Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia

Jonathan Rosenbaum & Adrian Martin (eds.)
Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia.
London: BFI, 2003.
ISBN: 0 85170 984 2 (pb) £15.99
ISBN: 0 85170 983 4 (hb) £48.00
(Review copy supplied by BFI Publishing)

First of all, take hold of this book by the two handles Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin give us in the title: movie mutations and world cinephilia. What’s a movie mutation? What do they mean by world cinephilia?

Most of the movie mutations identified appear in the first chapter, “Movie Mutations: letters from (and to) some children of 1960”, a 1997 exchange of letters between Jonathan Rosenbaum, Adrian Martin, Kent Jones, Alexander Horwath, Nicole Brenez and Raymond Bellour. Those that follow are the Movie Mutations I noticed amidst a swirl of ideas, movie references, badinage, theories, responses and rebuttals-there may be others I missed. Early on, Adrian Martin points out two of the most important Movie Mutations (certainly for this book): technological changes affecting cinema, such as the rise of digital cinema, and the changing map of world cinema, championing Iranian and Taiwanese cinema. An implicit movie mutation I must add here is the alteration in the ways in which we primarily experience cinema now: via TV, videos and DVDs, rather than in a darkened auditorium with a glowing, immense screen. Alexander Horwath, the director of the Austrian Film Museum, points out that changing ideologies of film subsidy, in Europe and elsewhere, represent another movie mutation. Jonathan Rosenbaum and Nicole Brenez both identify movie mutations in film criticism and cinephilia, as cinephilia itself has to find ways to respond to a changing cinema. The “changing face” of the title refers just as much to world cinema as it does to world cinephilia.

I struggle with the concept of cinephilia, and don’t think of myself as a cinephile, as I don’t know what that would mean or require, or if it is necessary. To appropriate Groucho Marx’s joke, I’m not sure it’s a club I’d like to join, even if the current members would admit me. I was greatly relieved to see, in “Movie mutations 2: second round”, another collection of letters that concludes the book, this time written between 2001 and 2002, that the Argentinian film writer Quintín also outs himself as a probable non-cinephile. I was surprised, on first reading Movie Mutations early this year, that none of the contributors devotes time and space to fleshing out what they mean by cinephilia. Adrian Martin comes closest to giving me something I can understand and accept when he explains how he tries to write “love letters to the cinema, if we remember to include in our working definition of love every kind of passion and need and exasperation and exacting, critical demand” (5).

Movie Mutations is an exhilarating, exhausting read, infused with the contributors’ passionate commitment to-alright then, love for-both the actualities and the as-yet unrealised possibilities of cinema in the world. As noted above, the contributions are book-ended by two collections of letters. Fittingly, Jonathan Rosenbaum’s and Adrian Martin’s Preface is set up as a back-and-forth dialogue “between Melbourne and Chicago”. They explain the origin of the Movie Mutations project as Rosenbaum’s desire to understand the connections between the film interests and tastes of Martin in Melbourne, Kent Jones in New York, Alexander Horwath in Vienna and Nicole Brenez in Paris. This project, after the initial publication of the letters in Trafic in 1997 and Film Quarterly in 1998, grew into a book as a way to explore the possibilities of international exchanges and collaborations in the realm of cinema; a recognition of common interests spanning national and linguistic boundaries.

I found myself wondering at various points who is the imagined audience for Movie Mutations. Is it aimed at cinema studies academia? A generalist audience of self-professed or reluctant cinephiles? Both? At times, the flavour of “us” and “them”, a concern Jonathan Rosenbaum, in particular, addresses in his discussion of the wildly varying responses to Jafar Panahi’s The Circle (Iran 2000), creeps into Movie Mutations as a whole. To be honest, though, that observation reveals more about me as a reader of Movie Mutations than it does about any of the contributors, singly or collectively. It is dangerous to speculate about motivation and intent, tempting though it may be. Should I feel bad that my familiarity with the films of Tsai Ming-liang, Yasuzo Masumura, Abbas Kiarostami, John Cassavetes, is nowhere near that of the contributors to Movie Mutations? Surely they would prefer that after reading Movie Mutations, one feels inspired to access, whenever and wherever possible, the work of the broadest possible range of film-makers? I do know that ignorance and small-mindedness is never anything of which to be proud. I bear in mind the wisdom contained in Raymond Bellour’s contribution to the first exchange of letters. We can no longer believe-if we ever did-that we “know” the whole of cinema. It’s too vast.

One contribution, “The future of academic film study”, an exchange between Adrian Martin and James Naremore, takes up the issue of film study within and without the academy. It offers a useful reminder of being aware of the specificities of your own time and place, and supports Movie Mutation’s thesis of the benefits of information exchange and dialogue across national borders. Adrian Martin paints quite a bleak portrait of cinema studies academia, arguing it is largely concerned with “a safe consolidation of what is known, a certain kind of consensus” (123). James Naremore expresses more optimism, noting the “historiographical turn” and the influence of the Frankfurt school of critical theory in cinema studies as positive. The conversation moves from unpacking Manny Farber’s dismissal of evaluation in his critical work to concluding that a “certain amount of old-fashioned canon building” (131) is still required.

David Ehrenstein’s review of Movie Mutations in Screening the Past 16 firstly identifies, then questions, the book’s strategy of adding a few more figures (Abbas Kiarostami, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang) to the pantheon of auteur greatness. In Senses of Cinema 32, Benjamin Halligan appreciates the book’s timeliness, but shares Ehrenstein’s concern about the benefits of an approach that seeks to expand the cinematic canon, not challenge it.

I don’t read Movie Mutations as a prescriptive text. It’s a book to dip into from time to time to find what nourishes and provokes, disregarding those aspects (cinephilia, perchance) I have no current use for. What is of most value to me is the sense conveyed by its contributors of openness; a willingness to articulate one’s approach to cinema and to writing and thinking about cinema. Adrian Martin, writing about criticism, sees it operating as “a message in a bottle: you throw it out, it bobs around on the waves, you have no idea where it will land, who will read it, or what they will make of it” (129). Movie Mutations will, I think, make it to shore.

Mas Generis,
Melbourne, Australia.

Created on: Monday, 6 December 2004 | Last Updated: 7-Dec-04

About the Author

Mas Generis

About the Author

Mas Generis

Mas Generis lives in Melbourne where she reads library books and goes to the movies.View all posts by Mas Generis →