The Brattle Takes An Eye-Popping Look At 'What Is Cinema?'

It’s a drug, it’s a dream, it’s an old whore, it’s holy. These are but a few of the many poetic, paradoxical and provocative thoughts on the question that director Chuck Workman explores in his film essay “What is Cinema?,” which opens at the Brattle Theatre June 6.

The documentary isn’t an expository “history of” cinema, rather it’s a meditation from a perspective deeply rooted in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. The title is taken from influential French film critic André Bazin’s collection of essays “Qu'est-ce que le cinéma?,” published in two volumes during those thrilling years when films by Bergman, Kurosawa, Fellini and the French New Wave crossed the ocean and opened U.S. eyes to the possibilities of what cinema could be, namely art.

Workman, who has created opening sequences for 10 Academy Award shows, casts a spell by combining over 200 gorgeous film clips with filmmaker interviews, music and quotations to create dynamic and evocative montages that deepen the exploration of a question for which there is no definitive answer.

Early in the film, David Lynch describes great cinema as going “deep into the psyche,” allowing the viewer to enter a delicate dream world where “logic flies out the window.” Simultaneously, the viewer watches Lynch watching a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958) in which James Stewart watches Kim Novak looking at a painting as the camera pushes into a close-up of her French twist, the twist becoming an abstract spiral shape that calls forth Stewart’s character’s vertigo and obsession, as well as the hypnotic effect that cinema has on the viewer.

In a bit of clever programming, the Brattle Theatre has paired “What is Cinema?” with feature films by directors whose work appears in the documentary. The series runs from June 6-12, with “What is Cinema?” screening all six days. “Vertigo,” a film that influenced David Lynch, screens June 7. Lynch’s labyrinthine and logic-defying “Mulholland Drive” (2001) screens June 6 and June 9.

Workman, who’ll be at the June 6 7:30 screening, highlights trailblazing avant-garde filmmakers such as Ken Jacobs, Yvonne Rainer and 91-year-old Jonas Mekas, who is featured prominently, and he commissioned sequences from artists Lewis Klahr and Phil Solomon. The great video pioneer, Bill Viola, perhaps the most poetic of all the directors interviewed, describes film as “a series of frozen moments that might wake up.” Yvonne Rainer, is the most direct, likening making art to “batting my head against familiar practices,” and attending her own screenings “only to see when people will leave.”

A clip of Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman’s astounding, groundbreaking 1975 feature film “Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” comes on the heels of Rainer’s comments in the feminist film “section.” I couldn’t have been more delighted by the juxtaposition. It brought back wonderful memories of seeing the film for the first time in graduate school when a male student stomped out of the screening in a rage. Was it the protagonist, a bourgeois housewife and her long slow unraveling that took him to the brink? Was it the static camera? Or was it the scene in which she peels potatoes in real time? For me that screening was an unforgettable testament to the power of cinema. “Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” screens June 8.

Federico Fellini calls the cinema an “old whore ... who knows how to give many kinds of pleasure,” and Lillian Hellman, no fan of Hollywood, goes a couple of steps further, comparing melodrama to syphilis. Consigned to the old whore with syphilis “section” are “Brokeback (“I wish I knew how to quit you.”) Mountain” (2005), “Rocky” (1976) and “Gladiator” (2000) (“I am Maximus Decimus Meridius and I will have my vengeance,” declaims Russell Crowe.)

“What is Cinema?” also showcases the work of the late Robert Altman. The director of "Nashville" and "McCabe And Mrs. Miller" appears to agree with Robert Bresson, who is quoted as saying, “A film is not ready-made. It makes itself as it goes along.” Bresson’s masterpiece “Pickpocket” (1959) screens June 11.

According to the late director Sidney Lumet, "Ran" (1985) contains "some of the greatest footage ever shot." The Brattle screens another of Kurosawa’s great films, “Rashomon” (1950), June 12.

Because “What is Cinema’s” view is so often through the rear view mirror, contemporary directors and their work are given short shrift. Kelly Reichardt is a welcome exception. The director of “Old Joy” (2006) and “Wendy and Lucy” (2008) describes how the fragility and tentativeness of her characters’ situations mirror her and her crew’s experience of making the films. Reichardt’s “Meek’s Cutoff” (2010), starring Michelle Williams, is a unique Western deserving of its place in the Brattle’s lineup of classic cinema. “Meek’s Cutoff” screens June 10.

Ultimately it’s Fellini who has the final word: “No one writing about or talking about or describing a film would say more than cinema itself.” Agreed.

Kaj Wilson hosts The Breakfast Film Club at The Coolidge Corner Theatre. She is the former artistic director of The Boston Jewish Festival. Reach her at


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