The term alternative cinema has certain connotations. To many, it is not alternative, instead it is the way cinema was meant to be viewed, in that the viewer should be able to define the film in their own personal terms. In the following essay, I will firstly examine what the term alternative cinema means, and secondly how Brecht s theories are evident in many elements of the films that have been pigeon-holed as alternative cinema.
The word alternative is described in Collins English Dictionary as: Denoting a lifestyle, culture, art form, etc., regarded by its adherents as preferable to that of contemporary society because it is less conventional, materialistic, or institutionalised, and,often, more in harmony with nature. (Makins, 92) This is an extremely useful definition, as the word alternative has been used to describe a form of medicine or therapy, and even forms of energy. Alternative medicine examines the persons physical well-being, and uses acupuncture, feng-shui, massage, and many others, as techniques toalleviatedisease. Alternative energy is energy created from what surrounds us, such as, wind, the sea and the tides; it is energy that brings us in alignment with nature. The word alternative in these forms looks at natural processes found in nature. A number of films from around the world can be pigeon-holed as alternative cinema, that is, the cinema that rejects the mainstream approach of filmmaking. It is not a particular method of making films because many of these films are very different from each other and use differing approaches. alternative cinema does not look at a particular way of doing things but a particular way of not doing things. the Brechtian aspect of making films centres largely on the theoretical and creative side of film-making, therefore, many of the films said to be alternative, in terms of production, cannot be discussed in terms of the work of Bertolt Brecht.
Bertolt Brecht was born in Germany in 1898, and has been cited as the driving force behind what is commonly known as the epic theatre . Brechts ethos centred around bourgeoise theatre, which through the elaborate sets and acting style helped to allow the audience to consider what they are seeing, rather than a simple attempt to create reality. The bourgoise theatre did this by presenting storylines and characters that the audience could empathise with and not presenting a simple construction of reality. The audience were pushed to evaluate the piece and no longer treated it as simple entertainment.
I once stood, with a friend, in front of a painting by the Italian painter, Gustave Cailebotte. The painting was called Paris: On A Rainy Day , and to me the painting s use of drab colours and suffused light, plus the details of Cailebotte s characters, distinct in the foreground yet blurred in the background, gave me a sense that I was a Parisian walking through those streets. I could not focus on what lay beyond, and was just single-mindedly getting to where I was going. The rain had turned Paris into a city that conflicts with the Paris that we all know, a Paris that welcomes you with open-arms, a friendly Paris full of sunshine. This to me was the anti-Paris. In short, my belief was that Cailebotte was attempting to express the wonder of Paris through challenging what Paris is not. My friend on the other hand believed that Cailebotte was destroying the notion of Paris as a city where the sun always shines, where the scenery is beautiful and the streets are full of friendly faces. This to him was the back-end of Paris, where the locals never wore smiles and walked about their daily business unaware of how the other half lived. This to him was the real Paris. This incident perfectly illustrates the essence of alternative cinema, enabling the consumer to personally interpret the film. It should be possible for two people to walk out of the film with totally differing views on what they have just seen. It is up to the audience to unravel the film, not the film to unravel itself. Brecht himself remarked that Epic Theatre: turns the spectator into an observer, but arouses his capacity for action, forces him to take decisions… the spectator stands outside, studies. (Brecht, 64) When the Hollywood studio system started in the 1920s, certain techniques and standardised operations grew from this. Up until this point most film-making was said to be experimental. However, with the advent of the major five studios (Paramount, MGM, RKO, Warner, Fox) and the minor three studios (Universal, United Artists, Columbia), a divide between what can be classed as alternative and what can be classed as mainstream cinema appeared. There was an assembly line technique of production within the fully integrated studios and their sole aim was economical rather than artistic. Mass production was the vogue. Henry Ford made cars for the masses – the studios made films for the masses.
The studios tried to open a fictional world and drag the audience inside by hiding the technical side of film-making. They would obide by specific rules of operation, such as the 180| rule (A line is drawn through the action in which the camera cannot cross, thus keeping the right perspective on the action) and the 30| rule (The camera cannot cut to more than thirty degrees around the axis
of an object), to name just a few. Temporal continuity kept the story flowing in the right direction, and all these techniques helped the audience to be totally absorbed in the action on screen and to believe in the fictional narrative.
In contrast to this, it was Jean-Luc Goddard who remarked that his films are more essayistic [and use] less narrative than ever before, [and] have become a continuous free-form commentary on art, society, memory and, above all, cinema. (Romney, J) This way of thinking was largely foreign to
Hollywood and the mainstream film-makers, and this quote typifies the ethos of the alternative film-makers. To exemplify the methods of the mainstream filmmakers versus the alternative filmmakers we can simply look at the film, Cape Fear.
The 1962 version of this film by J. Lee Thompson works on the Hollywood ethos of equilibrium. The sugar coated portrayal of family life, is soon followed by the disequilibrium caused by the entry of Max Cady and then the film ends with the equilibrium that returns when Cady dies. In the 1991 version, Martin Scorsese, its director, who although not generally classed as an alternative
filmmaker, is classed as an auteur in that his films are personal journeys, and express personal beliefs. His version of Cape Fear begins with a family already in disequilibrium and the entry of Cady exacerbates this. Cady eventually dies and an equilibrium is found that was not evident at the beginning. The film of Scorsese can be seen as working in the mainstream because of the happy ending but still does not follow standardised narrative procedure. This method of working is indicative of the modern film-makers move away from what is generally thought of as mainstream, and instead illustrates a newly realised technique of storytelling. Peter Wollen remarks that The beginning of the film starts with establishment, which sets up the basic dramatic situation – usually an equilibrium, which is then disturbed. A kind of chain reaction then follows, until at the end a new equilibrium is restored. (wollen, P, 99). Scorsese s Cape Fear does appear to have an economic purpose above everything else and closure gives the mainstream film its own reality, with nothing existing ouside its own bounds, and no need to reach ouside this perimeter to find closure. Mostly, Mainstream cinema is fictional entertainment and its aim is to be unchallenging and above all enjoyable, with social and political issues largely ignored and even biographical and true-life films presented as simple representations, all this differs from what the documentary film and alternative
cinema is trying to achieve.
The acting style withing the Brechtian film should have an alienating effect on the audience. The actors would use various techniques to seperate themselves from the characters they were playing. Lines were delivered as if simply quoting from the script, which had the effect of seperating the actor from the part they were playing. It would disregard the 4th wall of the theatre
and address the audience directly.
I will now look at German expressionism (commonly cited as alternative cinema) and in particular Robert Wiene s Cabinet of Dr Caligari. This film displays many elements of Brechtian theory, with it s distorted view of reality. One reviewer started his critique by saying: Is the film what it is on the surface? Is Francis a madman who has concocted the story? Or is it yet again reversed, with the framing device an epilogue which illustrates how corrupt power protects itself? or, again, can any part of the story be believed? Could some aspects be true and others false?… The speculation produced in the minds of the audience have the same effect as the scenery: they put everything off-balance. No one can be trusted. In this way, the message about crippling power and the nature of authority is even stronger because of its actual mentally disorientating quality. (Brown, 98) The film poses questions. It s dream-like quality avoids a realist take and therefore lets the audience pose its own questions and then answer these questions, therefore in effect forming its own reality. The actors use exaggerated gestures to externalise the characters emotions. The audience discovers the characters emotions without being sucked into the world that the characters inhabit. This style of acting was seen as a response to method acting, a style developed by Stanislavsky between 1910 and 1920 and taken up by actors such as Marlon Brando and Dustin Hoffman in modern cinema. German expressionism used the actors as an extension of the sets, making a psychological link between the two. The expressionist movement was clearly an alternative to the mainstream and was similar in many ways to Brecht s epic theatre and in that respect can be called alternative cinema.
However, it is difficult to class German expressionist filmmakers as Brechtian in approach, although there are similarities. German expressionism does not succeed in breaking the fictional barrier, it distorts what is recogniseable enough to increase the impact of the film. German expressionism along with soviet montage, (and especially the films of Sergei Eisenstein) both bear
similarities with Brechtian theory, however, this is seen as more by coincidence rather than influence. It was with the emergence of the French new-wave that Brechtianism was embraced fully. Filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Goddard focused largely on the audiences relationship with the action on screen, and their main aim was to push back the boundaries that the mainstream cinema up until then had promoted. in 1959 Jean-Luc Goddard released A Bout de Souffle
(Breathless) which illustrated how he was trying to experiment in film.
Goddard has attempted to remove many of the techniques used by mainstream film-makers to pull the audiences into the filmic reality, and he has replaced them with characters that talk to the audience, a total removal of transparent editing, and an anti-illusionist method of acting. The film is a milestone in world cinema for a number of reasons. Firstly its style of editing which, according to John Francis Kreidl: does not allow the viewer – like in the normal Hollywood film viewing experience – to set up a preconceived notion how to take a shot and assign to it meaning. Shots are cut in ways that confound anticipation the exact opposite of the way the classical Hollywood film of the 1930 s sets up each successive group of shots. Every act by the hero of Breathless , Michel Poiccard, seems as if he had just, on the spur of the moment, decided to do what he did. (Kreidl, 80) Michel as a character often comments upon himself as a character in the film, which distances Michel from the filmic world, and lets the audience ask questions themselves as to what they
would do. Michel has chosen to go one way, would we have done the same? Whilst Michel asks questions of Patricia, her vagueness in answering them allows the audience to step in and answer them for her so giving the audience a feeling of participation, a feeling that this is not reality and therefore we are allowed to enter the world and choose the outcome. The cinematographic technique is ahead of its time, with innovations in the jump cut (a few feet of film is cut in random places) and the quick cut (short shots are cut out that break up the continuity of a given scene). With these shots the audience is invited to fill in the missing gaps. In one scene Michel is seen lying in Patricia s bed, and in the next he is walking out of the bathroom. The film also uses highly professional actors in very amateurish situations which does not ring true, (the same situation would arise if amateur actors were in professional situations). This technique adds to the falseness of the film and the involvement of the audience.
In 1967 Vent D Est was released. The French New-Wave had already petered out but here was a film that embraced Brechtianism wholly, as Brecht remarked, Character is never used as a source of motivation; these people s inner life is never the principle cause of the action and seldom its
principle result; the individual is seen from outside. (Brecht, 64) Vent D est involved characters talking directly to the camera, different characters using the same voice, and different voices for the same character. Therefore, a distancing from reality occured and as an audience, we, rather than following the plot in a logical fashion, have to force our own perception onto proceeding to garner our own meaning from what we see.
Jean Marie Straub followed Brechtian theory closely in his work. His first feature film, Not Reconciled, begins with a Brechtian quote, Only violence serves where violence reigns and Bordwell and Thompson remarked that Straub… films invite us to consider the actors not as psychological beings but as reciters of written dialogue. We thus become actively aware of our
own conventional expectations about film acting, and perhaps those expectations are broadened a bit (Bordwell, 97) Not Reconciled uses the theory that fiction in the context of another time period was inevitably alienating for the audience. In short, each period of history has its own beliefs and values inapplicable to any other, so that nothing can be understood independently of its historical context; Brecht called this Historicization . In Not Reconciled, the narrative flits around between differing time periods and does not clearly seperate each period from the next, therefore, alienating the
audience from the events on screen. The actors in Not Reconciled spout their lines as if reciters of written dialogue. Through this the audience, become aware of the expectations of film acting and then they broaden these expectations which again helps to alienate them.
Brecht only briefly toyed with the film industry, making the left wing communist picture Kuhle Wampe, yet his theories were applied liberally by the French New-Wave cinema and can be seen as early as German Expressionism. The German New-Wave cinema of the 1960 s also displayed many of Bertholt Brecht s theories, with directors such as Alexander Kluge displaying these ideas
in films such as Disorientated. The film Disorientated was typified by episodic narrative, alienating acting and the seperation of sound and image. alternative cinema is not just a term used to describe French, German and Soviet cinema, although these were simply the countries most renowned for this type of production. Countries such as Brazil, Iran, India and Britain have all produced films classed as alternative or new-wave. The Brechtian philosophy, if used in the production of film, will nearly always get the film the title of alternative cinema because the concepts of pleasure, spectacle and identification all take a backseat whilst the differing concepts of alienation, sporadic and episodic narrative take the front seat and help the audience to understand the film on many differing levels.
Many barriers have been broken down in recent years with directors such as Quentin Tarantino offering Jean-Luc Goddard as a major influence in his work. Yet he is still classed as Mainstream because his films gain high box-office receipts, although, at the same time, garnering cult status. The film-makers that emerged through the seventies, for example Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Copolla and Arthur Penn, all displayed prominent anti-Hollywood threads. Yet their box-office returns proved that the so-called Hollywood rules of production set up in the studio years, can be ignored and a specific effect achieved. These directors were great innovators yet still gained huge box-office returns, which forged the alliance between the alternative and the mainstream. Hollywood is still concerned with the economic side of film-making yet it has been shown to be possible to innovate and also side with the mainstream movement.
Makins, M (Managing Editor) (1992) Collins: English Dictionary. HarperCollins Publishers
Bordwell, D & Thompson, K (1997) Film Art: An Introduction. McGraw-Hill.
Willett, J (1964) Brecht on theatre. Methuen.
Cook, P (1999) The Cinema Book.
Elsaesser, T From anti-illusionism to hyper-realism: Bertolt Brecht and Contemporary Film.
Brewser, B (1975-76) Brecht and the Film Industry. Screen. 16(4).
Heath, S (1975-76) From Brecht to Film: Theses, Problems. Screen. 16(4).
MacCabe, C (1975-76) The Politics of Seperation. Screen. 16(4).
Kuhle Wampe. (1974) Screen. 15(2).
Kreidl, J, (1980). Jean-Luc Godard. Boston: Twayne Publisher.
Romney, J. Praise be to Godard. The Guardian/The Observer Visited Apr 2000 URL: http://
A Bout de Souffle (1960) Directed by Jean-Luc Godard. Written by Jean-Luc Godard. French:
Nouvelle de Cinema.
Brown, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) Directed by Robert Wiene. Written by Hans Janowitz & Karl
Mayer. Germany: Decla-Bioscop
Kuhle Wampe (1932) Directed by Slatan Dudow. Written by Slatan Dudow & Bertolt Brecht.
Bolle & Daniele Huillet. West German: Unavailable.
Vent D Est (1969) Directed by Jean-Luc Godard & Jean0Pierre Gorin Written by Sergio Bazzini
& Daniel Cohn Bendit. French: Film Kunst, Anouchka Films, Polifilm.