The preface from A Life in 16 Films: How Cinema Made A Playwright by Steve Waters
I defied the injunctions for one day only.
I had a feeling that the experience of going to the cinema was about to vanish as the pandemic advanced. Poorly cleaned cinemas with recycled air seemed perfectly designed for covid incubation as strangers spluttered through boxes of popcorn, spraying microbes hither and yon – was any film worth the risk?
Frankly these days all too few. Only a year earlier I had angrily refused to renew my Arts Picturehouse Card at their feeble programming: vanishingly few sub-titled films and those screened corralled into inaccessible day-time slots. The adrenaline rush of the film bucket-list was diminishing steadily, weeks passing without any spur to mount the bike and head into town. Cancelling my membership was prompted, paradoxically, by my attending a newly restored print of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), screened at the bizarre hour of 12pm. I wasn’t prepared for how seeing this film again would affect me. Moving indoors from a warm June day into the sterile darkness to see a film I thought I knew off by heart felt a perverse sort of pleasure. A guilty pleasure!
After the plethora of car-ads and drinks ads and deodorant ads and ads for films that barely sustained interest for the duration of the trailer, after the tautologous self-promotion of the very cinema chain I was patronising, finally – finally! – it began.
‘Don’t Look Now’.
In a film about second sight, you hear the action first.
Roeg like his coeval Robert Altman sets sound against image. We see the dank abyss of a pond in a deep English garden interrupted by the trawl of a reflected bright blood red mac but we hear the painfully slow piecing out of a simple piano melody. A child mutters a song, the piano plays ponderously, another child’s bike sheers through ice and then a rogue mirror; indoors Donald Sutherland squints over a slide of the interior of a Venetian church, Julie Christie leafs through photographs.
Silently the girl in the red mac tries to rescue her red ball from the dank pond.
A strange electronic curlicue! Sutherland starts, a shaggy-haired boy runs into the house, sound gives way to the primeval groan of a cello as the father takes a deep husky pained breath and wades into the lake where his daughter has soundlessly sunk, in a Cubist tumble of broken images. He doles out mouth to mouth, sliding about on a muddy mound, in a desperately real scrabbling.
Back in the house, Christie wanders to the window to glimpse her globe-eyed husband bearing their dead daughter like some sodden Lear (‘howl, howl’) – her scream fuses with the sudden shrieeeeek of a drill.
FX: Monotonous clangour of Venetian bells; pigeons erupt from a wintry square.
We have begun.
Exiting from the rapt viewing of a film I’ve watched on and off since I was 12 (on late-night television, on VHS, in classrooms with students) I felt a sudden rage at the slow death of this, for me, the preeminent art form. Where are such films now, once astonishing mass audiences, now reduced to a niche experience in the middle of the working day?
The cinema’s schedules declare what is lost: more screen time devoted to ponderous tours round art galleries, airless streaming of boulevard plays, tedious operas at the Met, or back-to-back multiplex hits and franchise fodder.
Full of furious intimations of film’s demise I blurted to the bewildered woman at the till that, no, I will not renew my membership card and as I walked out, suffused with cheap triumph, blinking into the June day, this book flashed into my thoughts. How I would write my life defined by the films I had seen, the films that had shaped me. How I would write a love letter to a dying art form.
And I calmed down and got on with life.
A year passed; and then as Covid-19 advanced across the planet like a bed-side mourner I went one last time to see a film. Frankly any film. What’s on?
Dark Waters. Dir: Todd Haynes. Starring Mark Ruffalo.
This modest American movie reminds us of what cinema can do, how, as critic Siegfried Kracauer observed, it seeks to redeem the world through ‘recording and revealing physical reality’; or as Andre Bazin, another great film thinker added, ‘every film is a social document’; or as his protégé, director Jean-Luc Godard noted, every film, even a work of fiction, is a documentary of the actors acting. For a film is not just a window onto the world, it is a piece of the world, preserved. At the start of his great work Theory of Film (1960) Kracauer recalls that after his first movie he impulsively jotted down the title, of a work he never wrote, ‘Film as the Discovery of the Meaning of Everyday Life’. That could be the subtitle of this book. And as a piece of reality, a film takes so many forms:
It is a commodity, shaped by an industrial context.
It is a form of technology mediated by the tools with which it is made.
It is a literary document, a work of narrative, shaped with words.
It is a work of design, with nothing left to chance.
It is a series of performances preserved for posterity.
It is a landscape.
It is music.
It is sociology, geography, anthropology and politics all at once.
It is art.
It is life.
Immediately I am seduced by Ruffalo’s crumpled Brando features, squashed into ordinariness as he mimics an Environmental Lawyer taking on Chemical giant DuPont. We note his tic of stress, this Theseus in a maze of a dusty backroom filled with boxes of tedious documents. His uninflected performance metes out the procedural pleasure of film tracking a hidden reality.
Ruffalo: I first saw him in Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me (2000); how he’s aged! I remember a beautiful young man, part of a tradition of American acting of high mimetic seriousness, graduate of the Stella Adler academy, and, like so many filmmakers I love, possessing a stage pedigree. Dark Waters re-hashes the same numb moral questioning that lit up his Oscar-nominated performance in Spotlight (2015).
Ruffalo dials it right down. His performance is massy and slow and he seems to grow fat in front of us, resisting glamour even as his face retains its ghost. He’s also a producer here, and I suspect is the reason this film even came to exist – and my God, he looks good driving ugly nondescript cars; and how well he listens, soaking up the moral weight of the circumstances, whilst clearly trying not to turn the movie into a hagiography of the lawyer he’s impersonating.
Ruffalo reminds us that in film the actor is no mere character, they exemplify the film’s ethic. His slow, shy manner mirrors the film’s slow stoical reveals. He’s slightly humourless yet allows the odd fleeting smile to uncrease that steadfast frown; in a time where men are seen through a lens of suspicion, he disarms through moral stealth.
But this is cinema so it’s about the quality of the light as much as the performance. Ruffalo’s Mount Rushmore head is sculpted in Ed Lachmann’s grainy images, announcing an affinity with four decades of independent cinema, not least Haynes’s own oeuvre – Far From Heaven (2002), Carol (2015) – spiralling further back to the hightide of critical independent American cinema, the 1970s, when cinema began for me. Who could watch Haynes’s film without seeing at the same time Alan J. Pakula’s comparable ‘paranoid trilogy’: Klute (1971),The Parallax View (1974), All the Presidents Men (1976)? Surely Lachman’s grey palette signals an intertextual lineage with Gordon Willis’s chiaroscuro work for Pakula (and Coppola), just as the tendency for the camera to drift away from the given subject is an allusion to the slippery deep focus zoom that peppers Rossellini’s late work or all of Antonioni. This minor film doffs its cap to its ancestors yet trains its gaze on a contemporary crime.
I am a playwright. I should be especially alert to the screenplay but I have to confess it’s the camera that holds me, functioning as a ‘camera-stylo’ as Alexandre Astruc characterised it 1948, ‘writing ideas’ in its own idiom, clarifying the injustice of the world. Could a Chemical corporation in plain sight manufacture a product, Teflon, with which they knowingly poisoned the world? Yes, the camera asserts, yes this happened. But it says so in its own language, transcending mundane dialogue and banal scenes; for only in film and poetry can the facts of how we are situated in the physical world – let’s call them phenomenological facts – be truly explored.
Film is always about figures in a landscape and it presents them with a forensic distance it’s perpetually attempting to bridge. It shows us a world of deeds – driving a car, leafing through ring-binders, pained typing, demolishing a meal, opening a beer, shooting a cow – transactions with the world as much as transactions with people. How fascinating to watch Ruffalo pore over the software of the late ‘90s, decoding obscure chemical formulae. And we watch cinema together, alone; because we are together, the room hums with alertness; but we are solicited alone, in contrast to the theatre where we are in constant emotional contact with those around us. Film is so often therefore about loneliness, privacy, voyeurism.
Film is in dialogue with itself as much as with the world, but it brings us the world all the same, demanding we look closely in conditions of rapt attention, conditions that arise from its being projected in darkened rooms amongst others. In a way Dark Waters seems to cry out for television: it has a socially concerned TV movie theme and trades in conventional tropes of family. Yet unlike TV it offers an emotional descent into the work of finding the truth; and like all good films it offers an epistemological journey as much as a narrative one. Look, it seems to say and look again; note the weird behaviour of that cow, the unfeigned rage of that Virginian farmer; connect the swanky Big Pharma reception with the child born with one nostril. This then is an event – making this film, watching this film, turning the cautious work of capital to good effect.
A film worth risking in a time of pandemic.
I was amongst an audience of maybe fifty souls with whom I felt a sort of foolish solidarity. I flinched when anyone sat near me, and left by the side stairs. Everyone seemed old; the habit of contemplative watching akin to church-going is surely dying. I left wondering when – and if – I would be back.
And also wondering how this all began, this passion for film-going; and why it seems to matter so deeply to me and to those I am close to. And wondering about the ways I have been formed by cinema, how I’ve grown up within it, intellectually, emotionally; how the very commitment to something called ‘film’, to something often derogated as ‘art-house’ has taken shape in me even as I have worked in a parallel medium I care with equal passion for, theatre. Is my position in one medium looking over lovingly into another tenable? Is it possible to love both forms equally?
Kafka claimed he ‘had no literary interests but was made of literature’; have I likewise somehow been made out of film? As the philosopher Stanley Cavell remarked in his work on cinema The World Viewed (1971), ‘memories of movies are strand over strand with memories of my life’; I too have been formed from those ‘hours and days of awe’ spent in the dark of the cinema.
So I began to track how my experience and experience of cinema became intertwined. Where and how did it start? For it’s not simply a question of films viewed but also of the cinemas and the cities of those viewings. Experiences of film that have stayed with me have entered my life in a given place at a given time and informed that moment. There is a geography to my viewing just as there is a politics and a history to it; a cineaste is made not born.
But there’s a larger question behind this exploration; a political question. With much of the world locked into right-wing regimes exacerbating the terrifying double threats of climate crisis and pandemic, film’s eclipse seems symptomatic. I was born at the tail end of the Baby Boom, into a world within which this mass art-form aimed at gathered publics, also flourished. This world was also one of white privilege, profoundly patriarchal in its workings; and films too often reflected that. For much of my life I have watched films written and directed by white men, only belatedly becoming mindful of the sheer oddity of that. Ironically this hegemony is ending just as film cedes its primacy as an art form to endlessly streamed television dramas playing on the world’s phones. For all that these dramas emulate film, too often they lack the experimental and existential reach that cinema offered in its prime.
Let us be clear – there are more than sixteen films in this book but those that I settle on represent turnings points in my life. They are not all great films; some I actively dislike for reasons that will become clear. Some may be pedestrian in form but so significant in their moment that they survive their limitations. They are not the films I ought to like either, revealing my impeccable taste or unimpeachable political credentials; you can’t re-edit your life like you can a film, airbrushing in what you wish you’d seen. But they’ve served to define moments in time and space and track the progress of my life and the lives of those close to me.
I am under no delusion that my life is any more interesting than your life, dear reader. Rather I see my life as an exemplary one, the only one I know well enough to speak of how film has shaped all our lives. But I am a representative of an era, born in the relatively stable time of what historian Eric Hobsbawm described as ‘the Golden Age’ of Social Democracy and coming to adulthood as it was steadily dismantled into the neoliberal landscape we now find ourselves in. My focus is England, a small nation on the edge of a continent it imagines itself distinct from, with a denuded tradition of filmmaking caught between the industrial output of America and the parallel tradition of continental Europe. The travails of film-going, making and criticism in this country run in tandem here with the political trajectory of the last fifty years, the long descent from Harold Wilson to Boris Johnson, from the Welfare State to a nation Left Behind, from prosperity to Austerity, from de-colonisation to Brexit. This is the story of my family and my nation as much as me.