First shots from a cinematic canon

BFI Film Classics Series
January 14, 2000

[ See below for Book titles and authors ]

The words "brief encounter" will almost certainly conjure up something from the 1945 film of the same name. You may think of steam trains, tweeds and tears or Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson looking desperately unhappy; you will almost certainly hear echoes of Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2 or, more gratingly perhaps, Johnson's cut-glass accent. Pushed further, you may confess to crying at the end or finding the whole thing utterly ridiculous: all that fuss because a doctor and a housewife could not get their legs over the hurdle of middle-class guilt and remorse. But I doubt very much, even if you are a psychoanalyst, that you will think of a "giant phallus directly above Celia Johnson's head" - the image you risk carrying to your next viewing if you read the British Film Institute's Film Classic on Brief Encounter by Richard Dyer.

After ten years, there are 50 elegant-looking, seemingly hardcover pamphlets in the Film Classics series. To call them pamphlets is not to denigrate them, but to acknowledge their purpose, which is to accompany (eventually) 360 films, a cross-section of world cinema spanning a century of film-making chosen by the BFI as being worthy of preservation and, where necessary, restoration; the ultimate aim is to exhibit each film once a year at the Museum of the Moving Image.

The 360 films begin with Cabiria (1914) and Birth of a Nation , released the following year, and end with Mad Max 2 (1981). Post-1981 films are accommodated in BFI Modern Classics, a parallel series.

The authors who have written about their chosen films form as eclectic a group as the films. Novelists (Salman Rushdie on The Wizard of Oz ), film critics old and not so old (Philip French co-authoring an appreciation of Wild Strawberries; Kim Newman enthusing about Cat People ), academics (Marcia Landy and Amy Villarejo celebrating Queen Christina ), film historians (David Robinson excavating the true sources of Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari ), scriptwriters (Michael Eaton drawing the prize of Chinatown ), film-makers (Nelly Kaplan writing about Napoléon and its director, Abel Gance, in appropriately equal measures), the unclassifiable (Camille Paglia on The Birds ) and even a politician (Gerald Kaufman meting out justice to Meet Me in St Louis ) have been roped in to canonise this latest of art forms.

For the sake of argument - and there is nothing so provocative as someone else's definitive list of greats - it is worth saying that the BFI's 360 omits some major films and film-makers (fill in your own titles and talents) and very probably under-represents some world regions. There are no films from Africa (perhaps Xala could have been included), and no Middle Eastern/Arab films (Yilmaz Guney's Yol or Umut have solid reputations and it is surely only a matter of time before the works of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami nudge their way in); and Canada (David Cronenberg) has also been left out.

In many ways, the BFI celluloid canon reflects the same attitudes, targeted by cultural critics, that engulfed literature in the recent past. The list is top heavy with dead, white European men: John Ford (seven films), Howard Hawks (seven), Alfred Hitchcock (seven), Michael Powell (seven), Jean Renoir (seven), Fritz Lang (seven) and Luis Buñuel (seven), although strictly speaking Ford and Hawks are American-born. (Sergei Eisenstein and Satyajit Ray have five films each.) The only female director is, rather predictably, Leni Riefenstahl with Triumph des Willens ( Triumph of the Will ) and Olympia . Arguably, the list favours the relatively obscure over the popular; it seems unlikely to forgive special effects such as those in Star Wars for their influence on current cinema.

So, if carping comes easy to you, there is clearly plenty to get your teeth into. However, the 50 Film Classics already available are shaping into a formidable body of work collectively generating some fascinating insights into the evolution of cinema.

Most striking about the early films (broadly speaking, the pre-war ones) is how European films appear to have equalled United States films quantitatively and how the Americans relied on Old World talent. Also, the risks taken with the new medium, especially before the advent of sound, were much greater in Europe, reflecting the richer sources of inspiration of these films.

There is no Hollywood counterpart of Jean Vigo's 1933 Zéro de Conduite or of his lack of sentimentality in the romance that forms the backbone of L'Atalante . Nor was there a native-born American who greeted the advent of cinema with as much enthusiasm and adventurousness as Abel Gance, the French director. Writing in 19, Gance declared that "cinema will impart a new sense to man. He will listen with his eyes." Gance believed that "Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Beethoven will make films, because their realms will be both one and vaster." And to prove his point, in Napoléon , Gance introduced "the triple-screen polyvision", an early forerunner (almost 30 years early) of Cinemascope and the wide screen. He also had the foresight, in 1925, to insist that his actors speak all the dialogue so that when the talkies came (as Gance strongly believed they would), the director could synchronise the spoken words with the actors' lip movements without too much trouble.

Jean Renoir was a great believer in the adage that "minor artists borrow, great artists steal". According to Richard Boston, writing about Boudu Saved from Drowning , Renoir took full advantage of his father Auguste's formidable social circle: Cézanne, Pissarro, and Seurat (the impressionist painters determined the look of the key outdoor scenes in the film) and of their literary contemporaries Maupassant and Zola (who inspired Une Partie de Campagne and La Bête Humaine , respectively). These inspirations and Renoir's obsession with water followed the director to Hollywood ( Swamp Water, The Woman on the Beach, The River ), but not with the same success. In retrospect, Renoir's humanist sensibility ("everybody has his reasons") was clearly more influential with many American directors, notably John Huston, Nicholas Ray and King Vidor, than his visual style. The same cannot be said of the pre-war German films that were hugely influential in America as a result of their directors, many of them cannily imported by Hollywood moguls, having introduced expressionism to the New World.

"Expressionism", as David Robinson explains, "is more easy to flaunt than to define." It is often used to describe Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari (directed by Robert Wiene in 1920) and the early works of Lang. It has become a clumsy shorthand for camera shots with distorted angles, stark use of light and shadow in the background and the suggestion of nefarious misdeeds and motives in the foreground. (Imagine Citizen Kane without these elements.) But, as Robinson points out, expressionism was a complex, ambiguous term, which in Germany at least represented neither a style nor a movement but a perception of the world ( Weltanschauung ) that was embraced by various artists who wanted to combine personal influences with their art. Van Gogh, Gauguin and Munch were admired for achieving this ideal in their paintings and the first world war strongly influenced a new generation of disillusioned artists, who demanded not just a breakout from the materialism of the late 19th century towards a more spiritual ethos but a classless society, too.

Whatever were the unique qualities that crossed the Atlantic with the European film-makers, they were assimilated almost completely by Hollywood well before the second world war. The 1940s, as represented by these Film Classics, show a flexing of considerable creative muscles in Hollywood and the consolidation of clearly established genres: the musical ( Meet Me in St Louis , 1944), the fantasy horror ( Cat People , 1943), the melodrama (The Magnificent Ambersons, 1942) and the film noir (Double Indemnity, 1944; The Big Sleep , 1946). Ironically, the label film noir -used by American cineastes from the 1960s -was first used in a French film journal in 1946; it derived from the description of French pulp fiction as roman noir .

Post-war, if we judge by these Film Classics, US cinema was in relative creative decline, with the emergence of Italian, Indian, Japanese and Swedish film-makers. However, take away Luchino Visconti, Satyajit Ray, Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman and you begin to see how narrow a range the choice of 360 films occupies. A safer assertion is that the US films from the 1970s (made, to quote Billy Wilder, by "the boys with beards") were no longer influenced by literary antecedents or artistic movements, but had started to feed on the movies themselves. Woody Allen ( Annie Hall , 1977) had aspirations to become Bergman, while Martin Scorsese ( Taxi Driver , 1976) wanted to be Nicholas Ray with a pop soundtrack. This is not to dismiss these film-makers' considerable achievements, but simply to acknowledge that near the end of the century the creative juices probably were running dry.

If there are surprises to come from the cinema, I would hazard that they may come from the regions under-represented by the BFI's series. Alternatively, as looks more likely, the whole format of cinema will change as a result of computer and digital technology, to allow a more interactive relationship with the medium. One can easily imagine, for example, that all the films in the BFI's selection will become available online, along with the text of the accompanying Film Classics. The "reader" could then access any scene referred to by the book's writer: a mode of appreciation far removed from the film-maker's original intentions.

In the meantime, we can continue to revise our views of the films by looking at them, as the BFI books do, in terms of political agendas, historical contexts, cultural antecedents, production records, gender perspectives and interviews with the film-makers.

Ironically, Dyer's treatise on Brief Encounter is the most moving of these Film Classics because his appreciation of the heterosexual guilt comes from an openly gay stance, and his yearning for the England portrayed is an honest declaration of an idealised Britain he wanted to share with his mother as a child. It is a strength of the editorial approach behind the series that such an unashamedly subjective reading of the film can be accommodated without missing a beat (or phallic allusion).

In short, Clint Eastwood could have been referring to this series when, receiving his life fellowship of the British Film Institute, he remarked:

"I'd like to thank the BFI for helping me to understand my films better."

Farrah Anwar is a psychiatrist who writes for film journals including Sight and Sound . He is researching post-1945 films with psychologist Noel Hess.


All books published by British Film Institute Publishing, £7.99.

An Actor's Revenge . By Ian Breakwell

L'Age d'Or
. By Paul Hammond

Annie Hall
. By Peter Cowie

. By Marina Warner

. By Geoffrey Nowell-Smith

The Big Heat
. By Colin McArthur

The Big Sleep
. By David Thomson

The Birds
. By Camille Paglia

. By Tom Ryall

Boudu Saved from Drowning
. By Richard Boston

Bride of Frankenstein
. By Alberto Manguel

Brief Encounter
. By Richard Dyer

Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari
. By David Robinson

Cat People
. By Kim Newman

. By Michael Eaton

Citizen Kane
. By Laura Mulvey

Double Indemnity
. By Richard Schickel

Les Enfants du Paradis
. By Jill Forbes

42nd Street
. By J. Hoberman

The Ghost and Mrs Muir
. By Frieda Grafe

. By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Gun Crazy
. By Jim Kitses

High Noon
. By Philip Drummond

In a Lonely Place
. By Dana Polan

It's a Gift
. By Simon Louvish

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
. By A. L. Kennedy

. By Richard Corliss

. By Anton Kaes

The Magnificent Ambersons
. By V. F. Perkins

Meet Me in St Louis
. By Gerald Kaufman

. By Nelly Kaplan

La Nuit Américaine
. By Roger Crittenden

Odd Man Out
. By Dai Vaughan

. By Taylor Downing

The Palm Beach Story
. By John Pym

Pépé le Moko
. By Ginette Vincendeau

. By Colin MacCabe

Queen Christina
. By Marcia Landy and Amy Villarejo

Rocco and His Brothers
. By Sam Rohdie

Sansho Dayu
. By Dudley Andrew and Carole Cavanaugh

The Seventh Seal
. By Melvyn Bragg

. By Edward Countryman and Evonne von Heussen-Countryman

Singin' in the Rain
. By Peter Wollen

. By Edward Buscombe

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
. By Lucy Fischer

Taxi Driver
. By Amy Taubin

Things to Come
. By Christopher Frayling

Went the Day Well?
By Penelope Houston

Wild Strawberries
. By Philip French and Kersti French

The Wizard of Oz
. By Salman Rushdie

BFI Film Classics Series

ISBN - -
Publisher - British Film Institute
Price - £7.99 (each)
Pages - -

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