From the Outside

I am flattered to participate in this event with a panel of energetic film scholars, all still teaching and publishing in their respective, tertiary education systems. This October 2016 will mark four years since I taught in any university context, so please regard my contribution as coming to some extent from outside the institution of film-media studies as it is currently, internationally, constituted. All I mean by this is that my situation places me outside the established academic realm in which film/media scholars busily keep up to date with the most recent book publications and articles in appropriate journals, and (as in Dana Polan’s case) also regularly read and assess manuscripts for publication by various international university presses.

Another way of characterising my context is to recall an anecdote Meaghan Morris once related, dating from 25 or 30 years ago when she was trying to interest Japanese presses in translating some then-recent work by Michel Foucault, only to be told: “Foucault? No! Boom over”. So, whether we exist inside or outside publishers’ opinions on booms, we need to address the issues flagged by this symposium – which I will now do in a somewhat schematic and anecdotalising manner.

When thinking about the suggested topics for discussion, I remembered the concept of the paradigm. By this I mean to recall the fact that, apart from a couple of articles on Harold Pinter’s screenplays, my first two published articles on film – each of which appeared in Framework, guided there by Paul Willemen’s help – were on Sunday Too Far Away (1975) and Five Easy Pieces (1970). At that time much of my teaching and research was dominated by a re-emergent Marxism (New Left Review, New German Critique, New Left Books), semiotics of narrative, Godard-Gorin’s Dziga Vertov period, and the lure of Brechtianism as found in European film and in English TV drama. This bled into the form of analysis I practiced in my writing on these films, a “more Brechtian than thou” critique of two films I had hugely enjoyed watching many times, and two films which had absolutely no interest in trying to be Brechtian.

As I put forward my arguments about class, character and narrative representation, you would have no idea that I was totally won over by those films. Instead, I was applying Fredric Jameson’s great observation that the primary function of the work of art in the age of commodity production was not to be pleasurable, but to be unpleasurable in the commodity sense. This was also the period of Althusserian reading for gaps and contradictions, readily adopting the slogan that, since there was no such thing as an innocent reading, one should say what reading one was guilty of.

Metzian and other accounts of semiology/semiotics had worked their way into such US and UK film journals as Screen, Film Form, Jump Cut, Movie and Film Quarterly, not always positively embraced. Jump Cut published a photograph taken in Athens that displayed Syntagma Square. Jump Cut also published Julia Lesage’s Barthesian, S/Z-inspired analysis of La Règle du jeu, thereby transporting and reapplying a paradigm that was meant to be a non-emulable, one-off analytical performance. And it was Film Quarterly’s Ernest Callenbach who declined an article sent their way by a young Dugald Williamson (who had studied for a couple of years with the Metz seminar in Paris, in the course of which his doctoral dissertation topic moved from being on French poetic realism to become on theories of realism) by offering a haiku rejection: “What paradigm/in this time/is worth a dime?” Boom over.

I am not sure if this somewhat austere moment of semiotics, European Marxism and Brechtianism directly led to the embrace of the concept of pleasure as critics followed Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text, through to journal collections like Formations of Pleasure, but it might have had some influence. On this last point, I always remember Mick Counihan’s remark, made to a young Adrian Martin at a film conference held at Griffith University: “There are a lot of things you can say about a film before you bother to say whether you like it or not.”

Certainly, there is no escaping “paradigm preferences” as manifested in essay collections or special issues of journals or, especially, established journals. Nor should there necessarily be. But something was seriously awry in the streets of Soho when a young Ian Hunter’s critique of Kari Hanet’s Screen article on Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor (or Corridor Shock as the initial translation of Deleuze’s Movement-Image had it) was rejected, and when a youngish John Frow offered his book Marxism and History to New Left Books. Their editorial committee performed some kind of agonistic on itself before declining the manuscript which Frow then sent on to the best academic university press in the world, Harvard University Press, who accepted it.

On 6-8 July 2016 I attended a wonderful conference on “Philippine Studies”, held at Siliman University in Dumaguete City, Negros Oriental – these conferences are held every four years, and the next one is in Alicante/Alacant, Spain. Among the film/media sessions I attended, there was no way of missing the strongly comparative-historical perspective applied to various texts and topics – whether it involved Robert Diaz’s “Teleserye Realness: Global Mediascapes and Queer Filipino/a Lives”, which historicised queer theory while applying it to Philippine film, music and TV; or whether it was a paper by Joyce L. Arriola on “The Woman’s Film and the Prevalent Type of Filipino Cinematic Adaptation in the 1950s”. In each case, local scholars indicated their familiarity with major US and UK writing on queer theory and melodrama while bringing it into dialogue with their chosen Tagalog texts. And the presentations made by US-based Filipino and Filipina academics (there are almost 3,000,000 Filipinos in the US, easily Filipinos’ first choice as country of emigration) all indicated that, after the conference, they would be heading up to Manila to scour available archives and newspaper/journal records to complement whatever research findings had emanated from their research already undertaken in US archives and libraries. As you might imagine, it’s hugely interesting to see bodies of theoretical knowledge with which one is very familiar placed alongside what one experiences as new national film-media objects.

Listening to some of the comments from fellow presenters discussing different understandings of what constitutes a screen – TV, smart phone, computer – prompted me to recall Jon Stewart’s great gag when he was hosting the Academy Awards in 2008. He walked out onto stage after an ad break, pretending to be engrossed by his smart phone screen, then pretending to be surprised to find himself in front of an audience, before offering, by way of explanation: “I was just watching Lawrence of Arabia.” It has to be said that not everyone in the celebrity audience got the joke.

To stay with broad notions of history and archive, and even though we inhabit the era of Netflix, streaming, various kinds of platforms, I find I am loving the continuing DVD – remember, a dying medium – releases from the rather expensive Criterion, and the less expensive Eureka! (Masters of Cinema series) and Olive Films. As these brands fight against one another for market share one finds that, say, Eureka! has uncovered a-previously-thought-forever-lost 17 minute interview from the BBC with some writer-director, and so this becomes one of their exclusive DVD extras, distinguishing their DVD product from Criterion’s for the same Douglas Sirk or Rainer Werner Fassbinder film. Olive Films recent re-release of Woman on the Run, a terrific 75 minute film from 1950 starring Anne Sheridan, who also produced it – was made possible by UCLA Film Restoration, had input from the BBC, and also was assisted by Eddie Muller’s San Francisco-based Film Noir Foundation with its annual everybody-dress-up screenings at San Francisco’s old-style “cinema palace”, the Castro Cinema, money from which event assists preservation and recirculation of films noirs. A different recent Olive Films DVD release, of another 1950 film (Dana Polan has told us that he occasionally teaches film courses concentrating on a single year – 1939, 1967, etc – so perhaps he should look at 1950), Cy Endfield’s Come and Get Me (aka The Sound of Fury). Michael Atkinson’s July 2016 Sight & Sound review of that DVD tells us its production was made possible by Martin Scorsese lending his copy of possibly the only surviving print of that film to the DVD producers. And everybody here would remember how, eighty years or so after its initial release in 1927, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was given a new textual life when lost reels were discovered in the New Zealand Film Archive and in Argentina. These reels were generously sent back to Germany to assist a reconstruction of the film, which new textual entity then made the rounds of film festivals, was re-released on DVD, and duly generated updated, film-historical scholarship on that film.

So those two things – the south-east Asian/Philippine links to US/UK/European film scholarship articulated across Tagalog film-media traditions based on a kind of comparative literature model; and those continuing archival discoveries and restorations associated with places like UCLA and Bologna’s Cinema Ritrovato film festival – suggest that a rigorous film historical perspective will persist in whatever distinctive national configuration of film-media studies comes forth in Australia, Europe, Asia, the UK and the US. And some of those re-presented DVDs, like In a Lonely Place and Border Incident, will have commentaries from Dana Polan (and a question one might ask Dana is what main differences were involved in revisiting his 1993 BFI Classic on another film from 1950, Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place, in order to devise his 2016 film critical commentary for the Criterion DVD, a commentary praised in a recent Sight and Sound review of the DVD).

I recently bought William Paul’s book, When Movies Were Theater: Architecture, Exhibition and the Evolution of American Film (Columbia Univ. Press, 2016), having for several years set as a film studies tutorial reading a terrific essay of his from Film History journal, “The K-mart Audience at the Mall Movies,” on the moment of the “twinning” of film screens, and what followed from this development in film exhibition practice. FN Seeing his book reminded me of how this form of historical research also continues, with Robert Allen’s impressive work in this field, the publication of a book on Filipino film architecture and cinemas from early cinema to the late C20th, and ongoing Australian studies of different state’s regions of movie-going. So I will end by aligning this area of research with a long-held interest of mine in what I have dubbed literary cinephilia.

Several years ago in London I was having lunch in a subterranean Japanese restaurant in Soho with the late Paul Willemen and his wife Roma Gibson, and I floated my interest in this idea of literary cinephilia. I knew Paul was a fan of Perry Anderson’s 1968 essay, “Components of the National Culture”, in which Anderson said that England lacked a strong history of significant sociological work because in UK culture that role had been replaced by Leavisite literary criticism. I also knew that Paul liked a Tom Nairn essay, “The English Literary Intelligentsia”, that appeared in a collection edited by Emma Tenant called Bananas. Inevitably, Paul asked, “Why literary?” and I replied, “Because they write better!” It drew the sceptical smile I was expecting, and I continue haphazardly researching in this area.

We all know the origins of the distinctively film-critical writing on cinephilia, and the way it has continued in publications from the University of Amsterdam and elsewhere, to assess how plausibly this term persists in an age of digital cinema. In 2015, I co-edited with Mathew Asprey Gear a special issue of the magazine Contrappasso (Italian for “counter-punch”) called “Writers at the Movies”, and this allowed us to reprint many of my serendipitous discoveries, such as gay Filipino poet-novelist Zac Linmark’s poem on Sirk’s Written on the Wind (Linmark has since written another wonderful poem on All That Heaven Allows, so maybe a Sirk-Fassbinder-Todd Haynes poem-cycle looms) alongside references to texts like Victor Burgin’s The Remembered Film, Stephen Barber’s The Abandoned Image, Víctor Erice’s wonderful 34 minute film La Morte Rouge (2006), and writing by David Malouf, Juan Goytisolo, Iain Sinclair, Geoff Dyer, Marc Augé, Italo Calvino and many others.

On this topic of movie-going and memory, George Kouvaros has a lovely essay, “Oi Kaymeni”, in which he explores the circumstances of his mother’s encounter, in Cyprus aged 16 or 17, with US cinema in the form of a screening of A Place in the Sun. [1] [1] George refers to the same Augé and Calvino texts that interested me. Calvino was watching films that would have been dubbed (standard Italian practice then) and often censored because of Catholicism or Fascism. I am not sure what George’s mother would have been watching in that regard, but perhaps the trace of the English colonial presence meant that some prints circulated with sub-titles, and she would have heard the real voices of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor rather than dubbed voices.

As George’s essay explores questions of cinema, migration, marriage, love and loss, it touches on what I am tempted to call “unperformed lives”, given that the people in question carried such strong feelings of familial obligation, over any desire for personal advancement that might have allowed or explained more self-interested pursuits. George’s Greek title translates as “The Burnt Ones”. That is also the title of a 1964 Patrick White collection of short stories where the meaning is rendered both as “the burnt ones” and “the poor unfortunates”. We know of White’s life-long relationship with Manoly Lascaris, so I am now, in a voluntarist manner, going to recruit George’s current research to my infinitely absorptive category of literary cinephilia.

[1] George Kouvaros, “Oi Kaymeni (The Burnt Ones)”, Southerly, Vol. 75 No. 1 (2015), pp. 74-88.

Texts Cited

Antoine de Baecque and Christian-Marc Bosséno, “Constructing the Gaze: An Interview with Jean Douchet,” trans. Timothy Barnard  Framework : The Journal of Cinema and Media 42 (2000), available at:
Scott Balcerzak & Jason Sperb (eds), Cinephilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction Volume 1: Film, Pleasure, and Digital Culture (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2009)
Scott Balcerzak & Jason Sperb (eds), Cinephilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction Volume 2: Film, Pleasure, and Digital Culture (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2009)
Christian Keathley, Cinephilia and History, or The Wind in the Trees (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana Univ. Press, 2005)
Gerard Lico, PA(ng)LABAS: Architecture and Cinema: Projections of Filipino Space in Film (Manila: National Commission for Culture and the Arts, 2009)
Jacques Rancière, “The Gaps of Cinema,” Necsus: European Journal of Media Studies (Spring 2012), available at:
Rashna Wadia Richards, Cinematic Flashes: Cinephilia and Classical Hollywood (Bloomington, Inidana: Indiana Univ. Press, 2013)
Jonathan Rosenbaum, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia (Chicago: Univ. Of Chicago Press, 2010)
Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin, Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia (London: BFI, 2008)
Marijke de Valck and Malte Hagener (eds), Cinephilia: Movies, Love and Memory (Amsterdam: Amsterdam Univ. Press, 2014)

About the Author

Noel King

About the Author

Noel King

Noel King is an independent film scholar who taught film and literary-cultural criticism in the Department of Media, Music, Communication and Cultural Studies at Macquarie University, NSW, Australia. He is the co-editor of several books including Australian Film Theory and Criticism Vol. 1: Critical Postions, Australian Film Theory and Criticim Vol. 2: Interviews, and The Last Great American Picture Show: New Hollywood Cinema in the 1970s.View all posts by Noel King →