Cheerfully Chopping up the World
- The Material Ghost: Films and Their Medium by Gilberto Perez
Johns Hopkins, 466 pp, £25.00, April 1998, ISBN 0 8018 5673 6
- On the History of Film Style by David Bordwell
Harvard, 322 pp, £39.95, February 1998, ISBN 0 674 63428 4
- Gilles Deleuze's Time Machine by D.N. Rodowick
Duke, 260 pp, £46.95, October 1997, ISBN 0 8223 1962 4
- The Aesthetics and Psychology of the Cinema by Jean Mitry, translated by Christopher King
Athlone, 405 pp, £45.00, February 1998, ISBN 0 485 30084 2
- Signs and Meaning in the Cinema by Peter Wollen
BFI, 188 pp, £40.00, May 1998, ISBN 0 85170 646 0
The names of the actors appear briefly on a dark screen. We hear the sound of a car on a road. A title reads: ‘This film is based on a true story.’ Then we see a large American car from the back, driving at night on the wrong, that is, on the left side of the road. The car swerves into the right lane, the camera stays in the left, catches up, comes alongside the car. The screen goes dark again and a title says, ‘New York, 1970’. Now we get a view of the moving car from the front, outside the windscreen, the camera slightly off to the driver’s left. Ray Liotta, looking young and spruce but tired, is at the wheel, his face well lit. Robert de Niro, in the passenger seat, is asleep. Joe Pesci, in the back seat, is nodding off. A thumping noise is heard, and Liotta says, ‘Jimmy.’ De Niro wakes up. Liotta continues: ‘Did I hear somethin’?’
Cut to a side view of the rear of the car, now stationary, lights on, trees in the background. The thumping noise continues. The three men appear from the right of the screen, go round to the back of the car. Cut to a view of the boot of the car, followed by a short, slow tracking movement to bring us closer to it. A reverse angle shot shows the three men. De Niro nods to Liotta, Pesci takes a broad butcher’s knife from his belt, the camera pans slightly towards the car. We see Liotta, from the back, cautiously opening the boot. A man is in there, wrapped in a bloodstained sheet, moving his head. He says: ‘No, no, no.’ Cut to Pesci who, indignant, drives his knife into the man six or seven times. Cut to de Niro who has drawn a gun, and shoots the man four times. Cut to Liotta, who glances offscreen at (presumably) de Niro, and steps forward to close the boot. Liotta’s voice is heard on the soundtrack, saying, ‘As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster.’ He slams the boot shut, the frame freezes on his slightly startled face, and the music begins, a hefty big band swing sound. Just before the title of the film flashes across the screen, the vocalist makes his entry. It’s Tony Bennett singing ‘From Rags to Riches’. The film is Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990).
All kinds of things are going on here, artful, intelligent, violent and ironic. The broadest effect is that of the song, with its implication of a sarcasm as old as gangster movies themselves. Organised crime is a paradigm for success in America, business and fortune are crime by other means. But the bounce and orchestration of the tune, which we hear before we hear any of the lyrics, tell another story, suggest dance and pleasure, the good life, loud and unapologetic. Or they would suggest this if they were not synchronised with the slamming of the boot on the corpse and the freeze-frame on Liotta’s dazed face. This is a film metaphor of the kind usually associated with Eisenstein, a clash of apparently conflicting associations, but the argument seems to be one of shock, not moralising. Not: this is where the good life gets you. But: who’d have thought the good life could bring you to this?
There are at least three times in this sequence – the time of what we are seeing, the time of Liotta’s narration and the extended time of his remembrance – and at least two perspectives: that of the prowling camera and that of Liotta himself, so that our consciousness becomes split, as if we were watching with him, and also watching him watching. Our curious intimacy with what’s going on accounts for the harsh, clean feel of the scene – there’s no Tarentino-style amiability here, no relaxed acceptance of the realm of nasty accident. In a couple of movements I left out of the description above, Scorsese cuts from de Niro stepping forward to shoot the man in the boot, to Liotta standing watching, and from there to a close-up of the figure in the bloodsoaked sheet, with de Niro’s arm and hand and gun in the front of the frame, so that we are looking directly along the line of the shot. The shift to Liotta and away from him, which we could think of as a reaction shot if it lingered a little, is so fast that we scarcely see it, as if it were one of those flashes so dear to supposedly subliminal advertising in the Fifties. But of course we do see it, even if we don’t notice that we’ve seen it, and it alters our perception of the sequence. Combined with our angle on the shooting, it puts us in the scene, ruins the immunity the camera seems to promise us. Although we don’t become the Liotta character, the distance we maintain from him is not enough for any kind of judging irony, only for an irony of bewilderment.
When Liotta says he has always wanted to be a gangster, the joke, in the wake of the angry, muttering violence of his companions, is about as dark as a joke could be, but it is a joke. It’s funny (and disturbing) because it skirts and avoids the several obvious meanings such a scene and such a comment might have: gangsters are just murderers; gangsters are free from all ordinary moral constraints; it’s good to be a gangster because it’s nice to be a thug. What the joke says is that being a gangster is a career and a mythology, and that both the fact and fiction of the job are likely to be more than you bargained for. This impression is confirmed by the sense of burlesque in the sequence: the corpse that isn’t dead, the fury of de Niro and Pesci, particularly Pesci, at this figure’s insolent insistence on being alive when he’s supposed to be gone – which has to be, of course, an unacknowledged fury at their own incompetence. We are a long way from The Godfather, where even bloodbaths are programmed with precision. In Goodfellas,‘I always wanted to be a gangster’ means: ‘I knew what I wanted but I didn’t know what I’d get; still don’t know what I’ve got. I don’t even know if I’m entitled to call this horror a horror.’
‘This is the gangster as comic hero,’ Gilberto Perez says of Goodfellas. The formulation sounds wrong, but only because we tend to think of comedy as comfortable. The voice-over narration, Perez says, ‘is in itself no more comic than the action, but the interplay between action and narration yields the uneasy comic effect characteristic of the film’. ‘The narrative of Goodfellas,’ Perez adds, ‘is an extraordinary formal achievement, of the kind that would deserve being hailed as pathbreaking avant-garde experimentation except that it was done in a work of popular art.’ This is similar to Orson Welles’s remark that The Outlaw Josey Wales would have been regarded as a masterpiece if it had been directed by someone other than Clint Eastwood, and the point of my description is to suggest, however sketchily, just how much may be going on in any movie that’s any good.
The programme of Perez’s book is to say the same thing, but not sketchily, and across a very wide range of films; and the central argument of David Bordwell’s book is similar. Perez is interested in ‘the properties and possibilities of the medium’, but thinks that what distinguishes them is their variousness. ‘Most theorists have attempted to define the nature of film as something given, something essential and unchanging; this book treats it as something variable and amenable to different kinds of construction.’ What happens in film, Bordwell says, is always a matter of film style, and no amount of cultural theory can compensate for failing to look at what’s on the screen. Film is not only a matter of style, of course; but film style is both concrete and shifting. ‘The way movies look has a history; this history calls out for analysis and explanation; and the study of this domain – the history of film style – presents inescapable challenges to anyone who wants to understand cinema’.
Both Perez and Bordwell have a quarrel with ‘theory’, and Perez has an additional quarrel with the quarrel. Film theory became just Theory in the Seventies, Bordwell suggests, a major excursion into a combination of semiotics, feminism, Marxism and psychoanalysis. By the Eighties, ‘history had come to be more intriguing than the minuet of Grand Theory,’ but this didn’t stop people from theorising. ‘Film academics who began to purge their shelves of Althusser and Lacan did not all hurry to the library to crank through microfilm. The empty shelf-space was quickly packed with works by Foucault and the Frankfurt School.’ Bordwell is not against all theory, of course, but the theory he likes is pretty much indistinguishable from a model. He offers us ‘a network of problems and solutions’, ‘a problem-based account’ of the history of film style. This doesn’t tell us how the problems arose, but it does avoid teleology, abstraction, the idea of a film essence, and any suspicion of the ‘overarching’, one of Bordwell’s favourite terms of abuse. Perez thinks Bordwell and his colleague Noel Carroll (notably in their book Post-Theory) ally themselves too closely or too exclusively with consciousness and common sense, but he’s pretty sensible himself. ‘This is a book of film criticism consistently drawn to theory but as consistently sceptical of what these days is called “theory”.’ Bordwell is always sharp and often funny; Perez is always subtle. But it isn’t enough to mark off what you don’t like by satire or punctuation, by upper-case letters and quotation-marks. All you’re doing is refusing to argue, evoking other views as monolithically foolish and faddish, saying that what you don’t like about them is that you don’t like them. What if theory, as Brecht thought, is another name for curiosity? What if there are theoretical questions to be asked about models? What if you read the Frankfurt School and also crank through microfilm? This in fact is what both Bordwell and Perez do. What’s mildly worrying is not their practice but their rhetoric of disavowal, their willingness to sound like the intellectual philistines they are not.
The Material Ghost opens with an engaging account of Perez’s childhood moviegoing in Havana. ‘With negligibly few exceptions,’ he says, ‘the movies were all foreign, which is to say none of them were.’ He quotes with approval a remark of Pauline Kael’s about our enjoyment of film, but disagrees with her statement that ‘what we enjoy in them has little to do with what we think of as art.’ ‘I grew up with the movies as art,’ Perez says, ‘and with art not as something stuffy and affected but as something vital, like the movies.’ For him all movies are potentially art movies, and his book amounts to an ostensive definition of the movies as a classic popular art. After introductory chapters on the film image, on the intertwining of fictional and documentary elements in all films, and on so-called narrative film as a predominantly dramatic medium, Perez devotes chapters to Buster Keaton, Murnau’s Nosferatu, Dovzhenko’s Earth, Renoir’s A Day in the Country, Westerns and gangster films, to what he calls the ‘history lessons’ of Abbas Kiorastami and Jean-Marie Straub/Daniele Huillet, to Godard and to Antonioni. The chapters on Keaton and Renoir are stunning, full of perceptive remarks; the chapter on Godard is a persuasive rehabilitation; none of the chapters is without memorable insights.
We learn that Frank Capra, for example, is not the populist he is supposed to be: ‘His politics are . . . a kind of middle-class noblesse oblige.’ Keaton is not a rebel or a clown but a person who discovers that ‘setting up residence in the world’ is much harder than he thought. ‘Buster proposes no defiance of the world’s ways: on the contrary, he strives for a compliance with them. When in Rome, he goes to great lengths to do as the Romans do . . . If all comedians are outsiders, Keaton is the outsider who will not give up the attempt to join in.’ The militant Godard ‘may be hard to take but he is not hard to teach’; Perez prefers the earlier and the later Godard, the poet of Alphaville and Vivre Sa Vie, the pastoralist of the ‘obscure yet luminously beautiful’ Nouvelle Vague. He doesn’t quite manage to defend Antonioni against his detractors – to call him ‘a master of the unresolved absence’ is not to say anything they wouldn’t say – but he does eloquently reframe the famous emptiness in Antonioni’s films. Does this emptiness speak or does it preach? How ready-made is the despair of L’Avventura, say, or La Notte, or L’Eclisse? Perez wants to insist that it’s not despair at all, and thinks the last of those films at least is about ‘love’s chances of success’. All we know, though, as Perez says, is that the camera, at the street corner, keeps the appointment the lovers fail to keep.
Perez ably manages a number of familiar general paradoxes about film – ‘The lifelike image is also the ghostlike image: the vivid harbours the vanished’; ‘No film ever quite disappears into abstraction, but no film exactly plunges us into concrete reality either’ – but his dominant, recurring preoccupation is absence. ‘Cinematic representation depends on our acceptance of absence’ – that is, we either take for granted or bring ourselves to believe in what is not in front of us on the screen. Although he admires Dovzhenko’s ability to close off this absence (‘More than any other filmmaker, Dovzhenko makes us forget the space off screen’), Perez has a special fondness for directors who make it their subject. ‘If Griffith, more than anyone else in his time, worked to establish the convention of the shot, more than anyone else in his time, Renoir worked to disestablish it.’ ‘In a Renoir film . . . the world is larger than any rendering of it can cover.’ Keaton and Renoir and Antonioni ‘employ the camera to conduct an inquiry into the world rather than to parcel out the answers’. ‘Straub and Huillet make us notice what we are not seeing and lead us to recognise the inescapable limitation of our view.’
In writing on film, the inquiring camera is often associated with depth of field in the screened image, usually opposed to techniques of montage and fast editing. ‘I take photographs of reality,’ Eisenstein wrote, ‘and then cut them up so as to produce emotions.’ This was assumed to be the method, not only of the Russians, but of Hollywood throughout the Thirties, and long after. The focus is quite shallow in the opening of Goodfellas, for example, no chance for our eyes to wander. There is plenty of cutting, and not from Joe Pesci, who is more into stabbing. This is in part because, as Bordwell informs us, you can’t get deep focus in colour, so you either have to do without it, or manage with figures in and out of focus in the same image; and in part because Goodfellas, like most mainstream films anywhere, is devoted to the rhythms and effects of montage. Renoir, on the other hand, according to Bazin, ‘uncovered the secret of a film form that would permit everything to be said without chopping the world up into little fragments’. He was followed by Welles and Wyler, who with the help of cameraman Greg Toland created deep and yet fully focused images which required of the spectator ‘both a more active mental attitude’ and ‘a more positive contribution . . . to the action in progress’. In Citizen Kane, Bazin continued, ‘the uncertainty in which we find ourselves . . . is built into the very design of the image.’
There is quite a bit of confusion here, as Bordwell lucidly shows. Depth of field, translating profondeur de champ, ‘actually denotes two significantly different technical options’. One is ‘the capacity of the camera to render several planes of action in sharp focus’, which is what Greg Toland did. The other is simply ‘staging in depth’, which is largely what Renoir was up to, namely ‘placing significant objects or figures at distinctly different distances from the camera, regardless of whether all those elements are in focus or not’. The first was a fashion of the Forties and Fifties, which lapsed when colour came into its own. The second is something the cinema has always done, or at least has done since 1913 – Bordwell offers us an illustration from a film called Red and White Roses, released in that year. Of course, not even Bazin was arguing that montage was all bad, or that films could or should abandon it entirely, and the idea that film history consists of battles between the two approaches is as rigid and unhandy as the idea that all films are caught between the rival possibilities represented by Lumière (realism) and Meliès (magic). Even Eisenstein, Bordwell says, was ‘concerned – one might say obsessed – with staging in depth’. But there is a difference between cheerfully and magisterially chopping up the world, and trying, even through fakery, to let the unedited world unroll before us – between Billy Wilder, let’s say, and Luchino Visconti.
Staging in depth is not the only subject of Bordwell’s new book, but it is his extended example of what a ‘research programme’ can do. He first surveys the field. He starts with what he calls ‘the Standard Version’ of the history of film style, the heroic, founding phase, when the ‘seventh art’ was seen to be seeking, and quite often finding, its essence, awkwardly troubled by the advent of sound. Bordwell has a wonderful way of making aesthetic propositions sound plausible while discreetly hinting at what he thinks is their error: a form of suspense. What’s wrong with believing that ‘the history of an art may be understood as stages in the revelation of the art’s characteristic powers’? Isn’t that what Perez means when he writes of ‘the properties and possibilities of the medium’? Not necessarily. It would depend on whether Perez thought that those properties and possibilities were inherent in the medium or something the medium came across. Bordwell knows what he thinks: ‘there is always another way to do anything.’ ‘In using cross-cutting Griffith did not fulfil the essence of cinema; he applied the medium to certain tasks and thereby showed that it could function in certain ways.’ This is eminently sensible, but dangerously close to folding in on itself. Can it be that the only alternative to an essence of cinema is the notion that a job’s gotta do what it’s gotta do?
Bordwell next summarises Bazin’s ‘dialectical’ version of film history, which includes the Standard Version’s aspirations to art but adds a strand of fidelity to the phenomenal world: Flaherty and Murnau are in dialogue with Griffith and Eisenstein. ‘Either a filmmaker sought to overcome the realism of the medium through expressive artifice and stylisation, or the filmmaker sought to enhance the realistic capacities of film by recording and revealing concrete actuality.’ Bordwell then turns to Noel Burch, and his ‘oppositional programme’, in which the illusionist mode of Western commercial cinema, what Burch calls the ‘Institutional Mode of Representation’, is subjected to a critique made possible by various alternative cinemas, Japanese, avant-garde, pre-institutional. Bordwell is sympathetic to both Bazin and Burch, but feels Bazin’s approach has largely been assimilated by a revised Standard Version, and wonders whether Burch’s alternative films all have the same oppositional relation to the mainstream: ‘it seems likely that many such films are just contingently different.’
Bordwell finally describes three different ‘recent research programmes’: a ‘piecemeal history’ of early cinema which he is much in sympathy with; a version of cultural theory, which holds that cinema reflects fractured modern modes of perception, and which Bordwell thinks is entirely ungrounded; and his own model of ‘problems and solutions’. The remainder of the book, its last 114 pages, offers a brilliant account of the history of staging in depth, taking us from Meliès and Porter through Sjöström’s Ingeborg Holm and Stroheim’s Greed to Preminger’s Fallen Angel, Cukor’s A Star Is Born and Spielberg’s Jaws.
The possibilities of staging in depth seem virtually limitless, and the promise of stylistic history is handsomely kept. Even if it’s true that too many directors make things easy for themselves, and that in many current films ‘speed hurtles past nuance’, there are other directors to remind us what ‘exceptionally exact perceptions’, in Kuleshov’s phrase, can do for the viewer who is prepared to stay and look.
‘Why do you think we have suddenly become so interested in early cinema?’ Peter Wollen asks at the end of the new edition of his Signs and Meaning in the Cinema. ‘It’s more than archaeology. It is to regain a sense of cinema as potential, not yet frozen into the world spectacle. It is to imagine a renaissance.’ Bordwell, I imagine, would think that both ‘we’ and ‘suddenly’ are a bit casual, and would add that the interest has historical as well as inspirational value. ‘Students of early cinema,’ he writes, ‘called into question virtually every basic assumption of the Standard and Dialectical Versions.’ If we are not students of early cinema, though, we are likely to be stuck with many of those assumptions: that Griffith perfected cross-cutting and the close-up, that the cinema of the Twenties and Thirties was all montage, that Renoir and Welles consecrated depth of field, that Italian Neo-Realism and the French New Wave altered the cinema for good. Bordwell thinks the trouble with Gilles Deleuze’s two volumes on the cinema, The Movement Image (1983) and The Time Image (1985), is that they accept the Revised Standard Version’s history unquestioningly, assume the cinema has an unfolding essence, and find a precise (imaginary) place for everything. ‘No body of work that does not fit somewhere; no category without a historical manifestation. Orthodox historical schemes become ratified by a new teleology. Stylistic development follows not from a law of progress but from the medium’s mysterious urge to fill in every square of a vast grid of conceptual possibilities.’
D.N. Rodowick, in Gilles Deleuze’s Time Machine, doesn’t disagree with this assessment, and tells us rather cagily that he believes he ‘could have written another book, one that was thoroughly critical of Deleuze’. Deleuze would have been seen as just another Paris cinephile, his writing unsteady, his accounts of individual films very thin. Worse still, he would have appeared as a cultural élitist, a Modernist snob wanting to dissociate great movies from mass culture, a man unattuned to ‘cultural studies’ redemption of the popular’. The very idea of the popular being in need of redemption suggests that the snobbery may not be where Rodowick thinks it is, but in any case he has written an extremely cogent and helpful book, treating Deleuze’s movie volumes ‘as a logical development through cinema of Deleuze’s more general concerns’. I can’t summarise this excellent summary, but I can point to what seems most interesting in the context of the other books we are looking at.
Deleuze thinks the cinema literalises Bergson’s preoccupation with images of thought, and although Bergson doesn’t mention movies in Matter and Memory Deleuze treats that book, Rodowick says, as ‘a work of film theory from first page to last’. The scene from Goodfellas would be an instance of what Deleuze calls the movement-image – he associates this with classic Russian and American cinema, prior to Welles and the New Wave, but there is no sign that it stopped when other things started. It registers time through movement, and Deleuze also says it belongs to an ‘organic order’ (‘un régime organique’), in which the object of the camera’s gaze is taken to be independent of that gaze. We have no doubt about what we are seeing in Goodfellas; our doubt has to do with what we make of it. In Deleuze’s other order, which he calls ‘crystalline’, that of the time-image, we get a picture of time itself. Now the object is created by the gaze, ‘decomposed’ and ‘multiplied’ by the way the camera looks at it. ‘The question is no longer: does the cinema give us the illusion of the world? But: how does cinema restore our belief in the world?’
The opening of Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour is a good example, also cited by Rodowick. We see portions of two naked bodies in close-up, ambiguously embraced. The skin glistens, looks like sand. Then it clears, looks like skin. A man’s voice, speaking French with a Japanese accent, says: ‘You saw nothing at Hiroshima, nothing.’ A woman’s voice, speaking French with a French accent, says: ‘I saw everything at Hiroshima.’ She mentions a hospital, and the camera shows us a Japanese hospital, with shy female patients. Does this mean she has seen the hospital, or is it only the movie audience that’s seeing it? Is the hospital, along with the images that follow, enough to ground a claim to have seen ‘everything’ at Hiroshima? Does the man mean the woman literally saw nothing, or that what she did doesn’t count as seeing? Is she disagreeing with him or failing to understand him?
Deleuze points to the way these questions play out in the film, and become something else.
There are two characters, but each has his or her own memory, which is foreign to the other. It is like two incommensurable regions of the past. And while the Japanese man refuses to allow the woman into his region . . . the woman draws the willing and consenting Japanese into hers, up to a certain point. Isn’t this a way for each of them to forget their own memory and to make a memory for two, as if memory were now to become a world, detached from their persons?
There is no joke or irony, no question of tone, but there is considerable doubt about what we are seeing and hearing. Perhaps it’s a memory become a world, but can one perceive memory in this way? ‘I am haunted,’ Deleuze writes later in the same book, ‘by a question to which I cannot reply.’
Citing Godard’s contempt for theory, Deleuze spiritedly replies that theory, too, is something people do, a practice involving concepts, and adds, ‘there is always a time, midday or midnight, when we must no longer ask “What is cinema” but ask “What is philosophy?”’ We don’t have to believe that Goodfellas and Hiroshima mon amour exhaust the possibilities of film, or that one is more advanced or sophisticated than the other, but we could certainly agree that the differences between the films are, among other things, philosophical, and this might help us to be less rigid about theory, whether we are for it or against it, and whatever the punctuation.
The Aesthetics and Psychology of Cinema is a translation of the abridged version (1990) of Jean Mitry’s magnum opus (1963). It’s hard to see this as a timely work, and things weren’t much better in 1963: Brian Lewis, in his Introduction to this edition, says the book was published ‘just in time to become unfashionable virtually overnight’. With friends like these, we might think, who needs undertakers? Mitry was certainly no slacker, as this book and his seven-volume history of cinema attest, and a man who remembers seeing Nanook of the North in 1922 has impeccable credentials. Mitry is at his best when he is most personal, reconstructing his images of words like sauvetage and naufrage, as if there were movies in the alphabet – sound movies too. ‘An enormous wave gave off the sound nauf as it broke over the hull and the vessel sank in the billows like a death rattle: rage.’ ‘It was reasonably warm in the cinema,’ Mitry says of the showing of Nanook, ‘and yet I was surprised to notice that once or twice during the film I was turning up the collar of my coat; I might even have blown on my fingers. Obviously I was not cold; I was merely thinking in the same way as a man in the cold.’
Mitry has plenty of sensible, basic things to say about the cinema – a film audience, contra Bazin, ‘is free to think about or around what it sees but not to choose from what is presented for it to see’ – and offers some good definitions of technical terms. He also makes some brief but provocative remarks about animation, which is not often discussed in ambitious film books. But he has a hair-raising tendency to take off into muddled, big-time explanations, as if the whole history of modern thought had to be rehearsed to make the smallest point. Mitry routinely misunderstands Barthes and Saussure, drops names as if they were arguments. ‘In the words of A. Sonnenschein’, ‘to this definition might be added that of Francis Warrain’, ‘it was E. d’Eichtal who formulated’, ‘we must agree with Pius Servien’, ‘in the words of Matila Glyka’, ‘as Herbert Spencer puts it’, ‘as Gaston Bachelard assures us’: all these phrases occur on one page. Mitry thinks the films of Rossellini ‘degenerate into cliché or melodrama’, which they often do, but to argue that Godard’s work is ‘incapable of following a logical, coherent development’ seems desperately to miss the point, and it is merely banal to suggest that ‘a shot lasts – or should last – only as long as is necessary for the expression of its content,’ or that ‘all other things being equal, virtue lies in being simple and concise.’ Mitry himself, meanwhile, is simple and prolix.
Lewis informs us that Mitry was a ‘wonderful, generous’ person, and I have no reason to doubt him. But the person who comes across in this book is an emphatic, blustering type, anxious only to teach and to classify, not to learn or doubt. He is not haunted by any questions to which he cannot reply. Why have people thought that ‘editing plays a determinative role in film language’? ‘Quite simply – as is always the case – a verbal misunderstanding.’ We didn’t know the difference between editing (splicing film together) and montage (creating associations). What if we did know the difference, or thought it might not be as neat as it seems? The attractive moments of Mitry’s dogmatism occur when it turns to insolence. ‘If it is philosophy we are looking for, we shall not find it with Agnes Varda.’ Who wants Brechtian alienation? ‘There is no need for the actor playing Napoleon to make me understand that he is not Napoleon, merely an actor playing Napoleon; this I already know.’
Peter Wollen speaks of the ‘cinephile side’ of Deleuze, and also argues that the auteur theory was really ‘an expression of fanatical love for the cinema’. A little later he defines his own ‘cinephilia’ as an ‘obsessive love of the great old Hollywood films’, but he doesn’t think these affections are incompatible with theory, or indeed with history. He ‘never did theory in that sort of way’, he says, meaning in Deleuze’s way, taking cinema as a philosophy of time, but he predicts the return of formalist film theory, albeit historicised. ‘Thinking theoretically is inseparable from thinking historically.’ Wollen says these things in a new Afterword to Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (first published in 1969), in conversation with his second self, Lee Russell, who wrote film criticism for the New Left Review from 1964 until 1967. Russell’s reviews are also included in the volume. The conversation is quirky and illuminating, with Russell playing the straight man, the practical critic, the questioner, while Wollen plays the celebrity scholar looking back over the theory wars.
We learn that Wollen wrote Signs and Meaning ‘in the month of May 1968’, which is impressive for all sorts of reasons, and that he has ‘never liked the idea of culture or “Cultural Studies”’. What he likes is high art and the mass media, ‘a kind of pincer movement’. Russell’s reviews are often very acute, particularly on Renoir (‘Renoir’s bonhomie – his open optimism – easily slips into buffoonery – a kind of hidden pessimism’) and Louis Malle (‘whereas Godard is Godard and Truffaut is Truffaut, Malle is the Nouvelle Vague’), and Signs and Meaning itself still reads well, laying out Eisenstein’s sense of the cinema, along with the auteur theory, and a programme for the study of film as semiology. What seems distinctly odd is the language of the conclusion Wollen wrote for a second edition in 1972. Russell later describes this as couched in ‘the jargon of the time’, but that’s putting it mildly. Anxious not only to bury the dead author but to remove all traces of the grave, Wollen insists that a film is a text, that is to say, ‘not an instrument of communication but a challenge to the mystification that communication can exist’. ‘The text is the factory where thought is at work,’ but it seems that nothing is being made there, and you can’t get out of the factory. In his Afterword Wollen speaks of being influenced by ‘a somewhat strange combination of ideas’, meaning Freud, Eco and Derrida, and apologises for making the author a purely textual effect. ‘Sam Fuller may not knowingly have become “Sam Fuller”, but you couldn’t have the latter without the former.’
Still, even in 1969, Wollen had arrived, via Peirce’s triple theory of the sign as index, icon and symbol, with the cinema partaking of all three, at something like the pluralism recommended this year by Perez and Bordwell. ‘Lumière and Meliès are not like Cain and Abel; there is no need for one to eliminate the other. It is quite misleading to validate one dimension unilaterally at the expense of all the others. There is no pure cinema, grounded on a single essence, hermetically sealed from contamination.’ You can want to be a gangster, and you can wonder what you saw at Hiroshima