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War of the Words

By Preti Taneja  |  01-Feb-2006

"It's launching on multiple targets tomorrow, the targets have shifted we've just been fighting for so long...there's a more advanced tracking system now so we know we won't miss.... We've won half the territories - this hit will finish it...." Condi reporting to George Bush? Or a conversation overheard in the distribution offices of the UK Film Council? " it's not digital, it was shot on super 8."

I've been wondering lately if I'm making a film or building a weapon; I load my camera and point it, I shoot my footage (and yet the subject still lives – that's the magic of dying on screen).

Why do we use such language to talk about films – labours of love that are supposed to, according to which marketer you talk to - "just entertain", or "express some kind of truth about the human condition?" on the one hand it could simply be because a camera looks a bit like a gun and the act of using it is as close to actually shooting something as it can be. I think there must be more to it than a simple visual metaphor of camera/gun and the actions of the body when using either thing.

All filmmakers know the sense of power that holding a camera can give, the rush of adrenalin up the arm to the brain that gathers and pulses just behind the eyes before you pull the trigger and - I mean press the button, and start er…shooting.

Is that sense of power the reason why we talk about the creative process in the language of destruction? Because when its just you and the camera, and all those crew members depending on you to take a good picture, or shoot some great footage, you destroy all the other potential ways you could have told the story? Or because having that power to decide what other people will see and experience is sort of like having the power to change those people's lives – destroy their previous conceptions? Kill something idea or ignorance they had before? No, somehow this doesn’t quite explain it either.

Perhaps we use the language of destruction because we are too "civilised" or maybe too repressed to talk about filmmaking in the language of desire – which after all is the real force of creativity. You know, that sense of anticipation when you are starting a script, choosing locations, casting and finally taking the lens cap off the camera - its addictive, a kind of preparatory foreplay, it rises like desire, it's a kind of stripping hunger – I'll stop there, you get the idea. But no – I'll go on – jokes about the director's masturbatory output aside, the process culminates in the birth of something that goes out into the world and has its own life away from the creator.

The facts are almost the opposite of the way we talk about filmmaking process. Are we really that scared of sex? Is it really easier to have a metaphor that calls to mind war and killing?

Things get even worse when the creative process is set inside the business of filmmaking; where distributors talk in terms of territories, truces and targeting a captive audience, all with the intention of scoring a hit. The film is launched on a target audience, like a bomb dropped on a carefully selected target (see they couldn’t even think of a new word for the audience) it's a smash hit – thousands of people die – oh, that’s no good – the metaphor doesn’t quite carry through. Its kind of sick too when you realise that that's what the words mean – because of course people dying in bombing attacks is an utterly devastating and unnecessary waste of human life. It's also far more serious than whether film grosses $800m at the box office.

Equally, when people talk about shooting, how it feels to be a lone gunman to scatter bullets in a random crowd, one word explains the crazed feeling that (apparently) rises in the veins – bloodlust. In this one word lies the implicit idea that pulling the trigger can induce some kind of sexual pleasure in the killer. That's quite well documented and explored too: in the most ancient vampire myth through schlocky horror B movies to The Silence of the Lambs or Natural Born Killers, which of course is based on a real life story.

We just need more balance in the way we use the words – more awareness and respect for what we are actually saying and what we are actually doing. As much as we talk about shooting people, and the much sniggered over connection between pistols and penises, I've never been comfortable with that particular piece of imagery, and I’m even less comfortable that the idea of using a camera makes a happy third there.

I’m not denying that sex and death, or creation and destruction or pleasure and pain go hand in hand, that's nothing new. But there needs to be balance: every orgasm is considered a small death of part of the self – and the renewal of desire is rebirth.

Does it really matter or are they just words; a convenient shorthand that has moved beyond its original meaning? I refer you to the "Guerilla Film Maker’s Handbook" section where Simon Moore, writer of "The Quick and The Dead" talks about being a writer on the film: "The reason that films get made are nothing to do with the quality of the script." Maybe so, but if they are just words, why did they have to be rewritten ten times over three months till they were "right"?

Not just words, then, but words that perhaps are so ingrained because they best reflect the struggle everyone involved in the process has to go through. The explosion of creativity, the ticking time bomb of being in the right place at the right time, the crusade to get it made and out there – it's a fight, it's a battle. It's a mock war where the stakes, instead of being life and death, are money, fame and immortality; immortality that comes from "capturing" people, or a moment, for all time. Being captured forever? There's an image I don't want to dwell on – but immortality? That is the holy grail of all human endeavours – and I use the image "holy grail" with care – it's a quest for the impossible and it drives people mad.

Does the language of war, which is the antithesis of immortality, win in the end because secretly we know deep down, beyond our crazy hope; that it is a quest for the impossible – that we can't live forever?

I think we need to develop a new language that revels in its own balance and ambiguity, a language that combines the two meanings of creation and destruction to properly reflect what filmmaking is all about. Thankfully there is already one word in the filmmaker's dictionary that does this – it's a word we use to describe people who die after long illnesses and it's a word we use to describe how we feel after earth shattering orgasms – maybe that’s the reason we use it to talk about a film that finally fulfils its purpose of existence and gets its theatrical "release."

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