Beyond the Subtitle: Remapping European Art Cinema.
Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2009
(Review copy supplied by University of Minnesota Press
This book aptly starts with Susan Sontag and cinephilia, but any danger of retro wallowing in nostalgia is dispelled by p. 3: “What is dead…is…European art cinema as an intellectual, even viably commercial force on contemporary American and British screens.” The achievement of Mark Betz is to resuscitate the undead, to explore new aspects of postwar French and Italian cinema in particular, while also broaching topics that are all too infrequently deemed worthy of extended attention. Titles of the book’s four sections give some idea of the disparate ground covered: “Recovering European Art Cinema”, “The Name above the Subtitle”, “Wandering Women”, and “Exquisite Corpses” (subtitled: “Art Cinema, Film Studies, and the Omnibus Film”). How many omnibus films, anywhere, come to mind? In an appendix covering the years 1930-2007, an incredible 747 are listed here. They alone must challenge notions of the “auteur”, part of our arsenal of stereotypes in thinking of 60s and 70s European cinema. In the course of letting this book soak in I happened to watch Tickets(Olmi/Kiarostami/Loach 2005), which alone would vindicate Betz’s attention to this neglected corpus. Issues like subtitling vs. dubbing in chapter 2 are taken far beyond formal discussions, and a reminder of multi-language version films is welcome, as (with an eye to current Brussels funding criteria and DVD options) they were far from just a historical oddity. All these questions extend the challenge that omnibus films and coproductions pose to the notion of an auteur. “Coproductions are a problem for national cinema, and that problem is connected up with Americanization and cultural imperialism” (p. 66). Betz’s compilation of omnibus films is followed by the most elaborately documented endnotes imaginable, with references that include out-of-print materials and others not widely accessible. Throughout the book, film stills (and other visuals) add to the narrative, rather than duplicating it.
One of the richest subsections pursues “The Place of Flanerie” (p. 131ff.), which exemplifies the book. A number of recent studies of cinema and the city are enriched by the treatment here of genre, performance and casting issues, and a director like Antonioni is thrown back into a very contemporary spotlight. The author’s approach celebrates flanerie, while never pretending to offer panoramic coverage. That leads to productive rethinking of one’s own starting points, never to discounting the author’s. The dominant French and Italian sources do not always sit easily alongside German or Spanish counter-examples that come to mind. The book’s title may well have pointed to transnational tendencies in European cinemas, but Italo-Albanian, Turkish-German, and beur cinema encounters await a different book, as does the soundtrack within European Art Cinema (there is scant mention of one of the most productive thinkers about world cinema radiating out from European Cinema, Michel Chion). The flâneur reflects the book’s underpinnings in theory, Benjamin, not Bhabha. The author offers a refreshing return to a history and sociology of film, unfashionable though this may be, while in no sense duplicating the work of Pierre Sorlin. Theoretical discourses such as postcolonialism are not absent, but they supplement scrupulous historical contextualization in bolstering close analyses, rather than the other way round. The combination makes all the more revealing analyses of films which by now are far removed from their contemporary settings.
The parameters signalled by Betz are always suggestive, not exclusive. “A guiding premise of this book”, he writes, is “that European art cinema, déclassé in Anglo-American academic film studies almost from its inception, is nevertheless inscribed within the discipline as trace” (p. 187). This claim is intriguing to contemplate from the vantage point of Australian film studies, among others. Picnic at Hanging Rock (Australia 1975), Paul Cox, and the odd parody of European models might come to mind as a local art cinema, but probably not too much else. Godard will not be forgotten as long as Adrian Martin is around, but altogether, European art cinema is not a primary point of reference. Betz’s book requires us to return to films now more familiar via secondary literature than via recent screenings, and to view them through different lenses. The insights gained apply to film studies areas going far beyond European art cinema.
Dear reader, read it.
Australian National University, Canberra.
Created on: Saturday, 19 December 2009