Untimely Meditations:
The BFI Film Classics Series


The idea for a British Film Institute Film Classics series is something that Nietzsche might have called an untimely meditation. As series editor Edward Buscombe explained to Noel King (Metro, Spring 1993), each volume accompanies a film that has made it onto a royal list of three hundred and sixty masterpieces drawn up by the National Film Archive in Britain. The grand plan for these classics is that they will screen in pristine prints, one a day, year after year until the end of the world, at the Museum of the Moving Image. At the rate of eight slim books a year, the publishing part of this project is thus due to reach completion in the year 2037. (1)


Such visionary folly in the face of all future winds of change reminds me of Raymond Bellour’s warning about a past era of structuralist film theory and its great dream of classifying, codifying all cinema: “Only the imaginary realm of science believes that one always insists on finishing – in a limited period – what one has begun”. (2) So the BFI Classics series steels itself against the future (including what may be a rocky institutional future for the BFI itself, based on its rocky past). Maybe against the present, too: for who on earth would want to bet their professional reputation as film teacher, critic or archivist right now on formulating a universal list of the all-time greatest films? (3)


The idea of a canon in all artistic fields has never been more under fire than it is at the moment, and for good reasons, because the damn things are (amongst other sins) always so elitist and constrictive. Not to mention Euro– and Anglo-centric. Not to mention aesthetically constipated: some people get so high and mighty about the notion of artistic masterpieces when formulating such lists, but what Cocteau said in 1923 is still apt: “A masterpiece can never look like a masterpiece. It must necessarily be incomplete and full of defects, since it is the triumph of its errors and the consecration of its faults that make it a masterpiece”. (4)


In the NFA’s complete list of 360 titles, there are predictable classic picks, of course: Citizen Kane, Singin’ in the Rain, Greed, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz. Some of the choices seem like slightly off-beat representations of a particular auteur: The Big Heat rather than Metropolis for Lang, Rocco and his Brothers instead of The Leopard for Visconti, Double Indemnity rather than Sunset Boulevard for Wilder. (Or do some sacred directors get more than one film, I wonder?) (5) There are, commendably, downright eccentric canonical choices, even in the first twelve unveiled here: hands up anyone who knows offhand the director, year and nationality of Went the Day Well? (Answer: Alberto Cavalcanti, 1942, UK.) So we may yet see Dog Star Man, The 5000 Fingers of Dr T, The Travelling Players and Gloria in this canon.


The books function as enthusiastic introductions to, appreciations of the given film. The only exception here to the general rule is Jonathan Rosenbaum’s volume on Greed, which is essentially a guide through what he calls the various, layered, often convoluted texts of Stroheim’s mangled masterpiece: the original novel, Stroheim’s filmed version (or what can be imagined of it), the MGM cut, and the vast historical legacy it has generated. For Rosenbaum to finally offer an appreciative account of the film as we now have it would run horribly counter to his essentially historical purpose; all the same, I miss his usual critical flair and his passionate response to Stroheim (for which, see his entry in Roud’s Cinema: A Critical Dictionary).


Half-way through the handsome pile of these books, I had a good idea of the editorial brief which Buscombe must have handed his contributors – a brief which, interestingly, is a canny compromise between critical methods old and new. First, the film itself: a good sense of its narrative movement, its interlocking components of style, its themes, its key scenes and great moments. Then something on the industrial context of the film’s production – when, how, for how much money – and also how it was received in its time, and since. On a larger level, some sense of the social context from which the film emerges, and to which it speaks.


Old fashioned auteurism really only figures insofar as the director’s creativity is sought and valorised on this one film; the rest of his or her oeuvre doesn’t enter the picture (and this is refreshing). Synoptic outlines of relevant genres aren’t allowed to cloud matters much either. All up, the only volume which really manages to perfectly balance all the aspects of the brief (as I have hypothesised it) is Buscombe’s own essay on Ford’s Stagecoach – and what a terrific, all-inclusive job-of-work it is.


For a series that started from the basis of a highly untimely meditation, the results are extraordinarily good. Almost half the crop are absolutely top class works: apart from Buscombe, I’d cite Laura Mulvey on Citizen Kane, Peter Wollen on Singin’ in the Rain, Sam Rohdie on Rocco and his Brothers, and – the big surprise – Salman Rushdie on The Wizard of Oz. J. Hoberman on 42nd Street, Colin McArthur on The Big Heat, and the Rosenbaum volume are not far behind.


Buscombe has done some clever editorial thinking about pairing films with writer, striving to include specialists and enthusiasts who are not strictly cinema scholars. So we have Melvyn Bragg, TV arts presenter, on Bergman’s The Seventh Seal; documentary filmmaker Taylor Downing on Riefenstahl’s Olympia; and, forthcoming, Marina Warner on Vigo’s L'Atalante. There is still room in this colloquium for a few sturdy pros (and a blowhard or two) from the very old schools of criticism: Penelope Houston (ex-Sight and Sound editor) on Went the Day Well? and Richard Schickel (senior Time reviewer) on Double Indemnity.


I feel like an intellectual snob delivering this verdict, but I have to say that I found this second, non-academic bunch of contributions well below those praised above. Downing, for instance, lists the smallest empirical fact anyone could ever want to know about the staging and filming of Olympia – he filmed two Olympic Games himself, so he has a feel for the terrain. But his introductory promise to be critical and analytical about the myriad political questions intersecting in the film come to virtually nothing.


The Houston and Schickel books are informative and smartly written, but resolutely stolid and unimaginative when it comes to actually giving an account of the movies. A whole generation of post-Lacanian critics are currently settling scores with film theory’s psychoanalytic fix; Schickel, by contrast, is blissfully unaware that anyone ever read the story of a homosexual Oedipus in the plot of Double Indemnity. And Bragg’s volume is pure arthouse-dinner party-blah, the kind of discourse you expect see illustrated with pretty pictures next weekend on a state-sponsored TV channel.


Rushdie’s book, though, is a winner. I confess to never having read any Rushdie; but this combination of an essay (“A Short Text About Magic”) and a fiction (“At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers”) converted me immediately. This is, in fact, ficto-criticism at its best, for Rusdhie has a marvellous way of making all the current verities of multicultural, post-colonial theory into living, dancing, urgent obsessions. Rushdie gives us The Wizard of Oz as first discovered by a child steeped in Hindi movies; as he works his way through (some of) the film, we learn how other, subsequent cultures, contexts, concerns have shaped his very particular perception. According to Buscombe in Metro, this amazing book has been overlooked by the literary set in the UK, and here as well, I suspect; that’s what you still get, it seems, for writing something that is cleanly neither fiction nor criticism.


I have called this series untimely. But if, bravely, it does not respond dutifully to the most current critical agenda, it is timely in another, deeper sense: it is about looking back to the history of criticism, about returning to and fulfilling originary projects long left fallow, about renewing old acquaintances and revitalising old obsessions, in a way that ties them, quietly but surely, into present day debates. This impulse is particularly strong in three of the volumes.


“The bleak cycle has begun once more”: these words ended the chapter on Fritz Lang, and the discussion of The Big Heat, in Colin McArthur’s 1972 book Underworld USA. They come around again, twenty years later, as the final line of McArthur’s contribution to this series. So it’s not only the cycle of violence and retribution in Lang’s film which possess McArthur; but also the cycle that he has lived through as a commentator on film, passing from the heyday of auteur, mise en scène and genre studies, through the upheavals of film theory, and then back again, but differently. McArthur is a very generous critic: he stays true to the complicated, ambivalent politics of all these shifts in the British scene. He’s inclusive, too, as a good teacher should be, willing even to apply the popular wisdom offered by current scriptwriting manuals to Lang’s movie.


Two aspects of Peter Wollen’s writing throughout the 1970s and ‘80s have occasionally irritated me greatly. One is his penchant for maddeningly casual, sweepingly synoptic lists of names, movements and works, as if we all not only knew them, but also agreed on their relative cultural significance. (Rough pastiche: “History has taught us that the upper hand of Modernism was held by Surrealism over Bolshevism, art brut over musique concrète, Coney Island over the Bauhaus, and Berkeley [Busby and Bishop] over Ray [Nicholas and Satyajit]”.) The other tic is his breathless, Utopian invocation at the close of many articles of the amazing new thing about to overwhelm us – new art, new technology, new criticism, new world – usually accompanied by a great haste to move on from whichever critical method he has just expounded.


However, in his recent, brilliant collection of essays Raiding the Icebox and in his volume here on Singin’ in the Rain, Wollen has both explained in depth his perception of 20th century modernist history, and revisited some of the ideas at the origin of his own critical practice. It is fascinating to re-read his 1969 Signs and Meanings in the Cinema now and realise how much of Wollen’s future work is actually signposted there – everything from a history of “the machine, the mass, urbanism and Americanism” to an appreciation of the aesthetic of the musical as galvanised by Kelly and Donen.


Wollen here integrates a cultural history of filmed dance with a superb sense of the heterogeneous make-up of this particular classic. He analyses the most famous sequence of the film superbly, with a synthetic insight that clearly comes from dabbling in both theory and practice. And he follows a number of fascinating, hitherto obscured historical tangents leading out from the film – particularly the matter of Kelly’s left wing associations and his position in the McCarthyist hysteria.


Laura Mulvey’s book on Citizen Kane is the tour de force of the series so far, and unquestionably her finest critical work to date. Her research has re-oriented itself in the past six years away from the focus on visual pleasure and the gaze to which many condemn her. In recent articles on Notorious, Jean-Luc Godard and the psychic structures of fetishism, Mulvey has explored epistemophilia – the hunger for knowledge – and how a woman’s curiosity in fiction often seizes upon the mysterious and treacherous rebus of masculine fantasies.


Mulvey achieves in this book what I would have thought impossible: she makes Citizen Kane seem like a film you have never truly seen before, and must immediately see and study again. She brings out, as no other commentator ever has, the kinship of Welles’ baroque style and his galloping narrative to the logic of the unconscious. She explores something so obvious in the film, yet scarcely grasped until now: the absolute separation of male and female spheres of experience, and the way in which, in a vain attempt to bridge this abyss, Kane’s grooming of Susan conforms scarily to the Freudian phantasm of fetishism. And finally, Mulvey makes a bold definition of the social context informing the film – relating it in complex ways to the politics of Roosevelt’s New Deal.


If another analysis of Citizen Kane seems like the ultimate in untimely meditations, Laura Mulvey’s book shows us that ‘the classics’ can never be simply be done away with, precisely because there is something in them that continues to hold us, that demands perpetual unravelling. This historical insight is the best idea to emerge from the BFI Film Classics series, and it does so in an unforced, poetic manner. To paraphrase Wollen on Godard: it seems that the road to enlightenment is still one that runs through a maze, an eternal return over old ground, no matter how clearly the signposts are lettered. And what pleasure there can be in these eternal returns.


NOTES [2012]

1. Future-Historic Note 27 years shy of that deadline: this entire grand plan was eventually disassembled abandoned by the BFI in one of its many institutional ‘reformations’ – although the Classics series, with a different editorial policy, continues at Palgrave Macmillan.


2. Raymond Bellour, “To Segment/To Analyze (on Gigi)”, in The Analysis of Film (Indiana University Press, 2000), p. 195.


3. The media and Internet mania around the 2012 Sight and Sound poll certainly shows a renewed bet on canon power!


4. Peter Wollen, “L’Éternal Retour”, in Raymond Bellour & Mary Lea Bandy (eds), Jean-Luc Godard: Son + Image 1974-1991 (New York: Museum of Modern Art), p. 187.


5. Subsequently, Metropolis was included in the series, authored by Thomas Elsaesser in 2000 and revised in 2012.


© Adrian Martin November 1993

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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