P:O.V. No.12 - Comparing American and European Cinema

Art vs. McBurger dramaturgy
An interview with Jon Bang Carlsen

Mette Madsen

Jon Bang Carlsen, born in 1950 and graduated from the Danish Film School in 1976, is one of Denmark's leading directors. His feature films include: Next Stop Paradise (1980), Ophelia Comes to Town (1985), Time Out (1988) and Carmen and Babyface (1995), while among his documentaries are: Hotel of the Stars (1981), First I Wanted to Find the Truth (1987, Silver Medal at Chicago Film Festival), It's Now or Never (1996, Grand Prize at the Odense International Film Festival), How to Invent Reality (1996), Addicted to Solitude (1999, Grand Prize at Nordic Panorama), My African Diary (1999) and Portrait of God (2001). [RR]

How would you characterize European films in general?

"European" is a difficult word. My films are produced outside of Europe or on the periphery, and when making them, I donít really consider the audience as something apart from myself. I can make my films very "egocentrically" because I measure the world against myself, just as someone writing a novel or working on a painting would do. I donít necessarily regard film as mass culture, but then again, that may just be self-deception on my part. Obviously it would be stupid to make a film that no one would want to see. On the other hand, my films are seen over a number of years, in contrast to American films which have to cover their total costs within two months.

Then there is the classic difference: the film environment is director-controlled in Denmark and producer-controlled in America. Many European directors are shocked when they go to the States and suddenly find that they are nothing but employees, with a producer breathing down their necks. And the producer has the power to say: "Put some more light on her face," or "That needs to be more dramatic," or "That is too sad." What is at stake here is the freedom to make artistic choices. Final cut or not.

Then again, if I had a few million dollars of my own money in a film project, I wouldnít just let someone do whatever he wanted to [laughter]. I would definitely interfere in some way. Generally I have the advantage of both producing and directing my films, but sometimes the producer and director in me have things to discuss. I think in some ways this double role has been very good for me. For instance I havenít made a film that has gone over budget since I became my own producer [laughter].

How would you characterize European film with respect to storytelling?

Among the most inspiring films I grew up with are those by the French director Alain Resnais, such as Last Year in Marienbad. And of course guys like Truffaut and Godard and other New Wave directors. Most likely they would never have stood a chance in the States because they portray our existence as something that is sometimes inexplicable.

In the States they try to make more of an adrenaline injection of drama to get you hooked for an hour and a half; but right after that, you are supposed to be ready for the next film, so they want you to digest what you just saw rapidly to be ready to buy tickets for a new movie. That is my big problem with American films. They easily make me cry, but once I leave the cinema it never really touches me or connects with my life. It doesnít teach me anything. It never broadens me as a person. Itís pure junk. Of course there are some grand artistic films made in the States, but even the great human films made there are extremely calculated, and I am sick and tired of always crying when I see these films, because my tears are fake. It makes me feel very uncomfortable Ė in a way almost raped. They are good at it Ė the rape business.

They know what buttons to press?

Completely. We have talked about this a lot in Denmark. When we analyze our manuscripts, I have trouble with guys who say: "Now we want structure here," "This works," "Here is a plot point." Iím sorry if this sounds pretentious, but first of all I have my own intuition. My daily struggle is to have a lot of discipline but also to follow my intuition. No good would come of only following my brain. First, things have to be experienced, to be felt. If the brain were to calculate something beforehand and emotions were thrown in afterwards, the film would simply die. Film has to have some sort of unpredictability. An organic touch is a precondition for the film to really get in contact with the deeper layers within ourselves. The other stuff is nothing but McBurger dramaturgy.

Iíve been working in South Africa for some years. The entire burger culture has had a brutalizing effect on the desperately poor townships. It is so easy to grab these new pre-packaged dramatic items. Just wait two minutes and youíll get everything wrapped and itís cheap. It really has brutalized the socially very vulnerable environments in post-apartheid South Africa. They never analyze the pain. They never tell about the pain or the losses or the loneliness after an act of violence. They use the violence because it is junk, addictive. It's where the rush of adrenaline lies. Drug-dealing on a cultural level.

You can't avoid considering the ethics here. I think it is a very important part of our trade. We have to ask ourselves this very simple question: "Would you want your children to see this film?" Just as the architect should ask himself when building a house: "Would I want my wife and children to live in this house or should I stay in the perfect idyll in the Birkerød neighborhood while the Turkish kids can move into a concrete-block apartment?"

We may be jealous of the Americans for having a big audience and they sure know their basic dramaturgy in a way that makes it possible for them to communicate with almost anybody, from Eskimos to Hindus [laughter]. But then again, people all over the world use the same narcotics. We have to consider morality and in one way or another, to make sure our television and films stay in touch with the underlying ethical issues.

American films push certain buttons in you. What makes French films important to you?

Well the best make me sense the person behind the film and I see that the person has been honest about his own insecurity, his own confusion and his own doubts. And doubts in particular are a very big issue, no matter what we do. It may even be one of the most nurturing aspects of expression. When creating, we need some kind of shape, and the easiest thing to do would be to eliminate all doubt, all of the question marks. A film that has a shape but is also porous, so that the shimmering colors, the colors of doubt, become apparent, is a film that really stands out and makes a difference. Films like that are really difficult to watch the first couple of times. For instance Tarkovskyís and Felliniís films. I always fell asleep watching them. I think they make direct contact with my dream world. I had to see them about ten times before I stayed awake during the entire film. But at the same time, those films really mattered to me, absolutely. The other films, with the correct basic dramaturgy, are long forgotten. Like people who always behave as they think other people want them to.

I try for some kind of shape in my own work. Naturally, I too would like a bigger audience but it really is difficult to unite those two aspects. It is not interesting for me to make a film if it is pure calculation. The joy would be lost. I am a very visual person. I see things in images and it is very easy to become too sectarian, too much of a navel gazer. It is a matter of balance. I am not very mainstream. I would like to be but it just so happens that I am not. And even in the mainstream film, there has to be an inner honesty. Take a film like Italian for Beginners which is mainstream. It has this inner honesty and is therefore a sweet movie which at the same time communicates broadly. It is a really good example showing that it can be done.

Can you think of an American film that in some way made a difference to you?

Well once you have kids you donít get to the cinema all that often, but there are a lot of American films that meant a lot to me. When I was growing up there were a lot of avant-garde films. There was Andy Warhol who had some fun and the entire film environment surrounding him. And of course Stranger Than Paradise, the Jarmusch film which is both very European and very American, a truly great film. But I am also a great fan of Gone with the Wind, which I think is a wonderful film [Ö] which tells both a relevant and a touching story. At the same time, none of the characters are simple. Take for instance the female character who has such hatred for her own child. She is a tremendously complex character, perhaps one of the most complex in film history.

We all grew up with American film. I also grew up with Zorro and other films of that type, but the older we get the more annoying mainstream American films become. One thing that really gets to me is that all good non-American stories have to be played by American actors, just to squeeze out the last drop of profit. Generally I think it is a big mistake that all our great stories have to be told by American actors. All kinds of French stories, African stories are being delivered in that Kansas City language [laughter]. It's pure cultural imperialism.

How do you feel about attempts to differentiate between European and American filmmaking?

Not everything made with a camera is a film. Many American productions are nothing but fairground fun. They are like going to an amusement park and riding the roller-coaster; it's fun and there's nothing wrong with fun. But it's an entirely different discipline. When some artist creates something new, uses himself and his soul, really risks something, exposing himself; that is something completely different. There is no reason at all to mix those two disciplines. We have to stop doing that.

Sometimes the right-wing parties accuse Danish filmmakers of catering to the few and not trying to reach a bigger audience. All this in comparison to American film. But there is no basis for comparison, and to draw such parallels is both simplistic and problematic. What we need is to strengthen our distribution networks. The French have a sensible way of resisting the dominance of American distribution, while at the same time supporting their own films. The Americans are really tough when it comes to distribution. In order to get one good American film, you also have to accept eight crap films. We have to find a way to stop that. It is not in our own interest to put up with that. In addition to entertaining, a film also has an important cultural and educational role to play. And in Europe we produce these good films but we sadly lack the American talent of promoting them.

In a way, I think we Europeans are about to rediscover our origins, and the tendency to look up to the American way is slowly diminishing. It would be nice if the same tendency applied to film audiences as well. They should be seeing more European films, which provide a more sophisticated and deeper interpretation of their everyday life than is the case with the American roller-coaster films, which are very charming but donít have the first thing to do with reality as we live it in Europe.

You speak of the danger of comparing European and American films, but at the same time you speak of a lot of differences between the two. Would you say that one can generalize about those differences?

Yes, I think you can. Strangely enough, I think the tradition of personal storytelling still exists in Europe, whether in Finland or in Portugal. In America I sense a tendency to throw all films in a big pot and they all seem to come out the same. In Europe we have so much more respect for the author. A respect for the old way of storytelling, dating from the time when stories were told from farm to farm. And obviously there is quite a distance between Scandinavia and Sicily.

Curiously enough I find that many countries try to make those great American productions and they all more or less turn out the same. They lose their edge, their sensitivity, and their charm Ė the very things that are after all what European productions have to offer as their selling point.

Only Americans have that brilliant ability to make some really corny crap and still entertain people. That is admirable. Take for instance Erin Brockovich, which on the one hand is socially engaged, but at the same time itís the worst sentimental crap. Real Hollywood. That guy with the motorbike taking care of her kids is so stereotyped, so cartoonish. But these films have a devilish, muscular vulgarity that impresses you and in some remarkable way seems refreshing [Ö]

Sometimes we Europeans are locked up in a tower of self-centeredness. We still live in our little villages and think that way too. We think itís a disaster that we are not able to build up a film industry that can really compete with the Americansí. We should be able to. We have so many skilled directors and a highly developed industry, and we have most of the stories. Most stories that succeed in the States are originally EuropeanÖ

But what stops you from combining your way of making films with mainstream characteristics?

Well, if I were to tell your story and you were devastated about something, I would tend to leave you sitting over there, looking the other way, so that one could get just a little glimpse of your unhappiness, and from a distance [Ö]

Americans, on the other hand, would slam a camera right up into your face and make you explain why you are so unhappy and make you cry. Thatís the American scenario: the no-compromises-telling-everything-explicitly-crap.

I have tried to do that a couple of times but I seem to lose honesty, to lose layers and depth. It becomes too one-dimensional. Maybe because I, like most peasants, am a little shy, I prefer to explore life from a distance. And I think memory is a part of every instant of my life. I not only exist in this instant, I also simultaneously remember this instant. This is how I perceive life. And even though the stories in American films go back to the Middle Ages, what these films provide is purely a sense of the present. In many ways, thatís a strength since it demands much less of the audience. European films make demands on the audience. And if the audience is willing to invest what it takes to open up and become a co-narrator, the film will have a far greater significance in their life. But the directness of American films impresses me, also in American culture. And the ability to go right in and cut the bullshit impresses me too. We can learn from that.

At the same time I find in American films a very dangerous lack of love, even though they talk about love constantly. That is one of the reasons I am so sick and tired of those little, semi-intellectual college kids writing those violent films. Those guys have never been exposed to all the bad things going on. If they had been, they could never write the way they do. If they had suffered or their loved ones had suffered, they would never write these banal, bloodsucking screenplays. They would have respect for the pain. People who have actually been through the pain and sorrow describe their experience in a brighter way. Those who really know the pain donít just stare into the dark, because that would kill them. They have to find that little ray of light that gives them a reason to live on.

When experiencing it one knows sorrow is not just black or white?

Yes exactly. But also because sorrow is so tremendous in itself. The classic situation is when someone not involved tries to analyze something. For instance when academics analyze. The film Man of Iron is one of those classic American documentaries about the wild west of the fishing environment in Ireland Ė about those rough men. It is so obvious that the director got the idea while sitting at his disk in his New York office. Those silent men with their wives in dark aprons standing beside them, with never a smile or a light-hearted remark or anything of that sort. It's all the struggle against the elements. Sinister faces in howling wind. I have lived in Ireland and happen to know that place. The film is nonsense. The fishing environment is probably one of the funniest and one of the richest environments in the way people speak because they lead such a hard, extreme life that it has to be that way. They have to keep a distance from the difficulties and daily dangers of their existence. They say those extremely funny things and it really is a grand environment for fun in many ways. In that respect the film is a lie. It is nothing but the middle-classís own idea of hardworking, silent fishermen as seen from the well-to-do suburbs of the middle-class intelligensia. Again, itís about respect for things and when it comes down to it, it is only a matter of insufficient research Ė and because it is easier. The film is brilliantly made. But the director actually forced the fishermen to sail out into the storm. They would never do such a thing in real life, but he thought it would look great and he forced them to go out. He almost got them killed [laughter] and now his name has gone down in history as the great portrayer of Irish folk-culture. But thatís show-biz, just another romanticized portrait reflecting how the middle-class wants to see the working-class. It all becomes show-biz on one level or another. And that's o.k. with me. We paint on our own shadows.

How would you sum things up?

Well, there is no doubt at all that Hollywood consists of a great mass of talent. They have something we definitely can be envious of: namely a large-scale industry Ė not just a small film studio in Lyngby or at Zentropa, but a huge industrial complex. They have thousands of directors, thousands of actors, multitudes of talented film crews. They have great, skillful screenwriters who have probably written many wonderful stories, but then the calculating enters the arena and tries to arrange the sweets to sell them as quickly as possible. Often itís a massacre where the life-blood is sucked out of the stories and the potential of the films is crippled, which is very sad because the performers in front of and behind the camera are so talented.

We see some of the same tendencies here too. DR is enjoying success at the moment but how did they get it? By lowering standards. You always have to consider what price you are willing to pay for the higher ratings. Fortunately we have the other channel, DR2, which is really good. We have to be very careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. We have to hang on to our own artistic way of storytelling, artistic courage and artistic honesty. It would be a crime to lose it to the calculations. Everything is so thoroughly calculated and we have to be aware of all the side effects that come with it. All the additives that are used in everything and are also thrown into the world of film. In the end it could all become terribly uninteresting and yet the audiences are still sitting, gazing at stories as exciting as the next cigarette. The tough call would be to uphold our own traditions and even strengthen them, while at the same time strengthening the distribution networks. That would be really somethingÖ Finally to learn how to distribute the wonderful films that we have been doing for years.

15 June 2001



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