In their famous essay, “Dialectic of Enlightenment” (1947), the acclaimed Frankfurt School philosophers and art critics Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno criticize the various products and aims of the culture industry, focusing mainly on cinema and its negative effects on public. Horkheimer and Adorno initially criticize mainstream Hollywood cinema for feeding the public cheap bourgeois values and for turning the audiences into mindless entities by leaving no room for imagination. They perceived film as part of a culture industry rather than an art form, and claimed that film studios see people merely as customers and employees rather than supporters of art. Furthermore, they suggested that film is condemned to be just another commodity of the culture industry. Even though Adorno and Horkheimer’s views of film are extremely thought provoking and accurate when they are applied to classical Hollywood cinema, their views nevertheless become a bit limited when they are applied to the contemporary world cinema. Ironically, Hollywood’s industrial approach to filmmaking that Horkheimer and Adorno condemned became a catalyst in the formation of a whole new film movement called ‘New Punk Cinema.’
This movement overthrew the idea that film is just another kind of a commodity and helped film to claim its rightfully deserved place as an art form by producing films that have visual and thematic styles that feel original to their creators, and also have more socially and intellectually challenging contexts in their themes, motifs or plots that weren’t present or were considered as taboos previously in mainstream cinema. These New Punk Cinema films often had their own idiosyncratic ways of visual and thematic presentation. Furthermore, the popularity of these films in both young and old mainstream audiences influenced more filmmakers to experiment with various brand new film styles, narratives forms, and shooting techniques that made these movies stand out amidst the mainstream, and more importantly helped this film movement to be established and recognized.
In order to talk more about New Punk Cinema, some background is needed about the punk music movement, which was clearly an immense influence. Speaking both generally and broadly, punk is a music movement that was started in 1970s as a reaction to the mainstream music scene, which was ruled by big music production companies and already established musicians (Rombes 4-5). The defining feature of punk music was its minimalism that aimed to prove the music world that anyone could create good music. As the authors of the Experience Music Project point out: “it wasn’t unusual for a (punk) band to play their first show the same week - or even the same day – that they picked up their instruments” (Rombes 21). According to Nicholas Rombes, editor of the book New Punk Cinema, the main feature that associates New Punk Cinema with punk music is these films’ do-it-yourself ethos, which suggests to the audience that anybody can make a film.
Rombes states that beginning in the 1990s a series of films from around the world began to emerge and became highly popular among mainstream audiences, films that challenged and radically revised many of the narrative and aesthetic codes that governed Hollywood fare. These films included Gummo (1997), The Celebration (Festen ), Pi (1998), Lola rennt (Run Lola Run ), julien donkey-boy (), The Blair Witch Project (1999), Fight Club (1999), Amores Perros (2000), Dancer in the Dark (2000), and Time Code (2000). According to Rombes, these films are the pioneers of New Punk Cinema. In terms of storytelling aesthetics, what most of the New Punk films have in common is their resistance to explain everything to the viewer.
Unlike traditional Hollywood directors, New Punk Cinema directors are aiming to give the audiences more than just a story. For the New Punk Cinema filmmakers, the mood or style of a film could easily surpass the vitality of a narrative, and since they don’t work with traditional stories each shot can bring a different feeling to the film. New Punk Cinema also compels the viewer to understand film from a different angle, rather than the ones that have been preset by Hollywood, but more importantly New Punk Cinema challenges the viewer to understand the choices made by the director to comprehend the film fully. This creates a certain relationship between the producer (the director) and the consumer (the audience), since most of the films of New Punk Cinema are more mood and style oriented as opposed to traditionally focusing on plot. Thus, unlike the films of mainstream cinema, in a Marxist notion the films of New Punk Cinema surpass their designated essences as commodities and they become a medium through which the director can communicate with the audience.
In “Dialectics of Enlightenment” Adorno and Horkheimer criticize the way Hollywood studios scrutinized every script before approving them to be adapted into film. These studios worked with conventional stories; the effect and the timing of each plotline were calculated beforehand so that the audiences would be satisfied with each film. Furthermore, these studios constantly had test screenings to the public and altered the films according to the films’ response. In Hollywood, the commodity (film) gets shaped by the consumer rather than the artist, who almost ends up without any creative input in what he or she produces. While many prominent film studios still follow this dated formula, the New Punk Cinema movement was born out of a need to challenge this out-dated system and expose its inefficiencies.
The movement aimed to reject the Hollywood values in its plots, production techniques, distribution, and representations, and try to influence more filmmakers to produce idiosyncratic films. New Punk Cinema is concerned with influencing the audience with new ways of seeing, rather than manipulating the audiences with new ways of selling. Primarily what the New Punk Cinema resists against is the notion of film as a commodity, rather than an art form. Films of New Punk Cinema fight against the traditional storytelling rules, and by challenging the viewers to understand films from new angles, these filmmakers simply stated that there is not a concrete formula to make films. New Punk Cinema not only resists Hollywood, its formulaic systems, plots and characters, but most importantly it ferociously rejects the notion of “film as a commodity” through not allowing their cinema to be shaped by the demands and the expectations of the public.
Gus Van Sant’s film Elephant, a key film in the New Punk Cinema and which won the Palm D’or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2001, could be a great example to elucidate one of the essential philosophies behind New Punk Cinema. The film presents a fictionalized version of the Columbine High School massacre from the perspective of a few students, including one of them who do the shootings. Throughout the film, we see these students gossip, take place in extracurricular activities, attend class, get bullied, or just while away until the shootings begin. Even though the film offers us a close and intimate portrayal of one of the kids who took part in the shootings, still it doesn’t illuminate us with the reasons behind his actions. The film offers us various suggestions about his motives but at the end it still leaves the viewer with a sense of ambiguity. This is the complete opposite of the traditional Hollywood narrative whose explanatory way of storytelling is not meant to confuse the audience but to entertain them. The scenes that construct Elephant are not small clues that lead the audience into a clear explanation, like the ones that happens at the end of Hitchcock’s films. Elephant is a collage of subjective scenes that present the audience glimpses of this apocalyptic day; however, the film deliberately avoids clear explanations. For the New Punk Cinema the traditional narrative is not the priority, idiosyncrasy is.
New Punk Cinema also rejects the values of the Hollywood system through openly and at times explicitly using themes, characters, and stories that mainstream cinema avoided for decades. New Punk Cinema deals with themes such as drug addiction, homosexuality, or incest that were considered a taboo. Even though recently Hollywood cinema also started to use these topics, New Punk Cinema treats these themes as not absurdities but delicate subject matters. This is one of the key features that distinguish New Punk Cinema from Hollywood, because when Hollywood uses these themes it is mostly aimed to degrade or criticize these alternative lives and lifestyles. A typical example is when Hollywood has homosexual characters in its films they are often either stereotypical characters that are associated with HIV/AIDS, as in Philadelphia, or they are portrayed as flat and flamboyant characters, like Robin Williams’ portrayal in Birdcage.
In the realm of the New Punk Cinema, nothing is ever that black-and-white. Characters of New Punk Cinema are never meant to be people that the audience should look down on. On the contrary, characters are always treated as individuals, regardless of their position to the norms of society. Considering this topic, Harmony Korine, the director of the controversial coming-of-age film Gummo, another key film in New Punk Cinema, states that: “…I never have any interest in making fun of someone. It’s very easy to do that, to film someone and look down on them or belittle them. But I’ve always had a curiosity for all my characters” (Rombes 43). This curiosity is one of the elements that fuels most of the New Punk Cinema directors, because these directors are working to understand their characters and reflect them as they are, rather than glorify or criticize certain characters as Hollywood does. This curiosity is also one of the essential catalysts of the diversity among the films of New Punk Cinema. The curiosity of the film director/screenwriter towards his or her characters propels the filmmaker to explore themes and territories that were not explored before.
In addition to these films that belong to New Punk Cinema movement, there also has been various other prominent film movements that are very similar in style and philosophy to New Punk Cinema. Among those, the most influential one is, no doubt, the Dogme’95 Film Movement, which, just like New Punk Cinema, was also clearly inspired by punk music’sdo-it-yourself aesthetic. Initially started by two Scandinavian filmmakers, Thomas Vinterberg and Lars Von Trier, Dogma 95 became one of the biggest and most controversial film movements of contemporary world cinema. The Dogma rules stipulate location shooting, direct sound (produced at the time of filming), hand-held camera, color film stock and natural lighting;’ the Dogma rules also forbid optical work, filters, superficial actions such as guns and explosions, genre movies, and more importantly, they forbid the director from crediting him/herself at the end of the movie (Chaudhuri 153). The first movie from the Dogma 95 movement, The Celebration (Festen) won the Special Jury Prize at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival and that triggered many filmmakers to make films in the Dogma 95 style. Von Trier claims that the main aim of the Dogma 95 movement is to show the world that anybody could overcome the main financial and technical obstacles that scare people away from filmmaking. In his first interview about Dogma 95, Von Trier stated that ‘we wanted people to see the Dogma films and say “if that’s a film then we can make films too.” Instead of just thinking, “Oh if it doesn’t look like Star Wars, then we can’t make a film”’ (Chaudhuri 154).
Unfortunately, the Hollywood studio system still continues to see the public as a means to make more money by bombarding them with the same stories over-and-over again, only with different settings and actors. However, as the various films of New Punk Cinema illustrate, film in the modern era is no longer seen and perceived as a commodity or part of a brain washing massive culture industry, thanks to many directors all over the world that are constantly challenging the norms, styles, and concepts of mainstream cinema. There is an incredibly fast growing independent film industry due to the new digital cameras that allow practically anyone to shoot a film. More importantly, there is an ever-growing international film industry, which enables moviegoers to experience many different cultures and values from around the world. This is one of the solid proofs that demonstrates that film is no longer just a commodity that is meant to make the rich richer. In his famous essay “Myth of Sisyphus” the existentialist thinker Albert Camus states that “if the world were clear, art wouldn’t exist.” Camus’ statement implies that art should color the spectator with new ways of seeing and understanding the world, which is precisely what the New Punk Cinema is trying to achieve. With the emergence and rapidly growing global popularity of New Punk Cinema, these new filmmakers, showed the world that even though Hollywood treated–and still treats– film as a commodity, the Hollywood method is not the only way film can function.