Transformative Cinema

Toby MacDonald’s feature directorial debut is inspired by the classic French tale, Cyrano de Bergerac. Transposing the French setting with an English all-boys boarding school, Amberson (Alex Lawther) finds himself playing matchmaker between his friend Winchester (Jonah Hauer-King) and the French teacher’s daughter Agnes (Pauline Étienne), who he conceals his own romantic feelings for. Speaking with ASFF, MacDonald discusses the cinematic art form, specifically the way in which audience engagement towards cinema has changed across the years.

ASFF: Why film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment for you personally?
TB: From a young age I was always obsessed with films, and when I was younger my parents got divorced. My father used to take me to the cinema on his visits, and it was kind of a way for two slightly non-emotional men to be emotional. The cinema was always a very magical place for me because of that, and it wasn’t that we were going to see hugely emotional films, I imagine it was Raiders of the Lost Ark and stuff like that. But I think the cinema was always an amazing physical space and it had a real magic to it for me?

ASFF: Interviewing Margarethe von Trotta, she said: “The young audience are not going to the cinema anymore; they are watching films on tablets or cell phones. The moment before the film started and it went dark was like you were in a dream, and when the film started, it was like a dream had started.” Can the experience of film outside this magical space affect the way we feel about cinema?
There’s definitely a loss of magic to it, which I think has happened because of everyone carrying their screens around. But I think it’s interesting that when something lands, there’s nothing like it still, if that makes sense? It’s not just the physical, it’s the shared physical experience of watching it with an audience. I remember in the 1990s going to Times Square to watch films, which was just an amazing experience. So, I think some of the magic has gone and people are a bit more disposable about it now. It’s harder to capture people’s imaginations, but when it does work, it’s the thing that keeps people hoping it’s going to happen again. I don’t know, it’s a difficult one.

ASFF: The response to a film is a result of how receptive the individual is to the ideas of the film, as well as the emotions of the characters. Can filmmakers, distributors and publicists place too much emphasis on, and consequently devalue the mind of the film critic?
Yeah, that’s true and I suppose I think about Bertolucci because he was a particular proponent of that in the 1970s. I don’t know how deliberate it was, but a film would just come out and dominate culturally. It was the thing that you had to go and see; it was a cultural event and a talking point. It was all of those things, and I think you’re right, and that’s the thing that has been lost isn’t it? It’s the ability to be the focus, and you could say visual arts are no longer the main focus, or it’s splintered.

ASFF: Is cinema as socially or culturally respected now as it was in the 1960s and 1970s, when films and their filmmakers occupied a privileged cultural role? 
It is important, but there’s a certain amount of resentment that has crept into it somehow. I don’t really know. I think the thing that has happened is I would say that people see through the magic a little bit more. People know how to make and film things more, and that’s why it has slightly lost its power in those terms.

The other thing to look at maybe is the visual language has been slightly invaded by the literalness of television, which I can sometimes feel in movies. Somehow, people don’t trust those big visual brushstrokes anymore. It’s a hard one to describe, but people are less trusting of just following the image somehow, and I think that has changed things quite a lot as – the nature of just using close ups and the way people stage. But there are lots of aspects to all of that, and you could look at the way film stars have lost some of their magic in the way their lives are so exposed, that maybe they can’t carry the stories in a way they used to. 

ASFF: Would you agree that cinema is still young and that we are still in the process of understanding the medium?
There are two schools of thought on that. One is that it’s young and it hasn’t found itself fully yet. The other view, film critic David Thomson who’s my great hero, he always talks about, I think it was in the 1930s and 1940s, there was a fork in the road for cinema and it chose the wrong one. It went into sensationalism and spectacle instead of heading towards Dostoevsky and those kinds of things. I think he talks about Kenji Mizoguchi and those types of directors who gave a glimpse of what it could be, and then that path was not taken. His view would be that it’s never going to get there because it has been so corrupted, but I think that’s a really interesting point of view on it, to look at it the other way and say it’s just young … there’s a long way to go [laughs].

Paul Risker

Old Boys is released in UK cinemas on 22 February, with Q&A screenings with the director and cast in London, Bristol, Manchester and Liverpool. For more information, click here.

1. Stills from
Old Boys.