow & Bertolt
Brecht. Germany & Switzerland: Praesens-Film AG, Prometheus Film. Not
Reconciled (1965) Directed by Daniele Huillet & Jean Marie Straub. Written
by Heinrich Bolle & Daniele Huillet. West German: Unavailable. Vent D’Est
(1969) Directed by Jean-Luc Godard ; Jean0Pierre Gorin Written by Sergio
Bazzini ; Daniel Cohn Bendit. French: Film Kunst, Anouchka Films, Polifilm.


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