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

"No, but I like American films Ė doesn't everybody?"
An interview with Mark Le Fanu

Mette Madsen

Mark LeFanu, born in 1950, teaches film history at the European Film College in Ebeltoft. He has contributed to a number of periodicals, including Positif, Sight & Sound, Prospect and p.o.v.,and is the author of The Cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky (BFI Books, 1987) and of a forthcoming study of the films of Kenji Mizoguchi.

What classic films do you introduce when teaching?

I am pretty conservative. People have come to a consensus that directors like Renoir, Eisenstein or Hitchcock are great for certain reasons. Usually those reasons stand up. But oneís always open. Some so-called famous classics are a total bore. Other films arenít supposed to be classics at all Ė and you find yourself really liking them: you grasp that they have extraordinary qualities. I am not against what it says in the history books, but of course with qualifications and with oneís own taste coming into the matter. Any teaching is very subjectiveÖ oneís private enthusiasm is always important.

What kind of films do you make at the European Film College? Are they European films?

It would be a bit pretentious to qualify them as being European films or Scandinavian films or any other kind of films. They are student filmsÖ they are the films that students make with their degree of experience and culture.

But if you look at a narrative perspective, do the students prefer to make for instance a Spielberg-type film, or is Lars von Trier more their model?

The answer is both I would say. As far as the College is concerned, we definitely donít have a line one way or the other. At different times we have had a Russian woman and a young American teaching script-writing. But anyway the students make up their own minds.

When I interviewed Jon Bang Carlsen, he said that Europeans had a kind of artistic courage.

I am a big fan of Jon Bang Carlsen. He is a friend of the college and comes here quite a lot. What he is getting at there is an old distinction between serious art on the one hand, which goes deeply into things and on the other hand a cinema which is more entertainment-oriented. This is of course the classic distinction between European films and Hollywood pictures Ė between "cinema" on the one hand and "movies" on the other. Everyone who is in the slightest way involved in either film-making or commenting on film knows this distinction. The question is whether it is true. To mention American exceptions, there are of course high profile auteurs such as Scorsese, Coppola or John Sayles. And then there are the young American "indies" Ė the sort of people who get their films shown at Sundance. They could be just as "European" as some European directors, in the sense that they are not interested in making entertainment but in mining their own experience.

So itís not a completely neat distinction, but on the other hand itís a true distinctionÖ it does exist. It is true about the way that films are made and seen. Speaking for myself, I am rather on the European side of the equation. I tend to like really long, slow, boring films that most people have given up on ages ago. Thereís been a shift in perception that Iíve experienced in my own lifetime. There was a great period of auteur film-making when I was growing up, from the late 1950s into the 1970s. It was the epoch of Antonioni, Fellini, Bergman and all those other great guys. From about the end of the 70s and into the 80s, a lot of people decided that these movies were rather self-indulgent and werenít working any longer. They stopped going to see such films. A new orthodoxy established itself saying that if Europe wanted to have any movies at all in a few years time, then it should get cracking and learn from the American model. Films should be more "entertaining". Many initiatives arose at this time concerned with the Media Programme in Brussels to try to reschedule European film in this direction. I myself have always felt that European films were in a way different in kind from their American counterparts and therefore simply to change the package would be as futile as the leopard changing his spots. Or as I sometimes say: "You shouldnít throw out the baby with the bath-water."

Iíve forced myself to get acquainted with some of the old French and Italian directors, and some of them really bore me.

People are very different. They come from different places. What is boring for some is sheer pleasure for others. I wrote a book about the notoriously "difficult" film director Tarkovsky because Iíd always felt, watching his films, that they spoke to me in a very transparent way. I felt that I understood them. But maybe to others heís totally opaque. All works of art that are worthy of the name have an ambition to communicate. They donít want to be obscure or if they are obscure itís only to tease us in the way that art should tease us. Incidentally, I want to be clear that in praising European films I donít disparage American film history. Some of the most beautiful films ever made come from Hollywood. But Iím sorry you donít like the old French directors. You should persevere a bit Ė try them again when you feel in the mood for it.

You have already talked about it but would you try to pinpoint a few words that describe typical European films?

I think you yourself probably know the distinctions. European films tend to avoid the genre formulas that American films are so good at (Westerns, musicals, horror films and so on). The classic European film tends to be much more focussed on the psychology of the characters. Then again, Europe doesnít have the star system as America does, and there are good and bad things that follow from that. Some of the best European films are with actors youíve never seen before. And they are good precisely because you donít recognize them. In a way that makes them more real. Youíre not thinking Oh this is just Cary Grant acting. One can make a more serious shot at realism in this way. But the main difference, surely, is that American pictures are geared towards entertainment and therefore for selling as widely as possible to as many people as possible. European films on the contrary have not been frightened of being a bit élitist and of going for stories that are darker and more difficult. A good comparison that I sometimes come back to is between Woody Allen and Ingmar Bergman. As a matter of fact, Allen likes Bergman a lot, as he likes European films in general. He is not a New York intellectual for nothing! Many of his films are dotted with references to famous European art house movies. But for all that, Woody Allen and Bergman are very different animals. I think that no matter how much Woody Allen admires Bergman, his own movies are never in quite that league. They are too much on the surfaceÖ they are verbal and witty, but they donít have the psychological depth that a Bergman film has. I suppose in a way I am begging the question, because of course Woody Allenís films are comedies so almost by definition heís not going into areas where Bergman is exploring. He did once, with a film called Interiors, but it was the most frightful flop.

In this comparison would you say the phrase Donít tell it Ė show it is mainly an American or European phenomenon? The Americans tell rather than show, whereas European cinema wants to "show" the whole time?

Thatís an interesting distinction to try and tease out. You might be tempted to turn it around and say that whatís distinctive about European films is that theyíre not frightened of talk. Thereís a lot of "telling" in such films. Take a director like Eric Rohmer. A man and a woman sit in a room talking about life and philosophyÖ itís fascinating!

Or they sit in a café and talk?

Yes, they sit in cafés and bedrooms and itís all very erotic, though slightly "in the head". If you donít like talk you donít like those kinds of films! At the same time, when you look at a Rohmer film it is a real film, not just a piece of television. He has an "eye"Ö people who donít know or donít like Rohmer think that he only has dialogues, but it isnít true; itís dialogues plus the visual thing that make a Rohmer film so beautiful.

What about Wim Wenders? One of his films, Wings of Desire, was remade in Hollywood as City of Angels. So there ought to be a good comparison there.

Yes, of course it is an interesting example. The one film is a homage to the other: the one set in Berlin, the other in Los Angeles. But the Berlin setting, in Wendersís film, isnít just arbitrary; it brings in the whole dimension of history Ė the divided Germany and so on: the weight of the past. Thereís none of that reflection on history at all in the remake, which is simply a romantic comedy with death thrown in, as it were. It simply doesnít have the artistic element that Wendersí film has. Comparisons between other films are more interesting perhaps. Godardís A bout de souffle was remade about fifteen years later as Breathless by an American independent film maker called Jim McBride, with Richard Gere and Valerie Kaprisky. I have to say I quite like the remake. On a certain humanist level concerning relationships and the tenderness of relationships, I think that the McBride film is as good as the Godard. Godardís film is spoiled for me by its rather crude beginning. If you remember, Belmondo shoots a policeman and the scene is treated in the Godard style of those years which is tremendously joky and postmodernist. In the same scene handled by James McBride, when Richard Gere shoots the cop there is a kind of genuine regret about it. He cradles the dying man in his arms. I donít believe itís sentimental, just an acknowledgement that when you shoot a pistol and thereís a bullet in it, real blood comes out. However, some people say that the Godard version is much better because itís joky and artificial, so you can decide either wayÖ

It sounds as if youíre objecting to Godardís morality? 

In a way yes, but of course it isnít that simple. Cinema is the art form that is closest to dreams, and dreams are anyway immoral. Pulp Fiction for example is an extremely immoral movie, but it also has a kind of grotesque humour, like an amusing and scary nightmare. Similarly with a director like Bunuel. His films are immoral but theyíre also very funny and you wouldnít want, as a critic, to be moralistic about them. On the other hand there are certain films that are just irredeemable. I can think of examples from both Europe and America which fit into that category.

Letís change the subject. In order for the European film market to have a future, the chains of distribution have to be strengthened and widened but at the same time European film makers have to keep the courage of honesty, as Jon Bang Carlsen puts it. Where do you see European film in ten to fifteen years from now?

The subject is very complex. There are three main interests involved, which each need a slice of the financial cake Ė the producers (i.e. the film-makers themselves), the distributors and the exhibitors. How do we divide the profits up evenly? What is a fair ratio of risk to reward? How, specifically, can we arrange things to keep producers and distributors in business? In Europe it is very difficult because, as you know, the art house market is shrinking. People tend more and more to get their dose of "foreign subtitled films" at a single swallow at festivals, rather than the whole year round. And then thereís the famous rise of the multiplex which has had the effect of drowning out the small artistic movie (the kind of movie you donít eat popcorn at). Nor is television buying as many films as it used to, or paying the same price for the ones that they do buy. So it is very difficult to be a distributor. Margins differ, of course, from film to film. A movie like the brilliant Turkish film Clouds of May (which won last yearís FIPRESCI prize for best European film) cost considerably less than a million dollars to make. But art house movies of the kind we all like can cost up to five million dollars, and with these, the margins for profit are very dicey. To be quite honest, nobody really knows how it all works. Iíve met film producers who donít even know if their films made a profit or not. But the films seem to keep coming in! Itís almost remarkable how many good films do continue to get madeÖ not just more films than anyone can see, but more good films than anyone can see. Whether it will be like this in ten yearís time is anyoneís guess. But I hope so.

August 23, 2001

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