Film-Philosophy

ISSN 1466-4615

 


 

Paula Willoquet-Maricondi

 

Peter Greenaway: A User's Manual

 


  

 

Amy Lawrence

_The Films of Peter Greenaway_

Cambridge University Press, 1997

0521479193

225 pages

 

 

If, at the end of the 1980s, Greenaway was a 'succes de scandal' following the release of _The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and her Lover_, it seems that at the end of the 1990s he is a full-fledged, critically recognized seminal figure of the art house/avant garde cinema circuit. With the release of _The Pillow Book_ in 1996 (1997 in the US), Greenaway has even reached 'mainstream stature' within art cinema, as attested by the overall enthusiastic reviews of the film by mainstream critics in the US, where he has been most scorned. Greenaway's recognition as an innovative, intellectually stimulating, and provocative artist is further confirmed by his having recently been inducted as an Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Culture Minister, Catherine Trautmann, and by the release, in the last year and a half, of no fewer than four full-length studies in English of Greenaway's films and art projects. Among these recent releases (the first four ever to be published by major presses) is Amy Lawrence's _The Films of Peter Greenaway_.

 

As the title suggests, Lawrence's study deals exclusively with the feature films, starting with _The Falls_ and concluding with _The Cook_. The book is composed of: seven chapters, each dealing with one particular film; an introduction; a fairly complete filmography; detailed notes; an index; and a solid but by no means exhaustive bibliography. This is an approachable, jargon free, and informative introductory study of Greenaway's films. Since it is divided into chapters, each of which offers a reading of a feature film, it is ideal as an academic text, but would also be very useful to anyone genuinely interested in making sense of Greenaway's films but at a loss for where or how to begin. Each chapter elucidates many details, thus facilitating access to the films by helping crack many of the Greenawayan codes, tracing the most important references, and clarifying their significance. This is done in the context of clear and engaging plot analyses, rather than thematically. For readers very familiar and conversant with Greenaway, the book offers few challenges, although it explores the references to Vermeer, Boullee, and particularly Piranesi, more than any other account I have seen. Lawrence also makes many provocative observations of a more philosophical nature and thus opens the way for interesting explorations of Greenaway's cinema of ideas, as he himself likes to call it.

 

The Introduction contains a brief discussion of Greenaway's early short experimental films, and of his 'cynical' approach to structuralism -- 'I was much too cynical about structuralism to be a good, down-the-line structuralist as _Vertical Features Remake_, I hope, indicates' (17) -- and a mention of Greenaway's other artistic projects: his operas, exhibitions, and curatorial work This mention is, however, far too brief and may mislead the reader unfamiliar with Greenaway's eclecticism into thinking that he is primarily, or even exclusively, a filmmaker. I believe that much of the negative controversy surrounding Greenaway's films is due to a lack of appreciation, on the part of some critics and viewers, of Greenaway's deep historical knowledge of art, and of his interest, for a number of years now, in exploring the relationships among the various media -- textual, performative, exhibitorial, and visual. A fuller understanding of Greenaway's philosophical position vis-a-vis cinema, of his dissatisfaction with the medium's limitations, with its lack of corporeality, with the 'tyranny of the frame' (this is also the title of one of Greenaway's exhibitions in Belgium), can only be gained through an exploration of his other works -- paintings, installations, operas, videos -- which are, in a sense, dissertations or meditations on cinema. For more on Greenaway's non-filmic projects, the reader might want to consult Alan Woods' _Being Naked/Playing Dead: The Art Peter Greenaway_; Bridget Elliott's and Anthony Purdy's _Peter Greenaway: Architecture and Allegory_ ; and David Pascoe's _Peter Greenaway: Museums and Moving Images_. Although none of these three books offers a systematic discussion of Greenaway's various experiments with opera, installations, etc., they do, to varying degrees, explore the nature, significance, and impact of Greenaway's multi-media adventures. Most importantly, what is gained from these studies is a deeper awareness of the way in which these projects comment or reflect on one another, and on cinema. The advantage which Lawrence's study has over these others is its straightforward structure and in-depth analysis of the feature films.

 

The absence of a more thorough exploration of Greenaway's non-cinematic works should, then, not be held against Lawrence. Such an exploration may have been outside the scope of the Film Classics series put out by Cambridge University Press. Neither should the fact that Greenaway's most controversial film to date, _The Baby of Macon_, is not discussed at all. Although some mention of the film would have been appropriate, particularly in the context of a discussion of Greenaway's use of violence, the exclusion of a chapter on this film may have been an editorial rather than an authorial decision. Had this book been published by an American university press, I would have explained this absence by the fact that the film never received commercial release in the United States, and that it is not even easily available on video format. These few reservations aside, Lawrence's book offers something unique which also nicely complements the other three book-length accounts. She gives concise and clear readings of the films she treats, and her study accomplishes a lot in a very economical way, elucidating Greenaway both as a person and as a filmmaker.

 

Lawrence's study is part of Cambridge's Film Classics Series, whose previous volumes include studies of Alfred Hitchcock, Roberto Rossellini, John Cassavetes, Wim Wenders, and Woody Allen, among others. It is both encouraging -- for Greenaway fans, that is -- and surprising that Cambridge would choose to feature Greenaway in its series, particularly in light of Cambridge's stated goals for the series: to create a 'forum for revisionist studies of the classic works of the cinematic canon from the perspective of the new auteurism'.

 

That Greenaway should be approached from the perspective of 'new auteurism' makes a lot of sense. As Lawrence puts it, 'Greenaway's films are easy to recognize and difficult to describe' (1), defining him as an auteur with a marked style, or signature, and his audience as split between those who love Greenaway and those who hate him, or accuse him of intellectual snobbery. Very few viewers, that is, feel indifferent toward a Greenaway film. 'New auteurism' is also a perfect forum in which to study the effects of social, political, financial, and technological factors in the creation of the 'auteur' or author figure, and this is particularly relevant in the case of filmmakers like Greenaway, who experiment, whether by necessity or preference, with new technologies and creative financing. Greenaway's long time association with his Dutch producer, Kees Kasander, a financial guardian angel of sorts, has been a major factor in his ability to negotiate a personal vision and relative financial health. Lawrence makes good use of 'new auteurism', and, rather than crusading for Greenaway, she often lets the director speak for himself, providing only the necessary context for his commentaries on his own artistic philosophy and intentions. This is particularly the case in the Introduction to the book, where Lawrence weaves quotes from her personal conversations and correspondence with Greenaway into the body of her text, and, in doing so, brings to light an image of Greenaway that challenges past perceptions of the artist as cold, defensive, and arrogant. Lawrence also draws from biographical details -- some of which I have never seen mentioned before -- and personal anecdotes that situate Greenaway's interest in landscapes in his own upbringing, and bring to light the more personal elements of his films.

 

Most importantly, I think, Lawrence approaches Greenaway as a self-conscious artist interested in making art 'out of *ideas* about art' (5), and in this way places him alongside other 'classic works of the cinematic canon', a modernist/postmodernist canon which includes such figures as Godard, Resnais, and Pasolini. 'In criticizing the artist', states Lawrence, 'Greenaway is critical of his own position' (5). This seems to be, in fact, one of the central notions of the book, a notion which is crucial to all of Greenaway's artistic endeavors but which is not, unfortunately, very systematically developed by Lawrence. Where I don't exactly see how Lawrence's book fulfills one of the stated objectives of the series is in offering a 'revisionist' study of Greenaway's cinematic corpus. Rich and interesting, Lawrence's treatment of Greenaway is, however, fairly orthodox and consonant with earlier accounts, including those published contemporaneously with hers. Although Lawrence addresses in more detail certain aspects of Greenaway's work that have received only brief mention by other critics -- such as his treatment of female characters, and their relationship to nature and to the figure of the artist -- her readings of the feature films are fairly straightforward and uncontroversial. If there is a reassessment or revisioning of Greenaway here, I would say it is in Lawrence's demystification of Greenaway as a pure aesthete not concerned with politics, in the broad sense of the term. While Greenaway does not push any personal politics, his films raise profound philosophical questions about representation which are essentially political, or ought to be. I am happy finally to see a critic taking steps toward elucidating Greenaway's own awareness of his position as an *implicated* artist. Can, indeed, the artist consider him/herself 'innocent', at the turn of this century, if he/she ever could? That Greenaway recognizes his own complicity with the ideological system under which he operates is most evident in some of the accounts Lawrence offers of Greenaway's experience working for the Central Office of Information: 'I remember making programs supporting DDT for spreading on fields in South Africa. I remember making documentaries about dried milk for babies in India . . . I had a little hand in all that propaganda' (9-10). Lawrence's inclusion of quotes such as this one demonstrates Greenaway's sensitivity to the artist's participation in the reproduction and furthering of ideology and social policy and subtly points to the Faustian predicament the artist often faces.

 

It is this critical self-awareness which makes Greenaway an artist of his time -- a postmodern artist. Lawrence, in fact, liberally uses the term 'postmodern' to define Greenaway's artistic sensibility, without, however, ever fully clarifying for the reader the multiplicity of meanings the term carries. She defines _The Falls_ as a 'postmodern encyclopaedia, an organization of facts and pieces put together in an eminently logical way, laced with the very slightest regret that none of it is actually true' (3). 'Without underlying myths to endow [the films] with meaning', Lawrence states, 'everything we see is unmoored from history, reduced to the status of signs without referents' (4). Lawrence defines _Prospero's Books_ (Greenaway's adaptation of _The Tempest_) as in part 'the usual postmodernist shuffle through the rubble of Western culture, a leisurely stroll beneath the calves of England's literary colossus' (144), and Prospero himself, like Greenaway, is a 'postmodern figure' who creates 'by picking and choosing from a world of works by other artists in other centuries. In this postmodern sense, the author himself may be nothing more than the fragments of texts from which he is made' (161).

 

I insist on Lawrence's use of the term 'postmodern' for two reasons: first, there is still a great deal of critical controversy not only over the definition of the term 'postmodernism', but also, and most importantly, over whether Greenaway ought to be considered a postmodern or a modern. Peter Wollen and Alan Woods, for instance, count Greenaway among the British 'modernist auteurs' of the 1980s and 90s. Other critics completely avoid bringing up the issue. Ironically, in spite of Woods' self-acknowledged resistance to applying the label 'postmodern' to Greenaway (the term does not even figure in the index of Woods' book), his linking of Greenaway to artists such as Andres Serrano, Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais and Cindy Sherman, and his insightful discussions of the role of ordering systems in Greenaway's thinking and artistic productions, fully align him with Lawrence's reading of Greenaway as a postmodernist. Second, although I endorse Lawrence's assessment of Greenaway as a postmodern artist, I feel an important distinction should have been made between the brand of postmodernism identified by Fredric Jameson, for instance, one that is *complicitous* with the logic of consumer capitalism and is rendered through the 'pastiche' use of quotations from past styles, and the brand of postmodernism defended by critics such as Linda Hutcheon or Graig Owens. What Hutcheon defines as postmodern is art that is decidedly political in its use of pastiche. Hutcheon cites the works of feminist artists Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine, and Cindy Sherman as instances of art that is capable of deconstructing ideology through an ironical appropriation and use of the 'already said'. Following Hutcheon's view of the postmodern mode of 'complicitous *critique*' (_The Politics of Postmodernism_, p. 2; my emphasis), I would thus define Greenaway's postmodernism as being self-reflexive and parodic, but rooted in the historical world, offering unresolvable contradictions that problematize history and knowledge, and that make no claims to epistemological authority. Greenaway's postmodern sensibility would thus be a far cry from a simple nostalgic revisiting of the past, as Jameson sees it. While Lawrence's insightful analyses (of Greenaway's undermining of narrative strategies purporting to reveal truth in _The Falls_; of his critique of the artist's 'God-like power of emptying the landscape' as one of the characters puts it (52) in _The Draughtsman's Contract_; of the scientists' blind and futile use of science and statistics 'as a way to conceptualize their grief' (73) in _A Zed and Two Noughts_; and of the tyranny of writing and authorship in _Prospero's Books_) are clearly consonant with Hutcheon and with my own view of Greenaway as a postmodern artist, her use of the term remains vague, misleading, and depoliticized.

 

Although there is no overarching theme, or unifying theory in Lawrence's book, many of the chapters pose provocative philosophical questions, which they explore to varying degrees, while others simply make the films more approachable, more 'viewer-friendly'. The chapter on _The Falls_ suggests that this film may have been Greenaway's first full-length attempt at critiquing the kind of work he did for the Central Office of Information; it is a satirical 'tribute to bureaucratic zeal, a monument to systems for the organization of data and those who use them' (20). While Greenaway had already begun exploring parodic uses of the documentary mode prior to _The Falls_, it remains his most accomplished statement against organizational strategies, particularly those, like science, that purport to reveal Truth. Greenaway has gone on producing what Woods calls 'artificial documentaries' (242) that mock the reporting of truth by confusing fact and fiction, or, rather, by showing up the fictions behind the constructions of 'facts' -- the conventions that go into the creation of representations of events, be they linguistic or visual representations. Examples of such mock documentaries subsequent to the _The Falls_ are: _Act of God_, a 25 minutes compilation of interviews of people who were hit by lightning, made at the same time as _The Falls_ but released the following year; _26 Bathrooms_ a light-hearted study of bathing habits; and _Death in the Seine_, a kind of homage to those whose death by drowning in the Seine river during the French Revolution has gone unacknowledged. Lawrence does not discuss these films, and the best source of information I know of thus far, besides reviews of the films, would be Woods' brief discussion of them.

 

In this first chapter, as in others, Lawrence also resolves the difficulty of organization that often haunts studies of Greenaway by subdividing each chapter into parts -- that is, by *categorizing* the material, and thus, ironically, by doing precisely what Greenaway seems to be most critical of, while thoroughly indulging in it himself. In doing so, Lawrence avoids the fragmentary and episodic structure of Woods' study, for instance, which nonetheless self-consciously raises the question of 'how to organize a study of an artist who has thematised and ironized organisation, classification, and who has done so even in his own case' (22). Thus, the subheadings in this first chapter ('Names', 'Languages', 'The Body', 'Obsession, Category I: Birds', 'Flight', etc.) help organize the material, clearly designating the content of each section.

 

Lawrence concludes the chapter by stating that _The Falls_ 'is the exhaustive, thorough documenting of an event that did not happen, which affected people who do not exist, verified by experts who also do not exist, and ultimately invented by an array of possible authors none of whom exist either' (48). While this assessment acutely summarizes the postmodern essence of this self-reflexive work, might this not have been a good place to start, rather than a place to end the discussion? If we often, knowingly, abandon ourselves to fictional worlds, delight in the experiences they bring to us, in the emotions they provoke in us, if only for 2 hours, we seldom stop to reflect about the nature of the world we actually live in, and the extent to which these very fictions we seek for our entertainment have become quite literally the 'reality' to which we devote larger and larger portions of our time. As Lawrence herself notes, 'art so often becomes life -- or, at the very least, indistinguishable from it -- that representation begins to have the same weight as reality' (39).

 

It also seems to me that Greenaway is not *innocently* mocking our organizational systems, the ways we construct narratives, stories, myths. In showing how, in _The Falls_, content defies attempts to categorize it (that is, the VUE commission, try as it may, cannot construct a system of categorization that will hold, or account for all the mutations incurred by the VUE victims), he reveals the limits of categorization, not the limits of content. (The VUE is the acronym for Violent Unknown Event, an unexplainable occurrence, an Act of God, which affects its victims in different ways: some seem to mutate into birds, others develop 'sexual quadromorphism', while others gain the ability to speak unknown languages. The VUE commission has been set up to study this event and to explain the mutation of the victims. _The Falls_ is a chronicle of the VUE commission's attempt to study the effects of the VUE on 92 individuals whose names all start with the letters FALL. These 92 individuals are suppose to represent a cross section of the population affected by the VUE. The VUE is also the name of Greenaway's studio/office in London, and his fascination with birds and flights is not unique to _The Falls_. In March of 1997, Greenaway organized an exhibition at the Joan Miro Foundation in Barcelona on the theme of flight entitled _Flying over Water_.) If the VUE victims defy categorization, it is because categorization itself is flawed, limited, and ultimately impossible. Here, Greenaway presents us with the most extreme example of the limits of categorization by way of suggesting that content must always be tailored, data must always be altered and decontextualized to fit the categories. So, perhaps, the point Greenaway might be making is not regarding the aberrant nature of what happens to the VUE victims, but about the aberration of categorization itself, which, while focusing our attention on what *it* considers relevant information for the purpose of fitting the category, ignores anything that might interfere with this goal.

 

Another chapter of Lawrence's study which indulges excessively in categorization is chapter five, on _The Belly of an Architect_. Broken down into approximately twenty sections of varying lengths and depths, each structured around a number of thematic elements (such as Architecture, Belly, Consumption; Artists, Actors, American Abroad; Belly, Caesar, Death; etc.), this chapter is organized alphabetically in an 'arbitrarily systematic' way, admits Lawrence (114). This is an apt example of what I mean by making the content fit the form; the relationships among the parts are not always evident, and the chapter does not have a cohesive overall thesis, although it is extremely well researched and full of insights. This is a postmodern chapter (and maybe I am not being a postmodern reader).

 

Of particular interest here are Lawrence's discussion of Etienne Louis Boullee's drawings for Newton's cenotaph, which is made into a cake and which Stourley Kracklite eats, thus suggesting his ravenous consumption of the past and of death; her analysis of the links between fascism and architecture; her investigation of Greenaway's use of postcards as a structuring device within the film, and as a compensatory device for its main character, whose inability to express feelings or have relationships becomes more acute as the film progresses. Ironically, or perhaps not so ironically, Kracklite's writing of postcards to his dead architect-hero, Boullee, only further alienates him from the present-day reality of his disintegrating marriage, life, and health.

 

Postcards also mediate Kracklite's relationship to the places he visits and render his experience utterly unsatisfactory when the image of the place on the postcard does not adequately correspond to the 'reality' of Kracklite's own experience of the place. Lawrence also shows how Kracklite becomes 'possessed' by the postcards he possesses, and is reduced to a 'function', a tourist function, a replaceable and interchangeable individual, therefore a 'disposable' individual whose only value is as 'a means of distribution, just as his propagation of the species through fatherhood simultaneously fulfills his role in a larger biological scheme and renders his further existence irrelevant' (133). This notion is, of course, absolutely consonant with Greenaway's Darwinian preoccupations.

 

I found Lawrence's elucidation of the references to the eighteenth-century architect, Giambattista Piranesi, most useful, not only because this remains a little explored aspect of the film, but also because it suggests interesting links among Piranesi, Greenaway, and postmodernism. As Lawrence notes, 'in Piranesi's work, the present is built literally on layers of the past, Renaissance buildings top medieval fortresses that rest on foundations built in ancient Rome' (129). Piranesi is, in fact, a much better stand-in for Greenaway than Boullee or even Kracklite; Greenaway treats the latter with a greater degree of emotion than any of his other protagonists (who often are artists), but not with any greater empathy or approval. Lawrence points out that the film's composition seems more indebted to Piranesi's work than to Boullee's, and Piranesi's pictures are replete with 'the vivid detail of a living world, including the by-product of life Greenaway is most frequently drawn to, decay (_Zed_, _Drowning by Numbers_) -- something nowhere to be found in Boullee's clean, neoclassical, futuristic spaces, emptied of people' (130).

 

I found the chapter on _Prospero's Books_ the most intellectually and philosophically stimulating. Here, Lawrence explores more thoroughly an issue she brings up several times, that is, the relationship between the spoken and the written word, which remains one of Greenaway's fundamental preoccupations, from _Dear Phone_ to his most recent release, _The Pillow Book_. For me, the strength of this chapter lies in Lawrence's use of Walter J. Ong's _Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word_ as the theoretical frame through which to read the film. The chapter's central thesis seems to be that 'it is Greenaway's goal to provide the spoken world with oral *and* visual life while at the same time initiating a subtle, cumulatively devastating critique of the power of language' (142). Lawrence explores issues such as the spoken word's relation to magic; the power of writing to create linguistically constituted worlds (which, I might add, are then superimposed over the natural world, creating the illusion that all worlds are equally 'artificial' or equally 'produced' by a consciousness); the ethics of authorship; and the relation among patriarchy, logocentrism, and power. She approaches Prospero as a dramatist and a ventriloquist, as an 'omnipotent despot' (147), who takes possession of people and places so as to re-write them according to his imagination (or rather, hallucinations?).

 

Of relevance to this discussion, for those interested in pursuing these ideas further, are the works of Michel de Certeau and David Abram. De Certeau has called writing the 'fundamental initiatory practice' (135) which posits the existence of a distinct and distant Subject and a blank space, or page. As Lawrence shows, Prospero takes the island in which he is exiled to be such a blank page, waiting to be scripted by him. Through the written word he *orders* the world into being, in both senses of the term: he summons it forth and imposes on it a specific structure. I see something analogous to this happening in _The Pillow Book_, as Nagiko's father ritually inscribes a birthday greeting on his daughter's face and neck, and, like Prospero, exerts a patriarchal authorial power over her through writing. Abram's _The Spell of the Sensuous: Human Perception in a More-Than-Human World_ is a study of the impact of the phonetic alphabet on our perception of, and relation to, our bodies and the body of the world around us. Drawing from and expanding on the work of Walter J. Ong and on phenomenology, particularly the writings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Abram examines the origins of writing and its subsequent gradual divorce from its natural referents -- the human body and the land. Abram's insightful analysis has led me to theorize that this split between language and the body brought about by alphabetic writing is analogous to, consonant with, the split of the Subject from the totally of Being brought about by the Subject's entry into the Symbolic order, as discussed by Jacques Lacan, for instance, and usefully applied to film and literary analysis by Kaja Silverman. This further confirms Lawrence's observation that Caliban remains outside of language and cannot ultimately be contained by Prospero's words. Caliban is 'a *material* body' (147); he speaks with his body and his relationship to his environment is unmediated by language, in spite of Prospero's pretence to 'speak' for him.

 

One final aspect of Lawrence's study which I found helpful and constructive was her effort to forge links between Greenaway and filmmakers as diverse as Hitchcock, Resnais, and Cronenberg. Her analysis of _The Cook_ as 'a prime exponent of the 1980's British gangster film' (165) also helps re-politicize Greenaway by arguing that the film 'is one of several films of the period that revive the gangster genre as a metaphor for the brute capitalism espoused by the Conservative government throughout the decade' (166). Moreover, Lawrence demystifies the notion that Greenaway stands apart from film culture and contemporary society by showing that the film's attention to style and to stylized violence is congruous with that of gangster films of the 80s and 90s. 'Frequently attacked as glamorizing violence', argues Lawrence, 'gangster films as a genre are obsessed with issues of style; the most famous movie-gangsters are those who make violence stylish' (166). So, while Greenaway's films may be 'easy to recognize and difficult to describe' (1), Lawrence's study takes significant steps toward clarifying many of the films' most complex elements, while also rescuing Greenaway from his critically induced isolation as a purely eccentric artist, and bringing him more into the fold of contemporary cinema and culture.

 

Butler University and Indiana University, USA

 

 

Bibliography

 

Abram, David. _The Spell of the Sensuous: Human Perception in a More-Than-Human World_, 1996.

 

De Certeau, Michel. _The Practice of Everyday Life_. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

 

Elliott, Bridget and Anthony Purdy. _Peter Greenaway. Architecture and Allegory_. London: Academy Editions, 1997.

 

Hutcheon, Linda. _The Politics of Postmodernism_. London and New York: Routledge, 1989.

 

Jameson, Fredric. 'Postmodernism and Consumer Society'. In Hal Foster, ed. _The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture_. Port Townsend: Washington Bay Press, 1983. 111-125.

 

Pascoe, David. _Peter Greenaway: Museums and Moving Images_. London: Reaction Books, 1997.

 

Wollen, Peter. 'The Last New Wave: Modernism in the British Films of the Thatcher Era'. In Lester Friedman, ed. _Fires Were Started. British Cinema and Thatcherism_. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993. 35-51.

 

Woods, Alan. _Being Naked/Playing Dead: The Art of Peter Greenaway_. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996.

 

 

**

 

Paula Willoquet-Maricondi, 'Peter Greenaway: A User's Manual',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 2 no. 4, February 1998 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol2-1998/n4pw-m>.

 

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