Books: Crash course for buffs

The BFI has given `Seven' and `Crash' the monograph treatment. Laurence Phelan wonders if they merit it

Laurence Phelan
Saturday 22 May 1999 23:02

The BFI's series of Modern Classics books, companions to the excellent Film Classics, are intended to "set the agenda for what matters in modern cinema". As some of the titles covered in the Modern series are older than some of those in the classic series, the distinction seems slightly contrived. Until now, the only differences between the two series were that the Modern Classics have a more stylish cover, cost a pound more and tended to be on high-concept films such as Bladerunner, The Terminator and Independence Day. But with the latest four instalments - Richard Dyer on Seven, Iain Sinclair on Crash, Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit on Caravaggio, and Raymond Durgnat on WR - Mysteries of the Organism - the price is back down to pounds 7.99 and there's a definite move back into the realm of art cinema, Seven being the only one of the four funded by Hollywood.

So Richard Dyer has the most clearly defined goal: to convince us that Seven is a work of art. His argument has two main strands - the elegant brilliance of the plot's structure and the singularity of the film's vision. He points out the way in which the plot is able to provide complete closure without the restoration of order that is conventional for the genre, and how the structure's seriality plays on the audience's desire to witness all seven murders. With close attention to the characterisations, lighting, editing and sound, Dyer demonstrates how David Fincher single- mindedly prevents any optimism creeping into his film, thereby creating "a landscape of despair, a symphony of sin". Only twice does Dyer's enthusiasm dull his critical faculties. Although, with its references to Dante, Shakespeare and Bach, "Seven addresses us as people familiar with high culture", such reflected glory cannot impart artistic merit to the film itself. And Dyer is perhaps rather generous to compare the death of Gwyneth Paltrow's character with that of Cordelia in King Lear rather than, say, every other action film where the female character is little more than a cipher whose death provokes the vengeance of the male lead.

Very early on in his book on Crash, Iain Sinclair states his position on the adaptation of books into films: "Any [novel] that succeeds as a film should have been a film in the first place ... Film and book are undeclared rivals, quarrelsome siblings." Which means he must spend the rest of the book reconciling what he insists on calling "Cronenberg's Crash" and "Ballard's Crash". The dynamics of this relationship are repeatedly reconfigured by Sinclair: "Crash, the future film, haunts the composition of Ballard's novel ... The novel would begin at the precise point where the film ends." Which is all quite interesting, but unfortunately it is misleadingly packaged as a study of Cronenberg's film. Sinclair's prose here is as lucid and inventive as in any of his fiction but he lacks either the vocabulary or the will to analyse the film in any depth. Instead he resorts to repeated, tautologous reconfigurations of Crash as a dislocated, pared-down version of the book. Which is true, but critically underdeveloped. He betrays his sympathies with remarks like "the value of Crash the film is easy to overlook". Sinclair's knowledge of Ballard's career is exhaustive and recounted here almost in its entirety. But, for example, his discussion of Ballard's novel High Rise cries out in vain for comparison with Cronenberg's first film Shivers, set entirely in a high-rise apartment complex in Toronto. And whether or not you agree with him, surely this is not the place to include erstwhile-Ballard-collaborator Michael Moorcock's opinion of Cronenberg's oeuvre as "ghastly tosh".

For Bersani and Dutoit, Caravaggio is Derek Jarman's most complex and accomplished film, and their subtle and intelligent psychoanalytic study uncovers meanings in the film that would have pleased and surprised Jarman. They focus on the relationship between film-making and power, between Jarman and Caravaggio and between Caravaggio and the rest of Jarman's work, demonstrating that his most structurally conventional and least violent film is actually the one with the most powerful meanings, in which his art transcends the limitations he sets himself elsewhere by linking sexuality, violence and victimhood.

Finally, in his study of Dusan Makavejev's 1971 "intellectual montage" of Marxist politics, American revolution, Yugoslavian sexual libertarianism and the life and work of sexologist Wilhelm Reich, WR - Mysteries of the Organism, Raymond Durgnat wisely seeks only "to offer interesting ideas about it and matters arising". So he offers 11 possible interpretations of the final scene and his analysis is refreshingly uncertain - "Jagoda checks that VI's a real Russian ... Racism? Political romanticism about our heroic Russian allies? Popular mythology of virile versus victim peoples? Or all of the above, right and wrong entangled?" It's an interesting but confusing read which effectively replaced the one question I had after seeing the film ("What on earth was that all about?") with hundreds more.

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