Books and Magazines
Teaching film at University, I am often shocked by the reading habits of my students. I am not complaining — as so many of my colleagues wearily do — that students do not read enough; in fact, in the Internet age, they read more than ever before — just as they write more than ever before.
But there is a strange, ingrained, very old-fashioned habit that almost every University student absorbs without thinking about it or even recognising it, when it comes to essay-writing or seminar-presenting time: they trust books, and books alone — and the older, dustier and heavier the book, the better.
There are several problems with this — beyond, at the outset, the rather depressing acquiescence of these students to the snobby idea that The Book is the repository of true, serious knowledge, while everything else is merely trivial ephemera.
The first big problem is the shunning of magazines — for the history of film criticism is far more the history that is written, from month to month, in magazines, rather than in books. And the account of cinema that forms itself, on the run, in the pages of a magazine is naturally going to be fragmented, allusive, accumulative, always provisional.
As faithful readers of any film magazine, we immerse ourselves in not only the detachable content of 'opinions', but the entire ethos or sensibility of the publication: its design, its regular crew of contributors, its editorial vision (explicit or implicit), and above all its 'group choices', the balance sheet of what we come to feel the magazine is for and against.
Many a time, I have found myself recommending to a student that they seek out some review or comment piece by Raymond Durgnat or Judith Williamson or Tony Rayns or Kathleen Murphy in some issue of a film magazine anywhere between the early 1960s and today — because of my personal memory that some insight, even some critical zeitgeist, was crystallised there. Some students report back to me puzzled and annoyed: it was just one page on some crappy, obscure film, and the bit you mentioned took up two sentences and three lines! Can't you recommend a weighty book on this topic... ?
But books (even copiously footnoted ones) tend to filter out this process of ongoing, collective discovery. They also — based on woolly justifications coming from publishers and editors as well as authors themselves — tend to fixate on a very narrow, recent and mainstream set of examples. The last few pedagogical textbooks on cinema that have passed my desk all churn over the same unimaginative sample of a dozen films: memento, eternal sunshine of the spotless mind, 21 grams, fight club, kill bill, amélie...
There is sad breakdown here: in the era of World Cinema, the news is just not getting through to publishers that books for anyone (young or older, professional or amateur) should be ranging far wider than blockbuster English-language films and a couple of middlebrow subtitled hits. Thus, we end up with an almost total disconnect between what is written about enthusiastically in magazines like Cinema Scope and what is covered between the pages of academic books...
Unless, of course, we go to Spain and Korea, two of the places where publishing about film has fled the major book channels, and dwells mainly in the monographic endeavours of film festivals. But that is a story for another time...