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Review: Britton on Film

Review: Britton on Film

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Published by James MacDowell
Review of the book ‘Britton on Film: The Complete Film Criticism of Andrew Britton’ (ed. Barry Keith Grant), including a tribute to the late Robin Wood. Originally published in CineAction no. 84, (2011), pp: 44-49. Written by James MacDowell.
Review of the book ‘Britton on Film: The Complete Film Criticism of Andrew Britton’ (ed. Barry Keith Grant), including a tribute to the late Robin Wood. Originally published in CineAction no. 84, (2011), pp: 44-49. Written by James MacDowell.

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Published by: James MacDowell on Sep 12, 2011
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Britton
0
Film
THECOMPLETEFILMCRITICISMOFANDREWBRITTON
bylAMESMacDOWELLAndrewBritton,
BrittononFilm:theCompleteFilmCriticism
of
AndrewBritton,
ed.BarryKeithGrant.Detroit,MI:WayneStateUniversityPress,2009.AlthoughAndrewBrittonstudiedunderRobinWoodattheUniversityofWarwickinthe1970s,Woodwouldrepeatedlyspeakoftheirrolesofteacherandpupilhavingbecomereversed.Intheintroductionto
SexualPoliticsandNarrativeFilm:HollywoodandBeyond,
WoodsuggeststhatBritton's"miscellanouswritings,criticalandtheoreticI,scatteredamongvariousandoftenobscureperiod-icals,would,colicted,amounttoabookofincomparabldistinction"l.Goingfurtherinthetruro-ductionto
BrittononFilm,
heasserts,"itismoreimportanttoreadthisbookthantoreadmyowncollectdwritings"(p.xiii).
As
thereviewbelowwillargu,wecansurelyagreewiththefirstslat-ment;butIfindilnecessarytobalkatthesecond.RobinWoodwasoneofthemaincausesofmylearningtolovewritingaboutthecinema.ThefirstpieceofhisthatIclearlyrememberencounteringwasthearticle'RethlnkinqRomanticLove:
BeforeSunrise'2.
Itwaswithabeautiful,sharpshockthatIreaditsfirstwords:
"1
knew,thefirstlime
Now,Voyager
(1942):PaulHenriedandSettleOavi
44cineACTION
 
Isaw
BeforeSunrise,
thatherewasafilmforwhichIfelLnotonlyinterestoradmiration,butlove."Immediately,itwasclearthatthiswriterwasdeterminedtobeopnaboutsomethingthatwasbeingproblematicallyrepressedinsomuchotherscholar-ship:theabsolutelycrucial,unavoidable,importanceofacrit-ic'sownemotionsinguidingandshapingjudgments.NeverbeforehadIbeenmovedbyfilmcriticism.YetWood'ssome-timesstartlinghonestywasnotonlyvaluableforthewayitinvitedreadersintowhatfeltanintimateconversationwithhim;itwasalsofundamentaltohiscriticalphilosophy.Thelastwordsofhis
BeforeSunrise
piecerfrtoalinefromthefilmwhichspeaksofthe"magic"involvedin"theattemptofunder-standingsomeone,sharingsomething".''Thesamemightbesaid,"Woodsuggests,"ofthecritic'srelationshiptothefilmss/helovs."Thepersonalnatureofhiswritinghere,andelse-where,wasnotonlyamatteroffrankness,butalsoanecessaryresponsetothethemesofafilm,totherelationshipbetweencriticsandfilmsingeneral,andtotheirreduciblysocialrelation-shipbetweencriticandreader,whereintwominds"ttempttoundrstandsomeon,sharesomething".WoodhascalledBritton"afinermindthanmyown"(p.xv).It
IS
truethatBrittonpossessedatoweringintellectthatwasquitepossiblymorerigorousthanhismentor's,andthathedemonstratedagraspoftheorytowhichWoodradilyadmit-tedhewaslargelyimmune.YetmyrlationshipwithAndrewBritton'sbodyofworkisoneofutmostadmiration;myrelation-shipwithRobinWood'sisalsooneoflove.Whatfollowscanbeunderstoodasmytributetothemboth.
Review:
AndrewBrittonbelievedintlingouthisstall.Amercilsscrit-icofhypocrisyandevasivenessinothers,inhisownworkhesoughtalwaystodeclarehisattitudesandassumptionsasexplicitlyaspossible,oftenopningarticleswithdeclarlionsofprinciplethatservedaslandmrksforthe
fi
Iduponwhichbat-tlewassoontocommence.Ashewritsin'ThePhilosophyofthePigeonhole:WisconsinFormalismandth"ClassicalStyle''',"Ifreadersdonotknowwhrethecriticstndsinrelationtothework,theyhavenomeanofdefiningorassessingthrilic'sjudgments"(p.,25).Inributtosuchcandor,letusbeginthisreviewwiththeconclusionIhopewillbereachedbyanyoneuponclosingthisbook:thmarginalizationoftheworkofAndrew'Brittonbythefieldoffilmstudiesmustberegardedasnothingshortofascandal.ThisreviewwillinlargepartallmpttoarguewhyIconsidersuchaconclusionunavoidable.InhistragicallyforeshortnedcareerascriticBrittonpro-ducedabodyofarticleswhich,evenifjudgedonsubjectmatteralone,onemightimaginewouldsincehavebecomeObligatoryreadingforfilmstudiesstudentstheworldover.Attheveryleast,anumberofhiscoruscatingattacksonrigningorthodoxiesof70s,80s,and90sfilmtheory(e.g.:
'Screen
theory',neoformal-ism,postmodernism,theoriesoftheCultureIndustry)deservetohaveachievedclassicstatusonmodulestachingthehistoricaldevelopmentofthedisciplin.Aconceivablreasonfortheircur-rentobscuritycouldbethatmuchofhiswritingoriginallyappearedinpublications(predominantly
Movie,Fromework,
and
CineAction)
lessconcernedwithfollowingacademicfashionthan
 
someoftheirpeers,whichwerethereforesidelinedfromthemainstreamoffilmstudiesdiscourse.TheirinstitutionalpositionmayhavecausedBritton'spiecestosimplygounreadbythosetheytargeted,thusmeaningalackofresponses,andconse-quentlythearticles'relegationfromthedebatesintowhichtheypromisedtobesuchforcefulinterventions.AsRobinWoodsuggestsintheintroductiontothisbook,however,anotherpossibleexplanationforBritton'ssideliningisthathismostexplosivecritiquesdidnotinfactpassunnoticedsomuchastheywerestrategicallyignoredintheinterestsofavoidingcriti-caldialoguesfromwhichthesubjectsofhisattackswereunlike-lytoemergeunscathed(p.xiii).Ofcourse,wecanneverulti-matelyknowwhichoftheseexplanationscomesclosesttothetruth.Onethingwemayconfidentlysay,however,isthatitseemsunlikelythatamemberoftheeditorialboardof
Screen
couldhaveread'TheIdeologyof
Screen'
in1979anddeemeditmerelyunworthyofcomment;likewiseforDavidBordwelland'ThePhilosophyofthePigeonhole'in1988,andformanyotherofBritton'stargets.Onaperhapsmorefrivolousnote,anotherqualityofBritton'sworkthatmakeshisundeservedobscuritysosurprisingisitseminentquotability.Howexactlyisitthatlinessuchas"thediscourseofpostmodernismasawholeremindsoneofnothingsomuchasagameofTrivialPursuitforhighbrows"(p.483),or"asaphilosophicalorientation,structuralismmightbedescribedasMarxismforqueasystomachs"(p.395)couldhavefailedtobecomewell-wornepigrams?RetortslikethesedemonstrateBritton'ssometimesdevastatingrhetoricalwit,butarealsoemployedintheserviceofargumentswhosedepthandrigorhaveguaranteedsuchquipsneverfeelsimplyflip(Brittonwasnothingifnotimmenselyserious),butratheremergeaspenetrating,
and
witty,condensationsofsignificantcriticisms.Theliveliness,elegance,and-economyofBritton'sprose,how-ever,areneverthelesscertainlykeypleasuresofthiscollection,andconstitutefurtherargumentsforhiswork'sreappraisal.Take,forinstance,hisdescriptionofDavidBordwell'sattemptsin
TheClassicalHollywoodCinema
todismissthe'non-classical'elementsof
filmnair
inordertodefendhiscentralthesisofstu-dio-eraHollywood's"groupstyle":Considerthebloodysnuffingoutof
filmnair-an
antagonistwhosemanyobnoxiousfeatures,grimlyenumeratedbyMr.Bordwellbetweenclenchedteeth[...],foredoomedit,soonerorlater,tohisundyingenmity:itis,indeed,theepitomeofeverythingthataclassicalfilmcannotconceivablybe.Mr.Bordwellappraisestheloathsomehereticalobjectwithicycontemptforsomemoments,ponderingthemostefficientmethodofattack,andthenoptsboldlyforavicioussurprise-assaultonitsexposedontologicals:speaking
ex-cathedra,
heissuesaDeclarationofTotalOblivionwherebytheobjectshallbedeemedhence-forthtohavenofiniteexistence.(p.447)
3
Quiteapartfromhowdeliciousitistoread'academic'writingthisstylishanddynamic,thelanguageherealsoservesanimportantdescriptivefunction:throughitsemotionalintensifi-cationitconciselylaysbaretheproblematictheoreticalandevaluativemaneuversunderlyingthe"impartialdiscourse"(p.
46cineACTION
425)Bordwell'srhetoricpretendsto.Ofcourse,BrittongoesontoenumeratewhatheseesasBordwell'scriticalfailingsinmuchgreaterdetail,butitisatributetotheholisticnatureofhiswrit-ingthatsuchflourishesareseldomemployedfortheirownsake,butratherembodywithintheirveryformthecontenttheyseektoexpress.Whilestyleiscertainlyatoo-oftenundervaluedaspectofthecriticalact,however,Britton'sworkisfinallylessimportantforitsachievementsinrhetoricthanforitsideasand,perhapsaboveall,itsapproach.
BrittononFilm
isdividedintofourparts:'HollywoodCinema','HollywoodMovies','EuropeanCinema',and'FilmandCulturalTheory'.Althoughthisdivisioniscertain-lywelcomeforthesakeofclarityofreading,itistrueenoughtosaythatwhateverfilmsBrittonwroteon,hewasalwaysalsoimplicitlystrugglingwithonequestioninparticular:howmostresponsiblytocarryoutfilmcriticism.Tograsphisproposedanswerstothisquestionistograspwhatismostimportantandurgentinthiscollection.Brittonrejectedoutright"themythofacademicimpartiali-ty"(p.464),insteadrespondingtofilminawaythatwasunavoidablypersonal,yetalwayswrittenintheknowledgethatthe'personal'reactionisnevermerelyararefiedexpressionofindividualopinion,buttheresultofanencounterataparticu-larhistorical,cultural,andideologicalmoment.Thisfactneces-sarilyledhimtoconcludethat"thecriticalenterprise...isintrin-sically-andshouldbefrankly-political"(p.426).ForBritton,anawarenessoftheinherentlypoliticalnatureofcriticisminspiredtwoofhismostdeeplyheld,andmostfrequentlyreit-erated,beliefs:(1)thatanyactofcriticismisalsoalways(regardlessoffrequentprotestationstothecontrary)anactofevaluation,andthus(2)thatcriticalwritingdemandsaninformedknowledgeof,andattitudetowards,boththemateri-alhistoricalprocessesinformingartworksandthehistoricalmomentinwhichtheactofcriticismitselftakesplace.Ashewritesin'InDefenseofCriticism':Criticismisthesystematicreading(thatis,evaluation)oftexts.Likeallotheractivities,ittakesplaceinthepresent.Likeallothercriticalactivities,itpresupposesaprincipledattitudetothepoliticswhichconstitutethepresent.Thebusinessofthefilmcriticistoarriveatanunderstanding,onthebasisofthatattitude-whichoughttobeasalertandasconsciousaspossi-ble-ofwhatisofvalueinthepastandpresentofthecinema,andtoensurethatthisvalueisrecognizedforwhatitis,andhastheinfluenceitoughttohave,now.(p.376)Britton'sdesiretodeterminewhatsuchinfluencecould,orshould,bepulsesthrougheveryarticleinthisbook,andislinkedalwaystoascrupulouslymaterialistconceptionofhisto-ry.Drivenbythesimple,yetabsolutelyfundamental,convictionthat"allworksofartrepresentaninterventioninacultureand...interpretationisaprocessofdefiningwhatthenatureofthatinterventionis"(p.426),hisanalysesoffilmsarealwaysalsoimplicitlyresponsesto"thehistoricalsituationinwhichgenre,artist,andaudienceintersectwitheachother"(p.29).ThecombinationofthepersonalandthepoliticalinBritton'swritingleanthisworksaninfectiouspassionandararehuman-

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