A list of the best films you'll never see, A through K
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
Two literary voyages into film analysis inspire a reflection on critical practice
There are at least two intriguing recent trends reflected in the publications of Geoff Dyer’s Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room (Pantheon) and Adam Mars-Jones’s Noriko Smiling (Notting Hill Editions). Both are examples of a current vogue for book-length studies of masterpieces (Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Ozu’s Late Spring, respectively) and both are examples of film criticism practiced by nonprofessionals who, in this case, happen to be prestigious literary Brits. A couple of much older attitudes underlying the two books are a view of cinema as literature by other means and, conversely, a view of film analysis as a literary and linear pursuit.
It’s obvious that what links these two trends historically is the phenomenon of home viewing, which has in the last 30 years made every viewer a potential “expert.” Prior to VCRs and DVD players, the only tools available for studying films at length were 16mm projectors and moviolas, most often belonging only to “professionals” of one kind or another. But if we recall that “amateur” also means devotee, these books demonstrate how acts of devoted attention are now possible for everyone.
I hasten to add that my own definition of professionalism is existential, having nothing to do with whether one gets paid or handed a degree. Mars-Jones reviewed films for The Independent between 1986 and 1997, so calling him an amateur must sound impertinent. But he admits in his second sentence that he saw Late Spring for the first time in 2010: “I’d seen a couple of other Ozu films before it, perhaps a dozen Kurosawas, some in cinemas on first release, and a small handful of Mizoguchis.” Then he writes, “I can hardly be accused of being an expert on Japanese film,” and part of what I like about both Noriko Smiling and Zona is tied to periodic honest admissions of this kind, in refreshing contrast to the more common tendency to write with flourishes of bogus authoritativeness. (Generally speaking, fake confidence of this kind is quite common in British journalism, making the candor of Dyer and Mars-Jones even more exceptional.)
Dyer specializes in flaunting his own lack of expertise in whatever he chooses to write about—most memorably in But Beautiful (96), one of the best books about jazz ever written—and with both writers their amateur status, however problematical for readers who know more about their subjects than they do, is central to the spirit of adventure that infuses both their books. (I should confess that I’m only starting to get acquainted with Mars-Jones’s work while I’ve been reading Dyer with pleasure for years—although I should add that Noriko Smiling is by far the more successful and useful of the two books, at least as criticism.) This rebelliousness may help to account for why each writer has taken on a film that much of the Anglo-American mainstream would call arty and tedious, leading in each case to a passionate defense, albeit in Dyer’s case one that periodically and dialectically lapses into curt, irreverent one-liners. Sometimes Dyer is utterly serious about and in almost abject awe of Stalker, and sometimes he wants to make rude rejoinders about how slow it is, and this unseemly yet provocative seesawing often corresponds to his “professional” and “amateur” impulses and the different sorts of readers addressed by each of them.
The downside of this freewheeling is an embrace of critical casualness that borders on complacency, trafficking in common places that can make sense only to nonspecialists (such as the notion that David Thomson, a fearless amateur like them, is a formidable scholar-expert, to be trifled with at one’s peril—a position seemingly held without irony by both writers). The most irritating manifestation of this tendency may be Dyer’s “witty” insistence that if you remove color from Red Desert you’re “left with L’avventura,” and “Since we’re speaking about truth and how it feels, I feel honor bound to admit that L’avventura is the nearest I have ever come to pure cinematic agony.” I don’t begrudge anyone’s truth and honor, especially when they’re used as springboards for what Dyer actually likes about Stalker. But even so, I can’t help but protest the sort of essentialism that he knows will get instant applause from his most philistine readers. This is plainly and unabashedly an Anthony Lane moment (with many more to come), prompting me to counter that if you remove black and white from L’avventura, presumably what you’re left with is Red Desert. Worse still, if you remove the wisecracks from Zona, what you’re often left with is neither criticism nor autobiography but some sort of equivocation.
This trouble seems tied to Dyer’s confusion about whether his autobiographical impulses and his critical smarts are supposed to be mutually interactive, mutually estranged, or some meaningful combination of the two—an issue that figured even more in his Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence. I like it when Dyer confesses that he refused for a spell to revisit Stalker unless it was on projected film. But when he decided to upgrade his home-viewing system with digital projection, he “discovered” that Breathless, Belle de jour, and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie are all actually “pretty terrible” films. At least that’s what he asserts, but since he refuses to explain what he means by this, his critical smarts abruptly devolve into some sort of defiant solipsism—as with his disike of L’avventura, which seems predicated largely on having initially seen it alone in Paris on a tiny screen.
Dyer can cross-reference Tarkovsky with Wordsworth, Rilke, and old LSD trips, and this all seems perfectly valid. It’s only when he attempts to link his favorite film with cinematic touchstones for younger viewers and comes up with Pulp Fiction and Gummo that I feel he’s out of his element—and perhaps not even speaking about art at all at this point, but fashion.
Maybe this contrariness is part of his point. As he states at one point, he regards Stalker as a kind of existential test, much as the Zone’s Room functions within the film, and whether he flunks or passes this test is apt to shift from one page to the next. Insofar as the film was a test for me when I saw it for the first time, it was one I clearly flunked; indeed, I’ve rarely hated an art film more for its sheer mulish tenacity in deflating expectations, and it was only after I discovered that I couldn’t shake off its hypnotic persistence and its material and metaphysical drabness that I started to change my mind. One might even call it a battle of wills that I lost.
To the extent that Zona aspires to be mimetic criticism, it is undoubtedly testing me as well. But flunking in this case—whether it’s me flunking out with Zona or Dyer flunking out with me—has fewer ramifications. The seriousness of the critical study and the flippancy of the personal memoir neither mesh nor collide in any productive fashion; they simply (and willfully) coexist. Maybe I’m less sympathetic because I once attempted something along these lines myself, albeit with a movie that has no artistic credentials (“On Moonlight Bay as Time Machine,” the lengthiest chapter of my 1980 memoir Moving Places), but Dyer’s challenge, insofar as he’s working with both a great film and an established audience, is markedly different from mine. And even if the frequent, cumber- some, meandering footnotes that make Zona so unreadable are “a structural solution, not a stylistic device” (as he told interviewer Ethan Nosowsky in The Believer), I can’t buy his theoretical justification: “With footnotes, the advantage is that as the distinction between discursive and narrative collapses in the course of the book, footnote-type material can creep into the main body of the text without a problem. Again, this is consistent with the film in that a literal journey gradually acquires more meta- physical-religious connotations.” Which slides around the inescapable fact that Stalker employs nothing remotely like a footnote.
Book-length film studies by amateurs can be traced back to Salman Rushdie’s 1992 The Wizard of Oz, the volume that launched the BFI Film Classics—possibly the most bountiful book series in the history of film criticism in any language, and one that sums up some of the gains criticism generally can boast over the same period, when DVD extras, building on the precedents established with laserdiscs, started to become institutionalized. Macmillan’s website for the imprint currently lists 86 titles—which doesn’t even include all of the early entries, or the 48- plus additional titles in the BFI Modern Classics series—and the fact that new books keep appearing confirms their staying power.
Prior to this, there have been of course many other book-length studies of individual films, particularly in academic publishing (e.g., Alfred Guzzetti on 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, Kristin Thompson on Ivan the Terrible), and several book-length examples of “textual analysis” (a curious label for studies that were arguably more about psychoanalytical theories than about texts), such as Stephen Heath writing about Touch of Evil and, in French, many of Raymond Bellour’s extended analyses of Hitchcock features. Otherwise, the series that comes closest to equating book and film may be the hard- cover French packages recently released by Wild Side Video, combining Golden Age Hollywood features (e.g., He Ran All the Way, Wind Across the Everglades, The Story of G.I. Joe, Devil’s Doorway) with copiously illustrated 80-page critical/historical studies about them.
Apart from the common trait of being largely addressed to non- specialists, the differences between the BFI volumes and the books by Dyer and Mars-Jones remain palpable, suggesting a quite different niche market growing out of Rushdie’s musings about The Wizard of Oz. The BFI Classics are designed as handy, unfussy guide- books, not entirely dissimilar to such venerable if less prestigious college outlines as Monarch Notes (the model of Indiana University Press’s Filmguide Series, which boasted about a dozen titles during the Seventies). The curse and blessing of the Mars-Jones and Dyer texts is that they could never serve the same function, even if they strive to traverse much of the same ground in terms of their research. They’re simply too idiosyncratic and personal, too argumentative and speculative in their wayward drifts to serve as reference tools, even though they polemically challenge many of the more standard texts in terms of facts as well as interpretations.
The Dyer and Mars-Jones volumes share with earlier book- length studies a desire to suggest a certain exhaustiveness yet they’re much less systematic in their formats and methodologies, which is part of the source of their freshness. Dyer has long been known for his digressions, and Mars-Jones, judging by this book, relies periodically on epigrammatic conceits that sometimes amount to leaps of faith: “Hollywood cinema, like the World Series in base- ball, lays claim to the planet without particularly noticing it”; “Films like Out of the Past or 2001 or Black Narcissus continue to make an impact even on television, shrunken in size and shot through with advertising jingles and alien flashing images, forced to defer to lesser technologies, to the doorbell, the kettle and the phone, humiliated in a domestic interior like kings sold into slavery.” And even more to the point: “Western critics have gradually woken up to the fact that Ozu breaks as many rules as he keeps, and that he makes up plenty of his own. Being Japanese is not a state with a single dimension.”
Mars-Jones has a bee in his bonnet about other Ozu critics such as Donald Richie and Paul Schrader using Zen as a sort of all-purpose escape clause, privileging the climactic shots of a vase in Late Spring—which weren’t even mentioned in the original script—to account for the frissons between an aging professor (Chishu Ryu) and his still-unmarried daughter Noriko (Satsuko Hara) while avoiding pertinent issues about Japan’s recent defeat in the war and subsequent American censorship. (“The vase shot doesn’t dominate the film, but it seems to dominate discussions of it, looking over the skyline of its aesthetics.”) It’s emblematic of Mars-Jones’s modesty that his seemingly far-fetched theory about Noriko—that an enigmatic dialogue exchange about her “forced labor in the war” and an even more inexplicable reference to “her day off” during that period might allude to a sexual trauma that would help to explain her reluctance to get married—is never proffered as anything more than a stab in the dark, even though this is also made to serve as a meaningful climax to his investigation, like the final scene in a well-crafted novella.
Mars-Jones wants to explore and even deepen the film’s mysteries, not dispel them, but he doesn’t like mystification, either, and he suspects that some of those who feel otherwise may be motivated by something other than mysticism: “If we choose to take the Noriko smile at face value, it’s because we choose to think that the Japanese actually didn’t mind being fire-bombed and irradiated, that they kept the old Zen calm going when they saw the Sumida river, weeks after an air raid on Tokyo, choked with charred and bloated corpses. We have a strong vested interest in their serenity.”
Given the power of this insight, I find it easier to excuse the author for being unaware of the importance of Shigehiko Hasumi (probably Japan’s greatest film critic), whose definitive book about Ozu also refutes and deconstructs the Japanese-essentialist and Zen interpretations of Ozu, but in much more detail and with far greater conviction. There’s also the occasional lapse into a boilerplate observation that happens to be wrong: “[By] the time of Late Spring, [Ozu] had more or less dispensed with camera movements.” But as Richard Peña points out in his DVD audio commentary, when Noriko and Hattori go bicycling, the camera remains in motion almost throughout; only the final two shots in this sequence are filmed by a stationary camera. Amateurs writing for other amateurs, however insightful, are bound to stumble over such glitches; it comes with the territory.