A thoughtful journey through contemporary cinema
Film critics love catchwords. Mention a ''genre'' or ''narrative,'' and a cinema scholar will ''deconstruct'' its ''text'' to find ''influences'' that are ''reflexive'' or ''subversive.''
Above all, ''subversive,'' a favorite label. According to much recent criticism, meaningful movies have more on their minds than stories and ideas. They also have ''subtexts'' that comment on life by questioning or undermining our assumptions.
In extreme cases, they ''subvert'' themselves right before our eyes. This forces us to think by exploding the comfy images and plots that traditional cinema (Hollywood and its ilk) tries to lull us with.
These are the films Robert Phillip Kolker explores in his stimulating new book ''The Altering Eye: Contemporary International Cinema,'' published by Oxford University Press. To his credit, he avoids buzzwords, except a few standbys like ''modernist'' and ''homage.'' But he can deconstruct like a champ, and he has a firm grasp on current approaches to cinema theory. His enthusiasms, moreover, are clear from the moment he announces his subject - films made ''in a spirit of resistance, rebellion, and refusal; made with desire.''
Lest this sound too fiery, relax. Kolker's idea of movies that ''question or defy cinematic conventions'' is tame enough. He concentrates on widely seen art films - from ''Last Year at Marienbad'' to ''Last Tango in Paris'' - and cites established figures like Jean-Luc Godard and Rainer Werner Fassbinder as the boldest explorers of the visual frontier. Not present are more radical filmmakers whose work is less commercial and therefore less frequently encountered.
The result is a thoughtful journey through European cinema of the past 40 years. Though not exhaustive, it is extensive, discussing films with clarity and taste while acknowledging (if not always explaining) its own perspectives and prejudices.
Kolker's guiding idea is that European cinema grew up during the period between early Visconti in the '40s and late Fassbinder in the '70s. Lurking behind the scenes was Hollywood, that bastion of reactionary thought and complacent attitudes - lovable, in a predictable sort of way, but just the thing for innovative Europeans to rally against even as they absorbed its best lessons.
The neo-realists of Italy took the first steps toward movie maturity, in Kolker's view. Believing the on-screen ''image fact'' was a true reflection of reality, they did their best not to interfere with it, focusing on simple events in natural settings. Ironically, there was a built-in dead end here: Though they successfully depicted their war-torn country and its misery, their philosophy didn't allow for transcending the facts or urging corrective action. Still, the experiment proved that Hollywood-style slickness wasn't the only formula for film, and such pictures as ''Open City'' and ''The Bicycle Thief'' still move audiences today.
The next step for cinema was to look beyond the image itself, using form and structure to shape audience perceptions. This happened with a vengeance when Godard discovered Bertolt Brecht, and started ''distancing'' the viewer so emotion and empathy wouldn't overwhelm thought. Godard sabotaged the whole notion of comfortable, self-contained, seemingly ''real'' stories and characters. Instead he offered a fractured, dialectical cinema that seethed with fecund collisions of word and image. Filmmaking was changed forever.
The third great wave in European film, Kolker feels, was an increased political content. The neo-realists made a political statement when they abandoned studio fiction and focused on natural, unvarnished subjects. More directly, the followers of Brecht and Godard saw word, image, and montage as dialectical elements with social as well as aesthetic implications. Needed now was an overtly political cinema, which duly sprouted in European and third-world countries - reaching its highest levels with directors who learned to combine ''Politics, Psychology, and Memory,'' as Kolker titles his last chapter.
Although his analysis follows a clear outline, Kolker is rarely simplistic. Unlike more single-minded critics, he recognizes that film is continually swayed by social, psychological, economic, and political circumstances - which are then influenced by film, in turn. In the strongest portions of his book he traces these many threads to their gathering places, sorting them out and making plain their contributions to the web of cinema. His discussions of third-world film are especially impressive in this regard.
Kolker is weakest when pursuing fashionable Marxist analyses, since he never stakes out his premises clearly. He also limits himself by gravitating toward what are essentially commercial movies - less so than typical Hollywood products , but with similar economic and class roots. No glimpse of an iconoclastic Peter Kubelka or Chantal Akerman marks these pages; and even the discussions of such venerable radicals as Jacques Rivette and Robert Bresson are oddly brief.
Also, some filmmakers with aggressive stances get credit for being more ''subversive'' than they really are. Much space is devoted to Fassbinder, for example; yet I suspect film history will find him less a subverter of bourgeois attitudes than a handy prop for sophisticated critics with love-hate attitudes toward Hollywood, which Fassbinder himself never quite came to terms with.
By contrast, Kolker shows admirable balance when discussing such slippery figures as Bernardo Bertolucci and the team of Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet. Most valuable of all is his insistence that the best recent cinema calls on the viewer to become an active part of the aesthetic process - not lolling in melodrama, as so many Hollywood pictures invite us to do, but engaging movies on their own ground and wrestling actively with them. As films change us, so we change films. That's what ''The Altering Eye'' is all about.