in Profiles | 06 SEP 96
Featured in
Issue 29

Cinema is Dead, Long Live the Cinema

Celebrating 100 years of cinema

in Profiles | 06 SEP 96

Art and film have a troubled and incestuous history. Orson Welles, for example, may have attained auteur status with innovative and revolutionary cinematic aesthetics while struggling within the daunting constraints of the Hollywood studio system. But while Citizen Kane (1941) is often cited as the most important film ever made, Welles was punished for his transgressions during the editing of his next feature The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), which RKO re-cut while he was away filming in South America. More recently, visual artists like Robert Longo and David Salle have attempted to migrate from the gallery into the multiplex, emerging from their garrets just long enough to savage the public with their touristic jaunts into commercial filmmaking. But in many ways it's Andy Warhol who stands as the totemic marker between these two worlds. With his eight hour film epic Empire (1964), a single, static shot of the Empire State Building, Warhol brought the art world of New York crashing into the backlots of Hollywood, transforming the Factory into a dream factory. Warhol wanted to become a machine, and with his purchase of a 16mm Bolex movie camera in 1963 he got his chance. The artist became a filmmaker.

With its fusion of cult pop auteurship, the ethos of experimental filmmaking, and a trenchant aesthetic minimalism, Empire is a fitting establishing shot for the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art's celebration of the centenary of cinema in its elaborate exhibition, 'Hall of Mirrors: Art and Film Since 1945'. The show is one of a spate of like-minded attempts to explore the relationship between cinema and the visual arts this past year. The list includes the Hayward Gallery's 'Spellbound' and '100 Jahre Kino' at the Kunsthaus Zürich, as well as single artist shows such as Chris Marker's Silent Movie (1994-5) and Chantal Akerman's D'Est (1995). But 'Hall of Mirrors' has the special privilege of having been generated in the belly of the beast itself. Throughout the gallery Warhol, Weegee, Cindy Sherman and Salvador Dali mingle with the likes of Hitchcock, Cronenberg, Godard and Welles in a juxtaposition of the contemplative quality of static art with the dynamism of the moving image. But the overarching conundrum that purportedly links all of the filmmakers and artists in the exhibition is one of ontological proportions: 'what is - or was - the cinema?'

As unspecific as the art student's perennial introductory query 'what is art?', the question is, strangely enough, the best answered one in the entire exhibition. Because what becomes abundantly clear (if almost symptomatically) throughout all of these exhibitions is not so much the hybridisation of film and the visual arts, but rather the increasingly apparent gaps between media. Filmmakers stumble when attempting to manufacture static art; visual artists trip over cinematic land-mines when crossing into film. Beyond this, the other startling truth that comes to mind when looking at these exhibitions is how incredibly seductive film really is. When confronted by Welles' Citizen Kane, for example, Hiroshi Sugimoto's black and white photographs of empty movie theatres wither away like the witch in the Wizard of Oz (1939). Even in Warhol's work, the Factory screen tests of Edie Sedgwick and Gerard Malanga radiate a decidedly different kind of fascination from the silk-screen paintings of Marilyn, Marlon, Liz or Troy. The reasons for this are impossible to pin down, but the fact remains that the world has rocked to a rhythm of 24 frames per second for over a century and hasn't looked back.

Does this explain the recent proliferation of moving images in the gallery space? Let's face it, the relationship of film to visual art is not a new phenomenon. The two cultural spheres have been intimately imbricated at least since the early 20s when the chiaroscuro techniques of Max Reinhardt's expressionist theatre found their way into the repertoire of F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang and other Weimar filmmakers. Add a dose of fascist persecution to the mixture and you get the mass emigration to Hollywood that resulted in the birth of film noir, that hybrid child of Germanic angst and American pulp fiction. What's new in the current artistic climate is something quite different: an institutional desire to frame films as objets d'art. In part this has been inspired by the increasing importance that the medium of film has come to play in the work of contemporary artists: practitioners as diverse as Sigmar Polke, Stan Douglas and Matthew Barney employ the moving image as a primary means of conveying their message. In a world where artists coexist with screen stars and pop music icons in the pages of Interview, Vogue and Rolling Stone, film provides a sexy street-cred to the visual artist, while the gallery space offers a culturally edifying aura to the resumé of the commercial filmmaker.

But all is not what it seems in the land of special effects and jump cuts, and concretising the cinematic within the gallery space is not always static-free. This is amply illustrated in 'Spellbound' which resonates with the furious sounds of the box office as much as art chatter. Terry Gilliam's installation for his film Twelve Monkeys (1995), for example - a wall of filing cabinets placed in front of a back projection of the film - serves as nothing less than an enormous piece of marketing. Regardless of what one thinks of the film (or of its far more provocative progenitor La Jetée (1962) by Chris Marker), Gilliam's attempt at forging Twelve Monkeys into a gallery installation failed miserably, and its booming soundtrack added insult to injury by bleeding Bruce Willis' voice into the surrounding gallery space. But we can at least be thankful that Gilliam's contribution to 'Spellbound' was only offensive in a commercial sort of way. Peter Greenaway, on the other hand, saw fit to drag the spectator into the recesses of his own maniacal ego in an installation which attempted to rival the complex mise-en-scènes of his films: live actors in glass vitrines; a cacophonous musical score; an epilepsy-inducing light show; and an empty wall of chairs labelled 'AUDIENCE'. Perhaps Clement Greenberg was right after all when he suggested that each art form should find its own zero degree.

By contrast, the crossover projects of filmmakers such as Chris Marker in his Silent Movie (commissioned by the Wexner Center for the arts, and included in 'Hall of Mirrors') and Chantal Akerman in the film and video installation of her feature D'Est succeed in this task of translation by sticking closer to their shooting scripts, so to speak. Both these works insist on the cinematic, refusing to compromise the fundamental precepts of filmic experience (montage, movement in time, mise-en-scène) to the constraints imposed by the gallery space, yet both do so by relying on other technologies. Marker overcomes these limitations by employing video and computer technology, while Akerman actually projects D'Est as a film in the gallery along with an installation which deconstructs the film into its constituent tracking shots through Eastern Europe on a bank of video monitors. Ironically perhaps, the one work in 'Spellbound' that actually answers the ontological question of cinema as posed by MoCA's 'Hall of Mirrors', and holds its ground with Marker and Akerman, is Douglas Gordon's 24 Hour Psycho (1992), a video installation which projects Hitchcock's film at three frames per second, freezing the cinematic grammar of this quintessential example of auteurism in a gelatinous petri dish of filmic deconstruction.

But even in these best-case scenarios, should we so readily applaud the blurring of boundaries between the artist's studio and the film studio? The Italian Futurist Marinetti once called the museum a sepulchre and an ossuary for dead art. The worst cases of this crossover phenomenon conform to this model by deploying a blatant nostalgia for a culture of film - both commercial and experimental - that may no longer exist. It's this question of the potential death of cinema as an art form that underlies all these exhibitions and which is foregrounded in MoCA's question 'what is - or was - the cinema?' As a spectator, however, the case is clear. In a cultural climate where filmic debacles of epic proportions such as Waterworld (1995) and CutThroat Island (1995) weaken the cinematic gene pool by radiating their over-budget isotopes, films like Andy Warhol's Empire still offer a necessary corrective shock therapy. The cinema is dead, long live the cinema.