Stefano Boscutti on the history of the newsreel and the future of cinema
Why are you wasting your time with newsreels? Why aren’t you working on another film?
We’re starting with two questions? Okay. Well, I don’t think I’m actually wasting my time with the newsreels. I’m trying to get back to basics. And relax, I’m working on another film. I’m always working on another film.
But why newsreels?
I’m starting over. To be honest I felt I lost my way. So I’m going back to when cinema was finding its way. Newsreels played before the main films right up until the 1960s when television took over. That’s how everyone saw filmed news. That’s how everyone saw films.
How come you lost your way?
I don’t know. I just reached a place where the money became more important than the idea. It feels like I’ve spent my whole career - if that’s what you’d call - fixing up other people’s problems. Whether it’s on the page or on the set, I was your man. Whether you needed a line or a polish, I was there for you. It got to the point where to make something more effective I’d always make it more commercial. I don’t know, maybe I’m paying for my sins.
But making something more commercial isn’t necessarily a bad thing?
That’s what I used to think. I’m not so sure any more. We’ve gotten to a point where money is absolutely everything. It’s the only thing we value. It’s the only thing we love. Sometimes I think I’m responsible for the entire collapse of contemporary film culture. Which is probably a bit harsh. But I’ve certainly played my part. Now I want to save film from itself?
By going back to the past?
Did you know 20th Century-Fox began with newsreels?
William Fox - a nice Jewish boy born Wilhelm Fried - bought a former Broadway theater called the Embassy in 1929 and instead of charging two dollars a show twice a day, he ran continuous newsreels for twenty-five cents a pop. It was the first continuous newsreel theater in the United States. Fox Movietone News became one of the major newsreel series.
Was that the first newsreel theater?
Pathé Frères invented the newsreel in Paris in 1908. The first news cinema that only showed newsreels was the Daily Bioscope in London. It opened in 1909. Newsreels spread throughout Europe like wildfire. Music was live and played mainly to drown out the noise of the projector as well as the talkative audience. In some countries a narrator would remark on some of the stories as they unspooled.
And newsreel series?
There were majors. Like Paramount News, Fox Movietone News, Hearst Metrotone News, and Universal Newsreels. A typical newsreel played for twenty to thirty minutes. It wasn’t news as we know it today. They were meant to be exhibited for weeks at a time. Many of the stories featured small news items which projected ordinary people into the headlines. They certainly weren’t spin when they started, or political.
They were boring, right?
Actually they were true. They were small snippets of life, small cuts of daily life. They were more authentic. They didn’t have an agenda. They were more human. There were also some pretty amazing filmmakers making newsreels, like Germaine Dulac.
She came to prominence in the 1920s as a director of silent films. She was an influential French film critic, an energetic promoter of the cine-club movement, a prolific lecturer and speaker, and author of hundreds of reviews and articles. She even managed to have a falling out with the Surrealists. In the 1930s, Dulac formed a small company France-Actualités to make newsreels. Without box office pressure she set out to make social cinema. Even now they’re remarkable to look at.
They show life, real life. They’re like a door into another world. In many ways they haven’t dated. You know when you see films from the 1930s - or the 1980s - and the acting and technique seems stilted, fake. But when you see her newsreels you see real cinema. Of course that was her intention.
A humanist filmmaker?
Very much. She wanted to bring out the "universally human, social and authentic visual features of cinema".
That’s pretty impressive?
That’s her own words, actually. She was a pretty impressive lady.
Any other words come to mind?
"If only you knew how much constant contact with ordinary people, living their lives, suffering, working, loving normally can change the perspective of a film director used to facing more or less fictional characters. In a newsreel, all is real, not deformed by the imagination or theoretical reasoning."
That seems a million miles from cinema today?
It is. Every frame is manipulated for maximum effect, maximum illusion. Every film is a spectacle. You no longer step into a film. It explodes over you. There’s is no thinking, no imagination required from you. There’s just blind obedience.
But the special effects are amazing?
That’s their job. They’re supposed to amaze you. They’re supposed to knock your eyes out and leave you marveling in wonder. But at the end of the day they’re just optical illusions, they’re just tricks. Have you ever noticed how so many special effects distort depth of field? To make something look realistic we are forever giving it depth. Even the printed image moved from black and white to color, to finer and finer levels of resolution to make it look more and more real.
And now we’ve got 3D cinema again?
I know. How much more of a spectacle do you want? I mean, you actually have to wear spectacles to see the spectacle. The spectacles trick your brain to imaging a three dimension image. Talk about eye popping? Look, I know that technically it’s amazing and wonderful and everything but I just don’t know if the engineers should be driving the most powerful medium we’ve yet invented.
But a lot of directors like it?
Sure. Why not. It’s one way to make your film larger than life. But it’s not the only way. Also you have to remember the current fetish for 3D cinema is being pushed by producers and studios and exhibitors - an unholy triumvirate if there ever was one. A.O. Scott wrote a great piece about spoon fed cinema. About how all film is becoming infantilized. Hey, no need to grow up kids, you can just keep watching the same fairy tales over and over for the rest of your life. What’s a modern romantic comedy but Cinderella with innuendo and some dick jokes. You can put most of the blame on how stupid cinema is becoming these days to the marketing departments at all the major studios.
You can’t blame the marketing department?
Yes I can. Their object is to sell the most number of tickets. So why sell a film to one person when you can sell a film to a child who probably has a sister and can’t go the movies without her mother who’s not going to see without her husband who can’t go because he’s busy at work so she gets her best friend who also has two children to come because, you know, it’ll be fun. So by selling to one child the studio has effectively sold six tickets, so the studio is six times richer. It’s all eye candy to them. The producer is happy because he’s got gross points. The exhibitor is happy because he’s got six mouths to fill with overpriced soda and popcorn. And all because one child wanted to go and see, I don’t know, Ben Stiller get smacked by monkey.
That’s pretty much where modern cinema is at the moment. When they researched teenagers - the supposed largest audience for films - about their cinema habits they found they don’t really go to see a film. They go to the pictures and decide what to see once they get there. The film isn’t the destination. The cineplex is.
The triumph of real estate over art?
It’s kind of sad isn’t it? Ask any studio executives and they’ll tell you they’re just making what the market wants. But they’re not even thinking of making a new market. The current plan to grow revenue is to charge an extra two dollars for 3D films. That’s it. That’s supposedly what’s going to save the film industry. Making better films is not part of the plan.
Making better films? Isn’t that just elitist?
Probably. Wow, what’s wrong with that. Kill me for wanting to see films that move me rather than move the camera. Four hundred years ago Shakespeare was moving ordinary people to tears and triumph with stories that had real depth, not the illusion of depth. It’s bizarre to think that common people hundreds of years ago were more than happy to pay to see tragedy, loss, grief. To be touched by drama and not just sword play.
But don’t people just want to escape?
When did that statement become the absolute truth? Why should people want to escape their life? Why can’t they go to the cinema to see more? Also it’s not people, it’s us. What do we want to see? What do we want to feel? Do we really want to be treated like children? Do we want to be robbed of our imagination?
How are we robbed of our imagination?
What the last big film you saw at the cinema? Picture one scene you remember. No, really, just one scene. Not the trailer you saw online when you were doing a million other things. Not the poster. Just remember one scene. That’s all.
Because you never made the memory. The memory was made for you. When a film takes away your ability to bring something to life, when the special effects are so mind blowing, your imagination has nothing to do. Nothing to conjure. I think if we lose our ability to imagine then we lose too much. We lose possibility.
Without imagination we lose our own potential. We lose the ability to imagine a different future than the one presented to us. If ever there was a time for new futures, new possibilities...
That time is now, right?
Right on. To have the biggest storytelling medium placate us with children’s stories, or distract us with flash and pan is doing ourselves a great disservice. Our efforts to make film more and more realistic has made them less and less true. We’ve blinded ourselves to what cinema could be.
And what could cinema be?
It could leave us enlightened instead of blinded. It could make us focused instead of distracted. It could make us see what’s not there. It could take us beyond ourselves. That’s what I’m really interested in. A cinema of possibility.
And that’s what you’re working on?
Trying to. Starting with the newsreels. I wanted to be more realistic than fantastic. Also I’ve to tell you I was watching a lot of news and feeling nothing. I don’t know whether there was something wrong with me or the way the news has become such a commodity, such a product. The narrative of mainstream news is to reinforce that everything is okay, everything is going to be okay. Things may look like they’re going to hell, but we have everything under control. Go back to your seats and watch the pretty advertisements. Between the spin and the advertisements you don’t see any real news anymore on mainstream media.
Your newsreels seem to focus on human rights?
Human rights and freedom seem to be the constant theme. I guess that’s what I’m drawn to. When I see politicians or the military turn on their own people, that really doesn’t work for me. When individuals stand up against tyranny - whether it’s from the state or increasingly the corporation - that’s where we need to shine a light. Politics has become a machine. Cinema has become a machine. Everything has become a machine. I want to find the humanity.
You sound like you want to save cinema from itself?
I do. The studios aren’t going to do it. The studios are going to kill it. They don’t even realize they’re the next record labels to fall. They don’t even know where the word cinema comes from.
Where does the word cinema come from?
It comes from the Greek word to move. That’s what I want to do. I want to move you. I don’t want to move the camera with a long dolly, or the frame with a tilt pan. I don’t want to hit you with special effects. I want the special effects to happen inside your mind. I want to blow your mind from the inside. I want a cinema of the imagination.
A cinema of the imagination?
That’s right. A cinema beyond four walls and a screen. A cinema that will take you where you’ve never been before. That’s where I want to go. You coming?