A film study that gets blurry
I name my source here only to draw attention to the absence of such quotes in the book by Conrad, Born in Hobart. A surprisingly scholarly approach from someone who taught at Christ Church in Oxford and is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Given that it draws heavily on the thoughts of many other writers and filmmakers – including Jean Epstein, Jean Cocteau, and Sergei Eisenstein – one would have expected it to offer readers the opportunity to further examine near his sources to make sure they are saying what he claims they are saying.
The distinction between “recreation” and “representation” may seem subtle, but it is essential. After claiming that cinema is a version of the “founding myth,” Conrad then turns to several films in which characters assume divine powers in their creation of new life (including Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis and film adaptations of Mary Shelley Frankenstein). Thus, films that deal with “recreation” are presented as proof that the medium itself is a case of recreation.
Woolly thought like this permeates the book. In the edit, Conrad proclaims, “Films are artefacts that have been sculpted and sutured, like bodies in an operating room. A fair enough point, even if it is not original. But to illustrate, instead of examining the process of editing a film, Conrad turns to bodies subjected to violence in one form or another in Samuel Fuller’s film. Fixed bayonets! and that of David Lynch Blue velvet.
A few pages later, he reflects on how the performances of the actors in the film are broken down into clips which are then edited together in a sequence. Again, a reasonable point, if not particularly insightful. But then, to dig deeper, he turns to Charlie Chaplin’s iconic character – the “million dollar” mustache, the oversized boots, the cane – apparently believing those elements are brought together by the montage. Not in any Chaplin movie I’ve ever seen.
Elsewhere, he draws attention to “the myth of fatherhood”. Then, rather than exploring, say, the ways in which the collaborative nature of cinema subverts the idea of a single author, it continues – without any problem – not just to discuss the work of established authors (Hitchcock, Bertolucci et others), but also to reflect on films about filmmakers (Passion, Last Tango in Paris, The American Night, etc.).
There are few signs that Conrad is familiar with the work of the serious film theorists and critics who have shed light on how film works for the past 60 years. I suspect he is totally ignoring Martin’s work – otherwise why would he use the same title for his book? – not to mention everything that has to do with the problems that semiotics, structuralism and feminism have put on the table.
His book on “the mysteries of cinema” delivers his words with a learned air. But it is exasperating confusion.