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June 19, 2008

Making Waves: New Cinemas of the 1960s. Geoffrey Nowell–Smith

Making Waves: New Cinemas of the 1960s. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. 2008. Continuum Press

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Making Waves 2 Nowell Smith

The book cover is from Godard's Le Mépris (Contempt) featuring Michel Piccoli and  Bridget Bardot.  A film in which Godard was forced to make a voyeuristic take of Bardot to satisfy the producers need for salacious images. Godard of course makes a film ironising the role of the American producer and their insatiable commercialism amongst other things.


If only there were more film studies books written like this! This is one of those admirable books which has been written by a leading expert but combines a lightness of touch, a synoptic vision able to draw useful comparisons between countries, directors and films and avoids recourse to over-theoreticism much beloved in certain quarters of academia - not that Nowell-Smith isn't able to hold his own in this sphere. It quite simply isn't the point of the book. It is the sort of book which European Cinema enthusiasts desperately need more of. Far too often books of essays cobbled together by an editor come out in order to satisfy RAE type publishing requirements providing disparate although often insightful analysis of individual films at the expense of coherence. This is increasingly divorcing academics from real audiences interested in Euopean films both past and present. If new audiences are to be attracted to these films in a context which goes beyond the usual academic parcelling up of the period into 'national movements' combined with lots of textual analysis then this is the sort of book which needs to be written. No hagiographical commentaries, no over-weighty attempts at 'theory' and no misplaced and tedious attempts to incorporate everything into a 'postmodern' discourse. This is a pleasurable and insightful read.

There is often little attempt to contextualise films either to other aspects of cinema contemporary to the times being written about or to the social, political,economic and cultural tendencies, which define the cinematic moment. Nowell-Smith overcomes all these hurdles adroitly. He moves from the enigmatic representations of Antonioni through the gritty Brit documentary realism to the joie de vivre of the nouvelle vague seamlessly. The changing narrative structures, the changing situation in censorship and the key production concerns, and issues such as Vietnam, Algeria, the Hungarian Uprising, and the Suez Crisis are all brought into play in a highly relevant and readable way.



This is a book which avoids the kiss of intellectual death embedded within the text book mentality prevalent at pre-university level as it contains individual vision. It avoids the patronising 'bite-size' mentality of most of these but it doesn't make assumptions about knowledge. It carefully explains things as it goes along whilst still maintaining the rhythms of a proper book. It is the best overview of the period I have come across, providing those who saw some of  the films at the time and who still have fond memories of  them an excellent  route into  reviewing  the films.  It wil eanbel them to place the films into a wider pattern rather than having a strange hotch-potch of memories which never slotted together at the time. For those just gaining an interest in the period it provides an excellent introduction and opens up a myriad of paths to follow. It is a book which I can comfortably recommend for enthusiastic A2 students and undergraduates. Whilst it is unlikely to hold many surprises for the seasoned academic it is clear that they are not the target audience.


400 Blows 1

From Truffaut's groundbreaking first feature 400 Blows which won at Cannes and launched the French Nouvelle Vague

European Film Studies has for a long time needed more books like this which have the coherence of a single author overview underpinned by the kind of specialist knowledge neccessary to give great depth to what on the surface seems to be a simple statement. It comes thoroughly recommended for all librarians for school, college and university first years as well as for the general cinephile who might well get to see many of the wide range of films referenced but find difficulty in making any kind of overall sense to them outside of the pleasures of the text itself.

Fists in the Pocket 1

Italy made a transition from older directors such as Visconti to vibrant new ones such as Marco Bellocchio whose Fists in the Pocket (1965) was a hard hitting angry portrait of a dysfunctional upper middle-class family


Nowell Smith also manages to bring together strands between movements and points out that Italy didn't need a 'new wave' in the way other countries did because being the leading filmmaking country in Europe from the neorealist period until the waning of the new waves at the end of the 1970s there was a continuum between the older styles and directors and the newer ones rather than the attempts to make a radical break with the past. Neorealism had largely achieved this with the fascism which went before it.

Mama Roma 1


Anna Magnani in Pasolini's Mamma Roma 1962. "A Rome which was a microcosm of every possible contrast between new and old, rich and poor, developed and primitive, north and south" (Nowell-Smith, 2008, p156)


One aspect I liked was Nowell-Smith's little asides about Stalinists and dogmatic Trotskyists. Also his knowledge about British political changes on the left as Western Marxism was born out of the vacuums left because of the disgust with the Soviet crushing of Hungary in 1956 was of interest. As someone who is currently in the throes of writing an institutional history of the British Film Institute (BFI) his comments about using Penelope Houston and Lambert from the cinephile magazine Sequence which had gone bust after 14 issues was amusing:

Dennis Foreman, who had grand plans to give more focus to the lively but dispersed film culture he saw emerging all around him, offered Lambert and Houston a golden opportunity: forget trying to keep Sequence alive and instead take over and revitalise the institute's established but stodgy magazine Sight and Sound. (Nowell-Smith, 2008 p 31)

tushingham_in_taste_of_honey.jpg

Rita Tushingham in Tony Richardson's Taste of Honey (1961). "A Taste of Honey is the most 'Free Cinema' and also the most 'New Wave' (in the French sense) of the British realist films. It is the lightest in touch, the nearest to improvisation, and the best rooted in its chosen setting." (Nowell-Smith 2008, p128)



Nowell-Smith's wide-ranging knowledge serves the reader well for on the previous page to the one mentioned above he he succinctly brings in what he considers an important moment in the development of French cinema which involved getting the backing of Cocteau and founding a high profile cine-club Objectif 49 which opened in May 1949 and the establishing of a festival the Festival du film Maudit (Festival of the ill-fated film) in June of that year in Biarritz. The festival showed many films that had been banned in the past such as Visconti's Ossessione, and the Brecht/Dudow collaboration Kuhle Wampe. The festival also showed many other fringe type of films. There was an underlying hope of unifying the cinephiles and the left in France although this had to wait in the event. It was an interesting insight which isn't provided by a large book on French cinema Williams' Republic of Images for example.


Nowell-Smith organises the book in a very useful way. He briefly reviews 'What Were the Sixties?' concisely and realistically cutting through the nostalgia which makes them 'Swinging' and summarising the situation well. He then reviews the general contextual situation in the 1950s in the build up to the new waves, and also reviews the changing film culture and the importance of new criticism within that culture as poles of difference emerge in France through Cahiers du Cinema and in the UK through Sequence. He then proceeds to examine the new cinemas themselves taking into account the tensions and contradictions inherent within the various systems of censorship, the changing narrative structures and technological issues such as new zoom lenses and the introduction of wide-screen.

Nowell-Smith succincntly runs thorugh the changing narrative priorities that were emerging at the time. instead of the purposive heros driving the plot cinemas of the 1960s began to examine life without clear purpose. Antonioni can be seen as an extreme example of this notes Nowell-Smith (p 104):


The new cinemas everywhere are peopled with characters who either do not know what they are supposed to be doing or are impotent to achieve their goal.


L


Monica Vitti on the deserted volcanic island in L'avventura (1960)

Nowell-Smith then reviews the film movements of the time, British Social Realism / Free cinema, The French Nouvelle Vague and then the situtation in Poland and Czechoslovakia as well as looking at the changing circumstances in Latin America partially stimulated by the Castro led revolution in Cuba. Finally Nowell-Smith looks at the role of the auteur through brief synopses of Godard, Antonioni and Pasolini.

Nowell-Smith has a nice concluding paragraph which will hopefully encourage older readers to revisit the films and younger ones to try the films out as more and more become available on DVD:

Rather than die, then, the new cinemas dispersed. But they had created a legacy, even more widespread than that of neo-realism a decade and more earlier. And unlike neo-realism, they stand today forty years on, as representatives of modernity. More valuable still, the modernity they bespeak is liberation. and the message of modernity as liberation is not one locked up in a bottle: it may no longer be available in the cinemas, but it is there for the asking when you unwrap that DVD and put it in your player. (Nowell-Smith 2008, p 216)




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October 23, 2007

The French New Wave: A New Look: Naomi Greene

The French New Wave: A New Look: Naomi Greene 2007 Wallflower Press: A Critical Review

Cover for Greene French New Wave






For visitors wanting an historical overview of European cinema







Introduction


About two weeks ago one of my intellectually inquisitive sixth-formers commented that she didn’t think that much of Godard’s iconic New Wave film: A bout de soufflé (Breathless). Last week she handed back to me City of God with the words “it nearly made me cry at the end”. New Waves are primarily understood about cinema and youth, about trying to create new cinematic forms and represent the World in new ways. I shall be examining the possibility that the notion of the  'unexpected' is an historiographical concept that can be applied to cinematic new waves. I shall also be noting some of the areas where the films remain unavailable and there is a certain amount of critical underwriting proffering new opportunities for research. 

Both City of God and Breathless are films which are part of their respective cinematic New Waves with the former being a part of the current Latin American New Wave. Serendiptiously on returning home I found a copy of Naomi Greene’s newly published The French New Wave: A New Look from Wallflower Press waiting for review. This provides an opportunity to reflect upon what has changed so much and what might be different within the disparate New Waves which had elicited very different responses from a smart 18 year old.

Although I shall make some opening sceptical comments which indicate that the notion of the French New Wave could usefully be deconstructed, I found the book a clear and insightful summary written by an academic very at ease with her ideas and well able to communicate them to the chosen target audience. As I read through it stimulated me to follow up some ideas and strands of thought as I scoured the Web for cheap versions of a book on Henri Langlois and also ordered Jaques Rivette’s Paris nous appartient which I hadn’t noticed that the BFI had released over a year ago:a film which, says the blurb: brilliantly captured the mood of paranoia and uncertainty of that Cold War period. Rivette's rarely seen debut is one of the most important and far-reaching of the early New Wave films. After reading Greene’s analysis it became a ‘must see’. Indeed it is this analysis which forms a part of her ‘New Look’ for it is a film which has received little critical analysis in the mainstream accounts of the New Wave.

The book is ideal for undergraduates and much of it is accessible to A2 students who may be studying new waves for their World Cinema Unit. It will also act as a good companion for those who are new to this area of cinema. In this it is in keeping with the tradition and standards established by the Wallflower Press Short Cuts series. It is certainly a useful book for film and media studies lecturers and teachers and for libraries. 





Nazi Officer silence de la mer

Melville's Le Silence de la mer 1949 was an important precursor to the French New Wave.

Cinematography was by Henri Decae





What might a "New Wave" be?


This is a rather harder question to answer than appears at first sight. My own perspective is that one must apply SPECT (Social Political Economic Cultural Textual) methodology to the analysis. Greene is quite specific about this too and adds ‘Historical’ to the methodological equation although I must admit I was taking that for granted and certain historiographical issues which arise will be considered:

…using a lens that is at once social economic ,cultural and historical (Greene 2007 p 3), Greene sets out to examine the nature and influences of the Nouvelle Vague for whatever one thinks of the films it has exerted an enormous influence within cinema for as Greene points out:

…up until now at least, there has been relatively little disagreement about the importance of the New Wave, but critics are not always in accord when it comes to the precise contours or its internal coherence.” (Greene 2007, p3).

The usual idea is that younger people (usually male cinephiles) were interested in filmmaking across a post-war Europe in which countries had been more or less bankrupted by the war and were trying to develop new identities which incorporated space,place and form. They valued difference between countries but respected them. to some extent there were generational differences. Neorealists had many who were involved in filmmaking before the war and in France Melville and the Left Bank generation were older than the Cahiers group. As such they had a different perspective on the world. Younger critics and filmmakers  also raise a range of different challenges to the previous generations who had led them into the European 30 Years war of the 20th century (1914-45). Italian Neorealism was undoubtedly the leading element however groundbreaking films had emerged in Britain and Poland as well as France well before the Cannes festival of 1959 brought Truffaut into the limelight. Those groups of films which now become categorised as new waves tend to work within these parameters but often fall short of serious political critique.

Historiographical interpretation is a difficult game and I have concerns that European cinema is often represented as one of movements which are largely autonomous and often entirely separate to other developments. It is also a methodology which focuses upon National cinema often at the expense of considering an international cross-cultural artistic reality which is harder to measure.  In Britain for example, running in parallel to the work of Free Cinema there was a lot of social realism in mainstream feature films and this has tended to put Free cinema into the critical shade compared to the French ‘New Wave’ which is represented as markedly different from mainstream French cinema. The fact that British Free Cinema showed large numbers of Polish and French films as part of its series of 6 programmes  points to a lot of international collaboration amongst the film-makers and cross fertilisation of ideas. One of the issues raised in this review is the importance of surrealism as a subterreanean strand of representation which in cross-national and transhistorical inter-ruptions are largely underwritten in academic circles.





Alainj Delon in Plein Soleil

Alain Delon in  Rene Clement's Plein Soleil  (1960)

Delon came to the fore at the time of the  New Wave. The cinematography of Plein Soleil was again by Henri Decae. Decae was not above working with somebody castigated by Truffaut as part of cinema du papa! Decae had already been the highest paid person on 400 Blows and was in demand. This was Delon's most important film at the time. He went on to be a leading actor in Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers (1960) and The Leopard (1963) as well as being in Antonioni's L'Eclisse (1962). 









Arguably cross fertilisation and changing ideas were already present in mainstream French cinema at the time of the Nouvelle Vague when one notes the date of Rene Clement’s Plein Soleil (1960) and its use of Nouvelle Vague favourite cameraman Henri Decae by this representative of Cinema du papa. Perhaps the reality on the ground is not always quite so clear cut. Decae had already cut his teeth on the thriller genre by filming Melville’s Bob le flambeur [Bob the Gambler] (1955) and then Malle’s 1958 release Lift to the Scaffold.




Moreau in Lift to the Scaffold

Jeanne Moreu in Louis Malle's 1958 Lift to the Scaffold

Cinematography by Henri Decae 






It might well be that a unifying theme amongst the avante-gardists of European post-war cinema was the representation of space and place which was far more celebratory and far reaching than the mainstream. Space and place are inherently imbricated with the construction of identity and one might usefully compare the Rome of Rossellini (Roma citta aperta), De Sica’s Umberto D, Visconti’s Bellissima and Fellini’s La Dolce Vita as bearing witness to a changing Italian identity all of which relied to a large extent on location shooting.  Core differences between Plein Soleil and the French Nouvelle Vague films is that it was relatively high budget and was decidedly international in its scope dealing with Americans in Italy and creating more of a tourist's gaze than a local's gaze. The surreality of Truffaut and Godard's cinematic visions and the play with a knowing audience were also absent. 

The Precursors of the Nouvelle Vague

Greene sets out her stall very clearly although  a little disappointingly she doesn’t challenge the concept of the French New Wave as a critical construction. Historiographically there is some case to be made for challenging the dominant discourse which surrounds this ‘cultural moment’ to the exclusion of other tendencies emerging in parallel, perhaps some revision is overdue. Examples include the British Free cinema movement while arguably the great Italian directors moving into their post-neorealist phase were making far more interesting and challenging films than either tendency. The Polish cinema of the time also needs to be considered although I'm personally unfamiliar with the content. What can be said is that European filmmaking in the 1950s was in a state of change far beyond the borders of France. 

This gripe aside Greene's book is perfectly pitched for its lay / undergraduate audience: it is written clearly by a leading scholar of French cinema and is very well informed. It places the Nouvelle Vague in its French cinematic context and there is some reference – not enough in my opinion – to the wider history of postwar France - and it clearly summarises the range of critical opinions in the discourse of the French New Wave. Greene’s book Landscapes of Loss really teases out the problems of post-war French identity and the ways in which this is represented within the cinematic culture of France. In her introduction to this latter book she notes the entry of L’histoire de France au cinema which comments that “cinema is, in fact, a more sensitive barometer than literature or school curricula”,(my emphasis). She proceeds to note the film maker Bertrand Tavernier’s comment that:

filmmakers are seismographs of their epoch. They bear witness, even unconsciously, to everything that surrounds them”. (Greene 200, p 5).



Bearing in mind Tavernier’s comment it is clear that that moment of 1959 when Truffaut gains recognition at Cannes for 400 Blows is when youthful French cinema comes to the notice of both the French nation and the world at large. Arguably this ‘new wave’ as cinema was already in existence but its widespread cultural recognition was as a result of hype from the French Media combining with the desire of many who were dissatisfied with the postwar republic and the failures of France to reassert its place in the World and it is this aspect which Greene underplays. Furthermore there was a growing concern with American ‘cultural imperialism’. A re-establishing of a French cultural identity for the modern period was sorely needed.





The independent auteurs which the Nouvelle Vague places on the map bringing the notion of auteurism as a critical concept to the fore were already in existence. Primarily they were the left bank, left wing documentarists such as Chris Marker and Alain Resnais and Agnes Varda. Greene has written particularly well about Resnais in her Landscapes of Loss and in a short book she does manage to include a lot about the Left Bank filmmakers which is good because even now getting hold of the documentary work of Resnais in the UK is pretty much impossible. Availability of films is partially down to critical discourse because the early work of Truffaut and Godard is readily available whilst the availability of the work from the Left Bank directors and even the early Rivette and Chabrol as well as Franju is not. The importance of reviewing critical discourse at a time when new technologies make the ‘Long Tail’ of cultural output far more accessible than ever before should not be underestimated.

The work of Louis Malle is sidelined in this book to some extent; he is seen as peripheral to the New Wave yet the content and methods of film making of his early films were fundamental to the changing ‘structure of feeling’ – to call upon Raymond William’s useful concept - which was running through French society at the time. Lift  to the Scaffold is an excellent film which in the guise of a thriller brings in a critique of French society as the murdered husband is an arms dealer, which can be read as a thinly veiled reference to French colonial struggles the growing crisis in Algeria, the failed attempt to control the Suez Canal and the debacle in Vietnam which the Dennis Grunes blog discussing Malle’s film is at pains to mention, unlike some of the academic books:

Don’t laugh at wars. You live off wars. . . . Indo-China; now Algeria. Respect wars; they’re your family heirlooms.” Julien is killing Carala because he is in love with the old man’s young wife, Florence; but his political remarks add to our understanding of the disgust with which Carala fills him. Because Tavernier is Carala’s employee, his disgust includes a measure of self-disgust…” (http://grunes.wordpress.com/2007/02/23/elevator-to-the-gallows-louis-malle-1957/)

The methods of film making anticipate and perhaps better the work of Truffaut and Godard’s early work as well. The following quotation about the musical collaboration between Malle and Miles Davis says a lot about the way in which the spirit in which the film was made:

The connection between Miles Davis and Louis Malle is one of general artistic integrity, for each creator is a master of their medium before the specific ideas that they are representing is even considered. This is where the idea of “jazz” as a mode of creativity is most clearly seen. Forget the meaning of “jazz” as a musical genre for one moment and try to see the interconnectedness between all artists of all mediums. It seems that once an artist has been working in their field for long enough to learn all of the necessary elements of their trade that it is only their individual ability to improvise that makes their work different from others and either a master or another artist. It is a sensation that is obvious to those who have begun the search for this divine level of creation. Malle and Davis certainly can see the respective vision of the other’s work and in their collaboration on Elevator to the Gallows the direct relationship between the scene and the music is a finely balanced expression of both artists. There is a definite freedom that Malle entrusts in Davis to create at his own will, which is undoubtedly a result of Davis’s success and mastery of his art. The connections are distinct and calculated, but this is not a dynamic that can be created by any two artists. Collaborations can fail even when it seems evident that a relationship or similarity is present between artist’s modes of representation. (My emphasis, http://instruct1.cit.cornell.edu/courses/music270/projects/s2005/ebb32/Frantic.html)

This blog is especially useful to check out because there are some useful video extracts of the film which show how effectively Malle has filmed the street using all the outdoor location techniques associated with the New Wave.

Critical focus has been on the Cahiers critics turned filmmakers – a sceptic might conclude that inside every critic there is a director trying to get out! But this was nothing new, many of the Neorealists were involved on the same critical magazine and after them Lindsay Anderson and Karel Riesz were involved with Sequence in Britain.

Perhaps undue attention has been paid to Truffaut’s infamous slating of the “Tradition of Quality” especially the scriptwriters Aurenche and Bost in “A Certain Tendency of French Cinema” written in 1954. Critics offer no real evidence of how seriously this article was taken by either audiences or those in the cinematic establishment at the time. One wonders how seriously the article would have been taken by cinematic critics if Truffaut hadn’t made 400 Blows. This is clear evidence that there was a rapidly changing ‘structure of feeling’ (Raymond Williams) within France which Cahiers critics were a part of. Their elevation to world view could be seen as a political sleight of hand for in many ways 400 Blows was less challenging to French traditional identity than Lift to the Gallows which would seem outrageous to the Catholic right and its family values as well as promoting Miles Davis a black American jazz musician - hardly the epitome of French cultural values.

Miles Davis Lift to the Gallows


Malle’s next film ‘Les Amants’ was also a huge challenge to the mores of society. De Gaulle would hardly like to be associated with a film which challenged family and Catholic values even more than Escalator to the Scaffold. Both De Gaulle and a renewed French identity based partially upon a cultural Renaissance could safely focus upon the critics and emerging new directors of Cahiers du Cinema who with the exception of Pierre Kast were largely apolitical. They were clearly opposed to the Stalinist left who were in cosy collusion with the industrial leadership of cinema creating the cinema du papa of which Cahiers had been so critical. By comparison 400 Blows challenges older stuffy attitudes particularly in relation to the state and education which seemed more Victorian than anything else. In this it chimed with the popular Existentialist concepts of ‘Freedom’. Its autobiographical nature meant that the film was one which had an audience who could readily identify with the values represented in the film. It was the right film for the right time.

Les Amants 1


Luis Malle's Les amants (1958) 




The Origins of the term Nouvelle Vague

Greene does pay attention to the origins of the expression Nouvelle Vague which are embedded in the journal L’Express. Greene notes that prior to this the journal La Nef had a special edition in 1955 which started to carry investigations into the growing influence of the post-war generation of youth a decade after the Second World War just as the long boom starts to take effect and post-war reconstruction is beginning to turn towards a consumer society. L’Express founded in 1954 and modelled on American News Magazines was itself very much a child of its time. Inevitably it was going to play a part in the emerging discourses linked to disappointment and a need for a clearer post-war identity for France which had failed to rediscover the Grandeur beloved of De Gaulle, was on the back foot in all its colonies, was deeply divided once one scratched the surface over the “Dark Years” of the War which was pretty much a three way split between communist Left / Catholic loyalists in the resistance and collaborators in the Vichy regime.


Truffauts 400 Blows

The Wave breaks with Truffaut's Les 400 coups (1959)

Hope for the future was seemingly being placed increasingly upon the young. The New Wave was an expression which developed from a large poll into this new generation organised by L’Express in 1957. By the following June (1958) notes Greene: “The term had gained such currency that L’Express began referring to itself as le journal de la nouvelle vague”. (Greene p 12). In this section it is possible to conclude that the French ‘New Wave Cinema’ can be defined as representative of the changing ‘structure of feeling’ as France adapted to post-war modernity which created a cultural moment allowing the youthful generation to identify with a newly emergent France under the leadership of the recently appointed Charles de Gaulle. It was of course a very limited representation of the French film industry which privileged the directors and critical discourses around Cahiers du Cinema above other tendencies within non mainstream cinema as it was a much safer cinema both politically and socially.

I would suggest that this is why A bout de soufflé compared with City of God fails to bring a contemporary 17 year old to the brink of tears. City of God explores the political and socio-cultural spaces of a Brazilian city in a way which no French New Wave film even dreams of attempting. Anyone who visited the recent Tate Modern exhibition on Global Cities and saw the juxtaposition of the mega rich and the totally impoverished will be familiar with the realism in terms of underlying social truths which City of God takes on. It is a long way from the notions of ‘truth’ which were promulgated at the time by the iconic director / thinkers of Cahiers du Cinema. Where the French New Wave is largely associated with form, City of God seems more concerned to combine form with content.




City of God


City of God by Mireilles. Part of the recent Latin American 'New Wave' its form combined a surrealistic mode with MTV style camerwork linked to a brutalised content that makes some viewers tearful. A tourists gaze of Paris it is not!









The Structure of Greene’s Book

Whilst Greene’s book falls short of reconfiguring the critical space of French New Wave discourse it will be extremely helpful in allowing readers to get to grips with the main strands of critical discourse surrounding the French New Wave for whatever my criticisms there is no doubt at all that what is commonly understood as the French New Wave and the critical discourses surrounding it have exercised enormous influence within cinematic culture as a whole.

Greene’s first chapter defines the traits of the New Wave, further chapters proceed to “What is Cinema: reflections upon film”, discuss the experiments of the 1950s and then in turn discuss the “Euphoria” of the moment and the “Aftershocks”.

The chapter on “Defining Traits” usefully examines the historical and critical discourses and provides the reader with a series of critical possibilities in terms of defining the New Wave from an extreme at one end of the critical spectrum embodied in the work of Marie who argues that the New Wave can be defined as a “School”, to the much looser definition of Williams in his synoptic history of French cinema Republic of Images” where he describes the New Wave as a “brief period of upheaval and innovation”. There is a general acceptance that it is a cinema of youth and that it broke down the entry barriers and reshaped the French film industry. Certainly there was a considerable outpouring of film making in the years immediately following 1959 with double the number of films being made. However this also coincides with slumping box office takings and following 400 Blows and Breathless the films of Truffaut and Godard respectively didn’t achieve box office success. Their films emulated those of Rossellini one of their inspirations for after his war trilogy box office success also eluded him. For Rossellini and the other Neorealists the political shift to the right and the domination of US films were the issues. By the time the New Wavers had gained wider cinema across the US and Europe was already declining as a mass entertainment medium as TV combined with increasing disposable income led to other more expensive leisure pursuits being followed.

In her second chapter What is Cinema, clearly titled after the work of the leading French Critic Andre Bazin, Greene usefully examines the theoretical and critical backdrop to French cinema since the end of the Second World War. There is a section on Henri Langlois and the importance of the Cinematheque as a pedagogical inspiration to young cinephiles helping to groom the next generation of filmmakers. Although a relatively short section the emphasis on the deliberate pedagogical nature of Langlois’ project was made very clear which it often isn’t.








Musee du Cinema Langlois


Musee du Cinema  Henri Langlois


Current Cinematheque by Gehry

The current Cinematheque in a building designed by Frank Gehry










The importance and role of Andre Bazin is then considered, and the relationship of both Bazin and the “Young Turks” of the New Wave to Italian neorealism is explored. Whilst Bazin considered de Sica as well as Rossellini to be very important those such as Truffaut and Godard privileged Rossellini. I have yet to discover anything which might be understood by the Cahiers group as inspirational from the work of Visconti, Antonioni or Fellini. The Catholic liberalism and possibly the private life of Rossellini which challenged the moralists had enough radical appeal without going near the more overtly political work of Visconti for example despite the fact that he had clear links back to Renoir who was a favourite of the New Wavers.

Next comes  a summary of the importance of Alexander Astruc and the ideas behind the camera-stylo or cinema as a form of writing which combined with ideas of the director as an auteur as camera-stylo meant that the director was ‘writing’ cinema by playing with cinematic form and visual modes of communication.

The next critical influence Greene deals with is Eric Rohmer who writing under his original name (Maurice Scherer) in the magazine La revue du cinema in 1948 discusses the role and importance of cinematic space. The article is a careful critique of the 'Tradition of Quality' whose reliance upon the script has led to films being constructed without due attention to modes of seeing thus failing to utilise and develop a truly cinematic language related to space and the construction and role of mise en scene. Jacques Rivette as early as 1954 also writes about mise en scene as:

‘a precise complex of people and decors, a network of relations, a moving architecture of relationships somehow suspended in space’ (Rivette cited Greene 2007 p 25).

Greene then moves on to the well known grouping around Bazin’s Cahier du Cinema placing some of the critical ideas such as Truffaut’s “A Certain Tendency” into context thus completing the critical backdrop to the ideas of the future New Wave Directors.

Film Experiments of the 1950s & Thoughts on Historiography

In her chapter Film Experiments of the 1950s Greene usefully covers a range of important filmmakers including Melville, Jean Rouch, the Left Bank film makers with sections on Agnes Varda and Chris Marker and then moving onto Roger Vadim and Louis Malle. Greene notes how much Truffaut liked Les Amants linking it to the spontaneity of Renoir. Of course this (deserved) appreciation of Renoir links back into the issue of French identity for Renoir’s films from the Popular Front period represent an assertion of national solidarity is ways which Neorealism functioned for Italy. Even in Britain this more spontaneous type of filmmaking had a route through Humphrey Jennings to Lindsay Anderson and Free Cinema which again links into national identity which cuts across class divides whilst at the same time being part of an internationalist tendency:

Geoffrey Nowell-Smith has argued that Jennings' work is better situated in the context of experimental film and the European avant-garde than within the documentary movement.

Jennings' own films, like those of European documentarists Joris Ivens, Henri Storck and Jean Rouch, discover the surreal in the everyday as opposed to the artistically contrived. (http://www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/453623/)

Greene spends quite a lot of time covering Jean Rouch who gets little mention in Williams (1992). This ethnographic approach with a clearly identified link to Jennings points to a pan-European cienamatic cultural movement which emerges unevenly. I must confess I haven't seen any of his work however a quick search of the web shows that there seems to be nothing available on DVD currently. This points to the need for a more co-ordinated European approach to its cinematic heritage. Greene's scholarship here should help to raise a greater awareness of this filmmaker. I did discover that there have been a couple of academic conferences on him in the UK in recent years sadly this hasn't raised an interest in republishing his work. 


The New Wave had a marked distance from the powerful continental communist parties of the 1950s who had a strong influence within French cinema. All three national film trajectories were wary of right-wing nationalism on the one hand and strong Stalinist influences on the other nevertheless the trajectory of the cinema of all the countries was markedly different. Rather than just looking to the influence of French films of the 1950s with nods to Rossellini and Renoir it might be better to place the French New Wave as another eruption of European modernist avant-gardism in the duree of the 20th century. The seemingly inevitable disjunctions between art and politics have been noted by Ellis in relation to the British Free Cinema as well:

The politics behind this commitment were not particularly radical, perhaps best expressed again by Lindsay Anderson: "But one thing is certain: in the values of humanism, and in their determined application to our society lies the future. All we have to do is to believe in them." It led, however, to a brief association by the Free Cinema with the New Left, and with Universities and Left Review which ended in disillusion when it became clear that their interests in the cinema were fundamentally different. Uninterested in making propaganda films for Right or Left, the Free Cinema group wanted films which were not only socially committed but were also art. (Ellis 1977).

Here cultural historiography needs to balance the straight jacketed methods emanating from a 19th century style of teleological history to one which takes on board the fragments and ruptures which critics such as Walter Benjamin espoused where there is more emphasis on the concept of the unexpected which will be discussed briefly below.

Euphoria

This chapter is useful as it chooses some of the classics of the New Wave to make small case studies including: Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins by Chabrol, 400 Blows by Truffaut, Hiroshima mon amour by Resnais, and A bout de soufflé by Godard. What is strange in this chapter is that Greene flags up Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus shown at the 1959 Cannes festival and understood as a part of the New Wave it then disappears from view and remains one of the underwritten films of the period as the focus still remains primarily on the Cahiers group. It is nonetheless a useful chapter to those new to the period and provides a useful stepping stone for further investigation.

Aftershocks

Greene’s last chapter focuses upon the longer term influences of the French Nouvelle Vague and cites directors as seemingly distanced as Martin Scorsese and Abbas Kiarostami as being strongly influenced by this movement or tendency. Kiarostami notes that the willingness to ‘break the rules’ was an important influence upon him but when one follows the hypothesis suggested here that there are stronger links with European Surrealism than is usually thought about, this ‘breaking of the rules’ can be understood as more embedded in a subversive tradition of seeing things differently.

Cultural Historiography: Tafuri's Recerca

As the French Nouvelle Vague becomes history rather than a contemporary cultural movement it becomes more important to place it within a wider historical framework whilst recognising that history itself is necessarily an interpretive act concerning the past. Here it is useful to borrow from the work of architectural historian Manfredo Tafuri. I have recently come across the recent translation of his important last work Ricerca del Rinascimento with an English title of Interpreting the Renaissance. Of course there is a loss through translation of the meaning of the term Ricerca which Hays his translator goes to some trouble to explain more fully. The term has several connotations:

  • Research

  • Inquiry

  • Constant revision of hypotheses in the light of new evidence

  • An understanding of historical time as a fractured continuum, a dialectic of sudden events and long periods

If we apply this term to the French New Wave I argue that it is best to place it within a wider history of European cinema, itself related to the cultural twists and turns of a tumultuous period of global history. Perhaps what is needed for a reassessment is a cinematic history which is modelled on Tafuri’s openly revisionist (in a positive sense of the term) of Italian Renaissance Architecture which has as its objective explains Hays:

…providing a comprehensive reassessment of Italian Renaissance architecture…Rejecting the conventions of the exhaustive survey, Tafuri’s book is instead a series of in-depth, interconnected studies that present the architecture of the period not only as a manifestation of its cultural circumstances, but also in terms of its artistic practices designed to reinforce, challenge, and transform dominant ideologies, thereby changing the context of its reception.” (Tafuri 2006: p XVII)

So far in my cross-national comparisons I have discovered not only a lack of Jean Rouch aqnd early Rivette but an underwriting of the British Free Cinema movement programmes. This is important to raise here because of its commitment to showing French films from directors who presumably were to become stalwarts of the French New Wave. This is a serious flaw in writing European cinema from a perspective dominated by notions of national cinema for it can provide an unwelcome straitjacket. The blurb on the BFI DVD notes that Free Cinema 5 was on French Renewal and included Chabrol and Truffaut but it goes no further. It notes that Free Cinema 2 screened the work of Franju amongst other French filmmakers. Fortunately I discovered some intersting work on the web:

Cinema 4 introduced to Britain for the first time two directors of the French New Wave - Claude Chabrol (with Le Beau Serge) and François Truffaut (with Les Mistons)( Lindsay Anderson Programme notes: https://secure.bfi.org.uk/features/freecinema/archive/anderson-77prognotes.html


This article by John Ellis makes a useful series of links between Free Cinema and continental and American art tendendencies:

The second, fourth and fifth programmes contained films which the group felt were madealong the kind of lines it was pursuing. Included were two American documentaries, LeSang des Bêtes by Georges Franju, a series of Polish films including ones made by Borowczyk, Lenica and Polanski, and a programme called 'French Renewal' with films by Frangois Truffaut and Claude Chabrol. Even with the British-made films there were many differences; they were made over six years between 1953 and 1959. The films were not made in collaboration but rather emerged as a group following their inclusion in the Free Cinema programme. (Ellis 1977 see link below).

Greene tends to downplay the importance of Franju who was involved with both documentary and fictional film making yet Anderson et al would have been attracted to Franju because his surrealistic links which would have placed him on a par with Humphrey Jennings. That Franju was intimately involved with the establishment of the Cinematheque along with Langlois is important and Williams covers Franju in reasonable detail in his Republic of Images.




Henri Langlois 2


Henri Langlois & George Franju cofounders of the Cinematheque

Georges Franju










Conclusion

Overall this opportunity for critical reflection has helped to identify several aspects of French and European film culture which need to be unearthed and made more publicly available. Greene has written up Jean Rouch and created a greater focus on Rivette but perhaps underwritten Marcel Camus and George Franju but in a short book there will necessarily be gaps.  It would be unreasonable to review Green’s necessarily brief summary of a movement in this way however there is always a danger that publishing becomes an essential support of a pre-established discourse often linked to increasingly highly structured aspects of educational curricula. Green’s book clearly is in accordance with a very specific target market and achieves its end very effectively.

Hopefully the enthusiastic filmgoer will take it as a useful first step upon a wider cultural and intellectual journey rather than a tick box “done the French New Wave”! As time passes I suspect that more will be made of the underwritten links with European cinematic surrealism and that what is known as the Nouvelle Vague will be understood as a surrealistic inter-ruption which would support the sort of historical methods espoused by Tafuri and Benjamin amongst others. It is strange that Greene specifically draws upon the surrealists in interwar France as an example of “…an intertwined flowering of French film and film criticism” repeated by the Cahiers group of film makers as well as others in the French cultural avant-garde of the 1950s.





The Dreamers 1


Youthful joie de vivre in Bertolucci's France 1968 revisited film  The Dreamers. Remind you of Jules et Jim anybody?


The Dreamers 2






Return of the Repressed?  


Perhaps we should leave our thoughts with Bertolucci whose film The Dreamers in some sense links an artistic politics to a material politics yet recognises the ultimate disjunction between them for the film notes the importance of Godard and Truffaut in defence of Henri Langlois and his position in the Cinematheque. It was March 1968 when the government tried to remove Langlois that the Cahiers cavalry came to the rescue. It was a surrealistic prelude to the uprising and strife of May 1968. Bertolucci was himself strongly influenced by Godard and was also in Lacanian psychoanalysis, and Lacan was very interested in surrealism. With the 40th anniversary of this we can reflect upon an “understanding of historical time as a fractured continuum, a dialectic of sudden events and long periods.”

Bibliography

Greene, Landscapes of Loss: The National Past in French Postwar Cinema. New Jersey: Princeton University Press

Greene, Naomi. 2007. The French New Wave. London: Wallflower Press. ISBN 978-1-905674-12-1

Tafuri, Manfredo. 2006. Interpreting the Renaissance: Princes, Cities, Architects. New Haven: Yale University Press

Williams, Alan. 1992. Republic of Images: A History of French Filmmaking. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press

Webliography

http://filmstore.bfi.org.uk/acatalog/info_129.html

http://instruct1.cit.cornell.edu/courses/music270/projects/s2005/ebb32/Frantic.html

http://grunes.wordpress.com/2007/02/23/elevator-to-the-gallows-louis-malle-1957/)

BBC guide to George Franju http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A893441

Senses of Cinema on Georges Franju’s remake of Judex providing a strong link into European Surrealism: http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/05/35/feuillade_franju_dvd.html

Taken from Ellis John (ed.), 1951-1976: British Film Institute Productions, London: British Film Institute, 1977: https://secure.bfi.org.uk/features/freecinema/archive/ellis-freecinema.html





October 07, 2007

Claude Lanzman’s Shoah: Key Essays. A Review

Libeskind The Jewish Museum Berlin

Daniel Libeskind on his Berlin Jewish Museum project representing absence:

The third aspect of this project was my interest in the names of those persons who were deported from Berlin during the fatal years of the Holocaust. I asked for and received from Bonn two very large volumes called the 'Gedenkbuch'. They are incredibly impressive because all they contain are names, just lists and lists of names, dates of birth, dates of deportation and presumed places where these people were murdered. I looked for the names of the Berliners and where they had died - in Riga, in the Lodz ghetto, in the concentration camps.



Claude Lanzman’s Shoah: Key Essays.  Edited by Stuart Liebman, Oxford University Press: 2007

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Shoah is available from Masters of Cinema @ Eureka Video



Introduction


The publication of this book this year is a timely one coming not long after the Eureka release of Shoah on DVD. There is increasing interest at an academic level in representations of the Holocaust (Shoah) / and the Nazi Concentration Camp & Death Camp systems as a whole. The latter is well represented by another book of essays edited by van der Knaap “Uncovering the Holocaust: The International Reception of Night and Fog" published by Wallflower Press in 2006 which will be reviewed in due course. Originally I was going to review them together but on reading them both I decided both deserve their own space particularly in the light of the argument of Shoah and the discourses surrounding it which make the case for highlighting the attempted eradication of European Jewry as an act which isn’t as yet taken fully into account by the majority of European countries. The argument of Shoah is that it is a crime which is on a scale which outweighs the other horrors committed by the Nazi precisely because of its specificity and the corresponding doubt which it which it created in relation to the future and nature of humanity itself. Lanzmann himself describes it as : ”Their extermination is a crime of a different nature, of a different quality; it is a nameless crime, which the Nazi assassins themselves dared not name, as if by doing so they would have made it impossible to enact. It was literally an unnameable crime.” (Lanzmann in Liebman, 2007p 28).

This book of essays covers an interesting range of ideas, perspectives and reactions. These range from articles like Gertrude Koch’s which are highly academic to the experience of how the distribution of Shoah was arranged in the United States to ensure the widest possible audience in a country where Hollywood output and the corresponding cine-machine rules out the exhibition of 9 ½ hour films. Given the range of different discourses which have emerged directly from the film it is difficult to give a clear overview of the disparate ideas which cohere in the field of Shoah. The fact that they do so bears witness to the power and integrity of Shoah itself. Even defining exactly what the film is difficult because its approach certainly redefines the idea of what a documentary is, indeed it is sen by Lanzmann as a performance.

I will therefore comment upon several of the essays which hopefully will attract the reader interest this book deserves and by inference encourage people to view the film itself for otherwise much of what is written remains largely meaningless. I have covered many of the points made by Stuart Leibman in his introduction in the first part of the expanded review of Shoah elsewhere on this blog. It is a powerful piece and is available in an abbreviated version with the Eureka DVD of Shoah. This book is thus an extension of the film and is the next place the viewer should go to deepen the viewing experience further.

The book is split into three parts. The first deals with its inception through production and distribution. The second section is comprised of appreciations, close readings and celebrations. The final section is called ‘Controversies and Critiques’. I have chosen two essays out section 1 and one out od the other two sections. All are useful essays and also accessible to the lay reader in ways which more specific essays such as Gertrude Koch’s about aesthetics are not. I have decide to deal with the essay Closely Watched Trains by Marcel Ophuls who made the powerful documentary about The Sorrow and The Pity which was very controversial because it attacked the mythology which surrounded the Gaullist construction of resistance and in part dealt with the role of the Vichy in collaborating with Nazism in the Holocaust. An interview with Lanzmann himself by Chevrie and Le Roux working for Cahiers de Cinema comes next. Daniel Talbot’s article about the distribution of Shoah shows the importance of the power of distribution in the chain of cinema itself as well as providing a moving account of committed engagement to ensure that it was seen, against the odds. Finally I have chosen a very interesting essay on gender issues and Shoah written by Hirsch and Spitzer both professors at Columbia University.


Closely Watched Trains: Marcel Ophuls


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I simply had to read this essay early on partially because of the obvious link between Shoah and Different Trains by Steve Reich. Somehow it is the trains which come to symbolise the depth of organisation and also the depth of collusion in with the Holocaust. The eerie rhythm of the trains running on a parallel but unseen and unacknowledged timetable of eradication, an industrialised death machine feeding the Moloch which is presaged in Lang’s Metropolis is a sort of haunting embedded into the film. Here it is worth focusing on Lanzmann’s basic premise which he seeks to expose through his film.

Whilst Siegfried Kracauer can be accused of being teleological in his analysis of German cinema representing the almost inevitable path of Germany’s fall into Nazism there are strong anti-Semitic strands which can be discerned within Weimar cinema itself such as Nosferatu. Certainly there was a powerful structure of anti-Semitic feeling in Germany itself. This upholds Lanzmann’s idea that the Holocaust was not an aberration. It relied on: firstly “the basic consensus of the German nation” (remember the massive resistance against forced of disabled euthanasia was partially successful); secondly, it “relied on the existence of an aggressively anti Semitic world: Poland, Hungary, Romania, the USSR not to mention others.” (Lanzmann p 31) [self-explanatory and historically accurate]; thirdly, it was also made possible because “nations washed their hands of the Jewish persecution”. Countries such as Britain neither stood up firmly enough for the Jews of Germany nor did they rush to the rescue Lanzmann cites Lord Moyne High Commissioner in Egypt referring to the possibility to take in 1 million Hungarian Jews “what am I to do with 1 million Jews” (p32).

Ophuls puts his finger on the pulse of Lanzmann’s film instantaneously:

How can the unspeakable horror, the memories of total evil and complete degradation that the survivors themselves feel cannot be communicated, be forced back into the collective awareness, into the conscience of mankind.” (Ophuls in Liebman p 77).

Ophuls is very honest about his immediate reactions to being asked to watch Shoah. He states that he generally dislikes documentaries for reasons ranging from the hi-jacking of a popular art form ‘the movies’ into the service of a cause to the fact that he doesn’t trust the makers of these who often defend the form under the aura of a bourgeois respectability. However having experienced it he openly states that he considers “Shoah to be the greatest documentary about contemporary history ever made, bar none, and by far the greatest film I’ve ever seen about the Holocaust”.

Ophuls focuses on the issue of whether the film can be deemed to be ‘anti-Polish’ a reaction from the Polish authorities at the time the film came out. As Ophuls points out Lanzmann expected to find non participating witnesses to the arrival of the trains, to the herding of Jews into gas chambers:

That some of the farmers profess compassion while obviously contemplating every detail of the proceedings with barely concealed relish is not the director’s invention. “ (p 81)

Ophuls also points out the toughness of Lanzmann’s exposure of the true underlying process. In response to the comments of a reviewer called Murat who at times thought Lanzmann a ‘benevolent torturer’ who he wanted to ‘reach out and slap’, Ophuls is scathing:

If being a gentleman is a documentary filmmaker’s top priority he’d better get into some other line of work.” Lanzmann he notes attempts no charm or ingratiation of the audience. However as Ophuls points out correctly there is no ‘intimidated awe’ which is an approach with which people usually approach the Holocaust and is an approach which Lanzmann is entirely counterpoised to.

Ophuls praise the subterfuge which Lanzmann at times resorts to when interviewing some executioners. Criminals are ‘outed’ why should one be critical of this? He asks rhetorically. A more effective justice system would have / should have dealt these people a far harsher hand.

Ophuls tries to attenuate Lanzmann’s critique of the TV series ‘The Holocaust’ which was broadcast in the states. For Lanzmann it was rather pusillanimous to say the least. Effectively He ended up being on the same side as nationalistic Germans who were doing their best to stop it being broadcast in Germany at the time. Ophuls makes an interesting and important point when he comments the Edgar Reitz’s Heimat coming in at around 16 hours ‘was a deliberate effort to defend the memories of his childhood against the foreign invasion of Holocaust’. Then Ophuls has a swipe at several directors not renowned for their right-wing ideals. Fassbinder’s Lilli Marlene he describes as ‘neo-fascist indulgence’ and Pontecorvo’s (maker of the Battle of Algiers) Kapo he describes as ‘crass voyeurism’. I’ll bear those comments in mind when I get to see the latter. The former I can barely remember but it didn’t strike me as neo-fascist at the time.

Finally Ophuls identifies with Lanzmann’s filming experience the moral catastrophe he has found in his filming in places like Latin America which is “murderous indifference”. With Lanzmann says Ophuls

Beyond the urge to persuade, and even the need to testify, I suspect that a new state of mind has come to guide and sustain this magnificent achievement: not resignation but defiance! (p 87).



Site & Speech: an interview with Claude Lanzmann by Cahiers du Cinema

This interview opens with a prelude where Lanzmann declares that he wishes to talk about the film as a film. In the interview which takes place in 1984 he talks about a book which he will bring out on Shoah commenting that:

Certain people…… are so overwhelmed by the horror that they develop a kind of sacred and religious attitude towards it and do not see the film itself. One has to understand why and how this horror is transmitted. (Liebman p 37)

The interview proper starts with a straightforward question about how the project began in the first place. Lanzmann started out by reading a lot about the Holocaust as well as going through photo archives. He faced a fundamental problem when he needed to ask for money to make the film. The problem is the Catch 22 of making cinema and being reliant upon commercial production practices. Unsurprisingly he was always asked “what is your conception of the film”. Lanzmann comments that this was: … the most absurd question: I did not have any conception. Initially Lanzmann comments that he proceeded to collect theoretical knowledge he then started to find witnesses specifically “those who had been in the charnel houses of the extermination” (ibid p 38). It was when interviewing these witnesses that Lanzmann discovered:

…an absolute gap between the bookish knowledge I had acquired and what these people told me. I understood nothing. (ibid p 38)

This is already an effective underpinning of qualitative research methods and begins to highlight his unusual methods. At times they come close to a psychoanalytic method. Lanzmann discovered that a core problem for his film making was that the experiences the survivors had undergone were so extreme that they couldn’t communicate anything. Lanzmann discovered that a sense of place, a sort of geography of extermination, was required to start to make sense of the whole un-representable process. By visiting core sites of the extermination he discovered a sort of dialectic of cognition: one needed to know to see, and to see to know:

If you go to Auschwitz without knowing anything about Auschwitz and the history of the camp, you will see nothing. In the same way, if you know without having been there, you will also not understand anything. (ibid p38).

shoah_2.jpg



Lanzmann clearly states that the film is about site, about topography and about geography. Because there was a process of effacement of sites like Treblinka the places were becoming sites of non-memory. Accordingly Lanzmann had models made of the gas chamber at Treblinka moving from the landscape to this model when he was shooting in order to imbue the film with a sense of power created through the act of connectivity.

At this point in the interview Lanzmann is very scathing about the American TV series produced in the early 1980s called Holocaust which he accuses of being idealist. Here one is reminded of the concern voiced by Ophuls as discussed above.

There are many ways to communicate and many different levels of communication. Like Ophuls I would argue that productions like Holocaust have their place especially in education because they can allow some critical space to open up for new audiences.

Another comment made by the Cahiers interviewers was that the film was made “in the face of its own impossibility”. For Lanzmann the film was especially problematic to make because of the disappearance of the traces of the extermination and also because of the sheer impossibility of getting survivors to speak about it because of the un-nameability of the whole process of extermination.

The Lack of Archival Images

Contrary to some opinions the programme for the extermination of the Jews was not visually archived meticulously by the Nazis as Lanzmann points out the situation was quite the opposite. There is almost nothing:

About the extermination strictly speaking there is nothing. For very simple reasons it was categorically forbidden… the problem of getting rid of the traces was therefore crucial in every respect. (p 40).

At this point Lanzmann goes into some important aspects of film and documentary film making for even if there had been archival materials available he would not have used them:

I don’t like the voiceover commenting on the images or photographs as if it were the voice of institutional knowledge that does not surge directly from what one sees; and one does not have the right to explain to the spectator what he must understand… That is why I decided from very early on that there would be no archival documents in the film” (My emphasis p 40).

Here there is an important argument made for Lanzmann’s artistic method for instead of being set in the present the film “forces the imagination to work”. Lanzmann’s method became more akin to a sort of psychoanalytic method of reliving the traumatic experience so the one could speak it, where “speak” can sometimes mean body actions and non-verbal communications. For example, relating his experience with the barber when he placed the barber in a real barber’s shop with a real customer.

And from this moment on, truth became incarnate, and as he relived the scene, his knowledge became carnal. It is a film about the incarnation of truth.” (p. 40).

Framing and Mise en Scene

shoah_6.jpg


At this point the Cahiers interviewers discuss the issue of mise en scene and its inter-relationship with the methods so that form and method can be seen as entirely intertwined. The interviewers suggest that truth doesn’t emerge from archival images rather it emerges from a restaging of events and practices. Lanzmann explains how he rented the trains which became so symbolically powerful within the film. The boxcars at Treblinka station were actually the same ones that were used at the time. Here the underlying philosophy driving his method clearly emerges. By getting into the boxcars and filming:

The distance between past and present was abolished, and everything became real for me. The real is opaque; it is the true configuration of the impossible.” (p. 42).

It was only during the making of the film that Lanzmann became fully aware of the importance of site. When he initially visited Poland Lanzmann didn’t know what he wanted from the visit. He had arrived with the notion that Poland was a, “non-site of memory”, and that this history had been diasporized”. (p43)

It was when Lanzmann was in Poland that he noticed that the Polish people who had been witnesses to much of the extermination began to speak of their experiences: I perceived that it was very alive in their conscious’s, that scars had not yet formed”. As a result Lanzmann set about filming these witnesses without telling them what he was going to be filming in advance. When he filmed one of the train conductors who had helped to transport the Jews Lanzmann put him into the cab of the railway engine he had rented and told him they were going to film the arrival at Treblinka. It was on arrival at Treblinka that:

…he made this unbelievable gesture at his throat while looking at the imaginary boxcars (behind the locomotive of course there were no boxcars). Compared to this image archived photographs became unbearable. This image has become what is true. Subsequently when I filmed the peasants, they all made this gesture, which they said was a warning, but it was really a sadistic gesture.” (p 43)

For Lanzmann this became a cinematic method which meant that Shoah became a film that was fictional but deeply “rooted in reality”. In this way it crosses the boundary between fact and fiction just as it crosses the temporal boundary between past and present. It was a method in which they had to act out “they had to give themselves over to it “. (p. 44). It was through this method that speech communications thus came to carry an extra charge going beyond the talking heads approach of more conventional documentary making. The film thus becomes a “reliving of history in the present”(p. 45)

Some Polish Witnesses

Some Polish witnesses. 




The Distribution of Shoah in the USA

I found the chapter on distribution and exhibition of Shoah in the independent sector particularly interesting. Even though films by their nature are slightly less ‘prisoners of measured time’ than TV, there are clearly defined norms beyond which distributors and exhibitors will not go. Both arms of the industry are concerned with reducing risk as much as possible. In this type of climate being an art form comes a poor second. Great films of the past have suffered at the hands of industry manipulation such as Lang’s Metropolis and Visconti’s The Leopard. What would happen then to a nine & a half film made with no stars and by a little known director? Shoah can hardly be said to be a genre which has mass audience appeal either. Daniel Talbot’s methods were inventive and original and had everything with the film being so successful in the USA.

Daniel Talbot became responsible for distributing Shoah in the USA nevertheless he made a success of the task and became so convinced by the film that about six months after opening Shoah he thought about abandoning film distribution altogether : …for everything after this film would be anti-climactic, trivial, depressingly boring. (p 53).

Talbot and his wife went to Paris to view the film with a proven record of successful distribution of European ‘Art House’ movies in the USA. They immediately signed a deal and ordered one 35mm subtitled print. These prints were of course very expensive at around $15,000 each a lot back in the early 1980s. Talbot needed to connect intimately with his target audience which was the American Jewish population. Initially he screened the film for Lucjan Dobroszycki an important New York archivist who had published a book on the Lodz Ghetto 1941-1944 the previous year. Having made an impact this started a word of mouth chain and several screenings were held at the Gulf + Western facilities for important members of New York’s Jewish community.

Talbot had taken over a small cinema in 1976 splitting into 300 seat and 185 seat theatres which had built up a regular clientele of more arts oriented New Yorkers. Talbot opened the film and Lanzmann came over to speak. It had enormous critical success with the exception of Pauline Kael. The film ran for six months playing to an older audience than usual. As a result of this initial success Talbot generated a lot of interest and started to publicise it more widely and launch specific marketing initiatives. He invested in another 6 prints reinvesting the proceeds of the six month run.

Of course he still needed to develop a different distribution strategy which didn’t follow the normal pattern of NY followed by LA and then other large regional cities. With only six prints available Talbot chose to target the cities with large Jewish populations. He was also faced with the problem of not being able to afford long runs because of the wear and tear on the print and the enormous expense of replacing them. Talbot thus pursed a strategy of offsetting risk onto the exhibitor. Exhibitors were carefully chosen on the strength of them being able to attract a strong Jewish audience. The exhibitors also only had two weeks in which to make a profit and the film was sold to them at a high $20,000 flat rate. In return Talbot allowed them to raise money from the films for local Jewish charities. Lanzmann again came over to speak about the film visiting many American cities. Overall the film played in over 100 cities.

This huge success for a film which seemed unmarketable led to a campaign to get the film onto the PBS TV Network This required them to raise $1.5 million. Fortunately they were supported by many very wealthy backers which allowed them to meet the target. As a result over 10 million saw the film on TV. Hitler’s attempts to erase the Jewish people from history were thus entirely defeated.

Gendered Translations


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Hirsch and Spitzer make a very useful critical contribution to the discourses surrounding the film and by doing so very firmly put issues of gender very firmly on the map of the Holocaust. They start from a position which notes how myriad reports of the Holocaust have managed to de-gendered the history. The dehumanising language of the perpetrators usually talks not of bodies but of “figures and junk”. Descriptions of the transportation of Jews across Europe resorts to clichés about being packed like Sardines, after being murdered they are laid out in mass graves ‘like herrings’. Jews become a ‘load’ in the train wagons. Whilst this use of language is dehumanising it also strips out all reference to difference. Hirsch and Spitzer thus comment:

“Ironically Lanzmann’s film itself also eradicates gender differences among the victims of the “Final Solution”’. (P 176).

In the film the experience of the Jewish women is represented by others and women survivors only appear fleetingly. Perhaps surprisingly there are a number of witnesses amongst the Polish and Germans interviewed who are women:

But among the Jewish survivors who speak and give their account in the film, the erasure of difference and particularly, the almost complete absence of women are striking”. (P 177).

They comment that for Lanzmann that gender is irrelevant to the death machine which is designed specifically to de-gender, declass and dehumanise and then destroy the traces.

Lanzmann therefore backgrounds the subjective experience of the victims. Yet they note that in other accounts of the Holocaust significant gender differences do emerge where:

… women speak of the effects of ceasing to menstruate and the fear that their fertility would never return, they speak of rape, sexual humiliation, sexual exchange, abuse, enforced abortions and the necessity of killing their own and other women’s babies.(P 177).

For Hirsch and Spitzer it is clear that the extermination selection process meant that maternity was a greater liability than paternity so they argue that the focus and method used by Lanzmann does enact an erasure of women ‘however’, they comment, “…traces of gender difference are nonetheless re-inscribed in his film.” They took as their task in this article to job differences making the gendered translation described by the title of the article.

Most of the women such as Paula Biren disappear after a brief interview unlike the male survivors. Only one women ain the film goes through Lanzmann’s methods of “reliving” of “experiencing in the present”. This was Inge Deutschkron who returns to Berlin. “Women are thus relegated to the background in roles of “hiding, passivity, lament, invisibility” (p 180).

At this stage Hirsch and Spitzer point out that Shoah’s equalisation of difference “extends to the realm of morality as well.” Here we are dealing with what Primo Levi described as a ‘moral grey zone’. This can be applied to those Jews who survived because they became Kapos and participated in work details. Lanzmann avoids dealing with the implications of this participation. Although differences in testimony appear, differences in experiences are downplayed.

The highly gendered approach which has been identified in Lanzmann’s work perhaps reflects the gendered nature of Judaism itself. Hirsch and Spitzer comment on the reports in the film about Jewish leaders during the Holocaust Freddy Hirsch and Czerniziow who by committing suicide:

“…act out the masculine response to the realisation that there is no future left.”

This is a privileging of a male perspective within the film. By comparison Shoah only deals very briefly with the suicide of female suicide, yet the women’s suicides seem less self-centred than the men’s:

“For these women death is an act of final resistance: escape for themselves and their offspring from prolonged suffering at the hands of their oppressors.” (P 184).

Hirsch & Spitzer then proceed to argue that in Shoah the double position which women have in societies observed in a cross-cultural way - citing the anthropologist Maurice Bloch- has been reduced. This double position is one of representing both death and generativity:

“The feminine connection to generativity, is eradicated, which seems to make the first connection to destruction doubly terrifying. Within the context of the film women come to represent death without regeneration.” (p 184).

This insight leads them to re-examine events in terms of the Greek myth of Orpheus. On this reading Shoah is composed of a ‘bearing witness’ from inside hell or Hades in a way which is redolent of Orpheus. In the myth he has a hauntingly beautiful voice and he also leaves a woman behind. To develop this insight they turn to the work of Klaus Theweleit which examines Orphic creation as a form of false creativity. Thus the creativity of the Jewish survivors creating a range of institutions is an artificial ‘birth’. In the Orpheus myth women play the role of ‘media’ the intermediaries acting as voices and translators not as primary creators or witnesses. They argue that in Shoah it is Lanzmann and his male participants who give birth to a story which never should have been heard:

In a modern manifestation of Orphic creation, together with these “Orphic” male survivors of the journey to Hell, Lanzmann circumvents women and mothers and initiates and new form of transmission for modern Jewish history”. (p 186).





A Mediating Daughter


The daughter of a survivor mediated so that her father would speak the unspeakable.






By relying on the women in Shoah who can virtually not be seen the process of inquiry – the methods – become a gendered translation – of events. Women in Shoah remain, “ … shadowy intermediary voices between language and silence, between what is articulated and what must remain unspeakable.” (p 186).

Hirsch and Spitzer also make another link to mythic structure of Shoah in relation to Medusa who:

“calls into question the very act of looking: to look is to be possessed, to lose oneself, to find oneself pulled into the absolute alterity of death. In that sense Medusa is the figure most endangering for cinema, especially for the cinematic evocation and representation of death.” (p 187)

They note that Lanzmann insists that his film is a performance not a documentary but “women are left out of these remarkable performances.” They conclude correctly that Lanzmann’s film has succeeded in bearing witness to the – event –without – witness, but that it erases the difference between past and present and that it has the mythic and artistic force of Orphic creation whilst revealing the politics of this mythology ‘by replicating the sacrifice of Eurydice and the slaying of Medusa”.

Conclusion


It has been the intention of this review to tackle a few of the contributions in depth rather than skim briefly over many. Those who are interested will I’m sure be prepared to persevere with the other essays for the book as a whole is full of fascinating and frequently poignant comments. The introductory essay by Liebman is very good and raises many interesting questions about the role of memory within history itself, a question which is outside of the scope of the review. For those interested in the cinema of the Holocaust and also those interested in documentary film making methods this book is a must.



September 06, 2007

Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City

Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City. 2006. Mark Shiel. Wallflower Press Short Cuts Series Paperback

Italian Neorealism Rebuilding the Cinematic City

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In all of this, the notion of representing ‘the real’ – real society, real cities, real people – has become more and more compromised and indeed commodified. In this cultural climate, perhaps the time is right to reclaim the real for its radical potential. (Shiel p 127)



ossessione_1a.jpg

Visconti's Ossessione



Introduction

I still think that Italian Cinema from 1943 to approximately 1980 is the most productive and interesting one of any national cinema. Sadly it is becoming less well known as this period disappears into history. Unfortunately but unsurprisingly any  serious study of the period is embedded in Italian departments and knowledge is thus limited to a few cognoscenti. Neorealism is one of the few aspects of Italian cinema taught more generally on film studies courses however this is often restricted to a brief chapter in a more general film history book. Yet ,as Shiel’s last paragraph cited above notes, rather than the solidarity of early neorealism being an historical occurrence perhaps the sentiments and general approach of neorealism are due a revival. As globalisation runs its course leaving pockets of bitter poverty in even the richest countries and in countries like Brazil leading to bullet proof cars and helicopters for the upper classes representing the real seems to be becoming a priority.

Shiel’s recent book on neorealism is therefore more than welcome because it allows the interested follower of Italian cinema and also students an accessible but authoritative route into this fascinating period of European and Italian history in greater depth. The reader won't put of by the intensely theoretical work which is aimed at a very small target audience of those already in the know which is in part unfortunate outcome of the pressure of the research assessment exercise in Universities.

I strongly recommend this to colleagues in the tertiary sector who teach courses such as the neorealism option on the World Cinema unit for the WJEC A level. It may also be useful for student supervisors of the OCR critical research project area for those taking the World Cinema option. Whilst the book will be too difficult for most sixth formers it will prove a remarkable useful resource which is very well informed indeed as well as original and imaginative and well written as one would expect from somebody who is teaching on the recently upgraded film studies depart at Kings College London.

Technical Aspects of the Book

It may seem a little churlish and pedantic to be critical of the book’s organisation but it would have been useful to have had pages references in the index to mentions of specific films, perhaps under the name of the director as Bondanella does in his large general history of Italian cinema. It is very useful to be able to navigate straight to comment upon a particular film without having to trawl through the book. As none of the other books in this series do this perhaps Wallflower will think about doing this should the titles come out in revised editions which many of them deserve to.

What is Neorealism?



roma_1.jpg

The iconic image of Anna Magnani as Pina moments before being gunned down in Rossellini's Roma Citta Aperta  

(Link to BBC interview with Rossellini on this Rossellini page)



Defining Neorealism very precisely is fraught with difficulties. Discourse around Neorealism tends to fall into two schools of thought however Shiel neatly sidesteps this with a convincing argument. Defining any cultural moment is notoriously difficult and the more closely the object of research is gazed upon the more heterogeneous it can seem. Shiel notes that the term Neorealism can be used ‘flexibly’. For some, Neorealism runs from Visconti’s Ossessione (1943) until Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957). Other have preferred a more tightly defined range of films from Rossellini’s Rome Open City to De Sica’s Umberto D (1952). This kind of discussion can quickly fall into point-scoring and it is more useful to see the whole period as being inextricably linked and indeed being strongly influential well beyond 1957. In this sense Raymond Williams’ notion of ‘structures of feeling’ is a useful term to call upon when discussing cultural moments and movements. Shiel chooses the following approach:

Neorealism is also thought of not so much as a particular moment defined by starting and end dates, but as a historically – and culturally – specific manifestation of the general aesthetic quality known as ‘realism’, which is characterised by a disposition to the ontological truth of the physical visible world. From this perspective, the realism of Italian Neorealism manifested itself in a distinctive visual style. (Shiel: 2006 p1).

Importantly Shiel points out that not all neorealist films contain all of the cinematic strategies that neorealism is know for – location shooting, use of non-professional actors etc. There isn’t a precise formulaic set of rules to describe neorealism.




umberto_d_3.jpg

De Sica holds to the notion of having a non-professional actor in the leading role in Umberto D



Neorealism as a Wider Cultural Movement

Neorealism was a much wider cultural movement than just cinema. Many people will be familiar with writers such as Calvino who were strongly associated with neorealism however the movement extended to photographers and painters and interestingly also architects. This link to architecture was something new to me and is dealt with in chapter three of the book called neorealism and the City. Calvino’s book Invisible Cities is of course one link and Deleuze of course wrote about the different city space of post-war cinema because the spaces of the cities were opened up by the devastation of the fighting. Rossellini deal with this in Paisa particularly in the episode based upon Florence, but nowhere is more marked than in his Germany Year Zero where he was specifically invited by the authorities to film in Berlin because of Paisa and of course Rome Open City. Other critics and theorists apart from Deleuze also wrote extensively about the city and cinema especially Kracauer and Bazin.




Germany Year Zero

Rossellini's Germany Year Zero





The Structure of the Book

The book is well structured with an initial chapter describing neorealism, here the importance of the French pre-war directors Renoir, Carne and Clair is emphasised. The chapter also contains some useful synopses of the emergence of neorealist directors under the Fascist regime such as Rossellini and De Sica. The book then moves on to examine the first phase of neorealism as Shiel understands it because he sees work of the 1950s as being part of neorealism which is adapting to changing circumstances rather than being a complete break with what had gone before. In the first phase the dominant feel of the films are built around a notion of solidarity.

I found chapter three perhaps the most interesting because Shiel has applied the growing interest within the fields of film and cultural studies with the city and representations of the city to the realm  of neorealist cinema.

Neoralist images of post-war urban crisis are an especially important legacy because Italy was the only one of the defeated Axis powers whose cinematic representations of the city achieved iconic status internationally so soon after its military defeat. (Shiel p68)

He has also extended the concept of neorealism to movements in architecture allied to notions of building for community. Shiel also draws parallels in the shift from phase one of neorealism (solidarity), to the second phase (focusing more on disaffection and alienation) to shifts in architectural discourse and practices.



Rocco and his Brothers 11   Rooco and his Brothers 12

Modern Northern Milan meets Southern emigrants in Rocco and his Brothers from Visconti.

It is a great film and thoroughly embedded with the concrns of modernisation and modernity. Visconti meets Dickens with politics perhaps. It is a film which seems to be a direct descendent if not a continuation of  neorealism. Its treatment of the city is well worth considering in depth.  However it isn't a film which Shiel mentions, whilst writers like Bondanella rather sweep aside its powerful political insights suggesting it is more operatic and melodramatic than having the spirit of " a naturalist novel or a neorealist film". (Bondanella 2002, p198)



Chapter four is entitled “The Battle for Neorealism”. It focuses upon the rapidly changing circumstances within Italian society as Italian politics consolidated around the Christian Democrats who were victorious in the 1948 general election a time when Hollywood comes to dominate Italian cinema. Shiel also notes the demands from the more hard-line left such as the critic Umberto Barbaro ( http://www.bfi.org.uk/features/cinemaitalia/neorealism.html ) for a move towards an aesthetic based upon Socialist-Realism, which had less to do with reality and more to do with creating mythical heroes. In this chapter Shiel also makes a brief comment upon Visconti’s Bellissima largely following Geoffrey Nowell-Smith’s position in which Bellissima carries:

neorealist hallmarks but its light-hearted comedy and melodrama set it somewhat apart from the rest of Visconti’s generally political oeuvre. (Shiel p 93).

As can be seen from my review of the recently released DVD of Bellissima from Eureka Video I have a reading which gives Visconti credence for having a sharp political cutting edge whilst still maintaining the solidarity of neorealism which is hammered home (perhaps unconvincingly but that is an artistic comment not a political one).Hopefully readers won’t be put off Visconti’s excellent film by this comment.



bellissima_7.jpg

A moving moment in Visconti's Bellissima as the built in advantages of the middle classes aremade abundantly clear



Cronaca di’un amore poster

Poster of Antonioni’s Cronaca di’un amore



In chapter five Shiel reviews neorealism’s second phase. In this analysis he is in agreement with Andre Bazin who considers that it was in the closing shot of Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria that finally closes the door on neorealism. The chapter opens with an analysis of Antonioni’s Cronaca di’un amore. Sadly I haven’t seen this film which along with I think all of Antonioni’s early work is unavailable in the UK so I’m unable to comment upon Shiel’s analysis beyond noting that there is no reason to think of it as anything but thorough.



voyage_to_italy_5.jpg

Rossellini's Voyage in Italy



In chapter five Shiel also comments upon the films of Rossellini from this period, with some time spent on Voyage in Italy one of several from this time made with Ingrid Bergman. This film at least is available in an excellent BFI version with a very interesting analytical commentary by Laura Mulvey as an extra. Shiel says of Voyage in Italy:

Comprises an expansion of neorealism in the direction of the metaphysical or spiritual concerns and resembles the direction taken by Antonioni. (p 104).

Rossellini had commented as early as 1949 very soon after the Christian Democrats came to power that “ You cannot go on shooting in ruined cities forever”, a clear recognition of the rapid changes and that European reconstruction was beginning to have an effect. Shiel argues that in Francis God’s Jester (available from Eureka video) Rossellini was playing with a metaphor where the relationship with God and other humans was played out in the absence of material. A comment perhaps on the priorities of the CD party and the values being expressed as what became known as the ‘economic miracle’ got under way.

Nights of Cabiria 3

Above from Fellini's Nights of Cabiria

From here Shiel moves to examine the work of Fellini who made six films during this period of the early to mid-fifties. The focus here lies upon Nights of Cabiria. Shiel suggests that Fellini:

Employed realism as a window onto internal character although like the films of Antonioni and Rossellini they never strayed far from social concerns and presented their personal tragedies as narratives with real social implications. (p 113)

Shiel notes that it was this film which initially working within a neorealist framework grows out of it in its final moments. It was Bazin who noted that whilst the film remained largely neorealist he noted that Cabiria was looking at the spectator in a way that changed the relationship of the spectator to the film moving away from the objectivity of the spectator prized by neorealism.

Shiel’s conclusion which I have noted at the beginning of this review notes the legacy of neorealism. Here Shiel claims a wide range of important films on a global scale were influenced by neorealism. Whist I don’t wish to decry these claims I think that the social concern expressed in We are the Lambeth Boys by Karel Reisz (1959) may be underplaying the British documentary connection especially the influence of Humphrey Jennings many of whose films are considerably underestimated. In that sense the notions of realism which Shiel clearly thinks have been seriously downplayed in academia in recent years partially because of the rise of post-modern discourse has a wide and deep roots running through European film culture. Certainly the work of Francesco Rosi and Olmi kept the neorealist flame alive in Italy itself.




Tree of Wooden Clogs 2

From Olmi's Tree of Wooden Clogs



Conclusion

As an excellent, readable, rigorously researched but accessible book this is the best that I have read on neorealism from the perspective of the more general reader. It would be an excellent book to have as a reference for those new to neorealism as it provides enough contextual information to place this loose movement in a holistic sense, it chooses a good range of films to use as brief case studies and provides an historical scope which includes both the origins of the movement and the long-term influences of this movement which has had a critical success which far outweighs the box-office returns of the time. The book provides a good range of films to be followed up and an excellent range of references which opportunities for the more committed reader to follow up. This book is a must for students, teachers and those interested in Italian and / or European cinema and comes strongly recommended.


January 12, 2007

Book Review 1: My Beautiful Laundrette

Book Review: Christine Geraghty. 2005 My Beautiful Laundrette. London: I.B. Tauris £9.99

The Book Cover

Preface: This article is now part of an interlinked theme called Representing Changing Britain: Ethnicity and Hybridity. If you have visited this page via another route you may wish to follow this perspective on contemporary British Cinema.

Introduction
.
The specialist publisher I. B. Tauris has teamed up with Turner Classic Movies film channel to develop The Turner Classic Movies British Film Guides . The series was launched in 2003 and the fact that I have seen so few of them about on the shelves of bookshops varying from University of Warwick bookshop to Birmingham and Coventry branches of Waterstone’s is disturbing. When this happens it is little wonder that British cinema is held unjustly in low esteem. Critical coverage of our best films is a fundamental part of cultural citizenship. It is thus worth reviewing and hopefully revitalising sales of these books. This review and those which follow on this blog are not conducted on the grounds that they are new, but on the grounds of the ‘long tail’ argument which has been advanced and analysed elsewhere on this blog. If something is worth reading then it is, worth reading.

On the basis of Geraghty’s book on My Beautiful Laundrette and a swift glimpse at some of the other ones I have received for review this series of monographs on individual British films is doing what it says it intends to on the inside cover which is to : ...comprehensively refute the ill-informed judgement of French director Francois Truffaut that is cinema.

Priced to go, at a very reasonable £9-99 these books are ideal for those who wish to engage with a film more deeply either from direct personal interest or as a student completing a film or media studies course.

The books are well researched, well written and don’t go off into the depths of ‘theoretical practice’ at the expense of the film. They are a good match for the French cine guides also produced by I. B. Tauris which I’m more familiar with.

The titles in both series are written by well known academics and critics and effectively act to bridge that gap in film studies literature which veers between total populism on the one hand and obscure academicism on the other. In short, they provide an intelligent read for the train being a handy size to carry around.

Race Politics Identity Complexity

My Beautiful Laundrette

My Beautiful Laundrette was made in 1985 by Stephen Frears and scripted by Hanif Kureshi. It was certainly one of the most interesting British films of the 1980s and certainly deserves a full monograph devoted to it. Along with films such as Mike Leigh’s Meantime it spoke to a disaffected youth culture who had a rebellious consciousness which had been honed by the growth of political and cultural such as ‘Rock Against Racism’ the ‘Anti Nazi league’, anti-fascist marches in Lewisham, ‘Gay Pride’ and mass radical cultural events sponsored by the Greater London Council (GLC). Despite the triumphs of the Thatcher government there had been strong resistance to it from London under the leadership of ‘Red Ken’ Livingstone and other cities such as Sheffield at the time had been supporting radical cultural politics.

The audience for a film like My Beautiful Laundrette was an audience without a film until that point. The fact that Hanif Kureshi appears on the London cultural scene at this time is less than coincidence. The reason why the film was so successful in Britian, apart from the cinematic elements which Geraghty explores very thoroughly, was this rich cultural environment. Had it been just a ‘boring but worthy’ film then it would have been consigned to the dustbin of history.

I have a criticism of Geraghty for sidestepping the cultural context from which the film grew. In her introduction she argues for a corrective position set against a critical backdrop which has emphasised the social and political importance of the film. Geraghty instead argues that much of the film’s success was based upon its aesthetics and its cinematic art. Here there is a tendency to slip into the polarisation of text / context as different methods whilst I prefer to use SPECT (social / political / economic / cultural / textual) as a combination. My Beautiful Laundrette fits into all of these categories rather well, which is unusual.

Throughout the book there is a lack of recognition of the hybrid nature of many young people at the time, certainly in the more progressive cities of Britain in any case. It was they who provided the audiences because it was a part of their lived cultural experience. Geraghty makes the point that having a cinema release was a status thing from within the British cultural establishment gaining access to a critical weight which would have been absent had Channel 4 chosen to go down the route of premiering the film on TV. In fact the film gained around 8 million viewers on two screenings on TV. Geraghty seems to be putting this down to its mode of release rather than the fact that there was a ready made target audience. The film would probably have gained similar numbers of viewers in the UK if had just come out on TV because of the cultural milieu from which it grew. On the other hand Geraghty is certainly right when it comes to overseas reception and distribution.

At the time the film was surrounded by controversy in the UK because many in the readymade audience were concerned with having ‘positive’ role models. Kureshi’s original play was having none of this and both play and film stood up for making the characters have human foibles rather than cardboard cut-out ‘good’ Asians. Many a late night smoke ridden argument was held about whether the film was politically progressive or regressive.

Room for some qualitative audience research

Whilst Geraghty homes in on the academic critical debate around black British cinema from academic luminaries such as Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy and Kobena Mercer this is a film where some qualitative audience research wouldn’t have come amiss. Some memories and experiences of people at the time might have been welcomed both from readers who were around at the time and from current students. This would have been especially valuable given as Geraghty notes from her own students that they think it is an old film. Perhaps there’s a research project there for somebody.

Narrative, Mise en scene and Performance

Geraghty does some excellent analysis of the narrative particularly in relation to the narrative theories of Todorov which makes the book valuable student reading to accompany the film. As a contiguous narrative there are many strands the relationship between Nasser – Omar’s Uncle – and his mistress are but one.

Nasser and his mistress

She makes some very pertinent comments about the performances noting that whilst the film seemed to be a launch platform for Daniel Day-Lewis it didn’t lead to similar success for Gordon Warnecke who plays Omar relating this to part of a wider problem for British Asian actors.

Geraghty also analyses the mise en scene very well commenting on the way that this is clearly a proper film rather than an extended TV play through a range of cinematic devices. When it comes to mise en scene apparently many considered the ‘Powders’ laundrette to be a comment on a cinema. I must say I read it as a bit of a homage to Schlesinger’s Billy Liar when a spanking new supermarket is opened by Julie Christie. By comparison this is a parody upon Thatcher’s entrepreneurial UK.

Keeping good films alive

Geraghty also makes some useful comments about how a film can live on through being adopted by courses such as the Welsh Joint Exam committee’s excellent Film Studies ‘A’ Level. Discovering it as an affordable DVD last year I showed it as a movie on my British cinema course for evening students many of whom were contemporaries. For them and for me it still retains it freshness and liveliness as a film.

Geraghty notes how the film made other films about hybridity possible such as Bahji on the Beach, East is East and Bend it Like Beckham. This alone makes it a very important British film. Geraghty notes the rather dismissive tones of Claire Monk who criticised films like these for becoming a ‘staple of British films’. The fact of the matter is that as Britain seems to be becoming more culturally divided rather than less with the growing demand for single faith schools a lamentable signifier of this tendency the need for popular representations of cultural hybridity is important. As part of the ethnic polarisations in British society today is centred upon the growing class divide criss-crossed by this ethnicity there is a greater need to encourage hybridity as the essence of Britishness.

Will it go on my bliographies?

Absolutely despite my comments about context the book’s discussion about the film’s aesthetic strengths are considerable and it will help many a student learn more about film criticism when read alongside the film itself. Geraghty’s book is also to be welcomed for being a book which will keep the film’s message of hope alive.

For more on the book and link to a free extract click here


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