I had the privilege of reading several of the essays included in this important collection in manuscript form in one of Prof. Nichols's seminars, and...moreI had the privilege of reading several of the essays included in this important collection in manuscript form in one of Prof. Nichols's seminars, and it was with great pleasure I revisited those same essays and read the additional material now in its published form. Forgács is a Hungarian filmmaker and archivist whose primarily work primarily deals with various types of historical found-footage unearthed from Europe's past, and his most well-known and powerful films use the home videos depicting the everyday lives of middle-class Jewish families in the years leading up to the deployment of the Final Solution (in one utterly devastating sequence in The Maelstrom, for example, we actually see family members packing their bags for what they believe is a work assignment, but turns out to be the death camp where they will all perish). It's really a travesty, in my opinion, that Forgács's films are not more widely known and are almost completely unavailable (the majority are made for European television), and here's hoping that the publication of this book will raise awareness and attention, and perhaps greater access to his work.
As for the actual material, the two lengthy interviews with Forgács are fascinating, and the essays generally exemplify the best of theoretical film writing; that is, they regards the films as embodying a type of supple philosophical/theoretical statements in and of themselves, and while a diverse array of thinkers make appearances (including Barthes, Merleau-Ponty, Ricoeur, Benjamin, Balázs, etc, etc) they are used to illuminate rather than dictate or pontificate. For me, the standout essays are those by Kaja Silverman and Michael Roth, but nearly all are worth reading. And, more importantly, the films themselves are worth watching. (less)
Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell are the hook and main selling point, but this is actually a collection of essays covering a number of modernist women...moreVirginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell are the hook and main selling point, but this is actually a collection of essays covering a number of modernist women writers, including H.D., Colette, Dorothy Richardson, Bryher, Stein, etc. The topics traversed—ranging from the Woolfs's personal albums to Bell's photographic experimentation to early, pioneering female film criticism and more—is unceasingly fascinating, which is why I was often frustrated with how dull Humm's analysis could become. It's pretty dazzling when it sticks to original research and close reading of a wide range of material (which accounts for the four stars), but all too often comes it lapses into ponderous strings of academese, and I quickly began to skip just about everything directly dealing with psychoanalytic theory (which is why I considered docking one of those stars).
The major highlight is the consideration of the Woolfs's personal photo albums as demonstrating a number of her literary techniques in visual form. Never chronological or even topically arranged, the five albums instead are largely associative constructions and often contain multiple photographs of a single subject from different visual perspectives (echoing cubist and other innovations of modernist visual art), and sometimes "superior" versions of photos can be found hidden behind ones that are less representationally perfect but contain flaws that are more artistically interesting and/or evocative (hinting that the albums were more than just personal records) . I wish Humm had explored a bit more Leonard's admitted contribution to the albums, but overall Humm makes a convincing case that Woolf's larger aesthetic project involves her "amateur" involvement in the photographic arts just as much as her "professional" achievements as novelist, essayist, and literary figure.
There's also a nice overview of the intimate connection many female modernists had to cinema and the photographic arts in general, opening up a number of avenues of inquiry I'm already researching and/or plan to pursue further.
[One of the images Humm includes from the Woolf albums]
The first major books on Expressionist cinema in Germany, and it remains pretty much the undisputed Bible on the subject. Eisner has an interesting wa...moreThe first major books on Expressionist cinema in Germany, and it remains pretty much the undisputed Bible on the subject. Eisner has an interesting way of analyzing her topic—films are grouped in ways that aren't always expected, and she approaches each film in a way that at first seems idiosyncratic, perhaps even a bit scattershot, but the elements she does end up focusing on always turn out to be enlightening and endlessly evocative. I didn't make it all the way to the end because I was looking to familiarize myself with the topic more than study it in depth (and it becomes tedious after awhile to endlessly read about films one hasn't in fact seen), but my "to-watch" has grown ever-longer and I plan to return whenever I catch up with a few more of them.(less)
Don't get me wrong, I love the idea of the BFI Film Classics Series, even if my actual experiences with it have been decidedly mixed so far, ranging f...moreDon't get me wrong, I love the idea of the BFI Film Classics Series, even if my actual experiences with it have been decidedly mixed so far, ranging from disappointed indifference to rather unabashed pleasure. David Thomson's contribution on Howard Hawks's classic The Big Sleep (1946), which he professes in the first pages is his favorite film, falls somewhere in between: compulsively readable, but left me wishing for a bit more. As in something resembling actual analysis of the film. A line in the book, which is quoted in the synopsis on the back, makes the claim that "The Big Sleep inaugurates a post-modern, camp, satirical view of movies being about other movies that extends to the New Wave and Pulp Fiction." A tantalizing claim, right? But that's pretty much all Thomson has to say on the topic, other than some brief thoughts on how the film's last minute push for Bogey/Bacall sex and glamour over comprehensible plotting makes the film "one of the most formally radical pictures ever made in Hollywood." YES. But sadly that is about all Thomson has to say on that subject.
Instead, he sticks close to his talents and the majority of the tome is devoted to detailed autobiographical analysis, something I can't fault him for (he's made quite a reputation for himself by doing so). There's a lot of juicy details about Hawks and his second wife Nancy "Slim" Hawks, who Thomson claims Bacall's distinctive screen persona was modeled after, and deserves more credit because of it. It's also a nice description of how Betty Perske was transformed into Betty Bacal and then transformed into Lauren Bacall, Screen Icon. And Thomson certainly knows how to craft elegant sentences, and I was often reminded of the work of the celebrated James Harvey.
So, yeah. If, as-is, this was, say, the first half of Thomson's study, I'd be extremely impressed. But I was really hoping to read an analysis of one of my own favorite films as engaging as it was entertaining (because no one is looking for dry theory in this series), and in the end I really didn't get that. (less)
I can't count how many times I've attempted this and eventually thrown up my hands in defeat... it's rather mind-boggling how so many beautiful ideas...moreI can't count how many times I've attempted this and eventually thrown up my hands in defeat... it's rather mind-boggling how so many beautiful ideas can be so dully conveyed...
[It is nice, long after I wrote the thoughts above, to have it confirmed by the perceptive critic Robert Koehler in the Fall 2011 Cineaste: "English-language cinephilia [has been] unfortunately dominated for some time by the worst of any Antonioni critical study (and yet, still, the most widely available), Seymour Chatman's consistently unhelpful and often wrongheaded Antonioni, or the Surface of the World." He recommends Sam Rohdie's Antonioni instead, which I will now have to read.](less)