Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 4 No. 29, December 2000

 

 

Stan Jones

New 'Rules of the Game'?

Rejuvenating Cinema as a Field of Critical, Conceptual, and Historical Study

 

 

 

_Film Studies: An International Review_

Issue 1, Spring 1999

ISBN 1900755288

 

This is the first issue of a new film journal. It's from a good stable, the

European Humanities Research Centre at Oxford, who are publishing it in

conjunction with the Department of Film Studies at the University of Kent

in England. Its editors, Ian Christie and Michael Grant, have assembled an

advisory panel of notable names, and their editorial leads off by comparing

their sense of their new venture to a 'seductive and ambiguous scene' (3)

from Renoir's _La Regle du jeu_ (without offering its title in English),

the displaying of the main character's pride-and-joy: a mechanical

fairground organ. What makes that scene so memorable is the way the

tracking camera integrates the uncertain owner in the shot, so that his

pride appears that of insecure vanity vested in a *contraption*. However,

it's not likely that in the case of this journal, its *audience* would

regard it as such.

 

Its look is stylish, with glossy cover images, front and back, reproduced

in negative on the inside faces (although the heavy black printing tends to

rub off unfortunately on the facing text). The 96 pages of text then appear

in single, two or three column format, with black and white illustrations,

which differentiates the editorial from the critical articles, a Dossier

section, and the final Reports and Reviews.

 

Through two issues a year, _Film Studies_ intends to provide an outlet for

what its editors have seen as valuable work which can't find an outlet, and

in this respect it might well be compared to _Film-Philosophy_. It declares

its further purpose as combating 'ideological and political pretensions to

possession of a single truth' in order to 'rejuvenate engagement with

cinema as a field of critical, conceptual and historical study' (3). The

envisaged contributions emphasise interdisciplinarity, but from a

Humanities background, or possibly, at one remove, that of cultural

studies. So it is not, in the first place, a journal for, say, 'media

education', for social scientists with an interest in the media, or, least

of all, for *wannabee* filmmakers, television producers, and so on. Instead

it wants to 'see film studies take its place as a critical and humane

discipline' (4).

 

Its range then demonstrates its purpose. French cinema figures with the

first two items on Renoir's film itself, and on surrealism as an

avant-garde phenomenon illustrated by the 'Fantomas' motif. Then comes

German cinema with Wenders's _Wings of Desire_ (unfortunately not granted

its original title: _Der Himmel uber Berlin_) as illustrating a concept of

history expressed through the motif of angels . The American industry

appears with one article considering Scorsese's treatment of the male body,

and a second traces 'the lines of sporting seduction' (51) in _The Tin

Cup_. The journal's central section then focuses on the Russian *auteur*

Aleksandr Sokurov, who appears in his own words, through a critical

article, an interview, and a filmography. The final third of _Film Studies_

is a 'where to look' section, with items on early German and British

cinema, on curating regional film history in (not surprisingly) South-East

England, and a review featuring Scorcese once again in a reading of his

_Kundun_.

 

The Dossier is clearly the first issue's centrepiece, and it is interesting

to note how a filmmaker who has worked exclusively in Russia is clearly

considered part of the European scene. Sokurov himself takes up this point

in 'The Solitary Voice' (73-77), an interview he did with Edwin Carels in

Rotterdam in 1991, and which _Film Studies_ reprints in translation from

its original Dutch source. He declares, ' I myself experience history as a

Eurasian, Russia occupies a separate place, being neither Europe nor Asia'

(73). However, he claims a place in a very wide tradition of creativity: 'I

am only a small link in world culture. If there [sic] were not the case,

then all my work is rubbish.' (73) This is a very self-conscious voice

compounded of aggression and spirituality from a man who describes himself

as almost self-destructive in his profession, 'I can hardly imagine what a

normal life looks like; for me everything is connected with film. I realise

this is bad, but filming is part of me like a poison.' (76) Not for nothing

is this self-aware artist so interested in the 19th century and its

fascination with death: Sokurov as a Romantic *auteur maudit* and, as such,

consciously seeking pre-Soviet traditions.

 

Physical violence, suffering and the potential for individual (self)

destruction, these form the sub-text to Mikhail Iampolski's survey of

Sokurov's work. Under the title 'Truth in the Flesh' it is another

translation into English, in this case from a Russian article first

published in 1990. Iampolski emphasises the filmmaker's fascination with

the death of the body, and refers to the Holbein Christ. With reference to

the philosopher Valeri Podoroga and his concept of 'micropolitical

relations' (72), he allots a political/cultural significance to Sokurov's

work as a Russian in his times: 'Sokurov makes it quite plain that the

ugliness of our repressive mechanism is inevitably reproduced precisely at

the level of bodily relations.' (72) And he stresses the violence the

filmmaker exhibits in his treatment of his images and of the film material

itself. To close, he returns to Holbein to place Sokurov in a very wide

perspective indeed: 'As a man of the late twentieth century, thoroughly

conversant with the human collective experience, which has provided ample

proof of the inadequacy and relativity of words, I feel that His crucified

body is undeniably absolute and not relative to anything.' (72) So this

contemporary Russian filmmaker, at the beginning of the 21st century, is a

form of prophet through his images of the human body, and one who maintains

the truth of that fundamental image of Christianity as something central to

Western, if not all human civilisation.

 

In the background to all Sokurov's work looms, of course, Tarkovsky. He

acknowledges the master's strong personal influence, but denies it in the

structure of his films (74). In his own account, 'Death, the Banal Leveller

(on Tarkovsky)', he relates how he came to terms with his compatriot's

death -- and all in translation, this time from an original German text.

(In this respect, Ian Christie's notes to the piece might have indicated

where the German text originated, as a 2nd-generation translation is a

somewhat curious thing in a scholarly journal). On a broad canvas of

cultural comparison -- 'Russia is the land of inspiration and illumination.

Europe is the domain of the disciplined intellect.' (64) -- Sokurov relates

time spent with Tarkovsky on the latter's visit to the University of

Leningrad. He claims him completely for the vision of a traditional

pre-Soviet Russia of mystery and spirituality which the reaction of

respectful admirers enshrines: 'These would look up to him fervently and

loved everything about him . . . Such people are the fulcrum and the

justification of Russian life.' (68) And they are so because they embody a

fundamental principle, 'that life is truly there to be spent in culture and

faith' (68). Sokurov recognises the sort of fervour he detects in

Tarkovsky-the-auteur and in his significance for his compatriots as perhaps

the defining criterion of Russian identity. But he also knows its dark side

in a capacity for victimisation and a fateful acceptance of suffering,

something that surfaces in his own case in an agonised self-flagellation

over his 'orphaned life' (69) to close his meditations: 'I was at the same

time, ultimately, only pitying myself. For this, my sin, God will punish

me.' (69) As he appears in _Film Studies_, Sokurov is a High Modernist

harking back to Romanticism, a sort of latter-day Expressionist with an

intriguing admixture of spiritual nationalism.

 

The same issue of _Film Studies_ offers an insight into the contemporary

American auteur, Martin Scorcese (who is pictured, both in positive and

negative on the back cover playing toy soldiers with the child-actor who

depicts the Dalai Lama in _Kundun_). Barry Corkliss's 'Cutting Patterns'

examines through close textual analysis the way Scorsese's filmmaking

depicts the male body. His premise is that all Scorsese's work interrogates

masculinity (46) and he focuses it on the body: 'The male body in Scorcese

is thus subject to an intensely scrutinising gaze and is presented in

blazon-like cinematic structures far more often than the female body which

critical consensus invariably associates with such a trope.' (45) Drawing

on a literary device from the Renaissance, and one ostensibly exploited by

feminist literary critics (41), Corkliss traces how the American auteur can

divide the male body into fragments which his editing then individually

amplifies. This then leads to a most intriguing conclusion: 'Scorsese's

intimate photographic presentation of his protagonists' lives, which Steven

Spielberg has said he finds so powerful as to be almost embarrassing,

allows the audience a backstage view of their performance of masculinity, a

view which the audience of a mainstream action movie is never afforded.'

(49) And it is this depiction of masculinity-as-performance that allows

this article to close with the potentially controversial assertion on the

work of the director of _Raging Bull_, _Cape Fear_ and _Goodfellas_ as

'powerfully feminist' (50) .

 

Another essentially American phenomenon (especially given the actual

celebration of Tiger Woods), the golfer-as-entertainer figures in Andrew

Klevan's reading of the Kevin Costner vehicle, _Tin Cup_. Directed by

Robert Shelton, the film depicts 'a species of male melodrama where the

hero feels fundamentally separate from others and maintains a sense of his

self by a compulsive theatricalisation' (60). Klevan carefully demonstrates

the aesthetics of Costner's performance as a brilliant maverick golfer in

order to support his perception of a piece of popular Hollywood filmmaking

which tries to reorient us to 'different criteria of success' (55). The

technical analysis is certainly convincing but it does not support the

conclusion on this film's ideological slant; it closes after all with a

totally reconciled image of the charismatic, self-fulfilling (male)

individual. In the idiom of the film itself: no cigar!

 

In his consideration of '_La Regle du Jeu_ and Modernity', Peter Wollen

locates Renoir's masterpiece in European cinema history and its dominant

cultural tradition. He is in no doubt of the film's significance:

'Seemingly doomed, it became the classic film maudit. But not only did it

survive its time, but, out of the ashes, it re-created the cinema itself,

modern, progressive and free.' (13) On this basis then there should be no

introductory course on cinema without this film. However, the cultural and

historical knowledge necessary to appreciate this work make it distinctly

unlikely that a course for contemporary, post-modern programmes and their

takers would take the risk of, as Wollen puts it, 'encountering the dark

side of modernity, its grim truth, its intrinsic violence' (13) in dealing

with something, for post-Tarantino sensibilities, as *old-fashioned* and

*other* as _La Regle du Jeu_.

 

The second analysis of French culture ranges more widely beyond cinema than

does Wollen's historical viewpoint. Murray Smith takes on 'the dialectic of

avant-garde and popular culture' (14) in a substantial study of 15 pages

with no less than 64 notes at the end of it. To look at French Surrealism,

for his purposes, he invokes a resounding name: 'we might term the

avant-garde's tactic *sublation* after the Hegelian concept *Aufhebung* --

*the dialectical transition in which a lower stage is both annulled and

preserved in a larger one*' (16) (a point of format here: quoted prose gets

translated, but unfortunately for those without French language there is no

attempt to render quoted poetry). In a broad sweep across Modernism --

citing Apollinaire, Brecht, Aragon, Duchamp -- Smith swings up to Warhol

and Lichtenberg from the plastic arts, Anger, the Kuchar brothers,

Vanderbeek, Craig Baldwin, and Douglas Gordon from cinema, to zero in on

the Fantomas motif and its significance for the surrealists, together with

their interest in American film. He sees the relationship culminating in a

fascination with a random violence which threatens established social

order: 'The recurring social contaminations in the narrative of Fantomas

are analogous to the Surrealists' own transgressions of social barriers.'

(28) And a 'Coda' closes the study with a definite evaluation of the notion

of this *avant-garde* -- 'we can agree with Peter Burger that Surrealism,

as a representative of the historical avant-garde, failed in the measure of

its most utopian ambitions of institutional transformation and social

revolution and was well on its way to becoming Burger's tamed

*Neo-avant-garde*' (29) -- to suggest a relevance for today. The late

reference to Dada in this last section perhaps disqualifies it as a 'Coda',

but Smith's particular interrogation of the avant-garde and its relation to

popular culture is convincing and does point to an area of film studies

which is perhaps less-than-fashionable at the moment.

 

The nature of *history* itself is central to Robert Smith's consideration

of 'Angels'. He considers the German director Wim Wenders's _Wings of

Desire_ but without taking into account the implications of its original,

as it were, its *real* title, _Der Himmel uber Berlin_. His conclusion

derives from what he develops as the contrasting angelic and human views of

the past and relates this to the function of cinema as a vehicle for

knowledge: 'The affective result of this difference is wonder, a knowledge

that has no mastery in it, that has given up its competence on both sides,

angelic and human, simply to gaze at the screen in all its uncanny

presence.' (40) Smith bases his reflections on the function of this film as

a self-reflexive allegory for cinema, a thematic and narrative device

well-known as one of Wenders's abiding concerns throughout his work. This

article adds a weighty derivation of the nature of the angels, and includes

Kundera, Sartre, Nietzsche, Rilke (inevitably), Gerald Manley Hopkins,

Benjamin, Klee, and Derrida in its exposition. Referring to Wenders's own

concept of his angels from his _Die Logik der Bilder_ / _The Logic of

Images_, Smith calls it a 'conceit' (33) but does not make clear what

Wenders set out as the metaphysical basis of his fictional figures in the

skies over Berlin, namely the fact that they are, in a sense, *fallen*, as

they were condemned to remain there pointlessly when they sought to

intercede on behalf of humanity with a God preparing to abandon His

creation in outrage at the crimes of the Second World War.

 

This entire interpretation of the film is itself marked by a style rich in

*conceits*: 'The angel falls simultaneously down and up into love: he falls

in love, in love he falls' (35); or: 'The dumbstruck gazer is held in

position by his own ironic gravity.' (39); or the coinage 'Hegelese' (35).

Such a style reflects a fascination with the film (which is not surprising

as it is Wenders's 'masterpiece' to date) but it is not a textual analysis.

At points, Smith has misread the narrative, as when he refers to the

'girlishness' (35) of the first sight of Marion on the trapeze, or has

passed over the significance of such figures as the ex-angel Peter Falk and

his role in the film set where the angels observe him. There is also no

consideration of the final *aria* spoken by Marion to Damiel when they

become lovers in the Hotel Esplanade, with the massive symbolism which

ensues through the image of her practising on the rope held by her new man.

And, above all, the figure of Homer, the storyteller of humanity, does not

register here. Smith's concept of the angels and the linking of it to the

nature of history as a feature of the film's overall allegory is then

interesting but limited for those interested in Wenders's work as film

rather than as a speculation on a motif that seems to have attracted

particular interest of late in Western (media) culture.

 

The third section of _Film Studies_, on 'Reports and Reviews', points to

some new developments in cinema history. Ian Christie presents a forgotten

pioneer from early German cinema, Robert Reinert, who still needs

integrating into his nation's film history. And for Britain he cites the

career of Maurice Elvey from 1913 to 1957 as a phenomenon still needing

investigation. In the same direction Stephen Bottomore recounts a more

satisfactory process as he traces the recent interest in the remarkably

energetic filmmaker, entrepreneur, inventor and collector, Will Day. The

account reinforces the truism that alongside its massive cultural

significance, filmmaking was a hard-headed business from the very

beginning. The practicalities behind collecting and preserving British

cinema history appear in Frank Gray's account of 'Discovering a Region's

Film History' where he relates the creation of an archive for South-East

England. Such basic organisational activity then throws up truly intriguing

implications: 'When did Friese-Greene produce his film of Chelsea? Was it

1891, and was it projectable?' (94) For those who care about the history of

the medium, such questions might foreshadow a need for a fundamental

correction of the books.

 

To close this first issue, Philip Horne reviews Scorsese's essay on

Bhuddism and tends to overwrite: 'Like _Casino_, _Kundun_ is the story of a

lost kingdom and way of life, ending in the ruler's exile.' (95) Here a

relatively short form unnecessarily broaches a topic which needs a much

wider examination. However, to conclude his reflections he offers the great

final speech from Prospero in _The Tempest_ to the effect that: 'The solemn

temples . . . all which inherit, shall.' Not a bad way to close a new

journal on film, especially as it's placed across from the negative image

of Scorcese and the *little llama* at play on the inside back cover.

 

_Film Studies_ has a lot to offer and deserves support, particularly from

those investigating what cinema is from a Humanities/ Arts background.

Certainly there are a few glitches: Sokurov figures as 'Sokorov' (73), the

syntax of a piece of translation from the Dutch interview needs clearing up

at one point (75), and there is the false plural 'country's' (80). And, to

counter a paradoxical sense of monoculturalism in the way it presents

studies on a range of European cinemas, it would be good to see the journal

offer quotations from non-English sources in their original language. Such

details could have considerable significance, as in the essay on Wenders's

angels.

 

For the future it would be good to see the journal compile an issue on a

couple of questions that underlie its first range of offerings: namely

national identity in filmmaking, and the relationship between the

discipline its title represents and the much-discussed and promulgated area

of cultural studies.

 

University of Waikato

Hamilton, New Zealand

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2000

 

Stan Jones, 'New 'Rules of the Game'?: Rejuvenating Cinema as a Field of

Critical, Conceptual, and Historical Study', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 4 no.

29, December 2000 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol4-2000/n29jones>.

 

  

 

Save as Plain Text Document...Print...Read...Recycle

  

Join the Film-Philosophy salon,

and receive the journal articles via email as they are published. here

 

Film-Philosophy (ISSN 1466-4615)

PO Box 26161, London SW8 4WD, England

Contact: editor@film-philosophy.com

 

Back to the Film-Philosophy homepage