Cine Manifest: a self-history

by Eugene Corr and Peter Gessner

from Jump Cut, no. 3, 1974, pp. 19-20
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1974, 2004

Cine Manifest is a collective of nine professional filmmakers/ workers living and working in San Francisco. When asked by JUMP CUT to do an article about ourselves, we were anxious to share the experience of our two-year existence with the rest of the film community and at the same time a little apprehensive about the problems of a group writing about itself. Somehow such efforts tend to reach a level of inspiration wedged somewhere between a travel film narration and an IRS audit notice. There is a tendency to write from behind the safe and faceless anonymity of the collective “we,” like a crippled halfback approaching the line behind Leo Nomellini. Instead of tiptoeing around every chuckhole of form, we decided to plunge ahead with a loose narrative of our experience as a group.

Cine Manifest came together in 1972 around a common goal—to make political, dramatic feature films—and a common conviction that a collective style of work was the best way to reach that goal. Politically, our perspective is Left, broadly defined. The politics of individuals span a range within that perspective, and this is reflected in the three fiction scripts we have written.

We are nine men and women with diverse film backgrounds. As freelancers in documentaries, independent features, network and educational news and public affairs, most of us had been involved in considerable day-to-day filmmaking. At the most extreme, our backgrounds include the opposite poles of U.S. cinema: Hollywood and American Zoetrope (Francis Coppola’s San Francisco production company) on one end, and American Documentary Films and Newsreel on the other. These poles, of course, are not nearly as neat in reality as they appear in print. For instance, the creator of SONS AND DAUGHTERS, an early anti-war documentary, is also a CBS cameraman. Nonetheless, the “two poles” view, straddling and mini-poles not withstanding, is a useful way to look at us.

A common intersect was frustration, political and personal. Among those who concentrated on political documentaries, such as FINALLY GOT THE NEWS (about insurgent black auto workers in Detroit), TIME OF THE LOCUST (another early antiwar film), and the previously mentioned SONS AND DAUGHTERS, there was a growing disaffection with the documentary form. Accompanying an aesthetic impatience with the limits of the form itself, there was also concern about distribution, meaning not simply how many saw the film, but who. On the other hand, those who worked in and around Hollywood during the late 60s, a time of apparent receptivity to counter-cultural film themes, found themselves increasingly frustrated and alienated by that experience. Working in an industry that opportunistically attempted to create an image of hipness and concern, while in reality remaining the quintessence of political perversity, created strong pressures for an alternative.

These are some of the diverse forces that pulled us together. This diversity helped provide a basic shape for our evolving aesthetic. It led us to a conception of feature films that meant a fusion of social content with mass form. “Political” films did not have to be the province of a Spartan elite on the one hand, nor did Popular Cinema have to remain dissociated from the U.S. social experience.

We are not interested in making films that speak only to the already converted; we want to reach as broad an audience as possible. We won't conceded popular films to Hollywood. This runs counter to a strong contemporary trend in left filmmaking, Hollywood contemporary trend in left filmmaking, typified by Godard’s recent efforts, that we believe is essentially elitist and esoteric. We are suspicious of attempts to create “socialism in one movie,” doubt that we will “transcend bourgeois forms,” and even question the value many attach to the attempt. Somewhere between the tedious purity of form and content of LETTER TO JANE and the manipulative melodrama and mindless content of BILLY JACK, there is a space for a cinema emphasizing realistic character and milieu.

As a function of this commitment to audience, we have chosen traditional dramatic and story forms for our scripts. We have opted for a realism that imbeds its characters in the contemporary U.S. social and political reality. Rather than reinforce the emotional and intellectual detachment that Godard-Gorin argue for, we want to help create a feeling of connectedness. In the vacuum of U.S. social alienation, the last thing we need is a cinema that reaffirms that alienation. At the same time, we want to avoid the Hollywood tradition of the romantic superhero and escapist fantasy, and a potentially crippling characteristic of political films—the lack of genuine characterization, prescribing human behavior without both bothering to observe it.

Brief summaries of our scripts can perhaps make this discussion more concrete:

QUINT'S LAST CASE by Steve Wax and Burns Ellison is an extension of the traditional detective story form and deals with Watergate’s seamy lessons and Joe McCarthy’s legacy. Set in the hearing rooms of Washington and California’s depressed aerospace industry, the film interweaves a story of moral and political corruption in a landscape of roller-rinks, golf courses and jerry-built shopping centers.

OVER-UNDER by Gene Corr and Peter Gessner is a dramatic look at the life of a young factory worker-semi-pro baseball player. The script details the tensions of his marriage and the numbing repetitiveness of his work, his attempts at escape into the bus-and-one-night hotel world of semi-pro baseball, his confrontation with a black-led wildcat strike, and his final coming to terms with himself as a man.

JAMMING by Robin Nilsson is the story of a young artist, formerly politically active, who now paints by day and drives a cab at night. The script is a record of his personal and political growth as he attempts to place himself and his art in the world he sees each night from the driver’s seat. Surly drunks, little old ladies, lonely cranks, and everyday people pass through his cab, as a crime wave against cabbies forces him to make some hard choices about the priorities of his life.

The evolution of the scripts, from their early beginnings until today—when we are ready to begin fundraising and make them a reality—was an ongoing process of individual and collective input and criticism. It was essentially an organic, evolving, and sometimes chaotic process. Criticism usually follows the creative process, after the fact. We tried to integrate the critical process with the creative one. This process did not eliminate conflict. Rather, as the collective became better critics and the writers became better and less defensive writers, the conflict became more intense and ultimately more productive. We intend to apply this creative/ critical integration to the shooting process itself.

Producing and mounting independent features in the United States outside the traditional systems of financial support is an enormous undertaking. We have to deal with our own economic survival to ensure our existence as a group. We have continued to earn money by working as cameramen, grips, gaffers, editors, and writers in the local film industry. Our credits have included writing, directing or producing educational and short films, working on commercial low budget features and TV pilots, and making some public interest spots on amnesty, political prisoners, nuclear power, and the energy “crisis.” One member spent the last several months camped outside the Hearst mansion, working as a CBS cameraman.

Some of our economic base comes from crew work on TV commercials. Now, it is clearly a contradiction for a political collective to make its living working on ads for Bayer Aspirin, Honda motorcycles, and a new brand of “organic” potato chips called Prontos (which we decided sounded more like a desensitizing gel for males who prematurely ejaculate: no one can divine the psychology of Madison Avenue, although their motive is as clear as a mugger’s). We don't enjoy our role as small-time complicators in the manipulation of people’s minds. But we have to eat, and in some cases it does help build our film skills.

Recently, our dissatisfaction with this type of day work has escalated. We hope to start making short sponsored films for progressive groups like unions and health care programs. Although we will never probably be able to cut loose commercial work entirely, we hope to be doing more documentaries that we don't have to apologize for, while continuing to move ahead on our features.

Unlike certain “Movement” filmmakers who mysteriously appear to live on nothing and magically continue to make films, we have to work. We see ourselves as film workers and we relate to our concrete industry situation. The group’s original nucleus came together around the formation of an independent trade union which later merged with NABET Local 532. We continue to remain active in the new union, and one of our members is currently working with a radical caucus within the more traditional IATSE local here.

More interesting than how we earn our money is what we do with it after we get it. All income is shared and goes into a collective pot. Out of this we pay for our building, the filmmaking equipment we are accumulating (grip truck, editing facilities, lighting and camera gear, etc.), and for the support of ourselves and our dependents. Our subsistence salaries are based on need rather than skill category or who earned the most. The collective income sharing plan has been functioning successfully for almost two years. It has also brought us a certain amount of time and space to undertake various activities, such as establishing a Film Acting Workshop, where we test out ideas from the scripts and learn to work with actors and non-actors.

Beyond dealing with our own survival and generating our feature scripts, we are attempting to deal with the options facing U.S. filmmakers in the social context of 1974. Our collective work style has exposed for us conflicting views of the role of the artist—roughly outlined as the individual, autonomous creator vs. the artist working in some social context. Most contemporary artists and filmmakers particularly stress the artist’s independence and the necessity of keeping his/her vision intact. (If your “social context” is Hollywood, this is not an entirely unreasonable view.) Even among many of those who would consider themselves revolutionary artists, the prevailing consciousness and predominant work style is individual. We feel it is essential to reject the notion of the autonomous artist, separate from community.

Mao, in the Yenan Forum on Art and Literature outlined metaphorically some possible roles and levels of involvement for the artist: to ride through a meadow on horseback and look at the flowers; to dismount and walk among the flowers for a while; or to dismount and go among the flowers and remain there.

One need only look at the power of OPEN CITY, a film which grew directly out of the mass struggle against Nazism, to grasp the kind of political art that is possible when the artist is in the metaphorical flower bed. From the standpoint of political art, the proper and most productive role for the artist is to participate in, and create from, the social struggle.

Obviously, we have a problem. We're not living in Italy during the antifascist struggles, nor in China during the struggle against the Japanese and the Kuomintang. We're in 1974 United States. Wishful thinking and empty rhetoric aside, there is no current mass movement or focal point of resistance. The general level of political activity is sporadic. We (Cine Manifest) are white, and that separates us from real access to what struggles are occurring in the Third World communities.

What is the role of the progressive filmmaker in the social context of the United States in 1974? We've posed a question that we must ask but aren't able to answer. In fact, the only thing certain about the question of role is that it won't be defined by progressive filmmakers themselves. The artist’s role will only be defined through the broader and more intense social struggle. And since artists don't create social movements, the question is not of any real consequence until a broad and strong movement for social change exists.

This is not a justification for the artist to sit back, groveling in impotence and railing at history for placing us in such uncertain, cynical times. Rather, it can be seen as a perspective for viewing the artist’s work. The U.S. social reality is potentially explosive. We are experiencing a crisis of government and a crisis in the economy. Both provide fertile ground for the imagination of the political artist.