On Looking Back

by Rob White

From Film Quarterly Autumn 2008, Vol. 62, No. 1

In the fall of 1958, fifty years ago, the inaugural issue of Film Quarterly was published, and it is fascinating to revisit those first years, when the European New Wave cinemas generated a scintillating critical energy in a pioneer magazine. Antonioni proved to be particularly galvanizing; almost the entire fall 1962 issue was given over to Ian Cameron’s fifty-eight-page study of the filmmaker’s work. “Antonioni’s role in the cinema seems to me a fundamental one,” wrote Ernest Callenbach, introducing the feature, though not a party line. Film Quarterly embraced contesting views, as with two notable contributors’ opinions on L’eclisse (which furnishes our 200th cover image). Stanley Kauffmann was enthusiastic: “Antonioni’s splaying open of an environment and his frenzied ballet of the Roman stock exchange are matters possible only to a master.” Dwight Macdonald disagreed: “The Eclipse was a self-indulgent display of his weaknesses.” Assessments of Rocco and His Brothers were if anything still more divergent. Cynthia Grenier pronounced it “superb,” but Vernon Young, emphatically offended by its homoeroticism, confessed to feeling “in my soul nauseated by what reaches me as a perversion of humanity.” In this anniversary issue, founding editor Callenbach recalls Film Quarterly‘s origins and traces the development of its agenda; James S. Williams argues that Antonioni’s cinema opened up whole “new spaces of thought and being”; while D. A. Miller reconsiders Visconti’s epic melodrama and its strange “larval beauty.”

The initial readers of Film Quarterly would probably have guessed on the basis of L’avventura alone that its director would have a career worthy of in-depth posthumous consideration. But could they have imagined that, as Williams tells us, Antonioni’s 1972 documentary Chung Kuo Cina is now easily accessible only on YouTube (in twenty-one separate clips); or that some of us watch movies, having perhaps first downloaded them, on computers or handheld media devices—and maybe movies made out of numbers rather than by traditional photographic means? Who at that time could have dreamed up De Palma’s Redacted, which Ken Provencher analyzes, with its mock-ups of online Iraq War snuff videos? Or foreseen that Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, one half of the unrecoverable Grindhouse double bill, would use digital special effects to create not only a pastiche of 1970s exploitation cinema, but also a simulacrum of celluloid battered by the increasingly nonexistent physical toll of theatrical projection? (Caetlin Benson-Allott’s essay on Grind-house is the winner of our commemorative competition.)

As it did on Film Quarterly‘s tenth anniversary, war looms over the proceedings. The Iraq War has been inescapable in recent English-language cinema; it has sometimes seemed to seep in everywhere, including Paranoid Park, which Megan Ratner calls a “home front” film. Among this multitude of films, there have been uncanny-seeming connections along with the more obvious ones. For example, a man’s body is severed at the waist in both Paranoid Park and Nick Broomfield’s Iraq docu-drama, Battle for Haditha. Did Broomfield and Gus Van Sant confer? It seems more likely that the idea of extreme violence is pervasive at the moment, leading filmmakers independently toward similar images of catastrophic injury.

As De Palma’s does too, Broomfield’s film takes as a theme the ways in which combat-zone bloodshed is visualized. In one scene, a U.S. officer orders a smart-missile attack which he then views remotely on a monitor. There is just a haze of smoke where a man had been walking. Afterwards a marine who will eventually permit a massacre asks his commander for a doctor’s appointment because he cannot sleep, disturbed by “bad dreams, shit I’ve seen.” The repeated staging of evisceration seems to me like one such bad dream, but the force of both Redacted and Battle for Haditha comes from the acknowledgment that when death is observed through a gun sight, on a camcorder display or a command-and-control video feed — and moreover when it is viewed in fictive recreations of battlefield atrocities—it may often not seem like a real event so much as a blur, or a dream that is not actually bad enough to remember.


Surveillance seen The Power of Nightmares. © 2004 BBC. DVD: Wholphin.


Death in view Top: Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma. © 1976 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. DVD: BFI (U.K.). Bottom: Battle of Haditha. © 2007 Lafayette Film. DVD: Contender (U.K.).

Thinking about these issues of technology and vision, I could not shake another image, also strikingly relevant to the present moment: a man looking into camera through binoculars. It occurs in Battle for Haditha, when an Iraqi insurgent on a minaret balcony watches the mayhem caused by the bomb he has detonated. I spotted it again in the newsreel and found-footage opening sequence of Adam Curtis’s BBC series, The Power of Nightmares (as Ben Walters notes, this series might be little-known but for Internet availability). This watcher appears to be in uniform and is only briefly glimpsed in a dense montage of clips: politicians, jihadis, a character in The Thief of Baghdad, TV reporters, even an owl, all staring back from the screen to illustrate Curtis’s theory of contemporary ideological delirium: “The neoconservatives began to reconstruct the Islamists. They created a phantom enemy and as this nightmare fantasy began to spread, politicians realized the new power it gave them in a deeply disillusioned age. Those with the darkest nightmares became the most powerful.” (Jonathan Rosenbaum and Mark Sinker also explore Curtis’s work.) Then I remembered the closing sequence of one more groundbreaking Italian film, Pasolini’s Saiò, reissued on DVD this season by Criterion. In horrifying repose, their vantage position an elegant chair that weirdly seems to hood them, the Fascist torturers take turns to gaze at their victims’ torment.

These nearly identical images have varying kinds of impact in their original contexts. In Salò, a cold diagram of monstrous cruelty is being drawn; in Battle of Haditha, the character with the binoculars is expressing remorse for his actions; and in The Power of Nightmares, the shot counterpoints a series of faces that are mostly abashed or blank—as if to remind us that we may just as easily stare stupidly or inattentively as with fury or desire. This has a bearing on the challenge of the self-reflexive Iraq films. If we do not close our eyes or flinch, then we have to look back and learn something from them. The degree of active attention we bring to movies, and especially to those images which are discomfiting, tyrannizing, or perplexing—“great care must be taken not to simply bore the audience by the too vivid re-creation of boredom,” wrote Film Quarterly’s 1960 Cannes reporter of L’avventura — is a political matter, and furthermore one continuing measure of the intellectual mettle of a newly quinquagenarian journal.