Essay: The Absurdity of Passion: Nicolas Cage

In this essay, I explore the craft of acting through the work of Academy Award-winning actor Nicolas Cage.

The Absurdity of Passion: Nicolas Cage


“There are often lists of the great living male movie stars:
De Niro, Nicholson and Pacino, usually. How often do you see the
name of Nicolas Cage? He should always be up there.”

(Ebert, 2008)


In this essay, I explore the craft of acting through the work of Academy Award-winning actor Nicolas Cage, in particular the films Wild at Heart (1990), Leaving Las Vegas (1995), and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009), and I explore the manner in which Cage approaches his craft, from the influence of method acting, or “working from the inside out”, in his early days (Gibb, 2015, 20), to his slow refutation of traditional ‘realism’ and embracement of both “working from the outside in” and more surreal styles from the early 1990s to present-day. (Gibb, 2015, 22) It is this interest of his in larger, more dramatic acting styles that I primarily focus on, and I explore his creation of new, personal acting styles: “Western Kabuki” (Gibb, 2015, 28) and “Nouveau Shamanic” (Nordine, 2014). Through this exploration of the many forms that Cage has taken throughout his career, I argue that his range, diversity and fearlessness to experiment places Cage in the highest tier of modern actors.

As a young actor trying to find his place in the business, Cage, after having studied at the American Conservatory Theatre for three months (Cage, 2003), found an interest in method acting, inspired by Robert DeNiro and in particular his performance in Raging Bull (1980) (Cage, 2003). The style of method acting derives from Lee Strasberg’s teachings, which in turn were inspired by Constantin Stanislavski’s idea of “the system” (Hirsch & Bell, 2014). The idea is to get into the character “from the inside out”, so as to fully understand the character you are portraying, and in doing so, create a sense of truth in the performance. Whilst acting in The Cotton Club (1984), Cage decided to take the method acting technique and apply it to real life, so as to get fully into the head of his character, a psychotic gangster – he approached a street vendor selling remote control cars and smashed one of them in front of the man, paying the man after the incident. (Cage, 2003) Another example of his dedication to method acting early on was his role in the film Birdy (1984), in which he played a Vietnam War veteran: to get into character, he had two of his teeth pulled out and wore a bandage over his face throughout the shoot. (Gibb, 2015, 22) It is this kind of method acting that some actors undertake to fully understand their character in search of truth on screen: if they can be this character utterly, then the audience watching will be further able to empathise with them.

But before too long, Cage started experimenting with other styles of acting. He found that the naturalist style that resulted from method acting can be incredibly effective but can become boring, and he did not want to become a boring actor. (Gibb, 2015, 20) By his appearance in David Lynch’s 1990 film Wild at Heart, Cage was becoming tired with method acting and wanted to try new styles. It was through this film that he was able to shed method acting as his primary acting style and move towards the “from the outside in” style that he refers to as being a more British style of acting. (Cage, 2003) This style of acting has a focus on the look and exterior mannerisms of the character – Stella Adler said that “[w]hat you put on […] affects you inside. What’s outside what makes you feel certain things inside” and that as such, “the costume is the character.” (Adler, 2000, 200) One example of this in Wild at Heart is the snakeskin jacket worn by Cage’s character Sailor throughout the movie. Cage owned this jacket himself, and asked Lynch if he could wear it in the film. David Lynch liked the idea, and added it into the script. (Wood, 2015) The jacket ends up having a large connection to the character of Sailor: Sailor is a rebellious man, and a big believer in being himself, and he expresses this through his choice of clothes, saying on a number of occasions that his jacket is a symbol of his individuality. (Lynch, 1990) Another facet of Cage’s performance in Wild at Heart is Sailor’s voice and demeanour, a clear homage to Elvis Presley – as a testament to Cage’s wide range of influences in his acting styles, he claimed to have been inspired to play Sailor as Elvis as a reference to Andy Warhol’s famous duplicates, as well as an attempt to specifically break the rule set by Stanislavski that an actor should never imitate someone else. (Gibb, 2015, 41) Sailor is also an incredibly animated character: he dances, flails around, fakes kung fu moves, sings Elvis songs, beats people up – all of this showing Cage’s physical dedication to his craft, and backing up his view that naturalist, low-key acting was not the way to go for the role, and showing his increasing interest in more surreal styles of acting.

Another example of his use of physicality is in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. True to the idea of outside-in acting, Cage plays the character of Lieutenant McDonagh with a constant limp, due to a back injury attained whilst saving a prisoner from drowning, which gives him a lumbering and threatening demeanour. But another element of this physicality is in the use of his face and voice: McDonagh frequently loses it, shouting and screaming at whoever is close to him, and speaks through gritted teeth due to the pain he is constantly in. In The Art of Acting (Adler, 2000), Stella Adler speaks of the power of words, and the importance of knowing how and when to speak in certain ways. (Adler, 2000, 205) Cage demonstrates his knowledge on the use of words and speech extensively throughout Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, showing a man who has become embittered by, and is angry at, the world, who constantly harasses and abuses the people around him; even to the people he meets in passing, he hisses at them aggressively, the pain inside him too great to suffer other humans. It is the character lashing out at the world due to what he sees as the unfair afflictions in his life – but even in the darkness, he recognises his love for his girlfriend, a prostitute. She is the only character that he speaks to with a quieter, more caring demeanour, showing his affection for her by not lashing out at her like he does everyone else. The only other character that he really treats like this is the criminal he saves at the start, when he meets him again at the end: the man is attempting rehabilitation, and expresses gratitude to McDonagh for giving him that chance. He and McDonagh go and sit in an aquarium, Cage’s voice now hushed to a contemplative mutter: he is given a moment of tranquillity where his pain is not making him lash out any more, his lack of venom showing us the character in a moment of a peace that has been lacking in his life since he damaged his back. It is this use of extremes in his use of speech that help to paint a truthful picture of the character and give the audience some insight into why he acts like he does throughout the movie.

Cage compared his performance in the film to impressionistic painting, in that his character is constantly on drugs but he played the character sober, and instead imagined “how the drugs would affect the character’s vocal quality or facial mannerisms” (Keough, 2010) – he identified each drug that McDonagh was on and added different elements of them to different parts of the performance. To achieve this, he used the technique of sense memory to recall past times where he had been drunk or high, making the portrayal of a man unhinged from drug use blurry around the sides but no less truthful. Sense memory is a technique used in different forms of acting, and was one of the earliest techniques he learned whilst he studied at the American Conservatory Theatre. (Cage, 2003) The idea of it is to draw upon past memories and bring them out in the performance, so as to make the performance as visceral as possible and without overthinking it too much or turning the performance into an intellectual endeavour that could stunt the immediacy of the performance. (Weston, 1996, 150)

In 1995, Cage won the Academy Award for Best Actor, for his portrayal of Ben Sanderson, a suicidal alcoholic, in Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas. (Gibb, 2015, 38) This performance finds Cage acting from both sides of the spectrum, both inside-out and outside-in, and also shows Cage being both extreme and reserved. His work from the inside-out came from his research of alcoholism, and how he took to drinking in preparation for the role – but as opposed to what the young Cage would have done, he did not drink himself through the film, recognising that that would have been too much of a gamble. (Ebert, 1995) The outside-in came from Cage finding physical objects that he felt connected him to the character (the character of Ben Sanderson, in both the film and the novel it is based on, is a semi-autobiographical portrayal of the novel’s author, John O’Brein, who committed suicide before the film was made), so as to build the character’s persona around the things that he owned. (Ebert, 1995)

One of the elements of Cage’s costume in the film are his sunglasses: these can be seen as an ‘object correlative’, an item that is linked to a character and which says something about their personality. (Butler, 2007, 58) Sanderson is a man tired of life, who has a wish to drink himself to death in Las Vegas. His sunglasses, which he often wears indoors, show how closed off he is to the rest of the world, as the sunglasses allow him to avoid eye contact and seem distant to the people around him. He is not always wearing these glasses, and as his relationship with the prostitute Sera continues, he wears them less and less, now being more open to human contact. Another more obvious object correlative is the alcohol: he is never without a drink to hand, both when he is indoors and out in Vegas. Indoors, he has a cache of drinks of all varieties, from whiskey to beer, often drinking from multiple drinks at once. This object correlative is the signifier of his desire to die, as it is the tool that he is using to commit suicide.

Whilst playing a more down-to-earth character than the wild Sailor, Cage was drawn to the melodrama within the script, and took to the piece by acting in a style he referred to as ‘operatic’ (Ebert, 1995), playing heavily on his emotions and the mental state of the character. He plays Sanderson in many ways: quiet, loud, happy, sad, tired, restless, living, and, finally dying; it is a role of extremes, where he employs his full “bag of tricks” (Weston, 1996, 160) in an attempt to portray this character as vividly and truthfully as possible. Every actor can bring their own take on a character, as the script is a “skeleton” until the chosen actor has identified what it is that they think makes that character tick, and how most effectively to portray that character and their relationships with other characters (Moss, 2004, 111); as recognised by the Academy, Cage brought to the role something powerfully unique – it was his range of (and love for) extremes that allowed him to play it so powerfully.

It is through these mixing of styles that Cage started to formulate his idea of ‘Western Kabuki’. Whilst the Japanese theatre style of kabuki has gone through many changes, its main components are a “collaboration of acting, sound and physicality” (Gibb, 2015, 28), and can be seen as an avant-garde style of performance – fitting in with Cage’s desire to move away from realism. Cage sees the main part of his Western Kabuki style as the use of his voice, wanting to use it in “a heavy-metal or operatic or baroque way.” (Gibb, 2015, 29) Kabuki plays have been seen as less works of literature and more as vehicles for the central performers to “demonstrate their enormous range skills in visual and vocal performance” (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2014) – looking at some of Cage’s later films, such as The Wicker Man (2006) or Drive Angry (2011), it can be seen that Cage’s kabuki style has been taken to the fore of the films he stars in, but in films such as Wild at Heart and Leaving Las Vegas, and later Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, this exaggerated and experimental style is meshed with the subject matter of the film to bring out truths within the characters that he is playing. The side of kabuki centred around dance is evident, too: his mother, a trained dancer, likened his performance in Wild at Heart as similar to modern dance, due to his unbridled physicality and how unpredictable he was in how he used it. (Brockes, 2013) Eventually, his dabbling in Western Kabuki led to him creating another acting method, this one called ‘Nouveau Shamanic’ (Gibb, 2015, 30), in which Cage wanted to find parallels between ancient Shamans and modern actors. Shamans typically used spiritual practices to bring about altered states of consciousness, with rituals being the centre of those practices; rituals would induce “trance, mystical visions, out of body experiences, a radical shift in awareness, [and] soul-journeying” (Dox, 2014, 115). This acting method could be seen as the culmination of his experimentations with avant-garde acting: as a part of the method, Cage would attach ancient artefacts to his clothing, gather crystals and minerals that are known to produce vibrations, and paint his face black and white in the style of Afro-Caribbean shamans. All of this may seem somewhat over-the-top for preparation for the central role in Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012), but it shows Cage’s dedication to every role that he throws himself into: if he is to play a being from another dimension, then he will find the means to understand what it is to be a being from another dimension.

Cage is an actor that pushes boundaries, unafraid of results. Ethan Hawke has described him as the only actor since Marlon Brando to try new techniques within acting, an actor who has taken us away from an obsession with naturalism and into a performance-based style of acting more similar to those of the old troubadours. (Gibb, 2015, 31) The idea of linking Cage to an older style of acting is well founded; his acting style can be compared to that of a silent movie star (Gibb, 2015, 31), as well as him being compared to Werner Herzog’s old leading man Klaus Kinski in his movements and use of facial expressions. (Keough, 2010) More than that, he has stated that he grew up watching German expressionist films such as Nosferatu (1922) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) from a very early age. Influences such as these show how an actor like Cage could formulate his own acting styles away from those in the norm, refuting the method acting of the time and moving in a new direction entirely; not just returning to older, more exaggerated acting styles but also finding new ways to express himself, and in the process finding new ways to portray truth on the screen.

Judith Weston, when discussing whether to favour the inside-out style of acting or the outside-in acting style, states that “surely the best actors can do both.” (Weston, 1996, 145) Cage understands this. It is this restlessness in his search for truth that makes him so notable – looking at his body of work, he has played “yuppies, scumbags, honorable rogues, heroes, villains, a gangster, a lovelorn punk, a pair of screenwriters, a greasy weapons dealer, at least a dozen cops and ex-cons” (Gibb, 2015, 74) – the list goes on, and has taken to each role with his own take on it, more often than not fitting the part and turning the character he is playing into something unique. For this, he can surely never be called boring. His breadth of knowledge on the craft of acting indicates a man fully immersed in his craft: his use of voice and physicality, his use of working from the outside-in as much as inside-out, his understanding that costume and props can build a character, his interest in merging theatrical styles with more traditional screen acting styles, his lack of fear of playing characters new to him, his creation of new methods of acting; all of these things show an actor not just fully immersed in his craft but also fully dedicated to it. Weston states that “[t]he really great actors love their craft. They experience acting as a kind of laboratory of the soul, a means of exploration and growth” (Weston, 1996, 141) – this is certainly true of Cage, a man who has dedicated his life to exploration and growth not just in his life, but also in his craft. An actor who believes that it is important to “break as many rules as you can” (Cage, 2003), Cage always pushes forward, even when appearing in low-budget or mainstream films. It is this kind of attitude that sets him apart from most modern actors, many of whom are content to play similar roles time and time again, and it is this kind of attitude, along with his impressive body of work and expansive range, that puts Cage in the ranks of the greatest actors of all time.




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Essay: Third Cinema – A Cinema of War

Third Cinema purposefully deviated from classical Hollywood stylings; it saw classical Hollywood cinema as “synonymous with spectacle or entertainment: in a word, it was one more consumer good”, and that “[a]t best, films succeeded in bearing witness to the decay of bourgeois values and testifying to social injustice.”

Third Cinema – A Cinema of War

This piece looks at how Third Cinema purposefully deviated from traditional Hollywood norms so as to found a new type of cinema that could serve the people, by being in the hands of the people. It uses The Hour of the Furnaces (1968) as a case study, so as to see how Third Cinema aimed to separate itself from classical Hollywood cinema, or ‘First Cinema’ (as well as European auteur cinema, or ‘Second Cinema’). Third Cinema purposefully deviated from classical Hollywood stylings; it saw classical Hollywood cinema as “synonymous with spectacle or entertainment: in a word, it was one more consumer good”, and that “[a]t best, films succeeded in bearing witness to the decay of bourgeois values and testifying to social injustice” (Getino & Solanas, 1969) – likewise, Second Cinema, whilst seen as progressive compared to First Cinema, was seen to be limited by it still being within the bourgeois society, and as such was “doomed to wait until the world conflict was resolved peacefully in favour of socialism in order to change qualitatively.” (Getino & Solanas, 1969)

Progenitors of Third Cinema such as Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas, who introduced the term ‘Third Cinema’ (Willemen, 1989) in their seminal essay Towards a Third Cinema (Getino & Solanas, 1969), wanted to consciously break away from this style, and create cinema that had the potential to emancipate the lower classes by spreading awareness of the injustices being perpetrated against the people by a corrupt system – it was to be a cinema “committed to a direct and aggressive opposition to oppression” (Gabriel, 1982).

The Hour of the Furnaces, an actively revolutionary film made by Getino and Solanas before they wrote their formative essay, first debuted internationally at the Pesaro Festival in Italy in the June of 1968, (Mestman, 2013) and was one of the cornerstones in the process of forming the concept of Third Cinema. Getino and Solanas wanted to create a piece of cinema that actively moved directly away from escapism and entertainment, and instead highlighted the plight of those oppressed in their home country of Argentina. To do this, they decided that this film would have to be totally resistant to assimilation by the bourgeois system, by making sure that it not only had nothing to offer the system, but that it was also directly setting out to fight this perceived system. (Getino & Solanas, 1969)

This approach to filmmaking is perhaps the biggest way that The Hour of the Furnaces differs from mainstream Hollywood: it was a political act, not one born of a desire to make money, or even to create art just for art’s sake. Notions of a star system and the promotion of wholesome family values had no relevance to what Getino and Solanas wanted to achieve, and instead the ‘stars’ of the film were their subjects: the people of their home country. The film could be seen as a ‘subjective documentary’ – within the film, many Argentinian people of lower class are interviewed, and speak of the troubles that they are subjected to. In showing these real scenes, the film wants to put across its beliefs of inequality, and engage its intended audience – i.e., those seen in the film as well as intellectuals unhappy with the state of the country – into a violent, armed revolution. We are shown the massive social divide in Argentina, where the wealthy of Buenos Aires enjoy a comfortable, Westernised lifestyle and the lower classes and natives live in poverty, unable to change their situation. The film argues that the time for complacency is over, and that every citizen of Argentina should take a stand: “[t]he worker who goes on strike and thus risks losing his job or even his life, the student who jeopardises his career, the militant who keeps silent under torture: each by his or her action commits us to something much more important than a vague gesture of solidarity.” (Getino & Solanas, 1969) This point of view can be seen in contrast to the Hollywood system, in its utter refutation of the status quo; generally by the conclusions of the Hollywood movies of the era, the status quo would be reinstated, backing up a lack of desire for change or not seeing a need for it in the world that these films represented. With The Hour of the Furnaces, Getino and Solanas aimed to break this status quo not in fiction but in real life, by refuting the positive view of the status quo in First Cinema.

Although the film is primarily a documentary, it still tells a story: by chronicling the oppression of a native people and the lower classes, we are still being subject to a narrative. However, unlike First Cinema, it is not structured in a typical way. The use of title cards, narration and music keeps the film’s sense of flow, but the film moves from place to place and from topic to topic freely, allowing us to take in the full breadth of the environments and situations that the film is addressing. It is not characters that the film centres on, but real people – so unlike traditional Hollywood, it is not fiction that drives this film, but something genuine. This could be seen as the filmmakers wanting to show the audience a full portrayal of the oppression in the country, so as to allow those less educated on their positions to start actively questioning the parts of their culture that are oppressing them. American culture permeates the film, but not in an unconscious way – the film bombards the audience with American adverts (including one scene intercut with the slaughter of cattle, thought to be a reference to ‘Second Cinema’ director Sergei Eisenstein (Schroeder, 2007)), and displays scenes of Argentinian youth who are dressed in highly Western-styled clothing and listening to American music. “We are taught to think in English” (The Hour of the Furnaces, 1968), the voiceover says – and they want to change all of this, and allow Latin America to form its own identity free from Western influence, particularly the perceived neo-colonial influence of the United States.

Again, the story they are telling is true, and they want people to pay attention to it. The mode of address in the film is indicative of this: it speaks directly to its assumed audience of the people of Argentina, imploring them to bear arms against the oppressors. Whilst Hollywood films regularly employed voiceover narration, it was never as direct or incendiary as the voiceover work in The Hour of the Furnaces. This is cinema as war – Getino and Solanas saw themselves “acting as the cinematic insurgent patrol in the armies of liberation fighting colonialism and imperialism” (Brenez, 2012). The reality presented in the film was theirs also – a far cry from the distance between a Hollywood producer or director and the fiction of their film.

Third Cinema did not attempt to achieve the perfection and mass popularity that First Cinema strived for: in The Aesthetics of Hunger (Rocha, 1965), Rocha describes it as “a project that has grown out of the politics of hunger and suffers, for that very reason, all the consequent weaknesses which are a product of its particular situation” (Rocha, 1965). In fact, it was this technical perfection and need for appreciation that it railed against: it aimed for “a new kind of distribution, outside the circuits still dominated by Hollywood products.” (Armes, 1987) As opposed to the large, public theatres that Hollywood films would be shown in, The Hour of the Furnaces was screened at clandestine meetings, where the film could be stopped and be discussed (Shroeder, 2007); something that would likely have never happened at a screening of a Hollywood film. But again, it is not for entertainment that this film was made: it was to incite revolution, and every screening of the film ran the risk of being caught by the dictatorship that they lived under (Brenez, 2012). Hugely distinct from the family-orientated appeal of the Hollywood film, The Hour of the Furnaces transformed its audience “into responsible historical subjects, not because they did or did not agree with the content of the film, but by virtue of the very decision to attend, despite the threat.” (Brenez, 2012) To Getino and Solanas, “in Latin America, the war is waged principally in the minds of men” (The Hour of the Furnaces, 1968), so to allow discussion of their film during showings was a way of getting their audiences to think, which could lead to them enlisting their support to help overthrow the ‘System’. The imperfections in the method of distribution for the film were as important as the message they were spreading, even being a part of that message: the point of seeing this film was not to have an evening out with family or friends, but to take part in a social and political activity.

The production of the film, too, was in opposition to that of a Hollywood production. It was filmed clandestinely in between 1966 and 1968 (Schroeder, 2007) by Getino and Solanas, with them not only filming interviews with citizens of the lower classes and revolutionaries, but also collecting archive material and newsreels to splice into the film. (Mestman, 2008) The guerrilla nature of their filming made completion difficult, as they explained: “A lack of foresight which in conventional film-making would go unnoticed can render virtually useless weeks or months of work.” (Getino & Solanas, 1969) But this way of shooting a film shows how with the right amount of dedication a Third Cinema film can be produced; through careful planning, and by using whatever you have at hand or can find, the creative limits of the Hollywood production budget can be defeated. A Third Cinema film can “be created equally well with a Mitchell or with an 8mm camera, in a studio or in a guerrilla camp in the middle of the jungle” (Espinosa, 1969) ­– these limitations can be used to create art that consciously deviates from the norms of the art of the bourgeois – art that is inherently and proudly imperfect. Getino and Solanas harnessed their limitations and were able to create something truly unique with it, something one likely wouldn’t have found in any of the Hollywood films of the era. In The Hour of the Furnaces, “uncompromising raw footage is transmogrified into art, just as the alchemy of sound-image montage transforms the base metals of tiles, blank frames, and wild sound into the gold and silver of rhythmic virtuosity.” (Stam, 2003)

In conclusion, Third Cinema wanted to distance itself from Hollywood because of the oppressive bourgeois society that it helped to promote in Latin America; as seen with The Hour of the Furnaces, to achieve this it utilised as many techniques as it could to distance itself from the First Cinema, from the basic format of a story and using a realist and social documentary style to convey its message, to its guerrilla production methods, to its stance as a political and revolutionary movement. It is these approaches that allowed it to succeed in it breaking away from traditional Hollywood’s norms, and allowed it to become its own, unique form of cinema, one that could be used by any oppressed group around the world to make a statement about their condition of life. Seeing the camera and projector as a gun (Getino & Solanis, 1969) – a tool of war (and of change) – was a revolutionary step to take in the advancement of cinema, and it is this aggressively revolutionary stance that helps to make Third Cinema what it is; a cinema for the people, a cinema by the people, and, most importantly, a cinema that can strive to genuinely change the world; the fact that Third Cinema films aren’t always going to achieve their social or political goals is fine – it is an imperfect cinema, after all.



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Getino, O. & Solanas, F. (dir.) (1968) The Hour of the Furnaces. [film] Argentina.