What Is Cinema?: Toronto Review
Chuck Workman's documentary on avant-garde film features David Lynch, Jonas Mekas, Michael Moore and even James Franco.
“Can we talk about something other than Hollywood for a change?,” Tim Robbins asks in a clip from Robert Altman's The Player, and that's exactly what Chuck Workman is in a mood to do in What Is Cinema? Best known for his lively movie-centric documentaries and clip reels for Academy Award broadcasts, Workman this time concentrates mostly on avant-garde filmmakers, as well as on those with at least one foot in the mainstream who still remain dedicated to exploring dreams, the subconscious, non-narrative and imagery for its own sake. The result is not uninteresting but a bit old hat, the focus falling mostly on what was considered adventurous and fringy a generation or two ago.
Backed up by fresh interviews and those retrieved from pre-existing sources, Workman stars with David Lynch and New York avant-garde guru Jonas Mekas to explore the proposition, “Cinema can go deep or it can go shallow.” To go deep in this context means to venture beyond the surface meanings of the plot and announced subjects to penetrate shadowy realms that unconventional and, in most cases, uncommercial art likes to explore.
Appropriating the title of the most famous book by the celebrated French film critic of the '40s and '50s, Andre Bazin, Workman veers far from the mainstream to draw attention to experimental icons such as Maya Deren, Standish Lawder and Hollis Frampton, Warhol and Godard, Chantal Akerman (who reports that her own breakthrough was cued by Pierrot le Fou) and Yvonne Rainer, and Ken Jacobs, Matthew Barney and Bill Viola.
More familiar figures, such as Mike Leigh, Costa-Gavras, Derek Jarman, Michael Winterbottom, Kelly Reichardt, Frederick Wiseman, Michael Moore and James Franco, at Sundance enter the discussion, as do, in old filmed interviews, the reliably opinionated Robert Bresson and Alfred Hitchcock.
“It's gonna really happen when you let go,” Viola remarks, which would seem to sum up Workman's intent here: To laud filmmakers who trailblaze into uncharted artistic territory and encourage adventurous viewers to follow them there. Where this work exists in Workman's world, however, is at venerable places the Filmmakers Co-op and Anthology Film Archives in New York, not on the computers and phone cameras of people riding the latest wave of personal image making.
The venturesome recommendations notwithstanding, the film's loveliest element is its soundtrack, which is comprised of exalted excerpts from the best of the best: Bernard Herrmann, Nino Rota, Ennio Morricone and Philip Glass.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Mavericks)
Production: Calliope Films, Cohen AG Project,Wheelhouse Creative
With: David Lynch, Mike Leigh, Jonas Mekas, Yvonne Rainer, Bill Viola, Kelly Reichardt, Costa-Gavras, Ken Jacobs, Michael Moore. J. Hoberman
Director: Chuck Workman
Producer: Charles Cohen
Directors of photography: John Sharaf, Tom Hurwitz
Editor: Chuck Workman