Peter Wollen's Signs and Meanings in the Cinema (1969) was one of the first studies to reveal the contours of a new discipline. With its considered discussions of filmic theory and practice, it helped to establish the foundations for the study of cinema that has since emerged as a powerful pedagogy. Some 30 years on, Wollen is professor of film studies at the University of California Los Angeles - a position that didn't exist in 1969.
Written just a few years after the celebrations of a century of cinema in 1995, this new book's essays are haunted by the idea of the death of cinema. Wollen rejects the idea that the cinema industry will be absorbed by "digital media". He is more anxious about the trend to develop film as spectacle, something ever closer to a fairground ride, thus losing its artistic and cultural depth. Against this trend, Wollen urges the task of criticism, and particularly the aesthetic criticism that he sees as part and parcel of being a lover of cinema. While making good use of the insights gathered by scholarship, he displays a certain frustration with it: "As I read through copious new accounts of British studios or genres or periods or representations of gender or national identity, I begin to wonder where aesthetics fits into the agenda of research."
"Copious" is polite but devastating here. Against the categories of purely empirical (or even politically correct) archival research, Wollen insists that the key question for film criticism must remain the aesthetic one, the canonical one: "What are the films that really count, the films we wouldn't mind seeing again and again?" Consequently, the book attends to the necessary dynamics of canon formation.
Wollen points out, for instance, the difficulty that Renoir's La Règle du Jeu had in gaining admission to the canon; how Truffaut's auteur theory "served as a polemical instrument for revising [it]"; or emphasises how Godard's tribute to Monogram Pictures in the opening credits to Breathless "was part and parcel of a coherent and considered re-evaluation of classic American cinema". Against the usual indifference, he argues the case for Viking Eggeling, whose film Diagonal Symphony surely deserves "a secure place in the history of film"; and reframes the author William Burroughs as essentially "a multimedia artist, whose obsessions and fascinations ranged across the whole field of the audio-visual". Most tellingly, he makes a case against the usual categorisation (and denigration) of British cinema as essentially realistic, focusing instead on the elements of fantasy and emotional excess in films such as The Third Man and Waterloo Road.
Paris Hollywood is that rare thing: a specialist book for the general reader. In it, we can see that film studies has come of age. Its specialised insights - the products of immersion in theory and history, and the difficult work of textual analysis - have now become available to the general reader. That, at the same time, the essays in the book are likely to offer a source of stimulus and provocation to the academic specialist is a measure of its success.
John Higgins is a fellow of the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and visiting professor at Columbia University, New York, US.
Paris Hollywood: Writings on Film
Author - Peter Wollen
ISBN - 1 85984 671 8 and 391 3
Publisher - Verso
Price - £40.00 and £13.00
Pages - 314