william steig drawing

April 26, 2011
Kartina Richardson

The Cinema: Deadly & Holy

The other night, in a sleepless mania not unfamiliar to me, I rummaged through all my old school papers. They were abysmal, as unfortunately all academic writing is, but I paused self-beration to read one paper in particular. I remember it was handed in for extra credit in a last attempt to pass Dramaturgy. In it I reviewed theatre and film director (Marat/Sade) Peter Brook’s fantastic book The Empty Space and his categorizations of the theater: Holy, Deadly, Rough, Immediate. And as I trudged through my soulless, double spaced writing it suddenly occurred to me that these categories could be applied to the cinema. With the exception of the Immediate, they really are applied quite neatly, and I admit this gives me great pleasure. When things click together, the feeling is one of such satisfaction, it tips into sordidness. When this happens suspicion is the key in saving yourself from obnoxiousness. Fitting pieces of a puzzle together is satisfying, but always mock your vulgar fondness for completing puzzles in the first place.

I will try to split the word [theatre] four ways and distinguish four different meanings—and so will talk about a Deadly Theatre, a Holy Theatre, a Rough Theatre and an Immediate Theatre. Sometimes these four theatres really exist, standing side by side, in the West End of London, or in New York off Times Square. Sometimes they are hundreds of miles apart, the Holy in Warsaw and the Rough in Prague, and sometimes they are metaphoric: two of them mixing together within one evening, within one act. Sometimes within one single moment, the four of them, Holy, Rough, Immediate and Deadly intertwine. The Deadly Theatre can at first sight be taken for granted, because it means bad theatre. As this is the form of theatre we see most often, and as it is most closely linked to the despised, much-attacked commercial theatre it might seem a waste of time to criticize it further. But it is only if we see that deadliness is deceptive and can appear anywhere, that we will become aware of the size of the problem.

In this post (part one) I’ll discuss the Deadly and Holy Cinemas. In part two the Rough and Immediate. Can the Immediate be applied to Cinema? I am not so sure. We will see.


In considering deadly art, and Deadly Cinema we must first understand our definition of good art and its purpose in the world. Thoughts on this will of course vary widely, but here is my belief: The primary function of art is to bring us into the present, a goal it achieves by providing opportunity for the experiencing of emotion. For those of us who haven’t reached enlightenment nothing is more present, present because it is by nature transient, than emotion. Experiencing art, whatever the medium, means sidestepping mundanity to reenter ourselves. Time no longer matters. All that exists is emotion.

When we turn on a song, read a book, look at a painting, a sculpture, a play, or a film, we yearn for that great triumph of emotion. The conquering of time. Sure we might intend to think about the piece, yes, understand and analyze, yes, but it is emotion we seek, consciously or not, first and foremost. The experiencing of emotion, even anger and grief, is the process of opening. It is an emotional disrobing. And this is the point of it all. We can better understand ourselves and others without the layers of lies and bullshit that art helps pull away. The more effective a piece is at pulling away layers, the greater its worth to humanity.

A film that seeks to pull no layers, or mimics the pulling, pandering to emotion, is a deadly film.

If we talk of deadly, let us note that the difference between life and death, so crystal clear in man, is somewhat veiled in other fields. A doctor can tell at once between the trace of life and the useless bag of bones that life has left; but we are less practiced in observing how an idea, an attitude or a form can pass from the lively to the moribund. It is difficult to define but a child can smell it out.

Deadly Cinema is the cinema of conventionalities. An uncritical and reassuring cinema that reveals no truth. It is the cinema of celebrated mediocrity supported by the Deadly Spectator, a person who prefers the comfort of an unchallenging film (this is very often me). Though the Deadly Cinema can be easily equated with commercial cinema this deadliness can seep into fringe avant-garde production or even those of the greatest grandeur.

The King’s Speech is a movie that comes immediately to mind. Films that pretend to be above deadliness are the most deadly of all. The King’s Speech is not a bad movie. It was efficiently directed, acted, and even enjoyable. Yet it remains deadly. Nothing emphasizes this deadliness as much as its cinematography; a style very much resembling alternative music videos from 1991.

In his description of a French classical actor’s search for realism, Brook describes what I suspect to be the impetus of the film’s DP and Director:

In France there are two deadly ways of playing classical tragedy. One is traditional, and this involves using a special voice, a special manner, a noble look and an elevated musical delivery. The other way is no more than a half-hearted version of the same thing. Imperial gestures and royal values are fast disappearing from everyday life, so each new generation finds the grand manner more and more hollow, more and more meaningless. This leads the young actor to an angry and impatient search for what he calls truth. He wants to play his verse more realistically, to get it to sound like honest- to-God real speech, but he finds that the formality of the writing is so rigid that it resists this treatment. He is forced to an uneasy compromise that is neither refreshing, like ordinary talk, nor defiantly histrionic, like what we call ham. So his acting is weak and because ham is strong, it is remembered with a certain nostalgia.

And what about art that does indeed peel?

After music, I believe that film maintains the most direct connection to our emotions, so it is the Cinema that peels most effectively and The Holy Cinema most of all.

In 1928, Federico Garcia Lorca, in his writings on poetry stated: “The poet is in a sad state of wanting and not being able. He hears the flow of great rivers, passing by in silence, with no one else to hear their music. On his brow he feels the coolness of the reeds, swaying in their No Man’s Land. He wants to feel the dialogue of the winds that tremble in the moss…He wants to penetrate the music of the sap running in the dark silence of huge tree trunks…He wants to press his ear to the sleeping girl and understand the Morse code of her heart…He wants…But he cannot.” So too does the Holy Cinema. A cinema that desires, as Lorca, to understand and make visible the invisible. To explore the philosophical and spiritual. It might be more appropriate to discuss an individual film’s relation to a category, as directors produce work in different styles. David Lynch, Lars Von Trier, and Fellini for example belong to both the Holy and Rough Cinema. However the greatest artists of the Holy Cinema consistently explore themes unique to this category. This is the cinema of, among others, Bergman, Bresson, Ozu, Kurosawa, Dreyer, and Tarkovsky. The latter’s work being perhaps the holiest of the group.

Films of the Holy Cinema might be considered the “difficult movies”, and this judgment is correct. These films are in fact difficult, however this is not because the ideas are hard to grasp. Movies aren’t made for movie scientists. Anyone can understand any film if they are open to it. I firmly believe this. There is no correct way to understand a movie, even if the director believes there is. In reality a movie is difficult because of our resistance to it. We resist these films because they peel. Peel when very often we’d prefer to keep our layers intact. I battle with myself about this everyday. Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror is a film I’ve seen several times, and I can state without hesitation that it is the most profoundly meaningful film I’ve experienced thus far. Having said that, it’s the absolute last movie I ever want to watch. I will put on anything over The Mirror, usually a comedy I’ve worn threadbare. It’s a miracle that I’ve seen the film at all. Now this is complete absurdity. The Mirror is cathartic and each viewing results in a deeper, quieter, connection with myself that lasts for days. I am exhilarated, energized, and full of ideas. It makes my life better. And yet, in full knowledge of the intense pleasure and peacefulness the film gives me, more often that not I refuse to watch it. The peeling of layers disrupts routine living and thinking. And though this disruption is vital, it takes enormous mental and emotional strength to allow it.

There are times I’ve had to take a sedative in order to watch Holy Cinema, my defenses railed so strongly against it. But of course after each viewing the feeling was the same; that of surfacing. The relief of spotting the cave’s exit or a loose nail in the coffin.

And here is the matter reduced. I suggest that Death separates the Holy from the Deadly.

The Holy Cinema in one way or another always reveals Death’s presence and our movements around it. In every frame it reveals this. Because Time is hand in hand with Death, it is often through time that awareness of death is embraced and indeed many difficult films fall also into the category of slow cinema. This isn’t at all grim, it is true. To quote Lorca yet again:

No one when giving a kiss
fails to feel the smile of faceless people.
No one who touches a newborn child,
forgets the immobile skulls of horses.

The Deadly Cinema however denies Death’s existence. Of course a deadly film may show the process of dying or the point of physical death (adept at emotional pandering they frequently do), but this is meaningless. This is dull. The Deadly Cinema simplifies or dismisses altogether the quiet relationship of light and dark. This simplification is overwhelmingly attractive. It is a petting. I am lured by it damn everyday. We watch Deadly films to escape, and this is why Notting Hill is frequently found in my DVD player. But through Hugh Grant’s adorable blinking I know that this escape is a lie. I am not escaping. I am fleeing. To escape is to break free of confinement, but a Deadly film traces boundaries, and it does so thickly. It opens the door to the living room from the office, while keeping the one to the world locked shut. A Deadly film is not freedom and so it is not escape. Escapism is a word that is bullshit. To flee, to run from danger, is much more fitting. We run like the dickens from thought, vulnerability, and unmanageable emotion, run straight to the arms of Gossip Girl the Motion Picture. The Deadly Cinema encourages this mass exodus out of life. For every hour we spend with a deadly film, we spend outside of life. For every hour spent with a Holy film we spend inside ourselves, in the present, which is a tackling of life. Would I go so far as to say the Deadly Cinema hates life and the Holy loves it? Perhaps. It depends on how brave I am feeling.

“The problem of the Deadly Theatre is like the problem of the deadly bore. Every deadly bore has head, heart, arms, legs: usually, he has family and friends: he even has his admirers. Yet we sigh when we come across him—and in this sigh we are regretting that somehow he is at the bottom instead of the top of his possibilities. When we say deadly, we never mean dead: we mean something depressingly active, but for this very reason capable of change.”


While the Holy Cinema deals with the invisible, the Rough Cinema deals with the very visible.  This is a rebellious and anti-authoritarian cinema. It belongs to, among many others, Godard, Dogme, Fellini, Pasolini, John Waters, Herzog, Lynch, Tarantino, the Marx bros, and perhaps even all good comedy. What an eclectic mix it is. So stay tuned for part two, since this is already far too long.

“Of course, it is most of all dirt that gives the roughness its edge; filth and vulgarity are natural, obscenity is joyous: with these the spectacle takes on its socially liberating role, for by nature the popular theatre is anti-authoritarian, anti-traditional, anti-pomp, anti-pretense. This is the theatre of noise, and the theatre of noise is the theatre of applause.”

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  1. Kartina – I believe that you are now my favorite “reviewer” of film. Your relationship to film is more like a marriage, or at least an engagement. Everyone else (in particular, males), it seems, are not taking their vows very seriously, if they have even acknowledged or considered them at all. They prefer the technical and intellectual, so that no one gets hurt along the way. These types of film critics can be equally “deadly”.

    Thinking about it now, I have personally often enjoyed sharing film “experiences” with females rather than males – and more often than not, with neither, because of the vulnerability of conflicting emotional vs intellectual experiences. “Black Swan” being the best example of such a dichotomy – and your review being the only one with any “holy” merit (of the few that I did read).

    Regarding the “holy rough” cinema of von Trier and (might I suggest) Gasper Noe, I find that the “rough” too often subverts the “holy”, because my emotional experience borders on (legitimately) traumatic. This is in part due the issue that I cannot emotionally sustain “Antichrist” or “Irreversible” while watching alone – nor do I “feel” that it would even be appropriate to invite someone else into a shared watching experience – simply because each viewer is being asked to respond in such a severe manner – that it might be like asking a friend to join you for a public execution. All that to say, I am very interested to read about your experience and perspective with rough cinema in part 2.

    One more thing – your relationship to “The Mirror” is the relationship I have with Dreyer’s “Gertrud”. Thank you for articulating it so perfectly!


  2. I did a lot of work with Brook’s book here in grad school. However more in terms of theatre.
    Perhaps Kubrick is Cinema Immediate?

  3. Extraordinary blog, Kartina.

    As a screenwriter, I often find myself in an exhaustive struggle of commerce over art, and vice-versa. The revelation of applying Brook’s system of principles to my writing is a joyous epiphany. I look forward to part 2 on this subject. Many thanks!

  4. Interesting and thought-provoking article. However, keep in mind that the cinematography you credit as being in a “style very much resembling alternative music videos from 1991” would be an imitation of a watered-down copy of the style of cinematography common to films by Derek Jarman and Peter Greenaway in the 1980s and early 1990s.

  5. Great post! When will we learn more about the rough and immediate cinema?

  6. Rebecca Ver Straten-McSparran

    Still waiting for rough and immediate! This article provoked great conversations among my film students.


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