Post-Classical Cinema: An International Poetics of Film Narration.
London: Wallflower Press, 2009.
Review copy supplied by Wallflower Press.
Eleftheria Thanouli opens her book with an apology for its subject and a rather decisive statement: “In some ways it is easier to observe the peculiarities of a German silent film from the 1910s than the novelties of an American blockbuster from the new millennium” (1). Thus begins her comprehensive effort to refresh academic considerations of contemporary post-classical cinema. The book anchors its analysis in David Bordwell’s infamous rejection of the label ‘post-modernism’ and attempts to rethink his conservative theoretical approach to contemporary cinema. In its scholarly reworkings, Post-Classical Cinema provides analysis through some archetypal cinematic examples including Fight Club (USA 1999), Run Lola Run (Germany 1998), Amélie (France 2001), Moulin Rouge! (USA 2001), City of God (Brazil 2002) and Chungking Express (Hong Kong 1994). These films have been selected, Thanouli explains, because they supposedly represent a culmination in the post-classical. She writes that “a paradigm shift is a gradual process … whatever ‘began to change’ in the 1970s could have reached a full growth from the 1990s onwards” (27). Refreshed analysis of these films—through the intrepid use of “Bordwell’s very own weapons” (26) – is used to determine the existence of the post-classical and to define its effect. Thus, the book does not negate Bordwell’s theory per se, instead attempting to reinvigorate it.
To counter Bordwell’s negation of post-modernism and post-classicism (since, for him, film classicism has never really ended, most new stylistic tricks functioning as more embroidery or affectation), Thanouli presents a rigorous literature review and dissects the classical notions of story, causality, space and temporality. Although, in her analysis, Thanouli refuses to use the term post-modernism (suggesting that it “can have blinding effects both for those who prefer to use it and those who have sworn against it, with Bordwell the most typical victim” ), post-classicism still possesses the usual tropes of post-modernism in what she terms its hyper-real tendencies. Here filmic techniques coalesce to incite some tangible experience for the spectator, not unobtrusive as in the classical style, but up-front in its effects and display of techniques.
Thanouli describes how the properties of post-classical film work to push the boundaries of Bordwell’s notions of classical narrative and aesthetics. For example, she adopts Bordwell’s notion of space and his concept of ‘intensified continuity’ – where cutting is fast, action is covered from multiple angles, there is ample use of filters, focus effects, etc – but views such techniques to be a positive, rather than a negative, of post-classicism: “The post-classical spatial system, in fact, proceeds with a much more radical transformation [than intensified continuity] by shifting the emphasis from the photographic to the graphic qualities of the cinematic image” (75). In a similar sense, temporality is described as hyper-real, stretching the limits of Bordwell’s contention of a clear, centred, unambiguous, coherent and unprovoking backdrop for the action. See, for example, her use of Run Lola Run to describe its embrace of “ a far richer structure of temporality that can no longer be regarded as a mere ‘vehicle for causality’.” (118). In sum, Thanouli describes the post-classical as offering “numerous possibilities of the storytelling act” (139).
Aside from the rather odd appropriation of Bordwell’s (largely disregarded) rejection of post-modernism, the fairly mundane choice of films for analysis is Thanouli’s greatest failing. If, as she suggests, the post-classical offers an enriched capacity for storytelling, one could surely suggest a group of films outside the usual considerations of mainstream film studies. Likewise, the contention that post-classicism will have reached fruition by the 1990s is a rather unfounded adoption of evolutionary theory in cinematic expression (who ever said it takes twenty years for something to fully develop?), and the book is rather dry and repetitive in its reading of some well-worn films. In this light, her readings of post-classicism inadvertently raise the spectre of those films often left out of mainstream scholarly analysis.
Post-classicism as a heuristic notion would have been better served by analyses of its true beginnings: in B cinema. Surely directors like Larry Cohen, David Cronenberg, Dario Argento or Toshiya Fujita offer as much in the way of post-classicism and present (in the author’s own words) “a hypermediated space that defies notions of classical realism both in terms of the pro-filmic image (settings) and filmic (editing) effects … [films which] constantly acknowledge their constructed nature and, yet, do not abandon their narrative strength” (90). Friedkin, maker of The Exorcist (USA 1973), Rampage (USA 1987) and the delightful Bug (USA 2006) is one such director who exists at the edge of mainstream cinema; his work offers a solid case for theories of the post-classical and can, in turn, counter Bordwell’s attack on the post-modern, in line with Elsaesser’s argument (glossed on page 24) of the theory of excessive classicism (Bug in particular conforms to these possibilities). I wonder how much the author’s selection of films was influenced by a general cultural ambience of so-called ‘quality’ mainsteam-arthouse cinema.
Post-Classical Cinema largely achieves its stated aim of reinvigorating a certain tradition within film studies. But, on the downside, it offers no more insight into the fluidity of contemporary cinema than many similar theory-driven analyses, leaving to one side a sad trail of cinematic diversity.