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University Of Illinois Press (#110 of 3)

Review: Todd McGowan’s Spike Lee

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Review: Todd McGowan’s Spike Lee
Review: Todd McGowan’s Spike Lee

“In 1989, 10 films got awards [at the Cannes Film Festival] and Do the Right Thing wasn’t one of them. I don’t use awards as validation, but when all is said and done, if the choice is between a director like Steven Soderbergh and Spike Lee, they’ll give it to the golden white boy every time.” These words were spoken by Spike Lee following the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, where his new film Jungle Fever had just lost the Palme d’Or to the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink. Several writers, including Gene Siskel, weren’t fans of Lee’s “straight talk,” which led Siskel to ask: “Does [Lee] stop to think before he speaks?”

Todd McGowan’s new book remains largely inconsiderate of Lee’s public persona, instead focusing the analysis exclusively on the director’s films, seeking a link that unites them. For McGowan, excess and its negotiation is the defining unity of Lee’s filmmaking—an excess that “draws the spectator’s attention to form” and “disrupts the smooth functioning of society and makes evident the failure of all elements to fit together.” However, McGowan seeks to move past prior understandings of excess and claims that a new theory is needed to understand Lee’s films, “one that focuses on the intimate link between excess and passion.”

Review: Jaimey Fisher’s Christian Petzold

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Review: Jaimey Fisher’s Christian Petzold
Review: Jaimey Fisher’s Christian Petzold

Although he’s generally considered among the most critically acclaimed of contemporary German directors, Christian Petzold and his films remain relatively unknown to North American audiences. Perhaps that’s because of the exceedingly specific cultural formations within which Petzold’s films take place, namely the neoliberal spaces of contemporary Germany, where places and setting play just as significant a role as the characters, themselves. At least, these are the foundations of analysis laid out by Jaimey Fisher’s excellent new book examining Petzold’s entire filmography; Fisher seeks to contextualize Petzold’s films within prior scholarship, which has generally discussed their “movement spaces” (space remade by systems of mobility in modern society), but perhaps more importantly, he examines the ways in which neoliberal developments have “changed how individuals experience work, relationships, and themselves.” These combined help articulate what Fisher deems Petzold’s “ghostly archeology,” and terms his films “art-house genre cinema.”

The latter point is likely Fisher’s most provocative and reflexive, given that the neoliberal dimensions of Petzold’s cinema are seemingly their most explicit elements. In films like Yella, these financial motivators are made literal within the narrative, but in Jerichow, they’re more firmly filtered through a genre prism—in its case, film noir and, more specifically, The Postman Always Rings Twice. In fact, Fisher goes so far as to name a genre film in relation to nearly Petzold film, as a barometer for the levels of genre engagement. Sometimes they’re more obvious, as with Jerichow or even Yella, which takes Carnival of Souls as its basis. In other cases, however, the relationships are more opaque and unusual, as with the comparison of The Last Picture Show and Near Dark to The State I Am In, not because of directly identical narrative parallels, but more due to sensibility and style; thus, with Petzold, as with Peter Bogdanovich and Kathryn Bigelow, Fisher talks about each director’s refusal of nostalgia and recognition of creating art at the end of either a cycle or time period—“a fading western lifestyle.”

The Most Assassinated Woman in the World Exporting Perilous Pauline: Pearl White and the Serial Film Craze

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The Most Assassinated Woman in the World: Exporting Perilous Pauline: Pearl White and the Serial Film Craze
The Most Assassinated Woman in the World: Exporting Perilous Pauline: Pearl White and the Serial Film Craze

“Garbo still belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy.” Thus begins famed cultural theorist Roland Barthes’s 1957 essay entitled “The Face of Garbo,” which concluded by claiming that Greta Garbo’s face, unlike that of the contemporary Audrey Hepburn, belonged to the realm of ideas, rather than events. One should take such a proclamation to mean that Garbo’s face—its projection on a large screen—transcended the bounds of nationalistic interest and attained a degree of universality: an idea. Barthes’s interests embody an Eisensteinian notion of cinematic signification, emphasizing individual frames and filmic components over narrative coherence. Such an aesthetic leaning will not be surprising, however, after reading editor Marina Dahlquist’s recently published collection of essays on silent serial queen Pearl White, who, much like Garbo in later years, was valued across the globe for her face and body—and, more to the point, what each of those stood for in relation to an articulation of the femme nouvelle blossoming at the end of the 1910s.

Of particular reference here is the serialized film The Perils of Pauline (1914), though various, subsequent films are discussed. Over the course of seven essays, White is discussed in a global context, trotting the globe from France, to Sweden, to Czechoslovakia, to India, and to China, respectively. Alone, each essay provides clear historical context. Together, they assemble an invaluable addition to the canon of what Miriam Hansen terms “vernacular Modernism,” and supplements previous understandings and articulations of this concept with rigorously detailed examinations of precisely how White’s body and persona impacted various cultural and nationalistic, artistic movements. In some cases, as with the surrealists and the French, the impact was exponential. In Sweden, censorship prevented Pauline and her serial sisters from frequenting screens. Yet, regardless of the degrees of impact, these essays conduct their historicity with a sensitive, keen eye for not just culturally specific detail, but together provide a comprehensive approach to the topic in ways that few edited collections manage.