Ever since the beginnings of the film medium, certain cinephiles, committed to its progress, have periodically felt a chill. A promising start, a fresh approach, and it somehow takes a wrong turn, causing some observers to despair of the medium's chances of survival as a serious, vital endeavor for the exploration of the human soul. Sometimes it's a catastrophic economic slump or a world war that is the cause of collapse. At others, it's success itself that isolates artists from their sources of inspiration.
Just after I was born in 1958 there appeared such a large number and variety of brilliant and challenging films that a new audience for them came of age. Stanley Kauffmann was moved to announce the arrival of a Film Generation. Within a few years, however, something happened to persuade most of that audience to move on to other things. It was largely due to a shift in world film toward more commercialized productions, but it was also because of the short lifespans of most filmmakers' originality and creativity. No sooner had Antonioni arrived with his extraordinary trilogy than he signed a three-picture contract with MGM and disappeared into Death Valley. Truffaut, who had made three of the most ebullient films of the New Wave in succession, fell to making lifeless thrillers or poor sequelae for his alter-ego Antoine Doinel. Two great filmmakers of the 50s, Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini, went into sharp nose-dives halfway through the 60s. Some critics, noticing this rather abrupt decline of one of the most heartening periods in film history, commented on it, with one of them (Dwight Macdonald) abandoning film criticism altogether.
Since then we have seen great directors appear, from Italy (Moretti, Amelio), Sweden (Troell), France (Tavernier), Belgium (the Dardenne brothers), Japan (Kore-eda), and Taiwain (Tsai Ming-Liang) whose films seemed all the more impressive in their very isolation. But no movements worth mentioning, no groundswells of talent. Susan Sontag wrote about the death of a certain taste in films, while Godfrey Cheshire commented on the actual death of celluloid. Neither seems to have been terminal as of yet.
This past week, in the midst of consulting one of the oldest books of film theory ever written, on Tuesday I was confronted by BBC Culture's The 21st Century's 100 greatest films. While such lists are evidence that enthusiasm for film is alive and well, they also demonstrate the extent to which clear judgement is virtually extinct. Fifteen and a half years is not nearly enough time to make a hundred "great" films. It made me wonder what a list would look like of the 20th Century's 100 greatest films if it had been compiled in 1916.
Needing a restorative (if not a chronic), I turned to Paul Rotha's monumental book, The Film Till Now, which I first encountered in the early 70s. Published in 1930 when the silent film was breathing its last, Rotha allowed it to be re-published in 1949, with additional material ("The Film Since Then") supplied by the American film scholar Richard Griffith. In his preface to the new edition, Rotha wrote:
"Films recollected in memory, says Richard Griffith, are apt to be biased by nostalgia. How right he is! When I was fortunate enough to spend some months at the Film Library in New York in 1937 and '38, I found that out only too well. On the other hand seeing old films again brings pleasant surprises; things you never saw and certainly implications which you were too inexperienced to observe. In general, however, films of the past usually live in our mind as being better than they really were, especially fiction films. Memory adds values to them that were never there. Yet divorcing technique from view-point, one realises now how much one missed by not understanding fully a director's aim at the time, or not knowing the conditions under which a film was made, or the purpose indeed for which the film was made at all. Since the manuscript of this book was first written, I have at least found out that the more you become involved in making films the less you know about them. Sometimes I have sat in a cutting-room with film draped round the walls and overflowing the bins and realised just how little one does know about the infinite possibilities of this wonderful medium, with its magic property of joining image to image and mixing sound with sound. Certainly I would not again have the audacity to try and write a survey of the world's cinema now that I know not only how difficult it is to make a film but how much more difficult it is to find the economic conditions in which you can use the medium with honesty and sincerity. It is always tragic to me that a film-director must spend some three-quarters of his time negotiating the ways and means to make the film he wants to make and only a quarter in actually making the film itself. To the director with something he thinks it important to say the means of production are so hard to come by that much creative time is spent in merely getting access to the expensive materials of film production. These past thirty years have seen a steady concentration of all means of film production in Western Europe and the United States. With the possibility of making very large returns both from a home-market and from audiences overseas, the film industries of most countries have now become more than ever before a matter of financial investment and international trade bargaining at the highest level. The film is no longer the happy-go-lucky investment of small-time entrepreneurs. It is gambling in public taste on the grand scale and has tended inevitably to be restricted to those controlling the other great international manufactures.
"The screen's reflection of a people's character and ideals and traditions, its unlimited power to create goodwill and promote understanding, its unequalled importance as a medium for public communication are motives which have been largely overlooked in the scramble to monopolise this universal show-business. Governments, banks, insurance companies, electrical cartels and other holders of big capital guide the destiny of the motion picture medium rather than the creative artists who seek to use it as an outlet for their ideas and imaginations. Almost the whole potential of the cinema as an instrument of public education has been neglected by the Industry's controllers in their pursuit of big returns. Little attempt, except in the field of documentary films, has as yet been made to use this powerful medium as a contribution to world thought. It has been characteristic of the Industry always to aim to produce its films for the largest possible number of people, and hence stand to gain the biggest revenue. Seldom have the serious social responsibilities attached to such an undertaking been recognised by the executives of the Industry. If the same disregard for responsibility were to obtain in the publishing or broadcasting worlds, public alarm would be at once expressed. The cinema has grown up as a cheap and convenient form of community amusement causing experiment in its artistic potentialities to be scarce and difficult to achieve. Only recently has it aroused the attention of educationalists and those concerned with social progress and moral welfare. Up till lately the interest of capitalist governments has been mainly confined to the film's commodity value and its vast yield in taxes. The showmen and promoters have been left to do what they liked with their adolescent Industry. To-day, they not illogically resent interference from the outside. The fact that the head of a Government department or a member of Parliament can have made himself knowledgeable about the complex internal affairs of the Industry has come as rather a shock. But the making of sincere films by men who have something valuable and not necessarily unentertaining to say in the world has become a dim prospect when viewed in relation to the constant need to keep screen-space and studio-space filled, the call to save dollars, the spread of trade and what are hypocritically called 'ways of life' by film exploitation, the need not only to relate box-office revenue to production cost but perhaps to adjust this picture to make money and that one to lose it in order to satisfy an accountant's balance-sheet. To produce a good fiction film to-day is often a matter of luck, or the stern insistence of a director having the guts and faith to stick by his intentions. When I see a Crossfire, a Miracle or an Overlanders, I give thanks to someone somewhere who has broken through the defences."
Rotha continues in some destail to assess the condition of the film medium in 1949. But what is striking about the comments quoted so far is the extraordinary passion that Rotha expresses. His words on film are those of a believer. Like the poets prior to Milton who believed implacably in a life after death, Rotha's faith in the medium was unshakable. He was convinced not only of the persistence of serious filmmaking in the future but in its preeminence as the most vital artistic medium.
But Rotha's words were also a warning against the growing difficulties of "adult" contributions to film. He could see powerful financial interests trying to control what they regarded as nothing more than a profitable market. What Rotha could not have foreseen was the disintegration of the once-impregnable Hollywood studio system and the breakup of its monopoly on filmmaking in America. It is sad to speculate what Rotha would make of BBC Culture's list of the 21st Century's 100 greatest films. Not only would he see the extraordinary alteration of the medium itself, but how the arbiters of taste have been transformed into fashion-following fanboys, as immature and ignorant as the average consumer.