Yeah. My full name's Mark Cousins. I'm Irish, but I've been living in Scotland for 30 years. I'm 50 years old.
I mostly make documentary feature-length films. I don't work in TV, I'm a director, and I also write books.
What do you feel is the state of storytelling in movies today? What's exciting? What do you feel is getting played out? Is there stuff going on today that you wish you could have amended onto the end of The Story of Film that we are experiencing right now?
[Laughs.] Yes, there are lots of good films being made around the world. People are quite pessimistic about what's happening in contemporary cinema, but that's 'cause they're looking in the wrong places. [Laughs.] If they look in Philippines, for example, or Romania or Iran, they'll see great stuff.
I'm very interested in, as you say, "the state of storytelling" because I think that the medium of film has got an interesting, complicated relationship with storytelling in general. Some of the more famous movie genres, like the thriller, are full of high story content. It's like they've had story distilled into them. But other movie genres -- if you think of the, oh, I don't know, sticking with American films of the westerns of John Ford, some of them don't have much story at all. They're more about place, atmosphere, and the story's just down amongst the other elements in the film, and that's the kinda stuff that I like. I like the stuff that the films that have been de-dramatized somewhat, where the story doesn't bully you and it's just one amongst other elements. It's like -- I don't know, the kettle drums or the bow fiddle or something but not the conductor.
[Laughs.] Yeah. You mentioned people are rather pessimistic about the state of movies. Are you talking about people who are saying we're experiencing a new Golden Age of TV, and that TV is better than film?
I wasn't thinking in terms of TV. There's so much talk, I'm sure, in your country -- here, in my country, as well, about how TV has in some ways usurped cinema as a long-form storytelling medium.
I still see them as very distinct things, and so I've never really got myself into that discussion. I'm more talking about -- there are a group of older people that are cinema-nostalgists and they think that the Golden Age of Movies were in the 1960's, for example. Or, some people would say earlier or later. But I've never really bought that.
I think if you're looking at Anglo cinema, cinema in the English language, you may be sometimes have a disappointing time. But if you look elsewhere, there's innovation happening all the time. And I think that's one of the key things for me when I look at an artform: What makes it crackle or bubble or excite is its innovation.
You mentioned interesting things happening in Iran and the Philippines. It's rather broad, but what do you find more interesting and innovative over there?
Well, what's happening in both those countries is that word I used a few minutes ago: de-dramatized. The best of the filmmakers in those countries are understanding that story delivers human pleasure. It's a kind of engine that drives you through an artwork, especially a time-based artwork. If it’s the only element, or the primary element in the artwork, then it feels like the purpose is just to get your pulse racing or drive you through or stop being bored.
[Laughs.] Art, of course, has got bigger fish to fry than that, as it were. And these filmmakers are using elements of story, but they're also often coming from a tradition of poetry rather than prose, for example, and they're very interested in things like -- I don't know, the poetics of the city and how a city works. The excitement of wandering and drifting through a place. The sort of thing that way back in the early twentieth century, Virginia Woolf was writing about. I always say she's one of the great filmmakers even though she didn't make a film. I would argue that she's the patron saint of gaming in some ways as well. [Laughs.] You know, because these early modernists in the 1910's and 1920's were coming up with so many brilliant ideas about how minds drift, consciousness drift, etc., which were so vivid and so alive and the sort of films that they made in Philippines, by this guy Lav Diaz and then Iran, by loads of filmmakers are -- they're giving us the pleasure of narrative but they're giving us the pleasure of no narrative. I want both.
What is your awareness and perception of videogames today and the videogame industry? Like, when I say those words, what does that conjure up for you? I think you said in our emails that you're only aware of Minecraft.
Minecraft's the only one I've played. I've got a nephew who plays lots of games and every single film festival you go to now has got its VR suite, for example, and so I've done a fair bit of VR. But, no, I haven't really played any games properly. Of course I'm aware, as everybody is, of people walking around bumping into things because of Pokémon Go and stuff like that. But really, no, I know almost nothing. But I know -- I guess what I'm interested in is when I watch my nephew playing a game, the way time seems to disappear for him. And I think that lots of great art, that's what it tries to do. It tries to take you out of your own time zone and put you into another one, or I suppose you could say a space zone. So, I love watching him do that.
We sort of talked around this, but was there any specific reason why you don't play videogames yourself or didn't dive into them at all?
I played videogames in amusement arcades with my brother when we were in our teens. The allure, to be honest, was the arcade itself. The lights, sounds, and colors. Game-playing at home didn't appeal to me so much. I like to go out. You go out to the cinema. I seldom watch movies at home. Home entertainment isn't as exciting for me, or as much of an adventure.
A second reason why I didn't take to videogames is that, as a culture, it was very gendered. It was a male world, and I've never liked such worlds -- I've never been into sports either. I was bullied a lot in school locker rooms as a kid. The people I knew who talked about, and played, videogames, reminded me of the bullies. I know that's quite a personal answer but I suspect that I'm not the only one to be put off by the whiff of testosterone.
How do you feel interactivity changes a narrative? How do you feel that quality changes the story itself and how people approach storytelling?
[Pause.] I would say it sort of harmonizes with story in a way. It's one of the elements.
Say, for instance, when I walk through this city where I'm now living. After this interview, I'm going to meet a friend for a steak. I will walk through this city and make a series of choices: When I come to street corners, do I go that way or that way for a change? So, I'm being interactive with my own city and I love that, that kind of drifting-y thing that they used to write a lot about in France in the '60s.
And so, I think that that's something that human beings have always done. Especially in built places. They've done that long before games came along. And I think games have kind of understood the pleasure of that, or the kind of joy of once you realize you've made a decision, then that has implications for the next street corner, as it were. In terms of -- for me, I'm going to say something about cinema here.
I want to be "done to," as it were. [Laughs.] You know, I want to have an artistic experience where I say to someone, "Okay, I give you two hours of my time or more. Whatever it is. Do something. Take me somewhere. I relinquish control. I take my hands off the wheel. You take control. You drive me somewhere interesting." And so -- that's very, you could say, old-school cinema. That's one of the great pleasures of cinema for me, and I suspect -- I don't know, you would know -- that that's not a pleasure that you can have as much or at all when you're playing a videogame.
Have you heard of Call of Duty, for example?
I've heard of it, but I don't know anything about it.
I interviewed a writer who has worked on that series, and he told me how there's a great pressure to keep things moving. So even when there is story, it can't take you out of the game because it's upsetting or it's jarring or it's frustrating for people that they "have to" pay attention to the story and they can't be playing.
The bigger question I'm asking you here and exploring is what can games learn to meaningfully grow as a culture, medium, and industry to assimilate better. I know you said you don't know much about games, so maybe if we're using movies as a template this'll sound a little silly. So I'll come at it a different way: What can someone running a sports team learn from the movie industry to improve their industry or corner of it?
I'll tell you the first thing that comes to mind. I don't think I'll have a very good answer here, but I'll give it a go. [Laughs.] The first thing that comes to mind is the fact that for the longest time, the movies were made by white men and targeted to white young men. And then, you know, that became very clear that that was unacceptable because the majority of the population of the planet were being ignored. I would suspect strongly that the gaming world has got a similar skew towards white men or younger white men, and I think surely it can learn from that. I don't know but I would be very, very surprised if there wasn't a lot of pressure within and without the gaming world to try and broaden its demographic and its diversity because once you do that, you get new types of storytellers, new types of emotions, thematics, etc. I mean, that's one thing that I've been passionate about in the film world and my thing in The Story of Film has been part of that push to say, "Come on guys, let go a bit. Let other people get control, because you know what? It'll be more fun and more mysterious and there'll be new types of stories and new types of encounters and inter-personal relationships if we stop trying to co-control this ourselves." So, that's the first thing that comes to mind.
No, that's actually spot-on. There's a great deal of turbulence in videogame culture. There has been, the last few years, more visibility to it. It's obviously been at a seeming quiet boil and then it finally boiled over. Can you talk a little bit about how as there were push-backs or attempts to re-distribute that ability to tell stories in movies, how was that received?
The complicated situation there, David, is that, in fact, there were other people telling stories. So, it wasn't a question totally of production, more of distribution. So, for example, the whole of West Africa has been making great films for 50 years, but they were being seen almost no where and shown almost no where. So, the blockage wasn't taking place -- or you could even call the censorship, or what I would call the racism by omission wasn't taking place at the point of production. It was taking place somewhere slightly along the food chain and at the point of distribution. And so, that's where it became more complicated because the people who were controlling the industry couldn't say they were blocking this stuff. They could say, "It's all being made." But where the market was failing, as it were, was in the fact that they weren't making it available or sharing it or benefiting from its insights. So, that's the complication in the film world. I don't know if that applies to games, too.
But beyond that, in the UK, for example, there's been a degree of turbulence -- to use your nice word -- for, example, with the publicly funded film.
There are far more women and people of color being given money to make films here than there have been in a very long time, and it's been an explicit push. That means, of course, that people like me, middle-aged white guys, and looking at your picture, I think you fit into this category as well. [Laughs.]
Well, I'm not middle aged yet but I will see you at the next meeting.
[Laughs.] Yes. But we have actually had to step back and I presume there's been a proportional loss in income and employment from the kind of dominant white men. That has created rancor among people, and usually not publicly spoken people are very, very reluctant to speak out in public and say the white guys need to hold onto their power.
But behind the scenes, there's a lot of fury and resentment -- no, fury is too wrong. Resentment that funding is being proportionally allocated to minorities.
To make the "wrong" kind of movies? Is this people in the audience? Is this manifesting itself online?
Filmmakers. The people who have the power --
So they feel they're getting fewer opportunities.
Yes. Yes. But also -- well, you know, as we know the way capitalism works, it'll pounce on any opportunity to make more money.
One of the big things, if we forget about gender and color for a few minutes and look at age? For the longest time, older audiences were ignored by mainstream cinema. Particularly Hollywood. But then, there were a number of big box office hits starring older actors and actresses and suddenly people realized there's this vast untapped market, and so there was very little turbulence there once the filmmakers realized, "We can make films about people in their sixties on their second or third relationships or in retirement. They get entertained and we get loads of money." And it was a win-win proposition.
So, that was painless transition. It's an ongoing process, but that was painless.
You make a very good and interesting point in The Story of Film where you mention -- I don't want to only fixate on America or have you think that's what I'm asking for with your answer.
You mention that Jewishness was not center to American movies, although there were so many Jewish people working around --
Especially in the first 20 years, yeah, yeah.
Which is a fascinating thing to articulate because I don't think people will think that's true until they hear that said.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think it's underlying social change. You know, the Civil Rights Movement in the '60s and the kind of fragmentation of the Eisenhower consensus in the '50s meant that cinema -- Hollywood hadn't a notional Everyperson out there. [Laughs.] You know, a kind of nuclear family kind of person. They realized that people wanted to consume entertainment in a more culturally specific way according to their own cultures or musical tastes, etc. And because the U.S. is such a big county, if you decide to make films that have Jewishness at the cultural center of them, you'll realize there are a lot of people there who will buy a ticket for that stuff.
So, it was kind of more the breakdown of consensus in '50s coming into '60s, that fragmentation that happened for all sorts of reasons as we know in terms of war and political movements and liberation movements, etc. But that meant that Hollywood became braver in its ability to manifest cultural difference.
They were very -- in the '40s, they made great cinema, but it was always cinema in disguise. It was always like a masquerade, almost like a drag act where they were pretending there was this everyperson and they were speaking a kind of a bland language as a result of that, I would say. So, they just had to get the courage and, you know, of course, minorities had to get their own cultural confidence as well. But, as you noted with the Jewishness thing, it's fascinating because you think the greatest entertainer, I think, in American cinema wasn't born American but it was Ernst Lubitsch, who made these incredibly Jewish films. Then Wilder, Billy Wilder comes along and surfs that wave, and yet it didn't in some way -- it didn't really become a movement until Woody Allen comes along and people like that.
You do partly mention this in Story of Film, but what influence do you feel videogames have had on cinema?
Yeah, quite a lot, I'd say.
Was it most noticeable with Gus Van Sant, as you say in your movie, or did you notice in your research even before and beyond that as well?
No, it was particularly with Gerry that I really noticed it, that walking cinema. But Van Sant is a great magpie. You know, he's a great artist in his own way but he's great at picking up on things. I think the Gerry film -- have you seen it?
I have, yeah.
Yeah. I think it's -- you know, he told me that it very explicitly related to the walker avatar figure in --
Yeah, in Tomb Raider. Yeah. I think that not many other people in the creative end of cinema were trying to ask what's interesting about this, the walker, that kind of -- basically, Tomb Raider as a kind of John Wayne, I would say, into Monument Valley, etc. [Laughs.] And actually, I have played Tomb Raider. I'd forgotten. But it's that sense. Cinema is great at solitude, the solo figure in the landscape, whether it's John Wayne or whether it's Jack Lemmon in The Apartment. Cinema's particularly good at that.
And I think -- my guess is that videogames are like that. The appeal to the player is that you inhabit this. You're at the center of the world and everywhere you look, the world moves around you. Of course, you can pick up with other people in that world, I guess, but it's that kind of "you are the center of the universe," and you walk to get to a place. That's a very cinematic proposition. So, I would almost turn your question on its head and say what did games get from cinema?
I was going to ask you that next, but wasn't sure if you could speak to that.
Sorry. Because I was waffling I got there and waffled a bit.
But then I would say, of course, the kind of brittle look of digital cinema, the digitized of set film process has meant that there are an awful lot of very big budget films that have got -- they have sort of severed their connection with reality. They're a sort of existential thing with the real world where they don't try to feel real world, whereas often my impression is that videogames are trying to look hyper-real, more and more real. Whereas cinema is almost going the other direction because cinema can do realness effortlessly. You just point your camera outside the window and you've got reality. And so, cinema is trying to augment that in some ways or do the thing it can't do.
Videogames, yeah. I'm sure you've heard of the uncanny valley --
Yes, of course. Absolutely.
I almost feel like it's so straining on the eye to see that much in hyper--
Well, it's sort of an affected hyper-real with no depth of field. Just everything all the time is in full focus. I guess I'm tipping my hat a bit and telling you what I think, but to your eye, when you see games that are right up against the uncanny valley, what do you make of it?
I think that's a great phrase. I don't remember when I heard it, but I probably heard it late. But I think it's a great phrase because it points out that .1 percent that hasn't been achieved in the image or in the visual. So, it's got 99.9 percent, but that .1 percent makes it a miss as good as a mile.
I think of Roland Barthes' great book where he's talking about photography [Camera Lucida] and he has this phrase, "the punkdom." Do you know that phrase?
I do, yeah.
You know what he's talking about there, then. He's talking about that unattended, often happenchance or accidental thing in usually an old Victorian photograph that the photographer and the sitter and everybody who made the picture did not intend to be there. It might be a dog or it might be a passerby or it might be a stray eyeline or something. Those kind of unpredictable things that make the real real. That's what the uncanny valley doesn't have, that kind of unpredictable punkdom, that thing that's suddenly the reality snares you like a fish hook. I think that's what he means by "punkdom." It pricks you, that fish-hook thing. I think that's -- you know, you can strain and make such an effort to create something hyper-real and yet you just miss something of the unconscious, you could say.
So if you start with the visual, then you're just going to miss a sense of place or reality, I think. But if you start with the unconscious, then you're going to get there a lot quicker.
Do you feel videogames have impacted the spaces in which stories are able to be told in, whether you see it ripple to movies or elsewhere?
[Pause.] I would say that -- I wouldn't say affected, exactly, but I would say there are certain buildings that you walk through now that feel as if you're walking through a videogame. I think there's a close relationship between -- architects love all that stuff. I'm sure you've talked to lots of architects for this, but that idea that how a building narrates and how a building tells you how to walk through it and tells a story, etc. So I think there's a close relationship between how videogames work and how architects work, and especially those people who write about the poetics of space, like [Gaston] Bachelard, I'm sure you know his book [The Poetics of Space] and those people who are talking about the pleasure of walking into a space, getting lost in the space, losing your bearings, and then realizing you're on your own and it's up to you how to decide where to move to next, what room, or should you corner down in a room and have a breathing space before you head into the next bit of the unknown maze of the building. I think that . You could say a lot of that about a videogame as well, I guess. So, I don't know that I would say -- I don't know enough of it to say that games have affected that kind of thing, but they are exactly the same thought processes, I think, that architects sometimes have.
In videogames -- I think it's waning a bit now, but there was a persistent obsession with, "Could this be the Citizen Kane of videogames?"
Have you heard people saying this before?
I've heard people talking about that before, yeah, yeah. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] What makes people outside of a medium fixated on that movie specifically? Because, to my mind at least, it's not as though Citizen Kane made movies "legitimate," right?
No. It didn't. What Citizen Kane did was it was a great encyclopedia. It was the most fantastic summary of everything cinema had achieved until that point. In that, it was like having a tasting menu and that's why, you know, people went, "Wow! Look at all these flavors! It can do all this stuff!"
That's why, even today -- I watched it recently, Citizen Kane feels even now a very kind of fragmented, bitty experience because you just between styles and moods and emotions and themes and all sorts of stuff. It also, by the way, feels very much about Donald Trump. [Laughs.] When you watch it.
Yes, that's true. [Laughs.]
When people say something in another artform is the Citizen Kane of that artform, what I think they're usually trying to say is, "Here is the kind of state of the nation. This is a kind of summary of how far we've got. All the dazzling techniques, all in one text.” So, I think that's what that usually means.
Other than videogames, where have you heard that said?
Opera, buildings. [Laughs.] Music.
Yeah. It seems to be one of those things. Because cinema is such a new artform and still it's very, very young, Citizen Kane came along about 50 years or less after cinema had been developed. And so, you can't really say that about a novel particularly because novels are so old. But it was early in the history of the evolution of cinema and people were asking, "What is cinema? What is it good at doing?" Orson Welles answered us in one 100-minute movie: "Here's what it's good at doing. All this stuff. Space, pathos, hubris, sound, everything.”
How often do you feel people who make that comparison have actually seen Citizen Kane?
[Laughs.] Funny, when I was Traverse City, Michigan recently and we put it on and asked the audience how many had seen it, and I would say 90 percent hadn't.
That's kinda what I figured.
Well, another parallel, too, is you mention in Story of Film how John Woo comes to America and starts to direct Jean-Claude Van Damme, which is a very good echo of videogames coming to the West and them being taken over by the Jean-Claude Van Damme oeuvre.
But I'm curious, how do you think Eastern sensibilities had to conform to Western audiences? And to complete that circuit, what impact did those movies being made in the West have on the East?
Yeah, I think that's a very important question. Eastern sensibilities, they're -- of course, you know this, but Eastern aesthetics and Eastern culture, there's a different balance between movement and stasis, between action and inaction. You can see it across all the artforms and theater and very popular cinema everywhere. Often, there'll be a burst of action and then a pause. And it's like -- it's Buddhist aesthetics, all that.
In Hollywood, the pause, the inaction has had less of a role, less of a life. [Laughs.] And so, when the great Eastern directors came west, they gave more shape or contour, I would say, to action cinema because they were very good at knowing when to make things really kinetic and then pausing everything almost to a stop. However, the reverse, as you imply, is also, alas, true. There's a new type of Chinese cinema at the moment, "the big film," as they call it, which is aping Hollywood. I think it's called "dà diànyǐng" in Mandarin or something. Here, they are doing -- they're having a more Hollywood approach to action, which is basically non-stop. It's that old thing, "Let's start with an earthquake and build up to a climax." [Laughs.] You know?
It always makes me laugh. And I think that, actually, it has a bluster and a kind of energy and excitement to it but actually it's exhausting over a whole film or over a whole series of films or over a whole generation films. And I think already -- I don't know if there's any evidence for this, but I suspect the Chinese audiences are already finding this new type of non-stop, action Hollywood-style Chinese film culturally foreign in some way. It's quite exciting to show up to: "What is this thing?" But it doesn't really quite fit Asian sensibilities.
So, I would hope that would settle down and if we can -- one of the big themes in The Story of Film is we can each learn from each other's cinema, because there's so much great in Hollywood and so much great in Asian cinema. And I think what you want is the best of both, and that's why the great figures who move between, like John Woo and the others, are -- they are the envoys. They are traveling the Silk Road of cinema and bringing the great spices from the East and the great mercantile products from the West, and so I love that exchange. I would assume and hope that you can get the same mutual enrichment in the videogame world.
Yeah, I think it's trying to figure itself out. 'Cause part of it's compounded by the fact that as a medium, people tend to age out or they lose interest because of a variety of reasons. But part of it is likely the thing you're remembering about videogames back in the day are still a very pronounced note today in either subtle or overt ways. So, it tends to lose people on all ends, people tend not to have -- according to my interviews, the typical length of a career in the game industry is about eight years.
So, every attempt to sort of push things "forward," there has to be sort of resetting, calibrating, among whatever the next crop of people is from year to year.
So it's interesting what you say, because I think of a thing I'm guessing you may not have heard of -- maybe you've heard of the game_Halo_, but when they were talking about making it, the people behind it were talking about trying to perfect the "perfect 30-second loop of fun."
And there was a game that came out a couple years ago called Titanfall, where I actually wrote an essay wrote it similar to the thing you were talking about the big cinema in Asia. I asked whether it was "too fun" and whether it was even a ridiculous thing to assert.
So, when you have a medium that isn't as assimilated in quite the same way as maybe movies are, careers don't last that long, audience burns out and moves on, how can a medium learn those types of things and self-correct, especially when it's compounded by the fact that, like you said, there's that turbulence going on? You don't have to answer that with a list or a how-to, but --
That's exactly -- the game industry, in terms of the histories of artform, right, it's just in its infancy.
Yes. If you're being generous, it's maybe 60, 70 years old.
Yeah. So, that's young. That's incredibly young in artform terms. The simple answer is that all artforms take time to mature, and for the longest time -- it took cinema a long time before people got bored with what the film theorists called "the cinema of attraction." You know, that idea that the film is trying constantly to seduce you, attract you, distract you, and at some point you wanna say, "Look, I'm a grown-up here. Yes, I want sensation, but I want contemplation, too."
And so the answer to your question is, yeah, if fun is speed, distraction, sensation, then, yeah, you can't party all the time. You're gonna have to come down and you have to stop. And any mature artform, whether it's cinema or games -- any maturing artform has to encompass this idea of the contemplative as well as the sensational. And I just believe that will come because there are loads of creative people in the videogame world and I know there are already more artistic or experimental games that are about that. But there will be -- if they want a mature audience, if they want an audience that they want to hold onto through decades, then the creative people in the games world will have to reflect how people's sense of speed and kinesis and growing sense of things like landscape and nature develop as they grow up. A kid, a child often isn't very interested in a landscape, but as you grow up you start to appreciate its beauty more and you just have to incorporate -- the creatives need to incorporate those kind of maturer themes into the games worlds, I would say.
This is going to be incredibly broad.
The other thesis here is we're talking about the growing pains that come from a medium that is changing and there are changing ways to make it and talk about it. In film, can you talk a little bit about how tech, labor, and communication between audience and creator shaped the course of film history?
[Laughs.] I did preface that.
[Laughs.] So, how do I answer that?
I don't know.
First of all, it influenced the course of film history in some countries more than other countries. Substantially in the U.S. Lots of countries don't do any testing at all. You know, they won't show rough cuts to audiences to see what are the spikes of fun, what are bits the audience likes and what bits the audience doesn't like. But that kind of feedback loop was, as you know, pioneered in the U.S. and was central to the filmmaking process in the U.S. The film wasn't finished until the audience had scored it, as it were. And a little footnote there, which I think I put in The Story of Film, but it shows the cultural difference between countries: The very happy ending that American audiences in general liked were exactly the thing that put off Russian audiences.
Yes, that is in there.
Hollywood would often re-shoot a film with an unhappy ending. [Laughs.] That always makes me laugh: "Let's make an unhappy ending so the Russians will like it!" [Laughs.]
Schadenfreude, but in Russian, I suppose.
[Laughs.] That's really it, yeah. And also, it's a very interesting thing going back to that Jewishness thing, you know? The really great Jewish writers -- and music as well, often would add a squeeze of lemon or a spike of melancholy in there. Which, of course, to my taste enriched the work. But, to a lot of people didn't.
So, that was -- but anyway, that was off the subject.
The question of technology -- how did that influence the development of cinema over the history of the medium? Well, I would have to mention the word "competition" here. It was the fact that new media came along like TV, in particular, which forced American cinema, in particular, to come up with technological change. They wanted to -- here's the way I would put it. They wanted to use technology to increase the sublime element of moviegoing. In other words, it had to be wider and it needed to be lighter. Sound-wise, it needed to be deeper, i.e. 3D. It needed to be more immersive, i.e. 5.1 Dolby stereo mixing, it needed surround sound.
That sense of the sublime was something that even though Hollywood wouldn't use a fancy word like that, that's what it was after. And also, what those filmmakers, what those creatives are really interested in was our nervous systems. They wanted to jangle, they wanted to play with, they wanted to seduce our nervous systems. Hence the loudness. Hence the brightness. Hence the sensation of depth. Alfred Hitchcock famously said he would love to not make the film at all, just dispense with the film, and sit people in a seat, and plug them into some kind of device that could stimulate their sense of fear or laughter or suspense or terror directly. [Laughs.] You know, it sounds kind of like a mad doctor experiment, but I think that technology was sort of the middle person in this relationship where the creatives wanted to do something to people to give them physical, bodily, and emotional sensations and they used technology to do so.
Similarly, talking about the jangling of our central nervous systems, there's another coincidental parallel in that in The Story of Film you talk about film studios being purchased by Coca-Cola.
Something that has been mentioned to me by people in the industry I've interviewed is that it's very strange to them how people can come and work in the industry from all over. A lot of people who work in marketing at the big-budget game companies come from places like Coca-Cola, where the focus is on reinventing and marketing the same products in different ways, rather than adapting or making new products.
I'm sure you remember New Coke and how that turned out.
How does that mentality from places like a Coca-Cola come into a movie studio? How does that impact the creative impact or treatment of employees or executives?
Well, at the broadest level, it's not a surprise because Coke is selling a dream and a myth. It's obviously selling fizzy drink, as well, and when I climbed a mountain the other day, I was desperate for a Coke. But selling that kind of image of yourself as a kind of outdoorsy, fun-loving, physically active person who's got loads of friends -- you know those images from the Coke adverts, etc. And cinema is selling a similar mythic sense of self, a kind of, "I want to identify with this world, I want to plunge into this world, I want to step over the threshold from my world into the Hollywood world or the Coca-Cola world." So, it's no surprise at all that particularly people in marketing areas can transfer between these different industries.
I don't think it's a surprise at all.
Your question was about -- was it about employment rights?
In a way. I was wondering about executives and -- I think the lazy assumption is that someone who comes from Coca-Cola wants to run a movie studio like it's Coca-Cola.
And I don't know if that's true or if you have insight into that.
[Pause.] I don't know how much that I could say of that that would be of any interest at all. [Laughs.] Let me think if I can say anything interesting about that. [Pause.]
I would say, yes, it has to be said that when the studios -- when the Hollywood studios were sold and no longer run by the founders or the families of the founders, the cinema became more standardized and less creative. Unfortunately, that's the case. But, again, to make the point about the difference between production and distribution in the studios, it was the distribution in particular that was standardized and suffered, you could say. People working in distribution suffered most at the kind of iron-fist tactics of the neo-capitalist who took over in the '80s. [Laughs.]
In terms of production, I suppose that's the machine. But the ghost in the machine, the creativity, the filmmaking itself, had to stay flexible. It had to stay vibrant. Otherwise it would have died. And so, I think that the kind of creative element within cinema, the impulse to innovate, is resistant to any attempt to standardize it by people who are coming from other industries, I would say.
I don't know that I necessarily have a question in here, but I wanted to tell you a little bit about somewhere where there's maybe not a parallel but more of a fork in the road.
An interesting difference is I think indie films are generally associated with things like Cannes or as being intensely personal works of art.
Maybe the -- I don't know. Do you have a thought or reaction to that?
I do, because -- did you ever read that great piece, I think it was in The New York Times, Walter Murch wrote this piece about cinema moving from being a fresco art to an oil painting art. Did you ever come across that?
Yes, I think from the late '90s?
It's a great piece. It's a great metaphor he uses. He says that for so long, the technology was so big and expensive that cinema was basically like fresco painting: You needed a big team of people and you were covering big patches, and so you told big history stories. He's talking about until the 1960's, that's sort of what cinema was, with a few European exceptions, where there are arty people making little personal films. But overall, it was a big artform, lots of people, big stories, and you needed the equivalent of the Vatican, which was Hollywood, to back you. [Laughs.] Then he said what happened was the technology changed massively and therefore the art changed and it became instead about individual artists painting in oil paints, i.e., small digital cameras or small 16mm cameras. And he saw this as a fundamental shift or cleave in the more recent cinema work. And I think that's true, and I would guess that the same could happen or would happen in videogames because, frankly, it's too interesting and it's got too much creative potential, the videogame world, to be only manifest in big highly marketed things. It will have its own painters as well, and increasingly so, I would have thought, as it diversifies. Every artform branches out. I can't think of any artform that has narrowed down over its lifetime. Videogames will do this surely, as well.
Can you talk about instances where the relationship in the movie industry is a little strange, maybe? Whether it's between the camp of independent filmmakers and the camp that's in the industry -- there are many instances where, I think, things are made to look more independent than they maybe really are? Like, the first Blair Witch project is a good example of that, or its upcoming remake? Does anything come to mind that's along those lines, as far as being strange or interesting or maybe dishonest?
Yeah, there are loads of examples of that. Mostly in U.S. cinema, I have to say. I'll mention why in a minute. In U.S. cinema, there's lots of intentionally muffled sounds recording and I've been on loads of shoots where there are six tripods sitting unused and they're hand-holding and sweating under the lights to try to make it look cheaper, as it were, but that's an aesthetic and that comes from lifestyle stuff and that's kind of social change and you can see that in music as well, in the way that people want to have a whole lo-fi aesthetic. So that isn't only a film thing, that's a culture thing, and a reaction against the commodification of art and culture in general. But it's particularly noticeable in the U.S. since the 1990's. Because the U.S. has no state-funded public sector film industry so to speak, what you have is what you rightly say is a mainstream of various independent filmmaking. We don't use those terms as much, of course, outside the U.S., partly because we're all dependent, but secondly, the main split is between public sector and private sector filmmaking. And so, that doesn't quite map onto the split in America between Hollywood and indie cinema.
And so, here we have -- when I say "here," in the U.K., but in also most European countries now, as you know, there's a sense that cinema is part of culture and a part of linguistic history, etc., and therefore it's funded by the government. And so in that system, in public sector-funded film, you don't have anything like that pretending. If anything, you're trying to make your film look more expensive than it really is. And so, that kind of slightly perverse worshiping of the lo-fi, it's more a U.S. phenomenon, I think.
How much of film being considered unquestionably culture do you feel comes from archival efforts?
I think that's an excellent question and I think the answer is quite a lot.
Until it was possible, really, to do retrospectives, to look backwards, and say, "Where did this come from? Where did this visual idea come from? Where did this filmmaker's work come from? Where did this actor's career come from?" To see the lineage, it was very hard to argue for cinema as an art or of cultural value. And so, once it was possible to preserve film and to store it and restore it, etc., that was very important. But also, of course, the archives of any country -- I'm involved with the archives of India and of Albania, strangely, and in both of them, they go to politicians and say, "Look, this is our heritage. If you want your citizens to see what we were like 100 years ago, you have to pay for the restoration and the maintenance of our cinematic culture, our films."
And exactly the same thing, of course, has to be the case with videogames. I don't know if people are talking about archiving videogames and hopefully that's all been done.
By you laughing, I guess it's not being done.
Well, part of why I'm doing this project is there isn't uniform messaging. I interviewed the Library of Congress last year and their guy who is in charge of their moving picture library told me that based on the way he was treated by the game industry, he feels that they don't even feel that their output today or in the past is culture. They just get rid of stuff when they're done with projects or they look at it only in terms of things to market or to sell.
That's exactly the same as what happened in cinema, and still in some countries like India. That's exactly the case. It's very hard to say to Indian people, "Your old movies from the '40s are of value," and so they were just junked. You know, they were melted down to get the silver halide in the celluloid. So it's extremely similar. It took cinema a long time to realize what a tragic loss it was overseeing. So, please, please, if the games industry can learn one thing from the film industry, it's that.
This stuff might not seem valuable now, especially if it didn't make money. But that's no reason not to store it and archive it and have it accessible for the future.
We didn't talk too much about fan culture or fandom in videogames. I'm gonna guess that's something not too much on your radar.
The inverse is maybe just asking what confounds you about the way film fans interact or talk to each other online or off?
Yeah, it's extremely frustrating. They're in a tiny little loop. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] We have a lot in common.
Film fans online are talking -- they don't want the world to change. There's an incredible fuel of nostalgia where they want a slight variation on the same thing. Where, if they're older they wanna talk about The Godfather all the time. If they're younger, they wanna talk about [Quentin] Tarantino all the time. And if they're younger still, they wanna talk about whatever else. That sense of people -- fan culture is very based on formative experiences you have when you're a teenager, which somehow opened your eyes to a world and branded themselves in your brain.
And lots of people just want to revisit those pleasures again and again and again. And it does -- excuse my swearing -- my fucking nut in. [Laughs.]
I am completely the opposite. If I never hear a Beatles song again, I'll be happy. The Beatles predated me, but I do not ever need to see Citizen Kane again. I want new stuff, and you have to enrich your artform by making new stuff. And fan culture has a got a kind of arrested development about it, a kind of onanism about it, a kind of -- you could push that metaphor further but I'm not going to. But there's a sense of self-gratification about it. [Laughs.]
It's very troubling.
I talk to a lot of people for this project, as I told you. A lot of people feel that the internet acted as a kind of catalyst for this type of behavior or worse. I don't know if I believe that.
I think my question is instead about the nature of fame, and how you think the internet changed that?
You know, people are very keen to say that the internet has caused everything or anything that seems new, the internet caused it. First of all, what seems new probably isn't new. And secondly, there's a good chance the internet didn't cause it. You know, I remember my father, who was an Elvis Presley obsessive, and he just wanted to listen to the same records all the time, "Jailhouse Rock" and "Blue Suede Shoes." And that's exactly the same, you know?
I think that humans are hardwired and have been now for tens of thousands of years to once you get a pleasure hit, it's a Pavlovian thing. Once you've had a pleasure hit, especially when you're young, you want to revisit that pleasure again and again. So, I don't think the internet has caused that at all.
I think, however, in the nature of celebrity and celebrity structure and how -- certainly the internet has ushered new actors onto Planet Fame. Planet Fame is much easier to get to now than it ever has been, and it's more populated than it has been in a long time in the Western world. Different in Asia, I have to say. But -- so, the internet has caused new types of famous people for new types of reasons, but in no way has it yet changed the psychology of the pleasures of fame or why we're attracted to or fascinated by famous people.
You know, it's the same old stuff, which is self-loss, our erotic imaginations, the sense of a kind of mythic self. All these things are -- I was gonna say timeless, but they're certainly thousands of years old. And they're absolutely -- I think it's narcissistic of us to think that our age, the digital age, invented a lot of this stuff or has even tweaked it very much. I don't think so.
[Laughs.] It's funny you mention Planet Fame, because something I always try to ask people I interview who are outside the U.S. is whether that kind of toxic fan culture feels like an inherently American thing. Some people I've talked to have told me that when they go online, it's like visiting Planet America.
They say that they have to "speak American" when they go online. Do you know what I'm talking about?
Yes, I do, but I don't agree with that, actually. I think that -- I've done loads of things. I've run loads of things with very famous people and the most intense fame reaction I've ever seen was with Maggie Cheung, the great Hong Kong actor, one of the most famous women in the world, here in Scotland. And I just thought we had crushed barriers, etc., and with Chinese and particularly Indian movie stars and stars in general, pop stars, and fashion stars, there's a different intensity of fame. I've seen young women run at their idol and just not put on the brakes, just hope to collide with them, because that collision will be enough.
So, I think if anything, it's more intense in Shanghai and Beijing and Mumbai and Calcutta than it is in Los Angeles or somewhere like that. But it's different there because in India, for example, fame is much more to do with families. If there's one famous person in the family, then the daughter and son will all be famous. You don't quite get that so much in more individualistic America and I think that's a good thing, as people have to at least some attribute to get famous, even if it's Kim Kardashian. [Laughs.]
I won't complete that sentence, but you know where I was going with that. In very family-based societies, you simply have to be the son or daughter of someone and you become famous in your own right. So, the cultures are subtly different in the different continents, but I would say that fame in Asia is even more of a hothouse than it is in the Western world.
I normally ask people this about videogames, but since that's not your wheelhouse: What do you feel film has accomplished?
Film has accomplished -- [Pause.] Okay, film has added to the visual lexicon of the world. You and I are using words now, and we've got our camera phones switched off, so we're not looking at each other, so we're using a verbal lexicon. But film has massively increased the visual language in the world. I think that's the first thing I would say. That's a sort of art answer.
The second is a kind of social or society answer. I think that cinema -- you know, lots of us use this word, an "empathy machine." Cinema has been good over the years at showing us lots of things. Showing us other places, other cultures. It's not brilliant at all stuff. It's not great at showing war, for example. Movies aren't great at showing war because they are proxy or surrogate experiences. They give the audience a sense of what danger and trauma is like, but in a safe way. War isn't safe, that's what's so frightening about it. It removes safety. Cinema, in the end, despite its immersive quality and effect, doesn't.
But it's opened our eyes to other societies and other ways of living. I think that's a major achievement. The great French filmmaker Robert Bresson says this thing that I think is the perfect advice to any artist. He says: "Try to show that which without, you might have never been seen." And I think cinema has showed us things without it we wouldn't have seen.