FILM CRITICISM is finally beginning to capture and to embody some of the richness of the art it studies, as these two excellent books prove.
S.S. Prawer's Caligari's Children, an examination of what he calls the "terror film" (rather than the more common "horror film," which he finds misleading), provides a thoughtful analysis of what drives us to pay good money to be scared out of our wits.
The book is least successful in its opening chapters, which inundate us with long-forgotten B-film titles and with a survey of our filmic fears organized, if that's the word, by little more than free association. Prawer is much better when elaborating the complexities of the "uncanny." Here, his training in comparative literature enables him to trace the roots of the film of terror, and particularly its reliance on the doppelganger motif, from its beginnings in German literature up through Freud and Jung.
In later chapters, Prawer furnishes insights into classic terror films like Rouben Mamoulian's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932), which starred Fredic March, Carl Dreyer's Vampyr (1932), and what he rightly considers the most important terror film of all time, Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919). His discussion of this last film documents the continuous recycling of its iconography in the hundreds of terror films that followed it.
The book closes with a sober survey of the increasingly gratuitous sex and violence in the terror film since the early '60s. Sketching in the terms of the critical debate concerning these movies (are they or are they not garbage? are the sex and violence actually suggestive and harmful or merely cathartic?), Prawer offers no conclusive answers but manages to state the problem in its clearest possible terms.
Though he sounds a faint warning against the possibilities for manipulation in the genre, Prawer seems willing, finally, to give himself over to the "liberating" power of terror movies. Robert Kolker, on the other hand, in A Cinema of Loneliness, his fine new study of contemporary American film, finds little liberation in recent films and a great deal of manipulative, whether their creators are aware of it or not. Even the most "innocent" film, he tells us, "tends to support the dominant ideology when it presents itself as unmediated reality, entertaining us while reinforcing accepted notions of love, heroism, domesticity, class structure, sexuality, history."
Kolker's central thesis is that the so-called "New Hollywood," is, in fact, simply "the old Hollywood without security and without community." The now-defunct studio system, even at its most stultifying, at least operated to develop talent and allowed its brightest prospects to learn from their mistakes. Paradoxically, younger filmmakers today enjoy less creative freedom than their studio-bound predeccessors, since every film now must break box-office records and every director, no matter how financially successful in the past, is only as good as his last picture.
Thus the current cinema is still a cinema of compromise," Kolker complains that "although their films carry on an ideological debate with the culture that breeds them, they never confront that culture with another ideology . . . with social and political possibilities that are new or challenging. These are films made in isolation and, with few exceptions, about isolation. For without challenging the ideology many of them find abhorrent, they only perpetuate the passivity and aloneness that have become their central image."
Kolker brings to bear on his often brilliant readings of individual films all the resources of phenomenology, structuralism, Althusser, Brecht, and Barthes, without ever letting his analysis be overwhelmed by these theoretical tools. Refreshingly modest, he warns us at one point of his lack of expertise in the nuances of film acting and film music. He is also aware that all of his subjects are in mid-career (unfortunately, for example, the book was already in press when Cuppola's Apocalypse Now appeared), and he cheerfully admits that "this book is deeply opinionated, but hardly final."
He concludes his study with Robert Altman, in whose work he finds a redeeming dialectic between form and content. He argues that even though Altman seems committed to depicting the alienated passivity that so appeals to the other directors he discusses, nevertheless the "fullness and variety" of the formal space that Altman creates refuses to dominate us and at least offers the opportunity "of our seeing more, of overcoming the prison that our contemporary cinema seems dead set on insisting we inhabit."
The great virture of Kolker's book is that one can disagree with particulars and yet be grateful to find imaginative, though-provoking formulations of this sort in such plentiful supply. It is quite clear that this is the best book on contemporary American film that we have or are likely to have for some time.