The Rebirth of MOVIE
Great news for film criticism: The legendary British magazine Movie has been reborn -- online. The first issue of Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism is now available in its entirety at the University of Warwick website. The issue kicks off with a wonderful tribute by V.F. Perkins to one of the prime movers behind the original Movie, Ian Cameron, who died a few months ago.
The origins of Movie, Perkins writes, can be traced back to Oxford in the late 1950s, to film society program notes penned by Cameron. This led to his writing and editing film criticism in the student magazine Oxford Opinion. Cameron recruited others to write for the film section, and they developed a collective agenda that was
strongly polemical, taking one of its cues from the delightfully disdainful way in which month by month Cahiers received the output of the British film industry. (The respect accorded in Britain to The Bridge on the River Kwai was almost as galling to us the rejection of Vertigo.) Our wrath found a main target in the British Film Institute and its publications, Sight and Sound and Monthly Film Bulletin.
Using their cultural visibility as an Oxbridge publication, they attacked British film writing because it was
predictable in its judgments and predictable in putting judgments ahead of appreciation. It offered next to nothing that counted as analysis, where a verdict and an interpretation come with support from argument. The absence of an evidenced criticism was a particular affront to Ian's scientific sensibility.
It is this ethos of patient close analysis, this carefully considered appreciation of films grounded in descriptive detail that is the signal contribution of the Movie legacy to film criticism. The new Movie's continuity with its former self is readily seen in the way this ethos marks every piece in the new issue. For example, with the help of detailed attention to moments and texture, James MacDowell's essay develops the notion of a "quirky sensibility" found in many recent American movies. Kate Leadbetter's article contrasts the lead female characters of three Fassbinder films (The Marriage of Maria Braun, Veronika Voss, Lola) in terms of physicality (movement and gesture) of the performances -- again with an intent focus on the moment-to-moment execution of those performances, aided by framegrabs. Lucy Fife Donaldson picks up the thread of a Movie round-table discussion from a 30-year-old issue, and weaves it into an argument about the way form and style function in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The rest of the issue features similarly substantive and satisfying film criticism. I eagerly await the issues to come.
I'd like to take this opportunity to consider a larger topic: the history and impact of British film criticism. Narratives of film criticism have all too often privileged the French (the storied Cahiers du Cinema) or the Americans (the Sarris-Kael debates; the rediscovery and celebration of Manny Farber) but no such attention, adulation or myth-making has been visited upon the British. (I wonder why.) If, in the '60s, Sight & Sound and Movie represented two separate and distinct strands of British film criticism, it is the latter, I think, that has stood the test of time, remained the fresher, the more useful and substantive. This is particularly unusual given that a sizable portion of Movie criticism of the '60s focused on films from an earlier (studio) era of Hollywood. I suspect it's because Movie's critical principles, irrespective of writer or film, always dictated a detailed critical attention, an attempt to take hold of and fully account for form and style, connecting them to interpretation. The need for these principles is felt every bit as urgently in film criticism today as it was 50 years ago. (The key recent book-length work which demonstrates these principles at work, and features many Movie and Movie-influenced writers, is "Style and Meaning: Studies in the Detailed Analysis of Film" (2005) edited by John Gibbs and Douglas Pye. It is a model work of close-analysis film criticism and interpretation.)
The influence and impact of Movie's early polemics can be seen even as recently as this week -- in Sight & Sound editor Nick James' online-only piece. He points to the end of the Miramax era, the drying up of support and funding for prestige, middlebrow, "quality" films (by "quality" he means the visibility of money and "good taste" on the screen). Films like Shakespeare in Love and The English Patient, which marked the apex of the Miramax era, were nothing more than recent equivalents of prestige fare like The Bridge on the River Kwai, championed by Sight & Sound in the 50s. In James' editorial, he positions the magazine against such a quality, middlebrow cinema and for a more personal and "poorer" cinema less worried about respectability. His call echoes that of V.F. Perkins in the early '60s in his essay on British cinema. (Please see this earlier post on Movie and British cinema.)
There is another aspect of the new Movie that interests me: the passage of time since its founding, and the institutionalization of film studies in the interim. In the early days of Movie, film studies didn't exist as a discipline, but in the '70s, many of its writers, like Robin Wood and V.F. Perkins, had begun working, part-time or full-time, in academe. However, in that post-'68 heyday of "Screen Theory," their work found itself in the margins of the discipline. And so, I wonder: To what extent has the new Movie been influenced by developments in the film studies discipline since? And in what ways is it providing an alternative, a corrective, to the predominant streams and methods of scholarship in film/media studies today?
Your thoughts on Movie old and new, British film criticism, and any related subjects? I'd love to hear them.
pic: Ian Cameron, 1937-2010, a founder of Movie. The Guardian obituary is by Charles Barr.