Movie-love and the World Cinema, An Interview with David Shreiber

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David Schreiber lives in Los Angeles, California. A former film critic and production executive, David Schreiber now works as director of digital film making for an art school in West Los Angeles.

Bijan Tehrani: What do you think about the film education in USA? Does it have the right connections to the today’s world Cinema?

David Shreiber: Labels are deceptive and often blur the true dynamics of an art form that is also an international industry. Pitting cinema in the U.S. against “global cinema” assumes that the globalization process that has cross-polinated much of world industry, fading and blurring borders, hasn’t done the same to the movie industry. How many Hollywood action directors originated in other countries? When a Paul Verhoeven uproots from the Netherlands to work in Hollywood, is the product an American movie or Dutch? Is John Woo still a Hong Kong director or is he now making American movies? I know you want to discuss this issue later, so I’ll return to your question.
Let me respond from several perspectives, beginning with the technical. The video revolution and the emergence and soon the pre-eminence of the Internet as the global highway of communicating, has meant film schools the world over teach much the same technology. We’re moving toward standardization of the process and, to the extent that film schools, teach technical know-how, film education is a sound foundation for movie-making anywhere on the globe.
It was not so long ago that when Hollywood sought out foreign locations for production, the lion’s share of the crew would be culled from the industry locals of Hollywood. Today, the digital-video revolution has rendered extinct the image of an entire film crew being exported from Hollywood to make a movie. Very skilled technicians can be found in all but the most remote reaches of the planet. This benefits the studios by cutting down on travel expenses and exploiting the cheap labor in less affluent nations. I’m sure this process sounds familiar. So in this limited sense of technical skills, yes, film education in America is appropriate to domestic and global cinema.
However, I do suspect you are talking about that part of movie-making that excites us both: the art. From this perspective, no, I think the world is topsy-turvy. I have always considered cinema, and art in general, to be a foreign language. Most people don’t know how to interpret movies, and yet we all share our opinions freely and frequently. It takes years of lessons and constant practice to learn a foreign language. Given my druthers, I would move film into the foreign language departments of most universities. Art is a foreign language and it takes as much intelligence and insight to read a film as it does to produce it. Your average film school treats movies as not much more than the stage play put to film. The camera moves cinema so far away from theater that in the hands of the world’s great directors, it’s closer to music than it is theater. This is where most film schools fall short.
Just look at the way video and film production instructors speak of shooting a scene: “Make sure you get your coverage.” There is no coverage. Coverage assumes the story exists independently of the camera, that the camera is simply a recording device and the director and DP must make sure they capture as much of the action as they can so they can re-create that story in the editing room. But there really is no action until the director or A.D. shouts “action.” The camera creates the story; it doesn’t simply record it– the documentary being one possible exception.
This might seem like picking nits, but it’s really quite a profound distinction and an enormous blind –spot in the eyes of film instructors. If one comes to see that ‘action’ and ‘cut’ create the story, suddenly the director is forced to recognize the truth of the Ernst Lubitsch observation that “there are a thousand places to put the camera, but only one correct place.” Move the camera six inches in any direction and a scene could take on a completely different meaning. We ignore this fact, we formalize and standardize our shooting approach to film and shoot “master-medium-close-up” to simply get things done. And why not? If camera placement can be determined by a simple formula anyone can learn, those who aren’t good at mastering the foreign language of film can become directors, some to great acclaim, however mediocre their talent. And that brings us to the other adjustment I would make to the current state of film education.
If Hollywood is to be our model and we intend to direct our students to the mecca that is Hollywood, I would transplant film into the business schools of our major colleges. Today’s Hollywood is first and foremost a business, not an art form. True, the Hollywood movie has long been a consumer product and producers businessmen, but not to the extent they are today.
For all that was wrong with the old studio system, the moguls did care about the quality of their product. Contemporary American movies far too often originate not in the imagination of an artist but in the brainpan of bean counters and marketers at the studios. Have you ever watched the Sunday evening news? Tell me, why do they report which movie was the big box office winner that weekend? Does that have anything to do with art? Why not tell me how many hamburgers McDonald’s sold that weekend, or how many bottles of Coke the convenience store down the block hocked? Don’t get me wrong; I love movies; movies are art, in my opinion, the greatest art; but what they shouldn’t be are widgets.
Now, if we are talking about world cinema, though foreign movies can stink up the theater as much as American ones, when they are good—and they are good far more often than the Hollywood product—the experience is like that of going to a church to commune with your spiritual self, while Hollywood “event movies” put you in a football stadium, drunk and rooting for your team to humiliate the opponent.
We as educators are falling-short in infecting our students with what Pauline Kael called movie-love.

Bijan: In a conversation with you, you were emphasizing on importance of exposing the film making students to the work of directors such as Kiarostami, please explain why.
David: Not just Kiarostami, but the great film makers past and present. I would even include some modern American film makers, albeit independent ones. (Charles Burnett is a national treasure; unfortunately he’s outdoing J.D. Salinger in terms of becoming a recluse. John Cassavetes went to his grave without ever receiving his due from the ignorati.)
Americans talk about movies as an escape. You grab your date, a barrel of greasy popcorn and sit in the dark for two hours. I like popcorn as much as anyone, but would we profane a museum displaying the work of Rafael, Ingres, Tintoretta, Tiepolo by hiring vendors to walk the corridors, exclaiming “Hey, beer here! Get your ice-cold beer here!” Movies don’t get the respect they deserve and though reports of film’s demise are premature, it is on life-support in America and it does seem the only way to revive cinema is to open our borders to the Kiarostamis of the world.
The work of this great Iranian film maker doesn’t take the viewer away from life, but plunges him or her into it. Movies shouldn’t be an escape but an exploration and a path to understanding the most difficult and complicated human experiences.
People traditionally go to movies because life doesn’t provide them with the patterns of meaning and sensation and the emotional cohesion they crave. So they go to movies to see what it’s like to fall in love, to lose someone we care about dearly, to fight in war or to simply show our parents how much we love them. Cinema, in the hands of artists like Kiarostami, help us make sense of our lives. Is there anything that makes our minds hum with greater pleasure than going to a movie and watch how a character grapples with issues with which we identify? So much of art begins in a wound, something that insults or has damages our soul; and it’s the excising of the wound, the actual cutting it out of ourselves and turning it into art that helps to heal both the artist and the audience.
No one, but no one, comes as close to realizing this truth as Kiarostami. His movies make the work of the Italian Neo-Realists seem to be as full of artifice as a bad Hollywood movie. The story, to the extent that there is a story, is slow to develop. In Ten, all the major plot developments take place off screen. It’s a violation of major narrative organizing principle most American movies adhere to: cut out the transitions; show the scenes, is a Hollywood commandment. In Ten, Kiarostami jettisons the “traditional” scenes and in the process creates a cinema far more profound than what Americans are used to getting. The central narrative of mutual rejection by the mother and son is never completed. Hollywood would consider such a movie un-written; but that’s its genius. It’s like life. The meaning is in the human interactions of his characters, moment to moment, unrushed. On their journeys, the driver and her passengers constantly encounter and interact with other drivers, pedestrians, and space; these interactions are always impressive for their casual hipness and their intensely qualified patience. In such a stripped-down film, the withholding of reverse shots takes on great importance. Non-movement becomes a form of emphasis, as in section #2, the film’s summit, in which the sudden immobility of the background gives tremendous force to the passenger’s display of her shaved head.
It’s the human touches that make movies art. Put simply, Kiarostami depicts human-beings, whereas Hollywood movies, with their insistence on defining characters by a single goal they are after, present us with human-doings. I ask you, which is more riveting, or at least, more honest? One moment a man might want to pursue a certain woman; the next moment he might prefer watching a basketball game. I’m far more interested in a person’s dreams and thoughts and inner-secrets than her desire to become a lawyer. Many people become lawyers. I’m interested in what makes this particular lawyer special. You have the good fortune of knowing Mr. Kiarostami. Perhaps you can ask him why his movies so thoroughly reject traditional Hollywood narrative to focus on character.

Bijan: Most of the movie goers in US think that REAL MOVIES are the ones made by Hollywood, and there are others, Foreign or Art movies. Do you think it is necessary to change this kind of mindset? If so how? I mean how realistically this could be changes?
David: Well, a movie’s a movie, whether I think it’s good or not. But of course, you’re actually asking if I think US movies are more authentic or make better use of the art form than other cinemas? The short answer is no. The best movies are coming from overseas and from independent movie-makers in the U.S.
American movies are very good at giving the viewer an adrenaline rush. That’s a very simple sensation, not an emotion. I’m sure a lion stalking prey feels a sensation not that dissimilar from the blood rush Hollywood movies strive for. The problem is, once that sensation is gone, you leave the theater with nothing to take away. I just saw the final Star Wars. It’s flash and dash and eminently forgettable. Personally, I’d rather ride a rollercoaster.
Even Hollywood owns the deplorable state of their product. What they don’t own is any responsibility for how American movies have divorced meaning from experience. “The audience is to blame. We’re just giving them what they want,” they reply with varying degrees of defensiveness. As I once told a studio exec, “Way to take responsibility, toots.”
The problem here is, producers don’t acknowledge that the audience’s taste is greatly shaped by the movies given to them. People love movies so much, they will go see them no matter how rotten. If you’re starving and all you have to eat are Hostess Sno-balls and Twinkies, you’re going to eat one or the other. It’s no different with movies. If the audience is only given comic-book movies, that’s what they will go see. In that sense, it is vitally important to change the mindset of the American movie-goer. It should be every film educator’s responsibility to expand the gamut of what fledgling film makers think movies could and should be.
It used to be that one could watch certain seminal movies and learn a lot about our culture and what was going on in America at that time. They frequently celebrated the color of human personality, what was best in our species. You can see this in the 1980s’ movie “The Right Stuff.” Although made some twenty years after the fact, the movie successfully captures the optimism and sense of community that once characterized our culture during the Kennedy era. There was a strong sense that we were all Americans (at least among Caucasians), that we were part of something great and hopeful. Kennedy appealed to our better instincts. Movies today celebrate militarism and greed. A very good recent example is Martin Scorcese’s The Aviator.
Scorcese demonstrates his worship of power and wealth by ending his biopic about Howard Hughes at 1947. This allows the movie to avoid the worst aspects of Hughes’ character: the virulent anti-Semitism, his cooperation with McCarthy in the purge of leftists from his own studio, RKO; his links to the Mafia; his support of bloody dictators like Cuba’s Batista, the Dominican Republic’s Trujillo, Nicaragua’s Somoza; his alleged participation in assassination plots against Castro and JFK and his profiteering during the Vietnam War. This epitomizes the value-structure of millennial Hollywood.
Maybe that is an accurate snapshot of where we are as a culture. You know what, Bijan, if you’ll let me amend my answer, I’d say yes. It’s vital to disabuse the American people of the notion that “real movies” are what Hollywood makes. We get what we are. If our movies are excessively violent, it’s because our culture has become that. Movies celebrate high-tech weapons of destruction– all the better to sleep at night while the real military is dropping bombs, launching missiles at antiseptic distances.
Movies at their best celebrate the color and diversity of the human personality. In fact, the only point of plot is, in my opinion, to give the movie makers the opportunity to reveal character. Clearly, American movies lack in this regard. Independent and foreign movies generally remain true to this artistic imperative. In that sense, if we care about movies and by extension our culture, yes, we need to teach the next generation of film makers that real movies are about people. The meaning of a John Cassavetes movie is in the moment-to-moment interaction of his characters. So too is the meaning of life. Is this a better use of the medium? Absolutely. The beauty of cinema is how the camera can interpret complex human emotions in simple expressions and gestures, whether they be the gait of a hard-boiled dame taking possession of a room, or the padding walk of a subservient Japanese woman in the work of Ozu. As Howard Hawks recognized long ago, this is the art of the art. This beauty and eloquence is lost in today’s big budget Hollywood movies. The Hollywood movies you say many refer to as “real movies” are antithetical to this. They are about fighting, and crushing your opponent, about the square-jawed American being left standing when the smoke clears. Violence is loud; the conscience whispers. We need more whispering movies.
For all these reasons, I do think it’s imperative to put a human face back on movies. But it won’t be easy. Movies, at their best, turn our gaze inward. They help us to decide how we should live; what type of person we should be. At present, they make us look outward with hostility to “the other.” They revel in showing the monster in the human, when it’s a far greater accomplishment to reveal what’s human in the monster. At present, American movies contribute to a culture of fear. We fear anything different. A fearful populace can never sustain a democracy. Fear brings out our worst instincts, creates distrust and causes us to lash out. A good example is the Iraq war. I speak to people quite frequently, people who are even aware that Iraq had nothing to do with 9-11 and that she was no threat to America, and yet they support the war. Is it possible that the way Hollywood movies bifurcate humanity into an “us v. them” paradigm creates a collective mindset predisposed to aggression? I don’t know. I do know they are doing violence to our culture and debasing the artistic merit of our cinema.

Bijan: Is digital film making going to help the independent film makers and help them to get rid of the monopoly of the major studios over production and distribution?
David: I think so, yes. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that virtually anyone with a camcorder and some knowledge of Final Cut Pro can make a movie. That is and isn’t the issue. Hollywood has never owned the means to movie-making. They do own the distribution and marketing. Once bandwidth is no longer an issue, anyone with a camera, some software and Internet access can shoot and distribute movies.
Hollywood knows this and is terrified. It’s like the name that cannot be spoken. It’s the threat that is never mentioned, but dollars-to-doughnuts Hollywood is marshalling its resources to ward off the threat to their monopoly. Do you think that as we speak there are no media-conglomerates lobbying in Washington to limit or control access to the Internet? If the studios are not wining and dining your senator right now, they should be fired for sleeping on the job.
The real question isn’t will digital film making help the indie, but how will the independent film maker fight the combined forces of Hollywood and Washington to break their relentless attempts at maintaining the monopoly over distribution. The movement toward consolidation and concentration of wealth is happening in virtually every industry. Why would Hollywood be different? And in fact, we’re already there. Five corporations dominate the media market. That kind of power never willing gives up control. The only question is, will we allow them to take over the Internet as well.
A few years ago, independents dominated the Oscars. Where are they now? Where is Miramax, October films and the like? Like sharks in suburban swimming pools, Hollywood swallowed up the independents. It should have been a wakeup call for those of us who like our cinema challenging and disturbing and real. The problem here is, artists make the worst soldiers. They don’t follow orders; they don’t march in lockstep; they question the morality of their every move. These human virtues make them great, but they don’t predispose them to subordinating their individuality to the good of the collective whole. Tolstoy was a genius, a giant in literature. When he tried to translate his genius into a social movement, his art lost its vitality.

Bijan: How do you see the future of the independent cinema in the next ten years?
David: It all depends on who wins the movie wars. The international movie marketplace is controlled by large media corporations with the clout to pressure legislators to regulate distribution in their favor.
At the same time, the dramatic reduction in cost of independent production can, in theory, democratize the process of becoming a movie-maker. This puts enormous ground-up pressure on Hollywood to infuse their movies with elements the independent movie-maker can’t replicate. Hollywood can stage elaborate action sequences, create more fantastical worlds, and dazzle in a way the independents can’t. It would be fool-hardy for independent movie-makers to even try to compete. Hence Hollywood will continue to increase the “dazzle factor” of its movies and therein lies the possible salvation of American movies. While Hollywood makes movies that run away from who we are as human beings, indies must fill this vacuum.
The rips in our social fabric are ripe for exploration. Hollywood won’t present a realistic portrayal of the needs, concerns and problems of average citizens, so the independent scene has an opening wide enough to drive a Hummer through. There’s a chance to make Hollywood movies largely irrelevant to our lives as we live them. If independent film makers are paying attention, they would give up the ghost of glamour and glitz and serve it up neat and simple. Art is a form of communication. It’s a way of reaching people. Independents are positioned to do that better than Hollywood. The economics of the studios prevent them from competing in this arena.

Bijan: Who are the film makers that you admire? Tell us briefly about them.
David: Last year was the 100th Anniversary of Ozu’s birth (actually the 101st) and UCLA in cooperation with LACMA presented a retrospective of his work. Ozu’s oeuvre amounts to one of the most profound visions of family life in cinema. His post-War movies jettison all Hollywood convention and pare down the storytelling and imagery to such a simple and clear vision that it’s as if he’s renouncing film grammar in its entirety. He’s considered the most Japanese of the great Japanese movie-makers—and the most inaccessible to the Western mind– but I find him fascinating and deeply moving.
Two other Japanese film makers would make my pantheon. Mizoguchi’s appeal is in the poetry of emotional extremes he presents. I find a similar attraction in the work of contemporary film maker Takeshi Kitano. I don’t think any other film maker, living or deceased, can handle violence and tenderness with equal virtuosity as Kitano.
I recently viewed for the first time in perhaps 20 years, Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar. It’s simply marvelous. The ending was a miscalculation on the part of Ray, but the love between the two leads is right out of great literature. As the French writer Proust once said, When in love, the lovers seem to exist in a world all their own. With this dictum in mind, Ray shows how such love is a threat to society, which perforce has to destroy the lovers.
Howard Hawks is probably my favorite American director. No other film maker has managed to make great movies in as many different genres as Hawks. Like the others, he also created a poetry of human gesture.
Cassavetes, even after his death, has not received the credit he richly deserves. His movies make the audience work. On first viewing, I too am occasionally frustrated with his movies, but I’m always mysteriously drawn to watch again. Invariably my attitude, as if by some alchemy, becomes a full, affectionate embrace. That does touch upon another topic.
Why are we expected to fully understand and appreciate movies on one solitary viewing? Can I appreciate Da Vinci by one quick gander at the Mona Lisa? How about Mozart? It does take time and effort to appreciate great art. It needs to ruminate, to insinuate itself into your imagination, forcing you to study further. This often takes time. In great movies, there always seems to be something mysterious and elusive about them. A movie that can be fully understood on one viewing is a shallow movie.
Bresson, Carl Dreyer, Kiarostami and Charles Burnett would each get a nod from me.

Bijan: Please name the best ten movies you have seen in recent years.
David: Blood and Bones, Brother, Dolls, Irma Vepp, In the Mood for Love, Centre Stage, A Taste of Cherry, Ten, and I recently saw the movie Burnette made for Disney of all people, Nightjohn. One could make a strong argument that Burnett is the greatest black film maker this country has produced. It’s a shame he isn’t given more opportunities to share his cinematic vision.
I think we’ve probably run out of time for one day, Bijan, but let me plant a seed in your mind. It’s very problematic at this point to talk of “national” cinema. Hollywood dominates distribution and as a result influences and to a lesser extent is influenced by movies from other nations. We can discuss whether this globalization of cinema is good or bad at some other time. Thanks for this chance to talk movies.

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Bijan Tehrani

Bijan Tehrani a film director, film critic and writer, works as editor in chief of Cinema Without Borders while teaching Language of Film and Film History at workshops nationwide. Bijan has won several awards in international film festivals and book fairs for his short films and children's books.

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