How cinema lost its soul

From Buñuel to Warhol, film used to be thrillingly experimental, but now we have to look to other art forms for the avant-garde, argues Ronald Bergan

'A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end... but not necessarily in that order.' - Jean-Luc Godard

A balcony at night. A man sharpens a razor blade. He observes a small cloud moving towards the full moon. The head of a girl comes into view, her eyes wide open. The cloud moves across the moon. The razor blade slices open the girl's eye.

Thus begins Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog) and the film career of Luis Buñuel. It is one of the most startling images in any film, and still retains the power to shock, over 70 years later. Made under the influence of André Breton's Manifesto of Surrealism (1924), and co-conceived with the artist Salvador Dali, its series of unconnected incidents was intended to follow the logic of a dream: ants emerge from the palm of a disembodied hand (an archetypal Daliesque image); priests are pulled along the ground; dead donkeys lie on two pianos. Although the film defies logical explanation, its rich supply of images from the unconscious can be read as a study of repressed sexual impulses.

Un Chien Andalou - the title is unrelated to anything in the film - was one of many avant-garde classics of the first part of the 20th century, most of them drawing from the other arts but retaining the specificity of cinema. There remained a strong experimental streak in films running parallel to the commercial cinema until the late 1960s, after which there was a sharp decline.

A few decades ago, the names of Luis Buñuel, Robert Bresson, Carl Dreyer, F W Murnau, Sergei M Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Abel Gance, Jean Renoir, Jean Vigo, Federico Fellini, Alain Resnais and Jean-Luc Godard, who worked in relatively "mainstream" cinema, could stand beside such diverse icons of modernism as Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Arnold Schoenberg, Walter Gropius, André Breton, James Joyce, T S Eliot, Piet Mondrian, Jackson Pollock, Oscar Niemeyer, Bertolt Brecht, Karl-Heinz Stockhausen and Samuel Beckett.

It should be remembered that the birth and growth of cinema was almost immediately parallel to the birth and growth of modernism in the other arts. Film is generally at its best when it recognises its roots in modernism, ie when it rejects conventional notions of realism, disengages from bourgeois values, and questions the primacy of narration.

From the beginning of cinema, film artists working in the new medium understood that its strength was not in straight narrative, something literature or the theatre could do better. While commercial cinema, especially Hollywood, continued with the conventions of 19th-century literature and theatre by producing illustrated novels and "opened out" plays, modernists looked towards non-narrative film form, or considered narrative as secondary to style. They disturbed the accepted continuity of chronological development and attempted new ways of tracing the flow of characters' thoughts, replaced logical exposition with collages of fragmentary images, complex allusions and multiple points of view. They resisted the commercial film in favour of "art cinema", to equal the other arts in seriousness and depth.

As early as 1918, the French poet Louis Aragon wrote that "cinema must have a place in the avant-garde's preoccupations... if one wants to bring some purity to the art of movement and light". Riccioto Canudo, the Italian-born French critic, argued in 1926 that cinema must go beyond realism and express the film-maker's emotions as well as characters' psychology and even their unconscious. The formalist possibilities of cinema were expounded by the French "impressionist" film-makers and theorists Louis Delluc and Jean Epstein, and underlined by the montage theory put into practice by the great Russian film-makers in the 1920s.

Sergei Eisenstein, who wanted to film James Joyce's Ulysses, theorised and demonstrated his "montage of attractions", one of collision, conflict and contrast, with the emphasis on a dynamic juxtaposition of individual shots that forces the audience to come to conclusions about the interplay of images while they are also emotionally and psychologically affected. Eisenstein, whose dynamic montage reached its apogee with October (1928), believed, quoting Karl Marx, that "the bourgeoisie created the world in its own image. Comrades, we must destroy that image", a credo that Jean-Luc Godard echoed and practised 40 years later.

From the early days of the cinema, primarily in Europe, artists working in other forms were happy to contribute to the new art. Film, which Eisenstein envisioned as a "synthesis of all the arts", had become the new gesamtkunstwerk. The theatre guru Antonin Artaud, who appeared in Gance's Napoléon (1927) and in Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928), wrote the screenplay for Germaine Dulac's La Coquille et le clergyman (The Seashell and the Clergyman, 1928). Now considered the first surrealist film, it was refused a certificate by the British censor because "if the film has a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable".

In 1924, René Clair's Entr'acte, an exercise in pure cinema, was conceived by the Dada painter and poet Francis Picabia, who appeared in the film alongside Man Ray, Marcel Achard, Erik Satie and Marcel Duchamp. In the same year, Marcel L'Herbier's L'Inhumaine was a veritable catalogue of contemporary French art. Each set was created by a different designer - Fernand Léger, Claude Autant-Lara, Alberto Cavalcanti, Robert Mallet-Stevens - and the film featured music by Darius Milhaud and dancers from the Ballets Suédois. Jean Cocteau was 41 when he made his first film (Le Sang d'un poète, 1930) and already famous as a poet, novelist, playwright, designer, painter, stage director and ballet producer, having fulfilled his promise to Serge Diaghilev, who had challenged him: "Etonne-moi!"

"Art cinema" included such movements as German Expressionism, Russian Constructivism, Surrealism and Dadaism. Avant-garde artists such as Man Ray, Hans Richter, Fernand Léger, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Oskar Fischinger and Walter Ruttmann all made films influenced by Cubism and Abstraction.

In the 1940s, a period of experimental film-making began in the USA. Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) was one of the first independent American Underground films, a movement that later, though rooted in the European avant-garde, was strongly connected to the Beat movement. In the early 1950s, younger directors such as Stan Brakhage emerged, working in a similar mode.

The French nouvelle vague directors took advantage of the new technology - fast film, lightweight camera equipment - that enabled them to shoot in the streets with hand-held cameras and a small team. They deconstructed conventional narratives by using jump cuts, improvisation, and quotes from literature and other films. Alain Resnais rejected a chronological structure completely in L'année dernière à Marienbad (1961).

The most influential of the writers of the nouveau roman in the late 1950s, Alain Robbe-Grillet, who wrote the screenplay for Marienbad, and the novelist Marguerite Duras, screenwriter of Resnais's Hiroshima mon amour (1959), went on to direct their own very personal films, playing with time and the incongruity between sound and images.

Towards the end of 1960, the New American Cinema Group was formed, inspired by the French nouvelle vague, favouring films that were "rough, unpolished but alive". Many, such as Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures (1963), embraced Hollywood even as it defied its narrative traditions. The mode for campness was exploited by the films of Andy Warhol in films such as Blow Job (1963) ,and Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising (1964). Michael Snow, in Wavelength (1967), attempted to redefine our way of seeing by exploring new time and space concepts.

However, the experimental elements of the nouvelle vague soon became assimilated into mainstream film. Many of the technical and conceptual advances of Italian, Czech, British and other New Waves were transformed into film-making clichés. The American Underground had also all but vanished by the 1970s. It seemed as though realism, which had dominated film for decades, had finally triumphed over formalism.

According to the Hungarian academic and critic Bence Nanay, "the films of Antonioni, Godard and Resnais are, strictly speaking, narrative films, but more importantly, they represent a fragile balance between non-narrative avant-garde films and narrative films. This fragile balance disappeared by the beginning of the Seventies. On the one hand, not only Hollywood but also the so-called European art-house cinema produced conventional, non-avant-garde narrative films; on the other hand, some non-narrative, uncompromising but hard-to-distribute experimental films (by Steve Brakhage, Michael Snow etc) were being made at the periphery. The middle ground vanished."

What remains of experimentation in film today? One of the most original living directors is the 98-year-old Manoel de Oliveira. Modernists such as Godard, Jacques Rivette and Jean-Marie Straub are over 70. Among the younger generation attempting to challenge aesthetic norms, usually by means of the extremely long take, are Hou Hsiao-hsien (59), Alexandr Sokurov (53), Bela Tarr (49), Pedro Costa (47), Bruno Dumont (46) and Jia Zhang-Ke (34). But where are all the names that would have tripped so easily off the tongue pre-1968?

Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, we are increasingly seeing the avant-garde abandon the cinema for the gallery - a shift made possible by the digital revolution. It is becoming necessary to redefine film without reference to its previous conditions of existence, by reference, not to the narrow context of the history of cinema, but to the wider field of art history. This is demonstrated in a show at the Centre Pompidou in Paris called Le Mouvement des Images: Art et Cinéma, which offers a rereading of contemporary art from a cinematic point of view, by covering the history of avant-garde and experimental cinema, shown in continuous projection on the gallery walls.

Peter Greenaway recognises that films are not seen in the same way as they used to be, and that "films go to people nowadays rather than people go to films". Taking advantage of the new age of communication and a new young audience familiar with the multi-images of the internet, Greenaway's The Tulse Luper Suitcases sometimes splits the screen into fragments, and introduces texts and talking heads into the wider frame in the manner of CNN on television.

A few years ago, the French director Chris Marker, always an innovator, made a CD-ROM called Immemory, only playable on Macintosh computers. Composed of stills, film clips, music, text and fragments of sound, it is over 20 hours long and can be viewed in many different ways. Both Marker and Greenaway are attempting to come to grips with this new way of watching films, and it might eventually bring into being the first masterpieces of this new age, keeping alive some hope that "modernist" cinema will be resurrected.

The film historian Ronald Bergan's Eyewitness Companions: Film (Dorling Kindersley, £16.99) is out now Le Mouvement des Images: Art et Cinéma is at the Centre Pompidou in Paris to 29 January The Luis Buñuel retrospective continues at the National Film Theatre, London SE1, to 28 February

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