Book Review by Jez Owen.
This collection from academic imprint Anthem Press collates material written by the eminent University of Boulder resident lecturer, critic and theorist Bruce F. Kawin. Written between 1977 and 2001, the work included covers a cross-section of film specific topics; from those defining a film’s particular attitude (violence, politics) to those that shape the many disparate elements of storytelling into a cohesive whole (narrative technique) via the collective principles that bond individual productions together (genre; horror and science fiction). Also included are a small number of diverse reviews (Welcome to L.A (1976), The Fury (1978), Piranha (1978), The Elephant Man (1980)) plus two keynote interviews with Hollywood icons Lillian Gish and Howard Hawks. The final section is less specific but provides a provocative coda to proceedings wherein Kawin tackles film critique directly, discusses formats and their meaning, and in an inspired final chapter offers a close analysis of three individual screen endings.
With such diversity of subject, any compendium would risk an awkward editorial balance and here the chapters do feel somewhat random in focus, as if the publishers used what material was available rather than selecting for cohesion. That said, as much of the material had a previous incarnation in journals (Film Quarterly, American Book Review, Film Criticism et al), we might deduce that reproduction rights or simple passage of time (i.e. lost files) may have made more focused theming problematic.
This is not a total negative however, as many pieces have been included that may have otherwise been destined to languish in an archive somewhere. Particularly in arts criticism, this can quite often seem to be the best place for older writing. By dusting off these works for a new audience, the editors have given daylight to what is a strikingly relevant oeuvre.
In one of several peer accepted landmark essays featured (a discussion of screenwriter William Faulkner’s work in Hollywood, p131), Kawin mentions Andre Bazin’s notion that many literary writers have been influenced by the ‘idea’ of cinema (p133), a thought that could also summarize Kawin’s approach. He goes on to expertly display his pragmatic technique and what starts as a focused piece, erring on the technical, becomes an enlightening essay on the similarities and difference between literature and cinema.
Once familiar with Kawin, it seems possible to say that his apparent immediacy is derived from his attempts to explore the ‘bigger questions.’ As he himself puts it, “there is more to film studies than just the study of the moving image” (P184). Indeed Kawin’s unofficial manifesto seems to be that film is a pure art form and as such should be nothing less than something that can help us define the meaning of our collective humanity. This point is illustrated perfectly in the foreword (by Kawin’s University of Boulder colleague Howie Movshovitz), which relates Kawin’s humanist approach to an occasion where the Columbia University English department once decamped to work in a hospital to return with a refreshed, invigorated position on their reasons for studying English, namely that literature is more than just studying books, it can and should be about life itself.
This kind of metaphysical evaluation is undoubtedly captivating, but it could be accused of being one step removed from the individual film text and indeed the process of filmmaking. Whilst not initially troubling, on reflection this fact highlights a flaw in Kawin’s approach that is hard to dismiss. He is very quick to denigrate what he calls the “non-science of Poststructuralist theory,” (p31) which is unfortunate, as his own technique seems to share much with this type of approach. Such critique places its subject in an overarching system of order, whether that be language or social convention. Crucially, those systems are viewed as unstable foundations with which to establish a definition and so by default the meaning of the text is infinitely changeable.
Kawin is more simplistic in his approach but still refers back to an umbrella context, in his case the construct of ‘cinema’ as art in its broadest term. This is a problematic choice, as being a product of culture cinema itself would seem to be relatable to those same itinerant rules that Poststructuralist theory posits. In actual fact, the reality of what Kawin is really railing against is criticism that he doesn’t personally like, namely that which appears self-serving and overblown, an abject opposition that sadly undermines the intelligence of the rest of his work.
In conclusion, this book is a splendid introduction to an influential writer you may not have had the opportunity to read previously. Kawin emerges as the quintessential cinema academic, a writer of (mostly) concise opinion imbued with an understanding of the technicalities of the medium and a real adoration for its possibilities; a unique overview of cinema as a multi-faceted artistic expression.
Jez Owen is a UK-based academic, creative director, and independent cultural writer. You can follow him on twitter @splendoid and on his blog.