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Improvising Cinema

Improvising Cinema

Gilles Mouëllic
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  • Book Info
    Improvising Cinema
    Book Description:

    This spirited volume explores the history and diversity of improvisation in the cinema, including works by Jean Renoir, Jean-Luc Godard, and Nobuhiro Suwa. Gilles Mouëllic examines improvisational practices that can be specifically attributed to the cinema and argues in favors of their powers as instigators of unprecedented forms of expression.Improvising Cinemareflects both on the permanence of attempting improvisation and the relationship between technology and aesthetics. Mouëllic concludes preservation becomes even more invaluable in the case of improvisation, as the creative act exists only within the brief time span of the performance.

    eISBN: 978-90-485-1842-5
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
    (pp. 9-14)

    Long before it fired the enthusiasm of twentieth-century creators, improvisation had held its own in popular forms of theatrical entertainment such as medieval ‘games’ or ‘mystery plays’, precursors ofCommedia dell’arte. It went on to become associated with music, the seventeenth-century definition of the verb ‘to improvise’ being ‘to create and perform spontaneously and without preparation’. This musical grounding helped to establish improvisation as an ‘absolute poetic fact’, as the philosopher Christian Béthune put it,¹ an assertion that tied in with Western beliefs, progressively based on notions of the artist and his work. The nineteenth century may have glorified Romantic...

  2. 1. Writing and improvisation
    (pp. 15-32)

    The works highlighted in this study share a number of specificities that might tempt analysts to group their respective directors into a single fictional family – indeed, innumerable works and treatises have already linked the names of Renoir, Rivette, Rouch, Rozier, Pialat, Cassavetes, Ameur-Zaïmeche and Faucon. It would be difficult, however, to interpret this as a trend spanning the history of the cinema, except in its questioning of the dominance of traditional scriptwriting. The refusal to overemphasise the value of the written word may take a variety of forms, but it is always an expression of the desire to turn...

  3. 2. Creation in action
    (pp. 33-48)

    The reluctance of many filmmakers to be branded as improvisers results from the confusion that surrounds any attempt to define improvisation, wavering between the mystical consecration of a quasi-divine source of inspiration and a damning indictment linked to its supposedly unprepared nature, denoting a lack of creative thought. By claiming it not only as a choice but as a practice, we hope to dispel a romantic and supposedly facile reputation that has been systematically belied. Every act of improvisation, in whatever discipline, is based on working knowledge, on mastering techniques that first have to be learned. The improviser is not...

  4. 3. The influence of Jean Rouch
    (pp. 49-70)

    Motivated by his determination to depict life in the villages of sub-Saharan Africa with optimum independence and spontaneity, Jean Rouch played a key role in the implementation of new cinematographic techniques. His extraordinary empathy with human complexity and his initial lack of interest in the so-called ‘grammar’ of film stemmed from his ethnological background. His aim was to record the truth of a ritual, a gesture, a situation, an attitude, an exchange, and he was not particularly bothered by stability of frame, consistency of focus or seamless match cuts. Rouch was first and foremost an ethnologist and it was only...

  5. 4. Acting cinema
    (pp. 71-98)

    In a two-part text¹ devoted to Hans Namuth’s renowned Pollock (1951), Hubert Damisch, considering the hypothesis of a cinematic equivalent of Jackson Pollock’s art, said: ‘I will only retain one of the many suggestions, the one that bases its argument on the narrative processes that characterize the work of John Cassavetes to identify a kind of acting cinema, in the sense in which we refer to Jackson Pollock’s action painting.’² Damisch himself draws on a passage from Ray Carney’s book on the films of John Cassavetes, in which the author claims that the latter:

    refuses to straighten out narrative loops...

  6. 5. The temptation of theatre
    (pp. 99-120)

    The Connection is a play by Jack Gelber, which was launched on 15 July 1959 in New York by the Living Theatre, a famous underground company led by Julian Beck and Judith Malina. American director Shirley Clarke adapted it for the screen in 1962 in her first feature film, from a script written by Gelber himself, shooting it in nineteen days and editing it over a period of four months. The Connection was one of the many radical and exciting experiments to come out of New York in the late 1950s, in theatre through The Living Theatre, in cinema with...

  7. 6. The rules of the game
    (pp. 121-142)

    The analyses of improvised sequences have brought to light a number of devices, including that of ‘directing from the inside’, with the director as actor of his own film. The most radical example is that of Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche, who so far has played the lead in all his feature films. Although his presence in Wesh Wesh, qu’est-ce qui se passe? Can be justified by a perfectly legitimate commitment to a cast of amateurs, his status as both director and actor is actually an offshoot of a method in which there is an inherent possibility of improvisation. The first manifestation lies...

  8. 7. Filming jazz
    (pp. 143-162)

    Jazz was to make a spectacular entrance in the form of filmed music with the early talkies. 1929 proved to be a seminal year for filmmakers inspired by black music, ranging from Black and Tan, Dudley Murphy’s recreation of the stage at the Cotton Club, featuring the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Bessie Smith’s lovelornHonky Tonkin Murphy’s Saint-Louis Blues to the numerous musical sequences in King Vidor’s Hallelujah, with its famous all-black cast.¹ Apart from the kaleidoscope in which Murphy tried to find a visual equivalent to Ellington’s polyrhythmic orchestrations,² however, filmmakers were far more fascinated by the photogenic aspect...

  9. Conclusion
    (pp. 163-168)

    The fruitful exchange between Pascale Ferran’s small film crew and the Tony Hymas/Sam Rivers duo brings to an end, for the time being at least, a study in which music has played an invaluable role in examining the diversity of the modes of existence of improvisation in an art of the image that seems at first glance to be fairly indifferent to such practices. The determined incursions of jazz, theatre and dance, and the equally stimulating but rarer manifestations in painting and sculpture, have highlighted the singular nature of film and the consequent need for a specific approach. Although the...