The work of French-Swiss director Jean-Luc Godard inspired Civic Theatre manager Jason Asbell.

The work of French-Swiss director Jean-Luc Godard inspired Civic Theatre manager Jason Asbell.

COLUMN: Experimental films challenge us to ask ‘what is cinema?’

At 17, I discovered a beat up VHS copy of Jean-Luc Godard’s film Weekend at the Edmonton Public Library.

Why film? Why did I study it? Make attempts at creating it? Spend so much time watching it? Sure, as a storytelling medium it does a fabulous job, but nine times out of 10, a film version will never touch the book. So what is it about film that keeps me hooked through all the trash?

I was recently reminded why when I saw Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). The experiment of this film draws the question “what is cinema?” to the foreground and digs all the way back to the first time a static camera was set-up to film a train wreck … I mean a train pulling into a station. The Lumiere brothers had invented the Cinématographe and with it the cinema’s first paying audience. Who could have known then that the invention would lead to celebrity worship?

Iñárritu’s lyrical, never static camera, shooting in a seemingly single take, demands reference of the traditions of cinema, locked camera positions and edits, through the absence of these elements. And then there is the location of Birdman’s narrative; practitioners of early cinema, not yet knowing what capabilities film held resorted to filming theatre.

This practice most assuredly led to the criticisms and rejection of cinema as its own true art form. Mike Shiner’s quote may as well have read “Film is the slutty little cousin of theatre or literature.”

Acting for camera can be cut up and re-assembled with little need for ever being completely off book, but what Iñárritu has achieved in his film is all the risk of the actors’ continuous lines with the filmic complexity of a camera that can follow them through stage, wings, hallways, dressing rooms, roofs and streets and alley ways. What’s revealed is a psychology, an ego, which is grappling with the pigeon hole of where cinema has come and reminding us that anything, even cinema, can be reinvented.

The perfectly punctuated free jazz drum solo soundtrack that seamlessly flows from outside of the narrative space to part of it (the busker outside the theatre) instantly reminded me of my first aha moment where I knew I wanted to make film and dig past the mainstream.

At 17, I discovered a beat up VHS copy of Jean-Luc Godard’s film Weekend at the Edmonton Public Library. In it, a continuous tracking shot with a driving drum beat soundtrack follows a group of young French guerilla soldiers winding their way through the brush. When the group emerges into a large open field, a lone drummer with a full kit is revealed as the camera continues to track along with the soldiers.

The effect jarred me so completely that it made me look further into this filmmaker and the Cahiers Du Cinema journal that he and the other directors of the French New Wave emerged from. Cinema had just opened up to me. That playfulness, which broke the rules, made me ask for myself “what is cinema?”

Now 83, Godard still demands we continue to have this conversation. His latest jury prize winning Adieu Au Langage (Goodbye to Language) is a 3D film, which in the same spirit of Weekend and Birdman breaks with the expectations of the medium.

Needing to be seen in 3D, the Civic Theatre and Trail Arts Council are co-presenting Adieu Au Langage at the Royal Theatre in Trail on March 22 at 4:30 p.m. Visit civictheatre.ca for more details.

Jason Asbell is the manager and programmer for the Civic Theatre. Large Popcorn, Extra Butter appears here every other week.