Posted by David Kalat on May 31, 2014
Several weeks ago, I posted an essay that claimed that the reason movies get made is to make money. I stand by that claim, and have spent the many of the last several weeks trying to explore the edges of it, but I’d like to clarify that I’m not saying that everyone who works in film is motivated solely by greed. I am saying that the people who work in film have bills to pay, mouths to feed, kids to put through college, etc. I’m sure there are some lofty-minded artists who resist and reject all that, and are only motivated to realize their own personal visions—but even they are better served by enjoying a modicum of commercial success. And that’s where we are this week—to see what happens to artists so determined to buck the system they end up compromising their own art worse than any studio hack could.
In the comments thread to my original post, John Cassavetes was put forth as an example of an independent filmmaker who provided his own financing and never had to sell-out any of his ideas to a moneyman. Cassavetes is perhaps the archetypal DIY visionary, a man who famously said “I hate entertainment!” and whose legendary refusal to capitulate to commercial concerns led him to mortgage his own house to finance A Woman Under the Influence.
Even if you’ve never seen a Cassavetes film, you are probably familiar with titles like Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, and Killing of a Chinese Bookie. His films are arthouse favorites familiar to serious cinephiles and have been shown on various cable networks. You can get a 5-DVD box set of his films (or in Blu-Ray if you prefer), branded under his name, from Criterion. He is the subject of numerous media profiles—including the book Cassavetes on Cassavetes.
These are the markers of a certain kind of success. The mistake is trying to compare Cassavetes’ success with, say, Michael Bay. That’s absurd. But as an independent low-budget filmmaker, he has achieved a rarefied degree of commercial success. Think about it like this: for Criterion to put out a 5-disc retrospective means he made at least 5 films, and has enough name recognition that the label can market the box under his name and expect to make back their investment.
I don’t see Cassavetes as a model for refusing to cooperate with the commercial side of cinema. The key fact here isn’t that he mortgaged his house, but that he didn’t lose his house when he did.
And he was enough of a businessman to found his own distribution company (Faces International) to handle his works—and this company aligned itself with arthouse juggernaut Janus Films, whose home video arm Criterion now sells his films on disc. Back in 2012, there was a lawsuit filed against his son Nick from two alleged disgruntled investors in Yellow. They claimed that they put in a $300,000 loan which Cassavetes demanded as a precondition to casting them in minor speaking parts in the film, and contributing a song to the soundtrack. These almost sound like Kickstarter rewards, except they happened a long time before Kickstarter. I have no insight into the merits of the lawsuit or its claims but one way or another, Cassavetes was able to be a groundbreaking pioneer of a certain kind of cinema, make his name, continue to make movies, and earn a loyal if modest fanbase because of the commercial availability of his films.
Put it this way—he had the good fortune to have his cake and eat it too. He didn’t have to compromise significantly, because what he did happened to suit an existing arthouse market well enough that he could keep working. But that’s not a sign of refusing to compromise—it’s a sign of not having to compromise. They’re two different things.
Michael Bay doesn’t have to compromise either—he likes making big splashy popcorn movies. No one forces him to. It just so happens that his tastes match to a particularly profitable market segment so he gets to keep working too, and get rich in the bargain.
Not every uncompromising artist was fortunate enough to get to keep their house. Sometimes that uncompromising stance had consequences. Especially for those artists whose work isn’t easily marketed, even to the niche markets of arthouses.
Ideally, I wish I could present some examples of filmmakers so obscure that not only have you not heard of them but neither have I. But that turned out to be impractical, so I’m going to talk about an artist whose work I truly love, but which is so prickly and challenging that Cassavetes seems mainstream by comparison.
Ulrike Ottinger is essentially a cinematic collage artist. She does not adapt literary sources into films so much as she appropriates familiar characters and story elements to re-combine in her own original ways, with ironic and unexpected juxtapositions. Her cinema is densely packed with all manner of cultural references: fairy tales, famous literature (both classic and pulp), cinematic forms and historical figures all stirred up in one big pot.
In her 1984 film The Image of Dorian Gray in the Yellow Press, Ottinger makes an acerbic commentary on mass media, sampling characters and ideas from the Dr. Mabuse films and Oscare Wilde’s notorious novel into an inscrutable avant garde rumination on style over substance.
While researching my book on Dr. Mabuse back in the late 1990s, I ran across a passing mention of this film in a German language text, and set out to find a copy. That was no small ordeal—eventually I found the US rights holder and persuaded them to let me watch it (more on that in a moment). It was a breathtaking thing—a bizarre mashup of the Dorian Gray and Dr. Mabuse stories as modern folk myths, with both roles recast with women that was at once true to the underlying fairy tales while also deconstructing them with mad abandon. It was one of the most daring and original things I covered in that book, and it saddened me that I was writing about it to a readership virtually prevented from ever seeing it.
Here we are twenty years later and the situation has not improved. Dorian Gray is not available on home video to the average public. The US rights holder is an outfit called Women Make Movies. Their slogan is “Movies By and About Women,” which puts me in mind of Portlandia’s Women and Women First bookstore. They don’t have an online ordering system (why? Is a functional e-commerce web site too masculine?) but you can download a PDF catalog of the titles they offer. Most of these are priced with rental in mind—their primary audience appears to be Women’s Studies course that rent videos for classroom screenings. Back in 1999 that’s how Dorian Gray was priced, and why I had to go to such lengths to negotiate an alternative because I didn’t have $350 to pay to watch a single film, and they had evidently never thought that anyone other than a programmer for a film course might show an interest in that film.
Women Make Movies no longer list Dorian Gray in their catalog. Ottinger has set up her own web site to sell some of her movies directly (but also mysteriously depends on customers to print out an order form and mail it in). Ottinger does not list Dorian Gray in her own site, and the titles she does sell are priced in such a way as to scare off buyers (prices range to 80 or 120 Euros). If you were in Brooklyn a couple of months ago you could have caught a screening of Dorian Gray—everyone else is out of luck.
But this is the 21st century, the age of the Long tail: Over at Warner Archive you can get gorgeous copies of all kinds of forgotten, unloved things including really crappy made-for-TV movies. The web site is easy to manage, there are frequent sales, and if you want they’ll stream it to you. On Amazon there are specialists like Ben Model who have rescued forgotten silent comedies by such obscure performers as Musty Suffer. Yes, you can own a set of restored Musty Suffer films, and with Amazon Prime you can have them tomorrow if you want. No movie is too obscure or weird to find an audience, unless you so completely refuse to participate in the commercial distribution of your movies that no one ever gets the chance.
Now, admittedly the film is not easily marketed. It’s almost 3 hours long, and ponderously slow. At one point the already leaden pace slacks even further to accommodate an almost two-reel long “opera” consisting of nude figures performing so far away from the camera that they are almost stick figures. But for those willing to give into its distinctive style, it offers unique pleasures.
Ulrike Ottinger is a highly acclaimed director of multifarious skills. She writes her own screenplays, which she directs and produces, while also serving as cinematographer, set designer and more, as the need and occasion arises. She is one of the rarefied few female directors in Europe to be known internationally.
But her films are relegated to art house screenings. And this is the problem.
Her contempt for the commercial film industry and refusal to compromise so much as a single frame to appeal to wider audiences has kept her works from being seen by anything beyond a tight circle of intellectuals and art theorists. Her provocative ideas and “cinematic ethnography” can have little effect on mainstream society when she merely preaches to the converted. Ottinger makes films for herself.
As a consequence, Ottinger’s feminist deconstruction of the male-gaze of classic genre tales actually isn’t challenging or provocative at all. It isn’t thought-provoking or original. It could be—if presented to the right audience. Say, the male-dominated fandoms who know the original stories. But those audiences, the ones potentially scandalized by it, potentially enervated or inspired, they get excluded. Instead, by relegating her works to screenings at women’s studies courses, Ottinger self-selects her audience to people just like her, who already share her viewpoint.
Indeed, she has often complained that her audiences are too small, and that the public has failed to understand her work. Yet this lament has not compelled her to make any changes in her approach to make her ideas better understood. She complains that her films only play in museums and special retrospectives in major cities like New York. However, one of the stumbling blocks to finding mainstream commercial distribution for her films is their patience-straining length, and she will neither cut down her finished films nor agree to rein in her indulgence on future projects.
Ottinger deeply resents her exile from the film community, and is quick to identify her enemies.
Instead of accepting any responsibility for limiting her own audience, she finds fault with the distributors for their blinkered bottom-line mentality.
In addition to blaming the distributors for their bourgeois tastes, she also criticizes the German government for not supporting artists. Or rather, for not supporting true artists, as she defines the term. “They work with stars, not artists,” she says of government subsidies.
She blames feminism and other minority movements for their “lobbyism,” defining minorities by their difference from the majority and thereby relegating them to a “self-chosen ghetto.”
She finds little support from other di-rectors of the German New Wave. “I have nothing in common with Schlöndorff and his conventional, conservative literary adaptations,” she proclaims.
She blames, too, the audience, for its ignorant tastes: “The daily regimen of many hours of TV training limits the visual habits of most people so sharply to television conventions that they are effectively unable to understand any other visual and aural language,” she wrote in a 1983 essay. “If one tries to use different possibilities … to reach a general audience, one is almost bound to fail. The resistance is absolute.”
In other words, everyone is wrong but her, and everyone is ganging up on her to force unacceptable artistic compromises.
In the film of her own life, Ottinger casts herself in the unenviable position of permanent outcast. She is the angry voice outside the studio gates, her fist raised insolently in the air as she rails against the injustice of her exile. She has been unable, or unwilling, to accept her marginality, but also unable or unwilling to cleave a middle path of compromise that would allow for her artistic innovation to reach its intended audience.
Did you find this article to be of a patience-straining length, and full of idiosyncratic obsessions? I suspect the only people who will have read this far are those who already agree with me. But that’s the price I pay for being uncompromising. :)
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