Monday, October 06, 2008

The Filmmaker Overview Essay

There is a genre of film criticism that I find intimidating enough that I've never managed to produce a piece of writing in it. I speak of the filmmaker overview essay. For a film-lover, it's an immensely useful and educational form. I'm always looking out for good examples of it. A couple of terrific ones have appeared online recently.

At 16:9, Adrian Martin writes about Abel Ferrara:

Most great directors have signatures: Max Ophuls’ expansively tracking camera, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s static long shot-long takes, Jean-Luc Godard’s montage-mix of sampled and interrupted sound sources. But Ferrara? There is no consistent affectation, no recognisable manner in his prodigious forms. In the prolific ‘90s, especially, diversity rules: can it be the same director who mastered, so swiftly, the hyper-Michael Mann style of cool nocturnal blue in King of New York, the minimalist ‘stations of the cross’ intrigue in Bad Lieutenant, the stark black and white exploitation-horror of The Addiction, the stately, sombre mise en scène of The Funeral and the hallucinatory, multi-layered collage of The Blackout? [...]

Yet if Ferrara lacks a signature - and maybe that, in our auteur-commodity market, slyly and subversively, is his signature - he has honed an attitude to content and an approach to form that are razor sharp. Ferrara is in the tradition of John Cassavetes and Maurice Pialat: he seeks the truth of the moment, the nub of a contradiction, the telling flashpoint of tension. In interviews or documentaries, that is all he will talk about: ‘getting the shot’, nailing something in an image, a performance, an exchange, a riff. His cinema is a postmodern gestalt, a fusion in dissonance: bodies, environments, songs, colours and edits are so powerfully compacted in his work that we can hardly separate the elements, as we can with the work of ‘cleaner’ directors.

James Quandt isn't read as widely as he should be, mainly because most of his writing is done for the Cinematheque Ontario season programme guide, which is largely unavailable at libraries and newsstands. In the new issue he writes about the latest retrospective he's assembled, the films of Nagisa Oshima:

Much parsed and puzzled over, Shohei Imamura’s famous pronouncement, “I’m a country farmer; Nagisa Oshima is a samurai” may be ambiguous in tone and intent – is it ironic, invidious, deferential? – but it emphasizes the directors’ differences: class, stylistic, and otherwise. Often paired as twin avatars of the Japanese New Wave, a term Oshima (born in Kyoto, 1932) took every opportunity to spurn and disparage, the two fit uncomfortably in that “movement” and with each other. Sharing formal and social audacity, a brilliant ability to exploit the widescreen format, a rejection of the refined and self-sacrificing tenor of traditional Japanese cinema, a propensity for mixing fiction and reality, and certain key themes – sex and criminality, the abuse and resilience of women, incest, the social fissures of postwar Japan, the aggravated acts of outcasts in a tightly battened monoculture – Imamura and Oshima nevertheless can be construed as contraries, if not opposites. (It would be illuminating to pair certain of their films: Imamura’s A Man Vanishes with Oshima’s The Man Who Left His Will on Film; Pigs and Battleships with The Sun’s Burial; Vengeance Is Mine with Violence at Noon.) Where Imamura made defiantly “messy” and “juicy” (his preferred terms) films that celebrated the irrational, the instinctual, the carnal, squalid, violent, and superstitious life of Japan’s underclass, Oshima’s films are primarily ideational, probing, and controlled even when anarchic (e.g. Three Resurrected Drunkards). Which is not to say they are dry (as opposed to juicy) or cerebral. Even at their most complex – the densely structured Night and Fog in Japan, for instance, all but dictates a second viewing – Oshima’s works exhibit such wit, beauty, and furious invention, never mind profound feeling, that their conceptual gambits take on sensual and emotional force. They are less the product of a postmodernist sensibility, as some critics have characterized Oshima’s strategies, than of a desperate intelligence. Oshima made films as if they were a matter of life and death.

The Oshima series has been producing a bumper crop of writing, a lot of it available online. At Artforum, here's Jonathan Rosenbaum:

Oshima's cinema consists of particular interventions in Japan’s internal political debates, and freely draws on forms as well as styles that seem to come from everywhere, including Japan. Some would call this disconcertingly voracious trait “very Japanese,” and it helps to account for the truism that no two Oshima films are alike. Each new feature critiques its predecessors: After vowing to abolish green from his palette in his first foray into color, Cruel Story of Youth, as a way of refusing any trace of domestic tranquillity, he used green frequently and effectively two features later (without suggesting much domestic tranquillity), in his first truly personal work, Night and Fog in Japan, meanwhile countering the earlier film’s neorealist locations and handheld-camera movements with artificially lit theatrical spaces and smooth if restless pans between characters at a wedding party. Both films are steeped in the dark pessimism characteristic of Oshima’s films of the ’60s. [...]

Where Oshima differs most strikingly from an antisentimental, leftist provocateur like Buñuel is in the relative absence of humanism in his work. (Boy, a mainly sympathetic look at a lonely ten-year-old con artist, is a rare exception.) If The Sun’s Burial (1960)—an early shocker about rival street gangs in an Osaka slum—was partly inspired by Buñuel’s Los Olvidados (1950), as the British DVD’s liner notes maintain, the notion of Oshima showing any tenderness toward his doomed punks, as Buñuel does toward Jaibo, is unthinkable—even if Oshima is no less outraged by corpses being dumped like garbage. And the repeated occurrences of sexual assault (mainly rape) in Cruel Story of Youth, The Sun’s Burial, Violence at Noon (1966), Sing a Song of Sex (1967), Death by Hanging, Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1968), The Man Who Left His Will on Film (1970), Empire of Passion, and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence—usually committed by his protagonists and often seen as acts of rebellion against the Japanese state (a view at least contested in Death by Hanging)—suggest that, with the possible exception of In the Realm of the Senses, feminism and nonviolence are not exactly hallmarks of his leftist positions.

* * *

John Wakeman's two-volume World Film Directors (1988; Norton), which weighs in at 2000+ pages, was the first book of filmmaker overview essays I can remember buying. Today, it seems stronger to me on informational detail than on personality. Richard Roud's 2-volume Cinema: A Critical Dictionary (1980; Martin, Secker & Warburg) is probably my single favorite collection in the genre. The list of writers includes: Noel Burch, Edgardo Cozarinsky, Jean-Andre Fieschi, Tom Milne, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Andrew Sarris, Robin Wood, and many others. The essays in the St. James Film Directors Encyclopedia edited by Andrew Sarris (1998; Visible Ink Press) are less lengthy and substantive in comparison to the Roud, but they have the advantage of including a wider range of filmmakers, many of them recent. Speaking of Sarris, his You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet: The American Talking Film, History & Memory, 1927-1949 (1998; Oxford) has the edge on his classic The American Cinema (1969) in one respect: its filmmaker essays are longer and meatier. A rare example for avant-garde cinema: Arden Press released two excellent volumes under the title Film: The Front Line, written by Jonathan Rosenbaum (1983) and David Ehrenstein (1984). A few years ago, my first encounter with David Thomson's The Biographical Dictionary of Film occurred with the most recent edition (2002; Knopf). I was struck immediately by the cursoriness of recent world/art cinema coverage and, annoyed, I put away the book. I picked it up again recently and loved the older pieces on Hawks and Rivette. I need to cherry-pick my way through it for the good stuff. Jean-Pierre Coursodon and Pierre Sauvage's 2-volume American Directors (1983; McGraw-Hill) is a recent discovery that I'm eager to dive into. Finally, the Senses of Cinema Great Directors database is the definitive resource of its kind on the Interwebs.

Can I ask: Do you have some favorite examples of either books or individual essays, print or online, of filmmaker overview pieces? Perhaps this post could serve as a collecting place for recommendations and suggestions.

* * *

Some links:

-- "Manifesting the Ineffable": Darren has a wonderful conversation with Nathaniel Dorsky at Auteurs' Notebook.

-- Adrian's monthly column at Filmkrant: "Has film criticism entered its decadent phase? That term is used by art historians to designate the historic moment when an art form or medium turns its attention away from everything outside of itself - such as the real world - and looks inward, to its own devices, its own position, its own history. Decadence - or, to use a less loaded word, self-consciousness - tends to come around cyclically, at moments when, for one reason or another, such introspection becomes pressing. The art or discourse must take stock of itself, temporarily, in order to renew itself and continue its outer-directed mission."

-- Steven Shaviro discovers that the new issue of a poetry publication contains a poem credited to him that he didn't write. It prompts him to share some reflections on present-day "avant-gardism." (I'm in the publication too, credited with a poem I've never laid eyes on. Steve and I are both on poet Ron Silliman's blogroll, perhaps the reason why we ended up being unwittingly 'harvested' for this conceptual art project, if that's what it is.)

-- Speaking of filmmaker overview essays, Jonathan Rosenbaum has just posted one from 1988 on Sergei Parajanov.

-- Via Jonathan: an annotated shot list for RR from James Benning; Kristin Thompson's comments on the film from Vancouver (scroll down a bit); and Benning himself has a piece at the Wexner Center blog.

-- Kimberly Lindbergs has a post on fashion and The Thomas Crown Affair. (I must now see this film. Also, the Michel Legrand soundtrack is one of my favorites.)

-- At Owen Hatherley's: Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica's short film Dom (1958).

-- Tucker Teague at Pilgrim Akimbo: "How the Post-Christendom Church Mirrors the Impulse of Postmodern Art."

-- Jason Sperb and Will Scheibel announce a James Bond blogathon at Dr. Mabuse's Kaleido-Scope.

-- At The Listening Ear: an analysis of the crane shot in Ozu's Early Summer.

-- Philip Horne on Thorold Dickinson in The Guardian.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's the direct link for the annotated shot list of James Bennings »RR«:

October 06, 2008 3:36 PM  
Blogger nitesh said...

Chidananda Das Gupta, essay on Ritwik Ghatak and Adoor Gopalakrishnan in his book Seeing is Believing, released recently in India. It's a collection of essays and articles he had written for various journals and books in the last 25 years.

October 06, 2008 4:14 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, Anon. I made the change in the post.

Nitesh, that's great to know. I will pick it up when I'm in Chennai in December. I also recently got his hard-to-find collection Talking About Films.

October 06, 2008 8:32 PM  
Blogger Tucker said...

Girish, thanks for the shout out.

October 07, 2008 12:15 AM  
Anonymous Christian Keathley said...

In thinking about Filmmaker Overview Essays, I find it hard to separate it out from your post of two weeks ago on Formative Film Writing. I'm drawn to those essays I first encountered many, many years ago -- essays that helped me understand the work of filmmakers that are important to me. One thing I realize my choices have in common is that rather than emphasizing thematic features of a director's work (a staple of the filmmaker overview), these emphasize form. This was their great importance to me: they taught me important points about the significance of film form. A couple of examples:

Susan Sontag's "Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson."

Peter Wollen's "Godard and Counter-Cinema." Not an overview of JLG's career, but a superb summary of the formal stratgies that guide most of his film work of the 1960s.

Noel Burch's essays on Dreyer, Eisenstein, Lang, and L'Herbier in Roud's Cinema: A Critical Dictionary. In addition to providing an overview of these directors' careers, these essays also lay out Burch's formalist values and provide an excellent short history of transitions in film style in the 1920s.

October 07, 2008 9:55 AM  
Anonymous Mike Grost said...

Might I shameless promote my own film web site?
It has book-length essays on Fritz Lang, Joseph H. Lewis and Vincente Minnelli. It also has shorter essays on over 100 directors.
The Lewis and Minnelli essays open with "auteurist checklists". These are detailed looks at common elements in the directors' films: everything from subject matter, camera movement to color and costumes. Around 25 of the shorter essays start with such checklists too. It's a simple way to convey an avalanche of information about the directors. Where are lateral tracks past foreground objects in Lewis? Who wears white clothes, and why? Where are camera movements through walls? Which stories involve liberal street protests? Where does Chuck Connors take off his shirt? Where are complex compositions with peaked roofs? When does Lewis shoot through arched tree branches? Answers are right here...
My hope is that these essays will force a new look and much deeper understanding of these directors.

October 07, 2008 12:22 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

In answer to your question, let me recommend Immoral Tales: European Sex & Horror Movies, 1956-1984 by Pete Toombs and Cathal Tohill. The book offers both humorous and scholarly essays on Jesus Franco and Jean Rollin, as well as the more highly regarded Alain Robbe-Grillet, among others.

October 08, 2008 9:45 AM  
Blogger Alex said...

I tend to feel that the filmmaker overview essay tends to conceal more than it illuminates. Of course, there's a certain usefulness to this type of essay, since they can form good introductions to filmmakers that the reader is unfamiliar with.

Since I come from a background of studying ancient Greek philosophy, in general the philosopher overviews (Plato was born in blah blah blah) are terrible, and I usually think that the (typical) short overview essay confuses or obfuscates more than it illuminates.

October 08, 2008 10:34 AM  
Blogger nitesh said...

Talking about Films, and most film books are hard to find here, especially if its by an Indain author. Much like the Indian New Wave Works. I think there are few essasy from the book in the new published, Seeing is Believining. Beside, I think, a number of Indian filmmaker haven't go their due in terms of presenting an overiew or critical study of their work.

Great to know you would be in India, hopefully, could meet you in Chennai this December.

October 08, 2008 2:12 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, everyone!

Chris, that's a great distinction you make between the typical essay that focuses on theme and the unusual, valuable essay that takes up form.

I've also been dipping into Yvonne Tasker's Fifty Contemporary Filmmakers (a sibling to Routledge's Fifty Key Thinkers), and though the variability in entries is significant, there is a decent treatment (both thematic and formal) of many currently working filmmakers. The writers are mostly academics.

Mike, I admire your site, and am glad to have you mention and link to it here.

Peter, I've never even heard of the book; it sounds really intriguing.

Another comment on the filmmaker overview essay: It can be interesting when writers depart from the standard, 'typical' (as Alex puts it) boilerplate model and do something a little interesting or even crazy with it. The Frank Capra entry in the St. James Encyclopedia is written by Charles Affron, who uses a single, odd but fascinating angle--the way Capra deploys, varies, and brings pressure to bear on the human voice--to slice across his filmography. It might sound a bit kooky on the face of it, but it turns out to be more interesting than the 'typical' essay.

October 09, 2008 12:23 AM  
Anonymous Matthew Flanagan said...


First time commenter (commentator?) - thought I'd add some very fine essays that haven't been mentioned yet. Ignoring essential book-length studies (Bazin on Renoir, MacCabe on Godard, Margulies on Akerman, Koch on Warhol, and, recently, Sato on Mizoguchi), there are hundreds/thousands of exceptional Filmmaker Overviews to choose from - not an easy task! Here's a personal selection in no order whatsoever:

Bazin's 'William Wyler, or the Jansenist of Directing' (Bazin at Work, Routledge, 1997); Ian Cameron on Antonioni (Film Quarterly 16.1, 1962); Tag Gallagher on Mizoguchi (Screening the Past); Fredric Jameson's 'Theo Angelopoulos: the Past as History, the Future as Form' (The Last Modernist, Flicks Books, 1997); Kent Jones's 'Here & There: the Films of Tsai Ming-liang' (Rosenbaum & Martin's Movie Mutations); Godfrey Cheshire on Kiarostami ('A Cinema of Questions' in Film Comment 32.4, 1996, and 'How to Read Kiarostami' in Cineaste 25.4, 2000); Julie Ault on James Benning ('Using the Earth as a Map of Himself' in James Benning, Edition Filmmuseum, 2007); John Caughie on Bill Douglas ('Don't Mourn, Analyse!' in A Lanternist's Account, BFI, 1993); Michael Atkinson's 'The Night Countries of the Brothers Quay' (Film Comment 30, 1994); Alexander Horwath's 'Singing in the Rain - Supercinematography
by Peter Tscherkassky
' (in both Peter Tscherkassky, Edition Filmmuseum, 2007, and Senses of Cinema); George Toles on Martin Arnold (in Exile Cinema, SUNY UP, 2008 - itself an excellent compilation of Filmmaker Overviews); Assayas on Yang (Film Comment 44.1, 2008); Petr Král's 'Tarkovsky, or the burning house' (Screening the Past). The list could go on forever, of course...

October 09, 2008 8:21 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Matthew--Thank you for taking the time! So many great tips in there, and so many essays I've never even heard of.

btw, I was glad to see that Bill Douglas' films were just released here a couple of weeks ago for the first time on dvd, and I'm a great admirer of Caughie's authorship book.

Thanks again, Matthew!

October 09, 2008 9:01 AM  
Anonymous Matthew Flanagan said...

Girish, no problem - I've learnt an awful lot here (like many others), so figured it was about time to try and give something back.

On the subject of Bill Douglas, I'd recommend importing the excellent BFI R2 release of the Trilogy - as far as I'm aware, the booklet hasn't been reprinted by Facets, so you'd miss a very personal introduction from Peter Jewell and a new essay by John Caughie (as well as a short piece by me).

Also, may I suggest another blog for your roster (if you haven't clocked it yet)?

October 09, 2008 11:37 AM  
Anonymous Kimberly said...

Thanks for the mention Girish! I hope you get some enjoyment from The Thomas Crown Affair when you get the opportunity to see it.

I'd like to write more director essays myself but I tend to shy away from tackling them. Hopefully over time I'll get a bit more confident about my writing. My Freddie Francis essay was probably my most comprehensive attempt at tackling a director's work so far. My piece has been borrowed from a lot since I wrote it so I suspect it mustn't be half bad, but it needs work.

I recently picked up a copy of the Eyeball Compendium which has a lot of lengthy essay's on European directors such as Alain Robbe-Grillet, Pupi Avati, Lucio Fulci, Juraj Jakubisko and Andrzej Zulawski. The writing seems to be a mixed-bag so far, but a lot of these directors are overlooked or somewhat obscure so I appreciate the writer's efforts and can recommend it.

October 09, 2008 2:19 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Kimberly, thanks for recommending The Eyeball Compendium!

Matthew, thanks for the tip on the Bill Douglas dvd's. If you have a blog or any of your writings online, pl. do send me an email; I'd like to get acquainted with them.

I'm glad to hear you speak well of the Sato book. I'd been wondering whether to order it sight unseen, and now I will. Also, I didn't know of Dan North's blog, and have subscribed to it.

October 10, 2008 10:53 AM  
Blogger girish said...

I remembered another interesting book of overview essays on my shelf, Second Wave (Praeger, 1970), which includes lengthy essays on the following filmmakers:

Dusan Makavejev (Robin Wood)
Jerzy Skolimowski (Michael Walker)
Nagisa Oshima (Ian Cameron)
Ray Guerra (Michel Ciment)
Glauber Rocha (Michel Ciment)
Gilles Groulx (Robert Daudelin)
Jean-Pierre Lefebvre (Jean Chabot)
Jean-Marie Straub (Andi Engel)

October 10, 2008 11:36 AM  
Blogger acquarello said...

Thanks also for the heads-up on the Tadao Sato book, Matthew. I've attended a couple of symposiums featuring him and his insights into films are really fascinating. On a similar vein, does anyone have an opinion on Catherine Russell's book on Naruse? I don't think I've read anything by her, but I'm itching for something more substantive than Audie Bock's introductory piece in Japanese Film Directors.

October 10, 2008 1:13 PM  
Anonymous Matthew Flanagan said...

Girish, acquarello - the Sato book strikes me as vastly superior to Le Fanu's (2005), offering a definitive 'native' study of Mizoguchi that has been long overdue. Donald Richie's review in The Japan Times sums it up very nicely:

October 10, 2008 5:33 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Acquarello, I recently picked up Russell's book and have glanced at it. It's hefty (500 pages) and seems like a very strong book. It has a feminist-critical thrust, and also puts the films within the larger context of Japanese modernity in a detailed way. I look forward to reading it in tandem with watching the films.

Matthew, thanks for the Donald Richie link.

October 10, 2008 10:44 PM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Hail Faithful Girishians - I have just returned from the Valdivia Film Festival in Chile, where my new book WHAT IS MODERN CINEMA was launched by its publisher Uqbar in Spanish. I am very proud of it, and extremely honoured. I mention it here, as it is almost entirely composed of 'filmmaker overviews'. At the end of the Intro chapter, I comment:

‘This book – after a small group of general essays – essentially discusses cinema through its artists, its directors. I do not bother to rehash the ancient arguments devised to convince readers of the existence of the cinema auteur – indeed, I have included some pointed reservations about auteurism, when the sole devotion to ‘auteur films’ (in the art-cinema or Film Festival circuit) blocks our ability to see anything else going on at the present moment in cinema – but I do adopt the method that French critic-filmmaker Jean-Claude Biette called a poetique des auteurs (rather than the classic ‘50s politique des auteurs or ‘auteur policy’).

What is this ‘poetics of auteurs’? It entails grasping, in an artist’s work, the overall complex or gestalt of style and content, sensibility and poetic gesture – in order, finally, to probe, apply and extend that “very sensitive instrument” formed by a filmmaker’s personal vision of the world, a regard (in the double sense of both a look and an attitude) that is both critical and loving. And it is my hope that writing about film can, in its own way, also carry on the “amorous vigilance” of that double regard which is so unique to cinema.’

Here is the Contents page of the book in English, with bracketed notes about the sources of the texts, and/or where earlier versions can be found on-line or in print. There's quite a bit of new and unreleased stuff in it.


PART 1: Histories
What is Modern Cinema? [previously unpublished, 2008]
Ball of Fire [previously unpublished, 1998/2008]
Possessory Credit [from FRAMEWORK]

PART 2: Pioneers
Style and Meaning in Robert Bresson [from PhD, 2006]
Crossing Marker [from art catalogue 2008]
Came So Far for Beauty: Jean-Luc Godard's Lyricism [previously unpublished, 2001]
Landscapes of the Mind: Roman Polanski [new version]
John Cassavetes: Inventor of Forms [new version]

PART 3: Innovators
Copious Associative Connections: Raúl Ruiz [edited from PhD]
Robert Kramer Films the Event [from ROUGE]
Chantal Akerman: Walking Woman [available at SCREENVILLE]
Things to Look Into: Terrence Malick [from ROUGE]
Abbas Kiarostami: The Earth Trembles [from 16:9]
What's Happening? Story and Scene in Hou Hsiao-hsien [edited from PhD]
Aki Kaurismaki: Poetic Realism and a Few Drinks [earlier Spanish translation at MIRADAS DE CINE]
Pedro Costa: The Inner Life of a Film [forthcoming in Costa anthology 2009]
Ticket to Ride: Claire Denis and the Cinema of the Body [edited from PhD, Spanish version in Gijon Denis anthology]
Tsai-fi [edited and updated from TREN DE SOMBRAS]
Naomi Kawase: A Certain Dark Corner of Modern Cinema [Spanish version from Kawase anthology 2008]
Apichatpong Weerasethakul, The Immaterial [previously unpublished]
A Minority Report on Manoel de Oliveira [previously unpublished]

... and there also two 'outtakes', omitted from the book at the last phase of production, that will likely be appearing in Spanish on-line in Chile's LA FUGA: the Ferrara essay in 16:9 that Girish has linked to in English; and a Garrel piece so far unpublished in any language.

Finally, for completists (!), two short texts I delivered at Valdivia are available already (in English, Spanish versions forthcoming) at Quintín & Flavia's blog LA LECTOR PROVISORIA, alongside their colourful text-image reportage on the Festival (

October 12, 2008 2:28 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Adrian, this is awesome news. And sorry but you're not getting away with appending it as a throwaway in the comments section! This news needs its own post--and I shall see what I can do about that!

October 12, 2008 8:16 AM  

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