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In Search of Cinema

In Search of Cinema: Writings on International Film Art

Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 416
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  • Book Info
    In Search of Cinema
    Book Description:

    The essays collected here reflect the spectacular rise of Iranian cinema in recent years as well as the strong contributions of contemporary filmmakers from countries such as Belgium, Canada, China, Israel, Lebanon, Scotland, and Spain. But In Search of Cinema does not neglect the best recent films from major film-producing nations like the United States, France, and Italy and includes retrospective pieces on the careers of Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen as well as several essays on the interrelationship between film form, or film genres, and drama and the novel, the two forms from which the cinema continues to draw a wealth of its material.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-7190-7
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. FOREWORD: Of Films, Critics, and Chronicity
    (pp. ix-2)

    There are two kinds of film critics. The first kind works for the daily or weekly press, television, or radio and reviews mostly the mass production of Hollywood studios. The format of their reviews as well as the short deadlines under which they must operate largely accounts for the fleetingness of their work. These constraints explain why, short of a few personal impressions, such writers generally limit themselves to a synopsis of the film in question and a brief overview of the quality of its acting. They barely have time and space for an in-depth analysis of the main themes...

  4. INTRODUCTION: First Principles
    (pp. 3-18)

    To my knowledge, Robert Warshow was the first American critic to write film chronicles, or quarterly considerations of new movies, as opposed to daily, weekly, or even monthly reviews. This put him, not on the front lines of criticism, but at a forward observation point – behind the front lines but ahead of the rear guard, which consists of the moviegoing public and would later include scholars and theorists from the academy. Warshow did not live long enough to make the film chronicle a mainstay of either the aptly namedPartisan Review, for which he wrote, or other literary quarterlies,...


    • 1 Writing About Iranian Cinema
      (pp. 21-26)

      For Americans who want to look beyond the reductive image of Iran presented by the American media, Iran’s cinema offers an alternative that is fascinating, even astonishing, for its artistic sophistication and passionate humanism. At a time when Hollywood has put many national cinemas virtually out of business and Hollywood itself is dominated by flashy, special effects-laden fantasies, Iran’s filmmakers continue to impress audiences worldwide with their distinctive formal ingenuity and unwavering dedication to real-life people and problems. In the past decade, Iranian films have won nearly 300 awards at international festivals, where directors such as Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen...

    • 2 A Girl and Two Women: On Panahi’s The White Balloon (1995, Iran) and Dugowson’s Mina Tannenbaum (1994, France)
      (pp. 27-38)

      Most of the best films about children are about boys:Shoeshine(1946),Germany, Year Zero(1947), andBicycle Thieves(1948), for instance. Moreover, most of the best films about children were made by Italian neorealists, or by directors following their example, such as Buñuel withLos Olvidados(1951) and Clément withForbidden Games(1952).The White Balloon(1995), by contrast, is about a girl and comes to us from – of all places – Iran. The essential theme of the neorealist film was the conflict in the wake of World War II between the common man and the immense societal...

    • 3 Blood and Cherries, Snow and Dust: On Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter (1997, Canada) and Kiarostami’s A Taste of Cherry (1997, Iran)
      (pp. 39-61)

      Since the passing of my beloved father six months ago, as well as my own brush with the Grim Reaper several years past, the subject of death has been much on my mind: death as the end of earthly life and the beginning of an afterlife, if only in the memories of the living; death as a wish in the old and infirm, as a terror to the young and healthy; natural death versus unnaturally prolonged life, death by disaster or suicide; the ritualistic ghoulishness of Christian burial in contrast to the cosmic cleanness of cremation; death as the ultimate...

    • 4 Mirror Images, or Children of Paradise: On Makhmalbaf’s The Apple (1998, Iran) and Panahi’s The Mirror (1997, Iran)
      (pp. 62-71)

      The cinema of the Islamic theocracy of Iran is chiefly known today for two qualities: its children’s films (by which I mean movies about the young but not necessarily for them) and its self-reflexivity (by which I mean the posing of deep questions about fiction, reality, and filmmaking). It’s common knowledge by now that children are often used as artistic subjects in Iran because directors there can deal with them openly and honestly – i.e., without sex, violence, philosophy, and politics, and therefore without running into the problem of censorship. Among the best pictures from the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties...

    • 5 Angels beyond America: On Majidi’s The Children of Heaven (1997, Iran) and Zonca’s The Dreamlife of Angels (1998, France)
      (pp. 72-82)

      I give you two films, one from France and the other from Iran, that share ironic – and not so ironic – titles on ostensibly similar subjects; natural or naturalistic acting of the highest order, arrived at through different means; and the depiction of working-class experience more from an emotional angle than a sociopolitical one – in countries so different, moreover, that one cannot imagine the story of the French picture transposed to Iran, or vice versa. To be sure, neither movie’s narrative element is fresh, and their themes are more or less familiar in any cinematic purview of contemporary...

    • 6 The Children Are Watching Us: On De Sica’s The Children Are Watching Us (1943, Italy) and Majidi’s The Color of Paradise (1999, Iran)
      (pp. 83-96)

      I described in the introduction the ease of cinema’s mythmaking. Where children are concerned, two myths predominate on film: that of the original innocence of children, an innocence that only becomes sullied by contact with the society of grown-ups, and that of the childas-father-to-the-man, of childhood as a prelude to the main event of adulthood. Among films of the first kind, Benoît-Lévy’sLa Maternelle(1932), Duvivier’sPoil de Carotte(1932), Daquin’sPortrait of Innocence(1941), Buñuel’sLos Olvidados(1951), Grede’sHugo and Josephine(1967), and Nair’sSalaam Bombay!(1988) deserve special mention. Among films of the second kind, Hallström’sMy...

    • 7 Women and Children First: On Panahi’s The Circle (1997, Iran) and Ramsay’s The Ratcatcher (1999, Scotland)
      (pp. 97-112)

      Now Iranian cinema is becoming known for its depiction of women as well as children, as two recent titles attest:The Day I Became a Woman(2001), directed by Marzieh Meshkini, and Jafar Panahi’s third picture,The Circle(2000), from a screenplay by Kambozia Partovi¹ and Panahi, after two films by him that featured little girls (The White Balloonin 1995 andThe Mirrorin 1997). This development shouldn’t really surprise, since women and children are alike in still being marginal citizens of Iran, even as they were everywhere else in the world (and continue to be in places like...

    • 8 Carry Me Home: On Zhang Yimou’s The Road Home (2000, China), Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us (1999, Iran), and Rossellini’s Europe ’51 (1952, Italy)
      (pp. 113-136)

      A chapter that treats two films by Zhang Yimou and Abbas Kiarostami, respectively, seems particularly apt in light of Zhang’s revelation in a recent interview that he greatly admires Kiarostami’s artistry, including the latter’s ability to transcend social and political strictures. Zhang himself is the most prominent member of the first generation of China’s filmmakers since the pre-Communist era – the so-called Fifth Generation – to make movies that do not automatically toe a socialist-realist line, that do not spew out Party propaganda as a matter of course. These directors, graduates of China’s only film school, the Beijing Film Academy,...


    • 9 The Happiness of Your Friends and Neighbors: On LaBute’s Your Friends and Neighbors (1998, USA) and Solondz’s Happiness (1998, USA)
      (pp. 139-150)

      Christopher Lasch once called our era the age of narcissism, but several recent films seem to be proposing that it is really the age of hedonism: of ego gratification as well as egoism. And that ego gratification comes primarily in the form of sex: the getting of it, the mastering of it, the getting rid of it or him or her. American movies about American morals have been plentiful from the beginning, but American movies about American moral shallowness or sensual debasement are endemic to – in any case, are proliferating at – the close of this, the American century....

    • 10 Getting Straight: On Lynch’s The Straight Story (1999, USA)
      (pp. 151-163)

      In 1999, major writer-directors with reputations for treatingoutrésubjects released movies to which we could all take our young children. That poetically profane critic of American materialism, David Mamet, turned out his stirring adaptation of Terence Rattigan’sThe Winslow Boy(1946), a verbally buttoned-up English period piece. Wim Wenders, known primarily for Teutonic puzzle-pictures of anxiety and alienation, came up with an uplifting concert movie calledBuena Vista Social Club, about a group of forgotten Cuban folk musicians. The otherwise camp, even sadomasochistic sensibility of Spain’s Pedro Almodóvar gave us the uncharacteristically gentle, soberly comedicAll About My Mother....

    • 11 Stones and Roses: On the Dardennes’ Rosetta (1999, Belgium) and Schrader’s Affliction (1998, USA)
      (pp. 164-174)

      The Dardenne brothers’Rosettawon thePalme d’Orat the 1999 Cannes Film Festival over David Lynch’sThe Straight Story, and I suspect that the American entry lost not only because of the increasingly virulent anti-Americanism of the French but also because of this picture’s unashamedly Christian overtones in an era unparalleled for its greedy secularism. ButRosettahas its Christian overtones as well, though they have been missed by every commentator I’ve read, probably on account of the movie’s seemingly unrelieved bleakness of tone. Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne themselves have not helped their cause by comparing Rosetta to the...

    • 12 Hot and Cold, or Seasons Change: On Rohmer’s Autumn Tale (1998, France) and Assayas’s Late August, Early September (1998, France)
      (pp. 175-186)

      There exists a large strand of Gallic cinema for which the refined and psychologically acute depiction of urban middle-class manners is a mainstay. At its most superficial, this strand produces movies like Martine Dugowson’sPortraits chinois(1997), where the privileged milieux of fashion, art, and the media are the picture’s flimsy substance rather than its pretext, and in which the characters’ angst seems to be just another eye-catching item in a large display window. At its best, this type of French film has come to be identified with the work of Éric Rohmer. As Arnaud Desplechin said a few years...

    • 13 All about My, Your, Their Mother: On Zambrano’s Solas (1999, Spain) and Waddington’s Me, You, Them (2000, Brazil)
      (pp. 187-201)

      Pedro Almodóvar continues to be the most overrated European director now at work. Perhaps this is because he’s from Spain, which until the death of Franco in 1975 censored film to such an extent that directors could express “subversive” ideas only in the form of elaborately veiled metaphors. Their movies were thus made nearly impenetrable to a wide foreign audience – that is, if they were lucky enough to reach one. Well, there’s nothing impenetrable, or even subtle, about Almodóvar’s work: he’s transparent, tasteless,andSpanish, and therefore a quick sell to audiences who like their trash dressed up in...

    • 14 Of Virgin Suicide, Human Bondage, and Male Indulgence: On Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (2000, USA), Gitai’s Kadosh (1999, Israel), and Doueiri’s West Beirut (1998, Lebanon)
      (pp. 202-214)

      Once again, before getting to the real subject of this chronicle, I shall have to dispense with an American release that has been receiving far more attention than it deserves. I refer toThe Virgin Suicides(2000), a first film adapted and directed by Sophia Coppola (yes, that Coppola) from a first novel of the same title (1993) by Jeffrey Eugenides. This picture is supposedly about generalized teenaged angst leading to multiple teenaged suicide – five suicides, in fact, committed by five sisters (ages thirteen to seventeen), who are the children of caring but over-protective parents in the affluent Michigan...

    • 15 The Space of Time, the Sound of Silence: On Ozon’s Under the Sand (2000, France) and Tsai’s What Time Is It There? (2001, Taiwan)
      (pp. 215-231)

      “The soundtrack invented silence,” wrote Robert Bresson, and some of the best directors in history, including Bresson, have fixed silence on film. For them, silence is both aural and visual – not merely the absence of talk but the presentation of persons who fill our imaginations with what they arenotsaying. Two such directors are the Malaysian-born Taiwanese Tsai Ming-liang and the Frenchman François Ozon, each of whom has made a movie not only encased in quiet but also occupied with love, yearning, or union. In Tsai’sWhat Time Is It There?(2001) and Ozon’sUnder the Sand(2000),...

    • 16 Aberdeen on the Adriatic: On Moland’s Aberdeen (2000, Norway) and Moretti’s The Son’s Room (2001, Italy)
      (pp. 232-248)

      Even though the Academy Awards are several months away, it’s time to bash the American cinema once again – indirectly, at least. For I refuse to waste much space on the mostly execrable and often juvenile products of the “entertainment industry” collectively known as Hollywood. That space, or this column, is reserved for films likeAberdeen(2000), a co-production of Norway and Scotland, andThe Son’s Room(2001), made in Italy but partly financed by the French. These two pictures are comparable not only because they are both domestic dramas whose drama is triggered by the recent or impending death...


    • 17 Wooden Allen, or Artificial Exteriors: On the Film Career of Woody Allen
      (pp. 251-259)

      I am frequently asked why I don’t write about the films of Woody Allen. Here’s my answer.

      Woody Allen used to be a funny guy. Then he became a serious artist, or thought he did at any rate. His first screen “drama,”Interiors(1978), is an embarrassing episode in Woody Allen’s career, to be followed by such others asSeptember(1987),Another Woman(1988), andAlice(1990).Interiorsrepresented a feeble struggle to escape from his more authentic self, an incredible concession to the snobbish misgiving that comedy is an inferior art – something that doubtless would be news to...

    • 18 Latter-Day Bergman: Autumn Sonata as paradigm
      (pp. 260-267)

      Ingmar Bergman began his film career with a paranoid invention salvaged by Alf Sjöberg, who, from the sketch submitted by Bergman, put the Swedish cinema on the map in 1944 with the film known in the United States asTorment. The germ of this movie was Bergman’s fear that he would be flunked on his university entrance examination; his revenge in advance was his creation of a tyrannical schoolmaster whom he aptly named Caligula. (Sjöberg added a political implication by having the actor made up to resemble Himmler, chief of the Reichsführerss.) Over the years, Bergman’s compulsion to nourish every...

    • 19 Notes on Film Genre: On Stagecoach (1939, USA), The Organizer (1963, Italy), The Cameraman (1928, USA), Psycho (1960, USA), and In Which We Serve (1942, UK)
      (pp. 268-283)

      The Western appeals to Americans in part because it reflects a myth endemic to our society: that of the loner, the individual, the completely self-reliant man. Brewing at the back of American minds is a resentment against the need for others that the modern world insists on, which Europeans accept as a perennial fact of life, and which Americans see as a version of the Fall – the lapse of Rousseau’s natural man into the compromise and frustration of social life as we know it. The resentment against the need for others stems from America’s geographical isolation as well as...

    • 20 Notes on Film Form: On General della Rovere (1959, Italy), Just Before Nightfall (1971, France), and Clare’s Knee (1970, France)
      (pp. 284-291)

      Rossellini’sGeneral della Rovere(1959) contains a startling final sequence. In it, Bardone refuses to reveal the identity of the partisan leader Fabrizio to the Nazi colonel Mueller, choosing instead to go to his death in the guise of General della Rovere with ten Italian political prisoners, among whom are some Jews. He stumbles into the prison courtyard and takes his place before a firing squad. The other prisoners are strapped to posts; he is not. It is dawn. The camera is in long shot. At the far right of the screen, Bardone can barely be seen through the fog....

    • 21 Theatre and Fiction into Film: Notes on Two Paradigmatic Scenes, One Metaphoric Fiction, and An Omnibus Adaptation: On The Little Foxes (1941, USA), Housekeeping (1987, USA), Trainspotting (1996, UK), and Dangerous Liaisons (1998, UK)
      (pp. 292-314)

      I thought I’d say something about the adaptation of both drama and fiction into film, mainly because so little is understood about the process of adaptation by even the educated filmgoer. Many people still cling to the naïve belief that drama and film, for example, are two aspects of the same art, except that drama is “live” while movies are “recorded.” Certainly there are undeniable similarities between the two forms. Most obviously, both employ action as a principal means of communication: that is, what peopledois a major source of meaning. Live theatre and movies are also collaborative enterprises,...

    • 22 The Preemptive Image
      (pp. 315-322)

      These words of Artaud, written more than sixty years ago, continue to hold true today: the theatre does not represent our age, or doesn’t represent our age nearly as fully and centrally as it might. It does not provide the age with sustaining myths, by which I think Artaud surely didn’t mean “lies,” the way we speak of political or social myths today. He meant accounts, wrought in the imagination and then enacted, or (to accord with one of Artaud’s visions) fashioned directly on the stage – accounts of how it feels and what it means to be alive. And...

  8. Further Reading
    (pp. 323-330)
  9. Selected Directorial Filmographies
    (pp. 331-336)
  10. Index
    (pp. 337-352)