A few months ago, I saw This is Not a Film for the first time. I had just arrived in Los Angeles and it seemed somehow appropriate to view Jafar Panahi's documentary about his own house arrest (and his desire to make a film despite the Iranian regime's ban on that activity for him, following his support of a protest movement) - on the outskirts of Hollywood. After all, This is Not a Film (smuggled into the 2011 Cannes Film Festival in a cake) represents a challenge and a question, or several questions, to conventional assumptions about cinema. Is the film(?)'s title true? Is it a film - or to raise the stakes even higher, a movie? What is a movie? Is it simply pointing a camera - film, video, whatever - and shooting something?
That question seems a perfect set-up for an authoritative "no" followed by a discourse on how the simple act of photography-in-motion is not sufficient, and filmmakers need one or more of the following to create a real movie: actors, a story, multiple shots, editing, creative use of the frame, etc etc. Even Jafar Panahi himself seems to hold to this theory at times, bemoaning that his discussion of what he would shoot, if he could, can't hold a candle to the actual result itself. "If the script was the movie," he sighs, "then I wouldn't need to shoot the movie." But, in fact, my answer to the question is "yes" - whether the end result is a sloppy home movie, an experimental art film, a big-budget blockbuster, or test footage for technical purposes the end result is, in an essential sense, a movie.
Is it enough of a movie? Depends. Under certain circumstances, a home movie can be just as valuable as an intensely worked-over fiction film or a painstakingly assembled documentary. A single shot can be as moving as an artful montage and unstudied observation of a real incident or person can be as revealing as a carefully constructed performance. Obviously craft plays into this, but so does accident (or more positively, circumstance) - at the right time and place, anyone holding a camera can capture something magical. The reason This is Not a Film is a great work rather than just a powerful protest or an interesting fly-on-the-wall observational piece is that Panahi slyly plays with our expectations and sense of what we're watching.
Panahi's explanations of his aborted film project are at once a practical tool and an aesthetic experience, slyly fusing film's documentary and imaginative aspects (its two essential motors since the era of the Lumieres and Melies). At times we wonder if This is Not a Film even is a documentary or if certain events are staged/planned, like when Panahi starts shooting on his iPhone and then assumes his cameraman's rig, explicitly violating the ruling imposed against him, or when the garbage collector shows up in the elevator and escorts Panahi down to the fires on the street below, like Dante descending into the ninth circle of hell - although in this case the descent has a feeling of liberation as well as danger about it. No surprise; liberation usually is dangerous. In this sense, Panahi's camera is both a flashlight and a dagger.
Sixty years earlier, another filmmaker used the camera as a dagger, but mostly aimed it at itself - and himself. In 1951, Venom and Eternity was screened by Isidor Isou, friend of Jean Cocteau and youthful Lettrist (deconstructing language by assembling letters seemingly randomly in texts, creating fresh aesthetic experiences that skirted familiarity). The experimental classic is an all-out assault on conventional notions of cinema and an explicit predecessor to the film-scratching of Stan Brakhage, the swooning subjectivity/narcissism of the New Wave, and the aggressive deconstruction of conventional film representation seen in the late 60s and early 70s avant-garde. Isou begins by restlessly declaring that the cinema needs to re-invent itself, that it is in a post-classical period and needs to self-consciously reassemble its elements the way Picasso did with painting.
Isou's greatest attack is on the image itself: he scorns the visual nature of cinema, questions its representative capablities, and to demonstrate this contempt he repeats fairly mundane shots of the street and creates an perpetual narration on the soundtrack as if to say, So movies are supposed to visuals first, talk second? Take this! The gesture has a perverse tinge to it, and it seems at times as if he's moving the cinema back rather than forward (though his monologue about a thwarted, perverse relationship is both metaphorically significant and narratively fascinating - something he realizes and eventually rejects himself, since he wants to avoid narrative). Unlike his Lettrist poems, which take that particular art form - literature - to its formal essence, here he seems to be spitting on the essence of cinema which could potentially be a dead end. Yet he uses this introduction as a launching point into a fantastic middle section, in which he reads lettrist poems over images of physically-scratched celluloid - an expansion of the form rather than a self-imposed limitation.
In rejecting so stridently the history and quiet power of the cinema, at times Isou seems to be a bit of a spoiled child throwing a temper tantrum, especially in contrast to Panahi's struggle against existing censorship and repression - does the angry Frenchman know what he has? How can he reject so much of it so casually? This reflects the mixed legacy of a certain branch of modern twentieth-century art, a destructive impulse which was often thrilling and adventurous, but could lead ultimately to aesthetic dead ends, easily co-opted by the very bourgeois society which was supposedly the target and in the process shutting off a vital venue of liberation and contemplation that had been incorrectly tied to the very system it challenged. Which is another way of saying that self-consciousness can be a trap as well as an escape hatch.
There were great ironies in the ways I watched these two films - Venom and Eternity the day before I screened This is Not a Film, the older movie (shot on actual film) on a laptop, intermittently flickering through You Tube, the newer (shot on video, parts even on an iPhone) in an old-fashioned movie theater named after one of the studio system's founders, Carl Laemmle. This is fitting in a way. Isou dreamed off breaking out of what to him seemed a straitjacket of cinematic limitations. Today we have broken out of that straitjacket but the result can seem chaotic and trivial in comparison to what those former limitations imposed. The answer is not a retreat but rather a rerouting, and I think Panahi accomplishes this marvelously within limitations that were anything but self-imposed. Having been robbed of the cinema, he treats it not resentfully as a burden but as a weapon. The result is a film, and a great one - it gives you hope for the future; if the cinema can survive Panahi's circumstances, can't it survive anything?