Expanding the frame

The responsibility for developing cinema lies to a high degree with the new talents themselves, says the American film critic Robert Koehler.

Recent polls measuring the levels of happiness by nationality show that there are no happier people on earth than the Danes. No matter their temperament, artists can carry around a burden that only out of unhappiness can art be created. So whether you’re a developing or fully-grown artist in the world’s happiest country, you may seem to be in a dilemma.

This might seem to be an even bigger dilemma for cinema artists who must wrestle with the challenges of exploring the formal and thematic outer limits while also keeping the audience in mind. (Without an audience, there is no cinema.) And the burden may grow heavier if the artist comes at things thinking that because they’re Danish they’re lugging around the legacy of Dreyer, much like Swedish filmmakers feel the pull, tug and weight of Bergman.

Let all of this go. Like picking up a dumbbell that’s too heavy for you, let it drop to the ground. Danish filmmakers can shed some myths along the way, and then expand the frame of what their cinema can be.

Dispelling with myths

Now, I’m an American film critic and writer. I’m not going to presume to lecture or instruct readers – most of whom have a deep interest in both the Danish Film Institute, its mission to develop young filmmakers, and in the larger state of Danish cinema – on what’s to be done to develop prospects for the future. But I want to suggest a perspective that may help in future development of filmmakers and filmmaking.

The smart artist takes advantage of every possible open door that a local institution can provide, but more crucially, they must develop themselves.Robert Koehler

Part of this perspective is dispelling with myths, such as the one above. The matter, the myth, of an artist necessarily being unhappy is seldom mentioned in any kind of cinema book, essay, review or any other kind of text. Yet it is fundamental, and perhaps extremely relevant to the Danish situation. It’s also kind of funny to an outsider, whose exposure to Danish cinema is dominated by movies steeped in stories and characters teetering on the edge of disaster, from Applause to The Hunt. To judge Denmark from the outside on the movies alone, the quick conclusion is that Denmark is a horrible place to live. And obviously, to anyone who’s lived in or spent any time here, that conclusion would be wrong.

Don´t worry …

This isn’t to suggest that young Danish moviemakers should start churning out happy, sunny-minded pabulum. (Hollywood does enough of that already, thank you very much.) Instead, I’m thinking more in terms of a mindset that the artist takes toward the work and its relationship to the audience. Despair is an endemic mindset to some cinema artists; a favorite of mine, Pedro Costa, is a good guy, but pretty despairing of things in general. No knock on Pedro; that’s just how he is. Others, like Apichatpong Weerasethakul, have a completely different tack on the world, with an attitude of amazing calm. At least, that’s how he comes off to anyone who knows him, and his movies indicate the same. Both great contemporary filmmakers – for some, the two greatest of all – but of opposite mindsets. It’s just that the trendy appropriation of despair – precisely because you’re an artist, because that’s what’s expected by the culture – is a trap for the young artist. Moviemaking is a monumentally difficult activity; it doesn’t help to weigh down the process with adopted faux attitudes or expected tones that read as “serious.” The young moviemaker must first be true to him or herself, and they may find that they’re actually pretty happy, all things considered. (The vast majority of Danes, by all measures, are.) Don’t worry about not being worried, if that’s the case.

The audience wants to be challenged

What I’m describing above is a way in which we can trick ourselves into an attitude that may not be truly ours, but adopted for the sake of style over substance. The mindset in relation to the audience may actually be trickier. But there’s a way of understanding this that cuts through the noise. The audience often doesn’t realize it, but it wants to be challenged. Just as we secretly want to do scary things that won’t kill us, we actually want the movies to confront our presumptions and limitations, and expand them.

The young moviemaker today, whether in Copenhagen or Cleveland, should think about expanding the frame of cinema.

I’m stealing this phrase from the masthead of one of the cinema magazines for which I’ve written for years: Cinema Scope magazine, published in Toronto. It’s right there under the title: “Expanding the Frame on International Cinema.”

The intent behind Cinema Scope, now going into its 12th year, has been to look around the cinema world in areas that most others miss – a good way to approach everything, cinema or not. At the time of Danièle Huillet’s death, when other film magazines were placing the latest movie of the moment on their covers, Cinema Scope selected a frame from one of the last actual Huillet-Straub productions, Quei loro incontri, and wrapped it in black, with no accompanying graphics. It was saying without words that this is a death of an artist that should be noticed, because the artist mattered, despite the commercial movie world’s indifference.

The actor at the center

It’s why an artist like Huillet matters – just like her creative and life partner Jean-Marie Straub, continuing to make movies like crazy – that should most concern developing filmmakers. It just happens that Costa made a film about Huillet-Straub, Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, a sly, puckish piece of work that should be seen by anybody who wants to make movies of any kind. The couple tussle, argue, laugh, question, look and listen; they are seen prying and wrestling, grappling and stumbling toward the goal of finding the essence of their work (in this case, the pair’s 1999 masterpiece, Sicilia!). Costa honestly shows how filmmakers – at least, these filmmakers – actually go about doing what they do.

The example of Huillet-Straub is especially useful for Danish filmmakers because of their desire to place the actor at the center of their frames. Their actors are bodies and voices, monumental creatures. The great resource in Danish cinema is its community of actors; few European countries match Denmark for sheer acting genius. (Put another way, I can’t think of a badly acted Danish movie.) Of course, this is a result of Danish cinema benefiting from Danish theater. But just as the Romanian cinema, and now the Georgian, Greek and Portuguese cinemas, tap into their fantastic local pools of acting talent for original, new and expressive modes of cinema performance, so could Danish cinema. The Dogme publicity stunt machine and its post-Dogme effect have tended to insist on only one mode of acting – naturalistic, on the border of improvisation. This is fine, but there are many other modes to explore, and Danish filmmakers have the advantage of partnering with extraordinary actors of all ages to venture into areas beyond naturalism.

Observe, study and absorb

This example is meant to illustrate a larger point. The realm of international cinema contains a wide spectrum of voices and directions for the developing filmmaker to observe, study and absorb. The filmmaker’s first job is to do it, and at this strange, transitional moment in cinema history – where cinema is at the end of film, and the beginning of the web – that job has never been easier. Were you a film student in the 70s and wanted to catch the latest Hans-Jürgen Syberberg film, you had to 1) Live in a big enough city to have a cinematheque, festival or similar site to show films like Syberberg’s, films that never came into commercial release; 2) Hope it would come to your city; and 3) Show up for what would typically be the one and only screening in your city of, say, Syberberg’s Our Hitler: A Film From Germany.

Today, this sounds ridiculous. Instant and broad access to movies of all kinds in all sorts of media is one of the cultural hallmarks of our time. Those who complain that one of the cultural blots of our time is dramatically shrinking access to great cinema on the big screen only state the obvious, but they should be ignored. They’re fighting a rear-guard action. Cinema in the big screen film era was wonderful, but that era is gone. Get over it. As we say in the U.S., Move On Dot O-R-G (moveon.org). If you want to watch Syberberg’s sui generis cinema in your underwear, now you can; that would have been nice in the 70s. Especially for the filmmaker, the value is the contact with the artist and his/her art, not the perfect venue.

Jia Zhang-ke and his Sixth Generation filmmaking friends in Mainland China had no ideal venues as they began to make their own movies, just pirated DVDs with crappy image quality. I don’t think it can be said that this crimped Jia’s ability to learn and absorb from great cinema, and besides, it made it more fun. Jia did exactly what those getting ready to make their own movies should do: Explore movies far and wide, and maybe preferably as far away geographically and culturally from where you live, by any means possible.

Then there’s knowing what to watch. An institution like the Danish Film Institute can play a crucial role in this, the role of the cinematheque presenting the essential cinema of the past and present. Cinematheques are teaching tools by presenting films through informed curation. I grew especially sensitive to this when serving as program director of the cinematheque at Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York. Noticing the generally grey-haired makeup of the audiences, I smiled whenever I spotted younger viewers. They had opted for a series surveying post-war Japanese samurai movies, or an East German 70mm epic on the life of Goya over the latest Hollywood blockbuster.

Festivals play another crucial role in providing developing artists and audiences (who are also developing as they experience festivals) the tools for expanding their frame. Copenhagen is especially fortunate to have two world-class festivals – PIX and DOX – which annually provide an eclectic, smartly programmed selections that offer a survey of what’s going on at the moment in world cinema. The best thing to do is to junk out at both festivals: See as much as you physically can, and watch what’s outside of your comfort zone.


Institutes like New Danish Screen have a mission to develop talent, but the practical elements I’m addressing point toward self-development. The smart artist takes advantage of every possible open door that a local institution can provide, but more crucially, they must develop themselves. Education is a two-level process of teacher-student pedagogy, and the student’s self-education, taking it beyond the classroom and its structures. Too often, those classrooms and teachers, steeped in film history, won’t turn on the students to vital new cinema. I bumped into several young filmmakers from Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand during one of my regular visits to the Vancouver Film Festival. They had all studied at one or another film school or general university. But it was only on their own, and sometimes via Facebook chat rooms, that they began to watch the cinema of Lisandro Alonso from Argentina, whose La libertad exerted a profound impact on their approach and style. When I told him about this later, Lisandro himself was a little surprised to hear about his effect on a group of strangers in east Asia. But not too much. Before he started making his own films, he had been watching work far outside of Argentina.

These self-developers were travelling to explore cinema that may as well as dropped in from another planet, and it changed them. For Danes finding their own voices, the same thing can happen.