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Director Nicolas Winding Refn: “Film Is Not an Art Form Anymore”

Fondazione Prada unveils its latest film season in collaboration with Nicolas Winding Refn’s free streaming platform byNWR – here, he talks to AnOther about the future of film

One night, Nicolas Winding Refn – the Danish director of sensorially extrovert, aesthetically ultra films like Bronson, Drive, Only God Forgives, Neon Demon – was bored. Having caught wind of a film archive for sale, Refn took possession of around 100 titles – almost all rare B-movies from mid-century America. And lo, the concept of byNWR was born – an online streaming platform, or “online museum”, designed as a cultural offering, free for all to wander through its digital halls.

At quarterly junctures, three films from the curatorial team’s now burgeoning archives are released under the umbrella of a volume – that’s one free film per month. Each chapter is guest-edited by a new contributor and brimming with additional original content using the newly restored and unveiled movies as a creative springboard. Today, Fondazione Prada opens the latest leg of its Soggettiva series, meaning ‘Subject’, at the Milanese compound’s cinema (previous seasons have been curated by artists Luc Tuymans and Theaster Gates), and sees the byNWR’s expert selection migrate to a temporary analogue home: the platform’s 12 films will show in a double-bill every Friday between now and May 24, with free entry (a first for the Fondazione’s initiative). The launch coincides with the unveiling of its fourth online volume, Smell of Female – curated by none other than Another Man’s editor-in-chief Ben Cobb. And so with the first day of March, a new kind of cultural cross-pollination is in full swing.

Sitting opposite Winding Refn in the Fondazione’s beautifully kitted, soon-to-open reading rooms (the vast green desk booths will be free to the public and students), upstairs from its uber-Instagrammed Wes Anderson-designed Bar Luce, pop culture and education seem to collide. “There should be more places like this,” Refn says of the Koolhaas-designed foundation complex. “It’s a perfect venue to place our online installation into an analogue environment, especially with what Prada stands for – progression.” Wrapped in neat woolen and scarf and light cardigan, he looks chic; fresh-faced and serious – a far more guarded version of the Refn audiences see at a panel talk later that night when, in a navy Prada suit, he is sarcastic, playful and terribly charming.

Having moved to America from Copenhagen at the age of eight, Refn was first turned on to the moving image via US TV; dyslexic and with bad English at the time, he felt empowered by the autonomy of the remote control – the choice being more delicious than any of the actual content he flicked between. At 14, he saw Texas Chainsaw Massacre – a film he also took his now-wife, actor and documentary filmmaker Liv Corfixen to see on their first date – and “the movie showed me that film could be an art form”. These two frequently recalled elements of Refn’s biography seem most pertinent now in discussing both byNWR and the future of film itself.

“Some of the [movies on selected for the platform] are unique but what binds them all together is that they all explore film as an art form,” Refn says. “They are individual expressions. In this day and age where everything is so generalised and democratic and everyone’s opinion has to be valued, everyone’s department has to be heard, everyone’s idea of acceptability is thought out, it’s generally not an art form anymore. It’s just consumer business. And it’s sad because I believe that film is the greatest art invention of all time. It’s also very young – no more than a hundred years old – but I don’t think you can find a more mass-media product that has done more to affect us than anything else.”

But with byNWR comes an opportunity to bring cinema, as an art form, to digital audiences today – an industry-wide fusing that he only sees as a positive thing. “Of course [film and TV] have been merging for a long time,” he continues “But because of streaming it’s a whole new opportunity. What is a film and what is not a film? Market-wise, financially, everything is moving in that direction because that’s where the audience consumes. So from a business perspective streaming has become the canvas of the future – it doesn’t mean you can’t make movies anymore. I’ll probably make a movie again now just to do something else, but there is a new sheriff in town – that’s streaming... in a digital world ‘free’ is a currency.”

Ever direct, he’s lately been quoted as saying that “cinema is dead” – and yet, here we are celebrating his online archive’s migration onto the big screen. “It is dead,” he says. “And no – we’re here putting them in the museum.” He lets a smile creep up. “Look, I still love cinema, don’t get me wrong, I love going to the cinema. But the reality is that the iPhone now coexists with the cinema. So it becomes matter of choice, becomes an opportunity and people will choose how they choose and you can’t really control that.” But isn’t something lost when you watch a beautifully crafted film on an iPhone screen, rather than handing over your undivided attention at the door of the cinema, I wonder. “Oh, no, that’s nonsense. Whoever says that – it’s nonsense, because if it’s not good enough to be seen on a normal small screen, it’s certainly not good enough to be seen on a big screen either… what translates is not what you see, what translates is the filmmaker’s intentions. It’s the sincerity that translates, everything else is just fluff.”

And what about our apparently dwindling attention spans? Won’t film suffer by trying to appeal to our endless desire for novelty?

“Why? Maybe it’s just not good enough and you don’t feel interested and invested enough. You’re not forced to invest yourself. See, I don’t believe this whole thing about people’s attention span of breaking down. It just becomes more democratic and you can control it more. So yeah, we all get fed up a lot easier because we have more opportunities, but in a strange way, we’ve also gotten smarter. My kids’ understanding of the moving image are far more advanced than my parents’. What won’t ever fall out of fashion or become debatable is your intentions, if there is sincerity you can make as long or as short as you want, you will always be engaging.”

However, the byNWR endeavour is less about the movies themselves than the creative content surrounding it, Refn explains. The team’s only agenda being to inspire creativity – particularly in a new generation but asserting that “culture is for everyone”, that these films whether “good” or “bad” (though Refn deems this a distinctly uninteresting debate), or even inappropriate can still inspire.

And the latest chapter, Smell of Female, is an excellent example. Surrounding three Grindhouse films with some extraordinary attitudes towards representation – Chained Girls, Satan in High Heels and Maidens of Fetish Street – Cobb has commissioned a series of original works that reframe the films anew. Proof enough that though they wouldn’t be made today, they can continue to foster creativity.

“Not only are these films half a century old, they were made for men, by men, half a century ago – I thought the last thing they need is another male point of view. Drawing upon my own environment in fashion and the fact that elements of fetish have really come to the fore lately, it suddenly seems really fascinating to get a female point of view today. Rather than a catalogue of historic documents of the films, I wanted to know what people thought about it now and what conversations they spark and what feelings they brought to the surface. I think that really brings it into today. It’s so interesting how each contributor reacted to the film.”

What an array it is too. Designers Dilara Findikoglu and Mimi Wade created and shot clothing inspired by the various movies, playlists by Princess Julia and Honey Dijon (“very sleazy disco”), editor Harriet Verney and Pam Hogg created short films; Seana Redmond created collage artworks from German vintage porn mags while artist Wanda Orme created a series of cyanotype photographs of stills from Maidens of Fetish Street and devised an accompanying poem; fashion reviews of each film were undertaken by writers Emma Hope Allwood, Laura McLaws Helms. Each responding to these provocative movies, the first Chained Girls, online from today is described by Helms as a film “staged as a shocking exposé of contemporary lesbianism”. Crammed with incoherent facts, the movie’s drab dress codes “reinforce the movie’s message that lesbians are deviously blending in all around us”.

“For me personally I’ve always loved that kind of high and low,” Cobb continues. “I love really elevated luxury and I equally love trash culture. It’s the in-between bit that isn’t interesting to me. You might call a film ‘bad’, maybe technically, but there might always be something worthwhile in there – a kernel of something interesting at the heart of it. What I think I love about these is that there’s something obsessive at the heart of each of them; they were made against all odds in a way, really quickly, and when you watch them now, what they say to us now is quite revealing and tells us quite a lot. It’s a conversation with our past in a way. Some of that is disturbing and some of it is hilarious and what I think is interesting, specifically about the films in my volume, makes you realise how far we’ve come.”

It’s an admirable endeavour – fuelled by Refn’s unusual combination of both optimism and pragmatism in his approach, and the Fondazione’s new programme is the ultimate showcase for the platform. However, what the 12-week programme really looks like to him, is “one hell of a good time”. His penchant for pop, for pleasure, and for humour overriding any benevolence or do-goodery that seemingly powers the project.

“I kind of think of Nicolas as the Medici of sexploitation really – he is a benefactor,” Cobb says. “I love that there is someone in his position, in terms of profile and the backing he has, that is crazy enough to do this. He’s restoring all these films to give them to the world, to put them out there for free, forever. More and more I think that’s such an amazing thing. It’s a real crusade, a cultural crusade. It’s quite special. It’s such a huge undertaking and there’s every reason not to do it – I love that he’s done it.”

Fondazione Prada, Milan's, Soggettiva: Nicolas Winding Refn season is running every Friday until 24 May, 2019. The byNWR collection uneviled to date can be streamed online – the first installment of Smell of Female launched today and will roll out throughout this month.