Given that the general marginalization of my work has continued in the UK in various quarters over the years, I am very pleased that Tate Modern is now showing a selection of my films, linked to its exhibition of works by the Norwegian expressionist painter Edvard Munch.
A CD-Rom in the form of a lexicon that I hope to make available next year will detail aspects of the media crisis that I can only introduce briefly here.
When I use the word ‘media’ here, I am referring to the mass audiovisual media (MAVM), and ‘crisis’ - the vast and complex problem that has been growing ever since the nascent Hollywood cinema first turned to entertainment and commerce, rather than genuine communication, as its guiding principles. This decision necessitated the rapid development of a highly structured audiovisual language form - which I refer to as the ‘Monoform’ - to lock mass audiences into their seats.
The Monoform combines the traditional tools of the filmmaker (script and storyboard, camera framing, lighting, editing, music, sound effects, narration, etc.) into a particular process of fast-paced, monolinear narrative. It uses these filmic devices to maintain a power over the audience via a series of constantly changing impacts.
Given that it has been taught as standard practice to many generations of neophyte filmmakers, TV journalists, and students in thousands of institutions around the planet - and given the enforced lack of critical debate within the MAVM on the subject - it is little wonder that the ideology of the Monoform has now become a universal doxa (including for the public), and the only accepted way to produce and receive films and TV programmes.
It is ironic that what we call ‘the magic of the cinema’ usually refers to this standardised form, rather than to the true magic and democratic potential of the cinema (and even, I would venture to say, of television). We ignore the fact that the Monoform is but one of many different forms and processes that could be used in the cinema and on television. We ignore, refuse to develop, or marginalize onto the shelves of specialist film festivals and distributors alternative audiovisual forms that could allow the public to interact in a more open and pluralistic manner with the MAVM.
The subterranean process of the Monoform, its reliance on speed, fragmentation and hierarchical structures, the deceptive illusion of ‘reality’ it imparts - whether on TV or in so-called ‘documentary’ or ‘fiction’ films’ - has created over the years an increasingly powerful tool of global mass manipulation, with long-ranging social and political consequences.
The many complex psychological effects of the Monoform, aligned with the direct consequences of the MAVM’s promulgation of growth and the consumer society, could also explain our continuing inertia in the face of environmental disaster. I began to make amateur films in 1956, and joined the BBC in 1963. As an apprentice filmmaker I was taught that one must use the standard cinematic form in order to have an impact on the audience. And at the BBC we were also constantly subject to the notions of ‘objectivity’ and ‘impartiality’. It was not until the mid-1970s, when I worked with students at Columbia University (NY), deconstructing TV news broadcasts and historical ‘docudramas’, that the repetitious and decidedly non-objective aspect of the Monoform became evident.
Does this standardised language form exist in my own work?
In the films that I made prior to Columbia University - Culloden, The War Game, Privilege, The Gladiators, Punishment Park, Edvard Munch - I tried to challenge the concept of ‘media objectivity’, for it always seemed suspect to me, even before I became aware of the existence of the Monoform.
My aim in making films that appear to be ‘real’ has been to confront the carefully cultivated myth of ‘documentary reality’, in an effort to assist the public to re-examine many of the central premises behind the cinema and television. Premises that of course extend to works of ‘fiction’, which often hide their hierarchical (and commercial) ideologies behind the mantle of entertainment and ‘a good tale’.
However, and in reply to my own question, I do not wish to imply that there is nothing authoritarian or manipulative in my own work, especially in the films I made prior to the mid-1970s, which include many of the trappings of the Monoform - rapid editing that does not leave time for reflection, shock-cuts to impact on the audience, etc. It has to be said that these and other elements of the Monoform exist in my films alongside my attempts to subvert the notion of ‘objective reality’.
Most filmmakers today regularly use the Monoform, either from force of habit, or because they have been pressured, or because they enjoy doing so. Certainly, the history of the cinema shows us important examples of films using the Monoform, which have also developed internal elements (acting, photography, a slower rhythm, the scenario itself) to overcome the strictures of its standardisation. I would like to emphasise again that the Monoform is one audiovisual language among many others. The problem remains our refusal to debate the global issues resulting from the enforced imposition of the Monoform at the cost of nearly all alternative forms.
My last three films, The Journey, The Freethinker, La Commune, while hardly free of problems, have all attempted - in their use of time, space and alternative structures - to counter the Monoform. In the UK, two of these films have been screened only once in the past 20 years, and none of them are distributed there.
In reference to Edvard Munch and the various issues raised in this statement - I have very special feelings for this film, which is certainly the most intimate I have ever made. It was after my first encounter with the art and the anguish of this great Norwegian painter that I attempted to formulate a personal audiovisual expression that might somehow challenge the hierarchy of the contemporary media.
Including in Edvard Munch, I have always worked directly with the public in my films, incorporating their presence, feelings and opinions into the fabric of the period of history (or particular subject) that I was dealing with. I regard this interaction with the public as one of the most important threads in my work. The MAVM, on the other hand, seem to share a fear of the public, and hence need hierarcharical language forms to keep audiences subservient to ‘the story’.
It is often said that I am a ‘political’ filmmaker - a notion that is sometimes used to deny the existence of any filmic creativity in my work. But I believe that all audiovisual creativity is political - and vice-versa.
It is also said that I am ‘vague’ as to alternatives to the Monoform. But this presumes that I must define a specific response to this problem, rather than encourage a multiplicity of audiovisual processes and forms to grow from the alchemy of a pluralistic exchange between filmmakers and the public.
With all respect, I did not create the ‘Brave New World’ that we are plunging into. I happen to believe, more so than ever, that the fractured, standardised, hyper-speedy audiovisual overload of the MAVM (now also via the Internet) is a problem impacting every level of global society. I believe that I have a right to express this opinion, and I sincerely regret that it is still considered ‘paranoid’, ‘harsh’ or ‘one-sided’ of me to use my work to encourage a critical public debate on these issues.
There were many reasons for my feelings of affinity with Edvard Munch: the complex interweaving of past and present in his work, his boundary-breaking painterly form, the manner in which his protagonists stare directly at the viewer, the marginalization of his work, and the intensity of his feelings regarding relationships between men and women, children and family. One of Munch’s icon paintings, first painted in 1893, relates the anguish that he felt at seeing a blood-red sunset over the Oslo fjord, which he called a ‘great shriek in nature’. We hear this cry today, and we ignore it at our peril.