New Institutional Theory And The Cinema Field…

Just came across an interesting article in the New Media and Society Journal entitled, “Shielding Idiosyncrasy from Isomorphic Pressures: Towards Optimal Distinctiveness in European Filmmaking”. I was initially attracted to the article by the abstract, which seemed to fall in line with my own thoughts on this subject of film production and its homogenising and stifling effect on creativity. Here’s a quote from the abstract:

This paper advances a micro theory of creative action by examining how distinctive artists shield their idiosyncratic styles from the isomorphic pressures of a field. We argue that, in a cinema field, managing artistic pressures for dis- tinctiveness versus business pressures for profits drives filmmakers’ quest for optimal distinctiveness.

Anyway, have just been reading further and the article mentions New Institutional Theory, which, again, touches upon some of the points I have been struggling to conceptualise myself  – defining institutions as “social structures that have attained a high degree of resilience. [They] are composed of cultural-cognitive, normative, and regulative elements that, together with associated activities and resources, provide stability and meaning to social life… This way of conceiving  institutions as being comprised of both material and ideological aspects is very interesting. Alvarez et al. take their analogy further “institutions are transmitted by various types of carriers, including symbolic systems, relational systems, routines, and artefacts” going on to describe institutions as being both stable and volatile “institutions by definition connote stability but are subject to change processes, both incremental and discontinuous”. 

The article then goes on to define some of the keywords used by New Institutional Theory,  such as the word ‘field’. Here’s what it says about ‘fields’. “To a large extent, it [a field]  is ‘coterminous with the application of a distinctive complex of institutional rules’ (Scott, 1995: 135), which constitute ‘coercive’, ‘normative’ and ‘mimetic’ isomorphic pressures (DiMaggio and Powell, 1991). To gain acceptance and inclusion, organizations tend to abide by those rules and conventions leading to standardization of practices and isomorphism (Strandgaard Pedersen and Dobbin, 1997).” 

The article then makes parallels with the film industry, making the point that although film projects are temporary systems “that pull together cultural, financial and material inputs” they operate in the same way as more permanent ‘fields’, such as those to be found in traditional industrial models. The journal article then goes on to describe some of the elements  of the ‘cinema field’ in this way – ”the central actors in a national cinema field would be the national Film Institute and its consultants, film schools, film producers, distributors, cinema theatre owners, film critics and so forth. A film  project is one of the most important events in the field because it brings together most of the various players in a field.” 

“A cinema field experiences a range of isomorphic forces. Film-making conventions, endorsed throughout formal schooling and/or with award giving, provide a normative ground for standardisation.” 

The books I have been reading (the article I mention at the start and all the other ones I have just downloaded about New Institutional Theory) all look very interesting and relevant. From what i can gather the ideas are based upon the writings of sociologist  Max Weber from early last century and his critiques of rationalism and the protestant work ethic. Anyway, here is a seemingly relevant quote I just liberated from google images and a suitably stern Mr Weber.

References 

Alvarez, J. L., Mazza, C., Pedersen, J. S., & Svejenova, S. (2005). Shielding idiosyncrasy from isomorphic pressures: Towards optimal distinctiveness in European filmmaking. Organization12(6), 863-888.

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Assumptions about Hierarchy and Hegemony in Film Production…

Assumptions about Hierarchy and Hegemony in Film Production…

Ok, so have been doing lots of thinking about my overlapping areas of interest surrounding film making practice, especially regarding the many assumptions and habits embedded into cinema’s highly controlled production process. So, what are these assumptions? Well, an interesting one is the idea that film production is always hierarchical. There seems to be a relatively easy-to-follow pecking order downwards (as I write this I am already disagreeing with myself – of course it is not this straight forward but I am going with this line of reasoning anyway to see where it takes me)  from the producer and the financiers, to those involved in writing and  directing, then i guess we have the acting talent (with its own inherent hierarchies of fame and audience-pulling potency), set-designers/art directors, directors of photography and cinematographers, sparks, focus pullers, grips, extras, not to mention post production specialists etc… ending i suppose with the ones at the bottom of this hegemonic chain, the runners etc..

Of course this a really contestable and questionable list but I am sure that most would agree with me when I say that the director, the actors and the runners involved in a film’s making aren’t really existing within the same areas of influence – or power. I would even dare to argue that notions of hegemonic organisation are built into the filmmaking process. Especially in light of theories such as the “Auteur” theory with its elevation of film directors to almost demiurgical  status. Here’s something I just downloaded from the google image which might make my (rather obvious) point for me.

And here’s another one, this time including ‘the writer’.

Ok, so why am i stating the obvious? Mmmmm – good question (scratching my head and thinking). I suppose there’s something about the unquestioning acceptance of the above hierarchies which bothers me. It seems so unchallengeable and obvious that films are made in the above manner and that the roles of film production are demarcated with all their inherent power relations built into them. Yet, there is something about the architecture of film  production that smacks of the ‘industrial revolution’ and the factory system. As if this structure had been brought into existence, not to produce the best ‘art’, but for maximum efficiency and production of capital, and that like a factory, this ‘machine’ seeks nothing greater than to make a profit from the standardised product it churns out.

Workers-punching-buttons--001.jpg

For in absolute honesty I do find a lot of films have literally been “churned out” – spewed forth from these automatic industrial structures into culture. To go further than this I would also say that there is something automatic and involuntary about this habitual production that is culturally destructive, for it seems (to me) that with each film created, a hidden ideology of what filmmaking IS and MUST BE becomes reenforced. A hidden code that every wanna-be writer, director, film-school-graduate, actor, composer etc. carries in their head – that limits their choices – over process, subject matter, what to expect from creative relationships (and a bunch other stuff), how much a film costs etc…

Why am i saying all this? MMMmm (scratches head again and wonders whether to spill the beans). I suppose it’s because at the moment i feel creatively unable to write, and that somehow ‘having-a-pop’ at cinema history is better than blaming my own creative aridity and lack of inspiration. I suppose…  I am frustrated and pulled in different ways – between writing commercial genre driven horror films or action movies and making something more satisfying.  It’s as if in my head there is a notion of what a “well made film” (“parallels with Brecht’s “well made play”) should be, and yet at the same time I know instinctively that to make a “well made film” would somehow not be enough.

Anyway, I think I am talking myself up a cul-de-sac, so, for the sake of a crude demonstration I will use a musical analogy to explain how unquestioned assumptions regarding how art is created can be limiting.


CRUDE MUSICAL ANALOGY…

Imagine an alien floating in space.  An alien who has traveled a gazillion miles to earth because She wants to create spontaneous music and because she has heard that the earth is the place to do it. Anyway, imagine she lands in Europe in the late nineteenth century and starts to discover western classical music with all its inherent 200 year old conventions and hierarchical structures – its conductors and separate composers, with its principal soloists and first and second violinists – with its concertmasters and  pecking order of huge collectives of instrumentalists and vocalists,   all of whom are contributing to the production of an awe inspiring and dramatic music played for a public who have paid money to hear exactly that.

Let’s imagine, though, that our Alien Sister really wants to create music that is something altogether different – and that maybe what she really wants is to learn how to improvise, how to create a melody out of  nothing and to explore a musical idea for as long as she likes whilst performing to an audience who have other notions about what music IS and SHOULD BE. So, deciding to leave, she flies back into space angry as hell at being given bad information –   but –  just as she is about to press warp drive, she hears floating on a breeze from far beneath her, another kind of music altogether – an enchanting trill of a flute,  a strange drone, and the rhythms of the tabla rising up somewhere from the Indian subcontinent. For what stops her from leaving is the fact that  this music isn’t grand and of the colossal, industrial scale  she grew tired with in the west (that is always played the same way, and that enslaves the musicians who produce it in eternal deference to the composer) to her, this music is alive – as if it were writing itself and unfolding in the moment and could do so, if it wanted to, for ever. And she realises that this is the music she wants to create!!! So she flies to India and is happy at last.

Apologies for the long analogy, I guess what I was trying to do when I started this blog was try to understand what exactly I find so bothersome about the standard filmmaking  practice.

Some Scenes From Godard’s “Alphaville” (1965)

Some Scenes From Godard’s “Alphaville” (1965)

Some images from one of my favourite Godard films, “Alphaville” (Godard  1965) which, despite being about a futuristic world where citizens are murdered for thinking illogically, was actually filmed without any special effects or futuristic sets, in real Parisian locations.

I find this transformative aspect of Godard’s imagination extremely intriguing and his confidence in undertaking such a project extremely heartening.

The following is one of my absolute favourite moments in all of cinema which is achieved with nothings more than creative backlighting, music and a voice over (not to mention Anna Karina)

 

 

Ruben Ostlund

Ruben Ostlund

Ruben Ostlund (b – 1974) is a Swedish filmmaker who has written and directed 3 feature films to date – Force Majeure (2014), Involuntary (2008) and Play (2011). His films have gained notoriety for their extremely long shot length and for their controversial content which,  the Guardian’s  (Thursday 9 April 2015 

I was drawn to Ostlund’s work after seeing his latest film “Force Majure” (2014) (you can read the full Guardian review here) which charts the disintegration of a wealthy Swedish couple’s marriage during their vacation in a plush ski lodge.  I was so impressed with the film, especially the nuanced performances he manages to capture from his cast and the slow ponderous way he uses the camera – which felt more akin to an instrument of analysis, unflinchingly scrutinising  the psychologies of his suffering subjects.

After seeing “Force Majure” I was interested to know more about Ostlund and his approach to filmmaking which seemed to be distinctly different to that of the mainstream industry. Here is Ostlund talking about his  motivating philosophy behind his films in an interview from filmmaker magazine. (The person he refers to in his comment being his long time production manager, Erik Hemmendorff.)

“We wanted to find a new way of expression that we thought other films were lacking. We also decided that if we have a film we are interested in, the production [schedule] should be made out of the content and not vice-versa. So often you have content, but then you just put it into the same production machinery as everything else, and what’s coming out of that production machinery in the end is quite similar to all the other films.

Here Ostlund seems to be articulating my own feelings about the generic nature of much of today’s film production machinery  and the homogenising and standardising effect it has on most film content. He goes on to outline his concern with the overly mechanistic approach to filmmaking (which has distinct parallels to the quotes from my 2nd blog post and Bordwell and Dawson’s critique of standard Hollywood practice – which led him to develop a totally different approach to shooting schedule, “I don’t want to put all my time when it comes to moviemaking to moving the camera around. Most productions are like, “Oh, we have to move the camera, we have to go to another angle,” and you don’t even have time to concentrate on the image and what’s happening in front of the camera.”

What I find interesting in this comment is Ostlund’s realisation of the need to question common filmmaking practice, almost as if there is, built into standard processes, an unreflective and unconscious aspect to film production methods that unwittingly delimits creative potentialities. Here Ostlund again reiterates this concern as he talks about scriptwriting ‘conventions’,  “I think one of the most boring things I know is to read scripts in American standard format.” … “I’d rather write in a more literary way, I guess, and really try to find out exactly what is interesting about the scene and try to highlight that. If there’s something that the characters are thinking about, I can write one page about what they are thinking just to try to get to know, what am I aiming for when I am shooting this scene?” Thinking about Ostlund’s comments are extremely enlightening and bring to mind an experience I had a few years ago when I read the script for Bruce Robinson’s  “Withnail and I”(1998) . The one thing that shocked me about the script was how off-topic it strayed, even breaking the cardinal rule of scriptwriting by including jokes that only the reader of the script could be privy to and that were never intended for inclusion in the movie. Ostlund’s scripts are also non conventional as can be seen in his cartoon book version of the script for Morce Majure here .

To conclude then I would like to show a clip from one of Ostland’s earlier films called “Autobiographical Scene Number 6882” (2005) in which the film maker thwarts the obsession with editing and camera positioning, opting instead for a fixed camera position, wide depth of field and extremely long shot length which gives room for a style of ensemble acting more akin to  Jean Renoir than to a film made this millennium.

References

Robinson, B. (1998). Withnail and I. Bloomsbury Publishing UK.

Naked Flame

Naked Flame

As an addendum to my first blog  I would like to post a link to a film I made when I was studying at Derby University for a B.A. in Film  back in the early 1990’s. The film in question is called “Naked Flame” and was shot on 16mm film two weeks before final submission in my final year.

The reason I want to post this film is because I really like it. This is not arrogance, though, as much of what I make these days doesn’t move me and most of the time I feel as though I am tied up by invisible restrictions  that I am barely even aware of.

Here is the film…

“Naked Flame”, although far from perfect, has a very interesting poetic structure and seems to be following different rules to the linear narrative-driven mainstream approach to filmmaking. What I also like about the film is the ambiguous nature of both the narrator  who is he? who does he speak for?)  and of the skewed sense of place which the film offers us.   Most films try to appear to be firmly located in a knowable objective universe, offering the viewer a clear sense of place, location and spatiality, while this film revels in illogicality and spatial inconsistency.

Another reason I wanted to post this film  is because I would like to use this blog to somehow find a way to understand how it was I came to make this film in the first place. This might sound a bit odd given that I wrote and shot the piece, but to be honest I always saw the film as a minor miracle and have only the vaguest recollections as to how it took the shape it did.

What I do remember about making the film (and why I call it a minor miracle) was being very unsure of what I was doing, following only the vaguest of artistic hunches from ideation right through to editing. As I write this now I can clearly see myself sitting at the Steinbeck 16mm editing suite back in Derby tentatively chopping up the expensive (for a struggling student)  strips of 16mm film and being so distraught and angry with myself for each potentially ruinous new cut that I threw away all my footage in despair. However, as I salvaged the film and threaded it back onto the editing console I made a mistake and put in the  pieces of footage in the wrong order and in an instant was shocked and amazed to see that the film had rejigged itself surreptitiously into the order it is now in today. I can also clearly remember that it was only a few more hours work to permanently settle on a final sequence.

photo (1)

I am also adding a couple of paintings I made that year (1991) (nothing to do with my degree or anything really) which have the same interesting surreal, mosaic-like structure which I feel is at the heart of the film “Naked Flame” and which I would like to rediscover.

Alternative Cinema vs. Mainstream Cinema

 

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.

References 

Bordwell, D., & Dawson. (2006). The way hollywood tells it: Story and style in modern movies (1st ed.). Berkeley, Calif;London;: University of California Press.

How I Intend To Use This Blog..

I intend to use this blog as platform to explore my ideas relating to film making and my own practice. This is especially important to me at the moment as I have recently started an M.A. in T.V. and Film at Hertfordshire University and really need to start thinking critically and creatively about the form and content of the films I want to make. I will be writing and shooting a 10-20 minute short in semester C (April 2016) and having a place to collate my reflections, influences & inspirations will be really useful.

My approach to writing this blog isn’t clear to me as yet but I do hope to use it is a tool to gain a deeper understanding of how to differentiate my own film practices from those of the mainstream commercial movie making practices in general. I also want to spend some time deconstructing the myriad ritualistic, unchallenged, and unconscious techniques and approaches which, I feel, constitute today’s mainstream Hollywood approach.

My hope is that once I have spent time considering some of these broader critical issues, I will have a much clearer idea about the kind of film I want to make for my Semester C project and  I can then start to use my blog creatively as a tool for ideation, script development etc.

With these points in mind I have created 4 sub categories for my blog postings – 

  1. critically thinking – I will use this archive to store my broader reflections on the state of film as a cultural art form
  2. inspiration – this will be my library of filmmakers and artists who influence me
  3. my work – I will use this category to store my own script, film, work etc.
  4. uncategorised – anything else that grabs my interest

To help me in this initial  critical thinking stage I have been reading a number of very interesting books and journal articles which I will be referencing and discussing in my subsequent posts…

deconstruction_of_innocence_by_sash_kash-d475828