‘[Modernism is] the expression of lost order, a vision of a diminished human subjectivity and agency, a sense of history as loss and melancholia’ – Robert Kolker
Examining the elegiac works of Arthur Penn, Oliver Stone, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Robert Altman, author Robert Kolker’s A Cinema of Loneliness is a towering work of critical analysis and a testament to the importance of cinema.
In this latest version of the book the author has updated the filmographies of his ‘new wave’ directors to include anything noteworthy up to 1999. He has reassessed the themes of their work and how these themes might have changed with new films. And finally, he has provided a fitting requiem for the late, great Stanley Kubrick. But more than this however, he has rewritten large sections of text and brought the book’s arguments forward into a new millennium. Rather than simply tacking on revisions Kolker has produced a new book, a new outlook, and a new opinion.
Readers unfamiliar with the previous editions of A Cinema of Loneliness will find Kolker’s new, erudite introduction a helpful and nourishing means of access. He gives his reasons for choosing this particular sextet of filmmakers and sets out his intentions for analysing their work. He justifies why he continues to include Arthur Penn despite the fact that Penn’s film career veered off course and ended during the 80s. He also amends his brave but myopic proclamation in the second edition (1987) that ‘American cinema [in the eighties] was moribund as a creative force’. ‘Moribund is not the same as dead’ he now counters.
Chapter one, entitled Body’s Montage: History’s Mise-en-Scene, looks at Arthur Penn, Oliver Stone and modernism. The author traces modernism in American cinema back to Orson Welles’ detective story Citizen Kane (1941) and its revolutionary narrative structure. In films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Mickey One (1964) Arthur Penn, says Kolker, is using this modernist template to investigate the myths and ideologies of his 60s America. Kolker then concludes Chapter One with a new comparison between Penn and Oliver Stone. Kolker’s strength lies in this kind of matchmaking. He recognises allusions between filmmakers that might not have previously been thought of as connected.
Stanley Kubrick died shortly after finishing the complicated and strenuous film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999). That film, along with Full Metal Jacket (1987), receives scant attention in Chapter two of Kolker’s book. Here he focuses instead on the earlier films that Kubrick made before he refused to travel for location shooting. Kolker does not regard Kubrick’s last works as poor but merely feels that they suffer from a ‘cultural airlessness’ and therefore have little to offer, in a study of the culture behind filmmaking. Irrespective of this quibble, the late Kubrick receives a warm and compassionate appraisal from the author. Kolker describes him as the aspiring novelist of American filmmakers and writes in depth about the director’s love of literary source material for his films. Of particular note is the author’s exploration of Dr Strangelove (1963); sometimes infuriating in its complexity, it nevertheless pays off with excellent insight into the film’s verbal comedy and satire.
Scorsese marks the shift from 50s/60s avant-garde to the film school generation. Kolker entitles chapter three Expressions of the Street and hinges his analysis of the Italianamerican Scorsese to the social and ethnic realism that informs so much of his work. Mean Streets (1973) and Goodfellas (1990) get the most lavish attention in these pages but Kolker is also careful to reclaim Scorsese from the reputation these films have earned him. He debunks the pigeonholeing of Scorsese as a director of gangsters, Catholic guilt and street violence and reminds readers of the other side of this filmmaker’s persona, citing Boxcar Bertha (1972), Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), The Age of Innocence (1993) and Kundun (1997) as examples. Kolker also points out the conflicting but stimulating play of styles present in this director’s work. Like Michael Mann, Scorsese seeks street realism and stylisation at the same time.
Spielberg falls into a larger chapter on the rise of digital filmmaking, CGI, blockbusters, and the conglomerate nature of modern Hollywood. Kolker heaps praise on Spielberg for his utter command of the technological aspects of film and his keen sense of audience but feels his actual films have less significance in terms of their ideological explorations.
The book concludes with a look at Robert Altman and his experimentations with visual space and narrative. Particular reference is made to The Long Goodbye (1973) and Altman’s reconfiguration of the Marlowe detective character within a radical new setting. Through the repeated use of zooms and tracking shots Altman creates a Los Angeles of constant change and flux, a world where Elliot Gould’s Marlowe has no anchor or sense of place. Altman himself provides a fitting end to the book’s search for a greater understanding of its artists. His is a style that mirrors the historical inquiry of Penn and Stone, draws on the literary merits of Kubrick, uses the ambivalence of Scorsese and contrasts the technological make-believe of Spielberg.