If you’ve ever watched an Academy Awards show, then you’re already familiar with the talents of Chuck Workman. You just might not know it. He’s the man behind many of the montages featured during the annual celebration of all things Hollywood (and some things less mainstream), such as the In Memoriam segment; he’s also an award-winning filmmaker in his own right, having won the prize for Live Action Short Film during the 1987 ceremony for his short, Precious Images.
Now, Workman has composed a visual essay, What Is Cinema?, that looks at the history of film as an artform, its present, and where it might be going, all while attempting to answer its eponymous question. In eighty minutes or so, Workman comes up with a rich myriad of answers through interviews with contemporary filmmakers (like Kelly Reichardt and Mike Leigh) and archival footage of bygone masters (like Akira Kurosawa). The ultimate point: cinema is a medium of many and varied applications and purposes, and What Is Cinema? succinctly highlights all of them with an effusive sense of joy.
I got the chance to catch up with Workman about his film, as well as his insights into the direction the movies have taken in recent years and where they, along with their audience, might end up:
Movie Mezzanine: I appreciated that there’s this natural irony that a film titled “What Is Cinema?” could be very open-ended in its conclusions. Finding a definitive idea of what cinema really is seems to be a daunting task.
Chuck Workman: It’s easier to find what it’s not! Good filmmaking, good cinema, is not necessarily the Hollywood movie that you might like a lot, that you might love, Casablanca or something like that. But in the end, it’s kind of melodrama, and obvious, and easy, and often, great cinema, great filmmaking, does not necessarily have to do with story. It has to do with many, many other things. So I was trying to kind of just point that out in an easy way for people, and say, “Look at all of these other movies you may not even have heard of. Check ‘em out, because so many use this cinematic tool kit in very, very interesting ways.” It’s just worth checking out, whether it’s looking at Psycho a certain way, or looking at Moonrise Kingdom, or foreign films, Life is Sweet, or something like that, or David Lynch. These are very, very interesting artists that are making these films.
As I said, we all love Hollywood, but it’s basically homogenized material that’s often made for a fun Friday night in the cinema, or something to download on a Saturday night, and they’re not really using what I think filmmaking can do in creating something more. That’s one of the reasons I made the film, and it seems that people are catching onto that. I hope so!
MM: I agree about the dividing lines between film as art and film as entertainment, but the intention here isn’t really to dismiss those melodramas? You’re just trying to categorize them and draw a distinction between something like The Avengers, which I enjoyed, or Godzilla, which I enjoyed, versus something like There Will Be Blood.
Workman: Right, right. No, I’m not trying to disparage them, I’m trying to just point out that they’re different. I do think they’re different. I don’t think it’s black and white, I don’t think it’s kind of a bipolar thing. There are so many grey areas. The Coen brothers are so entertaining, and yet they’re so artistic. There are other people like that. Wes Anderson certainly, David Lynch certainly, but you know, Titanic is there for the melodrama, as much as we all liked it. It’s basically about getting together many people and making them cry, and making them feel the love story. The idea is not to show the filmmaking, and the films that I’m trying to show, the idea is to look at the filmmaking. Look what David Lynch is doing. Look at what Stanley Kubrick is doing, for god’s sake, or even people that you may not notice the filmmaking. Nashville, Robert Altman…look at what he’s doing with actors, look what Mike Leigh is doing, the way he deals with actors and improvisation.
So that’s an interesting thing that I hope people will get, and that was another reason for making the movie, for me anyways.
MM: I love that you use Wes Anderson as an example. He’s a filmmaker that a subset of critics attack for being “style over substance”, but it seems like one of the points being made here is that style is the substance. Could you elaborate on that?
Workman: Of course! Sure! Well, this is an exaggeration, but there’s the story about the art collector who goes to Italy to buy some paintings, and he comes home and he says, “They were all about the same thing! They all had Jesus in them, and Mary, and saints, and crucifixions, and there was no different subject matter!” And yet the subject matter has absolutely everything to do with what these paints are about, but it was certainly the style. So we look at art for style, we look at theater even for style. We’re constantly looking at style over substance, in a way, and why not, is my feeling.
We certainly get enough out of movies that we watch in Hollywood, but if we watch Vertigo, there’s so much more to the way the film is made. Or we watch Mullholland Drive and there’s so much more. It’s dreamlike. When David Lynch talks about being in a dream, you do feel like you’re in a dream in some of his films. Hitchcock would say, “See my film again, look at what I’m doing.” Look at Psycho. There are so many little details that might be left out in a studio film. A studio film is money-oriented. They have to make their money back. They’re in that business, so they’re not going to try and do little cutesy things, or even experimental things. They’re going to do what they think will pack the seats, pack the theaters, on a Friday night, that will make people want to download the films on a Saturday night.
It’s a different kind of a world. So I was trying to celebrate this world of people who are involved in the business, they have people’s money, and they want to give it back, but still, they’re looking for other things. In some cases, the experimental filmmakers who are in it, or Gordard, or Bresson, they couldn’t care less about the money. As long as you give them the money, they’re happy! (laughs) Maybe that’s irresponsible, I don’t know how you feel, but they’re basically in it for the art of it, and why shouldn’t we celebrate that?
MM: My own feeling on that would be, give the filmmakers the money and let them make art.
Workman: That doesn’t happen all the time, because it is a commodity.
MM: That’s very true.
Workman: Kurosawa had the kind of answer to the people that were giving him the money, but on the other hand, they got past that. Again, I would never say – because I watch just as much junk – but I just think that we’re overlooking this incredible art form if we don’t look harder at Kubrick, look at Haneke, Amour, look at Orson Welles. I’m doing a film on Orson Welles now, and you watch his films, not just Citizen Kane, and they’re amazing in the way he makes them. Even in less glorious films than a Welles film, like Robert Altman films or Kelly Reichardt films, there’s an interest in this stuff.
All I’m doing in the film is I’m trying to point this out. I’m not trying to sell a philosophy or anything. I just want to point out that there’s a lot going on out there in those movies, if you just don’t quite watch the story, or if you watch them again.
MM: There’s a lot of really interesting film-as-art being made, but I feel like the problem facing it is distribution. I don’t know if you’ve caught up with any of these, but Locke, Enemy, Under the Skin, Only Lovers Left Alive are art, rather than just straight-up entertainment. But these aren’t the movies that make it to the audience.
Workman: No, they get a week somewhere. Locke I saw, but Under the Skin a lot of friends of mine have seen. Yeah, they get a week or so, but they don’t go away. They’ll be around. We look back at some of those films and we say, “Wow, they were really interesting”, or, “that director was really interesting”.
I don’t know if you know this, but the Brattle theater is pairing very cool films with What Is Cinema?, so you’ll go see What Is Cinema? and they have Vertigo, or they have a David Lynch film, or a Kurosawa film.All week, that whole seven days, they’re showing a second film that is featured in What Is Cinema?, so the audience can actually go and watch What Is Cinema? and say, “Oh, that’s interesting”, and then they can go watch the movie and see what I’m talking about, in a way. I think that was a great idea.
MM: That’s a terrific idea. One of the experiences of watching What Is Cinema? is cataloguing. “Okay, I’ve seen this film, but I haven’t seen this one”, and then you write it down so that you remember you need to see it. That’s a good way to bridge the gap.
Workman: It is, and I’m hoping that people will say, “You know what, I saw a couple Robert Altman films, but I didn’t see this many”, or, “I saw Mike Leigh films but I didn’t see this many”. And then even people like Yvonne Rainer, these experimental films are worth a look sometimes just to get a feeling. Jeanne Dielman they’re running, which I don’t know if you’d ever seen before except in the clip I showed, which is Chantal Akerman’s film of the woman, Delphine Seyrig, just kind of peeling the potato…
MM: I have not seen that one.
Workman: Yeah, it’s a great film, and they’re running that. It’s very slow. You do watch her. I mean, she’s making a point with that kind of length, but still, it’s an important film. It’s interesting, I’m sure you as a critic know how Godard has suddenly come back in a very positive way. People were afraid of him for a very long time.
MM: Of course, the film that premiered at Cannes this month..is that what you’re referring to?
Workman: Well that one, in the New York Times, there was a whole story about it, as if he were just a famous foreign filmmaker. They were making Godard out as the great filmmaker of Cannes, when it used to be that he was the crazy guy at Cannes. It’s just kind of spinning around, so I hope it does get that way, because we’re looking at so many commodities of one movie after another coming out. Godzilla’s fun, and maybe Spider-Man is fun, but, you know, people should check out these other movies, these Mike Leigh movies, or movies like I Am Cuba…I don’t know if you knew about the movies that were in the film or not.
MM: I definitely went through saying to myself, “I recognize this movie, I recognize this one”, and then, I’m not going to lie, there were quite a few I hadn’t seen that I need to brush up on. So I think the film is beneficial in that particular respect.
I was curious, though, what made you choose the filmmakers that you wound up using as your subjects? Kelly Reichardt, Hitchcock, Michael Moore, Abbas Kiarostami, who, by the way, I love that you included Close-Up and Taste of Cherry in there. I think those are terrific movies that are totally underseen.
Workman: That’s great! Good for you. You know, somebody else who interviewed me said, “What was that weird Iranian filmmaker that you had?” (laughs) So, like you say, people don’t know all of these films. To me, Kiarostami is just amazing. I’m glad you caught that.
I was looking for directors and films that had…you know, I used this phrase earlier, but use this cinematic tool kit, that use cinema in a certain way. Whether it’s the extreme realism and naturalness of Kiarostami, the kind of magic realism that he does, in a way, or Michael Moore’s political insistence, or Godard’s formalistic playing with cinema, or Kurosawa’s incredible attention and the time that he takes, or the way that Mike Leigh works with actors, or the way that Robert Altman works with actors, all these different filmmakers are trying to make a film that maybe reminds you of a Hollywood film but isn’t. So Kelly Reichardt is going out with four people to make a movie, and her dog,, basically, and just kind of playing in this very fragile kind of world. Even Costa-Gavras put his spirit into the films that he made. They’re not political, they’re passionate.
So each of these filmmakers, I felt, brought something very special to the table, more than just storytelling. And that, to me, is why I wanted to include them. So I have obvious people, but I also have some people that are experimental, or maybe that you wouldn’t necessarily include in this thing. A lot of people say, “Well, why is Hitchcock in there? He’s a Hollywood guy.” And I said, “Hitchcock, are you kidding? He’s done it all!”
MM: He snuck right in there!
Workman: That’s right! Hitchcock goes above that in so many ways that makes it exciting. So that’s what I was trying to do with all the clips, and that’s why I chose them. Bresson is in the film, Robert Bresson, right? There’s a guy who was the most rigorous filmmaker – he doesn’t use actors, his material is kind of religious and philosophical, and I said, “Would that stand next to Bresson?” In a way, what I tried to do was say, “Yes, David Lynch is trying to do what he wants out of the film.”
So each of these directors have their own style, different ways of making films that are not necessarily the same, but they’re all doing something a little bit out of the box, or sometimes very much out of the box, playing with this medium, that in my opinion – and I don’t know if you feel this way – should be farther along after a hundred and something years. We should be seeing nothing but these films, and then we have our entertainment too. Raymond Chandler, when he wrote his books, he said, “It’s not about the story, the story will be forgotten very quickly. It’s the style that will live.” And I think that’s the kind of way in movies, or any art form.
MM: I agree with what you’re saying – cinema should be further along than it is. But what filmmakers today do you think are expanding the limits of cinema, despite the fact that it hasn’t progressed as much as it should have?
Workman: I don’t know who’s expanding it. You know, fifteen years ago, they asked Coppola the same question. He said, “There’s a girl shooting video in Chicago who is probably going to be an important filmmaker.” And everybody looked at him and said, “A girl? Shooting video? In Chicago?” (laughs) And look what happened! Of course there are many young women in Chicago shooting video, or Boston, or anywhere you go. So I think that’s what’s happening. I teach at a film school, at Purchase College in New York, and you can see – it’s kind of like Emerson, it’s kind of that same level – and you can see how artful some of these kids are. Some of them are terrible, but some of them really kind of break through.
So I can’t say that Wes Anderson is working, or Haneke is working, or Mike Leigh, but they are still working on this stuff. There are many filmmakers working on a level where they’re trying to break through. I was in Hollywood for thirty years, I worked on twenty Oscar shows, I’m a Hollywood guy, but I still pull to Hollywood, to making very popular films, to making Godzilla. And it’s so strong because it’s fun, and you’re making money, and everybody thinks you’re the greatest. You get to play in this incredibly wonderful swimming pool. But if you’re more rigorous, like Mike Leigh, he just won’t to go to Hollywood. He doesn’t want a committee, he just wants to make his own movies.
I think you have to be tough about that. I didn’t see the new Spider-Man film, but Marc Webb made that (500) Days of Summer. That was such an interesting film, to me anyway, that I’m saying, “Well, he could have made a different kind of film, but instead he took the check.” Well, we’d all take the check, and I’ve taken the check too, but you kind of have to push yourself a little bit as a filmmaker. I’m trying to honor these filmmakers that I’ve shown who do that, who are not afraid to get into trouble. If you think about Kubrick, if you think about Welles, and if you think about Robert Altman, who to me are the three greatest American directors, they all got in trouble one way or another and they all had to kind of do their own thing. Those are the films that we look at, and we say, “Wow, they’re really something.” It’s a constant thing that goes on, you know, and the filmmaker just has to do his work, or her work, and that’s where it’s going to come from. Like Kelly, she may be a great filmmaker, she may not…by the way, they’re pairing one of her films with What Is Cinema?, also.
MM: Which one is that?
Workman: Meek’s Cutoff.
MM: Oh, that’s an excellent movie.
Workman: Yeah. So, I don’t know if she’s the one, or so-and-so’s the one, it could be a kid in film school right now, or not in film school. It could be somebody in Romania. Think of the Romanian films that came out a few years ago. You never know! So, what’s great is that it’s still going on. Another great thing is that it’s so easy now to make a film. It’s hard to make a good one, it’s still just as hard, but you don’t have to go to Hollywood and rent cameras and have a huge crew. You can just go in your backyard and make a film this afternoon, if you want.
MM: Right. It might be hard to make a great movie, but it’s so much easier to make a movie, and I think that’s a healthy state for cinema to be in.
Workman: Yeah! And even the distribution…they’re somewhere. These films are somewhere, whether they’re picked up by IFC, or they’re on Netflix, or you can get on Amazon or Youtube on your own. So you can get these films somewhere, where you can tell people where they are, you know, just like garage bands. Look at the influence of garage bands in the past thirty years. So I think that the Mike Leighs and the Kiarostamis don’t come around that much, but there are people that are coming up, I think, that are doing that. And old people, who’s the guy who’s a hundred and five years old who just had a film at Cannes? The Portuguese director? So there’s hope for me. I’ve only just become a senior citizen, so I’m going to keep going. (laughs)
MM: There’s a quote in the film from J. Hoberman that stuck with me. He was talking about how it isn’t the medium that’s changed, it’s the audience and audience expectations that have changed. In some ways, the medium absolutely has changed, but I think he’s really onto something there. Do you agree that the biggest change with cinema today is us, and how we watch movies, and what we expect of our movies?
Workman: Could be. I would have said a year ago that it was technology. But maybe it is the audience and how they watch movies. He just wrote a book about that. But I’m not quite sure, he’s pushing that idea a lot, and I don’t know if audiences have changed. If you go to whatever Boston multiplex on a Friday night, that audience hasn’t change from when I was your age. But the audience at the Brattle, I think, is much more open, and the audience watching television is more demanding. That’s why we have such great cable shows, because they’re demanding, they want to see more. The audience, though, is hipper, to use an easy word. The audience is more perceptive. One of the things that happened when I made What Is Cinema? – it came out last year at Toronto, so it’s been around for eight or nine months in festivals – audiences are getting it. They’re saying, “Yeah, I see what you mean, I never thought about that, yeah, that’s right.” And they disagree, and they say, “Why didn’t you have more Scorsese,” or whatever. But still, they’re watching it, and they’re open, and I think that’s what watching all of these different media, and being able to just watch a film on your phone – which I’m not against, I think it’s okay. I mean, I made a joke about it. I don’t know if you noticed, but I have Lawrence of Arabia on somebody’s phone in a quick shot…
MM: I didn’t catch that. I couldn’t ever watch a movie like that.
Workman: That’s the absurdity of it. But I think that’s okay! You’re getting so much. It’s like, again, it’s like popular music, which changed so much when it became more available and went away from top 40. Or architecture has changed, to look at another side of the coin. We’re much more open to looking at different things, and the way things work, and art has changed. In all these various media, movies are certainly more acceptable. So the audience is there. It’s interesting that the Brattle puts this movie with Vertigo or something. They know their audience better than you and I do, probably, so they’re just trying to get people in to buy popcorn and pay the money, but still, they do it in kind of an interesting way, and they have something to uphold in that famous theater. So they understand that too. Everybody kind of understands that. To me, it’s promising.
MM: I feel the same way. I feel very much that there are a lot of people, a lot of critics and journalists online, who decry the state of the artform, and who talk about it as though it’s on its last legs. I’m glad I’m not alone in feeling like it’s just getting started, really.
Workman: It is just getting started! That’s why I put Bill Viola in, even though he’s an older guy. His video art, it’s amazing, and there’s so much to watch, and so much to do, and so many ways to do it. How could you turn this off? You’re using actual moments of reality to create something. It’s not dabs of paint, it’s not words, it’s pieces of reality that, even if you paint on the film, the paint is real! It’s all part of the same thing! So how can you say that it’s not gonna go far? Hollywood could die, or just become a distributor, like with the music business, but I don’t think the art form will die. I think it’ll just get stronger and stronger.