Sunday, February 01, 2009

Teenage Flashback

It's a delight for me to present here the debut publication of a precocious teenage Adrian Martin. Enjoy! -- Girish.

* * *

This was my first published piece, in the Australian magazine Cinema Papers no. 19 (January-February 1979) – a review of the book Authorship and Narrative in the Cinema by William Luhr and Peter Lehman (who later became specialists of Blake Edwards). I was 19, and had just dropped out of university education; I got the gig through my teacher-mentor (and eventually friend), Tom Ryan. Although the tone of the piece is somewhat righteous and finger-wagging – a typical ’get with the program’ rhetorical pose of the time – it raises at least one issue in film aesthetics that, thirty years later, I am still trying to resolve: the gap between thematic and formalist approaches (one can easily read my own ambivalence, poised as I was between ‘traditionalist’ and ‘progressive’ identifications). As for the book under discussion (I still have my review copy), published in 1977, it makes for instructive reading today as a ‘transitional’ text, although it has been little referenced in the intervening years; its context of aesthetic theory is one I did not exactly appreciate or give a decent account of in this review, because it did not look like anything that was new or radical in the late ‘70s. But the book is also of its time, in a very charming way: its ‘frame captures’ are meticulous, finely-textured pencil drawings! (30/01/09).

Authorship and Narrative in the Cinema: Issues in Contemporary Aesthetics and Criticism by William Luhr and Peter Lehman (Capricorn Books, New York: GP Putnam’s Sons, 1977)

Review by Adrian Martin

In the past ten years, film criticism has undergone major changes. Each new approach has ushered in another, each one bringing with it considerable theoretical material from other disciplines: semiotics, psychoanalysis, linguistics, etc. The result, particularly evident in Screen journal, is that every approach ideally needs to be integrated with those related to it. Thus Stephen Heath, for instance, calls for a grand synthesis of all the radical criticism so far developed, a system he titles the cinematic machine. The super-intellectual effort required for such a task is daunting – if indeed such a synthesis is desirable, or even possible.

It is, therefore, hardly surprising that some critics have felt the need to specialise. William Luhr and Peter Lehman provide such a specialisation. Indeed, they see their aesthetic analysis as the necessary prerequisite to any other critical work: “Only when the nature of the object itself has been precisely established can it be fruitfully related to larger constructs […] other constructs – social, political, psychological, and so on – are worthwhile, but beyond the specifically aesthetic concern of this work”.

Luhr and Lehman work in the traditional area of mise en scène analysis, a minute discussion of how the various elements of cinematic style – composition, lighting, décor, movement of camera and actors, etc – cohere into a unified expression of the film’s fictional world.

The long chapters on The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Searchers painstakingly trace the recurring motifs in John Ford’s direction: the use of doorways, association of characters with certain times of day, changing positions of characters in the frame to indicate spatially the change in their relationships, etc. For those who have any regard for these films, the analyses provide fascinating insights into their seemingly inexhaustible complexities.

Similarly, the auteurist account of Ford’s developing concerns as revealed in the body of his work will be of interest to Ford admirers, though Luhr and Lehman insist – rightly I believe – that deciphering patterns of coherence between different works by the same author is only a secondary aesthetic concern.

However, anyone coming to the book without a prior regard for Ford is likely to find it somewhat puzzling. In their introduction, the authors explain that they picked these films for analysis simply because they provide examples of “effective” films in the narrative tradition. The analysis seems to imply a great deal more – that the films are in fact masterpieces.

Presumably, within the area of traditional criticism, that evaluation would be worth stating and then being put under scrutiny by the analysis – as Robin Wood does, brilliantly, in his piece on Letter from an Unknown Woman in Personal Views. This is eloquent of a central confusion in the book’s method. Luhr and Lehman appear to find it enough merely to outline the precise symmetry of motifs and associations in the films – “how the work functions as an artistic unit”.

But a doorway is just a doorway, no matter how many times it appears, or whichever director decided to put it there in the shot. The point is precisely what that motif expresses, and how well or badly it achieves this end.

This is Wood’s great strength as a critic: the way he constantly strives to evaluate the worth of a film’s realisation, the way it works itself out. Luhr and Lehman’s chapter on The Searchers is better than the one on Liberty Valance in this respect, because their description of the film’s pattern of ellipses directly entails a discussion of how we can – or cannot – read the psychology of Ethan’s character.

The authors are shy when it comes to identifying theme. Yet if one is committed to working in a traditional mode of criticism, that is always the foremost question: what is this film about? This leads to: how does it say it? How well is it said?

In the classical narrative cinema, formal operations always stand for something else – they represent an idea; the world of the fiction embodies something and is charged with meaning.

An alternative critical approach radically counterposes to this idea the notion that form – the material construction of the film – is important in itself, leading to a new revaluation of the output of independent filmmakers that focuses on the ‘film work’ itself. This is a direct challenge to – often a dismantling of – traditional narrative cinema. Luhr and Lehman try to sit astride both worlds:

The non-narrative challenge should ultimately lead to a more precise evaluation of the narrative cinema. Both, ultimately, share the same formal attributes (mise en scène, editing, sound, and so on) and skill in both lies in the configuration of these attributes, for whatever purpose. Such an evaluation cannot help but highlight the genius of men like Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, and their peers.

The phrase “for whatever purpose” ignores the fact that the purposes are opposed to each other: in narrative cinema, form (ideally) disappears under the illusion mounted by the fictional world; while in alternative films, however we wish to label them, form moves to the foreground and works against the production of a fixed, coherent, readable meaning (or theme in the traditional sense).

Even if we choose, as critics, to work in the familiar world of evaluative criticism, this book brings up problems that cannot be easily ignored. The analysis in the book restructures films, in Barthes’ phrase, into “blocks of meaning”; i.e., patterns of coherence are carefully described as they are seen to be at work in the film. The result of this and all mise en scène criticism is that it picks out the ‘striking images’ (and sounds) from a film, makes a case around them, and then conveniently forgets the dross. For, as Raymond Bellour has observed, the most profound tendency in the classical narrative film is towards repetition.

Mise en scène critics have a field day with low/high angles or elaborate crane shots. But what can they say about that most common figure of film language, namely the dreary old reverse shot that cuts from actor A speaking in mid-shot to actor B speaking in mid-shot? Which is not to say that the reverse shot structure is never complex or expressive (quite the contrary), but in the majority of cases it is the moment when cinematic style shrinks to zero.

Why is this technique so prominent in narrative film? A theory needs to be evolved that reaches beyond traditional criticism. If this is not the task Luhr and Lehman set themselves, then they might reasonably be expected to recognise and refer to the problem.

The second half of the book, on narrative, is naïve and disappointing. The authors appear dismayed over the “much needless controversy” around the subject. Their solution, in line with the book’s first half, is to argue that the story is simply one formal element that the director may use to communicate his or her ‘vision’ – although, as noted, they are reluctant to speak of an auteur’s thematic viewpoint and discuss instead the “elaborate formal patterns … [that have] much more to do with the film’s aesthetic than the ostensible narrative”. Hitchcock, for instance, is seen to:

… provide a film that works expertly as narrative and thus ensure his ability to finance films, while at the same time produce cinematic masterworks whose impact far exceeds that of the narrative elements within them.

Luhr and Lehman, in order to make such statements, have managed to ignore most of the interesting and important work done on narrative. The writing of Barthes, Propp, Metz, Genette, Bellour and others goes unnoticed. This is not to say that a critic has to refer to everyone who has previously discussed the same topic (an impossibility, certainly in this instance). But in this case it means that the key questions are not explored: what are the ‘rules’ of narrative? How does a narrative situate the viewer in a certain position of knowledge and pleasure (or unpleasure)?

The long comparison of various versions of the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde story on film with the original novel serves to point out that significant changes can be wrought upon a similar storyline – “extensive and essential differences”. The aim is finally to eulogise the “creative process” – the ways in which different artists, whatever their worth, will necessarily produce individual variations on the pre-existing plot line.

The study of narrative carried out by others has aimed precisely to see what structures and effects exist in the act of narrative irrespective of the particular narrator, be it John Ford or Tex Avery. What makes this part of the book so shallow is that the authors see narrative as something utterly unproblematic – merely the events of a story – and ignore the real theoretical issues. Any book that subtitles itself “issues in contemporary criticism” needs to involve itself with those issues.

© Adrian Martin January 1979.

* * *


-- The current issue of Filmkrant has a special section called "Slow Criticism" featuring, among others Jonathan Rosenbaum, Olaf Möller, Kent Jones, and Adrian, who also has a column on one of America's "very worst film critics," Ben Lyons.

-- At The Auteurs, a round-table of conversations called "The Epilogue" with Andrew Grant, Harry Tuttle, Kevin Lee, Edwin Mak, Alexis Tioseco and Nitesh Rohit.

-- There's a new issue of Senses of Cinema.

-- Recent pieces posted at Jonathan Rosenbaum's place: on undistributed films, The Godfather, and Ritwik Ghatak.

-- Some new posts and pieces from: Mubarak Ali, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Doug Cummings, and Walter at Quiet Bubble.

pic: Pencil drawing of a shot from a Freudian sequence in Victor Fleming's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941) from the William Luhr-Peter Lehman book.


Blogger girish said...

Adrian: Remarkably, I can clearly hear your voice (the one we know well from your subsequent writings) in this piece!

February 01, 2009 7:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Quite good... like the other "early Adrian Martin" or "unpublished" discoveries linked before, specially the Chris Marker one.
Miguel Marías

February 02, 2009 4:45 AM  
Blogger André Dias said...

Miguel, can you elaborate on the comment you’ve made on the last post about “‘first seeing’ [being] after a time not so important”? What do you mean? The problem concerning the difference between first and repeated viewings is, in itself, very interesting. Thanks.

February 03, 2009 8:30 AM  
Blogger Doug said...

As someone who took several classes taught by Peter Lehman at the University of Arizona (where we did indeed study visual motifs at length in films such as The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and The Pink Panther) it's fascinating to read Adrian's critique. Lehman (who, by the '90s was deeply into psychoanalytic theory) used to always tell us the films he selected for us to study weren't necessarily "good" films, they were merely "instructive," which I always felt was a cop-out.

February 03, 2009 10:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not quite on topic but since it's another Adrian Martin post I thought I'd ask. I read somewhere that Mr Martin had written an answer to Olaf Moller's piece about Movie Mutations. Specifically, is this an answer to "We have come from afar, and we will go further", or is there another Moller piece I should know about, and is Mr Martin's answer to that available on internet? (I am going to be reading Movie Mutations at long last very very soon, btw. Can't wait!)

February 04, 2009 9:32 AM  
Anonymous Jake said...

I have that article (supposedly written for a Serbian magazine) where Moller criticizes Movie Mutations (I read this before reading MM, :D)(hopefully you mean this Anon I could preview a couple of sentences but I was told the translation was all wonky) but I didn't know A. Martin responded back.

I too want to know if this response to Moller is available and if I can get my filthy hands on it.

February 04, 2009 10:27 AM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

I have never, in fact, responded to that vicious slander by Olaf the Mauler !!! The showdown can wait for another day ... No, seriously, Olaf's work is often striking, but I have never wished to get into a dialogue with his scattergun critique of the MOVIE MUTATIONS project, because that book (as I am sure Jonathan would agree) was never meant to be a final or definitive statement about a particular 'field of global research' or anything like that. Just a door opening ...

February 04, 2009 3:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fair enough. I would be hugely interested in what you do say if one day you do answer though :).
I haven't read the book myself yet, so feel free to completely dismiss what I say, but I found two of his points hugely pertinent, not only to the book since I haven't read it but to the cinephile community as it stands today (or my impressions of it in its broad lines. I know I can't generalize): the fact that most of the critics part of the project are western (except for Hasumi Shigehiko who looks to the west very much), and the fact that there was nothing on truly new discoveries (except Brenez on AG, but since I don't know anything about that I can form no opinion about the value of her choices). I will keep those in mind while I finally open the holy grail...
But a question to you, Mr Martin. Did you feel that any of his criticism was justified, or partly justified? Did you see the article as constructive in any way?
I'm just asking because even though:
-I haven't read the book.
-I still have nowhere near enough knowledge of the dominant (?) cinephilia (as per Moller) to even start criticizing it (less than 400 films out of Rosenbaum's top 1000, for f's sake!), and
- I deeply, deeply love the work of Jonathan Rosenbaum, Nicole Brenez and yourself (I'm not yet acquainted in any significant way with any of the others, except maybe Kent Jones),

that article has come the closest to a valid manifesto for modern cinema than any other I can think of, including Brenez's.
Hope I'm not being the bore who makes the negative toast at the wedding...
Best, Nathan

February 04, 2009 6:37 PM  
Anonymous Jake said...

Man, I think you should read the book and compare/contrast yourself for a better inquiry...

February 04, 2009 8:15 PM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Nathan, I don't want to enter into a sort of 'phantom debate' here, but I just will say: in parts of the world (like Spain, Chile, Croatia, Argentina) where sections of MOVIE MUTATIONS have been translated and are still inspiring programming events, it has indeed functioned (happily) as a book of 'discovery' - as it was intended. Olaf is free to argue, from his position, that the championing of Kiarostami or Garrel, for instance, amounts to a 'dominant discourse' of world cinephilia - but try flying that flag that place in a country (like mine, Australia) where almost no Kiarostami or Garrel film has ever been commercially released in an arthouse, and such guys have no 'name recognition' whatsoever in the middle-class cultural press. Even the BFI baulked a little, at the very start, at how 'obscure' the film references in our book were! In short 'discovery' is something that happens in different ways and places and times and levels for different people. And the 'hardline' position can easily become fickle, as we see all the time: the moment Jia (or someone) becomes (shudder) part of 'dominant discourse', we must dump him and restlessly find the new and most obscure 'discovery'! But all up, I do consider MOVIE MUTATIONS a book of discovery, and it seemed to work that way for many (if not for Olaf). As for the 'ethnic spread', of course we were aware of our demographic Western bias: we talk about it at the start of the book. That's why it was framed as just a beginning, an opening: and indeed it has inspired (and continues to inspire) other initiatives elsewhere that tackle different areas and regions, and bring in many different voices ...

OK, that's my last word on this in this context!

February 04, 2009 8:40 PM  
Anonymous Matthew said...

I remember the first time I read Movie Mutations, back at film school, and feeling it was a launchpad, a starting point. If it does anything at all, that book, it opens everything up, enables.

February 05, 2009 12:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Since I have read "Movie Mutations" but not Olaf Möller's criticism of it(where is it? I'm intrigued, despite Adrian's depiction of it as slander), I'm following this thread with both curiosity and bewilderment. I fear the problem starts when some persons or groups of person take any book (and "MM" was most obviously tentative, an exchange of subjective e-mails) as some sort of "Bible" or "sacred book" and try to live by (or, worse yet, impose on others) its alleged "rules". Which fortunately I don't see at all in "MM", where you can agree or disagree with some parts or some of the writers involved and yet get a lot of food for FURTHER thought and encouragement for FURTHER explorations, rather than a new or post-modernist "canon" (which, by definition, would change yearly). What Adrian retorts reminds me of people which accused me of "defending the establishment" because I preferred Straub, Godard, Kiarostami, Erice, Pialat or Garrel to Spielberg, the Coen or Scott brothers and other mainstream and usually commercial figures (seemingly more "modern" or "marginal" or both).
Miguel Marías

February 05, 2009 4:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, that was a very constructive answer :)!
Do you have any examples of the other intiatives you mentioned it has spurred in other parts of the world? I'd be fascinated to read tham as well if they've been translated...
And sorry, I realize my comments sounded very cheeky since I haven't read the book, my aim wasn't to attack but to find out what both sides of the coin are, and you've provide my with a very good answer, so thank you again for that.

February 05, 2009 5:29 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Hello and thank you, all!

Just my two cents here: Nathan, it might be a good idea to wait till you've read Movie Mutations before we stir up the pot any further on this contentious topic. Might be more constructive that way, methinks...

I'm intrigued by this line in Adrian's intro: " least one issue in film aesthetics that, thirty years later, I am still trying to resolve: the gap between thematic and formalist approaches (one can easily read my own ambivalence, poised as I was between ‘traditionalist’ and ‘progressive’ identifications)."

I have felt this same tussle over the years. I felt an affinity for theme early in my life as a cinephile (it accompanied my discovery and embracing of character-driven films) but later, when I was hit with the importance of form, it was a revelation that completely changed--and sharpened by sensivitivities to--the way I paid attention to what was up there on the screen.

I wonder if others also feel this tension between pursuing a thematic approach or a formalist approach when thinking about films (of course, it's not an either/or option), and also: what critics might we single out whose strengths lie on one side or the other? Or in balancing both?

February 05, 2009 7:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Point taken. I shouldn't have pushed the point further without knowing what I was talking about, apologies for that.

February 05, 2009 8:48 AM  
Blogger André Dias said...

On balancing both, or even at neglecting both, which also an option, Serge Daney is the one for me! ;)

February 05, 2009 9:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My personal reading of Daney's genius is beyond balancing both; more like merging both, making them inseparable but gloriously fertile.
Am curious about what you mean by neglecting them both, though.

February 05, 2009 9:25 AM  
Blogger girish said...

André, your line piques my interest (as always)! I ask out of ignorance: where does Daney--and his writing--stand on thematic vs. formalist approaches?

February 05, 2009 9:53 AM  
Blogger André Dias said...

Nathan, let’s not enter in a contest on who loves Daney the most ;) And Girish, I’m not the best person for you to ask that (Adrian, help!). But taking Nathan’s dialectic interpretation of Daney, one might say that he synthesizes both, producing what one might call thought, even if it’s one not inscribed in a discipline, like philosophy or sociology. In the best cases, like Daney and a few others, one wonders if there isn’t a specific “though” belonging to the juncture between cinema and criticism that can’t be attributed to the film itself neither to the critic's head. What do you think?

I think I can get away with my neglecting option joke by stating my impression that in the most idiosyncratic critics or theorists that kind of options tends to be covered by their “personal” attitude towards writing, i.e., heir style or singularity might not be particularly well defined by just positioning them along that dualism. So, without even considering theme or form, they mind end up writing beautiful “ideas”, and that’s what matters most. Of course, Adrian’s obsession with this problem is one of the things that make his approach so important, and it’s wonderful to find someone we can rely at for following the same problem path.

But when writing about a film, I tend to feel that the option we’re dealing here between theme and form (or whatever) lies behind or ahead the actual writing, which might concern more the undetermined obligation one feels towards the film, even if those options sometimes are explicitly clarified in the same text.

(Due to hurry, I guess I’m saying a lot of bullshit here. Please don’t crucify me! I’m trying to finish a text before deadline, so I won’t participate more on the very interesting debates going around till the weekend.)

February 05, 2009 10:06 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks for that, André!

February 05, 2009 11:00 AM  
Anonymous Jake said...

I wonder if others also feel this tension between pursuing a thematic approach or a formalist approach when thinking about films (of course, it's not an either/or option)

I feel this tension too, but I think it when it comes to evaluating films I just do it on a relative film-by-film basis, a really clumsy method because I don't think I got the hang of "properly" judging or reporting on a movie - I don't think there are universal principles for judging or studying a movie. Why make a dichotomy like "theme v. form" anyhow? I believe Martin said in a Filmkrant article some time ago about the different academic approaches to studying cinema, and said that there should be no tension or "right or wrong" way on studying this stuff, and that all approaches should be embraced (to an extent, we have to realize their limitations) in order to have the fullest understanding possible of a movie or cinema around the world. Hope I'm skating on thin ice here!

February 05, 2009 11:36 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Ah, I made a typo. I meant to say: "sharpened MY sensivitivities to..."

February 05, 2009 1:04 PM  
Blogger Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...

A great discussion, as always.

It could be said that there’s a form to content and that all form is content. They’re just two ways of slicing up something that exists as a whole, like how an object might be bisected along a vertical or horizontal axis.

There are, though, quite a few doubts and questions. We’re never quite sure what the whole is: is it a single film, a part of that film, the whole cinema? Even when we’re focusing on one thing—say, a certain scene—we’re never quite sure if that’s what we’re actually analyzing. After all, our memories of the rest of the film, other films, the rest of culture and history and art can’t be ignored. And where do those axes lie, and is the distinction of which is the vertical and which is the horizontal of any importance? Why not the diagonal?

The key thing to remember is that this bisection is not the object itself—that every approach is subjective and misses just as much as the other approaches, meaning that every approach is equally valid. Any criticism of a film is not the film itself, and though this appears to invalidate all approaches, I think that it in fact re-affirms this, gives them importance as creative and analytical acts. If there was one correct approach or way to get at a film, there’d be no reason to write about movies.

I think Jake has a good point, and I think a certain uncertainty is necessary. The person who has become convinced that they know the secret to looking at movies has become blind; they are not, however, to be confused with the sort of people who are aware that their approach is just that—an approach. That is to say that there’s a difference between a critics who focuses on, say, an analysis of only the editing of a film and a critic who believes that anyone who isn’t focused exclusively on the editing is wrong. There’s a whole world that can be found in looking only at edits, and a whole world only in microphone placements or narrative structures or colors. If I wanted something with exact answers, I would’ve fallen in love with mathematics, not movies. The possibility of being wrong, of finding different solutions or clearer ideas years down the line is, I think, very exciting. It makes every movie permanently modern.

February 06, 2009 1:58 AM  
Blogger peter said...

Any fans of Slavoj Zizek's film writings? I enjoyed the documentary "The Pervert's Guide to Cinema".

February 06, 2009 3:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can't say I am a fan of him, I'm afraid. Why is he so respected remain to me a deep mystery. One of those things that today become popular, like "Benjamin Button".
Miguel Marías

February 06, 2009 6:25 AM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Curiously enough, given the terms of our discussion, Zizek is (in my opinion) the worst kind of thematic critic: he just 'reads off' the barest narrative content of films and projects it through the allegorical grill of his Lacanisms. No formalism - not even the barest attention to form, style, expression, tone, mood, nuance - whatsoever. Zizek may be an interesting reference point in some political and philosophical discussions, but his contribution to film studies is, in my view, miniscule.

February 06, 2009 6:32 AM  
Blogger peter said...

Zizek does bring a zest and enthusiasm to film studies, in the same way that Camille Paglia does.

February 06, 2009 6:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I quite agree with Ignatiy. Something is not working properly in a movie if you need to separate form from content, instead of both playing ball inside the film. And after all, there is no way to be sure (even if the filmmakers, out of kindness or laziness or pleasure, were to agree, and conceded we were right) that we correctly understand not only a film, but a scene, or a shot, which another can see or understand in a different way. What is interesting is the struggle, the search, the attention, and trying to explain to oneself Why this moves me so much? or Why this supposed masterpiece leaves me cold?.
Miguel Marías

February 06, 2009 7:46 AM  
Blogger peter said...

Even if a particular film does not totally coalesce, a very good film such as, for example, Rossellini's "Era notte a Roma", contains some truly magical moments. One needs to create or recreate the film for oneself.

February 06, 2009 8:20 AM  
Blogger girish said...

I find Zizek's Pervert's Guide to Cinema entertaining, amusing and attention-engaging but I think Adrian nails Zizek's limitations--I agree 100%.

February 06, 2009 8:33 AM  
Blogger peter said...

Even if you have read his work, I think it is foolish to dismiss Slavoj Zizek's writing in such an out of hand fashion. He brings his own particular slant on whatever hs is discussing.

February 06, 2009 9:06 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Nobody is dismissing his writing out of hand here. There's no question that he's a significant figure in contemporary philosophy. It's very specifically his approach to film--and its insufficient and cursory attention to details of form--which is being remarked upon here.

February 06, 2009 9:58 AM  
Blogger peter said...

There is more to valid and interesting film appreciation than a concentration on details of form.

February 06, 2009 10:14 AM  
Blogger ZC said...

Zizek is a very entertaining snake oil salesman, shrewdly capitalizing on his appeal as court jester. (Actually--again--much like Paglia.)

February 06, 2009 10:17 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Peter, this is just my opinion--we all have our own, of course--but film appreciation that pays scant attention to form is, for me, flawed, incomplete, not as deep and substantive as it could be. And I understand that you and I might differ on this point--which is perfectly fine, of course.

February 06, 2009 10:20 AM  
Blogger peter said...

Zizek is a very entertaining snake oil salesman, shrewdly capitalizing on his appeal as court jester. (Actually--again--much like Paglia.)

Au contraire, I would suggest that Zizek and Paglia are able to discern the poetry and excitement in a film.

February 06, 2009 10:34 AM  
Blogger Gareth said...

I identify very much with Jake's comments about approaching things on a film-by-film basis. For me, it comes down to what seems like the most fruitful way to examine a particular film. As Miguel says, there's no way to be sure that we are correct in our interpretations, but for certain films a more formal approach seems more productive because it seems as though the filmmaker is interested in such a approach him/herself; at other times, it may prove less useful (though not less valid) as a way to examine a specific film. I often think of it as a method of examining films on their own terms, which can be so variable. It's a fascinating question.

February 06, 2009 12:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A brief defense of Slavoj Zizek since it pains me to see him compared (even favorably alas) to Camille Paglia. Yes, he pays attention to narrative form much more than cinematic form, but he is not without occasionally brilliant insights that are sparked by shots or use of sound. He is a populist and not a formalist but films have invaded his cultural criticism in an original way as the central symptoms of an obsessional psychoanalysis of everyday life. It is not an accident that the filmmakers he writes best about (Hitchcock and Lynch) are great visual filmmakers. It's true, he's something of a huckster and court jester but this is very much part of his persona. Fredric Jameson has called his writing a "montage of attractions" and it's a good description for his cinematic style. His imitators don't do him any favors, but it would be a sad day for film studies if the David Bordwells successfully banished all the Slavoj Zizeks from the tent.

February 06, 2009 12:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My interest in Zizek-re-cinema is so slight I would not much bother to discuss about it, and I know he has a lot of fans - like several others, from Kael to Brenez, Bordwell to Farber, Daney to Bazin, Truffaut to Tavernier, of rather disparate degrees of interest -, who will feel offended at the slightest criticism. But, frankly, about Hitchcock there's a truckload of deeper and more interesting writing. On Lynch, I am still waiting to read something half as interesting as his films, which obviously nobody seems able to explain convincingly (in most cases, fortunately, and thus demonstrating Lynch's talent). And if any thing seems subjective it's humor. I'm sorry to confess I don't find Zizek, neither read nor seen/heard in "Guide", entertaining enough. As snake oil salesman, I prefer Alan Mowbray in "Wagon Master", as film thinker I'd rather spend my time on others.
Miguel Marías

February 07, 2009 11:59 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

I can respect, if not always appreciate, formalist concerns. In and of themselves, however, they tend to reach a dry dead end. I'm a populist at heart. What makes movies survive is not the formal analysis of film studies, but the love or lack of love felt by film audiences. Who else are movies truly for? In my humble opinion, the best film critics are those who can hedge formalist observations within a broader appeal to a general public. Otherwise it's just academics scratching each others' backs with highfalutin' words.

February 07, 2009 12:38 PM  
Anonymous Kimberly said...

I haven't read much Zizek, but I thoroughly enjoyed The Pervert's Guide to Cinema, Peter. I actually think Zizek's a much more entertaining and insightful critic than Paglia who I've never been all that fond of.

It's interesting to read criticism of him, but I completely agree with Maya. As others have thoughtfully pointed out, it's Zizek's populism and passion that appeal to me, as well as his sense of humor.

February 07, 2009 2:56 PM  
Blogger peter said...

I agree, passion goes a long way no matter what area of life.
I think we can read and enjoy and learn from the work of anyway who has something of interest to say about film, be it François Truffaut, Slavoj Žižek, Adrian Martin, Ray Carney or Gilbert Adair, to name a few.

Kimberly, I liked your tribute to Patrick McGoohan. He was a fine actor in some memorable TV series and in such films as All Night Long, Life for Ruth, Hell Drivers and The Hard Way.

February 07, 2009 3:40 PM  
Blogger girish said...

I just discovered that there are hundreds of film essays (that accompany their DVDs) posted at the Criterion site. Most recently: Colin MacCabe on Rossellini's The Taking of Power by Louis XIV; Geoffrey O'Brien on Sirk's Magnificent Obsession; J. Hoberman on Fuller's White Dog and Jeanne Dielman etc.

Just curious: Any favorites among Criterion DVD essays or DVD supplements?

February 09, 2009 8:39 AM  
Blogger craig keller. said...

I think the best made-for-the-release 'bonus' that has ever gone onto a Criterion DVD is Jean-Pierre Gorin's outstanding, ecstatic A Pierrot Primer. It's so (appropriately) laser-sharp as to be classifiable as operating within a different physics — no relation at all to the primer-level lessons of Richard Brody's booklet essay. (Nor, also included, to yet another Andrew Sarris period piece that, a few fine turns of phrase aside, doesn't possess much more than a steadily coursing tone of bewilderment over what Godard was up to even in '65. [The piece was written in '68 or '69.] )

February 09, 2009 5:24 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Craig, this is good to know! I haven't seen the PIERROT bonus disc yet. I really like Gorin's comments on the BOUDU DVD (also the conversation between Jean Douchet and Eric Rohmer on the film.)

February 09, 2009 10:00 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Since this is an Adrian Flashback thread, let me post links to three of his Criterion essays I just found at the site:

-- Cleo from 5 to 7.
-- Days of Heaven.
-- Masculin Feminin.

February 09, 2009 10:04 PM  
Blogger peter said...

Girish, I am unable to access those Criterion essays.
I did enjoy reading Adrian's excellent essay on Terence Mallick:
Adrian evokes for me the experience of watching a Mallick film, a visual equivalent of a combination of Proust and Melville.

February 10, 2009 1:26 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Peter, I don't know if it's my computer or something else--but I'm actually able to access those essays by clicking on the links...I wonder if anyone else is having trouble accessing them...?

Also, Peter, this blog (over the last few years) contains scores of links to Adrian's pieces. If you type his name into the search box below the blogroll on the sidebar it'll bring up a long list of them.

February 10, 2009 6:55 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

I can access those links readily enough.

Speaking of Gorin, I was looking forward to his introductions on the essay film scheduled at PFA. He was unable to attend due to illness and I'm hoping he recovers to show up later. By compensation, he's provided a great handout on the essay film. Have you done a focus on the essay film?

February 10, 2009 11:58 AM  
Blogger Matthew Flanagan said...

Links work fine here too. My favourite Criterion video extras (if one can call them that) are probably Franju's Le Sang des bêtes on Les Yeux sans visage and Lindsay Anderson's wry swan song Is That All There Is? on This Sporting Life - both are more valuable than the main feature for me. MoC own the market in terms of accompanying book(let)s...

February 10, 2009 12:07 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Maya, a post on essay films: that's an excellent idea! Let me root about to see what I can find.

Matthew, I've been too squeamish to see the Franju so far (Hindu, sacred cows, etc) but hadn't even heard of the Lindsay Anderson film!

February 11, 2009 9:36 AM  
Blogger girish said...

I just ordered "The Complete Film Criticism of Andrew Britton". Here's the decsription at Wayne State press.

I really like Britton's book on Katharine Hepburn, subtitled "Star as Feminist". Here's a little excerpt from the product description at Amazon:

"Andrew Britton proposes a feminist reading of Hepburn's films, arguing that her persona raises problems about class, female sexuality, and women's oppression that strain to the limits the conventions of a cinema ultimately committed to the reassertion of bourgeois gender roles. Hepburn's work is also used to explore more general issues, such as the functioning of the star system. This is one of the very few analyses of American cinema to focus on a film star rather than a director or a genre...."

And also:

"Hepburn's film persona challenged expectations of class and gender, while her strong self-assurance defied the strictures of Hollywood studios during her career. According to Britton....Hepburn's public image was replicated in part by her film roles. Yet that same brash confidence, coupled with the social conventions of the day, dooms her onscreen characters, who are validated only when they find contentment with men. Britton combs Hepburn's oeuvre for signs of subversive feminism and points out the studios' successes at undermining them."

February 11, 2009 10:03 AM  
Blogger girish said...

I'm curious: Any fellow Andrew Britton admirers here?

And I wonder how others would 'contextualize' his criticism, i.e. the special features of his writing, and where it is situated in relation to other film criticism.

February 11, 2009 12:03 PM  
Blogger peter said...

I wonder if anyone might know if Philippe Garrel’s L’Enfant secret is available on dvd or video?

February 13, 2009 2:27 AM  
Anonymous adrian said...

Garrel's greatest film (which means it's the greatest of the greatest) was released on DVD in Japan some years back, in fact as part of a 'Garrel Collection' covering several volumes - with no English subtitles (although that doesn't matter much in this case). Getting your hands on a copy these days is another rmatter altogether. Good luck! There is actually no 'substitute experience' for seeing this projected poperly on a screen - it was a sublime moment in my life to see this in Dublin with my dozen or so fellow Garrelians of 2001 ! (There may be another dozen in the world by now?)

February 13, 2009 6:20 AM  
Blogger peter said...

I liked Serge Daney's essay on the film. In a funny sort of way, I am almost able to conjure up the film in my mind, even though I have never actually seen it. Daney evokes the "landscape" and atmosphere of the film very well, even down to the Beckett reference,"ill-seen, ill said"

February 13, 2009 6:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Girish, much more than the Hepburn book, I price very highly Britton's pieces of criticism on "Movie" magazine. His long analysis of "Mandingo" is amongst the best pieces ever written in any language about a film.
Miguel Marías

February 13, 2009 7:55 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Peter, one of my all-time fave pieces of Martiniana is the essay on L'Enfant Secret, now no longer online but hopefully destined to reappear on his website. It's one of my favorite cinema essays, period.

Miguel, I'm hoping this book contains those MOVIE essays. The book's title--"The Complete Film Criticism of Andrew Britton"--is not entirely accurate. Brad Stevens, who will be reviewing the book for Sight & Sound, noted on my Facebook page:

"The major omissions are the piece on THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI that appeared in THE MOVIE BOOK OF FILM NOIR, various book reviews published in FRAMEWORK, several pieces written in response to articles by other critics, and an article on documentaries that appeared in SIGHT AND SOUND."

February 13, 2009 5:11 PM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Those omissions from a book advertising itself as 'complete' are a mite disturbing! I wonder if it was, rather than an editorial oversight, a publisher's decision. A similar thing happened with the English translation of Bellour's THE ANALYSIS OF FILM: his first important pieces on film aesthetics, from the early and mid 1960s, were dropped. Publishers' rationales for these kinds of decisions often strike me as flimsy! Rpobably the absolute worst case is the vieritable 'gutting' of Bunuel's autobiography in English - the original is nuch longer. But there's (I think) even more of Walter Benjamin than we get in the English 4 volumes - at least that's titled 'Selected Writings', not Collected !

February 14, 2009 1:32 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Hi, everyone!

Emerging from the long weekend, working on a post that should be up within the next day or two...

February 17, 2009 6:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

l'enfant secret

english subtitles

or is this already an open secret?

May 04, 2009 10:23 AM  
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