An Alphabet of Cinema
Last week I was chatting on the phone with Christian Keathley, and about a half-dozen times I thought: “Hey, that’d make a cool blog post.” One of those times, we were discussing a cinephilic essay that’s one of my favorites, Peter Wollen’s “An Alphabet of Cinema.” If you haven’t read it, please think of this post as an inducement, an urging, to do so: it’s great fun.
Wollen delivered “An Alphabet of Cinema” as the Serge Daney memorial lecture at the Rotterdam film festival in 1998. It was then published in the New Left Review in 2001, and also appears in Wollen’s essay collection, Paris Hollywood: Writings on Film (2002).
For each letter of the alphabet, Wollen chooses a cinema-related word that is important to him, and devotes an entry of a few paragraphs to it. There are two reasons why I particularly love this essay: its loose, ‘bloggy’ format; and its conversational clarity. Wollen was aiming the lecture at a general festival audience rather than a roomful of fellow academics.
Here is the alphabet, along with Wollen’s chosen subjects.
“A is for Aristotle … the first theorist of film”; “B is not for Brecht, although of course it could be. Or even for B-movies, much as I always loved them. It is for Bambi”; C for Cinephilia; “D must certainly be for Daney, but it is also for Dance—Vincente Minnelli and Gene Kelly”; E for Eisenstein, a “ruined filmmaker, an image-maker ‘haunted by writing’ (Daney’s phrase), by the shot as ideogram, obsessed with the synchronization of sound, movement and image”; F for film festival; G for Godard, “for anti-tradition”; “H is for Hitchcocko-Hawksianism—and a pathway towards avant-garde film”; I for Industry and Ince; J for Japan; “K is for Kane, the film maudit par excellence”; L for Lumière; M for Méliès; N for Narrative; O for Online; “P is personal—for The Passenger, a film directed by Antonioni, which I wrote with my script-writing partner Mark Peploe”; Q for Bazin’s Qu’est-ce que le cinéma?; R for Rossellini, Rome Open City, Renoir, and Rules of the Game; S for Sternberg, Shanghai Gesture, and Surrealism; T for Telecinema, Third Dimension (3D), and Television; U for Underground Film; V for Voyeurism; W for Snow’s Wavelength; “X stands for an unknown quantity—for the strange fascination that makes us remember a particular shot or a particular camera movement”; Y for Les Yeux sans Visage, Franju’s Eyes without a Face; Z for the final frame of the zoom shot, Hollis Frampton’s Zorn’s Lemma, and for Zero.
Here are some excerpts from the lecture-essay:
Paradoxically, I began to read Aristotle in order to understand the writings of his great antagonist, Bertolt Brecht. Brecht himself directly attacked the idea of an Aristotelian theatre, seeking to replace it with what he called ‘epic theatre’, but now I think his polemic was based on a common misunderstanding. Aristotle’s idea of tragedy was very far from the kind of psychologically involving theatre that Brecht attacked. Like his fiercest critic, Aristotle saw tragedy as essentially dialectic and political. Brecht’s tragic vision of history, a vision shaped by world war, by successful and failed revolution, by the civil strife of the Weimar period and the rise to power of Hitler, was not so very distant from that of Aristotle, shaped by Alexander of Macedon and the crisis of the Athenian polis. For Daney, cinema—true cinema—began with Hiroshima, Mon Amour, a film about our personal response to an immense historic tragedy. Resnais’s film became the measure against which all others were judged. It was in their relation to Hiroshima, Mon Amour that Daney came to see Rossellini and Godard as the great moral film-directors of our time [...]
By ‘cinephilia’ I mean an obsessive infatuation with film, to the point of letting it dominate your life. To Serge Daney, looking back, cinephilia seemed a ‘sickness’, a malady which became a duty, almost a religious duty, a form of clandestine self-immolation in the darkness, a voluntary exclusion from social life. At the same time, a sickness that brought immense pleasure, moments which, much later, you recognized had changed your life. I see it differently, not as a sickness, but as a symptom of the desire to remain within the child’s view of the world, always outside, always fascinated by a mysterious parental drama, always seeking to master one’s anxiety by compulsive repetition. Much more than just another leisure activity. [...]
[Vincente] Minnelli saw himself as part of the fashionable art world—he was influenced by Surrealism and brought a dream-like delirium to the musical. [Gene] Kelly was part of the down-market dance world: brought up in the world of tap-dancing and working men’s clubs, the world of vaudeville, but aspiring to the world of ballet, to the world of high art. For me, Kelly was one of the few great geniuses of Hollywood. With On the Town, he took the musical out of the studio, onto the streets of New York, into everyday life. With Singin’ in the Rain, he perfected his invention of what we might call ‘cine-choreography’, his combination into one person of dancer, choreographer and film-maker, so that each dance was conceived and executed together with camera-angle and movement. Dance was no longer ‘filmed’ from outside. It merged with the film. Kelly broke down the distinction between offstage and on-stage, between narrative and spectacle. He dramatized dance, choreographed action. [...]
Godard was the most extraordinary artist to emerge from within the original French New Wave. I was in Paris when A Bout de Souffle (Breathless) first came out and I saw it every day for a week. At the time, people commented on the way it broke the traditional rules of film-making—its use of jump-cuts, its interpolation of cinema-vérité techniques into narrative film. Recently, when I saw it again, in a beautiful new 35mm print, it seemed almost classical. Its strangeness had been eroded by time. Godard himself never fitted into the festival genre. By the end of the sixties he had moved decisively into the avant-garde. For him, the ‘New Wave’ was more like an escape-hatch from the grip of Hitchcocko-Hawksianism. [...]
Thomas Ince was the director and producer who should get the main credit, if that’s the word, rather than D.W. Griffith, for creating the institution of Hollywood, for laying the foundations of the industry. It was Ince, at his own studio, who realized that the script was not just a dramatic story told in dialogue, but the template of the entire film, which could be broken down, scene by scene, to determine the estimated cost of production, the shooting schedule, the requirements that would be made of each department (sets, costumes, effects) and so on. Even today, the costume designer and the cinematographer and the props person carry annotated versions of the script, setting out what will be needed from them in each successive scene. Viewed in this light, the script is not so much an artistic product as an organizational tool, the fundamental prerequisite for the creation of Hollywood as an industry. It is the conceptual assembly line on which industrial production is based. It is also the opposite of Improvisation, the opposite of Godard. Blame or credit should go to Thomas Ince. [...]
And finally, Z is for Zero—Zero for Conduct, zero visibility, and Godard’s slogan, ‘Back to Zero’. As we enter the age of new media, the cinema is reinventing itself. We need to see that reinvention in radical as well as mainstream terms, to try and reimagine the cinema as it might have been and as, potentially, it still could be—an experimental art, constantly renewing itself, as a counter-cinema, as ‘cinema haunted by writing’. Back to zero. Begin again. A is for Avant-Garde.
A couple of links:
-- Jonathan Rosenbaum's website launched last week with an entry on two neglected filmmakers, Eduardo de Gregorio and Sara Driver. And his archives go all the way back to the mid-80s.
-- From last week: Mubarak Ali has a post on Renoir, Garrel and close-ups. Also: lots of great links to international film blogs and sites in his blogroll.
-- The Siren on Thomas Doherty's biography of Joseph Breen, Hollywood's Censor.
-- At Artforum, P. Adams Sitney on Peter Hutton.