1. What specific difficulties have you experienced which have been caused by interpretations of the “audience” by producers, distributors, censors, etc.? (E.g., Flaherty’s re Elephant Boy; Vigo’s re L’Atalante and Zéro; Eisenstein’s re Ivan; Rossellini’s re The Miracle.)
2. What do you consider one of the most encouraging developments in film in recent years?
3. What do you consider one of the most discouraging developments?
4. What film or films would you make if you were free from the non-artistic limitations of sponsorship, censorship, etc.?
1. The British cinema has always been, and still is, conformist and class-bound to a degree. This means that it is practically impossible to extend the range of British films beyond the limits of what is, to the middle-class mind, orthodox, respectable, and “nice.”
The pressure comes both from censorship and from the distributors. As an example of the first: after the success of their film Together (made in the East End of London and financed by the British Film Institute’s Experimental Fund), Lorenza Mazzetti and Denis Horne planned a film about the Teddy Boy phenomenon. They found a producer who was ready to back the project, and a script was prepared—which naturally attempted to approach the problem and the individual characters with understanding and sympathy. The censor’s report, however, was unyielding: he would not grant a certificate to any film on this subject unless its attitude was one of “unequivocal condemnation.” The film was not made.
Of course it is difficult to be sure of the precise reasons for obstructionism on the part of producers and distributors—how far, I mean, it is the result of a real conception of the likes and dislikes of the public, and how far it is simply the result of social and political prejudice and conviction. When the production company of the technicians’ union (A.C.T. Films) was unable to find a distributor for their projected film on the Tolpuddle Martyrs, we may be sure that dislike of the subject was as strong a reason for its rejection as any disbelief in its popular appeal. When a film of a story by Kathleen Sully—one of the most interesting new writers to appear in Britain in the last few years—was proposed to British Lion Films, it was turned down on account of its “lower-class” atmosphere and locale. (“People don’t want to see that sort of thing,” etc., etc.) Here again it was the social prejudice of the particular executive (all too unhappily representative of his tribe) that was being revealed—not any valid understanding of the British cinema-going public.
The notion that the British public will not accept good, serious films is used not only to prevent such films being made, but also to frustrate them when they are. Two documentaries with which I have been concerned have achieved some measure of international success—Thursday’s Children (Academy Award 1955) and Every Day Except Christmas (Venice Grand Prix 1957). In neither case could we find a British distributor willing to take the film: in each case it was an American company who eventually accepted the picture for distribution. Even then, neither succeeded in getting shown on any of the big circuits.
The present stagnation of the British cinema I would therefore attribute in roughly equal parts to: 1. a reactionary social attitude and 2. a total lack of showmanship and “flair” on the part of almost everyone concerned with it.
2. The continued emergence of new talent—in spite of all the difficulties and frustrations attendant on film-making. Artists like Satyajit Ray, Michael Cacoyannis, Andrej Wajda attest to the undiminished vitality and importance of the medium—if only artists can be allowed to use it.
3. The increasing adulation of SIZE. Negatively, the failure of the intelligent minority (among film-goers, film-makers, distributors, exhibitors) to combine to form a system which might still make the production of serious work, reasonably budgeted, an economic proposition.
4. Almost anything. For instance: a documentary about Britain—the real Britain, and what it could be ... a sort of sequel to Jennings’ Diary for Timothy. Or Kathleen Sully’s Canal in Moonlight. Or could one bring Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread up to date? Or do it in period. If we’re to be free from idiotic “commercial” limitations ... a film about the golden age of the English music hall. The young Burns. The General Strike. A satirical comedy about advertising and commercial TV. Films about artists, lovers, workers, people. . . . Wouldn’t it be marvelous? [London]
J. A. Bardem
1. I believe that the present economic structure that supports the film industry in our countries transforms the true values of an AUTHOR-FILM-AUDIENCE relationship, dehumanizes reciprocal influence, and converts this relationship into one of mere MERCHAN-DISE-CONSUMER. I sometimes ask myself: What is the real function of a film? I arrive at the following conclusion : A film should function primarily to divert a group of spectators. To divert in the purest sense of the word, which is to say verter fuera.* Or to put it another way: to transport or possess an audience. The problem then is the transference of the spectator from one world, his own, to another: precisely the world created by the film-maker. From the ethical viewpoint this transference should be made, of course, in the best direction. However, in the present economic structure of film, this is not possible; and as a result, fabulous magic-shows are produced, terrible sleights-of-hand that consist of substituting the most remunerative direction for the best direction. Well then, this most remunerative direction implies the observation of strict commercial regulations, absolutely opposed to the ideal, and according to which the cinema is directed and has been directed since its beginnings. The result is film divested of backbone, emptied of all educational content, a true opium of the people; deaf to the genuine beat of the human heart, escaping all reality, poisoning the spectators, pervaded with SEXUALITY (up to permissible limits) and with the most dazzling ACTION (to the limits of the tolerable). These, according to my way of thinking, are the general difficulties in which the film-maker is immersed. The specific difficulties, even while obeying this general mode of operation, are forces of circumstance—political, social, economic, etc.—different in each particular case. My latest film, originally to have been called Los Segadores (“The Reapers”)—at least that is what I titled my story—is now called La Venganza (“Vengeance”), by governmental “suggestion.” The film tries to present the day-to-day life of a team of Andalucian reapers who go up to Castille for the harvesting. Ideally it was meant to be a broad and beautiful documentary with natural actors. But that, today, is impossible. I tried to retain most of the essence of the story I wanted to tell, while having to make a commercial film with “stars.” Voilà.
2. Certainly the appearance of the neo-realist school in post-war Italy. The actual decline of this tendency in Italy should not be considered, I believe, as a result of any internal weakness of the movement, but rather as a result of the tremendous pressure put upon it by Italian historical developments. The neo-realist movement has been a breath of fresh air in the rarefied atmosphere of the film world; and it has clearly shown that the real protagonist of every film is, and should be, Man.
3. The imposition of purely commercial motivations; the competition of TV; and the use of wide screen, such as Cinemascope and similar processes. Of course film should develop its intrinsic potentialities (sound, color, third-dimension, etc.), but it is pitiful that it has to support, on top of everything, arbitrary variations, foreign to it, which follow from no esthetic necessities.
4. It seems to me that the question has no real foundation, and I am incapable of even dreaming of such a situation. I firmly believe that the cinema, if it is to be worth anything at all, has to bear witness to the reality which surrounds us here and now. And I think, moreover, that I must make films with each and every one of the limitations that this reality imposes upon me. In this conflict I cannot dream that my enemy will disappear. In that case I would have no conflict. [Madrid]
1. Except during my first three films, all made before 1932, and produced with absolute independence—Un Chien Andalou, L’Age d’Or, and Land Without Bread—I have always felt the pressure more or less heavily exerted by the producer. But one might deduce from your questions that the producers and distributors are to blame by their special interpretation of public taste for the limitations imposed on the film-maker. In my opinion, the real responsibility for the spiritual stagnation of cinema lies with the amorphous mass, routinary and conformist, that makes up the audience. The producer limits himself merely to throwing to the beasts the food they demand of him. A businessman neither better nor worse than the others of his time, the producer has no scruples. He is capable of leaping from one ideological plane to another, even if the systems are morally and artistically antagonistic, so long as he is guaranteed prestige and economic success. For the moment it is impossible to foresee any moral elevation of human society. For this reason there does not appear even a glimmer of the spiritual improvement of the audienee. One might even predict the contrary. Film-makers will continue dragging the heavy chains of servility put upon them by the industry and the producers, who, as faithful representatives of the public, will continue their tyrannical repression of the artists’ freedom.
2 & 3. To my way of thinking there is not one indication in the film production of recent years, either “capitalist” or “communist,” that encourages any hope of the spiritual improvement of cinema—unless it be in its technical aspect, where the progress of both is unquestionable.
4. If it were possible for me, I would make films which, apart from entertaining the audience, would convey to them the absolute certainty that they DO NOT LIVE IN THE BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS. And in doing this I believe that my intentions would be highly constructive. Movies today, including the socalled neo-realist, are dedicated to a task contrary to this. How is it possible to hope for an improvement in the audience—and consequently in the producers—when every day we are told in these films, even in the most insipid comedies, that our social institutions, our concepts of Country, Religion, Love, etc., etc., are, while perhaps imperfect, UNIQUE AND NECESSARY? The true “opium of the audience” is conformity; and the entire, gigantic film world is dedicated to the propagation of this comfortable feeling, wrapped though it is at times in the insidious disguise of art. [Mexico City]
1. The producing company puts up vast sums of money for the making of a movie, and in my personal experience I have little to complain about when I consider commissioned artists in other fields. He who pays the piper calls the tune. I would not change places with a painter at work on the portrait of a rich businessman’s wife any more than I would relish the idea of designing a house for anyone but myself—they would be almost as bound to interfere as I would. They would have to live with it, and they would be putting up the money for it.
In the making of a film the producer and distributor would be almost superhuman if they didn’t have an eye on their imagined audience reaction, for upon that audience depends their success or failure. The financing of movies is a big gamble—a very big gamble—and considering the high stakes involved I feel I have been treated well. Producers have “nibbled” at a scene here and there, but on the whole my own final cut has been allowed to stand. (This may be partly due to the fact that I was an editor for many years and am generally more ruthless than the producer.)
Distributors can be dangerous when they get frightened, especially when they are out of reach. I am told that in Germany they dropped out a complete reel of Summertime, and that is, to my knowledge, the worst that has happened to me in that direction.
Censors vary enormously from one country to another, and from one individual to another. In my experience the Indian Censor Board is the most backward in the world. (Indian actors are not even allowed to kiss on the Indian screen. They may approach each other with what is known as intent, gaze into each other’s eyes with still more intent, and make the first movements toward an embrace—but the fade-out must overtake them before their lips can meet.) They banned Summertime in its entirety; presumably because it showed a brief encounter between an American spinster and a married Italian, in spite of the fact that he was separated from his wife. I have several good friends in the Indian film world, and their efforts to raise their home product up out of the hackneyed song-and-dance rut of the average Indian film are being badly hampered by these no doubt worthy Victorian moralists at the top.
Hard on the Indians’ heels come the Roman Catholic censors of the world—with Spain taking the bun. According to these people wrongdoing must be punished before the final fade-out, and their insistence upon this has done more than any distributor or producer to distort and falsify truth in many a good film. Many years ago I remember working (in a very minor capacity) on a film about Nell Gwynne. The film ended with the death of King Charles, and the final shot was of Nell Gwynne walking away out of the palace. Before the film could be shown in America a new ending had to be shot and tacked onto the English version. It showed Nell in abject poverty—an object lesson to all American ladies not to be the mistress of a king. I often wonder if these people realize that we read the papers.
My first face-to-face encounter with a censor was in England some ten years ago. I had a medium-long-shot of a girl of eleven sitting in an old-fashioned bathtub. The censor insisted on its being cut. I made an appointment and asked him why. “Because,” he explained, “the girl can be seen naked from the waist up.” I said, “But she is only eleven years old, she’s as flat as a board, and you can see this sort of thing any day in any bathing pool.” He smiled at me for my naïve approach. “Swimming and bathing take place in the bright light of day. Films are shown in darkened theatres. The sight of this naked girl might very well excite the unnatural passions of certain men in the audience. It is my job to guard against such a happening.”
Freud said words to this effect: “The strength of the prohibition shows the strength of the attraction.” Anyhow, the censor stuck to his point and the scene came out. Taking advantage of this interview, I questioned him further and asked why it was forbidden to show platonic scenes between a screen husband and wife in a double bed together. He smiled again. “You pretend they are husband and wife, but the audience knows very well they are not really married. On further reflection you will realize you are asking me why you are forbidden to show an unmarried actor and actress in bed together.” He then proceeded to explain that he looked upon himself as a shield for the more sensitive members of the public, and surprised me by asking, “Do you know one of the most blessed inventions of all time?” I said I didn’t. “It is the invention of the paragraph. My wife is a great reader and I often see her skip a paragraph, or sometimes a whole page. Do you realize why she does this? She does it because she has come to an unsavory passage, and the new paragraph or the new page gives her a guide as to where she can start reading again. . . . Now, Mr. Lean, you cannot give your audience such guidance. You have no paragraph; they have to sit and watch; and even if they close their eyes they hear the words. I am here to protect thousands of decent men and women like my wife. You’re an artistic sort of chap—please don’t take me amiss—and perhaps . . . but you see my point, don’t you?” That is a true story, and the gentleman concerned is no longer with the British Board of Film Censors because he died.
That was several years ago, and the British Censor of today is, in my opinion, the best of the bunch. I met one of the head censors at a dinner and he actually asked me to show a husband and wife in bed together as “we want to encourage a more adult outlook.” Unlike their American counterpart, the British Censor has no set of written rules, and each film is judged on its quality and intention. They will pass words, phrases, or scenes in one film which they won’t pass in another. I cut Shaw’s Pygmalion and we all expected the famous “Not bloody likely!” (a shocking expression in England) to come out as a matter of course, and had actually got a safety take up our sleeves. There was not a murmur. They liked the film, thought it was done with taste, and made no cuts at all. On the other hand they are quite ruthless with scenes of violence, particularly when adolescents are involved. (The Wild One was banned in England.) Continental films with limited showings in so-called “art houses” are much less drastically dealt with than they are in America—if they are films of real quality. Yes, give me the British Censor every time.
My worst experience was over my film of Oliver Twist, in which Alec Guinness played the Jewish villain, Fagin. In England we had no trouble at all, but when it reached the States the balloon went up, and to our surprise it was accused of being anti-Semitic. Needless to say, neither Guinness nor myself had the faintest idea it would be so construed. We had made Fagin an outsize and, we hoped, an amusing Jewish villain. We copied the Cruikshank drawings in the make-up and gave him an accent. The whole film was outsize—from the stylized sets built in forced perspective to Bill Sykes, played by the late Robert Newton. But there it was, and the film was called “objectionable.” After many months we were told it could be released in the States only after extensive cutting of the Fagin character, and that this would be done so as to leave as many of the important plot points as possible. I finally saw the result in a copy which was shipped back to England. They had cut the character down to the bare plot bones, and in so doing had removed all the comedy—thus leaving Fagin as a straight Jewish villain. In my opinion this version was anti-Semitic, and it is one of my big regrets that it was ever shown in America.
2. That the movies are beginning to tell their stories in pictures again, and to regain some of the magic which glued me to my seat in the days of the silent film. I also find it mighty encouraging that the days of the continuous performance system appear to be numbered. Our grandchildren may find it curious that in 1958 the majority of audiences saw the middle or end of a film before they saw the beginning.
3. I don’t find anything particularly discouraging. We are in the middle of a revolution caused by TV, and it’s too early to say what will happen. With any luck we may be about to grow up and make pictures which will attract the vast middle-aged audiences, which only go to the movies once or twice a year.
4. To be quite honest, I am only limited by sponsorship and censorship to a very small degree. The real limitations are within myself. The money, the cameras, the actors, and the technicians are there. I also have a pen and a blank sheet of paper. [New York]
1. My first two films—Pather Panchali and its sequel Aparajito—were made independently of the commercial setup, which enabled me to ignore the conventional attitude toward the audience. However, I had to keep my own estimate of the audienee in view, as it was not my intention to make esoteric films.
2. The most encouraging development in films in recent years has been the emergence, the recognition by the West, of an Oriental school of film-making—exemplified by the Japanese cinema. In its present form (e.g., the films of Mizoguchi) it is almost wholly untouched by European conventions, yet is original and fundamental enough to necessitate a thorough reassessment of the so-called first principles of cinematography.
3. The most discouraging development has been the commercial dominance of color and wide screen, and the consequent asphyxiation of the intimate black and white cinema.
4. I should like to depict physical environments with the utmost truth and explore human relationships to their utmost limits, eschewing all short-cut methods which have been artificially imposed by non-artistic considerations. I should like also to banish from my films the last trace of the theatrical and the pictorial—two of the commonest impurities. [Calcutta]
1. The belief that the American public would require a sentimentalized and romanticized Ingrid Bergman has done much harm to the American version of my film Elena et les Hommes. This film is a satiric farce, nothing else. The French version, faithful to this particular genre, has been well received by the public of several European countries. In the United States, the title has been changed and a different beginning and ending have been substituted for those of my original film. I assume further changes were made, but I cannot judge the extent of the massacre myself, having refused to look at this film which is no longer mine. I attribute this mutilation to the publicity and promotion requirements of the American distributor. They were ashamed to present Ingrid Bergman in what they considered a “low” kind of comedy. The title of this American version is Paris Does Strange Things.
2. In Hollywood, the increasing importance of independent producers—whether outside or within the organization of the big studios.
3. All technical refinements discourage me. Perfect photography, larger screens, hi-fi sound, all make it possible for mediocrities slavishly to reproduce nature; and this reproduction bores me. What interests me is the interpretation of life by an artist. The personality of the film-maker interests me more than the copy of an object.
4. I am interested in filming a number of subjects, and of course these projects take into account the non-artistic limitations of which you speak. As far as I am concerned, commercial requirements and the different censorship regulations are in many ways in my favor, because they force me to look at things with a more subtle eye. And I am not the only one in this situation: the history of art is full of artistic development in the midst of the worst tyrannies. If I were absolutely free, I probably would make the same kind of films I do now. [Hollywood]
Originally published in Film: Book I, ed. Robert Hughes, Grove Press, 1959.
* verter fuera: Sr. Bardem put quotation marks around this expression. A translation cannot retain his “purest sense” of divertir. The phrase might best be clarified by the image of tipping a glass of water, causing the liquid to flow out. Perhaps we would have used in English the example of “diverting a river.” (Tr.)