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Figuring the Past

Figuring the Past: Period Film and the Mannerist Aesthetic

Belén Vidal
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Figuring the Past
    Book Description:

    This definitive work offers a new approach to the period film at the turn of the twenty-first century, examining the ways in which contemporary cinema recreates the historical past. This book explores the relation between visual motifs and cultural representation in a range of key films by James Ivory, Martin Scorsese and Jane Campion, among others. Looking at the mannerist taste for citation, detail and stylisation, the author argues for an aesthetic of fragments and figures central to the period film as an international genre. Three key figures - the house, the tableau and the letter - structure a critical journey through a selection of detailed case studies, in relation to changing notions of visual style, melodrama, and gender. This seeks to place this popular but often undervalued genre in a new light and to rethink its significance in the context of key debates in film studies. This title is available in the OAPEN Library -

    eISBN: 978-90-485-1353-6
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-4)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. 5-6)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. 7-8)
  4. Introduction Period Film and the Mannerist Moment
    (pp. 9-26)

    In the introduction to his evocatively titled bookThe Past is a Foreign Country, David Lowenthal remarks that ‘it is no longer the presence of the past that speaks to us, but its pastness’.¹ This subtle distinction underlies the pleasures of the period film, in which the ‘the Past’ (as original myth or foundational moment) resonates in the present through the visual (and aural) spectacle of pastness, and its intricate signs. The period film stages a return to a place and time whose codes may seem strange and, more often than not, irrelevant. However, period objects and rituals are a...

  5. Chapter 1 A Poetics of Figuration
    (pp. 27-64)

    The study of the period film is a rich if deeply fractured field. Adaptation studies, the heritage debates, not to mention historians looking at film as a tool for representing the past, all have a stake in the genre. However, whilst more self-conscious intertextual practices (for example, film parodies or ‘updatings’ of classic literary texts) have rapidly found their slot in a taxonomy of postmodern film genres, the aesthetics of period cinema remains somehow resistant to classification other than as a rehash of the literary as cultural commodity in a post-literary age. The genre is torn between the search for...

  6. Chapter 2 Present in the Past: The House
    (pp. 65-110)

    The house represents, quite literally, the home and hearth of modern period drama. Unlike the expansive landscapes of public memory that concern the epic, the house encapsulates the rituals and mores of the past, and brings into focus the ‘intimate contained spaces’ characteristic of contemporary period film.¹ At the same time, the house is a spectacular motif that has come to define the mannerist moment of the genre. Poised between the shifting meanings of ‘home’, ‘property’, and ‘museum’, the house evokes both generic predictability and contested heritages. In the following pages, I address these debates through a look at the...

  7. Chapter 3 Time and the Image: The Tableau
    (pp. 111-162)

    The mannerist period film presents an intensification of the textural play of the image, in the double sense of visual texturing (or density), and fabric of encoded textual meanings. In particular, the intersections between cinema, photography and painting reveal the heterogeneous spaces of cinema, stressing the mixture of visual and temporal regimes. Nowhere is this more evident than in the structural moments where still visual citations provide the film with ‘painterly’ or ‘photographic’ moments.

    The use of painterly sources to reconstruct the atmosphere of a given era and validate the film’s connection with the cultural heritage is one of the...

  8. Chapter 4 The Scene of Writing: The Letter
    (pp. 163-200)

    So far we have seen how the figures of the house and the tableau bring to the fore specific forms of filmic figuration involving camerawork and framing, and through them, the production of space and time. Intertextually as well as intratextually, they do not only make for moments of visual enjoyment, but also of hermeneutic ambiguity. This is even truer of the letter, the last figure that I will address in this book. The letter is a recognisable narrative motif in the mise-en-scène of the period film. It stands as an irremediably quaint object that evokes the period film’s fascination...

  9. Conclusion Second Sight: Reviewing the Past, Figuring the Present
    (pp. 201-204)

    The original idea for this book took root in my mind quite a few years ago. It did not, in fact, come in the shape of an idea (which would form much later); rather, it was an emotional response. I watched The Age of Innocence for the first time in the week of its general release in cinemas. Sitting very close to the huge screen at my local multiplex, I remember being overwhelmed by the sheer density of the film’s colours and textures, but especially by the emotional story of renunciation unfolding in the airless world that the film brought...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 205-230)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 231-244)
  12. Index of Film Titles
    (pp. 245-249)
  13. Index of Names and Subjects
    (pp. 250-256)