Less pain, more fun with S&M

Signs and Meaning in the Cinema
March 26, 1999

There cannot be too many works of critical film theory whose very title has served as a term of abuse, but this is one of them. In 1985, 13 years after Peter Wollen's book was last reissued, the author of a study of neglected Hollywood veterans noted that his project had been encouraged by all his colleagues "except for a few Signs and Meaning in the Cinema types". No further elucidation needed: the dissenting individuals were clearly what another Hollywood veteran, re-elected president the previous year, would have called "pointy-head intellectuals".

Partly, this backhanded tribute can be credited to the book's longevity. Signs and Meaning was first published near on 30 years ago; few other movie theory books in English, save perhaps Victor Perkins's Film as Film , have enjoyed such a sustained afterlife. But it is also that title, a small stroke of genius in itself. Rather as Jules Dassin's Night and the City , though not the greatest noir film ever made, captures simply in its title the quintessence of noirness, Wollen's title neatly encapsulates a whole school of critical writing on cinema.

Not that Wollen's book was ever typical of the wave of structuralist exegesis that, throughout the 1970s, swamped the higher-browed end of film criticism. For a start, he is far more lucid and reader friendly in his style, avoiding the angular jargon and smug hermeticism that scared most readers out of the pages of Screen for the best part of a decade.

Though far from short on intellectual nourishment, S&M appropriately enough provides a good deal of satisfaction in return for relatively little pain. What also adds to the book's appeal, and may well have contributed to its extended shelf-life, is Wollen's lack of dogmatism. Right from the opening sentence of his original introduction - "The general purpose of this book is to suggest a number of avenues by which the outstanding problems of film aesthetics might be fruitfully approached" - his writing is engagingly free from arrogance. He never disguises that he is feeling his way, trying out this angle and that to see if it fits.

In an afterword appended to the new edition, he characteristically notes that "any new discipline is going to be hyper-conjectural I But that's not a shortcoming. It is a necessity. And it's fun I I don't have any problem with the speculative." Indeed S&M itself, built up as it now is in a succession of chronological layers like successive rock strata, has become a positive monument to the joys of speculation, an unashamed accretion of auto-critiques. To the original 1969 work, Wollen added, for the third edition of 1972, a "conclusion" in which he cheerfully chipped lumps out of several of his earlier views. Now, for this 1998 edition, he has left the previous text unmodified (at least so far as I can detect) but bolted on two further appendices.

First, by way of what Hollywood might call a prequel, there is a collection of the writings of Lee Russell (Wollen's own nom de plume ) from New Left Review , vintage 1964-67. These not only let us glimpse some ideas that would find their way into evolving in embryo (a passage on Budd Boetticher winds up, deftly filleted, in the section on the auteur theory) but provide lively reading in their own right.

It is interesting to see how Russell/Wollen was often perceptively ahead of his time on certain film-makers, who were then revered. A piece on Stanley Kubrick not only nails the director's nihilism - "his pessimism is cold and obsessive I all human qualities are caricatures" - but finds room for a wickedly exact sideswipe at Otto Preminger, "a parasite on controversy". We also get an "afterword", in the form of an interview with Wollen by his own alter ego. This rather arch device allows him to indulge in further creative scepticism, both as regards his original book, precariously poised as it was on the very breaking of the structuralist wave, and on its lasting value, if any, today.

Since 1969, of course, several other waves have broken - most notably the great self-consciously inchoate mass of postmodernism - over the once tranquil beach of film criticism. But Signs and Meaning in the Cinema , as the classic statement of what became cumbersomely known as auteur-structuralism, retains its power to stimulate, enlighten and infuriate. Besides which, as Wollen himself might add, it's fun.

Philip Kemp is a freelance critic and film historian.

Signs and Meaning in the Cinema

Author - Peter Wollen
ISBN - 0 85170 646 0 and 647 9
Publisher - British Film Institute
Price - £40.00 and £12.99
Pages - 188

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