Turning In, Tuning Out

Simon Wood

Many directors have used tried and tested avant-garde techniques to bolster the suspension of disbelief in editing, in camerawork, in sound design, and in narrative. But the single greatest gift to the escapist film comes from an altogether separate medium: music.

It's doubtlessly happened to the most stoic of film scholars. You're sitting in a movie theatre, the lights are off and the sole focus of everyone's attention is the giant screen. There's little that can replicate the communal experience of sharing an emotion with dozens of strangers. Home video is a poor substitute and other public arts pale in comparison to the overwhelming wave of manipulated emotion made possible by the cinema.

This, of course, is the polar opposite of the academic angle. Critics -- at least those who value art above entertainment -- argue that film is not about escapism but the ability to reject this soothing atmosphere and retain the context of surroundings. This may sound like a rigorous exercise, and surely it is for consumers disinterested in the mechanics of the medium, but the basic premise is solid.

If film is to become a culturally accepted fine art, then it requires rigour equal to a studious gallery or concert hall. Even discounting the now obvious line between product and art, a sound critic should aim firstly to isolate themselves from the act of going to the movies and concentrate, instead, on seeing a film.

This may seem like a pretentious, didactic or snobby approach but one that logically dictates the difference between art and entertainment. There is no right way to analyze any medium -- such is the nature of art and academic constricts often fail to grasp the notion of individual expectation. But the most severe problem in the advancement of film as representative art is the blurred distinctions between those who analyze and those who simply recommend.

Both currently fall under a singular noun ("critic") that implies only the identification of negatives; and simply determining good and bad is an entirely subjective exercise. Of course, the more sophisticated analysts of art also employ this term but surely only as a matter of course. Semantically speaking, there should really be a distinction within the critical circle between the two schools.

I'm not writing this because I'm bitter towards the majority of critics; I truly think that cinema has reached a point where art and entertainment can co-exist peacefully and complimentarily. Rather my thoughts stem from an interview in which writer/director Cameron Crowe claimed that the purpose of artistic cinema is to evoke emotion and instinctive reaction. This is hardly an unexpected opinion: Crowe has long prided himself on the fusion of film and pop culture and his oeuvre reveals countless scenes that employ his preferred technique.

Think of John Cusack, boombox held aloft above his head, using Peter Gabriel to reclaim lost love in Say Anything, and Tom Cruise as Jerry Maguire singing along to Tom Petty after clinching a vital deal, or falling in love to a Springsteen track. Then there is the coup de grace: Crowe's paean to his love affair with music; the songs of Almost Famous encapsulated by the swelling bus-bound Elton John sing-a-long. It's what studios and TCM describe as 'movie magic', the exact moment when film and consumer cease to be separate entities and the claustrophobic theatre becomes the ultimate gilded cage.

It should come as no surprise then that an individual as indebted to this particular technique as Crowe would promote escapism as art. Sergei Eisenstein may have argued that the ultimate pursuit of film is to reflect reality through abstraction, but it is unlikely that he intended his use of montage to be as vital to the rise of entertainment -- in contradiction to (and disguised as) art -- as it became. Many directors have used tried and tested avant-garde techniques to bolster the suspension of disbelief in editing, in camerawork, in sound design and in narrative. But the single greatest gift to the escapist film comes from an altogether separate medium: music.

Crowe's theory -- simply put, manipulation as art -- lives and dies on securing the complete attention of an audience. In his definition, cinema exists, in its highest form, as a vehicle for transfixing and capturing the collective consciousness. Others share his outlook, hence the existence of the movie score. Film composers use sonic wallpaper to heighten suspense, announce critical revelations and underscore comedic moments with the choice of the right notes.

It is widely accepted that a good score never draws attention to itself beyond supplementing the onscreen story. It serves, a few exceptions allowed, to act as a point of recognition between consumer and proxy. As an audience, we imagine a rollercoaster rush of notes infusing the final moments of the climatic game when, of course, the players would never hear violins and cellos while running in for a touchdown. It creates atmosphere, but more importantly, it distracts us from the mundane in a way that is immersive and, too frequently, blinding.

The contemporary extension of this approach is the incorporation of pop music as buffer. This is Crowe's forte and one increasingly used by low-budget filmmakers. Music is a much more emotionally responsive form than conventional cinema; a four minute pop song can roughly induce the same emotional journey as a 90-minute film. This discovery has paved the route for the substitution of narrative by digestible and instantly affecting snippets of pop culture - in short, a crutch. Relying on a separate medium to bolster the seeming shortcomings of another eventually harms both. No matter what your opinion of Elton John, "Tiny Dancer" will never be the same again after Almost Famous. "The Blower's Daughter"? Think Closer. "Young Americans"? Dogville.

The effect is strikingly similar to that other offspring of the feature film: the trailer. Any media student can pontificate on the subtleties of consumerism but the overriding marketing goal of advertisement is connection. Selling a product requires instant associations, and in a movie theatre that means people have to remember the trailer after two hours of completely different stimulation. Hence the use of aural cues for a film like Finding Neverland. Johnny Depp dancing with a bear is whimsical by itself but Johnny Depp dancing with a bear while Ben Jelen sings is memorably romantic. Music is urgent in a way film isn't so it's handy to throw some into the mix when the editor can't quite find the right mood. What, I suspect, the filmmaker wants is for the audience to go home, download the song and dream about playing it at a wedding or funeral.

I'm not implying a taboo exists because pop has, and will continue to be, used to great artistic benefit within film. Again, the line between exploitation and appropriateness is not rigid and one man's cacophony will be another's concerto. The best starting point is to simply ask what a filmmaker intended when selecting a particular song for a particular movie moment. Did they intend to compliment the mise-en-scene and sense of separation from reality as Wes Anderson employed successfully in Rushmore? Is the cut premeditated to dictate a certain time and place? Peter Berg and Curtis Hanson have both used archival hip-hop to create distinctions between 'now' and a same looking 'then'. Can the characters hear the song too? All questions that distract from total surrender and contribute to wrest control from, too often, manipulative and lazy filmmakers.

I have no specific issue with this archetypical Crowe technique. I think it serves a unique purpose in the pursuit of film as entertainment and any issue I take lies solely in his evaluation that full control of the audience is the ultimate goal of the filmmaker and, to paraphrase, the blending of the right scene with the right song is inarguably magical and artistic. To claim such is to imply that cinema is both incapable of generating deep emotion (or even any emotion independent of other mediums) and that the form itself is static. If he is right, then the pursuit of higher and unique art should be immediately discounted in favor of a rearrangement of already existing notions.

Allowing oneself to feel emotion is human and welcome. But the entire point of art is perception of reality: channeling this experience through a lens and allowing the public to scrutinize and critique it. In relying so heavily on the unedited, highlighted contributions of other, earlier artists, Crowe and his peers risk sacrificing the individual nature of art and reverting solely to entertainer status. Perhaps this is a harsh generalization but it completely represents the growing gulf divide between cinema and movies. Sure, there are elements of crossover but lethargic reliance on pre-packaged emotional resonance hardly serves to underscore a filmmaker as artist. What is the song masking and how would perception change if you watched the film with earmuffs and subtitles? If the difference is enormous, it represents a much wider divide.

Many critics will freely acknowledge the context of their opinion. Most are content to recommend a movie as an alternative to other entertainment options rather than methodically analyze the workings of the piece. This is great to a point, but when the two overlap, it is not entertaining art but seemingly artistic entertainment that becomes definitive (yet thankfully not yet canonical). Crowe's theory of reaction may not be deep, but it's becoming increasingly accepted amongst critics. For filmmakers who claim both heart and mind, fooling the critical watchdog has often been as simple as turning up the volume.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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