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Visions, illusions and delusions

Peter Sainsbury

Peter Sainsbury was Director, Film Development for the AFC between 1989 and 1992. As an independent producer in Australia he has produced What I Have Written (dir. John Hughes 1995), The Goddess of 1967 (dir Clara Law 1999), and Bartleby (dir. Miro Bilbrough 2000). He is currently producing Floodhouse (dir. Miro Bilbrough)

Isabelle Huppert, The Piano Teacher Isabelle Huppert, The Piano Teacher
In October and November 2002, the word got around. Film producer Peter Sainsbury had made an incisive and provocative statement about what constitutes visionary filmmaking and what constraints are continually thwarting it in Australia. His paper was delivered to the 2002 Australian Screen Directors Association (ASDA) Conference and a number of people suggested that it deserved a wider audience. Here it is then, a rarity in this country, a sustained argument on behalf of visionary filmmaking. In Part 1 Sainsbury establishes his criteria for vision, using recent overseas films as examples. In Part 2, in RealTime 54, he looks at recent Australian feature films and the hindrances to vision that filmmakers face. The Editors.

Part 1: Beyond pragmatism— visionary cinema

To start with, we are not going to accept the complacent idea that a director’s vision is necessarily important, just because a director is a director. Some visions are more important than others. Vision and persistence are not enough if and when they fall short of the visionary. I am going to defend the visionary as a necessary, if pretentious ideal, and consider the visionary aspects of contemporary Australian cinema, their place in the market and the financing structures that do or do not encourage them.

So first, we should define what we mean by visionary. I shall try to do this by reference to 3 imported films screened in Sydney [in 2002]. It is not my intention to give full accounts of any of these films, but rather take from each, by way of illustration, something that is important to a definition of the visionary.

The invisible machinations of desire

In The Piano Teacher directed by Michael Haneke, we discover something we are not familiar with in Australian cinema. We find a contradictory heroine, a person who is inconsistent, a woman whose psychology takes her to the heights of sophisticated artistic achievement and to the depths of vindictiveness and self-abasement, one who dominates others expertly yet who becomes a hapless victim. She is near middle-aged, sleeps beside her mother, fakes menstruation by drawing blood with a razor blade and experiences sex, up to the point where she makes the dreadful mistake of revealing her secret compulsions, only by vicarious means. She is both sympathetic and not; a woman who finds no redemption but loses everything. She is a tragic figure, undone and destroyed by the vulnerability that leaves her open to male sexual revenge. To witness her journey is to learn of the frightening destructiveness of desire.

And desire is the important term here, because desire springs from that which we do not know about ourselves. This makes the realm of desire a privileged terrain when it comes to visionary creative work. In other words, the visionary filmmaker is obsessed with that which lies beyond or somewhere other than in the familiar appearance of things. Psychological realism, with its insistence on emotional behavior stemming from clear causes with logical effects and devoid of paradox, is simply inadequate to portray the chaotic, contradictory and essentially secret, even invisible machinations of desire and therefore of much human behavior. The way the heroine of Haneke’s film acts is both literal and symbolic. She is rooted in a terrible personal dilemma while her story suggests the entire, fateful fear and vengeance that perverse desire can arouse. She is a tragic figure in a world where the tragedy of blind narcissism has replaced the tragedy of blind fate.

Visionary cinema seems to open up what was not previously contemplated. Perhaps this greater dimension of meaning is one that Jane Campion sacrificed when she gave a happy ending to her piano player in the form of a tin finger, a tamed Harvey Keitel and a white picket fence.

The dark playfulness that illuminates confusion

My second example is David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and I have included it because it throws into sharp relief the role of playfulness in visionary filmmaking. Lynch is perhaps the most obviously visionary of contemporary filmmakers in the accepted sense of the term. His work sits in an essentially bizarre terrain, where conventional social behavior and logical cause and effect are displaced, and even satirised, to facilitate an investigation of human identity. Just as the monstrously perverse and violent antagonist represents the dark side of the hero’s psyche in Blue Velvet, and the hero transforms into a fantasy version of himself and back again in Lost Highway, so in Mulholland Drive one character both possesses and is possessed by another. In this later film, however, Lynch places his characters in the dream factory itself, and is able to play with filmic conventions across the narrative, the visual and the aural. He is able to satirise the world of film financing, to play with notions of performance and to construct elaborate jokes around the suspension of disbelief. Nor is he afraid of pastiche, or of moving from high seriousness to pure kitsch, or of spinning yarns that turn out to be red herrings or of flipping us through transformations of meaning by means of an elusive symbol. He can be provocatively bewildering as well as delightfully funny.

In fact, these continually surprising strategies are all essential components of the Lynch vision. He works with a complex rearrangement of aural and visual signs and meanings. Watching his films, we witness a concerted deployment of much that is magical in cinema. Like Lewis Carroll, his subject is imagination itself. His work is visionary because it demands that we reconsider, or see in a transforming new light, something about ourselves and the world we inhabit that we would otherwise take for granted. This something, this measure of everyday certainty, Lynch reveals to be fragile, transitory and paradoxical. His logic undermines common sense, certainty and the predictable. Such are the dynamics of desire and identity. He is externalising the hidden and cannot do so using linear narrative, realism or by character or plot driven genre filmmaking where the singularity and unambiguousness of identity are required conditions. Those who resist Lynch’s vision usually dismiss him as a pretentious show off, confusing us for the mere sake of it. Those who love his work find in it the dark playfulness that illuminates confusion.

Enlightening the political universe

The third film also opens up the perceptions of its audience but in a radically different way. I have not met anyone else who saw this film during its brief Sydney season, but for me it was visionary because it enlightened the political universe we inhabit in a direct and magically honest way. This was Raoul Peck’s Lumumba, the story of an obscure man who became the first head of state of the newly decolonised Belgian Congo in the 1960’s, and how he was subsequently deceived and betrayed, destroyed and murdered. This story is of mythic proportions, with mythic dimensions. The poles of national idealism and international cynicism it portrays go a long way to defining the ‘realpolitik’ of the modern age. The tensions between the private man and the public figure, between hope and despair, between ally and enemy, between third world and developed world are all lucidly illustrated by means of an understated but confident visual style and a dynamic narrative construction. This film enlightened a whole moral universe within about 100 minutes of persistent vision.

The centrality of desire

It would be a mistake, though, to define this film within the parameters of the political drama without recognising what it has in common with both The Piano Teacher and Mulholland Drive. This common theme is desire. Desire gives rise to the world of fantasy and in Lumumba what is at stake is not only the desire to be politically free but also the fantasy of the self-determining, self-knowing, and self-redeeming body politic. The mythic story in play here is of the aspirant idealist individual and the aspirant idealist nation as victims of the warring gods, in this case the gods of avarice and hegemony represented by the US and the Soviet Union, locked into a murderous rivalry for the hearts, minds and resources of the world. And as we know from all the classical examples, the victims of the gods are the victims of their own naivety, their own flaws and their own destiny. Above all, they are the victims of their own desire; their own craving for that which is and always will be elusive.

Commonality in difference

In certain ways these 3 films could not be more different. One is a relentless character study, one a fascinating conjuring trick and one a political parable. I want to make it clear that the visionary is not an exclusive category but an inclusive one. But I believe these films help define visionary film making by several qualities they have in common.

First is the strangely unearthly experience they offer their audience. They all appear to come together like some kind of immaculate conception on the screen. It is as if they were never scripted, and as if they could have taken only the form they did take and could exist only in the medium of cinema. In other words, they are entirely different from the novel, the stage play and from television in terms of the dialectic and the dynamic that they set up between screen and audience. They use the camera and the editing machine as well as the soundtrack to define narrative space and direction, movement, pace and variation. They have liberated themselves from the limitations of following actors around a set to catch a meaning largely and predominantly determined by dialogue.

Secondly, despite their entirely different narrative trajectories and subject matters, they appear fully realised. They are painstakingly constructed to seduce an audience into a set of curiosities, concerns and expectations and to play that audiences’ sensibilities along in all sorts of risky ways until the dramatic imperatives established in the beginning are paid off in the final images. Despite their tendency to enlarge the cinematic vocabulary and broaden its syntax, they are adept at generating catharsis. They have a powerful sense of narrative integrity and wherever they lie between the modern and the postmodern, they do not fail to deliver time honoured dramatic satisfactions.

Thirdly, like all good seducers, they do not attempt to explain themselves, being largely devoid of narrative exposition and of any attempt to explain character motivation outside what the character does. They take the risk of demanding that you come to them rather than choose a safer path by trying to make themselves clear in immediately accessible terms. And as in all good seductions, once you have had the experience on offer, you are likely to want it again. Each of these films leaves you with a sense of discovery, so that when the lights go up you might well wish for a repeat viewing, both to look more closely at how this sense of discovery was created and to enjoy it more. I saw each of these films twice in the cinema.

Fourthly, although set in specific times and places, and shot through with recognisable given circumstances, they use a highly sophisticated audio-visual language to take us into worlds and states of consciousness that were previously unfamiliar, and they burn themselves into your mind like the most vivid and enduring dream. They avail themselves of metaphor, symbol, allegory and myth as well as having a command of more literal narrative storytelling strategies. But most importantly, they invent, each for themselves, the necessary dialectic between narrative content and visual form. Herein lies their chief success and a critical attribute of visionary filmmaking. Rather than relying on any pervasive orthodoxy of craft in their conception, design or execution, visionary movies always have the capacity to surprise us, and it is in this that they fight their way onto our screens. Without their capacity to reinvent the world before our eyes, they would surely be buried by the competition of the less demanding, the more familiar and the more easily marketed.

Finally, I believe, nothing like any of these 3 films could have been made within the aesthetic world of Australian cinema. But I am not going to argue simply that Australian cinema is dull in contrast to gems of enlightenment from other countries. Far from it, for across world cinema these days there seem to be legions of dull movies and rather few visionary ones. Is this how it will always be in a world that demands much and gives little? Maybe so, but the whole idea of the visionary is idealistic. Perhaps, like the protagonist of a basic plot, we need to define our subject by giving it an antagonist. If the visionary is our protagonist in this thesis, how shall we begin to define our antagonist?

The uncertainty principle

Visionary movies exploit a central truth of the modern world; a difficult truth because it leads not only to a kind of moral relativism but also to a kind of personal relativism that can be deeply uncomfortable. But I believe it is unavoidable and of course in many circles it is nothing new. In many cultural dimensions, though not in many of the world’s film industries, it is itself almost taken for granted. Simply put, it says that there is no universal formula or matrix guaranteeing harmonious relationships on any level of human society. It says that this is true of sexual, political, economic and cultural relations. And it also says that, rather than coming only from the unique visions of the Michael Hanekes, David Lynchs and Raoul Pecks of the world, visionary movies defined as I am trying to define them also spring from this truth. It is more than a truth. It is a human condition. They take their inspiration from a conception of a surrounding reality that is by definition problematic, uncertain, and waiting to be reinvented from moment to moment.

It is from this demand that reality be re-defined from moment to moment that visionary movies legitimise their constant reinvention of the dialectic between narrative content and visual form. And the richly composite language of cinema is fabulously well-equipped to do exactly that. Visionary movies use the uniquely multi-faceted qualities of cinema to construct realities in which this difficult truth, and its complex implications, can be explored. Their use of mise en scene, and of narrative, is designed to open up what can be imagined only from a perspective governed by the uncertainty principle. They portray the essentially uncertain nature of human reality as both contradiction and dilemma, and exploit it in form and content and in terms that can be tragic as well as comic, entertaining and enlightening. But they are essentially revelatory.

If we are looking for an antagonist for our plot in which the visionary is protagonist, we could do worse than simply deploy its opposite. A cinema antagonistic to this truth about uncertain, unstable and invented realities is a cinema that trades on the belief that there are still guarantees about a universal human nature, that we can make rational and correct choices about our personal and social relationships and that we either know or can learn who we are. This cinema embodies belief in a knowable human nature and a stable social reality. It tries to dramatise lived experience as if that experience can depend upon a reliable relationship between cause and effect and it endorses a common sense perception of the world. Its paradigm is the story in which men and women make correct choices and decisions about each other, albeit deliciously romantic ones, leading to the promise of ongoing harmonious sexual and emotional relations. It believes in romantic love as a kind of magic wand. It has no truck whatsoever with the unpredictable and messy perversities of desire. My antagonist is, in a word, pragmatic.

The cinema of pragmatism

Let’s play for a moment with an opposition, even a conflict between the pragmatic and the visionary. In case we are in danger of getting bogged down in the abstract, we should take a survey of what pragmatic movies look like. And again we can avail ourselves of 3 imported movies, all recently seen in Sydney.

As it happens, all are built on stories set in contemporary England. They are About a Boy, Last Orders and Bend it Like Beckham. What do these films, directed by people with very different cultural backgrounds, have in common and why do they exemplify the pragmatic? About a Boy is a neatly constructed tale about a self-serving cad (a uniquely British type is the cad, nowadays playable only by Hugh Grant) who is converted to gregariousness and generosity by the emotional demands of a young boy. The film simply asks us, who could possibly remain selfish in defiance of the appeals of a child? And it answers, no one could. Needless to say, a happy ending was had by all. A comforting perspective on human nature is simply endorsed.

Fred Schepsi’s Last Orders is a more complex affair as its narrative moves between present time and various moments in the past, elucidating the relationships between a group of aging friends, one of whom has recently died. The drama is buried in an endless flow of expositional back story but that would not matter if the exposition aspired to unearth something that is generally invisible in such stories, some sub-text in these relationships that might disclose a surprising truth about them. What it does, in fact, is simply confirm clichéd values of friendship and loyalty while acknowledging the emotional strains of life’s travails. It is of course affectionate, sincere and very professionally executed, but very dull.

Bend it Like Beckham is a familiar if effective comedy that trades on the unlikely. In this case the genre is constructed around an Indian English girl who wants to succeed as a soccer player, and is calculated to milk the juice out of the sentimental and amusing contretemps that her determination, the family pressures, cultural differences and a touch of sexual rivalry provide. Again, we are invited to feel good about life, as all the difficulties every one has, be they friends, rivals, parents or lovers, are rather laboriously and predictably resolved.

The deep pragmatism of these plots, it seems to me, rests on their exploitation of tritely conceived emotional journeys, all of which are more or less predictable. They are trite because they have the narrowest possible implications, depending only on the vindication of the individual character. In other words, they lie smugly within a simplistic conception of human identity. Effectively, they define and commodify the emotional content of the human psyche, closing down both its potential and its problems. To this end, their pragmatism is further served by a careful observance of emotional boundaries that ensure against the disturbing, the paradoxical and anything that is not immediately understandable. They work for gratification rather than reflection and they work within the literal and the familiar rather than the symbolic and the surprising.

What is true of these films as narratives is also true of them as sign systems. All are extremely conservative in their use of what the persistence of vision offers by way of potential to redefine, re-envisage, or re-invent what constitutes the real world. In fact, they ensure the triumph of the taken-for-granted. The experience of watching a pragmatic film is to feel that the tools of cinema have been commandeered and enslaved by something that has come before they were applied, by something that demands a rigorous obedience and forbids all but the most minor show of independence. This something is, of course, the script. Pragmatic movies have been all but fully designed in advance of filming by their writers. Pragmatic filmmaking devotes itself to constructing the illusion that what has been written can also be seen. It has no further justification or purpose.

What struck me forcibly when watching these 3 films about England was the similarity to the experience of watching television. There was that same conformism, that same reliance on formulae and the predictable, that same safe and essentially depressing emotional range and mono-vocal control over the means of representation that is endemic to a medium primarily designed to bring audiences to advertisers. To a great extent, it seems, the ability of the cinema to survive and even prosper over what was once seen as the terminal danger of competition from television has entailed the colonisation of cinema by many of television’s imperatives.

Profitability and the visionary

I am talking my way into a problem here. The films I am sticking up for may be described as marginal. After all, though Lynch’s film earned itself a place in mainstream distribution channels in Australia and elsewhere, in Sydney The Piano Teacher and Lumumba were screened only at the Valhalla and/or the Chauvel arthouse cinemas. At the same time, the films I am disparaging must be deemed successful if success means reaching wider audiences and earning more money. So am I arguing that Australian cinema needs to be more esoteric, if visionary, and less pragmatic, if less popular?

I would first point out that an Australian film that had the critical success and prize-winning career of The Piano Teacher would be extremely rare. And an Australian film that ran in Paris cinemas as long as Haneke’s film has in Sydney (despite its inept disparagement by SBS’ The Movie Show) would be considered a minor triumph. Also, what is marginal in one country may not be in another. And further, it is hardly elitist to hope that what one sees in the cinema, leaving aside those products of the American cultural empire that dominate the box office around the world, should not be like staying home and watching TV.

I don’t believe it can be considered wrong, except in the most orthodox and conservative film industries, to allow that some filmmakers can and should be concerned with the use value of the cultural objects they produce before they are concerned with their exchange value. For if the ideal movie is one which is both visionary and popular, which is brilliantly enough conceived and executed to accrue a substantial exchange value as well as possessing appreciable use value (and maybe Mulholland Drive came close) it is very unlikely that such a film will be made within a cultural context and an industry structure that radically discourages visionary qualities.

I am not arguing some simple opposition between the high brow and the low brow, or some antiquated assertion of elitist over popular culture. Rather, that a film industry that does not have space or even much respect for the visionary will not produce internationally recognised movies of any lasting value. Further, I’d suggest a film industry that institutionalises pragmatism (as I will argue we have done) will not enjoy the rewards, one dimensional as they are, that a pragmatic approach can bring except very occasionally and almost by accident.

And it is not the case that the directors of these 3 British films lacked vision. On the contrary, a coherent sense of purpose is strongly evident in all, though the measured skills of Last Orders are a long way from the naïve constructs of Bend it Like Beckham. My reservations have to do with the need to insist on a distinction between vision and the visionary. I believe that a more or less pragmatic vision can apply only to what is there, needing to be said and done more or less in the same ways as they have been said and done before. The visionary, however, is what is required to make discoveries. A film culture which is radically skewed in favour of that which needs to be done over that which might be discovered (as I shall argue ours is) is one deprived of a mature sensibility. It is one in which the languages of cinema are only minimally understood and deployed. It is one in which only a limited class of things can be said. It is one in which neither pragmatically successful entertainment nor visionary revelation will occur. Only the unremarkable will survive and the industry will not flourish. This last point may sound paradoxical. If pragmatically made films can succeed financially, why wouldn’t a pragmatic industry also succeed, at least financially, and at least a fair amount of the time? In the second half of this paper, I will try to find an answer to this question.


Peter Sainsbury, “Visions, Illusions and Delusions,” ASDA Conference, The Persistence of Vision, Sept 2002. Reproduced with the kind permission of the writer and ASDA.

In RealTime #54, Peter Sainsbury discusses the Australian films The Tracker, Lantana and Dirty Deeds and the relationship between film funding strategies and creative outcomes.

Peter Sainsbury was Director, Film Development for the AFC between 1989 and 1992. As an independent producer in Australia he has produced What I Have Written (dir. John Hughes 1995), The Goddess of 1967 (dir Clara Law 1999), and Bartleby (dir. Miro Bilbrough 2000). He is currently producing Floodhouse (dir. Miro Bilbrough)

RealTime issue #53 Feb-March 2003 pg. 18-19

© Peter Anderson; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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