The relationship between art and politics in the cinema is a tangled negotiation between aesthetics, ideology and the real world. Culled from Cineaste’s last twenty years, these interviews with directors and actors turn upon the celebrations and compromises involved in working through history on screen. Founded by Crowdus in 1967, the magazine sought to cover political content in an art form then becoming the medium for an overhaul of western ideas about life and art. As rigorous as ever, here are neither puff pieces nor grovelling tributes, but succinct queries eliciting illuminating accounts of the filmmaker, the process and the times.
A running theme is the balancing act films perform between entertainment and edification. For Francesco Rosi, reflecting on his Salvatore Giuliano (1961), films are investigations of historical cause-and-effect. For Ken Loach, 1995’s Land and Freedom is a drama of democratic versus autocratic resistance movements, which resonates not merely with the film’s framing Spanish history lesson, but with the control of resources throughout the west. John Sayles sees the father-son relationship in Lone Star (1995) mirroring patriarchal societies on either side of the Tex-Mex border.
How entertainment and edification cash out at the box-office forms the basis of some searching examinations of individual films and the creative conscience behind them. Responding to the oft-quoted criticism that his work is full of characters parading tics and mannerisms, Mike Leigh distinguishes between the character-cyphers in most films, and the moment-by-moment rendition of ‘quirky’ behaviour we see every day. Sayles shot Lone Star in Super 35mm to simulate a widescreen look for that long horizontal border, accentuating his characters’ isolation, and generating in a strip of fertile riverbed a metaphor for postwar America as fair game for hopeful immigrants.
The relationship between history and its representation in film is the subject of an absorbing conversation with Oliver Stone. Responding to criticism that JFK (1991) and Nixon (1995) manipulated the facts, Stone cites the poetic and political licence taken by historians. ‘The facts’ are invariably shaped by the requirements of particular generations, just as they are by the emphases of individual filmmakers. The reminder of the view of Baghdad from Washington is all too obvious.
Filmmakers can afford to emphasize the ethical, as opposed to the political. Talking about Dead Man Walking (1995), Tim Robbins points to the scene in which the Louisiana governor lazily defers to the popular will when asked to intervene in Matthew Poncelet’s death sentence. Ethics have animated European political cinema for decades. Asked whether, in the wake of Solidarity, art in Poland was simply falling foul of another ideology, actor Krystyna Janda feared the onslaught of textbook capitalism. Janda is associated with Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Marble (1977) which, arguably, represented the final flowering of a postwar continental political consciousness. There are a few ’60s survivors here, but richly textured recent works such as Gianni Amelio’s Stolen Children (1992) and Sally Potter’s Orlando (1992) find that conjunction between aesthetics, ideology and experience as ambivalent and irresistible as ever.