It’s been over one hundred years since some smart people figured out how the right combination of light, lenses, and chemicals added up to the ability to capture moving images. And ever since that moment, the movies have become one of our most popular entertainments and art forms. Thanks to film we’ve explored bold new worlds and intimate relationships, gone on adventures, fallen in love and lived out multiple lives, while engaging in communal experiences that still feel deeply personal to each individual viewer. So asking and answering the question, “What Is Cinema?,” as Chuck Workman‘s documentary does right in the title almost seems like an impossible task, and a foolish proposition (particularly when only giving 90 minutes to dive in) as everyone will likely have a different answer. But Workman is up to the task and the result is something cinema fans will likely find more than satisfying.
If you’re looking for a comprehensive history of the medium, a hard answer to the question posed, or a cohesive statement on cinema, you’ve come to the wrong place. Workman rightly realizes that trying to come to a conclusion is unachievable so instead he opens up his documentary (which is more of a visual essay) to all perspectives and opinions. But the result isn’t a rudderless confluence of clashing ideas. Instead, it’s a loosely guided open discourse, one swimming in clips from landmark films (that will both have you playing a game of name-the-movie and writing down the ones you haven’t seen yet) along with new and vintage interviews with acclaimed filmmakers who share their own relationship to making movies, what it means to them and their perspective on the cinematic art.
And so the picture glides along enjoyably, with the engaging Jonas Mekas declaring cinema to be akin to a drug, while Michael Moore presents the idea that the personal is always political. Then you have David Lynch, who implores that movies are delicate creations, fragile works that need to be experienced in the reverence the form deserves (don’t ask him what he thinks about texting in theaters) and the open-mindedness of a dream where anything is possible. And then you have Mike Leigh, whose process finds him controlling the dream as much as possible, by utilizing extensive workshops before he makes his movies to build backstories and character prior to letting cameras roll (he’s also the rare director who admits to enjoying watching his own finished films). Meanwhile, Kelly Reichardt views moviemaking as a chance to escape, to live a wilder kind of life while shooting than she usually does at home.
A considerable amount of time in “What Is Cinema?” is also given over to those who are actively deconstructing, breaking form and otherwise creating far outside the traditional conventions of cinematic narrative and structure. Experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs shares his philosophy that as a director, his stories emerge as he’s shooting. Meanwhile, various participants in the New York Filmmaker’s Cooperative, a group dedicated to avante-garde cinema, also get to share their thoughts and passions though the question is posed: can anyone with a camera be a director or does the distinction come with an an unspecified artistic merit that must be achieved first? In the context of filmmakers actively working against the norms, it’s a fascinating query that Workman lets linger.
Ultimately, none of these approaches are right, none are wrong—Workman instead relishes the diversity of experience filmmaking has brought to the great directors profiled alongside the amateurs creating their own works. One instructive anecdote comes from the late, great Sidney Lumet, who in an archival interview explains why Akira Kurosawa‘s “Ran” left him in awe. And it has nothing to do with technical details or the finer points of directing, but instead it was simply the sheer confidence Kurosawa displayed in telling his story in his own way, boldly, theatrically, punched with color and without compromise. And that ultimately gets to the heart of what Workman’s film is all about. “What Is Cinema?” is a compelling, enriching look at visionaries old and new, who continue to forge fascinating new paths in a medium that shows no signs of stagnating. Indeed, “What Is Cinema?” isn’t really about where film has been, but where it goes next. [B]