FILM-PHILOSOPHY

ISSN 1466-4615

Volume 3 Number 49, December 1999

 


 

Tico Romao

The International Cinema of Poetry

 


 

 

John Orr

_Contemporary Cinema_

Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998

ISBN: 0-7486-0836-2

xi + 243 pp.

 

In his forward to _Contemporary Cinema_ John Orr announces that the primary intention of his book is to single out 'a dominant and guiding feature in the development of the cinema over the last thirty years' (ix). Orr designates this dominant trend as 'the cinema of poetry', taking up and expanding upon notions initially advanced by Pasolini in his influential 1965 essay of the same name. In Orr's hands, 'the cinema of poetry' is used to delineate certain thematic and stylistic tendencies that characterise the European art cinema of the 1960s as a whole, and which he sees as having been subsequently re-deployed internationally by a range of filmmakers of various national origin.

 

On the basis of Orr's opening remarks, one is led to expect that _Contemporary Cinema_ provides a historical account of the global dissemination of these themes and techniques, and how they were eventually incorporated into indigenous filmmaking traditions. What one gets instead are close interpretations of the films of a select sampling of internationally recognised auteurs -- figures such as Andrei Tarkovsky, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Peter Greenaway, Atom Egoyan, David Lynch, Zhang Yimou, Jane Campion and so forth -- that are examined from the perspective of Orr's reworking of Pasolini's original framework. Judgements pertaining to the success of his enterprise will probably vary depending upon whether one is more interested in reading a historically oriented work or would rather peruse a piece of philosophically inflected film criticism. I myself prefer the former in that I believe that knowledge production is primarily generated through carefully conducted empirical research. Be that as it may, it would be nonetheless a categorical mistake to assess film criticism solely on the basis of historiographical standards in that what criticism often aims to produce is something more evaluative in nature. To anticipate slightly the direction of my following discussion, it is my view that while Orr's central thesis proves to be historiographically inadequate in terms of its overall argumentative execution, _Contemporary Cinema_ still supplies a set of stimulating readings of individual films for those who are interested in the work of these filmmakers. [1]

 

It is in the book's opening chapter, appropriately entitled 'A Cinema of Poetry', that Orr sets out to reframe Pasolini's initial discussion. The central element that Orr retains from Pasolini's exposition on the cinema of poetry is his notion of free indirect subjectivity. In its original linguistic context, the term is meant to designate those discursive constructs that intricately combine first-person and third-person forms. [2] Pasolini re-extends the notion in his essay so that it is meant to describe certain filmic instances in which subjective and objective narration coalesce. Pasolini's most frequently cited example, and that with which Orr begins his own discussion, is that of the narrational techniques employed by Antonioni in _Red Desert_. 'Objective' narrative devices that are not usually used to depict the optical or aural point-of-view of a character (such as over-the-shoulder shots) are nonetheless employed by Antonioni to indicate character subjectivity through the camera's own aestheticized field of vision. Here, authorial and character vision become fused.

 

Pasolini's remarks on free indirect subjectivity only serve as a starting point for Orr's more elaborate treatment. In the remainder of the opening chapter, Orr catalogues a variety of techniques that, in his view, simultaneously invoke the dual narrational registers of authorial and character perspective. For instance, not only can free indirect subjectivity be expressed through visual devices, a film's soundtrack can also play upon the ambiguity of such narrational frames (12). In addition, Orr cites the dream sequences in Tarkovsky's _The Stalker_, and the expressive use of black and white cinematography in Scorsese's _Raging Bull_ as illustrative instances in which a film's form can manifest the merger of authorial and character viewpoint (12,28). More significantly, free indirect subjectivity is taken to encompass not just the formal issues connected with the ambiguities of narrative frame but also includes certain thematic concerns as well. For Orr, the dual registers of free indirect subjectivity are equally capable of articulating particular thematic tensions. Bernardo Bertolucci and Terence Davies, for example, manifest in their work an interest in history yet tend to represent it through the subjectively mediated fantasies and memories of their film characters (11). Indeed, it is upon the basis of the thematic possibilities of the dual registers of the cinema of poetry that Orr proceeds to structure the remainder of his book. In chapter 2, 'The Sacrificial Unconscious', the thematic dual register proposed is that of the secular and the profane, which is then used by Orr to illuminate, amongst other things, the films of Tarkovsky and Greenaway. In chapters 3 and 4, where Orr examines the notion of the split subject, the dual register in these discussions pertains to the doubling of characters within the diegesis. The fifth chapter, 'The Camera as Double Vision', explores the reflexive uses of the cinema wherein certain directors use film to meditate upon the representational possibilities of another artistic medium. Finally, in the last three remaining chapters of the book, Orr extends the formal and thematic senses of the dual registers of the cinema of poetry to various aspects of contemporary American cinema. After being presented with this diversity of manifestations, Orr's book gives the impression that the cinema of poetry is truly an international phenomenon and a significant branch of contemporary film practice.

 

Despite such overall impressions, doubts soon arise when one begins to inspect the purported soundness of Orr's central historical thesis. For starters, one should note that it is uncertain whether Pasolini's original scheme was ultimately successful in picking out a distinct approach to filmmaking. In addition to Antonioni and Bertolucci, Pasolini also cites Godard as one the major contributors to the cinema of poetry. But even upon the most cursory viewing of his films does it become apparent that Godard's corpus bears scant resemblance to that of the work of these two Italian filmmakers and that the notion of free indirect subjectivity has little value when applied to his films. [3] This problem becomes even more discernible with Orr's endeavour to instate the cinema of poetry as a general historical trend in world cinema. As already mentioned, Orr's approach does not consist of an empirical research programme that historically tracks the concrete dissemination of particular themes and cinematic techniques; instead his mode of investigation consists of a series of critical interpretations of the film texts themselves. As a consequence, Orr tends to bolster his historical thesis by recourse to metaphor and analogy as the principal means of establishing the requisite connections between these diverse range of films.

 

Take, for instance, the pivotal notion of the 'dual register' that recurs throughout his book. What once began as a concept originally meant to capture the twin aspects of subjective and objective narration proceeds to be used to cover a variety of thematic doublings and oppositions that manifest themselves in the films under consideration. But what, one may ask, has free indirect subjectivity got to do with the diegetic doubling of character identities, or, for that matter, the penchant to use the film medium as a means to reflect upon the representational limits of another artistic practice? Such analogical extensions dilutes the original meaning of the term and stretches the concept to its breaking point. Just as problematically, metaphor and analogy are also used by Orr to structure his more local arguments. Orr frequently notes how some aspect of a film 'echoes' or 'recalls' a previous aspect of an earlier work. For instance, Orr sees thematic parallels in Mike Figgis's _Liebestraum_ and Bertolucci's _The Spider's Stratagem_ (111), and compares the staging of apartment scenes in _Raging Bull_ with those appearing in Godard's _Une Femme est une femme_ (183). On another occasion, he compares the character doubling taking place in Wong Kar-Wai's _Chunking Express_ with that of Hitchcock's _Vertigo_ (105). Interesting as these comparisons may be, such easily generated associations lack analytical weight and are more an artefact of Orr's film literacy than indicative of any substantive historical connections holding between these films.

 

Orr is only partially more successful in his opening chapter where he restricts his analysis to the formal dimensions of free indirect subjectivity. While it is no doubt useful to explore the other aesthetic means by which objective and subjective narration coincide (rather than exclusively concentrating upon the narrational status of shots), there is a danger here of broadly equating free indirect subjectivity -- in the art cinema sense -- with that of expressivity in general. If, as Orr claims, free indirect subjectivity is equally manifest in expressive uses of the soundtrack or cinematography, where such strategies are taken to be indicative of the subjectivity of a character, how then is one to distinguish mainstream cinema's own use of similar expressive techniques? The classical orchestral score, for instance, often expresses the emotional state of a film's central character, yet it is dubious that either Pasolini or Orr would want to nominate classical Hollywood scoring to the order of the cinema of poetry. The difficulty here, as before, is that the very looseness of Orr's conceptual apparatus prevents him from identifying what is most truly distinctive of the kind of filmmaking that he wants to celebrate. Orr's project would have been much better served had he narrowed his investigation to specifying one specific aspect, or set of aspects, of the European art cinema (say, the narrative ambiguity arising from competing narrational frames) to then track its dissemination and re-extension in other filmmaking traditions.

 

As stated at the outset, it would be unfair to appraise _Contemporary Cinema_ solely on the adequacy of its historical thesis. Operating in conjunction with the book's historical aims is Orr's critical attempt to valorise a particular form of filmmaking, namely, the European art cinema of the 1960s and its putative historical descents. For some, such an evaluative project will undoubtedly smack of a politically problematic retention of the high and low art distinction, and on this score such a criticism would not be unwarranted. In fact, _Contemporary Cinema_ is replete with dismissive references to either conventional Hollywood fair or to the products of television such that it is likely to alienate those readers who are actively engaged in the study of popular culture. At one point Orr denigrates Australian soap operas to all the better extol the aesthetic superiority of Jane Campion's _Sweetie_ (92). Even more worrisome is Orr's tendency to invoke the high and low art divide in the form of elevating the cool reason of 'aesthetic distance' at the expense of what Orr labels the 'sentimentality' of Hollywood and television productions. There are a number of film theorists who find this disparagement of sentimentality particularly suspect, in that it is seen to harbour a latent hostility toward traditionally feminine cultural forms. [4] Despite such troubling asides, Orr is still able to convey his arguably justified admiration for the contemporary art cinema, and it is in his interpretations of these films wherein the value of his book lies. Apart from the occasional unconvincing reading, I found Orr's analyses of individual films to be generally interesting, and often would illuminate some aspect of the film under investigation in an informative fashion. To provide just one example, here is a passage in which Orr discusses the thematic ramifications of the cinematography used in Polanski's _Chinatown_:

 

'In its effective use of the latest camera technology to capture the past, _Chinatown_ rivals _McCabe and Mrs Miller_. But its visual look is almost the exact opposite. John Alonzo, Polanski's cinematographer, used a Panavision anamorphic lens to produce the closest analogy which camera technology had to human perception with a lens range of 43-45mm. Moreover, Polanski insisted on using no diffusion, thus getting a clarity in the colour image which ran against the grain of the noir tradition. Yet he retained noir intimacy through the proximity of the camera to its characters, often achieved through the use of a hand-held Panaflex. Thus _Chinatown_ uses mimetic images of transparency in a world where truth lies still concealed, creating a visual and diegetic counterpoint which it turns into poetic narrative' (172).

 

What I find valuable in Orr's discussion is his ability to bring on board certain production details as a means of teasing out some the ways in which _Chinatown_ reworks noir conventions, thereby enabling the reader to come away with a more appreciative understanding of the aesthetic operations of the film. Orr exploits this tactic repeatedly in his discussions and its one of the more successful interpretive strategies that he employs. Even if one were to ultimately reject the significance that Orr attaches to a given work, there is a good chance that there will be some dimension of the film under consideration that his analysis will have opened up to the reader.

 

To say this is to acknowledge that _Contemporary Cinema_ occasionally indulges in what I find best in evaluative criticism. Set aside the frequently arbitrary yardsticks by which films get judged and the lack of critical consensus that they command, and what remains is often informed discussions that attempt to provide good reasons why one ought to enjoy particular kinds of films. Even if Orr has failed to identify a distinct historical trend in filmmaking, as I think he has, he has gone some way in demonstrating that this heterogeneous set of films, however dissimilar, all share at least one similarity, in that they are all examples of accomplished forms of filmmaking.

 

University of East Anglia, Norwich, England

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. My general assessment of Orr's book is, consequently, the precise reverse of that given by Stella Buzzi, who values the historical overview advanced, yet questions certain readings of particular films.

 

2. To be precise, the original grammatical term is free indirect *discourse*. Through the process of application to narrative film, the term received a significant change in emphasis.

 

3. It is significant to note that David Bordwell, whose conception of the art cinema has been similarly criticised for imposing a reductive framework onto a heterogeneous ensemble of filmmaking practices, chose not to include Godard in his category of the art cinema narration. See his _Narration in the Fiction Film_, pp. 311-334.

 

4. Recent critiques of this attitude are to be found in Flo Leibowitz's 'Apt Feelings or Why 'Women's Films' Aren't Trivial', Carl Plantinga's 'Notes on Spectator Emotion and Ideological Film Criticism', and Ed Tan and Nico Frijda's 'Sentiment in Film Viewing'. Apparently, this is not the first time that Orr has been taken to task on this issue. In a review of Orr's earlier work, _Cinema and Modernity_, Mark Jancovich similarly criticised his disparagement of melodrama through its association with 'feminine' modes of reception.

 

 

Bibliography

 

David Bordwell, _Narration in the Fiction Film_ (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985).

 

Stella Buzzi, 'Review: _Contemporary Cinema_', _Sight and Sound_, vol. 8 no. 8, August 1998.

 

Mark Jancovich, 'Review: _Cinema and Modernity_', _Sociological Review_, vol. 43 no. 2, 1995.

 

Flo Leibowitz, 'Apt Feelings or Why 'Women's Films' Aren't Trivial', in David Bordwell and Noel Carroll, eds, _Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies_ (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996).

 

Pier Paolo Pasolini, 'The Cinema of Poetry', in Bill Nichols, ed., _Movies and Methods_ (University of California Press, 1976).

 

Carl Plantinga, 'Notes on Spectator Emotion and Ideological Film Criticism', in Richard Allen and Murray Smith, eds, _ Film Theory and Philosophy_ (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997).

 

Ed Tan and Nico Frijda, 'Sentiment in Film Viewing', in Carl Plantinga, ed., _Passionate Views_ (Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999).

 

 

Filmography

 

_Chinatown_, Roman Polanski, 1974.

 

_Chunking Express_ Wong Kar-Wai, 1994.

 

_Liebestraum_, Mike Figgis, 1991.

 

_Raging Bull_, Martin Scorsese, 1980.

 

_Red Desert_, Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964.

 

_The Spider's Stratagem_, Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970.

 

_The Stalker_, Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979.

 

_Sweetie_, Jane Campion, 1989.

 

_Une Femme est une femme_, Jean-Luc Godard, 1961.

 

_Vertigo_, Alfred Hitchcock, 1958.

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1999

 

Tico Romao, 'The International Cinema of Poetry',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 49, December 1999 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol3-1999/n49romao>.

 

  

 

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