Talking Movies: Contemporary World Filmmakers in Interview

Jason Wood,
Talking Movies: Contemporary World Filmmakers in Interview.
London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2006.
ISBN-13: 978-1904764908
US$25.00 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Wallflower Press)

Like other interview-based compendiums released in the last two decades, Jason Wood’s anthology Talking Movies, is perhaps most usefully understood within a context of ‘post-auteurism’, a theory only just coming to prominence. The way in which the renunciation of authorship precipitated by Barthes’ famous ‘Death of the Author’ essay (1968) became cause for consternation among the ranks of feminist, non-white and queer filmmakers and thinkers (to mention a few), has been well documented. While welcoming the passing of the trans-historical ‘author’, artists and academics working from the margins have equally lamented the loss of the subject (and the subject’s political voice) at the very historical moment of their emergence. Wood’s book, which is steadfast in its commitment to the authorial agency of each of it subjects, makes significant moves toward redressing this problem.

Pam Cook’s most recent thinking on auteurism directly addresses this shortfall in film theory and might be considered a prudent acknowledgement of the need to account for the persistence of authorship in contemporary cinema more generally. In The Cinema Book (2007), she writes that:

Authorship in cinema is alive and well, thriving in many locations. While film theory and criticism continue to worry away at its cultural, institutional and ideological impact, they also endlessly find ways to reinvent it. Meanwhile, as has always been the case, the film industries and wider film cultures unashamedly use the notion of individual authorship and its associated pleasures to captivate readers and viewers (Cook, p. 479).

Cook’s proposition isn’t unique in its attempt to re-define the limits and continuing necessity of a theory of authorship, as many individual essays, chapters and indeed edited volumes can attest.[1] While her most recent theorising seeks to coalesce a series of fragmentary concepts under the aegis of post-auteurism, it might be observed that historically, such concepts have, almost by default, structured the conditions of reception within which work produced by marginal filmmakers have been understood. In other words, elements of a post-auteurist hermeneutic have frequently structured the reception and criticism of the marginal or art film in the wake of the ‘Death of the Author’.

Wood’s anthology is no exception to this tradition and his volume assumes the theoretical coordinates of a post-auteurist critique, though never explicitly stating them. The principle axiom of a post-auteurist critique is historical contextualisation. It is a necessarily contingent analysis that begins from the specificities of each filmmaker and their practice, its critique is characterised by a “radical pluralism” and no single approach is identified as singularly “correct”, (p. 479) making each analysis idiosyncratic.

From his ten years of interviewing, Talking Movies only represents a fraction of Wood’s material. In his brief introductory comments, he lays out his rationale for the selections he has made. Most important was that the work of each filmmaker be defined by a “singular or unique vision”, a vision that has culminated in a “significant contribution” to filmmaking culture (p. 1). Geographic and ethnic diversity were considered in order that the reader get a sense of how “filmmaking and aesthetics differ according to social, political and cultural environments” (p. 1). And finally, a desire to avoid “star directors” led Wood to favour those who would not generally attract the attention of the mainstream, due either to these geographic and ethnic differences or because of the ideas explored in their films (p. 1).

The interviews collected in Talking Movies do not fail to deliver on any of these accounts. Woods seeks to understand each of his directors’ distinct approach to, and use of, the language of the cinema, a curiosity that is rewarded by the most wonderful revelations. One of many such interesting disclosures concerns Alejandro González Iñárritu’s (Amores perros, 2000; 21 Grams, 2003; Babel, 2006) decision to film 21 Grams in America. High among Iñárritu’s motives for relocation was the not insignificant threat of kidnapping he faced in Mexico. The success of his debut feature Amores perros had disseminated a false impression of his affluence, posing such a threat to him and his family that his ability to continue filmmaking in Mexico was significantly compromised. Such disclosures, often in pragmatic and unromantic ways, ground the rationale for creative decisions firmly within a socio-political context providing, in this particular example, a richer understanding of the many diverse factors involved in diasporic filmmaking.

The first interview of the volume, one conducted with Susanne Bier in 2002, raises a cluster of concerns that will appear in almost every dialogue that follows. Bier is a Danish filmmaker who first courted international acclaim with her film Open Hearts (Denmark 2002); the film, produced under Dogme regulations, is a stark examination of familial breakdown. Woods directs many of his questions towards Bier’s experience of working within the parameters of the Dogme manifesto and the impact on the filmmaking process. The goal of Dogme adherents is the art of ‘pure’ filmmaking. Practitioners refuse special effects, both during and in post-production; they avoid other ‘inauthentic’ affects such as costumes that are not the actors own, props that are not naturally present, temporal or geographical affectation and, the use of non-diegetic lighting and sound. Though these impositions are specific to Dogme filmmaking, the issues of in-authenticity they are implemented to circumvent are recurring points of concern among almost all of the other filmmakers included in this volume. Time and time again the dialogue turns to topics such as the function of sound, the merits of diegetic versus non-diegetic and the impact of such choices on filmic authenticity. Many of the directors lament, either directly or indirectly, the lazy approach to scoring that characterises much contemporary filmmaking. Lodge Kerrison (Claire Dolan, 1998; Keane, 2005), for example, speaks of a “band-aid” approach to the score, noting that music can provide an emotional “crutch” in the absence of real emotion, which should rightly emanate from an effective combination of script, performance and direction (p. 143). Similarly, Elia Suleiman (Chronicle of a Disappearance, 1996; Divine Intervention, 2002) emphasizes the degree of consideration necessary in the score/image interaction, lambasting those films that he feels utilise the score to mask a fundamental lack within the image (p. 221).

In each interview Woods seeks to elicit as broad a picture of the filmmaker’s cultural and socio-political context as possible; his aim always seeming to be the marriage of these details with ‘personal vision’ and an understanding of the way in which these factors manifest in film form. Such definitive association between cultural context and the formal and thematic properties of film sets Wood’s analyses quite apart from the often bland and unengaging ‘auteur critique’ trotted out by the mainstream Hollywood punditry. Woods possesses a singular talent for extracting anecdotal evidence of directors’ thematic preoccupations, and his consistent application of this talent is illuminating. It is precisely this skill that makes his collection of interviews – a volume that one might normally pick up and put down rather than read cover-to-cover – utterly compelling. A noteworthy example is found in his dialogue with Guillermo del Toro (The Devils Backbone, 2001; Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006), who recounts the details of a gruesome car crash he and his family witnessed when he was very young. Appropriately enough, this information is imparted in a manner reminiscent of the way a cinematic flashback is often used to link seminal childhood events to the motivations of the present. The gory and unforgettable images of the accident, coupled with the fantastical and often horrific religious imagery of his culture, ensured del Toro’s “intimate relationship with death” from an early age (p. 30). Further questioning reveals the enduring impact of these early horrors as del Toro reveals that at all times his cinematography is seeking to replicate precisely this way of seeing – that of a child gazing upon the monstrous and the shocking; a tiptoeing curiosity, both compelled and horrified; the sense of ‘peeking’ from behind your mother’s legs.

Consistent with the motif of ‘pure’ or ‘authentic’ filmmaking is an oft-noted preference among the directors for working with non-actors. Asif Kapadia (The Sheep Thief, 1997; The Warrior, 2001) maintains that non-professional actors easily eclipse professional actors in their ability to economically convey truthful emotion. Though he doesn’t shy from using professional actors, Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter, 1997; Where the Truth Lies, 2005) is critical of the Hollywood star system and the way in which it produces “invulnerable” actors who are, ultimately “detached” from their emotions (p. 59). The putative vacuity of Hollywood hinted at by Egoyan is articulated more explicitly by the indomitable John Sayles (The Brother from Another Planet, 1984;Silver City, 2004). Sayles castigates Hollywood’s obstinate avoidance of content that is in any way topical or divisive. He describes the great lengths taken by many Hollywood executives to avoid content that is ‘inconvenient’ to the narrative and how, within his own practice, he takes great care not to ignore issues that would naturally present themselves in a given scenario. For Sayles, this particular approach to filmmaking sets him apart from what he sees as the politically detached realm of Hollywood. As an (almost) bookend to this collection of interviews, Sayles’ concerns coalesce thematically with Bier’s who, when asked her motivation for making a Dogme film commented, “[it] is a political act somehow because it is saying that movies, and then in a broader sense art, has to deal with your own world” (p. 8). Though Sayles and Bier are perhaps the most explicit about the extent to which their films are intended as artful manifestations of everyday life, it is an undeniable preoccupation for many of Wood’s subjects. A trend that leaves one in no doubt as to the kind of filmmaking Wood values above all others.

Though each of the filmmakers featured in Talking Movies undoubtedly possesses the kind of ‘personal vision’ that first prompted ‘auteurist’ study, Wood’s keen ability to critically contextualise this vision and facilitate a discussion of its transformation into cinematic language, makes it a fine example of post-auteurist literature. Talking Movies re-invigorates consideration of ‘authorial presence’ and leaves the reader with an overall impression of an often struggling, though always tenacious, global independent film culture.

Jasmine McGowan,
Melbourne University, Australia.

Works Cited

Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author [1968]. In Image, Music, Text edited by S. Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.
Pam Cook, The Cinema Book. 3rd ed. London: BFI, 2007.
Jason Wood, Talking Movies. London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2006.


[1] For more examples of ‘revised auteurism’ see Dudley, Andrew. 1993. The Unauthorized Auteur Today. In Film Theory Goes To The Movies. Edited by Jim Collins, Hilary Radner and Ava Preacher. London: Routledge; Gerstner, David and Janet Staiger, eds. 2003. Authorship and Film. New York and London: Routledge; Chion, Michel. 1995. David Lynch. London: BFI; Doty, Alexander. 1993. Whose Text is it Anyway? Queer Cultures, Queer Auteurs, and Queer Authorship. In Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press; Sconce, Jefferey. 2002. Irony, nihilism and the new American ‘smart’ film. In Screen 43 (4) Winter: 349-369; Cook, Pam. 2005. Fictions of Identity: Style, mimicry and gender in the films of Kathryn Bigelow. In Screening The Past. London, New York: Routledge; Wyatt, Justin. 1996. Economic constraints/economic opportunities: Robert Altman as auteur. In The Velvet Light Trap. 38 autumn: 51-67. Pencak, William. 2002. The Films of Derek Jarman. North Carolina: McFarland and Company; Morrison, James, ed. 2007. The Cinema of Todd Haynes. London and New York: Wallflower Press; Samuels, Robert. 1998. Hitchcock’s Bi-Texuality: Lacan, Feminisms, and Queer Theory. Albany: State University of New York Press; Tasker, Yvonne, ed. 2002. Fifty Contemporary Filmmakers. London and New York: Routledge.

Created on: Sunday, 18 April 2010

About the Author

Jasmin Mcgowan

About the Author

Jasmin Mcgowan

Jasmine McGowan is a PhD candidate in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. Her research interests include North American queer cinema and queer pornography. She is currently tutoring in the Gender Sexuality and Diversity studies program at LaTrobe University.View all posts by Jasmin Mcgowan →