29 June, 2015Issue 28.5Film & TVThe Arts

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The kind of films I want to make

Alex Darby

Alex Darby, one of Oxford’s most accomplished student filmmakers, was asked to discuss what inspires him to make films.

I think that a good film—like any effective piece of art—exploits its own medium. A good film can capitalise on both the form’s means (the way films are made, cinematic style) and ends (the impact films have). As a hopeful future filmmaker, I am particularly interested in three qualities which are central to the cinema.

I. THE MANIPULATION OF REALITY

Film looks, sounds, and feels more like the real world than any other artificial experience you can have. The impression of captured reality is far greater than with photography, because film gives the impression of movement. It is this authenticity which had audiences careering out of the salon in terror during the 1895 screening of the famous Lumière brothers film of a train. If that reaction seems outdated, think of the flurries of excitement we all experience witnessing the latest innovations in CGI and 3D. For the filmmaker, giving this impression of spontaneous reality is one of the most exciting challenges, because he or she is aware of how artificial film is. The amount of bric-a-brac on set is colossal, the intensity of the machine grunt required to process digital footage is ever increasing (Gone Girl, for instance, shot in 6K), and the number of people who receive visual effects credits these days would be enough to form a small hipster army in Soho. The films I like exploit the way the camera effortlessly turns a real place into a story and imbues it with artistic meaning. This transformative quality of filmmaking, in which the real world is both itself and made strange, has characterised great films since the medium began. André Bazin referred to it as the redemption of reality, the revelation of the world as it has never been seen before, the truth eclipsed by our everyday eyes. Antonioni’s The Red Desert is about the struggle for warm, human contact in a machine age, and the atmosphere of the industrial locations where Antonioni shot the film is tangibly dank, noxious, and insipidly materialistic. Good film, for me, is reality shot through a lens which effaces habitual familiarity to expose a plangent world underneath.

II. THE SENSE OF ANOTHER LIFE

I think that a person processes more data per unit of time when experiencing a film than he or she would when experiencing any other art form, since cinema is such a mongrel medium. Sound, music, performance, photography, text, and what I’m obnoxiously going to call the temporal flow of the moving image all coalesce in narrative film. Narrative film, then, is the fusion of a number of elements, each of which could stand as an art form in its own right. This makes film a powerfully immersive aesthetic experience. A good sequence, like the D-Day landings in Saving Private Ryan, bombards your senses so completely that you can’t help but give up your disbelief. When films like Spielberg’s unify all the constituent ingredients that make cinema, for me, the greatest art form, the aesthetic experience so utterly engulfs you that you have a sense of having lived another life, of having lived the life of the sprinting soldier on the freezing beach.

III. POACHING TIME

Andrei Tarkovsky, who pioneered a truly cinematic language in his filmmaking, talked about the director as someone who acquires lumps of time during a shoot before sculpting them into a statue in the cutting room. Tarkovsky thought, and I do too, that this corresponds to why we go the cinema. A good film, by revealing these sculpted units of time, enriches the viewer by broadening his or her lifespan in a way unlike any other art. In a way, seeing the months of wartime portrayed in Saving Private Ryan extends our life experiences by a few months. In terms of the film’s impact on its audience, I think that this propensity for dosing the audience with condensed concentrations of time determines what makes a good film more than anything else. Cinema, I believe, is a medium better suited to sweeping stories like the life of Lawrence of Arabia than the dour though painstakingly observed characters in Mike Leigh’s very theatrical films, which give no sense of saturated time. I think Steve McQueen is unique among contemporary British filmmakers in this regard: each of his films is a step into a new world that the audience is morbidly curious about, and the aesthetic result is life-expanding. Identifying with the main character in a good film should be like falling down the rabbit hole into their head and their world, and that is true for every visceral, astonishing film that McQueen has made.

Cinema’s way of acquiring and preserving time opens stylistic possibilities that are often ignored. A filmmaker can create what Tarkovsky thought of as temporal rhythms in his shots, which he used most wonderfully of all in Stalker. As I see it, the idea is to use cinema’s seemingly hyperreal way of capturing time to create an artificial, and artistic temporal flow. Tarkovsky often uses long takes where, say, half an hour’s time can pass in a few seconds. The rhythm of the shot is determined by changes within the frame: changes in lighting, blocking, sound. If you think of the whole shot as a semibreve, then one of its sections might be equivalent to a semi-quaver, the next to a minim, the next to a crotchet. In brief: even without a change in shot, some kind of rhythm is born. Hardly any filmmakers have tapped into this way of thinking about film, but I think it is magnificent when it works. The famous and agonizing shot of Chiwetel Ejiofor hanging on a tree in Twelve Years a Slave derives its emotional power from this rhythmical basis. McQueen makes the sight of the character swaying on a tree for hours and hours unbearable to watch because it is intermittently punctuated by snippets of people passing him by. The sequence is like a minor scale building up to its last note with horrendous precision.

There are so many aspects of the medium which explain film’s particular effects. These three, though, are the ones that really inspire me. Now that I have finally finished at Oxford, this summer I will edit a documentary on an Oxford philosophy professor as well as making two short films–For A Rose, and Custom Built—in which I will try to embody some of these ideas. Hopefully they might jumpstart me into the National Film and Television School; if they don’t, I may direct a documentary about a Namibian artist and write a feature film about a dementia patient’s fragmented colonial reminiscences of the colour of poppies, a magnificent local soldier, and the weakness of the patient’s own ideals.

In all, I would ideally like to make films that place these formal ideas at the centre of the British cultural sphere. It has always seemed a shame to me that some of the most formally unique British films—like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Unrelated, or Ratcatcher—often slip to the periphery of our culture, in a way that perhaps isn’t true of such films in other countries. Why are there so few British films which manage to pick up vital and topical issue and present them in a fascinating and original way while remaining popular, as Apocalypse Now, for example, does so extraordinarily? Formal originality, in my opinion, intensifies the specific emotional possibility that the cinematic medium has to offer, and so allows films to transmit insights, ideas, and feelings with a rare richness, a richness that I wish could be discovered more often in British film.

Alex Darby recently graduated in Philosophy and Russian from New College, Oxford. He was President of the Oxford Broadcasting Association. He is a director, and several of his short films have been featured in film festivals including Short of the Month, the Best Shorts and Accolade competitions; he won the main prize at the Portobello Film Festival.