ISSN 1466-4615



Michael Sicinski

The Radical Cinema and its Double





A film and tv magazine by and for film-makers and audiences

vol. 1 no. 7, Autumn 1997

ISSN 0968-7904


As just about everyone in touch with trends in the film world knows by now, the American Film Institute recently issued a list, compiled by dubious 'experts' in the field of 'the movies', of the '100 Greatest American Movies of All Time'. This effort, and its subsidiary television and videotape marketing tie-ins, has been thoroughly and justifiably attacked by critics of every stripe, and I have no intention of expending another syllable on what is only the most recent of Hollywood's seemingly endless, utterly transparent gestures towards maintaining its global hegemony.


However, one point which I have not seen raised thus far in relation to the AFI's feel-good, jingoistic must-see list (with the exception of a piece by Jonathan Rosenbaum in the Chicago Reader) is how a cursory comparison of the United States with other nations serves to expose the relative poverty of state-supported film culture which the AFI feebly represents. An unsystematic, informal survey:


-- A major world film festival like Rotterdam mounts a mid-career retrospective of the films of Ernie Gehr, while Sundance obediently lauds the slacker of the month.


-- Last week's movie listings on the BBC included a broadcast of Alain Resnais's still-unreleased two-part film _Smoking/No Smoking_.


-- Australia's state-owned Special Broadcasting Service offers viewers 'Eat Carpet', a weekly series of experimental shorts and rarely screened early work by Godard, Fassbinder, Herzog and Egoyan.


Meanwhile, PBS, with the occasional exception of a daring documentary on its 'P.O.V.' series, shies away from most topics likely to brush Congress against the grain, and seldom commissions or airs formally adventurous film work. (Su Friedrich's superb _Hide and Seek_, aired nationally on PBS, is regrettably the exception, not the rule on this score.) The private sector in the United States, in the form of cable and satellite television, conclusively gives the lie to the promises of 'narrowcasting' proffered by the industry a few decades ago. Again, an anomalous deviation in programming strategies, such as Turner Classic Movies' laudable month-long festival of American 'race movies', offers only a glimmer of the variegated, heterogeneous fare the 'free market' professes to insure.


All this leads me to issue seven of _Vertigo_, an exceptional film magazine which documents and supplements what, to a Yank like myself, looks like a vibrant public film culture in the United Kingdom. It should be noted that this issue of _Vertigo_ makes it clear that this film community's public support is being threatened, and part of what this magazine does is create a space of intervention in which the public role of an institution like the British Film Institute can be openly contested. Two articles in this issue by Julian Petley, and the third part of a continuing series by Chris Chandler, analyze such pressing issues as the distribution and wider access for European and Third cinemas in a Hollywood-saturated environment, the need to democratize independent film culture beyond the bounds of London, and direct appeals on the matter of governmental film policy to the British Minister of State for Culture, Media and Sport.


Part of the pleasure of reading these pieces was the rare experience of picking up a magazine which addressed its readership as though we would share its concern for how movies get made, funded, and screened. Too many film publications shy away from this 'technical jargon', preferring instead to offer general profiles of directors or commentary on widely-accessible films amply covered elsewhere. Part of the unspoken assumption of such coverage is that the vagaries of film distribution -- the very decisions as to what we can and cannot see -- must and should be made elsewhere, and taken for granted as part of the market's 'natural' selection system. Even if it is acknowledged that an important film is going undistributed, or that worthy film projects are not receiving adequate funds, this information is typically presented as a *fait accompli*, not a situation requiring our action. (When the AFI gives moviegoers its brochures inviting us to 'join', what voice do we receive in exchange for our donation dollars?)


The question of distribution and accessibility in _Vertigo_ makes itself felt in other ways which differentiate this magazine from various 'indie' periodicals in the States. A generally well-meaning (but incorrigibly masculinist) publication such as _Film Threat_ focuses almost exclusively on young, up-and-coming talent -- in essence making the magazine a function of the very careerism it purports to hate. By contrast, _Vertigo_ balances articles on filmmakers like Andrew Kotting, Iain Sinclair and Chris Petit (of whom I admittedly had not heard and whose work, I'd wager, is seldom seen outside Britain at the moment) with substantial coverage on the occasion of the release (itself sponsored by _Vertigo_) of Chris Marker's _Level Five_, including an interview with Dolores Walfisch and an incisive review by the late documentarian Alan Francovich. Moreover, the centerpiece of _Vertigo_ 7 is 'JLG: A Dossier', comprised of three articles marking the critical achievement of Jean-Luc Godard's essay-video-film _Histoire(s) du cinema_.


Recent work by these important filmmakers has gotten some attention in the US (for example, Joe McElhaney's fine piece on Marker's 'Silent Movie' installation in _Millennium Film Journal_, no. 29), but, by and large, the media in my country has consistently ignored Godard and Marker's ongoing contributions, implicitly dismissing these innovators as 'washed-up'. As for the films themselves, they have popped up fleetingly at the handful of urban museum and cinematheque venues only to vanish without a trace. Certainly, the vicious circle of no distribution/no media coverage/no audience is at play here. (Again, the most passionate partisan of breaking this country's loop of neglect is Jonathan Rosenbaum, who appears in _Vertigo_ with a formally interesting hybrid essay on/interview with Godard. If I have one serious criticism of this issue of _Vertigo_, it would be of the layout of this piece, which makes the shifts in prose rather difficult to follow.)


However, one essay in this volume, by Laurence Remila, stands out as an encapsulation of what is at stake in this moment of world film culture. 'Godard's Sons', in its invective against the 'Godardian cinema of surface' propounded by filmmakers Hal Hartley, Wong Kar-Wai, and, to a lesser extent, Leos Carax, crystallizes an historical formation of political (in)sensibility. Remila incisively diagnoses why it is only upon the thin surface that these vague new cineastes can nimbly skate.


What generations of post-*nouvelle vague* directors have failed to grasp is just how literate the films they claim inspiration from were. Aiming for a pure, autonomous cinema which would feed on nothing but itself, they have made something vile and impure. But they forget how *nouvelle vague* films were equally at ease quoting from literature, from painting, from music.


To reinsert this statement into our aforementioned vicious circle, we must ask how critical orthodoxy, too, plays its role in perpetuating a cinema of surface. Clearly, much of the issue comes down to many contemporary critics themselves being schooled too exclusively in the movies, then seeing their own cinephilia 'hailed' within the films themselves. But while I believe this to be the case, I also feel such a statement to be too general to be of much use. On the other hand, one can rather concretely chart the typically parabolic trajectory of the critical fortunes of most 'art film' directors, and identify a systemic role which criticism can too often play within the homogenization of film culture.


Certainly a key part of this process is the fetishization of younger filmmakers, who are often presumed to have privileged access to the new and different, whether or not they really come up with the goods. To this way of thinking, directors like Godard and Marker have already crested, their moment of relevance has ostensibly passed. After garnering minor attention for early efforts such as _The Unbelievable Truth_ and _Days of Being Wild_, Hal Hartley and Wong Kar-Wai gain hype exponentially. Both directors appear to be near the top of their media attention, if not their game, with _Henry Fool_ and _Happy Together_, respectively, although probably it will be the next film which puts them 'over the top'. Two or three pictures down the road, these same directors will have inevitably fallen out of the range of notice of these same movie critics. It is likely their future efforts shall be deemed 'inscrutable', 'indulgent', or 'embarrassing', just as those of David Lynch and David Cronenberg are today. But, lest I make the critical establishment sound altogether fickle, let us recall that no matter how lambasted the latest efforts by these former golden boys may be, they still receive widespread commercial distribution, a luxury not bestowed upon such 'irrelevant has-beens' as Marker and Godard. Cronenberg and Lynch, you see, simply confound their base audiences. Films like _Level 5_ and _Histoire(s) du cinema_ confound the critical establishment -- an altogether more grievous sin. It is incumbent upon partisans of challenging cinema to create spaces of discourse outside this circle of neglect, and this is why critics like Remila and Rosenbaum, and magazines like _Vertigo_, play a vital role in cinema's future.


University of California at Berkeley, USA




Michael Sicinski, 'The Radical Cinema and its Double',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 2 no. 21, August 1998 <>.


Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1998




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