A Book Review by Budd Wilkins.
‘In his essay on “Screen Memories,” [Freud] argued that troubling or traumatic memories tend to find expression through highly distorted symbolic forms’ (3). This one line perfectly encapsulates the core idea explored throughout European Civil War Films. A nation suffers a kind of trauma during periods of internecine conflict. This trauma subsequently and irrevocably alters that nation’s self-perception. As a consequence, the stories that come to surround these often still contested events provide a rich source for investigation into the constructive mechanisms of memory and identity. With all that in mind, the author sets out to interrogate the intersection of cinema and history. As a matter of fact, ‘Screen Memories’ could have served as an alternative title just as easily.
European Civil War Films is by no means a bad book; it is, however, an imperfect one. The topic is (alas) ever timely, and Kosmidou’s approach to her material is fundamentally sound. Nevertheless, it’s often difficult to escape the impression that somehow—in the face of certain overarching structural problems, as well as a plethora of stylistic and syntactical stumbling blocks—someone has dropped the ball here. For one thing, the book’s lopsided structure tends to blunt its overall impact. Rather than incorporate the requisite theoretical material along the way, doling it out as appropriate, for some reason Kosmidou feels the need to frontload her book with its theoretical apparatus. By the time these ideas recur in the meat of the text, readers may well have forgotten the nuances of the usage; ungainly flipping back and forth hinders the flow of the argumentation.
After an abbreviated introductory chapter that limns the overall approach, as well as enumerates the various countries and films under consideration, the weighty second chapter is broken up into numerous subsections, each one articulating a single aspect of Kosmidou’s interpretive framework. As in a whirlwind, the reader is introduced not only to the key concepts of collective and cultural memory, but also to an array of other theoretical terms: reflective and restorative nostalgia, allegory, melodrama, the carnivalesque, and the gaze. Thus Kosmidou has assembled her ‘theoretical toolkit,’ which is all well and good, except for the fact that—rather than simply adumbrate the aspects of the concept that are most germane to the material—Kosmidou proceeds to ‘theorize’ each and every notion, effectively offering a surplus of extraneous ‘genealogical’ material.
It’s equally hard to overlook the book’s plethora of stylistic and syntactical quirks. Some of the difficulty likely stems from the fact that Kosmidou is not a native English speaker; therefore, her sentence construction at times betrays traces of ungainly stiffness, as well as a measure of hazy inexactitude. It also doesn’t help that Routledge apparently dumped the bulk of the book’s proofreading in Kosmidou’s lap: errors running the gamut between misplaced punctuation and verb-noun disagreement litter almost every page, though there’s little to be gained here from multiplying examples.
Each chapter gives over an inordinate amount of space to contextualizing the respective conflict, both historically and politically, and while it’s obviously essential to provide some orientation, the unintended side effect is that the onslaught of unfamiliar material might bog readers down even further. What’s more, most chapters compare and contrast at least two films. Consequently, each film winds up receiving on average between 5 and 10 pages of coverage. This results in some ‘thin descriptions’ (pace Clifford Geertz) where rudimentary formal analysis—the psychological implications of camera placement is a favorite trope with Kosmidou—takes the place of truly intensive or rigorous readings of the film in question.
The only chapter that focuses on a single film deals with the Greek civil war. (The film under discussion is Theo Angelopoulos’ The Travelling Players.) Only someone with their tongue planted firmly in cheek would suggest that the author is playing favorites when it comes to the national traumas under discussion. Then again, since Kosmidou is herself of Greek extraction, it might not be entirely a coincidence that this chapter also happens to contain by far the most sophisticated and comprehensive reading of a film. I hesitate to suggest that there’s a hidden agenda involved, yet the entire progression and arrangement of the book seems to support such a suggestion.
Budd Wilkins is a contributor to Slant Magazine, The House Next Door, Acidemic Journal of Film and Media, and Not Coming to a Theater Near You.