Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 6 No. 18, July 2002



Catherine Fowler

Darke Reading Light




Chris Darke

_Light Readings: Film Criticism and Screen Arts_

London: Wallflower Press, 2000

ISBN 1903364078

206 pp.


While many academic publishers are turning to play-safe text book collections, or bankable 'star' authors, Wallflower Press is forging its way with far riskier and more interesting projects. _Light Readings_, a collection of the writings of freelance film critic Chris Darke, is one such risk. The book divides itself in three: Chapter One, '21st Century Cinema: Confessions of a Freelance Film Critic', collects together film reviews (largely for _Sight and Sound_); Chapter Two, 'Cinema *sans papiers*: Writing on French Cinema', is again largely reviews, though with three longer articles; and Chapter Three, 'Cinema Exploded: Film, Video and the Gallery', contains longer pieces which contemplate the gallery art-film.


Unlike counter-parts such as Pauline Kael or Jonathon Rosenbaum, Chris Darke's reputation has yet to ripen, and whilst he (as he himself insists) follows in the footsteps of the late Serge Daney, the review-format of most of his work means that any cohesive statement of intent appears only via an accumulation of details produced once one reads the reviews in one sitting. Reading in-between the lines of the standardised film reviews represented here we find a passion for lost, over-looked, and undeveloped images, subjects, and forms. As his 'front' these reviews are mere eye-candy for the real task he sets himself: to make connections across film culture, creating a startling Kuleshov effect that originates in a juxtaposition of film with video and television. This juxtaposition does not simply place these media side by side, it is non-linear, as Darke layers his influences, fading up and down and superimposing so that what went before shows through, colouring what comes after.


Darke is frank about what he sees in the layers of cinema history that he evokes, somewhere in the past there is European Art cinema, and the French new wave, as well as the life-work of Godard, Marker, and John Cassavetes. In the present, though also passed, lie the visions of Marc Karlin -- representing the moment of _Nightcleaners_ (1976, Berwick Street Collective) and British engagement with the continental avant garde emerging from May '68 -- and Hrvoje Horvatic, a video-artist whose work with Breda Beban was part of a more recent moment of experiment; to both of whom the book is dedicated. What Darke does with this celluloid cocktail is invite us to gently sip it as we become his guest, and, in the words of Walter Benjamin before him, 'calmly and adventurously go travelling'. [1]


Whilst he claims Raymond Bellour and Serge Daney as his critical influences, in the polemic that emerges from the longer pieces Darke has the air of a Peter Wollen, circa his theory of 'Counter-Cinema' [2] or the 'Two Avant Gardes' [3]: a critic with a mind open to all those risks to which the mainstream closes its doors. Chapter One firmly sets out his preferences as European, Independent, and/or experimental, within which a review of _Dumb and Dumber_ (Peter Farelly, 1994) sits uncomfortably. Revealingly, in his introduction to this chapter, Darke talks of reviewers falling back on a description of the acting as a cover up for disengagement, and this is exactly what he does here, though the failings of this film leads him to re-make it in his imagination: 'One wonders how soon it will be before someone tempts [Jim Carrey] along the Hollywood-seeks-cred path of a Shakespearean role' (29).


In Chapters Two and Three Darke seems to find more space in his reviews of French cinema and writings on film, video, and the gallery to expand on his preferences, and it is here that the books finds its use value. As Darke himself points out, Anglo-American film writing has not taken on board recent French work on the 'passage of the image' (Bellour, [4] Daney, [5] and Aumont [6]) -- if it had, then the death of cinema scenario which it has internalised over the past ten years would have been rejected for a more philosophical (certainly on the part of Jacques Aumont any way) contemplation of the cinematic image as one of a variety of image cultures. This consideration of cinema from amongst the throng of images -- several times Darke uses the term 'image-storm' (e.g. 198) -- is conducted in an extremely orderly manner. Darke refuses to succumb to the cinema versus video game; instead, in his press releases for video artists such as Cheryl Donegan, Daniel Reeves, Bill Viola, Michael Klier, and Sophie Calle, all written for the UK's Film and Video Umbrella, he sketches for them a heritage informed as much by minimalism and 70's personal filmmaking, as by video art and television. Through the insistence on such a trajectory Darke's work can be read alongside Malcolm Le Grice's _Experimental Cinema in the Digital Age_, [7] however what separates Darke from Le Grice, and from current film/video criticism (as witnessed in the magazines _Vertigo_ or _Filmwaves_), is the French connection upon which he constantly insists; and it is here that Darke intervenes in contemporary debates in Britain, offering a welcome corrective.


If, as Darke's book proposes, the work of Daney, Aumont, and Bellour was to enter into Anglo-American vernacular, one could imagine 'moving image' studies taking over from 'film' studies. This possibility is brought closer by the translation in the last three years of Aumont's _The Image_ and a collection of Bellour's early work, however Daney remains untouched by most except Darke. We must look then to _Light Readings_ to illuminate this area for us; such an obligation adds the role of translator to those of dilettante, cinephile, and freelance film critic that Darke sets himself, and his success and persuasion as translator tend to reduce those roles that follow to more commercial enterprises. This is not to suggest that Darke is not an engaging and enlightening film reviewer, or that his enthusiasm for screen arts is not well placed, rather I would suggest that the value of this book lies in its third chapter. The sustained gaze that Darke offers to the film, video, gallery triad yields many insights and delights. This chapter offers not simply a theoretically grounded introduction to recent screen arts; for those who are engaged in the scene it challenges assumptions and forges connections, suggesting how film theory might confront the impasse often posed (and imposed) once moving images are taken out of the auditorium.


As well as the polemic, Darke shows a sensitivity to the sensual, tactile qualities of images found elsewhere in Laura Marks's evocative book _The Skin of the Film_. [8] Like Marks, who is drawn to film and video's 'haptic' qualities, Darke's writing is alive to light, shadow, pattern, and generally non-narrative experiences. For all those whose concern is with the 'alternatives' that film offers, and who are willing to venture out of the auditorium to find those alternatives, _Light Readings_ is not simply an addition to the field, it is an intervention, though one which, like the films it promotes, asks for sustained attention through which we can extract a truly moving experience.


Southampton Institute of Higher Education, England





1. Walter Benjamin, 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction', in Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen, eds, _Film Theory and Criticism_, 3rd edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 690.


2. Peter Wollen, '_Vent d'est_: Godard's Cinema and Counter-Cinema', _Afterimage_, no. 4, Autumn 1972, pp. 6-16.


3. Wollen, 'The Two Avant Gardes', _Studio International_, vol. 190 no. 984, November-December 1975, pp. 171-75.


4. See Raymond Bellour, Catherine David, and Christine Can Assche, _Passages de l'image_ (Paris: Editions Centre Pompidou, 1991).


5. See Serge Daney, _Le Salaire du Zappeur_ (Paris: Editions Ramsay, 1988).


6. See Jacques Aumont, _The Image_, trans. Calire Pajackowska (London: British Film Institute, 1991).


7. Malcolm Le Grice, _Experimental Cinema in the Digital Age_ (London: British Film Institute, 2001).


8. Laura U. Marks, _The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment and the Senses_ (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2000).



Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2002


Catherine Fowler, 'Darke Reading Light', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 6 no. 18, July 2002 <>.



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