Lights, camera, inaction

The Oxford History of World Cinema
May 2, 1997

In the mid-1970s, at a meeting of the British Film Institute publications committee, chairman Colin Young asked, as a provocation, what the BFI's decision should be if it had to choose between supplying a brand new print of Jean Renoir's La Regle du Jeu to the regional theatres or publishing a criticism of the film. Without hesitation the BFI officials present chose the book. I have the feeling that many of the 81 contributors to The Oxford History of World Cinema, edited by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, would have concurred. In the introduction Nowell-Smith reveals that he was guided by the central need "to put films in the context without which they would not exist, let alone have meaning". Quite. And we get a great deal of context - political, economic, historical, industrial, technological - but I often wanted to shout above the cataract of information, much of which is useful, "What about the films?" The task, of course, was formidable. No one person could tell the story of 100 years of world cinema with any authority. The contributors - mostly but not exclusively from the US and UK - have to encompass a wide range: feature films, documentary, animation, music, distribution, exhibition and so on. If read as a history - rather than as a collection of resumes - the effect is numbing. It is as if the house lights go up at the end of every reel and every new section has a different director with a disparate style and language. Nowell-Smith says that his "chief weapon" in the face of such diversity was "organisation", but no amount of editing can smooth over these jump cuts from chapter to chapter.

The essays themselves vary a great deal. There is something here to inform and annoy just about everybody. The style is generally cool, as if there was an edict against expressing enthusiasm or passion. The short, sharp essays on cinema's early years are, for example, good on facts but lack engagement. The sense of confusion, energy, skulduggery, inspiration, greed and invention at the birth of this dangerous art is missing.

There are exceptions. For example, David Robinson writes sparklingly about silent film comedy and Ed Buscombe a muscular piece about the western - even the word "marvellous" gets in under the wire. In fact, all the genres are dealt with. Genres are particularly attractive to two groups - studio heads and structuralists - because they reduce the complex to the classifiable. Most of the genre essays are written from a structuralist standpoint. Rick Altman tackles the musical. Under the title "Semantics and syntax" he identifies some subgenres, for example: "The show musical. Set in a Manhattan-centred, modern middle-class world of theatre and publishing, the show musical associates the constitution of a couple with the creation of a show (vaudeville, routine, Broadway play, Hollywood film, fashion magazine, concert). Guiding metaphor: to marry is to create."

I do not know what the above has to do with "semantics" or "syntax". The formula does not give me any insight into the films. The so-called "guiding metaphor" is no help in understanding, say, Singin' in the Rain, which nearly fits the bill. In that case, I would be more interested to know about the playful popularisation of the surreal in "Make 'em Laugh", "Moses Supposes" and the Daliesque Gene Kelly/Cyd Charisse number or the farcical frustrations of the director dealing with the new technology of sound and Jean Hagen's flakey star. Not only is the above categorisation irrelevant to understanding such a film but, in fact, sucks the life out of it. Yes, there is a girl and boy, they marry and there's a happy ending. What makes the film joyous is the way they get there. Of course, it has an identity with other, less successful musicals of the period, but Altman's correlations do not advance me much.

The main national cinemas are each given a chapter to themselves. It is here that limitations of space are felt most keenly. Ginette Vincendeau does her best as she takes a TGV through a section of French cinema history and tangles with Francois Truffaut over his notorious article "A certain tendency of French cinema", in which he attacked "French Boulevard" directors.

But forced brevity can give a distorted picture. Jacques Becker - to whom Renoir devoted a whole chapter in his autobiography ("He was my brother and my son") and on whose death Jean-Luc Godard wrote: "So Jacques...is dead. Let us pretend to be moved for we know from Le Testament d'Orphee that poets only pretend to die" - is reduced almost to a listing of his films, and an incomplete one at that, since it leaves out Edouard et Caroline and Le Trou. On the other hand, she may not think he is that important - in which case she is plain wrong.

In addition to the essays there are "special features". These are mostly "people pages", insets distinguished by having a grey background with a dotted border. From 100 years of cinema, 133 people are singled out in this way. Excluding Charlie Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock, who are in a category of their own, there are five British entries: Gracie Fields, Humphrey Jennings, Alexander Mackendrick and Michael Powell/EmericPressburger. The aim, apparently, was not to have a pantheon of great names but to "illuminate the cinema across the board". The selection is still bizarre. Where are Michael Balcon, Robert Hamer, David Lean, Carol Reed or any of the Free Cinema directors like Lindsay Anderson or, from another generation, Ken Loach. For Italian cinema, Roberto Rossellini has an inset but not Francesco Rosi, as do Bernardo Bertolucci and Pier Paolo Pasolini but not Sergio Leone or Gillo Pontecorvo.

Nonetheless, these inset pages are the best thing about the book and provide a useful reference. There are many fine entries including Edward R. O'Neill's on Hitchcock ("at once deeply flawed and absolutely flawless") and Phillip Kemp's on Mackendrick and Alexander Korda. I particularly liked James Naremore's succinct and elegant piece on Vincent Minnelli ("an aesthete who seemed happy in a factory"). Nowadays, Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly's films are more frequently screened than Minnelli's but at the time they were very much MGM's second string. Donen told me of an occasion when he and Arthur Freed, MGM's most successful musicals producer, were watching a sacked producer leave the MGM lot. Freed turned to Donen and said, "There but for the grace of Minnelli go I".

Nowell-Smith has invited some nationals to write about their own cinemas. The result is mixed. At best their insights are unexpected and illuminating, at worst we are given an even more restricted view because of complex national conflicts and allegiances, which we cannot get a handle on. Ashish Rajadhyaksha's grudging inset on Satyajit Ray is decidedly political; his concern with Ray's position vis-a-vis the Nehrus - father and daughter - and various developments in recent Indian history pushes Ray's work as a filmmaker into the background. I should have liked to know from Rajadhyaksha what Ray represented to the tens of thousands of people who filed past his body and choked Rashbehari Avenue in Calcutta as they followed his bier to the burning ground. No other director in the world has inspired such passions.

Hiroshi Komatsu's more admiring essay on Akira Kurosawa takes up the Japanese concern with how western Kurosawa's films are and merely touches on the innovations of his early films. In fact, he was the first director to point the lens directly into the sun (in Rashomon) and to show the structure of the diaphragm; also one of the first to use jump cuts and slow motion. He exuberantly used disparate and anachronistic styles of music within the same film. He was postmodern before the term was coined. These innovations were not self-conscious "experiments" but tactful modulations of film language for popular audiences. ("Tact" is not a word that is associated with Kurosawa but look, for example, at the seamless way he negotiates the entry into, and exit out of, the slow-motion death of the kidnapper in The Seven Samurai.) If there is a theme in this volume, it is about Hollywood's primacy. In the very early days, Britain, France, Italy and even Denmark were contenders. The Danish company Nordisk built the first permanent studio in Europe and in 1913 distributed 370 films. Ruth Vasey writes with authority on the causes that led to Hollywood's dominance.

European film production almost halted during the Great War, leaving the field clear for Hollywood. It was a body blow from which European cinema has never fully recovered. But probably the war simply accelerated the process. Hollywood had so much going, both for itself and for the onslaught: vast resources, a large home market, a "European" audience of recent immigrants on its own soil, burgeoning industries committed to technological innovation, banks which had a "feel" for the risk investment which cinema demands, a capitalist understanding of the concatenation of production, distribution and exhibition.

From the start, Hollywood consciously sold images of pleasure; unconsciously it offered up desirable views of a free society - or, at any rate, a more lawless one. It also found a compelling way of telling their stories - plot was pre-eminent. In that respect, Los Angeles is Aristotle's town. And, as Truffaut noted ruefully, Hollywood plots and characters are driven by that particular American urge of "getting". When anybody else had a good idea, they borrowed or stole it; and they constantly added to their own talents with ruthless raids, which, at the same time, enriched Hollywood and impoverished Europe. They seemed, and still seem, irresistible.

Vasey and others chart the way in which European countries tried to defend their cinemas by imposing quotas, charging levies and subsidising local production. What the writers do not convey is the resentment felt by European filmmakers at being shut out of their own cinemas. Balcon relates how, after the Great War, British cinemas were booked for years ahead with titles of films that had not even been scripted. Hollywood is not shy about using its monopoly.

Nowell-Smith says that in the 1940s and 1950s "Britain alone persisted in a completely nonselective support policy mechanically redistributing a proportion of exhibitors' revenue from all films to 'British' producers on the sole criterion of box-office success". He attributes the decline of British film, in part, to this "automatic" element. In fact, European countries imposed the levy before Britain, and all over the continent there was, and is, a substantial redistributive element based on box-office returns. Also, Harold Wilson created the National Film Finance Corporation, which did use cultural criteria in supporting production as Nowell-Smith advocates.

Duncan Petrie writes that the BFI "in the late 1970s changed filmmaking policy away from a concentration on experimental, avant-garde production towards more accessible cinematic forms". Not so. In 1972 the government increased the budget for the BFI production board to fund its first slate of feature films: Bill Douglas's Childhood Trilogy, Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo's Winstanley, Peter Smith's A Private Enterprise (the first feature about the Asian community), Horace Ove's Pressure (the first feature on the black community, and written and directed by a black filmmaker), David Gladwell's Requiem for a Village and Chuck Despin's musical Moon over the Alley. These are all accessible. What was missing at the time was distribution - art-house cinemas and a TV channel dedicated to films.

This volume is an ambitious undertaking. As an encyclopedia the approach is OK; as a history, it is not. Cinema has been studied and neutered here. Gone is its powerful and unblinking duality to reveal and to lie, to inform and to control, to aid liberty and serve tyranny. What this volume lacks is what made cinema, on a physical level, possible: persistence of vision.

Mamoun Hassan conceived Movie Masterclass for Channel Four. He was formerly head of the production board, British Film Institute, and managing director, National Film Finance Corporation.

The Oxford History of World Cinema: The Definitive History of Cinema Worldwide

Editor - Geoffrey Nowell-Smith
ISBN - 0 19 811257 2
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 824

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