"It Takes a Thief to Catch a Thief ": Crime and the American genre film──Interview with Chris Fujiwara & Mark Roberts vol.3

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Roberts: There's a sense in which there is no longer an industry. It's no longer possible to just make B-movies in the same way. Everything is supposed to be a blockbuster. Directors are now in a different relationship with post-industrial Hollywood. We find people like Quentin Tarantino, who seem to fantasize about being studio hacks from another era. This raises the question of citation and stealing in cinema that Kinugasa-san mentioned earlier. It seems that Tarantino wants badly to be a B-movie director, perhaps because that would be the signature of real artistry. The ideal seems to be the director who was working under extreme institutional and budgetary constraints, and yet made brilliant movies. If somebody can do that type of film very well, then they must be a very fine director. The irony in the case of Tarantino is that he probably has carte blanche to do whatever he wants now. Yet, what he wants, it seems, is to be a man without the means to do what he really wants.

Fujiwara: It's not possible to just invent a context that doesn't exist. Tarantino goes farther than anybody else in trying to do that. He even put the Shaw Bros. logo in front of his film, but again it's a kind of fantasy gesture. It's a kind of illusory cinema that doesn't really exist now.

Roberts: Maybe this is one aspect of the post-nostalgic order of cinema. Tarantino, like Godard, cites and refers to other films constantly. Yet in Godard, I feel that there's an attempt to build and say something. It's an attempt to dialogue, to make us think. It's not just pastiche, at least it doesn't strike me that way. Whereas with Tarantino, the lack of context doesn't seem to concern him so much. When he cites another film, it seems often that he seeks nothing more than a moment of recognition, that we simply recognize it as a citation. The repeated gesture is to elicit a sense of "oh, yeah, I remember that." It's a kind of pure citationality, it's pushed to that, but it doesn't seem that there's more. Sometimes when people cite things, they are hiding behind the citation. A fragment is being borrowed or stolen, as in a collage. A collage doesn't involve painting or drawing. It's a collection of pieces being assembled, and maybe thereby refunctioned, except somehow I don't feel they are being refunctioned in Tarantino. So, I ask myself what's the difference between Tarantino's approach and Godard's? I'm not sure how to talk about it, this gesture.

Fujiwara: In Godard, somehow things are circulating around the film. What's interesting about his films is how they could take on a different form. When he cuts from one thing to another, it could always be something else. When you watch the film, you're constantly thinking: what is this new conjunction of images I'm being confronted with? Why this? Why not something else? It's making you think of these other things, making you aware of a large space around the film. Part of the space is Godard's own knowledge of film, and the cultural references that he has. Some of these get into the film very directly, some stay on the border, and some don't appear at all, but you know that they are there. Maybe the word "culture" isn't really adequate to describe that, maybe it's more a kind of off-screen space that he works with. Tarantino, by contrast, is very predetermined, though I don't want to make the argument that Godard is better because has the European modernist culture, and Tarantino is a fanboy from the video store in America who watched crime and kung-fu films. It's not that, it's how they're using the space in which these cultural objects exist. I think there's a lot more movement between the film and that space in Godard, which is why Godard's films can be very short — less than 80 minutes — but they can feel very long, because they're packed. Whereas Tarantino's films are endless, in effect. It's a question of off-screen space and its relationship with time, of how much time is available and how they make it work for them. I don't want to put down Tarantino. "Jackie Brown" (1997) is a good film. Finally, it's not merely a question of citation. We know that all works of art cite other works of art.
  With respect to earlier films that cite other, older films, we might consider certain remakes. Walsh's "Colorado Territory" (1949) comes to mind. This was a remake of his own film, "High Sierra", eight years later. He also remade "The Strawberry Blonde" (1941) as "One Sunday Afternoon" (1948). In both cases, the first film was made before World War II, and the second shortly after the war. I think we could say that these are examples of citation where the citation is on the one hand an attempt to claim a continuity with the past, to say that we can still make these stories, the stories are still valid and important to us, but on the other hand it's also a questioning of that very continuity, because something is starting to break down. I think that's acknowledged in Walsh's films. More so, in his later films, but already in these films from the late 1940s, there's a deepening sense that there's been an irreparable rupture between two sides of cinema, pre- and post-war. Within Walsh's own work, there's a self-citation that is an attempt to work through this historical difference.
  Another approach to citation that comes to mind would be the works by directors who exclude what they're referring to. For example, Jacques Rivette made a film called "Noroît" (1976), a pirate film, where he excludes referring to "Moonfleet" (1955) or Tourneur's "Anne of the Indies" (1951). Another example might be Wim Wenders' film "The State of Things" (1982). The film being made by the characters in Wenders' movie is supposedly a remake of Allan Dwan's "Most Dangerous Man Alive" (1961), but we never see anything from that film. We don't really know the relationship between the new film and the old film, because the Wenders film doesn't go into that. We have to read an interview with Wenders to learn this. So, it's a kind of citation which isn't a citation. Raul Ruiz made some films like that in the 1980s. Like Rivette, he's a cinéphile. In his book, "The Poetics of Cinema", he writes about having discovered directors like Ford Beebe, William Beaudine, or perhaps Lesley Selander — low-level Hollywood directors whose films he saw as a kid. Ruiz's "Three Crowns of the Sailor" (1983) and "City of Pirates" (1984), like the Rivette film, seem to be looking back at an earlier cinema. Ruiz has a scene in one film from the 1980s, I forget which film, but it recalls the scene in "Masculin/féminin" (1966) in which the characters are watching a film, but it's not a real film, it's one that they shot for that film, only to be shown inside the film. It's a citation that isn't a citation. Those are always interesting.

Roberts: Another kind of citation would be the mise en abîme, in which you see the production of a film inside another film. One of the early, and still most powerful examples in Vertov's "Man with a Movie Camera" (1929), in which we are watching the film that we see being made. Similar examples might include films about the production of a film. Godard's "Passion" (1982) shows this, or rather Godard seems to be showing why it can't be made, what the conflicts are which impede its production. This is a kind of self-citation, but not really theft. These are very overt cases, but in general it seems difficult to identify citations because, as Chris pointed out, art inevitably involves citation. The cases we can identify in cinema, are those in which somebody is drawing our attention to the citation, or else refusing to show something because they don't want to cite or repeat another text.

Fujiwara: Which is why I still think Rivette's way is the better way. He neither alludes nor, out of fear, makes a point of refusing to allude. He just erases the explicit allusion. When he made "L'amour fou" (1969), for example, he showed his cast certain films, but the film itself doesn't refer to those others. However, if you read that fact in an interview, then all of his film becomes haunted by the absence of the other films. Still, there's neither the anxiety of "I must not cite" nor the Tarantino-like gesture of "oh, let me cite all of these guys who are so cool." Rivette does the third thing, which is the most interesting.
  There's citation everywhere in film history. "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935) cites the earlier "Frankenstein" (1931). All of Jerry Lewis's films cite earlier films, and of course he also uses the mise en abîme. In Tashlin's "The Disorderly Orderly" (1964), there's a moment in which Lewis and the heroine are talking in front of the window of a travel agency, and when they leave the camera tracks in to show that there's a TWA ad for an in-flight screening of the last Jerry Lewis movie. So, there's often an auto-citation in Lewis. I'm often struck by how it's possible for a filmmaker to have a career that actually comments on itself, as it goes along. That's very rare.
  This brings us back to the earlier point about Mann and Soderbergh, about how the problem they face is the lack of a certain context. So much produced today is, as you say, supposed to be a blockbuster, or based upon the individual film, that there's no continuity. There's very little chance for a director in Hollywood to develop creative habits that have a real continuity and context. Lewis had that, and in a very spectacular and unusual way because he was also a huge star. Clint Eastwood is somebody who has that, and his films often do refer to themselves. Not lately, but when he was making films in which he himself was the star, there was a sense that each new Clint Eastwood film was part of a tradition. Either it was alluding to earlier films almost explicitly, by repeating situations, lines of dialogue and so forth, or it at least had them in the background. We knew that he knew that we knew who he was and where he came from, and what some of the other films were that he had shared with us before. There's a continuity and a shared connection with the past that Eastwood or Lewis could count on emerging, just through their being on screen. That's not available to most Hollywood directors now, not even Woody Allen. There's no Allen continuity any more. Steven Soderbergh wishes that he could be Jean Negulesco at Warner Bros. It's impossible, so he pretends that he is by making "The Good German".
  In a sense, there is no American cinema now. There are individual film events that studios put out. Some of them are sequels, some of them are remakes, so they're easy to sell if they fall into a familiar pattern, but there's no shared space in which these films are participating. They're all trying to be a unique thing. It wasn't like this in the 1940s. Audiences are smaller now, and so it's as if every film has to re-invent cinema.

Kinugasa: Today, the cinema has entered into a new phase. This appears with the DVD, that is, once film can be distributed in digital form. As cinema enters this phase, there are also new concerns about copyright and piracy. In some countries, for example, DVDs are now copied and sold without copyright. As films are transferred to DVDs and distributed in a digital form, films have become data which can also be stolen.
  As cinema enters this new phase there are many crackdowns on copyright, but doesn't this also prevent people from accessing films?

Roberts: Thieves steal money, jewelry, art, love, hearts, kidneys, and now films. The motion picture industry would have us believe that film piracy is cutting into their revenues pretty seriously, and worst of all, it's hurting artists. The thieves are taking food out of the mouths of artists. Now, it's no longer the Robin Hood scenario, it's mass theft. There are many thieves. It's no longer the isolated and spectacular thief-hero, but a mass phenomenon. Here all the familiar metaphors come into play, the kind of metaphors people used to talk about communism: something that spreads like a cancer, etc.
  According to the CNC in France (Centre national de la cinématographie), over 90% of new films are now available on the Internet before being released on DVD. That's a high number, but the interesting part is the "before being released on DVD" bit. How are new bootlegs getting out if the pirates don't have DVDs to copy? Some of them are made by people who are brazen enough to actually videotape a film in the theater. The quality must not be very good. The people who've researched this have found a lesser-known fact: it turns out that a majority of the DVD-quality bootlegs are actually coming directly from people inside the studios or even the juries for the Oscars.
  Evidently, this underground network exists because a lot of people feel that DVDs are simply too expensive. They don't want to pay 4,500 yen for a DVD they know costs less than 100 yen to manufacture. The materials for a DVD are so cheap. The mark-up seems too high. The broader economic problem is that as film audiences have gotten smaller since the 1960s, the film industry has progressively raised admission prices in order to keep their revenues steady. So we return to the question of whose hands are really clean. Is the industry stealing from us because films used to be cheaper? Is there some sense in which the film pirates are giving something back by redistributing this culture? Are thieves a response to this social and economic system that impoverishes the many in order to enrich the few?
  My guess is that it will continue until DRM is perfected to the point that piracy can be controlled, or else prices come down and the people who consume pirated works decide it's not worth the trouble. The second is like the iTunes model, where it's cheaper to just buy the song from the iTunes store than go to all the trouble of trying to pirate it, download it from some shady network, etc. For movies, both of these are still in the future.

Fujiwara: There are two things here that I find interesting. One is the idea of "fair use" as a model that is placed in contrast with theft. I was just reading an interview in Cineaste magazine with Kirby Dick, who made a film called "This Film is Not Yet Rated". It's a new documentary about how the MPAA rating policies are actually very discriminatory, how they are designed to protect the major studios from competition. It sounds very interesting, and in this interview the filmmaker mentions that he includes many clips from NC-17 rated films to illustrate why the MPAA is so screwed up in their decisions to rate these films NC-17. He didn't have to pay any royalties to use any of these clips, because he got them all under the fair use doctrine. In the United States, this law says that you can use extracts from previously published and copyrighted works, if you use them for certain purposes. These could be educational, but if you meet the criteria then it's called "fair use" and you don't have to pay the copyright holder. He asked his lawyer if he could be sued for just going ahead and taking clips from other films, and the lawyer said "no, it's fair use, and I wrote the book on fair use." I think this is an interesting paradigm that will probably get more play now that all of the technology and all of the software — and films are now called "software" — as all of this is coming into people's hands. There will be more and more examples of "fair use" and probably more stretching of the fair-use doctrine. I think that can only be a good thing. Right now, people are a little bit scared, they don't want to make a film that uses somebody else's material and get sued. It's the same situation with music — there have been so many lawsuits related to sampling — but I think fair use is an interesting avenue for making use of past films, for making citation into a form of filmmaking.
  But the other thing that is interesting to me, and is related to that, is the idea that somebody who downloads something is becoming a creator. In a way, I am opposed to this idea. I remember reading a column in the New York Times about two years ago, whose author was an academic in a cultural studies department someplace, and he or she was praising the fact that now with video and music editing software on people's computers, and with the increasing ability to download materials, everybody could be liberated from just having to listen to or see what was made already. The idea is that now everybody can become a creator. The column was very typical of the people who espouse this type of argument, in that it refused to look at two things. First, it didn't ask about the education in ways of thinking that is going to empower these creators ("empower" is a big word for the writer of this column and the people who think like that). That is, what is the education that's going to empower these people to use the new media in a way that's really interesting and creative? And second, the article didn't address the fact that the massive advantage the major entertainment corporations have in marketing, advertising, and distributing their products means that these products will overwhelmingly be the ones that the so-called home creators are attracted to. But are these people going to find ways to work with this stuff that aren't just regurgitating the same structures and meanings that were put in there? In other words, just because you can download it, cut it up, and regurgitate it, doesn't mean that you're free from it. Just because you have the tools to reconfigure stuff doesn't mean that you're free from the underlying assumptions that are in that stuff. So if there's no education for you to become a better filmmaker, to become a better thinker about film — because filmmaking comes down to thinking — I mean, somebody isn't a good filmmaker because they have the tools and can use them in a very facile way, somebody is a great filmmaker because they can think about film in a profound way. If they're not learning how to do that, if they're not being taught about the need to do that, then I don't have much hope in technology empowering people to become creators.

Roberts: There was an earlier attack on "fair use" of materials from DVDs because they are encrypted using a system called CSS. There was a trial in Europe against a hacker who cracked this system, during which it became clear that the motion picture industry's position was that to access the DVD content one would be breaking the DVD encryption scheme to extract the content. In effect, though, they would be criminalizing people for fair use. It's not clear that this was the intention of the designers of the DVD system. In the end, the hacker was acquitted. I don't recall the details of the decision, but perhaps it was because of this conflict with the doctrine of fair use.
  I share Chris's skepticism that the broad availability of technical means is all that's required to advance the art. Some people want to reduce all of this into a technological problem, with the idea that advances in technology will solve the problem. It's interesting that the advances in technology are more often promoted as solving economic problems as well. In this case, that technological advances will completely change the economy of film production. Supposedly, it is now cheaper than any time in history to produce a feature-length film, and yet we're in an economy where mainsteam films are more expensive that ever — they've become obscenely expensive. A huge chunk is often spent just on advertising. So, there's some disconnect. We're not talking about a technological problem at all.

Fujiwara: Definitely. Saying that technology will solve aesthetic or social problems is like saying that the free market will solve these problems, but there's no way. The invisible hand belongs to Warner Bros. and Disney.

Roberts: It does seem, though, that as we've entered this new phase of the cinema, more things are readily available than ever before. It seems as if film history is being leveled out, so to speak, such that films which were more remote and inaccessible are now closer to us, now more available to us. I must say that especially as a foreigner living abroad, I am very grateful for this phenomenon. I feel optimistic about this tendency, for it can only help raise the general awareness of film culture and history — film "literacy" if you want to use that word — and that's very encouraging.

Fujiwara: Yes, as long as we all can get paid somehow.

— Edited by M. Roberts



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02 Apr 2007
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