click to buy "Movie Mutations" at Amazon.comThe disappointment of Peter Cowie’s recent Revolution! The Explosion of World Cinema in the ’60s (1) is in the failure of the book to capture the evolving as-it-happens aspect of his four-decades-worth of the International Film Guide series. These really were reports from the frontline. The 1964 volume (2), for example, in addition to the customary round-up of international films, events, related activities and distribution networks, profiled Wajda and Truffaut (both then in their prime) and featured an interview with Rivette and “An Outline Guide” to the Nouvelle Vague. This asked “Why?” in relation to the Nouvelle Vague and answered, in part, “The newcomers wanted to make autobiographical films” (3). This aspect of the Nouvelle Vague has mostly been forgotten and at best considered as a secondary factor in subsequent critical writing. So how illuminating that, in 1963, during the consolidation of the popularity of the Nouvelle Vague (in London, at least), Cowie should have made this comment. And how useful, too, for those of us not there. This comment speaks of the personal and possessive experience of those in the know during the first flush of the Nouvelle Vague. Revolution! is at its best in this respect too:

French critics such as Jean Béranger and Jacques Sicier wrote about Bergman tapping into fifties Zeitgeist, and how the dread of nuclear Armageddon explained the fervour with which The Seventh Seal [Ingmar Bergman, 1956] was embraced. Looking back, I don’t agree. What set the pulse racing about Bergman was above all his technique – his audacious close-ups, his use of flashbacks, his sophisticated treatment of female characters, his utterly persuasive grasp of historical mood (4)

But such comments are exceptions; most of the book consists of thumbnail sketches of film-makers and their films which could have been written in any era.

One achievement of Movie Mutations is that it takes up the responsibility of providing fresh reportage so ably – and, as with the International Film Guide series, it will be fascinating to see how this book reads in years to come. The editors have tapped into the millennium zeitgeist by deftly assembling an anthology that amounts to more than the sum of its parts, a blitz of directions, suggestions, polemics and provocations all pointing to one partially glimpsed horizon identified in the secondary title: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia.

And what “interesting times” have formed the backdrop for this collective brainstorming. Between 1997 and the present, film culture has markedly changed: the breakthroughs of digital cinema; the proliferation of university media and film departments; the increased availability of films on DVD; the drawing of the battle lines in the legal offensives against copyright infringement; the ascendancy of the New Iranian Cinema, and the first wave of mass communication via the Internet. (This book springs in large part from the latter development; it owes much to Internet film culture and writing – including this venerable site, from which articles and personnel have been borrowed.) Remember the good old days of 1997 when the now-quaint term “information superhighway” was bandied about? Or in 2000, when it was possible to talk of North America’s “current isolationism” (p. 109) and refer to George W. Bush as a “twerp, whom I and most my fellow citizens didn’t even vote for” (p. 110) without sounding like a Republican apologist with his guard down? Or of May 2002 when it was only Iranians fingerprinted as a matter of course when entering the US (p. 145)? Movie Mutations bridges, and charts in passing, such sea-changes.

The framework for this endeavour was constructed by Jonathan Rosenbaum who, noting a “mysterious phenomenon of…global synchronicity” (p. 61) between the tastes, styles and themes among a “cabal” of cinephiles of the same age from different continents, drew them together to see what canonical alchemy would be occasioned. How, in questioning their evolving sensibilities and preferences, would the notion of an international film culture be lent a sharper focus, and what would this reveal? This occurs over a full 73 pages, dear reader, of correspondence between the cabal members.

The correspondents seem enamoured with their initial results (of the first batch: “a landmark in the history of film criticism” [p. 166]) but the whole, if followed too closely, congeals into a sort of hectoring Third Way-ism. The lineaments of their imaginings are prescriptive and oppositional – existing in reaction to other things, rarely as new directions in themselves – and display in parts what could be uncharitably described as petty-bourgeois anarchism. To be precise, the first batch of correspondence is retrospectively identified as, in part, “interventions [which] would hopefully point to the birth of a new cinematic canon” (p. 168). But to what ends? It recalls libertarians who, complaining about state censorship and pressuring governmental organisations accordingly, only wind up pushing back the boundaries of possible market penetration. Rosenbaum was right to draw our attention to the unusual nature of such a convergence of sensibility, but this coming-together also illustrates the lack of common ground beyond this sensibility. Still, this again illustrates the timeliness of Movie Mutations: petty bourgeois anarchism and wooliness about wider objectives are the charges levelled by the left against elements within the anti-globalisation protests of recent years.

So much accord is given to internationalism that it pedagogically informs the very genesis of the book itself, becoming the very starting point for any mature consideration of film culture…but what is this new internationalism in cinema for? Rosenbaum hoped for a reprise of 1960s internationalism (the first chapter carries the subheading “Letters From (and To) Some Children of 1960”) but surely, now, what is in question must be more than a simple solidarity or empathy across the global divide (about which the delineation remains, protestations aside, the US/the non-US)? Here, the underlying assumption of foreignness and difference as innately attractive and exciting, the aporia of multiculturalism, remains: a kind of equivalent of wandering through the “world music” section of a music store (5).

Much of the correspondents’ criticism of the limitations of current “film culture” could be considered in relation to what Raymond Williams identifies as the Selective Tradition (6). For Williams more than financial expediency or incompetence was at work in the removal or dilution of problematic cultural artefacts to create an “official history”. It was the fashioning of a mirror to make the present look beautiful, or acceptable, or the lesser of two evils. Combine that tendency with ruthless distribution monopolies and the tenuous films on which hundreds of millions of dollars now ride (especially set against the intelligence and savvy of film audiences), and you have the beginnings of an explanation for the current dire state of film culture as it is experienced by the majority of film-goers. The frustration of these 73 pages is that this notion of a Selective Tradition in operation is so rarely touched upon. It is as if our correspondents can’t see the base for the wreckage of superstructures. Thus when concrete statements are made (even if historically questionable: that the enormity of 11 September 2001 invalidated much of the imaginings of the first round of correspondence; that Argentina’s financial meltdown was only partly to be blamed on external factors; that the US was a “civilised country…between the end of the conquest of the West and the beginning of the Vietnam war” [p. 169]) they stand out disproportionately from the intense backchat about marginalised film-makers, film festivals and films relegated to television.

If this is something of a gross simplification in relation to some of the most vital expressions of the current trauma of cinephilia and film culture at the turn of the millennium, it is because ultimately these letters are best taken as letters. They are thoughts, jokes, fears, hopes and predictions rather than hegemonic positions or considered theoretical fronts. And the frustration expressed here at the limits of their imaginings is the frustration of a true believer in this project.

As for the oppositional nature of the correspondence, the motor of much of this comes from Rosenbaum’s old bugbear of the so-called death of cinema. Rosenbaum dealt with this at length in the first chapter of Movie Wars (7) and here it is first encountered on the third page of the preface.

The concept of the “death of cinema” is a fluid one. Some see it as an assault on the worth of contemporary (post-1970s) cinema. Representatives of this stance are said to include David Thomson who, unlike fellow naysayers Susan Sontag, Jean-Luc Godard and David Denby, is seen as a murderously over-eager autopsist. For others, it’s a condition (indeed, almost a movement) within which one works or thinks about cinema. Thomson recently clarified his position: he is with the second bunch (8). The slippery nature of the death of cinema’s definition isn’t surprising: a metaphor cannot be a concrete concept. And, at any rate, such a poetic comparison will only ever encode a philosophical point-of-view: on what grounds could cinema be said to have terminally (or otherwise) given up the ghost? Thus it seems to be a case of qualified cinephiliphobia: a dislike of those who love lacklustre film – those who haven’t realised that their major hits are minor variations (Tarantino fans are obvious targets here). Of course, one need only make one’s way through the queues for, and rapturous critical receptions of, current US indie flavours-of-the-month to find oneself in agreement: these people have been starved for so long that any morsel is worth salivating over. They, if accosted, would diagnose the notion of the death of cinema as cinephobiphilia: those who love to hate film, probably for reasons of elitism – elitism in terms of the irrational fetishisation of films without the good grace to be in English. These types will find plenty of meat in the correspondence here, which the correspondents seem to nervously pre-empt with references to their liking of Mission: Impossible [Brian de Palma, 1995] and Dazed and Confused [Richard Linklater, 1994]). If cinema is or were dead, why can’t it rise again? Why implicitly cast us all as doubting Thomases (or Thomsons)?

And, between the two blocks of correspondence, there are plenty of vital signs. It is here that the idea of “mutations” really resonates: “Circumatlantic Media Migrations” (a dialogue on film and identity during this time of great change in South Africa), Rosenbaum showcasing Shigehiko Hasumi on Howard Hawks (certainly some of the most insightful writing on Hawks, if not so qualitatively radically different from Robin Wood’s 1968 study of Hawks (9)) and the interview with Nataša Durovièá, “Movies Go Multinational” (a concrete consideration of the absolute necessity of internationalism – for me, the very best chapter of this book). Adrian Martin’s brilliantly eclectic examination of the Americanisation of film theory in relation to musicals is a two-pronged attack, both on the selective definition of the “classic” American musical (in terms of the musical itself, in relation to almost all configurations of international popular culture) and on the very raising of this classic period to benchmark status. “Why”, asks Martin, “would we want or need a theory of the musical that disdainfully excludes Phantom of the Paradise (1974), Purple Rain (1984), Flashdance (1983), Sign o’ the Times (1987) or The Year of the Horse (1997)?” (p. 98) Rick “Film/Genre” Altman’s engagement with the musical is collateral damage in this endeavour.

Interestingly, both Martin and Durovièá wind up discussing the meaning of Lars von Trier’s method (in relation to the act of the recreation of North America in Dancer in the Dark [1999]). From very different starting points, both writers engage with something that bucks the hegemonic trend “from within” – that speaks the language of the oppressor to the oppressor.

“The Future of Academic Film Study” is a further exchange of letters, this time between James Naremore (“an old geezer”) and Adrian Martin (“at the age of 43” – such statistics and declarations may bring to mind those two grumpy theatre-box commentators in The Muppet Show). The pair complain of complacency, careerism and the fall-out of the Grand Theory-era of film studies. And yet the subject itself (film and the academy) clearly remains a legitimate area for debate – to the extent that both rapidly distance themselves from Manny Farber’s idiosyncratic blanket condemnation of film and the academy quoted at the opening of the exchange.

Naremore renews faith in the possibility of consensus across approaches, stating that academic film writing must be unafraid of evaluative judgments, and ends with a call for ongoing canon-building. In fact, from Naremore’s vantage point, this fear of evaluation is not merely one of succumbing to the subjective, but of admitting to an element of the subjective, of just such an evaluative endeavour, within the pre-history and formative periods of academic film study (including Screen-era theory and Cultural Studies as well as Leavisism, New Criticism and auteurism). To this end, Rosenbaum and Martin are cited as ideal models, not least in that they bridge the divide between academic and “popular” film writing. Ray Durgnat (a co-dedicatee of this book) is also mentioned as a critic able to “deconstruct and seriously analyse” without turning out “grist for a theoretical mill”. This is the context for Martin’s placing of Durgnat among the “half-dozen greatest critics in cinema history” (p. 126).

Martin talks of the use of a sense of crisis – something which he presses on Naremore as typifying film and the academy at the turn of the millennium, with limited success. He cites Richard Roud’s parochial 1980 sensibility (“the study of film is necessarily restricted to the metropolises of the world, New York, London and Paris” [p. 124]) as a certainty justly destroyed. Yet it is the corollary of this rejection that vexes Martin, who finds himself in a post-textuality cul-de-sac. It’s one of those moments in Movie Mutations when one wonders if some kind of academic Agony Aunt would be the best figure to review recent film theory books. Naremore recognises elements of this crisis in his own reaction to a late 1970s Stephen Heath Screen gambit – that interest in the films of Max Ophüls was pretty much exclusive to film critics and scholars (p. 127).

For Martin, there is a desire to locate new horizons (or, in the context of this book, a hope in the location of such new horizons – the New Iranian Cinema is the most obvious example) in order to resist the policing of differing discourses in humanities and, in a wider sense, politics. But how, and by what means? This is a secondary consideration: even to articulate this question in such a rigorous exchange represents a partial answer to it. The primary question – and one that should be voiced in the context of the pervasiveness of the diagnosed complacency – is: Why?

For Martin: “I also wonder if current situations, in global politics as in culture, oblige us to take stock and move on, to open ourselves to the world in ways that will be vital and generative.” An example of such a sensibility, albeit one not mentioned here, was Bertolucci’s derided “Oriental Trilogy” (10). In the era of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Bertolucci anticipated and recognised that the destructive gaze of the West would drift from the East Bloc to the Middle East. It was necessary to offer an encounter with the “other” that would be “vital and generative” rather than, as with the tide of glossy World Cinema films that Miramax release, prompting one to reach for a copy of Edward Saïd’s Orientalism. (Ironically, Rosenbaum explores how just such a charge of pandering to the enemy’s stereotypes has been levelled against Panahi by fellow dissident/intellectual Iranians in “Squaring The Circle”.)

Apart from the solution of the New Iranian Cinema, we get two hits of contemporary Asian art film: Kent Jones on Tsai Ming-liang and Fergus Daly on Hou Hsiao-hsien. The former articulates the problem that immediately suggests itself in relation to critical analysis of films outside Western traditions:

… we should admit that whenever we immerse ourselves in the contemplation of any foreign cinema, we have a vested interest in preserving its foreignness, thus keeping it untouched by the mundane familiarities and certainties of our own everyday realities – I think that all that specialised knowledge among Western experts has the paradoxical effect of preserving and even enlarging said foreignness, as opposed to defusing it (p. 46).

From this vantage point, Jones, in the next three paragraphs, has recourse to mention Anger, Wes Anderson, Antoine Doinel, André Téchiné, John Ford, Keaton, Tati, Jeanne Moreau and La Notte (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960). Here, then, is an update on the personal and possessive experience mentioned above – and one that can incorporate the non-Western with as much warmth and curiosity. But Jones’s conversational appreciation of Tsai, which recalls much of the rapturous writing in support of In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000) posits a hyper-individualism in the face of the cinematic “other”. It’s the flipside of those evaluative judgments defended by Naremore: a sort of emotional colonialism, annexing off beautiful but incomprehensible areas so that their beauty and incomprehensibility will remain unsullied. Such an intellectual lacuna is inevitable in relation to the Third Way-ism at the heart of the correspondence (and so isn’t something particular to Jones’s specific approach – which is as winning and intrepid as usual). It is better to be wrong than to avoid hard analysis and interpretation altogether. This is the usefulness of comments such as “The newcomers wanted to make autobiographical films” years after the event. Although this is the least pleasant part of the mantle of timeliness, such a duty cannot be shirked; our correspondents should acknowledge and face the dangers of getting seriously lost before setting out into uncharted territories. Daly is more exacting, attempting to get to grips with just what’s going on in Hou’s work. But in both cases one longs for these appreciations to be offset by guiding critical Asian voices.

The excellence of Movie Mutations is that, irrespective of local strengths and weaknesses, in identifying The Changing Face of World Cinephilia the editors have assembled a group who are unapologetic about their desire to change that face themselves. It was just such an intention, as Colin MacCabe has recently argued (11) that fired André Bazin. Movie Mutations is worthy of this illustrious tradition.

Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia, edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin; BFI Publishing 2003

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  1. Peter Cowie, Revolution! The Explosion of World Cinema in the ’60s, Faber and Faber, London, 2004.
  2. International Film Guide 1964, ed. Peter Cowie, Tantivy Press, London, 1963.
  3. Cowie, 1963, p. 37.
  4. Cowie, 2004, p. 9.
  5. This prompts me to consider the context for an aspect of Rosenbaum’s own distinctive methodology. I wonder if the quintessentially Rosenbaumesque chapter “Sampling in Rotterdam” is an attempt to deepen a sense of empathy with, or approachability to, the cinematic Other? Although such pieces seem worthy of the Peter Cook-founded satirical magazine Private Eye‘s “Kim Il Sung Prize” (for quantitative use of the word “I”), Rosenbaum effectively lends the reader his sharp eyes when it comes to encountering films in distant regions – a sort of academic Grand Tour of cinema from the nether regions.
  6. Raymond Williams, “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory” in The Raymond Williams Reader, ed. John Higgins, Blackwell, London, 2001, pp 158–178.
  7. Jonathan Rosenbaum, Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See, Wallflower Press, Chicago, 2000.
  8. “And I suggested that if we don’t engage in this attempt [‘new ways of thinking about film’] then we might have to honour the reports of ‘the death of film’ that began, actually, in the late 1950s.” David Thomson, “Film Studies: Long, Sketchy, Bogus: The Movies We Get Are the Ones That We Deserve”, The Independent on Sunday, ABC section, April 11, 2004, p. 13.
  9. Robin Wood, Howard Hawks; Secker & Warburg/BFI, London, 1968.
  10. These films were damned with faint praise (the multiple Academy Awards scooped by The Last Emperor [1987]), critical condemnations (The Sheltering Sky [1990] an index to the meeting of the West and the East) and box office failure (for the outright commercial project of Little Buddha [1996]). An indication of Bertolucci’s failure to indulge in exoticism was the liberal condemnation of The Last Emperor for its supposed glorification of brain-washing.
  11. Colin MacCabe, Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at 70, Bloomsbury, London, 2003, p. 60.