click to buy 'Once upon a Time in America' at Amazon.comFor the brief span of our lifetimes, everything remains there on the screen, distressingly present ; first images of eros and premonitions of death catch up with us in every dream; the end of the world began with us and shows no signs of ending; the film we thought we were merely watching is the story of our lives.

– Italo Calvino (“A Cinema-Goer’s Autobiography,” in Italo Calvino, The Road to San Giovanni, London, Jonathan Cape, [trns Tim Parks], 1993, pp. 72 -73.)

The British Film Institute (BFI) during the last few years, concerned with the archival fragility of cinema, has compiled a list of 360 “key” films in the history of the medium. The fundamental objective of this canon is to ensure that the prints of each film is perfect for regular repertory screening at London’s Museum of the Moving Image.

In association with this archival collection of vital film heritage, the BFI has been publishing two series of commissioned monographs designed to act as commentaries on each film in the collection. The first established series was the BFI Film Classics series which was soon followed by the BFI Modern Classics series. Both series feature invited authors such as film critics, filmmakers, film scholars, visual artists, novelists and historians. Each author is invited to select a film of their choice from the archive. A cinephile’s dream. And each monograph (which is often handsomely illustrated) presents the author’s own ideas about the film in question with a production history and detailed credits, a bibliography and notes.

Both series as a film publishing event constitute a “time-capsule” commeration of the cinema medium for future audiences. In most cases, the volumes are readable, informative and stimulating.

As canons go, they present critical questions germane to film/media culture, cultural identity, film history and taxonomy. To begin with, there is the essential issue of how do we differentiate between a “film classic” and a “modern classic film”? Both series are ambiguously intertwined with each other: for it seems that there is crucial overlapping between the series from a historical and a selection point-of-view.

I will examine here both series in the context of film criticism, cinephilia and cultural theory, focusing on several representative samples in order to appreciate the centrality of cinema as the dominant storytelling art form of the twentieth century. All of us have experienced André Breton’s “the cinema age” – the intoxication with the medium’s spectatorial vertigo of transporting oneself across culture, time and space. (1) For Breton, cinema is a passing intense fascination – it is a certain period in one’s life – but , if you are a cinephile, amongst other things, then “the cinema age” ends when you (like Welles/Kane) drop your tumbling snowstorm glass as it fragments into your own “Rosebud” oblivion.

Arguably, some contributors, more than others, exemplify in their respective volumes alternative concerns and nuances of a cinephilic informed appreciation of their subject. But with any list or canon, as Jonathan Rosenbaum recently reminded us in his sharp critique of the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Great American movies, there will always be that deadening predictability of gate-keeping conservatism. (2)

I have chosen two representative examples from the Film Classics series, Paul Hammond’s idiosyncratic L’Age d’Or (1997) and Jim Kitses’ enlightening Gun Crazy (1996), and from the Modern Classics series, I have selected Adrian Martin’s unprecedented Once Upon A Time In America (1998) and Iain Sinclair’s absorbing Crash (1999). Although all four authors have a passion for cinema, I shall discuss Martin’s book in some detail in the context of his distinctive contribution, as a film critic and essayist, to film criticism. I do this, for many reasons, but not least because Martin’s book has been (so far) characteristically ignored in our mass media sites of book reviewing. This is particularly puzzling given Martin’s eloquence as one of Australia’s seminal film critics and thinkers.

It should be said that many distinguished authors have contributed to the Film Classics and Modern Classics series – these include critic-scholars Peter Wollen (Singing in the Rain) and Laura Mulvey (Citizen Kane), columnist-scholar Camilia Paglia (The Birds), novelist Salman Rushdie (The Wizard of Oz – one of the series’ highlights), and novelist-translator Alberto Manguel (The Bride of Frankenstein), just to name just a few.

Before evaluating these four books, I wish to make a few comparative remarks about the two series. There is no denying that the Film Classics series, which is quite successful, is placing extra burden on the more recent Modern Classics series to be clearly identifiable from the former. Both series are too parochial in their selection of authors. Certainly, there is the odd non-English author in the two series, but they form an obvious minority group. There is a need to negotiate a wider non-nationalistic pluralism of critical voices. As there is also a need to go beyond the traditional critical template of American and English narrative cinema. More European and Asian cinemas need to be addressed. And not just mainstream narrative and art cinema, but also experimental and independent cinema as well.

Hammond’s new book on Buñuel’s and Dali’s rarely-seen surreal avant-garde classsic, L’Age d’Or (1930), is highly welcomed for the author’s unique, far-ranging film criticism and as an incisive informed commentary on surreal cinema. Hammond’s pun-encrusted, intuitive style of film writing is based on an interdisciplinary approach to the arts in general. Hammond, who is the author of the invaluable anthology The Shadow and its Shadow: Surrealist Writing on the Cinema (1978), writes about cinema independently of the changing academic and cultural fashions of film theory and abhors the dogmas of contemporary border-patrol thought. (3) His magnetically appealing free-wheeling form of erudite film-critical writing is recognisable for its iconoclastic humour, non-authoritarian verve and playful witty discursivity.

The author’s finely-delineated and entertaining introduction to the film examines its complex sources of inspiration and influences, its remarkable “oneric” collage textual characteristics and “film maudit” status in world cinema. Utilising the metaphor of the scorpion’s tail with its various distinct sections and its deadly poison end sac, Hammond gives us a rich, speculative and historically-informed reading of L’Age D’Or, its intuitive miseenscène textual strategies of montage, framing, movement within frame, camera angle, and lighting. He also discusses the use of the Louis Delluc-inspired photogenie insert shot as a prominent stylistic germane to Buñuel’s early cinema and the French avant-garde which (after Griffith, De Mille and Delluc) underlines big close-ups of objects (other than the face) in order to make the object-world strange.

Kitses’ lively written essay probes the complex B-movie roots of Joseph Lewis’s 1950 cult noir classic Gun Crazy as an expression of post-war American capitalism and populist ideology. The film’s doomed “Bonnie and Clyde” couple incarnate the delirious Surrealist notion of l’amour fou and, in this critical context, their erotic and social rebellion suggest a spiritual affinity with Buñuel’s mud-covered scandalous lovers seen early on in L’Age d’Or. Gun Crazy is one of the quintessential American films of its era. The surrealist Ado Kyrou was instrumental in defining the film’s amorphous subversive energy and focus as a poetic work of transgressive rebellion, thereby influencing Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumenton’s description of it in their path-breaking study Panorama du film noir americain (1955) as “a kind of Golden Age of American film noir.” (4) Kitses’ rewarding interpretation of Gun Crazy sees the couple not so much as being rebels living outside society’s norms, but as lapsed prototype noir figures, American heretics, fugitives from the Protestant work ethic. They resemble, in the author’s fitting phrase, “throwbacks to a rough-and-ready Manifest Destiny.” (5)

Martin’s evocative and uncompromising Once Upon a Time in America is, unequivocally, one of the best contributions to the BFI Modern Classics series. It is an extraordinarily fine essay that clearly situates Martin’s film criticism in the great expansive and non- prescriptive tradition of Manny Farber, André Bazin, Raymond Durgnat, Serge Daney and Jonathan Rosenbaum. This book, which explores the intricate and haunting thematic, formal and generic elements of Sergio Leone’s last gangster film, is a subtle and moving analysis of this memorable autumnal film of melancholic disillusionment.

Martin’s infectious, fluid feel for language, its rhythms, shape and moods, colour his supple capacity to find the right words to describe a movie as a dynamic image and sound spectacle. Cinema criticism is as much about cinema as about writing. Martin’s talent to be alert to a movie within its own aesthetic, cultural and generic terms and to vividly convey this to his readers is one of the hallmarks of his lucid film criticism.

Martin’s subtly wrought and illustrated essay is a multifaceted, resonant exploration of the intricate genesis of Leone’s movie, its various versions, production history and its far- reaching importance as a gangster film in the context of the filmmaker’s oeuvre. Moreover, Martin’s essay is his own manifesto of the cinema: why he breathes and thinks cinema and why it matters to him and to us. He writes as if he is writing love letters to the cinema, as he recently testified in a series of important “chain-styled” letters on cinephilia written between Raymond Bellour, Nicole Brenez, Alexander Horwarth, Kent Jones, Jonathan Rosenbaum and himself. (6) Through the alluring audio-visual prism of Once Upon a Time in America, Martin in his inventive, analytical and lyrical style of film criticism focuses (again and again) on a close reading of a particular scene, gesture or image in order to appreciate the movie’s labyrinthine textual qualities.

Martin’s bold, descriptive critical writing notable for its insightful clarity and expressive skills avoids the platitudes of the film publicist’s kit. (A rare thing today where film criticism and reviewing often parade as commercial legislation.) Martin always strives to find a new way of thinking and writing about cinema. He dives deep into cinema’s “otherness” like a pearl diver. Baudelaire’s following words have a particluar moral resonance for Martin’s film criticism: “To be just, or fair, which is to have its raison d’etre, criticism must be partial, passionate, political; it should be exclusive, but it should be written from a point of view that opens up the greatest number of horizons.” (7)

Consequently, Martin’s long-awaited volume does consummate justice to the epic thematic and stylistic sweep of Leone’s poignant meditation on masculinity, time, regret and friendship. Leone, the grand auteur of the “spaghetti Western”, who took sixteen years to develop his final movie, has fashioned a profound “testament film”.

Martin persuasively posits that Leone’s cinema is characteristically a hybrid, impure cinema displaying various artistic impulses and cultural traditions. Once Upon a Time in America deals with the lives of a gang of Jewish hoods who walk the streets of New York during the 1920s, through to the Prohibition, and to illicit union activities, to the 1960s. The movie focuses on a complex intense relationship between Noodles (Robert De Niro) and Max (James Woods) that changes due to the vicissitudes of time, politics and betrayal.

At the core of Martin’s argument is the key question: what kind of strange gangster film is Leone’s tender film of loss and sadness and what does it say about us? Martin’s compelling view of Once Upon a Time in America as a profound filmic examination of melancholia resides in the film’s anguished presentation of masculinity. As Martin puts it, in the best chapter of the book, delineating the pathos of Noodles’s “stolen life” existence : “Noodles’ vision, his male gaze, – contrary to a certain assumption of 70s feminist film theory – orders nothing, effects nothing. When he looks longingly across a distance , his gaze marks only that distance, and the unbridgeable emotional abyss which it represents. And, more profoundly, he is one of the archetypal male sleepwalkers of modern cinema, a ghost or zombie on a par with Willem Dafoe in Light Sleeper (Paul Schrader, 1991) or Jack Nicholson in The Crossing Guard (Sean Penn, 1995). This is the meaning and resonance of the line when, on his fateful return to the bar, Noodles replies to Moe’s question about what he has been doing since 1933 with five little words that speaks volumes: ‘Been goin’ to bed early.’ ” (8)

Noodles is not your archetypal Bogart-Cagney gangster hero of the ’30s, instead he is a hollow amnesiac, a noctambulist, haunted by betrayal. He is an introvert, a dreamer, who oscillates between innocence and decadence, male pathos and sentimental yearning. De Niro’s performance is his greatest so far. Unlike De Niro’s characteristic white-heat explosive performances in Scorsese’s cinema, he is this time atypically extremely restrained in his physical restlessness. In Leone’s film, he is often portrayed in many intense close-ups of his eyes, with sharp head movements and reflective gazes. Once Upon A Time in America is, as Martin rightly reminds us, an ode to the human face. Leone, like Bergman, Dreyer, Téchiné and Visconti, uses the human face as tabula rasa to speak of the ever-changing emotions of drama. The face is, in Dreyer’s words, “a land that one never tires of exploring, a landscape (whether rugged or peaceful) with a unique beauty.” (9)

Leone’s seminal role as a great film stylist interested in articulating the duality of America as epic romantic enchantment (the movie version of America) on the one hand, and the substantial disenchantment of the real historical America on the other, is highlighted by the author. Once Upon a Time in America is a stirring, atmospheric movie of subtle gestures, silences and longings. The revival of the gangster film in the ’90s is markedly evident with such examples as Coppola’s The Godfather, Part 111 (1990), Ferrara’s underrated King of New York (1989), and Brian De Palma’s Carlito’s Way (1993), to name a few, and is a telling index of Leone’s influence.

Martin’s erudite and elegantly orchestrated intertextual discussion of the movie’s diffused gangster genre elements suggests that Leone is not an action cinema director, but a director of expressionist films of fatalism, wordless exchanges of looks, and mythic poetry.

The pliable acategorical and interweaving character of Martin’s classy, nuanced essay amply embodies Theodor Adorno’s definition of the essay form as being composed like music and involving thematic rather than conceptual unity. (10) Martin’s personal conception of a cinema open to the transformative “energies and intensities of life” maximising its potential so it may “dance, for us and in us, like Rouch’s privileged shamanic figure of the dancing Socrates” serves his subject ideally. (11) Martin writes with deep affection for Leone’s movie, opening up new possibilities of filmic understanding.

Novelist-filmmaker Iain Sinclair’s Crash probes the intricate links between J.G.Ballard’s celebrated novel and David Cronenberg’s film adaptation of 1996. Sinclair’s knowledgeable volume focuses on the various cultural, literary and media undercurrents informing Cronenberg’s cool, controlled, formal movie in the context of the Bataillean-inspired sexual and violent content of Ballard’s cult novel.

The author extensively interviews not only Ballard, but also Chris Petit, film critic, novelist and filmmaker, whose ideas on sci-fi, Ballard, car crash cults (James Dean, Albert Camus, Jane Mansfield, etc ) and the London “underground” of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, colour the book’s engrossing conceptual architecture. Sinclair’s keen questioning of the ongoing uncanny temporal loop between the film and the novel in the context of some of the more prominent media events of recent times is foregrounded in his essay.

A significant, appealing facet of Sinclair’s highly suggestive analysis of Cronenberg’s film adaptation of Ballard’s novel is its emphasis on the numerous elaborate connections between cinema, culture and social morality. Sinclair’s apocalyptic imagination as a critic and novelist is ideal for his transgressive techno-baroque subject.

The marketing rhetoric accompanying both BFI series needs to be carefully scrutinised. We are told how the Film Classics and Modern Classics series are central to the long-term “true worth” of the films under analysis. No-one (irrespective of their theoretical paradigms and convinctions) has a mortgage over where cinema may be heading towards. To believe that one has is to engage in futurological nonsense. And no-one can tell in advance which kind of interpretive framework of film analysis will endure.

All four authors, in their respective ways, are self-reflexively aware that cinema demands an ongoing ability to be open to all of its myriad mutating manifestations. Informed cinephilia is a prerequisite condition for anyone who cares to write and think about cinema. This means to love cinema as a life-long habit, to think cinema in one’s waking hours. Writing about cinema requires a willingness to constantly question one’s own cultural baggage. To pass on one’s celluloid fever to one’s readers as if it was a relay race baton in the hope we can all experience the all-encompassing delirium that goes by the name of cinema.

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  1. See André Breton, “As in a Wood,’ in Paul Hammond (ed), The Shadow and Its Shadow, Edinburgh, Polgon, 1991 ( originally published in 1978), p.81.
  2. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “List-o-Mania Or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love American Movies,” Chicago Reader, Chicago, 1998.
  3. Refer to footnote 1.
  4. Jim Kitses, Gun Crazy, London, BFI Publishing, 1996, p.15.
  5. ibid.
  6. See Adrian Martin’s letter (30 th June 1997) in “Movie Mutations: Letters From (and To) Some Children of 1960,” Film Quarterly , Vol.52 No.1, Fall 1998, p.42. These letters – which were originally published in Trafic – were edited down for Film Quarterly. Their full version are located on the University of California Press web site : .
  7. Baudelaire’s words stem from his review of the Salon of 1846 and are located in Michel Ciment, “The Function and the State of Film Criticism,” in John Boorman and Walter Donohue (eds), Projections 8, London, Faber and Faber, 1998, p.40.
  8. Adrian Martin, Once Upon a Time in America, London, BFI Publishing, 1998, p.56.
  9. Cited in Jean-Francois Chevrier and Catherine David, “The Present State of the Image,” in Raymond Bellour, Catherine David and Christine Van Assche (eds), Passages de l’image, Barcelona, Fundacio Caixa De Pensions, 1991, p.36.
  10. Theodor Adorno’s meta-essay “The Essay as Form,” is located in Adorno, Notes on Literature, New York, Columbia University, 1991.
  11. Martin, “Movie Mutations”, op. cit., pp42-43.

About The Author

John Conomos is an Associate Professor at the Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney. He is an artist, critic and writer and his books include Mutant Media(2008) and two co-edited anthologies (with Professor Brad Buckley), Republics of Ideas (2001) and Rethinking the Contemporary Art School: the PhD, the Academy and the Artist (2010). He is currently working on a new collection of essays called "The Cinema Century."