100 Years of Cinema and not much to celebrate
by Richard Leacock
Jan 1995
We are told that 100 years ago when our grand parents first saw the films of the Lumiere brothers, they were astounded and came in droves to see more. These brief films were mini-documentaries; casual observations of everyday life. Of course, since there was the necessity of setting up a hand-crank camera on a bulky tripod, what went on before it had to be somewhat organized; a reenactment. Nothing wrong with that; they worked, they were admired and they still are.

Today, our Cinemas show films that are designed to attract a maximum audience from every country in the world. The hub is Hollywood. The sole aim is to make a maximum profit. In order to achieve that aim a system has evolved that is based on the star actor. A star is created, nurtured, advertised, promoted and eventually becomes a kind of monster that turns on its creator, as in Frankenstein, demanding more and more money which in turn increases the public interest until, only recently a Star is to be paid 15 million dollars to act in a childish story that will last a couple of hours for a projected cost of 150 million dollars!

These films are not made to interest a national culture, they must sell everywhere, so the dialogue is dubbed for each of dozens of languages. Yes, the voice of the $15,000,000 actor doesn’t even come from him. What can possibly be the virtue of an actor who is mute? This is a gigantic con game, but like the lottery, people buy it. It works.

Television, both broadcast and cable, is an auxiliary to this super game. The audience is, of course, much larger but the revenue is only indirectly from the “box office”. Numbers are what count. The BBC, that pillar of respectability, recently canceled a show because only 8 1/2 million people were watching it. I am not claiming that this show should have been continued, it was probably not very good. I am horrified at the reasoning. Imagine what kind of books would be printed if they had to sell in numbers such as this.

These problems are not new. They are merely developing like a cancer, and, like a cancer, they will eventually kill.

Already by 1921 the rule of the hollywood system was established. My friend and mentor, Robert Flaherty, working with equipment hardly different from that of the brothers Lumiere, had spent years living and working with the people of the arctic, his friends and helpers whom he loved and admired. He made a film with them intended to share their life style with other peoples. They made the film together and Flaherty took it to the heads of the Cinema world in New York, who already knew that such films of life were a disaster in the new cinema world that they had created. Where was the star? What was the Story? The chase? The romance? How much had it cost?

Flaherty succeeded, the story goes, by getting Roxy to drink a few too many and sign a contract. The next day Roxy decide that the only way to save his neck was to “Tin-Can” Nanook to his latest Harold Lloyd feature. That is to say; if you want to show the feature you must run Nanook with it. The scam worked and Nanook became the first and only box office hit “Documentary” of our age. None of Flaherty’s subsequent films made it.

It is not that a vast audience is being denied their right to see a particular kind of film. The audience that I want to see my films is small; about the same group of people that read serious non-fiction books. I’m told that a “best seller” means about 10,000 copies in England with another 100,000 in paper-back. Can we reach an audience of this magnitude and make a modest amount of money with a film?

Add another caveat; we should be able to see what we want, when we want, where we want; at a reasonable price. This eliminates Television as most films are shown once and at the wrong time for us!

How to solve this problem? Believe me, it is possible.

We are talking about movies of excellent quality, made by individual artists, to communicate with a substantial audience in your own country (language) as your primary and essential source of satisfaction.


For the last six years I have been working with Valerie Lalonde, making movies that we want to make on Video H-8. We use the smallest “amateur” cameras with a superb microphone attached. We make working edits on relatively cheap VHS equipment at home and then, when we know we have a movie that we like, and believe in, we rent very fancy Digital-Beta equipment and “on-line” with that. The only notable expenses are that final stage but we can still make a half-hour movie for no more than about $4,000. And almost all of this expense comes at the end when you know what you have.

During the last six years we have made eight such films. The major problem is, how to distribute. Video cassettes are not good quality and are awkward and not more than a temporary answer. They are not expected to improve because another format will replace them; the video disk. We are told that within the next two years a disc system, perhaps an up-graded CD-ROM, which will carry about two hours of quality video, vast amounts of text and superb sound will be available. The unit cost of manufacturing these discs is minimal. In effect, we will have the video-book or video-magazine which can be produced by discerning publishers, reviewed by journals, sold by book stores and viewed in the comfort of your home, whenever you want, at a reasonable price; read, reread, treasured, rejected, shared, debated… as you, the viewer, decide.

The Lumiere films lasted about one minute, each. There is no way these could get shown in the modern Cinema or on Television except perhaps with condescension on a “cultural” program such as Arte. Film subjects must have a duration, not too short which in TV-land means about 28 minutes, and not too long, which means exactly 86 minutes. The CD that we have in mind can contain films of one minute, films of ten hours! More! Movies that integrate text and video where, for example, the video provides the feel, the texture of a situation and the text provides the hard-nosed statistical data that are essential to a proper understanding. Visual jokes, erotica, poetic delights, singular sights… all in the amounts that they warrant rather than having to fit to an arbitrary rule of the market world. This notion is a “market” answer to a “Market Prison”.

From the point of view of one who believes in direct, personal, observation, the advance from the work of the Brothers Lumiere is three fold; the mobility of the camera, synchronous sound, color.
These additions have made possible the capture of spontaneous behavior by a rare group of cineasts who have the patience, skill and belief that the world around us is infinitely fascinating. As Leo Tolstoy reportedly said upon first seeing a film “… we will no longer need to invent stories, we will be able to capture them from real life…”. *

However, in the early 1950’s I was sure that Television, offered a solution to the non-fiction film maker; in the early sixties, with Robert Drew, D. A. Pennebaker and others, I thought that we had solved all the problems of film making; in the early seventies I developed Synch-Sound-Super-8 which was going to make all kinds of things possible and it did no such thing; so now, at seventy three I doubt that I will live to see a solution…. someone is bound to come along and find a more profitable way that will screw the whole thing up!

But eternal optimist that I am, we must keep trying.

*On January 16, 1910 Drankov took films to Yasnaya Polyana and showed them to Leo Tolstoy. Drankov reported that Tolstoy said: “It is necessary for the cinematograph to record Russian reality in all its many sided development. Russian life must be shown as it is by the cinema; instead of continuing to chase after fabricated subjects.”
KINO by Jay Leyda

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