Western close-up must pan out wider

Film Studies
April 21, 2006

Philip Kemp praises a plucky British survivor but regrets a certain insularity

In the UK, producing a film journal with any aspirations to intellectual class is a precarious and usually doomed business. The history of highbrow British film criticism is strewn with distinguished corpses: Close Up, Sequence, Films and Filming, Movie (possibly just still with us), Screen, Stills... Only Sight and Sound has ridden the decades, bulwarked as it is by the British Film Institute. So for Film Studies to have survived for seven years and as many issues with its format and quality intact is a passably respectable achievement.

All the more so given that the journal endured something of a bumpy ride in its early days. The first two issues, dated Spring 1999 and Spring 2000, appeared under the joint auspices of the European Humanities Research Centre at Oxford and the new School of Drama, Film and Visual Arts at Kent University. There followed a two-year gap before the third issue emerged, with Kent now sharing sponsorship with Birkbeck, University of London.

After an even longer hiatus, the journal finally found refuge at Manchester University Press, its present home, and it has appeared at six-month intervals since. Given MUP's record in nurturing good-quality academic journals, the future of Film Studies looks reasonably secure.

In their introduction to the journal's first issue, Ian Christie and Michael Grant, two original members of the editorial team, declared their determination to avoid critical writing that was "academic in the bad sense - overly theoretical, schematic and 'cold' in relation to its material.

There is also," they continued, "a concomitant danger of succumbing to ideological and political pretensions to possession of a single truth, which certainly deformed film studies at a crucial stage in its development". Their stated aim was "to encourage a variety of approaches to writing about film and its contexts" and "a greater freedom of personal commitment than is common in much film writing today".

So far, Film Studies has fulfilled those aspirations. Almost all the articles in the seven issues to date have been lively and lucid, refreshingly free of offputting dogma and semiotic jargon. There is a warmth and often a sense of discovery to the writing that suggest authors engaging with subjects that genuinely enthuse them, not merely clocking up articles for the sake of their academic record. And while the accepted pantheon of cinematic greats is not neglected several writers explore neglected byways of cinema history or examine popular Hollywood movies - such as Ron Shelton's golfing drama Tin Cup - that might normally seem beneath academic notice.

Christie is best known for his work on British cinema, especially on the films of the great maverick duo Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and British topics figure strongly in Film Studies . There are pieces on early regional ventures into film-making that resurrect long-forgotten outfits such as the Progress Film Company of Shoreham on the Sussex coast, and a spirited rehabilitation of that most prolific of British directors, Maurice Elvey. Powell and Pressburger feature in more than one issue: the second issue gives us a tantalising glimpse of the unrealised projects Powell was working on in his later years, including a version of The Tempest with James Mason pencilled in for Prospero and Mia Farrow as Ariel, and the sixth issue kicks off with a consideration of Powell and Pressburger's idiosyncratic take on India in Black Narcissus .

The journal often explores the interface between cinema and the other creative arts - literature most frequently, but also music and the visual arts. An article by Gary Bettinson on Sean Penn's The Pledge considers the tensions set up in the film by the legacy of its rather intractable source, Friedrich Durrenmatt's novel Das Versprechen . In Wim Wenders's Wings of Desire , Robert Smith traces echoes of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being alongside the lines from Rainer Maria Rilke's Elegies that Wenders cites as his inspiration; David Trotter examines Virginia Woolf's interest in the cinema and its effect on her novels; and Carol Watts considers not only both films of Broken Blossoms (D. W. Griffith's silent version and John Brahm's sound remake), but also the source material, Thomas Burke's story The Chink and the Child .

A new angle on Hitchcock might seem well-nigh unfeasible, but Colin McArthur teases one out in drawing parallels between the comedy of social unease and embarrassment in Hitch's films and in the cartoons of H. M.

Bateman (The Man WhoI), while Christopher Wintle unearths some forgotten gems in the film-music writings of Hans Keller, the eminent critic and, for some 20 years, cantankerous in-house guru of BBC classical-music radio.

Keller could be unsparing in his judgments (not for nothing was he lampooned by Private Eye as "Hans Killer"), and Wintle reprints a batch of his divertingly waspish essays. On William Alwyn's music for The Cure for Love , Keller notes: "Professor Alwyn's abominable score may contain inadvertent as well as merely... apparent Kitsch," and the insidious zither theme from The Third Man is offhandedly dismissed: "Mr Anton Karas's tune is in the main too primitive to be bad."

If Film Studies has a blind spot, it concerns international scope, which is sadly limited. Surprisingly so, because Christie and Grant's initial editorial undertook to widen "the narrowing perspective on 'world cinema'". But every article so far has focused on North American or European cinema. Asia figures solely through the eyes of Westerners - Powell and Pressburger, Scorsese, Chris Marker - and African and South American cinema might as well not exist. Only at the end of the most recent issue, otherwise devoted to the effects of Hollywood's anti-Communist blacklist, do we get a two-page review of a book on Chinese cinema. Perhaps it is a harbinger of the future.

Philip Kemp is a freelance writer and film historian who teaches film journalism at Leicester University.

Film Studies: An International Review

Editor - Ian Christie, Michael Grant, Murray Smith and Peter Stanfield
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - twice a year Institutions £53.00 Individuals £21.00
ISBN - 1326 7937

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