"Be Realistic: Demand the Impossible," or, A Secret History of Film Manifestos

By Scott MacKenzie

Manifestos are typically understood as ruptures, breaks, and challenges to the steady flow of politics, aesthetics, or history.  This is also true of film and other moving image Manifestos.  The necessity to believe that Manifestos are about rupture is part of how they are perceived to function.  And yet a cursory history of film Manifestos finds them pervasive throughout that history.  Indeed, film Manifestos emerged almost as soon as the cinema began. One of the earliest was short and sharp:


“The cinema is an invention without a future.”–Louis Lumière


One of the key issues raised by film Manifestos is not simply the question as to whether or not Manifestos can change the cinema, but whether or not calling into being a new form of cinema will thereby change not only moving images, but the world itself.  For this proposition to make any sense at all, one cannot take moving images to be separate from the world, or simply a mirror or reflection of the real.  Instead, one must see moving images as a constitutive part of the real: as images change, so does the rest of the world.  This belief runs through the writings and practices of a startling number of filmmakers, theorists, and agitators: one can see it in the writings of Dziga Vertov, André Bazin, Laura Mulvey, Jean-Luc Godard, Guy Debord, Luis Buñuel, Yoko Ono, Alexandre Astruc, Stan Brakhage, Lars von Trier and Keith Sanborn, to name just a few from across the gamut of filmmaking and theory.  And this “secret history” of film Manifestos has its origins in the Manifestos that emerged with such ferocity in the 18th century.  While manifesto-style writing can be traced back to the American Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, to Elizabethan pamphleteering and the works of Thomas Nashe and Gabriel Harvey, or even further back to the Old Testament and the Ten Commandments, the modernist manifesto really begins with Karl Marx.  And while the spirit of the Communist Manifesto haunts everything from Godard to Dogme ‘95, it is most certainly Marx’s posthumously published “Theses on Feuerbach” that sits at a nodal point in understanding the function of the manifesto and its role in intervening in the public sphere, summarized in thesis number 11:  “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”

But how can images change the world in this way?  The images called into being by Manifestos over the last hundred or so years certainly point to the fact that the images that circulate in the dominant and alternative public spheres do not function in a programmatic, unilinear manner, no matter what the intentions of various filmmakers and theorists postulate.  Most infamously, Luis Buñuel noted of the bourgeois response in France to Un chien Andalou, his 1928 collaboration with Salvador Dalí, “What can I do about the people who adore all that is new, even when it goes against their deepest convictions, or about the insincere, corrupt press, and the inane herd that saw beauty or poetry in something which was basically no more than a desperate impassioned call for murder?”  Here, Buñuel’s intentions were not fulfilled.

While it is the case that film Manifestos often don’t end up calling into being the new political, social, cultural, or aesthetic world envisioned by filmmakers, there are other ways in which the radical ruptures that new forms of cinema inspired by Manifestos fundamentally change the way in which film and therefore culture is understood.  Two brief examples: first, a film manifesto written by the Italian Ambrogio Damiano Achille Ratti, who in 1936 wrote one of the most influential film Manifestos of all, which accomplished nothing less than change the course of European and North American cinema.  If he’s off your radar, not to worry: he’s better known by his nom de plume, Pope Pius XI.  Pius XI wrote Vigilanti Cura, a Papal encyclical on the motion picture in praise of the arrival of the “Legion of Decency,” and deploring the sinful nature of most cinema.  These edicts to a large degree determined the kinds of images that would be seen on American (and therefore world) screens.  One should also not underestimate the impact of Vigilanti Cura on European cinemas as both Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1948) and Roberto Rossellini’s L’Amore (1948) were attacked by Catholics in light of this encyclical and the movements that sprung from it.  Vigilanti Cura also outlined what the moral implications were of watching “condemned” films for ones’ soul.  Like the far better known modernist Manifestos, this text was a call to arms–though in this case for devout, rightwing Catholics. 

Second example: It’s a truism that many of the key film Manifestos were written in France, the capital of cinéphilia.  And out of the plethora of Manifestos that emerged from this scopophilic hotbed, the one which has had the longest impact on film studies, film theory, and indeed on contemporary film directors, is François Truffaut’s 1953 screed “Une certaine tendance dans le cinema français,” the launch pad of not only auteur theory, but also of the nouvelle vague.  Inspired in part by Astruc’s “Naissance d’une nouvelle avant-garde: La caméma-stylo” from 1948, “Une certaine tendance…”–and Truffaut’s other early writings on “la politique des auteurs”–were written as polemics, yet went on to influence the way in which the academic study of film developed in both North America and Britain, inspiring everyone from Andrew Sarris in New York, to the Movie collective in Britain, to the young generation of scholars who came of age in the early 1970s and developed a potent synthesis of semiotics, structuralism, and auteurship into what came to be known as Screen theory.

Yet film Manifestos were not simply the provenance of writers concerned with narrative and art cinema. In the 1950s and 60s, there was an explosion of Manifestos, statements of first principles, and rants in general that argued for new, alternative, and contestatory forms of cinema.  A key example here is the Free Cinema movement in England, spearheaded by British film critic, filmmaker, and enfant terrible Lindsay Anderson.  Free Cinema emerged as a means by which to screen works–in this case short fiction and documentary films–which would not be seen otherwise on British screens, as many of the films dealt with the working classes of England.  By creating a movement, Anderson generated publicity for the film screenings, gaining them an audience they would not of otherwise had.  Free Cinema also tied into the mid 50s, post-war zeitgeist of Britain, pre-saging as it does the “Angry Young Men” theatrical and literary movement that brought working class voices (and accents) to English mainstream culture.

Other movements were far more polysemic, for instance the New American Cinema movement of the late 1950s and early 60s.  The differences between the Kuchar Brothers’ 8mm manifesto, Brakhage’s Metaphors on Vision, Anger’s writings on film as magikal incantation, and the far more structural writings of Tony Conrad on the “flicker film” speak to the heterogeneity of the American Underground.  Yet what united these filmmakers and their Manifestos is a profound concern with alternative ways of seeing.  And underlying this concern, despite the fairly valid claims that these works were apolitical and ahistorical, was the conviction that different ways of seeing the cinema meant different ways of seeing the world, perhaps even the world as it was and not how one, through indoctrination and ideology, thought they saw it. Indeed, the opening line to Metaphors on Vision points to this in a dramatic formulation: “Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception.  How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of ‘Green’?  How many rainbows can light create for the untutored eye?”  Here, Brakhage is not speaking of the cinema, but of perception itself; cinema therefore, is just a medium through which to rediscover the process of seeing.

In a different vein, the French Situationist Guy Debord argued that the image had replaced the more traditional commodity at the heart of capitalism. In his 1968 manifesto and 1973 film Society of the Spectacle, he states: “The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images.”  Debord’s thought is picked up by a new generation of American avant-garde and experimental filmmakers in the 1990s.  Far more concerned with the image “detritus” that surrounds and at times bombards contemporary culture, filmmakers like Peggy Ahwesh, Craig Baldwin, and Keith Sanborn produced works that recycled the detritus images of contemporary culture into found footage films.  Sanborn himself wrote one of the key avant-garde film Manifestos of the time, “Modern All Too Modern” modeled on the writings of Debord.

And of course recently, Dogme ‘95 has put Manifestos back on the map.  And while, in the first instance, following rules just for the sake of it seems profoundly apolitical and aesthetically retrograde, rule following as a means of creative liberation has a long tradition in the cinema.  In Notes on the Cinematographer, his 1975 book of aphorisms, which reads like a manifesto on filmmaking, Robert Bresson notes that one is compelled:  “To forge oneself iron laws, if only in order to obey or disobey them with difficulty.”  Rule-following, then, foregrounds for artists the mechanisms by which they create art and in so doing, recreate and re-imagine the real–and in so doing their very images become part of that real.  Here, the fundamental role of the manifesto becomes clear: the recombinant real offered by the cinema, and the rules that are written in Manifestos to guide this practice, are not about changing the nature of the image.  Instead, film Manifestos redress the position of the camera in relation to the pro-filmic event.  This allows one to re-visit not only the object before the camera, but the role of the spectator viewing the image.  As importantly, it questions the role played by the very images circulating in the larger world in which both the spectator and filmmaker live.



Scott MacKenzie is cross-appointed to the Cinema Studies Institute and the Department of French at the University of Toronto. He is co-editor of Cinema and Nation (Routledge, 2000) and Purity and Provocation: Dogma '95 (BFI, 2003) and author of Screening Québec: Québécois Moving Images, National Identity and the Public Sphere (Manchester UP, 2004). He is currently completing Films into Uniform: Film Manifestos and Cinema Culture.



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