Acts of spontaneity have been an essential component of artistic expression in the twentieth century, based in the notion of a perceived “purity” within the spontaneous act that allows art to be directly articulated without mediation or interference from social pressures and constructs. From the improvisatory paintings of Jackson Pollock to the idea of the rewrite as heresy within Jack Kerouac’s prose, spontaneity in many cases is seen as the only way to make art that has any “real” meaning. According to Daniel Belgrad, mid-century efforts toward artistic spontaneity provided a means of expression free from the constrains enforced by an oppressive, conformist hegemonic culture:
“This new avant-garde shared the belief that cultural conditioning functioned ideologically by encouraging the atrophy of certain perceptions and the exaggeration of others…In the recovery of such an alternative “reality”…they saw the only basis for constructively radical social change.”
Spontaneity through art then doesn’t alter perception as much as its restores it to its ideal original state, allowing artists and spectators of art to see beyond a regime’s oppressive confines.
However, spontaneous art didn’t exist solely in art and literature, but in cinema as well. A spontaneous cinema arose concurrently with, and often in direct relation to, spontaneous art in other art forms. But spontaneous cinema stands out. It is decidedly and inherently different then, say, an attempt at spontaneity through painting or the printed word, because there are so many different forces that operate in direct relation with the object ultimately produced.
Simply put, more people and equipment is required to create a film than to make paintings or poetry. Spontaneity requires a physical and psychological freedom from calculation and introspection. Filmmaking is cumbersome.
Thus the medium by nature makes it difficult for spontaneous actions to take place, especially some transcendent act of pure expression. It’s hard to imagine that true spontaneity is even possible in cinema.
This, of course, doesn’t mean filmmakers haven’t tried it.
Part I – France’s Spontaneous Subject Matter
French Surrealism represented, in part, a movement aimed at transcending dominant modes of consciousness by rejecting social mores and conventional thought. Part of this entailed a fetishization of dreams, a “place” thought of as ungoverned by the boundaries of waking life. Thus, Surrealists attempted to bring the (il)logic of the dreamscape into “real” life, manifesting dreams as a means of exercising the possibilities previously thought unconscionable by social demand. This also entailed an appreciation for unmotivated action, or a celebration of nonsensical acts and/or speech (Dadaism).
All these components are visible in Surrealist cinema, namely Luis Buñuel’s early works Un Chien anadlou (1928) and L’Âge d’Or (1930). Forgoing conventional narrative, these films feature characters who engage in instinctual action and anarchistic fervor, freed from bounds of rationality and motivated only by base instinct. The narratives mirror these character traits, gleefully rejecting plausibility and causation in favor of a cacophony of subversion.
However, while the subject matter of these films no doubt represent an articulation of surrealist spontaneity, it’s difficult to argue that the films themselves are spontaneous in the long run as well. Buñuel, in collaboration with Salvador Dalí, penned scenarios that either portray spontaneous acts (e.g., the protagonist of L’Age kicking a dog) or are spontaneous in structure (Andalou’s non-narrative in which an army of ants can suddenly appear on one’s hand for no discernible reason), but the filmmaking process that would bring these ideas to screen was not at all spontaneous.
French film history contains many efforts to bring spontaneity to the medium, moving in a more determined direction to not only bring forth narrative portrayals of spontaneity, but make the entire process of filmmaking spontaneous as well. Perhaps one of the most extreme examples of this effort was the incomprehensible Lettrist film by Maurice Lemaître, le film est déjà commencé? (1951, trans: Has the film started, yet?), which I will provide a link to but won’t focus on here. However, Jean-Luc Godard significantly challenged cinema to be more spontaneous in the 1960s, and he did so in all parts of the production process. His “scripts” were often a brief overview of a project’s objectives, and he would frequently slide dialogue notes under the door for cast members in the late hours before the next day of shooting. He allowed his films to “find themselves” through the process of making them, even in post-production. Anything from score cues to sound effects came and went quickly and often without motivation. Godard’s films had flimsy narrative frameworks whose associations were often violated, revealing through the breaking of boundaries the arbitrary nature of those boundaries. Godard’s 60s work has an energy to it that only a thorough attempt at spontaneous cinema could achieve.
Part II – Improvising in English
Before the aesthetic of Godard and the French New Wave influenced American films ranging anywhere from Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) to Steven Soderbergh’s Schizopolis (1996), there was John Cassavetes.
At the end of Cassavetes’ first film, Shadows, a title card appears that states, “The Film You have Just Seen Was an Improvisation.” Improvisation was a word that would follow Cassavetes throughout his career and was an ideal he continually sought to achieve. The filmmaker had a humanist intent in implementing this process, longing to more honestly represent the needs of and interactions between people by allowing actors to freely engage each other in the filmmaking process. Films like Shadows also had few conventional narrative arcs and little closure, maneuvering between episodes rapidly as, arguably, is comparable to life.
However, anybody who sees Shadows with contemporary eyes can see that there are components therein which are antithetical to improvisatory spontaneity, namely moments that are clearly dubbed in ADR. Also, the film’s history problematizes its spontaneous efforts (which sought, after all, to be a cinematic equivalent to the spontaneous arts of jazz music, beat poetry, and even avant-garde cinema, as I argue in the linked article) as the film was, in fact, made twice, and only the second version is what is canonically referred to as Shadows.
This is not to say that Cassavetes is a fraud. Far from it. Shadows was as close to “an improvisation” as a film could get in 1959, but what the title referred to was the fact that the film was built from an improvisatory acting workshop in which the cast worked with Cassavetes to develop their characters and scenarios, and then when the film was made naturalistic ad-libbing took place but a general framework guided its production. But what Shadows represented is something rather spontaneous as well, representing what is historically referred to as one of the first independent films. It signified something of an alternative to the calculated, formula-driven Hollywood model which an independent filmmaker could only recently begin to do as the vertical studio model of production-distribution-exhibition had been recently disbanded. Thus, Shadows is able to explore social groups and conflicts previously inaccessible mid-century film screens. If spontaneous art is that which exhibits forms of expression alternative to the dominant codes, then Shadows is definitely a spontaneous film.
Cassavetes’ model of improvisation is what we have consistently understood to be cinematic improvisation since. Good improvisation is not pointing a camera at an actor and making shit up, but allowing actors to explore possibilities that results from and is part of a creative process. Anything from the films of Christopher Guest or Mike Leigh to the mumblecore independent film movement use improvisation as a means to an end and not an end itself. Leigh’s practices are particularly interesting as he allows his actors to develop their characters within strict confines (spontaneity through restraint) so that more genuine (thus, perhaps, less “acted” and more “real”) moments occur onscreen, such as the revelation in Vera Drake (2004) that the title character is an abortionist, which was not known to the other actors prior to the filming of the scene in which that information is revealed. Leigh’s strictly coordinated spontaneous process provides a case that genuine spontaneity can only occur in cinema through disciplined calculation.
The English and French models of spontaneous cinema represent two sides of the same coin, standing as incredibly different efforts at achieving the same goal: pure spontaneous expression that ultimately says or does something that a calculated cinema can’t. But the fact that “improvisation” in film is never quite what it means on stage or that an intricately planned production is required to manifest a spontaneous script points to the limitations of spontaneous efforts in cinema and its essential differences from other art forms. To attempt spontaneity with a pen and paper or a canvas and paint is quite different than attempting the same with a script, a cast, a crew, equipment, an editing console, a budget, costumes, props, locations….
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