Sunday, May 04, 2008

An Alphabet of Cinema

Last week I was chatting on the phone with Christian Keathley, and about a half-dozen times I thought: “Hey, that’d make a cool blog post.” One of those times, we were discussing a cinephilic essay that’s one of my favorites, Peter Wollen’s “An Alphabet of Cinema.” If you haven’t read it, please think of this post as an inducement, an urging, to do so: it’s great fun.

Wollen delivered “An Alphabet of Cinema” as the Serge Daney memorial lecture at the Rotterdam film festival in 1998. It was then published in the New Left Review in 2001, and also appears in Wollen’s essay collection, Paris Hollywood: Writings on Film (2002).

For each letter of the alphabet, Wollen chooses a cinema-related word that is important to him, and devotes an entry of a few paragraphs to it. There are two reasons why I particularly love this essay: its loose, ‘bloggy’ format; and its conversational clarity. Wollen was aiming the lecture at a general festival audience rather than a roomful of fellow academics.

Here is the alphabet, along with Wollen’s chosen subjects.

“A is for Aristotle … the first theorist of film”; “B is not for Brecht, although of course it could be. Or even for B-movies, much as I always loved them. It is for Bambi”; C for Cinephilia; “D must certainly be for Daney, but it is also for Dance—Vincente Minnelli and Gene Kelly”; E for Eisenstein, a “ruined filmmaker, an image-maker ‘haunted by writing’ (Daney’s phrase), by the shot as ideogram, obsessed with the synchronization of sound, movement and image”; F for film festival; G for Godard, “for anti-tradition”; “H is for Hitchcocko-Hawksianism—and a pathway towards avant-garde film”; I for Industry and Ince; J for Japan; “K is for Kane, the film maudit par excellence”; L for Lumière; M for Méliès; N for Narrative; O for Online; “P is personal—for The Passenger, a film directed by Antonioni, which I wrote with my script-writing partner Mark Peploe”; Q for Bazin’s Qu’est-ce que le cinéma?; R for Rossellini, Rome Open City, Renoir, and Rules of the Game; S for Sternberg, Shanghai Gesture, and Surrealism; T for Telecinema, Third Dimension (3D), and Television; U for Underground Film; V for Voyeurism; W for Snow’s Wavelength; “X stands for an unknown quantity—for the strange fascination that makes us remember a particular shot or a particular camera movement”; Y for Les Yeux sans Visage, Franju’s Eyes without a Face; Z for the final frame of the zoom shot, Hollis Frampton’s Zorn’s Lemma, and for Zero.

* * *

Here are some excerpts from the lecture-essay:

Paradoxically, I began to read Aristotle in order to understand the writings of his great antagonist, Bertolt Brecht. Brecht himself directly attacked the idea of an Aristotelian theatre, seeking to replace it with what he called ‘epic theatre’, but now I think his polemic was based on a common misunderstanding. Aristotle’s idea of tragedy was very far from the kind of psychologically involving theatre that Brecht attacked. Like his fiercest critic, Aristotle saw tragedy as essentially dialectic and political. Brecht’s tragic vision of history, a vision shaped by world war, by successful and failed revolution, by the civil strife of the Weimar period and the rise to power of Hitler, was not so very distant from that of Aristotle, shaped by Alexander of Macedon and the crisis of the Athenian polis. For Daney, cinema—true cinema—began with Hiroshima, Mon Amour, a film about our personal response to an immense historic tragedy. Resnais’s film became the measure against which all others were judged. It was in their relation to Hiroshima, Mon Amour that Daney came to see Rossellini and Godard as the great moral film-directors of our time [...]

By ‘cinephilia’ I mean an obsessive infatuation with film, to the point of letting it dominate your life. To Serge Daney, looking back, cinephilia seemed a ‘sickness’, a malady which became a duty, almost a religious duty, a form of clandestine self-immolation in the darkness, a voluntary exclusion from social life. At the same time, a sickness that brought immense pleasure, moments which, much later, you recognized had changed your life. I see it differently, not as a sickness, but as a symptom of the desire to remain within the child’s view of the world, always outside, always fascinated by a mysterious parental drama, always seeking to master one’s anxiety by compulsive repetition. Much more than just another leisure activity. [...]

[Vincente] Minnelli saw himself as part of the fashionable art world—he was influenced by Surrealism and brought a dream-like delirium to the musical. [Gene] Kelly was part of the down-market dance world: brought up in the world of tap-dancing and working men’s clubs, the world of vaudeville, but aspiring to the world of ballet, to the world of high art. For me, Kelly was one of the few great geniuses of Hollywood. With On the Town, he took the musical out of the studio, onto the streets of New York, into everyday life. With Singin’ in the Rain, he perfected his invention of what we might call ‘cine-choreography’, his combination into one person of dancer, choreographer and film-maker, so that each dance was conceived and executed together with camera-angle and movement. Dance was no longer ‘filmed’ from outside. It merged with the film. Kelly broke down the distinction between offstage and on-stage, between narrative and spectacle. He dramatized dance, choreographed action. [...]

Godard was the most extraordinary artist to emerge from within the original French New Wave. I was in Paris when A Bout de Souffle (Breathless) first came out and I saw it every day for a week. At the time, people commented on the way it broke the traditional rules of film-making—its use of jump-cuts, its interpolation of cinema-vérité techniques into narrative film. Recently, when I saw it again, in a beautiful new 35mm print, it seemed almost classical. Its strangeness had been eroded by time. Godard himself never fitted into the festival genre. By the end of the sixties he had moved decisively into the avant-garde. For him, the ‘New Wave’ was more like an escape-hatch from the grip of Hitchcocko-Hawksianism. [...]

Thomas Ince was the director and producer who should get the main credit, if that’s the word, rather than D.W. Griffith, for creating the institution of Hollywood, for laying the foundations of the industry. It was Ince, at his own studio, who realized that the script was not just a dramatic story told in dialogue, but the template of the entire film, which could be broken down, scene by scene, to determine the estimated cost of production, the shooting schedule, the requirements that would be made of each department (sets, costumes, effects) and so on. Even today, the costume designer and the cinematographer and the props person carry annotated versions of the script, setting out what will be needed from them in each successive scene. Viewed in this light, the script is not so much an artistic product as an organizational tool, the fundamental prerequisite for the creation of Hollywood as an industry. It is the conceptual assembly line on which industrial production is based. It is also the opposite of Improvisation, the opposite of Godard. Blame or credit should go to Thomas Ince. [...]

And finally, Z is for Zero—Zero for Conduct, zero visibility, and Godard’s slogan, ‘Back to Zero’. As we enter the age of new media, the cinema is reinventing itself. We need to see that reinvention in radical as well as mainstream terms, to try and reimagine the cinema as it might have been and as, potentially, it still could be—an experimental art, constantly renewing itself, as a counter-cinema, as ‘cinema haunted by writing’. Back to zero. Begin again. A is for Avant-Garde.

* * *

A couple of links:

-- Jonathan Rosenbaum's website launched last week with an entry on two neglected filmmakers, Eduardo de Gregorio and Sara Driver. And his archives go all the way back to the mid-80s.

-- From last week: Mubarak Ali has a post on Renoir, Garrel and close-ups. Also: lots of great links to international film blogs and sites in his blogroll.

-- The Siren on Thomas Doherty's biography of Joseph Breen, Hollywood's Censor.

-- At Artforum, P. Adams Sitney on Peter Hutton.


Blogger Robert said...

The Wollen piece is one of my favorites as well. Coincidentally, i was thinking about Wollen's books this weekend, wondering why the third revision of "Signs and Meaning" has never been published in the U.S. and trying (unsuccessfully) to find out how it had changed since the 1972 version.

May 04, 2008 10:14 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Robert, I own the 2nd (1972) edition of "Signs and Meanings" but I did ILL and xerox the 'extras' from the 3rd edition last year. The big addition is a collection of the pieces he signed 'Lee Russell' for the New Left Review. They're a treat.

May 04, 2008 10:21 PM  
Anonymous Daniel said...

Thanks for pointing to this article Girish; I hadn't heard of it but the excerpts sound great!

May 04, 2008 11:53 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Hi, Danny. I just remembered something. The Andrew Sarris festschrift/tribute book, Citizen Sarris (ed. Emmanuel Levy) has some enjoyable essays of personal reflection by Dave Kehr, David Bordwell, John Belton, Chris Keathley, etc. James Naremore's essay on Sarris and his influence is structured very much like Wollen's "Alphabet", and is perhaps an homage to it.

May 05, 2008 8:02 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Last night I spent a couple of hours randomly surfing Netflix to see what new dvd's might've been added recently. I turned up the following films, none of which I've seen:

-- Several by Lino Brocka: Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang ("Weighed But Found Wanting") (1974); Mother, Sister, Daughter (1979); Cain & Abel (1982); Macho Dancer (1988); All Be Damned (1990). (Netflix also has Insiang (1978), which is the only one I've seen.)
-- Love and Anger, the omnibus film by Bertolucci, Pasolini, Godard, etc.
-- Sirk's La Habanera
-- Koji Wakamatsu: Go Go Second Time Virgin (1969); The Notorious Concubines (1969); Ecstasy of the Angels (1972).

May 06, 2008 6:52 AM  
Blogger Gareth said...

If you're interested, Dave Kehr briefly reviewed Love and Anger in his NY Times column a couple of years ago.

May 06, 2008 9:30 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Gareth. I must've missed Dave's review the first time around.

May 06, 2008 10:59 AM  
Blogger acquarello said...

Go, Go, Second Time Virgin and Ecstasy of the Angels have been out (and out of print) for a while, so I wonder if these are reissues. On the old Ecstasy of the Angels DVD, the order of two reels are actually swapped, so hopefully they fixed that minor annoyance. :)

May 06, 2008 1:02 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Acquarello, your encyclopedic memory never ceases to boggle my mind.

I bet you can also keep the titles, plots and sub-plots of all the Ozu films clear and distinct in your head!

May 06, 2008 3:01 PM  
Blogger girish said...

-- Dan Sallitt on Alan Rudolph.
-- Dave Kehr in the NYT on Abel Gance's La Roue.

May 06, 2008 3:22 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang is essential Brocka, not as good as Insiang in my opinion, but better than his best known work, Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag.

Mother, Sister, Daughter are second-tier Brocka, but even that is worth watching. Same with Cain at Abel and the rest--well-done melodramas made to make money, not quite serious statements.

Macho Dancer, though, it should be noted, was a small international hit, and made its foreign distributor rich. The Philippines has since had a small reputation (which Mario O'Hara made brief fun of in one of his films) for arthouse gay erotica.

I'd recommend Tinimbang, definitely. But if you can find someone who speaks Tagalog or don't mind not understanding the dialogue, and have a DVD player that does VCD format, I recommend the two Mario O'Hara films I talked about in my blog very highly as well. Kastilyong Buhangin does have fairly well done fight setpieces, I think.

May 06, 2008 4:58 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, Noel, for your guidance!

May 06, 2008 5:24 PM  
Blogger girish said...

-- Marilyn Ferdinand's Dance Movie Blogathon is a lot of fun.
-- Several articles are online in the new Artforum issue commemorating May '68.

May 06, 2008 9:26 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

No prob, girish.

Okay, I do love the action in Kastilyong Buhangin to pieces. But I'd hate to talk up the film too much.

May 06, 2008 11:50 PM  
Blogger acquarello said...

Heheh! G, that reminds me of the Shochiku sidebar a couple of years ago, where our usual group of Japanese film fans camped out at the Walter Reade. At the end of (Yasujiro Shimazu's) Our Neighbor Miss Yae, the lady sitting in front of me thumbed through her program, then turned and asked, "Now, was that a Shimizu or Shimazu? I've seen so many good ones this week I can't keep them straight!" It was quite a Laverne and Shirley moment there for a second. :)

May 07, 2008 7:41 PM  
Anonymous Karsten said...

Hi! Reads like a great essay. Thanks for the heads up.

Is the whole text anywhere to be found online? Google is of no use, at least to me. A link would be much appreciated!

May 08, 2008 8:12 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Noel, I'll be renting Tinimbang soon.

Acquarello, that's hilarious. I remember watching 6 or 7 Ophuls films in beautiful prints, all for the first time, all of them gems (Madame De..., Caught, Le Plaisir, Letter from an Unknown Woman, Reckless Moment, etc.) in the space of 48 hrs. Wonderful experience, but I wish I'd been able to space them out a bit...

Karsten, as I was writing up the post I tried but wasn't able to find the essay online.

May 08, 2008 8:59 AM  
Blogger girish said...

-- Darren has a nice formal analysis of the opening moments of Ford's The Iron Horse.
-- Jonathan Rosenbaum's new post at his site is on Alex Cox's Walker.

May 08, 2008 9:02 AM  
Blogger girish said...

On the previous, DVD thread, Andy Rector and CelineJulie have left nice and large list-comments (scroll all the way down).

May 09, 2008 6:00 AM  
Blogger girish said...

In the new Film Comment:

-- (online only) Jan Dawson's interview with Alexander Kluge from 1974.
-- Thomas Elsaesser on Fatih Akin and The Edge of Heaven:

"Akin, at 34, has earned the street credibility of a post-auteur international writer-director-star. Not unlike Lars von Trier, Kim Ki-duk, or Wong Kar Wai, his name may be associated with a national cinema, but he is equally at home in the entrepreneurial (and stylistic) lingua franca of the film festival and art-house circuits. [...]

"None other than Hanna Schygulla, Fassbinder’s Seventies muse, plays a leading role, as one of two mothers central to the story. The narrative, too, makes more than casual reference to Fassbinder’s films: the narrative setup incorporates echoes of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Berlin Alexanderplatz, and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Just to remove any doubt, in Germany The Edge of Heaven was billed (retroactively) as the second film of a trilogy meant to respond, according to the director, to Fassbinder’s BRD Trilogy (The Marriage of Maria Braun, Lola, Veronika Voss). What the troubled relationship between West Germany and its Nazi past was to Fassbinder, Akin seems to imply, is to him the no less troubled negotiation between “assimilated” Turks in Germany and their homeland. [...]

"Not for Akin the Romeo and Juliet melodramas of multicultural star-crossed lovers or the comedies of mistaken ethnic or national stereotypes found in the “Greek wedding” genre. In both cases, the hyphenation of ethnic or religious identities joins too comfortably or separates too neatly what in reality remain messy sets of generational tensions, universal moral dilemmas, emotional ambivalences, and divided loyalties. Instead, Akin prefers, like Fassbinder, perversely improbable love stories, sadistic scapegoating, and suicidal sacrifices."

May 09, 2008 6:29 AM  
Anonymous Jason said...

Hi Girish,
Ah yes . . . I am quite fond of the Wollen piece. Scott and I shamelessly use his material about a "desire to remain within a child-like view of the world" and the need for "compulsive repetition" throughout the forthcoming collection.

Also, I find his ancedote about Bambi quite beatiful, and his is one of the few old-school cinephile pieces to embrace the possibilities of digital technology.


May 09, 2008 9:38 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Hi there, Jason -- I look forward to reading your piece and Scott's in the collection.

May 09, 2008 10:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't be fooled by the Elsässer piece (Elsässer is way off too often these days): Edge of Heaven is a terrible film and shares in fact many features with the cinema Elsässers quote despises (Greek-Wedding-Genre etc). Nothing fassbinderesque there...

May 10, 2008 2:50 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Anonymous, I was wondering about the Akin-Fassbinder comparison too, although I haven't seen the new one yet.

New DVD releases at Netflix this morning:

-- Godard's La Chinoise, Le Gai Savoir.
-- De Toth's Day of the Outlaw
-- Minnelli's Some Came Running
-- Coppola's Youth without Youth
-- Malle's The Lovers and The Fire Within

May 11, 2008 7:06 AM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

Hey Girish: Don't forget Roger Corman's Secret Invasion, and the only film Frank Sinatra officially directed, None but the Brave.

May 12, 2008 9:30 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Peter!

May 15, 2008 6:16 PM  
Anonymous mohit garg said...

hey one can download all the backissues of the new left review on a torrent which is circulating. Peter Wollen's work will be found in it I'm sure!

September 18, 2008 3:16 PM  
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