Chuck Workman’s What Is Cinema?
Attempts To Define The Films That Go Beyond
By Erin Whitney
While film has been a large part of popular entertainment for decades, it is one of the most recent art forms, and one we have yet to fully comprehend. Since audiences shrieked in astonishment at the arrival of the Lumières’ train in 1986 (whether or not that myth is true), we’re still perplexed when trying to condense the magic of the moving image into words.
We’re not talking about Hollywood movies, the big budget, CG-laden pictures that dominate the box office and the Oscars. We’re talking about “cinema,” which is an entirely different creature. Documentary filmmaker Chuck Workman, most known for making the Oscar montages each year, spent the majority of his career editing blockbuster movies into trailers and awards sequences; however, his true love is cinema.
Workman described over the phone in an interview that What Is Cinema? grew out of his previous documentary, Visionaries, which highlighted the work of Jonas Mekas and other experimental filmmakers. “Originally, it was supposed to be another look at avant-garde films,” Workman said, but then he began adding other films that “really push[ed] the limits of cinema.” Just some of the many films shown in Workman’s documentary include 8 ½, Pierrot le Fou, Citizen Kane, Pickpocket, Chinatown, Z, and Michael Snow’s Back and Forth. There’s a little bit of everything for film lovers, as well as four new experimental shorts created just for the documentary.
However, with so many iconic films and filmmakers to include, Workman knew he had to leave some out, and thus, he crafted his own criterion. “I made a rule to myself that it has to stand next to [Robert] Bresson,” Workman said. “For people my age, Bresson is like the Alain Resnais or the very strong, more theoretical filmmaker where you have to study his films; somebody that was serious about their filmmaking.”
When watching What Is Cinema?, devout film fanatics may notice a some of their favorite filmmakers missing or only briefly mentioned, such as Krzysztof Kieslowski, Terrence Malick, and Theodoros Angelopoulos. “There were some filmmakers that I like very much,” Workman said, “but I don’t think that they measure up to Bresson. In some cases, nobody measures up to Bresson, Fellini, or Kurosawa, but it’s an aspiration that people are going towards.” This aspiration that all true cinematic artists are reaching for is what Workman defines as “constantly pushing the envelope.” Those showcased in Workman’s documentary are the ones who constantly strive to reinvent the art form.
For Workman, Hollywood filmmakers are like McDonalds since “they’re going to give you a hamburger that everybody’s going to like,” while cinema is gourmet food for an acquired taste. What Is Cinema? tosses the Happy Meal and raises the standard to three Michelin stars, or the premium filmmakers, according to Workman.
Beyond renowned and celebrated films, Workman’s documentary also includes works of video and visual arts, categories that are can be discussed separately from cinema. When trying to get video artist Bill Viola to be a part of his documentary, Viola’s assistant told Workman that Viola’s area of work didn’t concern filmmaking. “Then Bill called me,” Workman said, “and said, ‘No, I do do that. That’s what I do: cinema.’ ” Some may argue that Viola’s type of work and many forms of art displayed in a gallery space are of a different breed than filmmaking. Yet, who is to say cinema isn’t art and art isn’t cinema? Is the mode or space of exhibition necessary when defining film? For Workman, it isn’t. “This kind of gallery [and] digital art adds a different kind of experience when watching it, but the tools are the same … you just have a different context.”
With growing technology and new modes for watching movies, exhibition is becoming a more important and widely debated topic. The question remains whether or not viewers can experience the full effect of a film when watching on a tablet or iPhone. While many still prefer the theatrical experience, Workman says these digital innovations aren’t so bad after all. Alluding to a quote by Stan Brakhage about a book of paintings being the next best thing to viewing them in a gallery, Workman said, “I don’t mind. Look at it on a phone, look at it on an iPad.” While he agrees the smaller screen and sound quality are no comparison to a theater, he is still grateful audiences—especially younger generations—can experience films.
When it comes to Workman’s documentary, however, younger audiences unfamiliar with the history of cinema may not know many of the films it discusses. Some of the most recent films included in it date back to nearly 15 years ago. While this paints cinema as more of an archaism, Workman still believes that there are a handful of contemporary filmmakers adding to art form. He mentioned the work of Wes Anderson and Sarah Polley’s documentary, Stories We Tell, which also screened at DOC NYC this year, as some worthy additions to the cinematic canon. “There are people all over the world who are making serious films in other countries where they’re not caught up in the Hollywood distribution system,” Workman added.
Yet even after naming names and discussing an abundance of films, the titular question still remains: What is cinema? It’s something that several filmmakers found challenging to describe in the film, and one filmmaker admitted that he simply couldn’t put it in words. But the man who’s been editing fragments of the moving image for years and devoting his own work to exploring it had an answer. Workman said, “It’s an art form, like classical music, or painting, or poetry, that uses reality spread through a particular time period.” What makes cinema so magically different, for Workman, is the collision of all its parts, which help “to achieve something that couldn’t be achieved any other way.” According to Workman, you can’t explain cinema, you just have to do it. And for us audiences, maybe to fully understand it, we just have to keep watching.