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100 Years of Cinema and Not Much to Celebrate

By Richard Leacock

A woman smiles while looking towards the baby she's carrying on her back. From Robert Flaherty's 'Nanook of the North' (1922).

We are told that 100 years ago, when our grandparents first saw the films of the Lumiere brothers, they were astounded and came in droves to see more. These brief films were mini- documentaries, casual observations of everyday life. Of course, since there was the necessity of setting up a hand-crank camera on a bulky tripod, what went on before it had to be somewhat organized: a reenactment. Nothing wrong with that; they worked, they were admired, and they still are.

Today our cinemas show films that are designed to attract a maximum audience from every country in the world. The hub is Hollywood. The sole aim is to make a maximum profit. In order to achieve that aim, a system based on the star actor has evolved. A star is created, nurtured, advertised, and promoted. Eventually he or she becomes a kind of monster that turns on its creator, as in Frankenstein, demanding more and more money, which in turn increases the pub­lic interest, until now a star is to be paid $15 million to act in a childish story that will last a couple of hours for a project­ed cost of $150 million!

These films are not made to interest a national culture. They must sell everywhere, so the dialogue is dubbed for each of dozens of languages. Yes, the voice of the $15 million actor doesn't even come from him or her. What can possibly be the virtue of an actor who is mute? This is a gigantic con game, but, like the lottery, people buy it. It works.

Television, both broadcast and cable, is an auxiliary to this supergame. The audience is, of course, much larger, but the revenue is only indirectly from the "box office." Numbers are what count. The BBC, that pillar of respectability, recently canceled a show because only eight and a half million people were watching it. I am not claiming that this show should have been continued; it was probably not very good. I am horrified at the reasoning. Imagine what kind of books would be printed if they had to sell in numbers such as this. These problems are not new. They are merely developing like a cancer, and, like a cancer, they will eventually kill.

Already by 1921 the rule of the Hollywood system was established.  My friend and mentor Robert Flaherty, working with equipment hardly different from that of the brothers Lumiere, had spent years living and working with the people of the Arctic, his friends and helpers whom he loved and admired. He made a film with them, intending to share their lifestyle with other peoples. They made the film together, and Flaherty took it to the heads of the cinema world in New York, who already knew that such films of life were a disaster in the new cinema world that they had created. Where was the star? What was the story? The chase? The romance?How much had it cost?

Flaherty succeeded, the story goes, by getting Roxy to drink a few too many and sign a contract. The next day Roxy decided that the only way to save his neck was to "tin-can" Nanook to his latest Harold Lloyd feature—that is to say: If you want to show the feature, you must run Nanook with it. The scam worked, and Nanook became the first and only box office hit "documentary" of our age. None of Flaherty's subsequent films made it.

It is not that a vast audience is being denied their right to see a particular kind of film. The audience whom I want to see my films is small: about the same group of people who read serious nonfiction books. I'm told that best seller means about 10,000 hardback copies in England, with another 100,000 in paperback. Can we reach an audience of this magnitude and make a modest amount of money with a film?

Add another caveat: We should be able to see what we want, when we want, where we want, at a reasonable price. This eliminates television, as most films are shown once, and at the wrong time for us!

How to solve this problem? Believe me, it is possible.

We are talking about movies of excellent quality, made by individual artists, to communicate with a substantial audience in your own country (language) as your primary and essential source of satisfaction.

How: For the last six years I have been working with Valerie Lalonde, making movies that we want to make on video Hi8. We use the smallest "ama­teur" cameras with a superb microphone attached. We make working edits on relatively cheap VHS equipment at home, and then, when we know we have a movie that we like and believe in, we rent very fancy digital Beta equipment and online with that. The only notable ex­penses are at that final stage, but we can still make a half-hour movie for no more than about $4,000. And almost all of this expense comes at the end, when you know what you have.

During the last six years, we have made eight such films. The major problem is distribution. Videocassettes are not good quality; they are awkward and not more than a temporary answer. They are not expected to improve because an­other format will replace them: the videodisc. We are told that within the next two years a disc system, perhaps an upgraded CD-ROM, which will carry about two hours of quality video, vast amounts of text, and superb sound, will be available. The unit cost of manufacturing these disks is minimal. In effect, we will have the video book or video magazine that can be produced by discerning publishers, reviewed by journals, sold by bookstores, and viewed in the comfort of your home, whenever you want, at a reasonable price—read, reread, treasured, rejected, shared, debated, all as you, the viewer, decide.

The Lumiere films lasted about one minute each. There is no way these could get shown in the modern cinema or on television except perhaps with condescension on a "cultural" program station such as Arte. Film subjects must have a duration, not too short, which in TV­ land means about 28 minutes, and not too long, which means exactly 86 minutes. The CD that we have in mind can con­tain films of one minute, films of ten hours! More! Movies that integrate text and video, in which, for example, the video provides the feel, the texture of a situation, and the text provides hard nosed statistical data that are essential to a proper understanding. Visual jokes, erotica, poetic delights, singular sights...all in the amounts that they warrant rather than in a configuration designed to fit an arbitrary rule of the mar­ ket world. This notion is a "market" an­swer to a "market prison."

From the point of view of one who believes in direct, personal observation, the advance from the work of the brothers Lumiere is threefold: the mobility of the camera, synchronous sound, color. These additions have made possible the capture of spontaneous behavior by a rare group of cineastes who have the patience, skill, and belief that the world around us is infinitely fascinating. As Leo Tolstoy reportedly said upon first seeing a film, "We will no longer need to invent stories, we will be able to capture them from real life."

However, in the early 1950s I was sure that television offered a solution to the nonfiction filmmaker; in the early '60s, with Robert Drew, D.A. Pennebaker, and others, I thought that we had solved all the problems of filmmaking; in the early seventies, I developed synch­ sound Super-8, which was going to make all kinds of things possible, and it did no such thing; so now, at 73, I doubt that I will live to see a solution. Someone is bound to come along and find a more profitable way that will screw the whole thing up!

But, eternal optimist that I am, I believe that we must keep trying.

Paris-based Richard Leacock, a pioneer of cinéma vérité, is a past recipient of the IDA Career Achievement Award.