Tilda Swinton: The 2006 SFIFF "State of Cinema" Address

Marshall Plan May 4, 2006

This address was delivered by Tilda Swinton to an audience at the Kabuki Theatre on April 29, 2006, during the San Francisco International Film Festival.

"A Letter to a Boy from His Mother"

Boy, my darling,

You asked me the other day, just as you were dropping off, what people’s dreams were like before the cinema was invented. You who talk blabberish and chase rabbits in your sleep, harrumphing like a dog. You who never watch television. I’ve been thinking of your question ever since. I have to talk to some people in America about cinema. I’m going there now on the plane, and I can’t think of anything but your question.

I just think of how my mind went whirring after you had fallen asleep and I lay there wondering. And all I know is, it was a good feeling. I just know that I want my mind to whirr like that. That it hasn’t whirred like that for a while, that it is precisely this whirr factor that I value the cinema for providing. Even a QUESTION about cinema can do it to me. Yes, and like all your questions, particularly the kind that come at the very dog end of a long day, there is no answer that I feel capable of offering. "What was the last thing to be made?" "Can you jump on the clouds when you are dead?" "What do worms taste like?" "What does wet lamb feel like?" (Although we’ve discussed — and researched — these last two in detail.) It is a good, a great question, and like all great questions, it has no known answer. I’m going to pass it on. Spread the whirr.

There are so many things I suppose I could talk about. I could talk about the making of films, what I have learned in the trenches of independent film making, of filmmaking over two decades. Or what I have learned about the differences between independent filmmaking and the studio system I have more recently become acquainted with. I could talk about performance. I could talk about the innovations and new technologies. I could talk about struggle and things that fall apart. I could talk — at length — about money.

But your question, and its hypnotic effect on me, inspired me to talk about none of these things, but to meditate on something I think is far more important than all of this, and much more difficult to address. You make me want to talk about what cinema is and why we need it, and what it is that is incorruptible — uncooptable — within its realm. About the state of mind, the projection of vision, the social project that cinema is and why it’s worth the fight in the first place. And why no revolution, digital or otherwise, could cheat your generation out of its existence. And why I am hopeful to my boots that it’s never, ever going away.

Because, as I think of it, it’s conjuring other words and wonders out of the ether and shaking them out of its tail, your question. Words that I reckon, in the security of your name, I’ll bandy about pretty shamelessly. Those words — reality, reverie, rhythm, fiction, framing, fellowship, faith — all emblazoned on the national flag of the blessed State of Cinema.

Your sleepytime question about cinema — about dreams — sends me in a way I want to be sent. I’m so proud of you for asking it. Proud that you would wonder such a thing. Proud that you instinctively relate film to dream, as few of us making cinema today are encouraged to do. You are eight and a half. What an age for a boy to ask about cinema and dream! It occurs to me that that same evening, Dadda was telling me that his falling asleep in the cinema is a particular honor to the film in question. He was telling me this as a compliment, his having snored through three of the four films released last year in which I appeared.

My friend, the great Italian cultural critic, Enrico Ghezzi, has written about this very thing, he remembered the invitation to reverie that a visionary cinema can provide, the invitation to become unconscious. No joke. Personally, having been exposed recently to the slew of trailers before Spike Lee’s new film, or even those before "Ice Age 2," I would have been grateful for a cosh on the back of the head for any temporary escape from the escapism of those previews of forthcoming attractions.

I think the last film in which I experienced this kind of ecstatic removal was at a screening in Cannes of the Thai film "Tropical Malady" (Sud pralad), in my opinion, a masterpiece, mysterious and shapeshiftingly magical. A love story that actually carries the power to tip one into love, a nightmare of nature that kicks a primal punch, that takes us into the wilderness of human nature and leaves us there. I actually remember rubbing my eyes with my fists in a comedy gesture during the screening, convinced, for one split second, that I fallen asleep, that only my unconscious could have come up with such a texture of sensation.

Can I be alone in my longing for inarticulacy, for a cinema that refuses to join all the dots? For an arrhythmia in gesture, for a dissonance in shape? For the context of cinematic frame, a frame that in the end only cinema can provide, for the full view, the long shot, the space between, the gaps, the pause, the lull, the grace of living.

The figurative cinema’s awkward and rather unsavory relationship with its fruity old aunt, the theater, to her vanities, her moues, her beautifully constructed and perennially eloquent speechifying, her cast iron, corset-like structures, her melodramatic texture and her histrionic rhythms. How tiresome it is; it always has been. How studied. The idea of absolute articulacy, prefect timing, a vapid elegance of gesture, an unblinking, unthinking face. What a blessed waste of a good clear screen, a dark room and the possibility of an unwatched profile, a tree, a hill, a donkey.

How I long for documentary, in resistance. For unpowdered faces and unmeasured tread. For the emotionally undemonstrative family scene. For a struggle for unreachable words. For the open or even unhappy ending? The occasionally dropped shoe off the heel, the jiggle to readjust, the occasionally cracked egg, the mess of milk spilled. The concept of loss for words. For a State of Cinema — as the state of grace that it affords us — in which nothing much happens, but all things are possible — even articulacy, even failure, even mess.

I’ve been making film for 20 years now, and I still don’t know what to do with my face when people ask me at what point I decided to become an actress — or even an actor — or how not to feel offended when I’m asked about getting into or out of character, something I frankly know nothing about. I used to think, until quite recently, that this awkwardness was because I was embarrassed about being caught not taking something seriously. But now I think I detect a tang of irritation, of offense, at the implication that I might be present but not correct, that I might be there, on screen, without faith. The idea that I would be there to ENACT something for some nefarious — even vanity-based — reason to do with drawing attention to myself. Too serious to be a dilletante, and too much of a dabbler to be a professional.

Last year, in the course of my recently developed pastime as studio spy, in the process of promoting two fantasy films for different Hollywood studios, I was advised on the proper protocol for talking about religion in America today. In brief, the directive was, hold your hands high where all can see them, step away from the vehicle and enunciate clearly, nothing to declare.

At the press conference in London for Disney’s film, I was asked to chilling frisson in response, if I were still a member of the Communist Party. A friendly Spanish journalist reassured me later, sotto voce and with apology for her (American) colleague, that in Spain things are more clearly understood. The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.

The fact is, as I clarified that day, I never stopped being a communist. The fact IS that the Communist Party of Great Britain no longer exists as such. That the party was morphed into the democratic left over ten years ago. That my membership of the party was an act of faith born out of an alliance with ideals of fairness and a commitment to a welfare state that it was clear to me then was in the process of being deserted by the parliamentary left.

But I love the idea of goose-stepping old Walt D. making over $700 million dollars with the help of a Red Witch. He is more than welcome. At least we made her whiter than white, the ultimate white supremacist, and we managed to railroad the kneejerk attempt to make her look like an Arab. And maybe, just maybe, on top of all that, Disney might have ended up underwriting the most expensive advertisement teaser for Derek Jarman’s and Lynn Hershman’s back catalogue that any of us could ever have imagined. Besides, I always was a believer in the essential message of the Narnia film — in my universe, beavers CAN talk. The rampant old church that cinema is. You never can tell who’s gonna jump up into the pulpit.

The thing is for me — and here the advising studios and the investigative journalists barked up the wrong tree with this pre-industrial amateur — filmmaking, too, has always been an act of faith. Not only in the sense in which one needs a certain amount of conviction to get the films made in the first place, but in the more amorphous sense in which one takes one’s faith to the cinema as to the confessional: the last resort of the determined inarticulate, the unmediated, the intravenous experience of something existential, transmuted through the dark, through the flickering of the constant image through the projector onto the screen. The sharing of private fantasy, the very issue of the unconscious made in light. Faith way beyond politics, way beyond religion, way beyond time.

It was in Tarkovsky’s "Stalker" that I saw an image of a dream that I have been visited by all my life made real (Does a thing have to be shared to be made real?). A bird flying towards the camera dips its wing into the sand that fills a room. Did I imagine this? I haven’t seen the film for years. Can somebody tell me? Was I dreaming even then, in the Cambridge Art Cinema in 1981? Or might there be the possibility of a shared dream, a shared unconscious after all? This was before I had ever made a film, ever met a filmmaker, ever half-willingly stood in front of a camera.

Among the first films I made with Derek Jarman (our segment of "Aria," "The Last of England," "The Garden") were made in this confessional spirit: the triple-decker faith that made us want to make these films was paramount. These films were beyond personal, shot as home movies on Super 8 and then blown up to 35mm, collated over the course of a year, filmed as document of our life as a group, and then put together as an anthology of poetry might be edited, with gaps filled later by purposefully designed sequences, the private rendered public purely by virtue of exhibition, no articulation attempted, no narrative imposed.

I remember distinctly a young man after a screening of "The Last of England" at the New York Film Festival in 1989? 1990? telling me in great detail the narrative of the film he has just seen, with serpentine logic and exquisitely moving, somehow. His projection, and the impact it clearly made on him, seemed to me to be the highest compliment he could have paid to the film. I remember him asking me if he was right. I remember wincing, because it was the wrong question, and telling him that, of course he was right. Whatever he saw there was real, was his to define.

The first article of faith we were in the process of professing in the cultural cinema of the late ’80s and ’90s in England was partly a political faith in the very idea of resistance, very often resistance of a quite literal and pragmatic kind.

It is easy to see, especially in Jarman’s "Edward II" adaption — where the gay activist collective Outrage is prominently featured in the climax of the film’s narrative — how site-specific this work was at the time, lobbying, as it did, against restrictive civil liberty policies proposed by Thatcher’s Conservative government. It felt powerful that the world had an international profile at a time when this was being seen by those without the long view as a purely localized national problem. In a second article of faith, beyond practical politics, these films were connected intrinsically with the lives of the artists who made them. They figure a dedication to a reality seldom seen in the cinema.

For young gay people all over the world in the years in which they were released, the value of their solidarity in sensibility, in company, is simply incalculable. To be an emerging gay teenager in a small town in the early 1980s, stumbling upon Jarman’s "Sebastiane" was, for so many, nothing short of a miracle. As cultural cinema, made by artists outside of the industrial paradigm, they widened the spectrum of a European and world cinema and — I would argue — society, in a unique way.

This year, those oh-so-browfurrowing bareback cowboys went to the Oscars. Straight eye for the queer guy. And even "Grey Gardens" — star of the Maysles’ documentary masterpiece — stands by to smash in a musical on Broadway, restored — so I’m told — in the first act, to it’s pre-catshit, all Bouvier-busting glory with the Kennedys coming for tea. Oh wow. How times do change. Does that mean the faith charm worked?

This year I have already spoken to students from Pittsburgh to Edinburgh who have never heard of Derek Jarman. But over everything, the third and possibly most liberating faith that we were professing in these days before independent cinema rarely got capital letters or, under cover of darkness, became morphed into the generally codependent cinema now at the heart of Hollywood’s streamlined mainstream — and certainly before it constituted any kind of industrial profile — in the days before anyone ever dreamed of a cultural cinema a being something that might make them any money — was a belief in the cinema screen as the Church for the Aliens. The safe space where we could all hang out. The Grace Cathedral of Cultural Acceptance and the possibility of an audience with eyes and ears. And time. And attention.

I remember feeling distinctly nostalgic for those days a couple of years sgo when I had the good fortune to serve the jury of the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, the year Michael Moore made a film for the cinema — "Farenheit 9/11" — in order to say the things he wanted to say to an intergalactic audience in a way that already at the time he could no longer say those things on television, on the radio or in many publishable organs back at home. Regardless even of its content, this film, in my opinion, dignified, honored, the cinema by choosing the refuge of its wider screen, its quieter dark.

For Better or Worse. THERE’S a battle cry to nail up on any filmmaker’s wall. Not for profit, (notice). Not for box office. And — eventually, in the analysis — not even particularly for now. For the hell and the heaven of it. The State of Cinema, that promised land of freedom as you, my boy, might imagine it to be: a playground equipped with all the climbing frames and spinning things and chutes and swings you could ever need.

Like a trap door hidden by a carpet, the route to the ’90s is obscured. The fact is that those times changed fast. There’s a story there that I’ll tell you another time, a different set of wars, and some — but not all — of us survived. I sometimes say I feel like Marianne Faithfull about 20 years earlier than I thought I might. As my friend Henry Rosenthal pointed out to me in this very city, overhearing me referred to as such, for art house superstar, read jumbo shrimp.

My boy, what do you know of changed times, you who were born in 1997 and asked if there were cars before then or only horses and carts. For whom predigital will come to mean prehistoric. For my generation on, even the aliens, I’ll tell the audience in America it is hard to grasp that it is in fact scrupulously constructed fantasy that we have, each and every one of us on this planet, European, Asian, Sikh, Finn, Masai, Maori, male, female, neither, both, asked, at least once in our lives, a girl to the school prom, standing in the American high school corridor flanked by metal locker doors, that we have each and every one of us negotiated cheerleaders and their jock boyfriends, skirted a baseball diamond with a school jersey round our waist. That we have endured Thanksgiving dinners year in, year out, shut a front door with our ass while carrying a big square paper bag full of Oreos and milk cartons, shouting "Honey, I’m home!" This is a sort of reality for us all, wherever the tentacles of intergalactic — Marshall Plan