Tell us about Greek films

European Cinema
July 2, 2004

The strange amalgam of criticism, "theory" and history that became film studies began its life in the margins of academia, in art schools and further education. Its first established subject bases were in English and American studies, with the result that - apart from such canonical figures as Eisenstein, Bunuel and Renoir - film studies grew up displaying a certain prejudice against "art cinema", which was assumed to be European and "foreign language". More recently, the most decisive shift in the field has been the rapid growth of film study within modern languages departments, in parallel with the growth of national cultural studies. This must now account for a sizeable proportion of all academic film studies, yet has tended to remain somewhat separate from the Anglo-American tradition.

According to Elizabeth Ezra, her book covers "what is generally being taught in European cinema courses today", and so reflects an organisation under national cinema headings, with French, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish prominently represented. Only Alison McMahan's technologically based "Beginnings", Paul Coates' heroic tour of "East-Central European cinema" and John Orr's concluding speculation on "New directions" blur this otherwise quite rigid structure, which is organised in three broad time bands: early, post-Second World War, and new (meaning post-1960s).

For the most part, Ezra's contributors have risen capably, sometimes brilliantly, to the challenge of providing what is expected, while also introducing a taste of recent scholarship, either revisionist or pluralist.

A good example is Denise Youngblood's treatment of early Soviet cinema, which turns a spotlight on the pre-revolutionary director Yakov Protazanov as well as on the inevitable Eisenstein, and includes sympathetic coverage of lesser-known film-makers of the 1920s and 1930s - although the absence of any later treatment of the Russian new wave or glasnost cinema is hard to understand.

Equally successful in nuancing the familiar are Anton Kaes on Weimar cinema and Thomas Elsaesser on the new German cinema, Dudley Andrew on France in the 1930s and Peter William Evans on contemporary Spanish film-making.

Perhaps the most successful chapter is T. Jefferson Kline's exhilarating account of the French New Wave. Drawing on the wealth of recent biographical and commercial analysis of this much-mythologised movement and its monstres sacres, Truffaut and Godard, Kline breathes new life into what has too often been subjected to reductive institutionalisation. Less successful are Sue Harris's defence of the modish "cinema du look" and Gaetana Marrone's oddly balanced account of "new Italian cinema".

Ezra is no doubt right to claim that this selection reflects what is actually taught, but this prompts reflection on what opportunities are being missed, not only to consider the disproportionate contributions of Europe's small countries, such as Greece, Ireland or Portugal, but in terms of exploring the European ideal itself. Ever since the international producers' meeting of 1909 in Paris, through the Film Europe movement of the 1920s and up to the continuing series of European Union initiatives, there has been a persistent aspiration towards greater cross-border circulation and overcoming the problem of language difference. None of this is really reflected in the national taxonomy of Ezra's book, which, however useful it may be for undergraduate teaching, leaves room for a more integrative approach.

Ian Christie is professor of film and media history, Birkbeck, University of London.

European Cinema

Editor - Elizabeth Ezra
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 344
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 0 19 925571 7

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