One possible definition of 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)
Although, this definition reflects my some of my own views about mainstream cinema being overly institutionalised, before trying to define an alternative to it I would like to spend a little time discussing what it is about mainstream approaches to movie making that I am seeking to move away from.
In the final chapter of Bordwell and Dawson’s book “The Way Hollywood Tells it: Story and Style In Modern Movies” (2006) entitled “What’s Missing?” the authors make the following claim “nearly all scenes in nearly all contemporary mass-market movies (and in most “independent” films) are staged, shot, and cut according to principles that crystallized in the 1910s and 1920s.” (p. 180) They go on to outline how the tools employed by filmmakers in the 1940’s to create shock and suspense in key film moments, such as: close-ups, rapid editing, racking focus, drifting camera etc. have today become standard practice for almost all scenes, dramatic, shocking or otherwise. These cinematic conventions, which strive to sustain, what Bordwell and Dawson refer to as type of filmmaking they call “intensified continuity” (in which even the most ordinary scenes are “heightened to compel attention and to sharpen emotional resonance” (p. 180)) have, they claim, not come without a price, describing how the average 120 minute feature is nowadays made up of no-less than 500 distinct movie shots of around 4 seconds in duration.
Bordwell and Dawson also make the point that this “intensified continuity” style of filmmaking “has cut itself off from some rich resources of classical filmmaking” outlining how an obsession with camerawork and editing has relegated actors and performance to appearing in moments they refer to as “walk and talk”, during which characters “spit out exposition on the fly”.
From these descriptions it is possible to build up a picture of contemporary film production as being in a situation where, as Bordwell and Dawson conclude, spectacle has overwhelmed nuanced performance and narrative, and where actors are seen as little more than props to be shunted around in ever more complex and over-mechanised shooting schedules.
To conclude then, the alternative cinema I am interested in is a form of cinema in which the movie making machine as described above, with its prescribed work flows and rigid structures, is inverted or used in a much looser and guerrilla style. Where acting and characterisation, story telling and scriptwriting are not seen as separate and distinct parts of a factory assembly line but are encouraged to grow together and inform each other. Where the actors are not hired extras but, as in Darren Aronofsky “The Wrestler” (2008), where the lines between performance and real life are blurred and the script is allowed to grow out of the actor’s lived experiences.
I don’t want to make sweeping generalisations here, or suggest that conventional approaches to acting, scriptwriting etc. cannot produce genuinely affecting and powerful results (they can) but what I hope to explore in this blog is a style of film making that moves away from this over mechanised approach. A style of filmmaking exemplified by artists such as Mike Leigh, Darren Aronofsky, Ruben Ostland, Ulrich Seidel, Cate Shortland and Andrea Arnold who try to redress the balance by relegating spectacle to a secondary position and by bringing performance and characterisation to the fore.
Bordwell, D., & Dawson. (2006). The way hollywood tells it: Story and style in modern movies (1st ed.). Berkeley, Calif;London;: University of California Press.