Category: Book Reviews

Book Review: Phoenix by Brad Prager

Phoenix, Brad Prager, German Film Classics: Camden House 2019, ISBN 9781640140387, £12.99, 88pp, 40 colour illus

This is the third ‘German Film Classic Guide’ we have received from Camden House. Earlier guides reviewed on this blog have been Wings of Desire and Fitzcarraldo.

My first reaction on reading this title was to wonder if a film can become a ‘film classic’ after only five years. Not that this observation worried me much since there are at least three blog entries on the film on this blog. I reviewed the film when it appeared at the London Film Festival, and both Keith Withall and Rona Murray discussed the film on its release. There is little doubt that Christian Petzold is the most successful of the so-called ‘Berlin School’ of contemporary German filmmakers. It is his films that are selected for international festivals and which tend to receive releases in film markets around the world – something increasingly difficult for many European auteurs these days. Most of Petzold’s successful films have seen him working with Nina Hoss as his leading player and Phoenix is the film on which they last worked together.

It might be worth offering a brief note about Phoenix first as this guide sticks very close to the text and assumes familiarity with the film. Nina Hoss plays Nelly Lenz, who we first see with her head swathed in bandages being driven by her friend Lene through an American checkpoint on her way back to Berlin in September 1945. Later we will learn that Nelly was a well-known singer before the war, but her Jewish heritage meant she was taken to Auschwitz. Somehow she escaped, but was shot in the face. Lene is driving her to meet a plastic surgeon who will re-construct her face. Lene then hopes that Nelly will accompany her to Palestine. However, Nelly hopes to find her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) and when she is recovered she begins a search. ‘Phoenix’ is the name of a nightclub attracting Americans in Berlin. The film is loosely adapted from a novel by Hubert Monteilhet, Return to the Ashes (1961), which sets the narrative in France. J. Lee Thompson made an English language film adaptation in 1965 featuring Ingrid Thulin and Maximilian Schell.

Brad Prager is Professor of German and Film Studies at the University of Missouri and he opens his guide by reminding us that Petzold co-wrote Phoenix with his old friend and mentor Harun Farocki. It was Farocki who suggested that the opening shots of the film should recall Robert Siodmak’s 1946 film The Killers [from the Hemingway short story] in which two contract killers are in a car at night searching for a man. Prager refers to Petzold’s comment about Siodmak as a Jewish German migrant in Hollywood, having fled the Nazis in the early 1930s. Siodmak carried with him that sense of being a persecuted exile when he returned to Germany after the war and Petzold sees Nelly as experiencing the same kind of feeling. Siodmak was one of the German directors identified as developing Hollywood films noirs and Petzold has said that film noir was the genre he thought about most in his preparation. He suggests that just as Fassbinder went back to the films of Douglas Sirk when he made his melodramas such as Fear Eats the Soul (1974), he, Petzold needed to go back to the films noirs of the 1940s and to directors such as Siodmak.

Prager offers us a very close reading of the film which I certainly found illuminating, especially in terms of the connections he finds to wider examples of German culture and particularly German Jewish culture. This means he explores similar films made both about 1945 and made in the immediate few months after the war and tracks the links to Jewish figures such as Kurt Weil, whose song ‘Speak Low’ plays a significant role in the film. As well as Robert Siodmak, he also refers to his screenwriter brother Curt/Kurt and to the Central European Jewish actor Peter Lorre. Prager’s first task is to demonstrate to us that Nelly experiences a a strong sense of dislocation in these first few months of what is a period of ‘limbo’ for German identity. Germany at this point simply doesn’t exist – it is an occupied territory. Nelly wants to re-discover her own German identity and her husband will fail to recognise her even though her new face will not be that different – it is more that he is incapable of seeing her. I know something about this period in Berlin but I learned a great deal more from Prager’s analysis. The real question, however, is who is the target readership for this guide?

I suspect that the intended readership is German studies students taking a film option. There are several other study guide series which deal with a specific ‘National Cinema’ through individual texts on key films. Readers need a certain investment in that National Cinema to get the most from the guides. The downside is that such guides don’t always suit the more general Film Studies student. One missing element for me was a sense of the German cinema audience. Checking the Lumière Database for European films I discovered that Phoenix had a smaller audience overall than Barbara (2012), the previous film by Petzold featuring both Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld. Not only did Phoenix have little more than half the audience of the previous film (530,000 across Europe) but the biggest audience was in France. Barbara, set in East Germany in the 1980s, attracted 1.05 million admissions across Europe and did, just, attract a larger audience in Germany. Prager does perhaps suggest reasons why this might be the case, but I don’t think he addresses what it means for German Cinema. But that’s the only disappointment for me in the analysis. What is the book like as a study guide?

As our other reviewers have pointed out, these are quite attractive guides in terms of presentation, especially since they use digital screengrabs nicely presented in colour. The A5 size is fairly standard for these little guides. In this case the text is presented in an attractive font, but the pages have small margins and the text is fully justified. There are no line spaces between paragraphs and the entire guide is divided into just four sections, corresponding to the linear progress of the narrative of the film. Each section is separated by just a couple of line spaces (rather than a new page). The overall effect is of a solid block of 80 pages of text enlivened only by the illustrations (which thankfully are used relatively frequently). All of this does make the text feel less accessible than it should be. Worse, however, is that there is no index as such, but instead seven pages of endnotes in lieu and a page of credits. The guide is printed on good quality paper, but these seeming cost-saving features rather undercut the overall quality appeal.

Brad Prager is an expert guide having written widely on German cinema and on that basis I would recommend this guide, but I hope Camden House re-consider their design for the series.

Fitzcarraldo by Lutz Koepnick

Fitzcarraldo, Lutz Koepnick, German Film Classics by Camden House, ISBN 9781640140363, £12.99, 92pp

An exciting new series for enthusiasts, students, and scholars of German film. Each concise volume analyses a single classic film, delving into such factors as genesis, production, reception, and key personnel. Each book entails archival research and provides not only an introduction to the film but the author’s own ‘take’ on it.

To date the series offers this volume and Wings of Desire, Phoenix and The Golem.

The author is the ‘Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of German, Cinema and Media Arts’ at Vanderbilt University. This ‘private research university’, was founded by the famous or even infamous C19th ‘robber baron’ magnate who specialised in railways and shipping. Gertrude Conaway was a member of the Vanderbilt family in the C20th and a ‘socialite and philanthropist’. So there is an ironic connection between this academic setting and the representation of C19th capitalism in Werner Hertzog’s film.

Lutz Koepnick appears to be a skilled linguist. He has published on film, media theory and aesthetics, including German cinema. Intriguingly one of his other publications is on the US director Michael Bay; ‘World Cinema in the Age of Populism’.

I found this a difficult book to read, taking it slowly and in sections. It is also a difficult book to review. This is partly because of the approach taken by the author..

It draws on recent writing on the Anthropocene to probe the relationship of art, civilization, and the natural world in Fitzcarraldo. (Publishers’ description).

Anthropocene is a relatively new discourse in academia. Helpfully, Wikipedia offers the following:

The Anthropocene is a proposed geological epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems, including, but not limited to, anthropogenic climate change.

The important word is ‘proposed’. There is not a consensus regarding this concept. And it has quite varied meanings; some argue that as an epoch it dates back to the earliest engagement between humans and the rest of nature. Others see it as a modern phenomenon which is only relevant to recent decades. What will be clear is that this is a concept that ties in to concerns about changes in nature and the climate and the whole issue of ‘climate change’.

Koepnick opens with ‘Spectacle in the Forest’ where the author discusses the production and release of the film. He notes the chronicle of the production in Burden of Dreams (1982) which detailed the treatment of indigenous communities and which created a volume of criticism of the director Werner Herzog. Koepnick also discusses how this and other issues around the film fed into its reception. An important aspect is his discussion of Herzog’s public statements and interviews on the film. Herzog has a tendency to talk in broad rhetorical terms rather than in concrete detail; and this did not always play well in the media.

In ‘Dreams (That Money Can’t Buy)’ Koepnick lays out the overall narrative of the film. He also introduces an aspect that in part structures his analysis; the idea that Herzog’s film work is centred on dream worlds. This is something that is found all over discussions of cinema. However, in Herzog’s film world,

. . . [it] is to think of dreams not as Freudian ciphers of repressed desire and distorted wish fantasies but as alternate realities, as engines of world building.

‘Beyond Nature and Culture’ discusses the film in its geographical aspects. Koepnick sets out how the protagonist, Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski), as an entrepreneur, relates to the these American lands and the way his venture impacts on these. Here Koepnick set out his sense of the Anthropocene;

The Anthropocene, as the reunion of human (historical) time and Earth (geological) time, between human agency and non-human agency, gives the lie to this – temporal, ontological, epistemological and institutional – great divide between nature and society that widened in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

This gives a sense of the generally academic style in the book. In terms of Herzog, Koepnick sees his film as an early example of an art work that critically dramatises the problems of what he calls the ‘anthropogenic’.

Throughout the book Koepnick focuses on particular sequences to illustrate his analysis and he frequently accompanies these with specific stills from the sequence. Here he looks at an exchange between Fitzgerald and the captain of the ship in which they sail up a river in pursuit of rubber wealth. The ship has been renamed the ‘Molly Aida’, a tribute to Fitzgerald’s amour, the owner of a bordello, and to opera. Here the author points up the disjunction between Fitzgerald’s use of maps and his awry sense of the lands. And here, as he does often, Koepnick draws a parallel with an earlier Herzog film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972). This film was also set in the Amazonian regions though back in the C16th, and it also starred Klaus Kinski as the main protagonist. In addition, as with Fitzcarraldo, there were problems about how Herzog used people and resources. He released monkeys featured in the final and famous sequence live into the jungle. And the film was shot on a camera that Herzog had purloined from the Munich Film School. Something, as with his behaviour on Fitzcarraldo, Herzog later justified.

Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, the Wrath of God

‘Flow’ addresses the central setting of the river and the broader category of water. This discussion takes in comments on the ‘historical moment’ of the film and, importantly, Herzog’s psychology as it affects the film and the parallels between Herzog and his fictional creation. He references the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel. The latter’s idea of ‘historical greatness as individuals who followed:

an unconscious impulse that occasioned the accomplishment of that for which the time was ripe.’

This gives a sense of the driven nature of Fitzgerald but also his domination not by the actual settings and situations but a personal sense of imminent possibilities. In this, Koepnick argues, the character attempts to use the existing world for a rather different purposes. In this story Fitzgerald’s navigation of the river ends not with his stated intent but the film’s finale when he returns to the town of Iquitos with an operatic troupe. Despite what appears to be failure Fitzgerald is ecstatic, apparently feeling that he has achieved a historical moment.

‘The Sounds of Music’ addresses the distinctive treatment of opera in the film.

It is finally time to address what Fitzcarraldo at heart is all about, namely the power of sound and music to express emotions, channel desire, connect different bodies, minds, and souls, and – most importantly – build alternate worlds within and in opposition to the dreary routines of the real.

Koepnick discusses this central plot and motif and focuses onto particular sequences. One is the famous moment when Fitzgerald plays a record of Caruso on the wind-up gramophone to the watching Indians.

The other is the final sequence with the operatic troupe arriving in Iquitos. Koepnick recognises how central is opera to Hertzog’s output; indeed his films have a strong operatic feel. But in term of this film he suggests whilst opera is an expression of the driven and romantic nature of the protagonist he also argues that it serves an alienating impulse which critiques the film itself.

‘On Dangerous Ground’ continues this as one aspect in discussing the way that Herzog and his team actually produced the visual spectacle of the film. The most famous sequences are those when Fitzgerald leads and cajoles the indigenous Indians into hauling a large steamship over an isthmus us between two rivers. It is well recorded that the production used an actual ship on an actual setting, eschewing some of the techniques of special effects to achieve this.

A lot of comment has been made on this, including the toll on the people involved. Koepnick notes these but then argues that for Herzog this ‘real’ effort both creates spectacle but also creates a reflexive take of the spectacle. He quotes from Herzog’s ‘Minnesota Manifesto’ (1999).

There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylisation.

‘In the Wake’ is the final section. Koepnick retreats to take an overview and to look back at the film. Here he uses several other artworks that have been influenced by the film. One is a Polish video construct, Halka /Haiti (2015) and a novel ‘Stromland’ (2018). I have not seen or read either. I could see the parallels that Koepnick drew between them and the film but I did not find this illuminating. This was another point when I found the academic stance of the book tricky to navigate.

Overall the book has an amount of stimulating commentary on the film. The author relates Herzog’s vision to the vision that the film presents of its protagonist. As you might expect there is a lot of discussion of the environmental aspects. Much of this is convincing though I did feel at times that whilst the comments revised the film for the present it was debatable how much all of this was in the minds of the filmmakers when the production took place. My other reservation was that the overall sense of the film that is presented is tied closely to the sense of an authorial vision. I think aspects of the film, for example the way the title privileged actual production over effects, is also a reflection of the times of the film. And the author does seem to accept Herzog’s later rationalisation regarding the way the production treated people; in particular the indigenous peoples. It has to be written that Herzog has a unacceptable record of this type of approach. Apart from Fitzcarraldo, there is the aspect of Aguirre the Wrath of God already mentioned; and there is the scandal that erupted over the rats used in the 1979 Nosferatu the Vampyre / Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht.

I also wondered about the choice of the title directed by Werner Herzog, presumably made by the publisher. Technically the film is a West German production, but whilst it addresses European C19th colonialism there is very little in the film which offers a sense of Germany. This reflects my personal estimation of Herzog output; I think the first six titles, ending with the 1977 Stroszek, are his best work. Since then I think his work has allowed uncontrolled expression of his vision; and indeed he has become a film wanderer across the globe. And I think the early films are more expressive of the New German Cinema.

The volume is quite brief, ninety pages. It includes detailed credits and notes, the latter are very helpful. There are sections rather than chapters and no index. There are 40 excellent film stills, well above the usual quality in contemporary publications,. They are in colour and either half-page or quarter page illustrations. And they are well chosen and carefully related to the discussion on the accompanying pages.

I noted this was a slightly tricky book to read but it is illuminating on the film. I suspect that the keener the reader is on this film the more they would take from the book.

Wings of Desire by Christian Rogowski

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Wings of Desire, Christian Rogowski, German Film Classics: Camden House 2019, ISBN 9781640140370, £12.99, 96pp

I was pleased to receive a review copy of this book, in the German Film Classics series, as I was interested if it could persuade me that a film I’d failed to complete viewing twice was actually the classic critical opinion suggested. It must be 15 years since I’d last failed to get through Wim Wenders’ film but since then I have visited Berlin so I was looking forward to re-viewing the film; but first I read the book.

Wings of Desire debuted at Cannes in 1987 and won Wenders the Best Director award. It is a portrayal of life, and Berlin, before reunification when the director was at the top of his arthouse reputation; his previous feature had been the well-regarded Paris, Texas (West Germany-France, 1984) and his role in the New German cinema of the ’70s was feted. Paris, Texas was filmed in America and one of the constant themes in Wenders’ work was the (his) relationship between Germany (Europe) and America in the post-war era. Like Godard, in the ’60s, there was a love-hate tension: the love of American culture and democratic values and the hate of its imperialism. For Godard, there was a linear progression from one half of the dichotomy to the other during the 1960s; Wenders remained conflicted, as the protagonist of Kings of the Road (Im Lauf der Zeit, West Germany, 1976) said, “The Yanks have colonised our unconsciousness.” This film was the third of the road movie trilogy; the others were Alice in the Cities (West Germany, 1974) and Wrong Turn (West Germany, 1975), all starring Rüdiger Vogler as Wenders’ ‘stand in’. Wrong Turn was scripted by Peter Handke, who also contributed to Wings of Desire and, after the revelation of Handke’s support for Slobodan Milošević’s Serbia, which hit the news again recently after his award of the Nobel Prize for Literature, casts something of a shadow over the film.

Alice in the Cities, Wenders’ best fiction film in my view, is set both in America and West Germany but of Wings of Desire, as Rogowski says:

. . . the decision to film in (West) Berlin, in German, to address specifically German issues in a highly poetic, literary, manner and to enlist the help of none other than Peter Handke . . . the film seeks to reclaim something that is authentic, significant, and unique, both to the (divided) nation as a whole and to the individual person. (18)

The ‘poetic’ emphasises the arthouse elements to Wings of Desire, where being obtuse is anything but a problem. So it is helpful that Rogowski diligently unpicks the references and offers enough context, for those who are younger, about Berlin just before the Wall came down. Although he obviously admires the film, that doesn’t prevent him having a critical gaze. The climax of the film, where Bruno Ganz’s (fallen) angel finally meets Marion (Solveig Donmartin) in the flesh, is dissected in some detail showing the problems in Handke’s script (the attempt to recoup Nazi discourse) and the uncritical celebration of heteronormative union. Rogowski is fair to Wenders as he acknowledges the last point is not something that would have been widely understood in 1986.

Donmartin and Wenders were a couple at the time of the film and (from 2020) it does look to me like an indulgent love letter to her, utilising the trope of the ‘mysterious woman’ who will ‘save’ the man (Handke names her Woman in the script but at least Wenders humanises her in the film with a name). Although I did get to the end of the film this time it was only because I forced myself. Much of my irritation was rooted in the constant reverse shot of the angel Damiel watching the world go by; Ganz is an actor I admire but I found his patronising smug smirk insufferable.

Screenshot 2020-01-16 at 09.53.05

Insufferable smug smirk

The gender politics has (inevitably) dated but that is no reason to condemn any text as all are of their time. However, I didn’t like the film when it came out so my view hasn’t changed.

Monographs on individual films are a popular publishing format; the BFI Classics and Modern Classics have been running since 1992. Their obvious strengths are offering an in-depth consideration of a film; which, of course, are also its weakness for although the monographs usually contextualise the film, the focus has to be on the text. Exactly what breadth of scope is ideal for writing about film I wouldn’t like to say; it depends upon the film, genre, director, producer and so on.

As noted, Rogowski offers an excellent guide to the film and an example of how useful he is can be seen when he points out that there is a key reference to Walter Benjamin’s philosophy of history that could be “lost on English-speaking viewers, since it is not translated in the subtitles . . . ” (68). This refers to Benjamin’s concept of the ‘Angel of History’ which witnesses (as does Damiel and his companion Cassiel, played by Otto Sander) “history as perpetual catastrophe” (69). Hence the guide does more than contextualise in that it offers clarity for non-German speakers.

Rogowski is also generally sound in his analysis of the specifically filmic elements but betrays his background, as a Professor in Language and Literature, when he questions whether two pairs of men walking in the same frame, one pair in the background, was intentional (72). Film students know that everything is assumed to be of significance.

The quality of the film stills in the book is superb; they are large enough to be seen clearly and printed on high quality paper. However, the book isn’t structured by chapters, so there’s no Contents (or index), which compromises its use as a reference book. Recommended if you (think you’ll) like the film.

Book Review: World Cinema Through Global Genres

GlobalGenres

World Cinema Through Global Genres, William V. Constanzo, John Wiley 2014, £21.99, 432pp ISBN 9781118712924

The US publisher John Wiley now has a major global brand for academic and professional texts after its 2007 merger with Oxford-based Blackwell. This means that there is now UK promotion for a Wiley US textbook like this title. In the standard, squarish large format for textbooks, its 400 plus pages add up to a hefty tome. Inside there is a relatively simple structure. After 40 pages of introductory material on film studies, William Constanzo offers four sections, each focusing on what he terms a ‘Global Genre’.

The four genres are well-chosen and comprise ‘The Warrior Film’, ‘The Wedding Film’, ‘The Horror Film’ and ‘The Road Movie’. Within each section is a general essay on the specific ‘genre cluster’ and a ‘Deep Focus’ on one specific national or regional industry, followed by four shorter ‘Close-ups’ on specific film titles. So, 120 pages are devoted to ‘The Warrior Film’ with a Deep Focus on Chinese Cinemas and Close-ups on The Magnificent Seven, Seven Samurai, Sholay and Enter the Dragon. Across the other three sections students are offered focused studies of Indian, Japanese and Latin American Cinemas.

One of the quandaries for any textbook writer taking on this topic (i.e. a textbook on ‘World Cinema’) is what to include and what to leave out. Unless the book is intended as a kind of gazetteer, it isn’t possible to cover every film industry, or indeed every genre. By selecting ‘Global Genres’, Constanzo implies that he isn’t covering ‘art cinema’ or documentary or political filmmaking etc. But he still has to decide on which film industries. It seems that he has opted for those that American students are most likely to encounter as popular entertainment and perhaps feel closest to – Latin America and East Asia/South Asia.

Having chosen his genres and film industries, how does Constanzo’s approach work out? On the whole pretty well I think. He devotes his space to quite detailed analysis of his chosen films and finds ways to introduce students to unfamiliar cultures. He’s fond of quoting David Bordwell and, like Bordwell (and Thompson) he uses many small screengrabs to illustrate sequences. On the positive side these grabs are presented in their correct aspect ratios – something that makes immediately apparent the difference in presentation between The Magnificent Seven in ‘Scope and Seven Samurai in Academy. Unfortunately, all the grabs are presented as sometimes quite murky greyscale images, losing much of their impact in the process. Significantly too, the single still from Sholay is not in the correct ratio since the only DVD available in 2013 would have been ‘pan and scan’.

William Constanzo has been teaching a long time and he is both widely travelled and a fan of the films he analyses. There are many insights here and students should get a thorough introduction to the genres he tackles. In some ways his discussion of ‘The Wedding Film’ is the most interesting since it isn’t a genre category recognised as such by the studios. He starts from the success of My Big Fat Greek Wedding (US 2002), a small independent film that became a big global success, and notes that similar films have been successful across the globe. This is a category that draws upon different repertoires such as the romantic comedy, the social comedy and the family drama/melodrama and when he lists Monsoon Wedding (India 2001) alongside Four Weddings and a Funeral (UK 1994) and other titles from Iceland, Poland and Taiwan, the possibilities are immediately appealing. However, things get a little trickier when Constanzo chooses three films set in Israeli ‘Occupied Territories’, one directed by the Israeli (but self-proclaimed ‘international’) director Eran Riklis and the other two by Palestinian filmmakers. Again the analysis is thorough and some of the political context is explained – but not enough perhaps to fully understand the meanings in these specific films. There is also the problem that Constanzo doesn’t explore the institutional differences between the films in terms of production – how the diverse film titles that he chooses are likely to be distributed and received by critics and audiences. Again we have to accept that this isn’t the purpose of the book and there isn’t space to explore ‘film as institution’.

The selection of film titles in the book is mostly very good and provides both students and teachers with useful entry points. The quartet of Halloween (US 1978), Suspiria (Italy 1977), The Devil’s Backbone (Mexico-Spain 2001) and Ringu (Japan 1998) in the Horror section has great potential. I’m a little baffled however by the inclusion of both La strada (Italy 1954) and A bout de souffle (France 1960) as ‘road movies’ in the final section. These two European art movies seem out of place. They require more space in order to explain their significance in film history and their relationship to film movements such as Italian neorealism and La nouvelle vague as well as their relationships to genres. They also hint at that academic sense of discussing the canon rather than engaging with the popular genre films that have appealed to broad audiences. What I mean, perhaps, is that they offer examples ‘known’ to US scholars and cinephiles rather than enjoyed by contemporary popular local audiences.

As this is a textbook I should add that each of the four sections includes timelines showing major historical events in the ‘Deep Focus’ region plus selected film releases and an extended list of titles from around the world in the ‘genre’ section. These are useful references as are each chapter’s reading lists and the questions that accompany each case study film analysis. There is also a glossary, a full index and a companion website with a teacher’s manual and other support materials (though you need to register as an ‘instructor’).

I think this could be a useful book for any teacher wanting to introduce students to films beyond Hollywood through a focus on genres. I suspect that in the UK the Wedding and Horror sections might work best. One word of warning. I found the Deep Focus sections to be variable in that the Chinese section is dominated by an analysis of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and the Indian one is flawed because it underestimates the so called ‘regional’ film industries and the recent growth of independent productions. The Japanese one is OK but rather limited, but the Latin American section is more detailed and a good introduction.

[This review first appeared in Media Education Journal No. 59, Summer 2016 and is published here with permission – see http://www.ames.scot/mej.html]

Book Review: Delivering Dreams: A Century of British Film Distribution

DeliveringDreams

Delivering Dreams: A Century of British Film Distribution, Geoffrey Macnab, I.B. Tauris 2015, £16.99, 272pp, ISBN 9781784534899

Distribution is the sector of the film industry that remains mysterious to many film and media students – and many teachers. There are very few books or other resources that properly explain and analyse the film distribution business. Geoffrey Macnab is a highly respected film journalist and critic. He isn’t a film scholar as such but he has written very useful industry studies such as J. Arthur Rank and the British Film Industry (Routledge 1993) as well as works on directors and individual films. He’s well placed to write about distribution and this paperback is certainly a valuable resource that every film/media library or staffroom bookshelf should acquire. It’s not without weaknesses, however. Some derive from the book’s publishing context and some from the difficulties inherent in a pioneering project.

The book has been published partly to celebrate the 100th anniversary of what was first known as the Kinematograph Renters’ Society Ltd. and which now calls itself the Film Distributors’ Association (FDA) – the trade association for the film distribution sector in the UK. The book opens with a preface by David Puttnam, the current president of the FDA and closes with a postscript by Mark Batey, the FDA Chief Executive. In between Macnab offers eleven chapters covering the main issues in UK film distribution during the century of KRS/FDA operation from 1915-2015.

Each chapter is given an important film title as its heading. Chapter 1 is Chaplin’s The Tramp (1915) and Chapter 11 is The King’s Speech (2010). Most readers will probably make a good guess at which films appear as the titles of other chapters – although you do have to understand the nature of the British rather than US business. Apart from Chapter 7 covering the 1970s and titled Star Wars (1977), each other chapter carries the title of a successful British film – and Star Wars was indeed made at Elstree and represents one of the ‘Hollywood UK’ titles that have done so much to characterise UK production and exhibition ever since.

Each chapter is not solely focused on a single film, but it is significant that, as a good journalist, Macnab knows how to structure a story to bring out the highlights of the history of UK distribution in an entertaining read. Important issues such as the changing policies of the British Board of Film Censors (which since 1985 has changed ‘Censors’ to ‘Classification’) crop up alongside other institutional changes (e.g. the coming of sound and the competition from television in the early 1950s). Macnab also introduces us to accounts of working in the distribution business from the 1930s through to setting up the new distribution company Optimum Releasing in 1999.

Many of these accounts are fascinating and invaluable for any kind of ‘institutional’ study of British film. They also remind us that, ultimately, distribution is all about making sure the film print gets to the cinema in time for the screening.

The endnotes reveal how much time Macnab must have spent poring over Kine Weekly and the Kinematograph Yearbook in the BFI Library to find material for the earlier chapters. He must have been able to go back to his own research for earlier publications and he has clearly got very useful contacts for his current film journalism practice. On that note, the book feels very up-to-date in its concerns. However, things are moving very quickly in film distribution and during 2016 Macnab himself has already been writing in Screendaily about the end of the VPF (Virtual Print Fee) – the mechanism which saw distributors helping to fund the digitisation of UK cinemas – and what might come next as the unwieldy business model of exclusive ‘windows’ for product on different platforms gradually disintegrates.

Because the book is for the general reader who may be a film fan or the industry professional with an interest in the history of their own business, Macnab sensibly keeps the narrative flowing rather than taking a more distanced position and trying to analyse how distribution functions as a business model in the context of the international film market. The book also lacks coverage of aspects of the distribution business like Sales Agents, Film Festivals and Film Markets – and indeed distribution practices in other territories. In terms of what it does do though, it’s generally very good – though some of the historical accounts are ‘broad brush’ and lack insights from more detailed research.

Delivering Dreams carries a ‘Select Bibliography’ of books on British Cinema and the British Film Industry and endnotes/references for each chapter. The contents page lists an index but, because I was sent a proof copy to review, the index was not yet completed. Teachers definitely need an index for this book, so check it out before you buy.

[This review first appeared in Media Education Journal No. 59, Summer 2016 and is published here with permission – see http://www.ames.scot/mej.html]

Book Review: Stars in World Cinema

WorldCinemaBook

Stars in World Cinema: Screen Icons and Star Systems Across Cultures, eds Andrea Bandhauer and Michelle Royer, I. B. Tauris 2015, £62 (hardback) 272 pp, ISBN 9781780769776, eISBN: 9781857738356

This new title in the World Cinema series from I. B. Tauris presents a collection of essays offering ideas about theorising film stars and stardom. Such studies have conventionally developed in studies of Hollywood and European cinema but here they are applied in the wider context of ‘World Cinema’. It is unfortunate that the publishers decided to use that term for the series since it perpetuates that Hollywood v. ‘World’ binary, but the editors for this volume emphasise the ‘pluricentric’ nature of the essays (the same idea, I think, as ‘polycentric’ in other similar collections). The editors also use the term ‘transnational’ and refer to the ‘interconnectedness’ and ‘commonality’ of accounts from five continents. As several of the essays point out, even when the stars themselves have crossed borders to appear in Hollywood films, many other star studies start from the preferred Hollywood model rather than recognising how star personae are developed in different cultures.

There are sixteen essays in total, divided into four sections. The first, Film Icons and Star Systems, offers four different case studies of stars and star systems outside Hollywood. The second, Stardom Mobility and the Exotic, focuses on examples of actors who have become ‘transnational’ in appeal, but for whom ‘crossing borders’ makes them ‘exotic’ in the cinema that is not native for them. In most cases this translates to travelling to Hollywood and being treated as exotic, but in the case of Viggo Mortensen it means appearing in Spanish films as ‘Danish-American’ and speaking fluent Argentinian Spanish. Section three is The Politics of Stardom with four studies of stardom in distinctive film cultures/industries where individual artistic expression and control have wider implications. Section four, Stars, Bodies and Performance, studies more or less what the title implies in relation to four further case studies.

This sounds like a carefully considered structure to the collection and it does indeed make sense. However, there are inevitably the pros and cons of a multi-authored text. The main pro is that the study has a genuine ‘local’ perspective and therefore a collective overview that no single author could produce. The main con is that there will be some repetition of basic arguments. But this is probably helpful as it serves to emphasise the ‘interconnectedness’ of these studies. More practically the sheer range of the case studies means that most readers will come across stars they have not encountered before or film cultures they know little about. For me the discussion of two specific female stars of the ‘post-studio Philippine Cinema’ was new territory as were the specific stars of Egyptian and Greek films. In other chapters I could always find something that I recognised. I think that the sixteen essays represent a good selection. They include studies of global figures such as Amitabh Bachchan, Antonio Banderas, Jackie Chan and others still active in contemporary cinema as well as earlier stars such as Romy Schneider, Emmanuelle Riva (in relation to Hiroshima mon amour and the more recent Amour) and Carmen Miranda (on the book cover – see above).

The two editors are Australian academics, as are several of the contributors. Most of the others are based at UK universities. Rachel Dwyer, who writes about Amitabh Bachchan, is perhaps the best-known name but Scottish readers will be pleased to see the founder of the Africa in Motion (AiM) Festival, Lizelle Bisschoff of the School of Culture & Creative Art, Theatre Film and TV Studies, Glasgow University, writing about Nollywood. The real question is who would read/use these accounts outside quite specialised areas of study and how accessible are the individual essays? I’m going to mention just a few essays in detail in the hope that they offer a useful sample.

Hara Setsuko was the great female star of Japanese studio films, best known in the West for her roles in Ozu Yasujiro’s post-war films, including Tokyo Story (1953). Mats Karlsson titles his essay ‘Japan’s Eternal Virgin and Reluctant Star of the Silver Screen’. Hara is a star who became emblematic of Japanese womanhood, representing in the 1930s the young girl/woman who supported the men going to war in the propaganda films of the period but then switching dramatically in the first post-war films to be first the ‘new woman’ of democratic Japan and then switching again to the traditional woman during the 1950s and the return to patriarchy. As Karlsson highlights, the Japanese Studio System operated in a similar way to Hollywood with Hara contracted to Toho for much of her career but able, because of her status, to work with Ozu who was usually working for Shochiku. But Hara can’t be studied just like Hollywood stars because her star image was restricted in ‘secondary circulation’. As an intensely private person she maintained a silence outside the studio walls. Garbo had to retire to become anonymous but Hara could continue to have a strong screen persona and still be a private person. Karlsson’s is a useful essay especially since two contrasting roles for Hara are available for study on UK Region 2 DVDs of Naruse Mikio’s Repast and any one of her six films for Ozu.

One of the most accessible and contemporary studies that students might undertake is of the way in which Chinese film stardom operates in conjunction with Hollywood’s current interest in the extraordinary recent growth of the Chinese box office. ‘Dancing with Hollywood: Redefining Transnational Chinese Stardom’ by Sabrina Qiong Yu approaches such a study fully aware of the difficulties and the problems associated with earlier scholarship. She begins by noting that Hollywood seeks Chinese stars to appear in its blockbusters for purely commercial reasons and not to help diversify the range of representations. This has recently meant that Chinese stars have been seen in insignificant roles and are on screen only fleetingly – resulting in the observation from audiences that they constitute ‘Hollywood soy sauce’ – an attempt to enhance the flavour, but nothing substantial in the dish.

Yu uses Bourdieu’s concept of four forms of capital – economic, social, cultural and symbolic – to analyse how succeeding generations of Chinese stars (and later Korean and Japanese) have worked on Hollywood productions. She concludes that social capital is very difficult to develop for any star based outside the US since it requires the kinds of social networks associated with politics or social activity such as charity work (e.g. for a Clint Eastwood or an Audrey Hepburn). Symbolic capital based on ‘fame and fantasy’ associated with a star image can be converted into economic capital if the star’s presence increases investment in the production, helps to secure distribution etc. Cultural capital can accrue for stars with specific skills such as dancing or combat skills. Otherwise it is economic capital that is most important. Yu demonstrates that while Bruce Lee and to a lesser extent Jackie Chan and Jet Li had the opportunity to develop their status because of martial arts skills, other major Chinese stars such as Chow Yun-fat are better known for straight dramatic performances and their skills are less distinctive in cultural capital terms. Yu notes that the more recently-established stars Chinese stars have smaller roles in bigger Hollywood blockbusters, but that some of these films are being made in two versions so that the Chinese stars have more screen time in the versions for the Chinese market. This is a rich field with scope for ongoing study.

From the third section I would pick Karen O’Brien’s essay about the indigenous Australian star David Gulpilil. Beginning with Walkabout (1971) Gulpilil has received international recognition which has proved important in his activist role in promoting authentic representations of indigenous Australian life through films like Ten Canoes (2016) which stars his son Jamie.

Indigenous Australian cinema is perhaps more accessible (partly because there are several recent examples) than some of the films featured in the fourth section. From this section I would opt for the essay by Michelle Royer which considers the two best-known roles for Emmanuelle Riva in the context of how cinema represents the ageing process. Royer argues that cinema has great potential to be a site for real understanding of what ageing means but that too often older characters are presented only in heavily typed roles. By focusing specifically on Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and Amour (2012) Royer is able to offer a fascinating perspective on how a study of ageing might proceed.

I could certainly use this book and I would imagine that it offers something for everyone. It’s a shame that the current economics of publishing means that this only available in hardback. The book carries an e-ISBN number as well but I can’t find any sign of a digital copy online.

[This review first appeared in Media Education Journal No. 58, Winter 2015/16 and is published here with permission – see http://www.ames.scot/mej.html]