In Contrast: Croatian Film Today

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Edited by Aida Vidan & Gordana P. Crnković
New York/Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2013.

Reviewed by Ana Grgić

 

This first English publication on the film industry and cinematographic oeuvre of the small South Eastern European nation of Croatia focuses on the development of national cinema over the last two decades since the country’s independence in the early 1990s. This volume brings together previously published essays from the May 2011 “Special Issue 11: Croatian Cinema” of the online journal Kinokultura, but is expanded and enriched with additional materials, such as interviews with major filmmakers and a dozen film reviews. The first edition was published by the Hrvatski Filmski Savez (Croatian Film Association) in 2012.

There is very limited knowledge about Croatian film particularly in the West. The diversity of cinematic expressions over the last two decades is little known outside the national context, even though many of these films have participated in several international film festivals. This book comes in as a useful and comprehensive guide to Croatian cinema after independence for any student or scholar interested in small national cinemas or Eastern European cinema. Croatian national cinema was regrettably absent from the volume Cinema of the Small Nations edited by Mette Hjort and Duncan Petrie (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008), and this book fills the gap, so to speak, in the English publications on small world cinemas.

The editors, Aida Vidan and Gordana P. Crnković, offer a much-needed comprehensive account of varying facets that the Croatian national cinema industry has faced since the collapse of Yugoslavia and the state-run production system by bringing together a collection of several essays addressing this nascent and small cinema industry. Croatia, with a population of only 4.5million people, has an average cinematic output of four-five feature films per year, which are showcased at the Pula Film Festival. Like its neighbouring countries, Croatian films depend largely on European co-productions as there is limited funding from the Ministry of Culture. Despite these grim circumstances, some internationally recognised filmmakers and several strong films have emerged onto the contemporary scene, while film directors such as Vinko Brešan often figure at international film festivals. What is perhaps most interesting in this collection is that the editors have provided a showcase of the varying cinematographic output coming from Croatia beyond fiction films, including essays on documentary and animation film engaging on a political and social level with the local culture.

Several essays and interviews hint at the persistent difficulty Croatian national cinema continues to face today, namely, the absence of a national audience for local productions. One of the explanations for this situation is the ideological component of films produced in the early independence era under Franjo Tuđman which deterred audiences during this period. This is furthered by the fact that nowadays cinemas are overflowing with Hollywood productions, providing little space for non-mainstream, non-commercial films or small budget films. Indeed, film festivals truly exist as a form of alternative distribution in Croatia; this small country boasts an astonishing 40 festivals. Despite the situation of catastrophically low attendance rates, Vinko Brešan’s How the War Started on my Island was the biggest box office hit, bringing in 350,000 spectators (8% of the population), second only to the Hollywood blockbuster, Titanic (James Cameron, 1997).

Sanja Bahun’s essay on the recent developments in Croatian animation, enriched yet burdened by the profuse and important legacy of the Zagreb School of Animation (so named by the French critic Georges Sadoul) and its aesthetics of “limited animation”, shows how the contemporary practice should be conceived as a product of international transits and exchanges. The capital of Croatia as a centre for the practice of animation film art within Europe can be seen from the fact that the second oldest festival of animated film, Animafest, was founded here, and has been, alongside Annecy, a hub for innovative and creative practices in animation art since 1972.

Diana Nenadić, the well-known Croatian film critic and current president of the Croatian Film Critics Association, explores documentary film productions since independence and their struggle within the post-war political censorship and its liberation, and and how they have come to flourish at the beginning of the new millennium. This new era, according to Nenadić, is marked by the full-length documentary Novo, novo vrijeme (New, New Time, 2001) directed by Rajko Grlić and Igor Mirković, which was the most seen Croatian documentary in the cinema theatres, perhaps due to the fact that it used the up-close observation method (in Michael Moore style) to examine the hitherto untouched “high politics” and stripped politicians bare. Indeed, in the climate of propagandistic fiction films dealing with the recent war and escapist Hollywood productions, this offered Croatian spectators a critical dissection of their reality.

While as Mima Simić’s essay on gender in Croatian contemporary film attests that women are disappearing both from in front and behind the camera of fiction films in the last decades (giving way mainly to new patriarchal, nationalist and traditionalist discourses), Diana Nenadić’s intervention provides hope for the situation demonstrating that many women filmmakers have turned to documentary instead. Nenadić declares that “women documentarians have been many times more provocative, inventive, and open over the last twenty years than in the period prior to it” and have won several awards at major festival (p.72), making their presence felt through confessional documentarism as a form of activism. Many of the recent Croatian filmmakers have been perhaps more inventive, interesting and daring than the feature films, experimenting with the presumed “objective” truth of reality in documentary by producing meta-medial, self-conscious and “personal as political” documentary filmmaking.

The conversations section provides a glimpse into the current situation of the Croatian film industry through personal reflections and experiences of several well-known cineastes of fiction, animation and documentary films, such as Rajko Grlić, Vinko Brešan, Joško Marušić and Nenad Puhovski, thus providing an insider’s view into the universe of cinema. While these interviews emerge as a very interesting and useful addition to the volume, it is a pity not to include a conversation with a female documentary or fiction filmmaker, which would have certainly enriched the section with a different perspective. While reviews of contemporary feature films dominate the reviews section, it is refreshing to see an array of both mainstream and acclaimed national films, and more independent productions among the selected texts, which are truly representative of the diverse cinematic output of Croatian cinema over the last two decades. Reflections and viewpoints from international (Lorraine Mortimer, Zhen Zhang, Maxim Pozdorovkin etc) and national academics and film critics, working both in Croatia and abroad, adds to the richness of film analysis and commentaries, as well as reinforcing the fact that Croatian films have global relevance and reach both international and local audiences.

My major objection is that the focus of the volume is on purely national cinema, whilst many of the recent contemporary films were co-productions between several countries in the region and beyond, and the essays do not delve into the transnational and inter-cultural aspects of recent Croatian films. A comparative study between other similar small national cinemas would have been enlightening, as many face similar financing and distribution problems. Indeed, with any work strictly focusing on national cinemas made within the borders, there is a risk of overlooking and missing certain connections and remaining limited in its reach. In addition, the volume would have been more accessible to a wider readership by including comparative or transnational methodology, thus giving multiple points of access to someone not familiar with Croatian cinema.

The red and blue diametrically opposed yet complementing gestures depicted on the book cover, synthesise the two contrasting cinemas of the new Croatian state since the 1990s; that of ideologically controlled film production and themes concerned with the recent war in the first period, and that of the everyday human drama and psychological dimensions in the second period.  It is on these ideas that In Contrast: Croatian Film Today sheds greater insight, providing us with further understanding of the many states of cinema in this new state.

 

The Cinema of Béla Tarr: The Circle Closes

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By András Bálint Kovács, Wallflower Press, 2013

Reviewed by Phil Mann

Expanding on his 2008 essay, “The World According to Béla Tarr”[1], András Bálint Kovács’ The Cinema of Béla Tarr: The Circle Closes charts the thematic and stylistic evolution of the films of Béla Tarr, from his documentary realist period to the distinctive, mature style now synonymous with the Hungarian maestro.

Published in 2013 by Wallflower Press as part of the Director’s Cut series, Kovács develops what he calls the “permutation principle[2], author’s italics. Kovács claims that key thematic and stylistic elements have been present throughout Tarr’s oeuvre and over the course of his career Tarr has meticulously experimented with and reorganisation these elements to form what we now recognise as the “Tarr style”.[3] Throughout his analysis Kovács highlights circularity as a central theme that encompasses Tarr’s feature films both individually and asa collective body of work.

While numerous articles have been written on Béla Tarr, The Cinema of Béla Tarr: The Circle Closes is the first English language book to be published on the Hungarian auteur. Kovács’ study has since been followed by Erik Beranek’s English translation of Jacques Rancière’s 2011 book Béla Tarr, le temps d’après, publishedas Béla Tarr: The Time After by Univocal Publishing in late 2013.

Kovács begins with a condensed biography of Tarr, which offers an abundance of fascinating background material, and functions as a perfect starting point for those unfamiliar with Hungary’s most prominent living filmmaker. Through private conversations and unpublished interviews with Tarr, Kovács provides the reader with unprecedented access to the Hungarian auteur, his co-director and editor Ágnes Hranitzky and other members of his intimate circle. This degree of access is made possible by Kovács’ personal and professional relationship with the director, which has spanned over twenty-five years. It is through this intimate knowledge that we are introduced to the persona of Béla Tarr and the context within which he entered the Hungarian film industry.

Kovács then divides Tarr’s filmography into three chapters, establishing three periods of stylistic evolution. A chapter is dedicated to Tarr’s debut feature Családi tüzfészek/Family Nest (1977) and his subsequent work until the 1984 film, Öszi almanach/Almanac of Fall. Here, Kovács draws attention to the cinéma vérité style of Tarr’s early films, observing a number of traits that would continue through the director’s work, despite Tarr’s departure from “superficial indicators of realism”[4] in Almanac of Fall. This chapter provides enlightening insight into Tarr’s earlier work; films that have had a somewhat limited distribution, especially outside Hungary. Whilst being available on DVD in the USA and in France (distributed by Facets Multi-Media and Clavis Films respectively) Tarr’s first four features are not currently available in the UK.

The second period marks the beginning of Tarr’s collaboration with writer László Krasznahorkai and the introduction of what can be considered the “Tarr style”. A chapter is dedicated to an analysis of the formal developments exhibited in Damnation/Kárhozat (1988). One such development being the extended use of the long take, which sees the average shot length in Damnation leap 108 per cent from that of Almanac of Fall. Kovács also emphasises the alteration of the landscape and departure from social reality, stating that Tarr “brought back the environment of his earlier films – a run down Hungarian provincial small-town environment, and kept the main principles of the stylization of Almanac of Fall – the ‘pseudo-style’ – using black and white film stock again”.[5] Kovács compares the manner in which Tarr employs the long take and stylised environments with some of the masters of modernist cinema, including: Jean-Luc Godard, Michelangelo Antonioni, Andrei Tarkovsky and, fellow Hungarian, Miklós Jancsó.

Kovács proceeds to explore the evolution of the “Tarr style” from Sátántangó/Satantango (1994) to Tarr’s final film, A Torinói ló/The Turin Horse (2011). The use of quantitative research in this chapter I found to be an interesting visual aid in charting Tarr’s experimentation with form. Kovács effectively demonstrates that Damnation, whilst establishing a number of formal elements that would continue to be present in the “Tarr style”, was only a springboard for further developments in an ongoing process of stylistic evolution. These developments include a continuing experimentation with the length of take, the prevalence of deep-focus photography and the introduction of more elaborate, carefully choreographed camera movements.

Kovács questions whether The Turin Horse can be seen as a conclusion to Tarr’s formal experimentation by suggesting that the film exhibits a sense of circularity, returning to a number formal elements first seen in Tarr’s earlier work. By drawing parallels to these earlier works through quantitative research Kovács contends: “Tarr lost faith in what he could achieve within the confines of the form he created, believing it could not ever be more striking and radical”.[6]

Those familiar with Kovács’ earlier publication, Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema 1950-1980 (2008) will not be surprised that Kovács applies a modernist perspective to his study and, as a result, a great deal of attention is given to formal analysis. Such an approach is in keeping with much of the existing writing on Tarr that tends to examine his work through modernist/art cinema discourse.[7] The majority of western academic writing on Tarr has employed in-depth textual analysis predominantly, I believe, due to a lack of Hungarian context within which to situate a cultural or historical analysis.

Hungarian native Kovács, however, has the benefit of national insight, which he periodically applies to his examination. Kovács is a professor and founding chair of the Department of Film Studies at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. Between 2003-2009 he founded and directed the Nemzeti Audiovizuális Archívum (National Audiovisual Archive of Hungary) and is even credited as Consultant in Tarr’s Damnation. He is the son of Hungarian film director András Kovács, whose work includes: Hidek napok/Cold Days (1968) and Ideiglenes paradicsom/Temporary Paradise (1981). Kovács’ Hungarian heritage furnishes his study with national cognizance, offering insight into indigenous film history and industrial context which enriches his analysis and I personally found these sporadic areas of research the most illuminating.

Take for example, Kovács’ examination of Tarr’s use of unnatural dialogue in Satantango. Kovács’ comprehension of the Hungarian language allows him to recognise and highlight Mihály Víg’s (playing Irimiás) speech impediment; an impairment that the majority of non-Hungarians would be oblivious to. Kovács then compares Víg’s speech defect with that of Hungarian avant-garde filmmaker, Gábor Bódy who played the central role in his final film, Kutya éji dala/Dog’s Night Song (1983). Such specific national context offers new possibilities for innovative comprehension of the work of Béla Tarr, highlighting potential influences through little known but absorbing parallels. Unfortunately, such culturally specific analysis is all too infrequent due to Kovács belief “that there is nothing Hungarian in Tarr’s films of the second period”.[8]

While this comprehensive study of the filmography of Béla Tarr offers a detailed and all-inclusive analysis, Kovács’ notion of circularity seems like more of a convenient way of framing his study than a meaningful discourse from which to approach Tarr’s work, which left me asking “so what?” Kovács never convincingly justifies the significance of circularity as a method of approaching the body of Béla Tarr’s work. As a result, links between stylistic periods can often appear tenuous, as if solely designed to suit Kovács’ arguments and the lyricism of Tarr’s work is often lost within the quantitative methodology, reducing stylistic elements to a collection of facts and figures used to draw comparisons.

Those familiar with the existing academic writing on Tarr may also find that The Cinema of Béla Tarr: The Circle Closes rarely treads new ground, mainly through its emphasis on cinematic modernism. As mentioned above, much of the existing literature of Béla Tarr, including Kovács’ much cited “The World According to Béla Tarr”, has focused exclusively upon the formal qualities of his work. Kovács’ updated analysis continues in this same vein, which, is beginning to feel somewhat timeworn and banal, even.

Despite these limitations, András Bálint Kovács has, nonetheless, produced a detailed and thought provoking study of Hungary’s most internationally renowned filmmaker. In particular, the scope of the study must be applauded; Kovács’ work covers the whole gamut of Tarr’s filmic output including analysis of the director’s seldom seen short films and his version of Macbeth (1982), made for Hungarian television, which famously comprised just two shots. As such, those searching for an introductory text on Tarr will find Kovács’ study both enlightening and comprehensive. However, those looking for a more original and probing approach to the study of Béla Tarr’s work may wish to look elsewhere.


 

[1] Originally published in KinoKultra Issue 7, 2008.

[2] Kovács, The Cinema of Béla Tarr: The Circle Closes, 2013, p.1

[3] Ibid., p.1

[4] Ibid., p.38

[5]Ibid., p.60

[6]Ibid., p.2

[7] See Jonathan Rosenbaum’s “A Bluffer’s Guide to Béla Tarr” (1990) and

“A Place in the Pantheon: The Films of Béla Tarr” (1996), Peter Hames’ “The Melancholy of Resistance: The Films of Béla Tarr” (2001), David Bordwell’s “The Sarcastic Laments of Béla Tarr” (2007), Jonathan Romney’s “Béla Tarr” (2008), and Gillian Hunter’s “Red is dead: The lessons of post-Soviet cinema” (2010) to name but a few.

[8] Kovács, 2013, p.175

 

Bibliography

Bordwell, David. “The Sarcastic Laments of Béla Tarr”. David Bordwell: Observations on Film Art. September 2007.
<http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2007/09/19/the-sarcastic-laments-of-bela-tarr/>
Accessed 10 May 2012.

Hames, Peter. “The Melancholy of Resistance: The Films of Béla Tarr”. Kinoeye. Vol. 01, Issue 01. 3 19 September 2001.
<http://www.kinoeye.org/01/01/hames01.php>
Accessed 28 February 2012.

Hunter, Gillian. “Red is dead: The lessons of post-Soviet cinema” Alienation and Resistance: Representation in Text and Image edited by Gordon Parks, Laura Findlay, Pauline Macpherson and Andrew Wood. Newcastle-Upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2010, pp. 70-80.

Kovács, András Bálint. Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema 1950-1980. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Kovács, András Bálint. “The World According to Béla Tarr”. KinoKultura Issue 07. February 2008.
<http://www.kinokultura.com/specials/7/kovacs.shtml>
Accessed 6 March 2012.

Kovács, András Bálint. “The Cinema of Béla Tarr: The Circle Closes”. London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2013.

Rancière, Jacques. Béla Tarr: The Time After Minneapolis: Univocal Publishing, 2013.

Romney, Jonathan, “Béla Tarr”. Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at work beyond Hollywood edited by Michael Atkinson. New York: State University of New York Press, 2008, pp. 73-78.

Rosenbaum, Jonathan, “A Bluffer’s Guide to Béla Tarr”. Chicago Reader 25 May 1990.

<http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/a-bluffers-guide-to-bela-tarr/Content?oid=875723>
Accessed 6 March 2012.

Rosenbaum, Jonathan “A Place in the Pantheon: The Films of Béla Tarr”. The Chicago Reader, 09 May 1996.<http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/a-place-in-the-pantheon/Content?oid=890479>
Accessed 28 June 2012.

 

Cinema and Contact: The Withdrawal of Touch in Nancy, Bresson, Duras and Denis

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By Laura McMahon, Legenda, 2012.

Reviewed by Kathleen Scott

Cinema and Contact: The Withdrawal of Touch in Nancy, Bresson, Duras and Denis is the latest work to put the philosophy of contemporary French thinker Jean-Luc Nancy into productive dialogue with French cinema.  Through her in-depth textual analyses of the films of Robert Bresson, Marguerite Duras and Claire Denis, McMahon successfully employs Nancy’s deconstruction of touch as a device of pure immediacy and fusion to reconceptualize the act of cinematic spectatorship as a mutual approach and withdrawal of human and filmic bodies.  In doing so, McMahon convincingly reconfigures spectatorship as an activity structured by ‘a logic of exposure rather than one of representation’ (20).

The introduction of Cinema and Contact provides succinct and compelling summaries of Nancy’s philosophical deconstructions of touch, vision and subjectivity.  Drawing on both her own analyses of Nancy’s thinking of touch, as well as that elaborated by Jacques Derrida in On Touching – Jean-Luc Nancy, McMahon argues that Nancy’s deconstruction of touch as both a contact and withdrawal from the object to be touched distinguishes it from the fusive models of touch offered by phenomenological film theorists such as Laura U. Marks and Vivian Sobchack.  The sense of touch offered by the cinema is never characterised by a pure immediacy.  Rather, it is a mode of touch in which the screen is always removed or withdrawn from the grasp of spectators, simultaneously proximate and distanced.

McMahon argues that the films of Bresson, Duras and Denis share an ‘aesthetics of withdrawal’ (10) that distance touch from the concept of immediacy, propitiously enacting Nancy’s model of touch as a contact-in-separation.  The following three chapters are organized by filmmaker in chronological order of their work, beginning with Bresson.  McMahon puts a Nancean deconstruction of touch in productive dialogue with Bresson’s own writings on cinema, in order to argue that Bresson’s depictions of the body in films such as Pickpocket (1959), Au hazard Balthazar (1966) and Mouchette (1967) deconstruct Christological ideas of the body and touch as pure presence (36-7).

In the chapter on Duras, McMahon explores films such as Détruire dit-elle (1969), India Song (1975), Le navire Night (1979) and Agatha et les lectures illimitées (1981) through the Nancean theoretical lens of co-existence, as articulated by the philosopher in works such as The Inoperative Community (1991).  McMahon successfully employs Nancy’s thinking of touch as distance and spacing to read Duras’s portrayals of romantic couples as unworkable, failed fusions of bodies.

McMahon’s discussions of the work of Denis in relation to Nancean philosophy are perhaps the most interesting and fruitful, as they take into account the collaborations and affinities between the director and philosopher.  McMahon reads Beau Travail (1999) as an exploration of touch as the means through which the political community of the French Legion in Djibouti is both bonded and fractured.  McMahon situates her readings of Denis’s controversial horror film Trouble Every Day (2001) in relation to Nancy’s meditations on the figure of the bite in the film as an agent of ontological dismemberment and destruction in his article ‘Claire Denis: Icon of Ferocity.’  Lastly, McMahon’s insightful explication of Nancy’s original text ‘L’intrus’ clearly articulates its relationship to the style and themes of Denis’s 2004 film of the same name, taking into account Nancy’s written responses to the film adaptation, as well as exploring intrusion as a method of encountering geopolitical and ontological otherness.

An important topic that McMahon does not touch upon in great depth is the implication(s) of Nancean deconstructions of touch and subjectivity in relation to the construction of gender and sexual difference in film.   Nancy himself has faced criticism from feminist scholars for his insistence that the body exists as essentially intruded upon and fragmented, without adequately considering the potential impact that this may have for feminist projects seeking to realize women’s right to control their own bodies.  For example, Diane Perpich notes that:

Nancy’s ontology is seemingly at odds with a host of feminist discourses for which bodily integrity is an almost unquestioned good…it is legitimate to wonder whether Nancy’s conception of bodies as subject to a law of inevitable, multiple intrusion is not in some ways a very white, masculine move, attached to a horizon and history of privilege that should give feminists and others pause. 1

McMahon’s Nancean analysis of Bresson is instructive in this regard.  She notes in her analysis of Mouchette, ‘Just as mud sticks to the clog, so it clings to Mouchette, signaling a disturbing dissolution of the self, foregrounding the vulnerability of the body which will be pushed to its extreme conclusion in the rape scene’ (63).  The female body in this film thus experiences contact and withdrawal via experiences of suffering and violation.  We can contrast this female pain with the embodied experiences of a Nancean techné, or technicity, undergone by the male protagonist of Pickpocket.  He is not raped; rather, his subjective dissolution takes place through technical implements of pickpocketing such as clothing.  This technical expansion of the self through clothing constitutes a far less painful and destructive exposure to and contact with the world than that experienced by the raped female protagonist of Mouchette.

McMahon does point out that the punishments that Mouchette receives (rape and beatings) are ‘deeply troubling’ and ‘politically and ethically problematic’ (65), ‘exert[ing] a certain pressure upon Nancy’s model of touch as spacing and being-in-common’ (66).  However, in McMahon’s discussions of Bresson and Duras especially, the impact of gender and sexual difference on characters’ experiences of contact is briefly mentioned, instead of explored in a sustained manner.  Further attention deserves to be paid to the gendered dimensions of exposure, bodily vulnerability and being-with in both film spectatorship and in our engagements with Nancean philosophy, as so often the cinematic textures and surfaces of co-existence and engagement with the world are ‘threats’ (63) that lead to pain and death for women.

Cinema and Contact contributes productively to a growing field of film-philosophy exploring the intersections between Nancean philosophy and cinematic aesthetics.  McMahon’s work should be of great interest to film scholars looking to introduce themselves to the philosophy of Nancy and the multiplicity of ways that it touches upon and diverges from the embodied and tactile aesthetics of French cinema.

 

Bibliography

Derrida, Jacques. On Touching – Jean-Luc Nancy. Translated by Christine Irizarry. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Inoperative Community. Translated by Peter Connor, Lisa Garbus, Michael Holland and Simona Sawhney. Edited by Peter Connor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991).

__. “Claire Denis: Icon of Ferocity.” Translated by Peter Enright. In Cinematic Thinking: Philosophical Approaches to the New Cinema, edited by James Phillips, 160-68. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008.

__. “L’Intrus.” Translated by Susan Hanson. The New Centennial Review 2, no. 3 (2002): 1-14.

Perpich, Diane. “Corpus Meum: Disintegrating Bodes and the Ideal of Integrity.” Hypatia 20, no. 3 (Summer 2005): 75-91.

Filmography

Agatha et les lectures illimitées. Directed by Marguerite Duras (Benoit Jacob Vidéo, 2009).

Au hazard Balthazar. Directed by Robert Bresson (Criterion, 2005).

Beau Travail. Directed by Claire Denis (Artificial Eye, 2000).

Détruire dit-elle. Directed by Marguerite Duras (Benoit Jacob Vidéo, 2008).

India Song. Directed by Marguerite Duras (Roissy Film, 2009).

L’Intrus. Directed by Claire Denis (Tartan Video, 2005).

Mouchette. Directed by Robert Bresson (Nouveaux Pictures, 2004).

Le navire Night. Directed by Marguerite Duras (Les Films du Lonsange).

Pickpocket. Directed by Robert Bresson (Artificial Eye, 2005).

Trouble Every Day. Directed by Claire Denis (Tartan Video, 2003).

Notes:

  1. Diane Perpich, “Corpus Meum: Disintegrating Bodes and the Ideal of Integrity,” Hypatia 20, no. 3 (Summer 2005): 85-6.

A Companion to Michael Haneke

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Edited by Roy Grundmann, Wiley-Blackwell, 2010

Review by Fredrik Gustafsson

A Companion to Michael Haneke is a somewhat intimidating book. It is black, heavy and on the cover Haneke himself is staring at the reader, his face floating in darkness, apparently disconnected from the rest of his body. The book is also intimidating in its scope, as the 600+ pages cover more or less every aspect of Haneke’s career to date. It consists of 33 different essays, each looking at either a particular film or a particular theme, written by well-established scholars such as Michel Chion and Thomas Elsaesser, as well as PhD candidates. The book is the first volume of Wiley-Blackwell’s series ‘Companion to Film Directors’ and two more have been released so far (on Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Herzog). Considering the dedication and depth of the series, the more directors that are covered the better.

A concern whenever a particular filmmaker is singled out in this way is that claims will be made on his or her behalf that are hard to substantiate. For example, Haneke is called the last remaining European auteur or, even more bafflingly, the last ‘avant-gardist’ (p. 169). The implications are that not only is Haneke the only auteur (and avant-gardist) working today, but also that there will be no more, and both of these statements are dubious, as well as unnecessary. But even without such claims there are a lot of interesting things to be said about Haneke, and this book is a testament to the richness of his work.

A Companion to Michael Haneke is not the sort of book you read from cover to cover, but is best read one essay at a time. Not only because of its impressive size but also because there is a sense of repetition and déjà vu, with the same films and the same thinkers, such as Freud, Brecht, Benjamin, Adorno, Barthes and Deleuze, mentioned again and again. But that is only to be expected in such an exhaustive collection. Perhaps the best essay is the introduction by Roy Grundmann. It is a comprehensive presentation of Haneke’s entire oeuvre, together with commentary on its reception, and will be particularly beneficial for those who are not familiar with all aspects of Haneke’s work, such as his early work for Austrian TV. The rest of the essays are more specific and the ones that I felt were particularly good are by Thomas Elsaesser, Vinzenz Hediger, Alex Lykidis and Charles Warren.

Elsaesser’s contribution ‘Performative Self-Contradictions’ discusses a few key themes (isolation, the sudden invasion of outside forces on private lives, media critique) in Haneke’s films and how they are related to “mind-games movies”, a concept Elsaesser has developed in earlier writings. Here Elsaesser describes it as films ‘where a number of assumptions about how we understand what we see and hear in a film, as well as what comprises agency, are tested and renegotiated’ (p. 58). Hediger’s piece ‘Infectious Images’ analyses Haneke’s use of video images, as opposed to film images, as a sort of meta-criticism, and compares it to the ways in which James Cameron and Atom Egoyan also use video imagery in their films. In an essay titled ‘Multicultural Encounters,’ Lykidis looks at the films Haneke has made in France, from the perspective of France’s fraught relationship with immigration and non-whites. And finally, in an essay titled ‘The Unknown Piano Teacher,’ Charles Warren looks at one of Haneke’s films in particular, La pianiste/The Piano Teacher (2001), and puts it in a film history context using Stanley Cavell’s writings on the ‘unknown woman’ and melodrama.

The book ends with two older pieces written by Haneke himself. The first is about his first experiences as a young boy of the power and allure of cinema, and his own views on, and tastes in, films. Most specifically he writes about the work of Robert Bresson. The other piece is less personal, and less interesting, and is about Haneke’s views on violence in media. These two pieces by him are then followed, fittingly, with two interviews with Haneke. In a way this last part of the book is reminiscent of the extra material that usually accompanies films on DVDs, and it is a nice touch.

There is for me one big problem with the book, and that is its conservatism and ‘high culture’ emphasis. The films of Haneke can often feel like sermons from an angry priest who is appalled by the wickedness of the world, and the tone in many of the essays feels similar. It is taken as a fact that we are living in a world where, to quote one example: ‘passivity is the dominant state of today’s subject who, conditioned to consume images, confuses them with reality’ (p. 125). The ‘cultural and psycho-social impoverishment of modern civilization’ (p. 38) is mentioned, and it is stated that our culture is based on ‘repressiveness and mediocrity’ (p. 491). My problem with this is two-fold. First, it is an elitist assumption and implicit is that if only the common man would stop watching Hollywood film and read Kant and Thomas Mann instead the world would be a much better place, something that is very hard to argue and is probably not true at all. Second, it is a very euro-centric assumption. There is nothing progressive or helpful in looking at the world in this way, and Haneke is also partly guilty of this elitist conservatism. Nevertheless, this can be seen as a particular aspect central to European intellectual history and consequently, to call Haneke a radical is to my mind unhelpful. It could have been appropriate if there had been attempts in the book to problematise Haneke’s views and ideas, but there is very little of that. At the same time I feel that Haneke is actually more complex than some of his interpreters give him credit for, even those celebrating his work.

Part of this European intellectual tradition is to use America as the other against which Europe is portrayed as superior and European cinema as the antithesis of Hollywood, a view that Haneke and many of the contributors apparently share. This too is problematic, as well as self-congratulatory. It is easy to agree with Hediger when he suggests that ‘Haneke’s understanding of American cinema is somewhat deficient’ (p. 100). European cinema can be just as bad as the worst of Hollywood, and the best of Hollywood is equal to the best of Europe, and nothing is gained by this othering.

However, this criticism should not discourage the potential reader. Leaving politics aside the discussions about Haneke’s narrative and stylistic achievements are more often than not good and insightful.  Haneke scholars as well as general film students have a lot to gain by reading A Companion to Michael Haneke and Wiley-Blackwell is to be applauded for having initiated the project.

Interrogating Trauma: Collective Suffering in Global Arts and Media

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Edited by Mick Broderick and Antonio Traverso, Routledge, 2011.

Reviewed by John Trafton

In Interrogating Trauma: Collective Suffering in Global Arts and Media, Broderick and Traverso acknowledge the contributions that the field of trauma studies has provided to inter-disciplinary fields over the last two decades, and, through this collection of essays from media scholars across the globe, highlights the many ways that trauma studies has contributed to cinema and media studies from a twenty-first century vantage point. Covering a wide array of topics and approaches, from Iraq War narratives to the plight of indigenous Australians, this work offers up a broad range of discourse on representing and working-through trauma that is useful not only to film and media scholars, but also to those working in a broad range of disciplines (History, Sociology, Psychology, Terrorism Studies, and many others).

Central to this work is an examination of both how the various modes used to represent trauma, directly or indirectly, are employed, and how the concept of trauma may be altered by these different approaches. The phrase ‘interrogating trauma,’ therefore, means that the authors contained in this work are focused on interrogating not the traumatic events themselves, but rather the effectiveness of the means used to project this trauma on screen. In the wake of one such traumatic event, the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, mass, digital media has become more ubiquitous and liberalised, and as such, this evolving technology has brought its own strengths and weaknesses to trauma representation, one such approach under ‘interrogation’ in this book.  This book documents how the dynamics of trauma studies have shifted in a world dominated by digital video cameras, mobile phone cameras, and a multitude of screens through which to mediate the resulting images.

The strengths of this book lie in the questions posed rather than the answers given. What does it mean to be an ethical witness? How is the psychology of the perpetrators and victims of state violence effectively rendered? How can trauma from a localized event be dispersed worldwide? The range of questions raised in this book testifies to its application across a broad range of fields and its usefulness to scholars working on a variety of topics pertaining to historical and recent events. If trauma theory holds that traumatized individuals take a self-preserving distance from the source of trauma, then characters contained in films analyzed in this book (fiction or non-fiction) are agents of this theory, and, as such, can be provide a useful analytical focal point for scholars wishing to further explore these or related film texts. My own work has been influenced by some of the ideas and questions raised in this book, and it is for this reason that I recommend it.

 

Directory of World Cinema: Japan (Volume One)

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Edited by John Berra, Intellect, 2010

Reviewed by Andrew Dorman

The first offering in Intellect’s Directory of World Cinema series selects Japan as its subject, a worthy starting-point given the ongoing scholarly and popular interest in Japanese national film and its status as one of the most widely-discussed ‘world cinemas’. Taking into consideration the diversity of the subject, the text is a useful addition to the deluge of existing material, providing readers with an overview of a rich cinematic history and a reassessment of the current state of the industry in the wake of anime and J-Horror’s absorption into the popular culture.

Directory of World Cinema: Japan offers a revision of contemporary Japanese film at a time when attention has shifted onto other East Asian territories and prominent filmmakers like Takeshi Kitano, Takashi Miike, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa are transitioning away from the genres that established them internationally. Featuring contributions from numerous scholars, including William M. Tsutsui, Mark Schilling and Colette Balmain, this volume seeks to move beyond the standard anime-J-Horror image of modern Japanese cinema, without neglecting these areas outright. Readers are duly provided with a culturally-specific insight into over 150 films and their attendant ‘Japaneseness’, with brief reviews of both obscure and canonised works arranged into convenient genre sections, ranging from chambara eiga/samurai films and yakuza cinema to Nuberu Bagu/the Japanese New Wave and Pinku eiga/pink films. Each film is covered by a short synopsis followed by some criticism and analysis. Although rather brief for those familiar with Japanese cinema, these sections should prove accessible for newcomers to the subject.

In addition, specially-featured sections highlight the oeuvres of prominent directors like Akira Kurosawa, Kitano and Satoshi Kon, as well as spotlighting specific sectors of the industry such as the Nippon Connection film festival and the Arts Theatre Guild. A quiz and useful guides to further reading and online resources are also included. The work featured here culminates in a comprehensive and insightful guide that does justice to the diversity of cinema Japan, both past and present. Many will be pleasantly surprised to discover some lesser-known works such as the films of Sion Sono, Funeral Parade of Roses (1969), and Fist of the North Star (1986) lining up alongside the usual suspects of Kurosawa, Ozu, and Mizoguchi. Equal coverage is given to each film and genre, while the text largely avoids the generalisations and paper-thin surface analysis that mars so many national cinema guides. The individual contributions do well to heed the book’s mandate to present a culturally-specific cinema; Marc Saint-Cyr’s allegorical reading of Lady Snowblood (1973) and Tsutsui’s introduction to kaiju eiga/monster movies are worthy of mention for the way they clearly situate the films within well-defined, albeit evolving socio-political and cultural contexts.

There are of course certain hazards in providing anything in the form of a comprehensive guidebook, namely the films that are not included. Inevitably there are some glaring omissions here: The Human Condition (1959-1961), Shohei Imamura’s The Ballad of Narayama (1983) and Kurosawa’s Ran (1985) being just a few major works that fail to feature. There is also scant mention of ‘Generation X’ filmmaking in the 1990s, meaning that important figures like Shinji Aoyama and Naomi Kawase are only mentioned in passing. Furthermore, no coverage is given to pre-war and silent cinema, with the exception of Ozu’s I Was Born, But…(1932) and Mizoguchi’s Osaka Elegy (1936). This is a shame considering the growth of scholarship in this area, such as the work of Aaron Gerow, and the existence of interesting works A Page of Madness (1926) and Dragnet Girl (1933).

In terms of a Japanese-Western dichotomy, the book’s invocation of Hollywood films as reference points becomes repetitive and is hardly helpful towards an understanding of Japanese genres as culturally-specific entities. However, the ever-presence of the West and specifically Hollywood throughout the text does at least provide the authors with ample opportunity to touch upon Japan’s role as a global cinema affected by transcultural flows. Although seeking to understand Japanese cinema first and foremost as nation-specific, the book benefits greatly from the writers’ consistent awareness of the tensions brought about by globalisation and its impact upon notions of Japanese locality. In this regard, Brian Ruh views Japanese animation as ‘globalization in action’ (59) as he traces the transnational dimensions of anime’s origins and current production. Elsewhere, Jelena Stojkovic, taking into account recent US remakes of Japanese horror films, remarks sagely that the popularisation of J-Horror created the ‘contra-effect of becoming not only the Japanese mainstream but also the Hollywood mainstream’. (36). Thus, while it pinpoints expressions of Japaneseness, this volume brings to life Japanese film as a profoundly global cinema subject to non-national as much as national concerns.

Aside from an overall stylistic unevenness between academic and journalistic analysis, the one major drawback overshadowing the work as a whole is the way it reinforces the standard images and interpretations of contemporary Japanese cinema it wishes to move beyond. While it is suggested by John Berra that the success and notoriety of horror and extreme cinema have obscured the legacy of other sectors and belies Japan’s cinematic diversity (7), the choice of films throughout often negates any attempt to provide a truly alternative view. For example, Brian Ruh’s introduction to anime points out the general misconception that Japanese animation is either ‘light fare for little kids or contains ultraviolence and sadistic sex’ (61). With only a few exceptions, the proceeding chapter on animation lends some weight to the misconception by presenting films that mostly fall into one of these two categories.

Much of the text seeks to sidestep persistent notions of a violent, excessive and eccentric cinema popular outside Japan, all the while selecting films that derive from genres predominantly featuring extreme violence, sadist rituals, and sexual depravity. Such images are hardly dispelled as the book falls somewhat short of some of its primary objectives. That being said, Directory of World Cinema: Japan remains a welcome addition to a large field of research, offering one of the most detailed and comprehensive reviews available. It provides novices with an accessible guide to over sixty years of film material and for those familiar with Japanese film a resource for further critical reflection. On this evidence future editions in the series will be worth savouring.

Global Art Cinema: New Theories and Histories

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Edited by Rosalind Galt and Karl Schoonover, Oxford University Press, 2010

Reviewed by Raluca Iacob

Global Art Cinema proves to be a daring project, aiming to discuss the rather ambiguous concepts of ‘global’ and ‘art cinema’. The possible scope of the subject and the difficulty of establishing exactly what either ‘global’ or ‘art cinema’ is, present a rather daunting prospect. However, this edited collection deals with the difficulty quite admirably.

Built on the accumulation of previous scholarship on art cinema, it references the work of, among others, David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, and Steave Neale. Writing on art cinema was concerned mostly with Western post-war films, but Galt and Schoonover note that art cinema is not an obsolete subject, and its study is able to distinguish and reveal aspects of cinema which might be otherwise overlooked. As the editors write in the Introduction, the ‘mongrel identity’ of art cinema should be used to ‘explore central questions’ relevant to current film scholarship.

What the book intends to do is recalibrate the idea that art cinema discussions should be centred on the Western European-North American exchanges, for the most part ignoring contributions from other geographical spaces. Therein lies both its strength and its weakness; the book attempts to cover a rather large area—both geographically and temporally—and enriches our knowledge and understanding of art cinema that doesn’t necessarily fit into mainstream cinema, but no matter how comprehensive and all-inclusive it attempts to be, there will always be aspects of the topic which will be overlooked.

The various essays in the book are interrelated, as the contents of an essay on the film festivals can be read in connection with chapters on the European art cinema (of Werner Herzog, Claire Denis or the Dardenne Brothers); or between the international reception of ‘pink films’ and bisexual representations in art cinema. One of these essays, authored by Mark Betz, “Beyond Europe: on parametric transcendence”, looks at art cinema not as it has been associated in recent years with film festivals, but rather as a continuation, or a reversal, to modernism; a modernism which is constituted on the parametric qualities of these films defining and delimiting the field of art cinema. By critically engaging with the previous work of David Bordwell, in his description of parametric narrative, Betz is proposing a widening of the area of potential objects of study to include more than a select few of Euro-centric filmmakers and their films. In a counter-balancing article Azadeh Farahmand writes about the relationship between art cinema (especially in the context of national cinema—with a special focus on Iranian cinema) and film festivals. The value of the festival circuit to the dissemination of non-mainstream, art films is of paramount importance. Though limited in the focus of this article (as it discusses only Iranian cinema), the observations can be adapted and modified with the case of other national cinemas. In another article, David Andrews (“Towards an inclusive, exclusive approach to art cinema”) tries to (re)define the elusive concept of art cinema through the perspective of a theoretical framework, a daunting task and one which cannot be fully covered in one article, however—like the rest of the book, it provides a good starting point for further consideration, and more detailed and in-depth analysis.

The concept of global is not necessarily associated with the idea of geographical identities. The book doesn’t focus especially on any geographical spaces, but rather looks at art films as representatives of a ‘language of cinema’ that crosses borders and languages. For that reason, the book is not structured in a form which would indicate a specific geographical direction—the structure of the book follows issues of concern for contemporary art cinema: from the poetic nature of art films, to the growth of the pink film movement, and from the films of the sub-Saharan region to art cinema classics. This diversity is instrumental in positioning art cinema in the larger frame of an art form accessible to all, distancing it from the rather elitist perspective generally associated with the idea of art cinema.

Global Art Cinema is an intriguing read. The essays are well-researched, and present a diversity of styles, some leaning towards a more theoretical, conceptual or historical analysis, while other focus on specific films and filmmakers and the aesthetics of the art film image. It is both enjoyable and thought-provoking, providing a strong introduction to art films.

Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood’s Legendary Director

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By Marilyn Ann Moss, University of Kentucky Press, 2011

Reviewed by Fredrik Gustafsson

Too many books written about Hollywood filmmakers make the claim that their particular
director had an unusual amount of freedom when making his films. This is based on the
assumption that in Hollywood directors were uniquely constrained and controlled, by the
studios and the producers. This is a rather general statement. In Hollywood there were
many different agreements and arrangements, depending on the individual director and on
the studio, and the status of filmmakers changed all the time. The argument also makes
Hollywood out to be more unique in its system than it actually was. It is a credit to Marilyn
Ann Moss that she never makes this argument in her new book Raoul Walsh: The True
Adventures of Hollywood’s Legendary Director. Walsh is a good example of the complexities of the Hollywood system, which Moss’s book reflects.

Walsh was born in 1887 and lived to be almost 100 years old. He began directing around 1914, under the auspices of D.W. Griffith and his first important film is Regeneration (1915). That film already has the characteristic drive and verve of Walsh’s direction, while also having some connections with Walsh own life. He was quickly established as a first-rank director but it was when he joined Warner Bros. in 1939 that he entered his artistically most interesting phase. The first great film if this phase was The Roaring Twenties (1939) and for little over 10 years Walsh was at the peak of his career. He continued to direct until 1964 but the later output is much more varied in quality and interest.

Although Walsh was never given an Academy Award for direction he was held in high esteem by established critics (such as James Agee, Andrew Sarris and Manny Farber) and fellow filmmakers (Ingmar Bergman was a fan). But there have not been much coverage or analysis of his life and work in full, so for that reason alone, Moss’s book is a welcome contribution to the field of cinema studies. Since it is extensively researched, it will also be an invaluable reference point for future studies of Walsh work. Such studies are still needed, because Moss’s book is somewhat dissatisfying. Three primary problems with the book are its tendency towards repetition, some factual errors, and a lack of ambition when it comes to analysing the films.

Moss does write about Walsh’s characters, how these characters share similar traits and how many of them are close to Walsh himself (she mentions how Errol Flynn would often play his parts as if he was playing Walsh), but with such a visually gifted, and visually-centred filmmaker, it is a shame that she pays so little interest to his work with the camera. Moss does quote second unit director Ridgeway Callow as saying “he [Walsh] had a way, an absolute knack of placing the camera in the right position” and this is true, but little is said on how he worked with the camera, and where he placed it. Walsh’s use of deep focus is one of the most advanced in film history, and he developed his particular way of shooting in the silent era. With his use of depth and his dislike of studio settings, he was one of the most Bazinian of filmmakers, and this long before William Wyler or the neorealists were making films. I would have liked to have read more about these aspects of his work.

Despite these problems the book is still a worthwhile addition to the (all too small) body of work on Walsh. Moss went through archives, talked to survivors, and read memos, letters, reviews, interviews and autobiographies. The scope of this research is the book’s lasting achievement. Walsh was a boisterous and engaging character, and the book does make him come alive. After finishing this book, it is hard not to miss him.

Genre in Asian Film and Television: New Approaches

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Edited by Felicia Chan, Angelina Karpovich and Xin Zhang, Palgrave MacMillan, 2011

Reviewed by Andrew Dorman

Given the deluge of material currently available on the subject of Asian cinema, the arrival of any new publication in the field of Asian media studies is invariably greeted with questions of whether there is a need for yet another edited volume. Not only have Asian cinema studies been plentiful in recent years, there have also been numerous efforts to rethink the concept of Asian cinema in terms of modern globalisation and the transnational. Asian Cinemas: A Reader and Guide (ed. Dimitris Eleftheriotis and Gary Needham, 2006), East Asian  Cinemas: Exploring Transnational Connections on Film (Leon Hunt and Leung Wing-Fai, 2008) and Horror to the Extreme: Changing Boundaries in Asian Cinema (ed. Jinhee Choi and Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano, 2009) have all made excellent contributions to the scholarly recontextualisation of Asian cinema, while Rogue Flows: Trans-Asian Cultural Traffic (ed. Koichi Iwabuchi, Stephen Muecke and Many Thomas, 2004) has negotiated the interdisciplinary links between film and television in relation to globally-circulated Asian media.

Genre in Asian Film and Television shows that there is still a need for this kind of study by demonstrating ways in which multiple Asian cinemas can be discussed collectively without losing sight of cultural specificity. However, this study tends to be overly broad in its scope, criss-crossing between an array of subjects including Japanese animation, televised theatre in Bali, Tamil cinema, the Hindi horror films of the Ramsay brothers and the work of Japanese director Seijun Suzuki to name but a few of the featured case studies.

The volume demonstrates an awareness of the complexities engendered in the study of such a broad and loosely-defined category as Asian film. In their introduction, Felicia Chan and Angelina Karpovich outline ways in which Asian film and television can be discussed collectively in terms of genre and specifically how genre operates under different historical, political and cultural conditions. (5) The book is structured into three sections – non-fiction genres, mainstream genres and genre and cross-cultural representation. This last section is particularly strong within the study and features a key contribution – ‘East Asian Pop Culture’ – by Chua Beng Huat, a chapter that addresses cross-cultural interactions of production, representation and reception outlined by Chan and Karpovich. Chua convincingly argues for the existence of a pan-East Asian pop culture industry that has emerged in light of American mass-entertainment hegemony. Taking into account flows of television dramas and to some extent film and music, Chua identifies a criss-cross of regionally-produced pop culture that has constituted a ‘routine consumer culture’ across East Asia:

Side by side with American pop culture, in every major urban centre in East Asia…there are dense flows of pop culture products from same centres into one another, although the directions and volumes of flows vary unevenly amongst them. (224)

Yet while Chua underlines the establishment of a pan-East Asian pop culture based around a collective consumerism, he also maintains the central position of ‘foreignness’ and thus cultural difference in pop culture consumption, whether discussing Korean television dramas popular in Japan or political opposition in China targeted towards the popular Taiwanese singer Chang Hui Mei.

Chua also looks at how the foreign is both ‘domesticized’ in the form of dubbing and ‘preserved’ as a culturally-distant spectacle. However, despite this, the transnational circulation of television seems to generate a collective ‘we-feeling’ among spectators, a level of audience identification based on ‘being human’ which Chua suggests results in a more regionalised identity:

A less inclusive mode of identification than ‘humans/ anyone’ takes the form of ‘I’ identity with the character because we are ‘Asians’, which ideologically also says ‘we are not like non-Asians’. This generates and affirms a sense of ‘Asian-ness’, despite cultural differences between the production and consumption locations, and may be a manifestation of what is conceptualized as ‘cultural proximity. (233)

It is on this basis, Chua argues, that a desire for a pan-Asian identity is based through the consumption of popular culture products. (233)

Cobus van Staden looks closer into the appeal of the ‘foreign’ in his analysis of the anime series Arupusu no Shoujo Haiji/ Heidi, a Girl of the Alps (Isao Takahara, 1974, Jap) and the Japanese representation of Europe through animation. Viewing anime as a globalised cultural phenomenon, van Staden emphasises the role of exoticism in global, cross-cultural reception, with Europe providing a ‘safe exoticism’ for a Japanese spectatorship, (180) as well as audiences in other national contexts. Both Chua and van Staden situate transcultural flows of production and reception within wider continental and global contexts while other contributors provide more nationally-focused investigations of film and television genres.

For example, Valentina Vitali focuses on Ramsay brothers’ horror films in order to question what socio-cultural factors made these films possible in India in the 1980s. Vitali suggests that these films can be read as historical documents linked to the collapse of the Congress Party and the idea of a more secularised Indian society and the resultant resurgence of religious discourses. In the chapter ‘Everything Masala? Genres in Tamil Cinema’, Michael Christopher also takes a more nationally-focused approach, arguing that despite some aesthetic similarities with the cinemas of south India, Bollywood cinema made for Hindi-speaking audiences is not crucial to cinemas in southern Indian cinemas. (101) In these chapters a close analysis of Indian horror and martial arts genre conventions highlights both a collective national and political experience and regional disparities within India.

Despite the strengths of the textual and historical analysis throughout Genre in Asian Film and Television, particularly in the chapters by Vitali and Christopher, the overall study is perhaps too broad in its scope and vague in some of its aims and objectives. At times it is difficult to see how certain sections, such as those by Chua and van Staden, fit alongside more specific national cinema studies included in the text. Having said this, Chan, Karpovich and Zhang have compiled a collection of intriguing and at times original studies that not only provide new approaches to Asian media and the consumption of it, but also suggests ways in which national and genre cinemas can be reconsidered beyond the standard positioning of Asia vis-à-vis the West.

A ‘Toxic Genre’: The Iraq War Films

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By Martin Barker, Pluto Press, 2011

Reviewed by John Trafton

A “toxic genre,” argues Martin Barker, is one where “the production and reception environment already guarantees a struggle for any film” associated with a politically polarizing topic. Recent scholarly work on the crop of Iraq War films has addressed their revisions of war film codes, issues of agency, and the narrative role of trauma, but Barker’s book neatly binds together these approaches in pursuit of the answer to why these war films are deemed “toxic.” By posing this question, and going beyond textual analysis, A ‘Toxic Genre’ provides a more complex overview of contemporary war films, their function within popular cultural, and their role in the overall evolution of the war film genre.

With the plausible exception of Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2009), the vast majority of these films have been commercial, and in some cases critical, failures. In examining the various reasons behind this trend, Barker engages in a extensive series of approaches: identifying what kind of stories these films tell, what tropes and themes provide the genre with connective tissue, the evolution of the figure of the American soldier, the spectre of war trauma in American culture, as reflected in these films, how these films chose to “explain the Iraq War” to their respective audiences, and how liberalized mass media informs the revisions to the genre’s visual codes. The best demonstrations of these ideas intersecting are in a chapter on the “success” of The Hurt Locker and a chapter on the pre-production of No True Glory – an Iraq War film that never came to fruition. Barker critiques The Hurt Locker’s critical impact and questions the film’s status as a financial success in contrast to other Iraq War films. With No True Glory, Barker outlines the history of the film’s pre-production and, based on the production and reception of actual Iraq War films, surmises what the result may have been like.

A strong feature of Barker’s book is its broad scope. A ‘Toxic Genre’ provides an expansive overview of the genre, indexing the important thematic and cultural content of these films and identifying the common threads that link them. This approach widens the book’s appeal from film academics to undergraduates and non-film scholars; the focus on reception makes this study accessible to a wide range of fields and interests. Additionally, courses in genre studies and film history would do well by engaging with Barker’s work, as his book is a valuable contribution to recent dialogue in both disciplines.

By contrast, Barker’s attempt to tackle a wide range of films and critical issues presents a minor shortcoming: questions remain that could have been clarified through more focused and in-depth textual analyses. Nevertheless, Barker’s multi-faceted approach provides new depth to the field and the construction of new methodologies for approaching it. Barker reminds us that, in his view, although The Hurt Locker represents the end of one cycle of Iraq War films, Hollywood is “not finished with Iraq.”