GREEK CINEMA AND ANGLO-AMERICAN FILM THEORY
(Writer’s note: The following piece is a paper presented in December 2004 at the conference L’Odyssée du Cinéma organised by the Centre Culturel Hellénique and L’Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris. It attempted to examine the usefulness and challenges presented by Anglo-American film theory for the study of Greek cinema. In the ten years that followed, developments both in the production of Greek films and in academic scholarship have rendered several of the points raised below problematic or even irrelevant. Other points nevertheless remain pertinent and the paper – presented in its original form with no alterations or revisions – might offer some insights in the dynamic developments in the field of Greek film studies over the last ten years).
This paper is very much motivated by personal experience. My institutional position at the University of Glasgow involves a close and continuous engagement with Anglo-American film: that is what I teach and that is what I write about; my on-going interest in Greek cinema is very much marginal – my publications on Greek cinema are minimal and I do not teach Greek cinema at any point. This is admittedly a frustrating state of affairs necessitated by institutional politics, canonical hegemonies but also by the difficult interface between Anglo-American film theory as a theoretical framework and Greek cinema as an object of study. This paper will attempt to move beyond difficulties and frustration and propose some of the ways in which the two can exist in a more creative and harmonious way.
I will start by making clear that what I call ‘Anglo-American theory’ is defined not in terms of a purity of origin but primarily in terms of institutional academic location. In fact, some of the formative concepts and methods of Anglo-American theory are of French, Italian, Russian, Austrian, German origin to mention but a few. This borrowed material has been worked through and appropriated in a variety of paradigms and frameworks that, despite their heterogeneous and clearly impure nature, somehow cohere into this dynamic and under constant revision body of work entitled Anglo-American film theory.
I should also make clear my contention that this body of work is extremely important and it can offer valuable theoretical tools for the study of Greek cinema. There are, first of all, clear pragmatic reasons for that: not only the shear volume of work produced in British, American, Australian and Canadian academic and other institutions (in the UK alone the study of film is undertaken in more than a hundred universities) but also because an increasing number of Greek students and researchers complete their studies and establish the foundations of their own scholarly contributions under the aegis of Anglo-American theory. There are also important intellectual reasons: the theoretical paradigm under consideration here has historically transformed in a remarkable way, moving away from its Anglo- and Euro- centric early phase of the 1960s and 70s into a genuinely international, extensive and inclusive approach. In fact, the study of cinema in its global dimensions from production to consumption and the complex trans-national interactions of cinematic and cultural forms have become privileged and rapidly growing research areas.
There are I think three phases in the evolution of Anglo-American film theory from its formative moments in the late 1960s and 70s (when Film Studies first emerged initially as a highly specialised subject area and later as an academic discipline in a handful of institutions) to the contemporary situation which is marked by a widespread acceptance and institutional approval. In my view these three categories are characterised by a common thread that I want to define as a changing process of differentiation: from the early differentiation between texts, through the consideration of different subjectivities, audiences and identities to the current emphasis on the investigation of different cinematic histories.
In the early period differentiation took the form of detailed, textually centred analysis of films in terms of their aesthetic characteristics. During that phase important work was produced, on the one hand, around the theorisation, analysis and evaluation of genres (important here was work on musicals, westerns, film-noir, melodramas) and on the other hand around the evaluation of the work of certain directors established eventually as the great canonical authors (Ford, Minnelli, Hawks, Ray, Hitchcock readily come to mind). What motivated such work was first of all the urgent need for the aesthetic legitimacy of film as art (the seventh art) and the academic legitimacy of the study of film. By differentiating between the vast amount of mainly Hollywood produced films (commonly perceived as mass entertainment), critics and academics established valued objects of study that monopolised the scene: the films of the major Hollywood authors plus those of the recognised European masters (with Ozu, Kurosawa and S. Ray thrown in for good measure).
But apart form the canon-formation function of such work the additional contribution was the elaborate and systematic analysis and description of Hollywood cinema as a formal system, a paradigm within which the categories of continuity editing, narrative-driven form and character-centred story-telling became crucial. In opposition to that European art cinema, political cinema and third cinema were proposed as radical alternatives. In fact the later period of this first phase is very much concerned about binary classifications and evaluations such as Hollywood/art, entertainment/politics. It is obvious that such model is particularly hostile to the study of Greek cinema with the limited exemptions of the films that can be easily placed on the other side of the Hollywood/commercial/entertainment pole: the films of Angelopoulos for instance.
However, I would like to propose that a similar approach to the study of Greek cinema could potentially become a first but all-important step towards achieving the scholarship that we need. It is particularly encouraging that what we call old or commercial Greek cinema is receiving in the last ten years the academic attention that it deserves. And it is even more encouraging that such work seems to be very much concerned with differentiation particularly in the context of genre studies. More work of the same kind is needed not only in order to differentiate between kinds of films but also between directors, production practices and aesthetic trends. While for instance it is impossible to discover the Greek Minnelli in Dalianidis it is important to recognise the possibility that there might be tropes and themes in many of his movies that demonstrate patterns, repetitions or consistency.
It might also be valuable to address issues around the assumed theatrical and frontal style of old Greek cinema: is it all- pervasive? Are there counter examples? And if the vast majority of movies combine theatricality with the action-image how is their relationship maintained and what are the aesthetic and semantic implications of that? Such work needs to be clear about its relationship to the ‘classical paradigm’ of Hollywood proposed in the early phase of Anglo-American film theory: there is no de facto aesthetic inferiority of the Greek cinema, there is perhaps a different ‘classicism’ in operation. In that respect a theory of Greek cinema needs to be in productive and critical dialogue with the Anglo-American paradigm questioning its normative aspects but activating research inspired by its conceptual and methodological relevance.
Subjects, audiences, identities
From the mid 1970s the emphasis shifts and focuses on the question of the subject as the main concern of theory and analysis. The early theorisations of uniformly interpellated cinematic subjects met serious challenges initially by feminist film critics and scholars. During this second phase differentiation concerns primarily spectatorial positions, audiences and identities. Important work revolved around the theorisation of the relationship between textual and social subject or around the differentiated pleasures of cinema and their relationship with viewers in the real world or around the differentiation between viewing communities and their strategies of interpretation, or around the complex relationship between screen representations and identities and personal or collective senses of identity. Work of that kind in the Greek context is not particularly prominent, although, I would argue, it could be essential politically particularly in our contemporary historical moment. Relationships between cinematic identities in the old commercial cinema and audiences tend to be over simplistic and usually rather aphoristic of either the films or the viewers or often both. The old commercial cinema offers a variety of represented identities organised around differences of class, gender, ethnicity, morality, and sexuality – how do such representations and identities relate to the audiences of the time and of today? What specific cultural and social values did different social groups invest in different stars? Were there any politically challenging stars or cinematic identities? Where do they surface and how are they dealt with? How do Greek cinematic identities and representations interact with foreign ones?
In the contemporary context the specificities of an increasingly fragmented ethnically and culturally audience need to be addressed. How for example citizens with non-Greek ethnic origins experience films such as Safe Sex (1999) or Politiki Kouzina / A Touch of Spice (2003)? Work of such nature is as much necessary as it is difficult – if Greek scholarship moves towards that direction there is a wealth of methodological debates around such issues within Anglo-American theory that can provide guidance.
Crucial questions have been asked recently around the universality of the historical and theoretical models employed by Anglo-American film theory. Such questioning has been motivated by a number of developments: the influential role of postcolonial criticism within Cultural Studies in general, the proliferation of film courses which led to the creation of many university posts with the employment of a great number of academics with diasporic, exilic or migrant background, but perhaps more significantly with the opening-up of the object of study to include cinemas hitherto ignored by the canon. Indeed a look at a recent copy of Screen or Camera Obscura would confirm the central position that the cinemas of South and East Asia and the diasporic cinemas emerging in France, Germany, the UK and the USA occupy in the field.
Such development is of particular importance for the study of Greek cinema. Firstly, because the relationship between Anglo-American theory and the study of such cinemas becomes crucial. In fact, the negotiated relationship between the two, identified earlier as a key issue for the study of Greek cinema, is a particularly exciting and active research area in contemporary theory. Once again methodological questions of extreme relevance to the study of Greek cinema are asked in the context, for example, of Fifth Generation Chinese cinema, Hindi melodramas or Turkish cinema, questions involving a critical engagement with Anglo-American paradigms as well as with more culturally specific theoretical traditions. Importantly, work of that kind further reinforces the demand that such cinemas are not conceptualised as aesthetically inferior but as recognisably and positively different.
Secondly, because the emphasis on diasporic cinemas foregrounds key issues for the study of Greek cinema: the inclusion on the one hand of the works of the Greek diaspora in the discursive category ‘Greek cinema’, and on the other hand it raises questions around issues of access to the production, distribution and consumption of films of the ethnic minorities that now make up a significant part of the population of Greece.
Finally, of extreme importance is the theorisation of the study of national cinemas within Anglo-American theory. As is the case with any national cinema, defining the nature of the theoretical discourse on what Greek cinema actually is becomes a game of very high stakes, an area where theoretical concerns intersect with historical canons, journalistic criticism and the heavily charged field of government film policy. By challenging essentialist views of what national cinema is, recent theoretical work has criticised and revised the traditional models. More specifically the following suggestions seem to be particularly relevant:
From a theoretical perspective national cinema is not a requirement neither a strategic objective but an epistemological object.
That such an object is not readily available but emerges within and through discursive activity.
That the discourse of the national cinema needs to overcome an elitist perspective that only values a certain type of film.
That our understanding of national cinema needs to be expanded to include the broad film culture of a nation: not only the films that a nation produces but also the films that a nation watches.
The above implies that the study of modes of film consumption is as important as the study of production.
That we need to understand that no nation is an island but that in the age of advanced and accelerated global circulation the national exists in a dynamic relationship of mutual dependency with the international and the transnational.
In conclusion, what I think is the defining characteristic of Anglo-American film studies is its willingness (of course not without struggle, debate and recrimination) to review and renew its theoretical tools in response to an ever-changing object of study. It is this responsiveness, this openness to the object of research that I think can guide the growing interest in the study of Greek cinema.