Robert Philip Kolker has given us two very useful film books: The Altering Eye and A Cinema of Loneliness are excellent accounts of post-war European cinema (which take in other parts of the world too), and 1970s American film (which absorbs films from the 1980s as well). The Extraordinary Image is unlikely to have a similar impact, as it looks at three of Kolker’s favourite filmmakers: Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick. While the other books are extremely useful for anyone teaching post-War European film who wants a book covering plenty material, or anyone teaching New Hollywood cinema who seeks a tome more analytical and less anecdotal than Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, The Extraordinary Image offers no such pertinence, as it covers directors who have already been exhaustively written about. Its usefulness would have rested on its originality, and though the title promises much, the delivery is modest as Kolker manages to convey his passion for the directors more than the particular ways in which they regenerate the moving image.
We notice this limitation early on. “Style is form informed by personality and clarified by repetition from film to film,” Kolker says. “Welles’s films have an open and burning heart and a fiery intelligence. His camera plunges and devours it. Hitchcock is all about style, cool and passionate at the same time, his films play a game of hide and seek.” (p.16) Kubrick’s films, meanwhile, “are all cool surfaces, exquisite details and startling compositions, most often lit with a high-fluorescent shine…”. That word “all” is being asked to do a lot of the work in these passages, and while the adjectives convey Kolker’s passion for the filmmakers, terms like “fiery”, “exquisite” and “startling” fail to move us forward analytically.
Yet the premise is a very good one. What is an extraordinary image? Out of the many billions of images that have been generated over the last hundred and twenty years, why are there a small number that are so pertinent? Whether it is the burning of the house in Zerkalo (Mirror, Andrei Tarkovsky, 1974) the ship arriving in the town in Amarcord (Federico Fellini, 1973) the horse’s head on the bed in The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972), Travis Bickle standing in front of the mirror in Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976), the tennis game that concludes Blow Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966), how is the extraordinary image made? That I have just given examples from films by directors other than Hitchcock, Welles and Kubrick makes clear that the extraordinary image is very rare, but at the same time it is also relatively common. It is a feature of almost all directors who are deemed important to film. Even supposedly un-cinematic filmmakers like Eric Rohmer have examples of the memorable image: knee-touching in Claire’s Knee, (Le Genou de claire, 1970), the green ray in the film of that title (Le Rayon vert, 1986), and the house where the central character stays in La Collectionneuse (1967). It would be a bit too much to ask of Kolker that he indicates why Hitchcock, Welles and Kubrick are of immense importance to this notion of the extraordinary image, but the book never quite explains what such an image might be. We may know one when we see one, and we would agree with Kolker that the three filmmakers under discussion have all produced numerous examples of them, but the book’s originality could have rested on that exploration.
We notice this in the use of the word “is” that indicates declaration rather exploration. “F for Fake is a game Welles is playing with his viewers.” (p. 82) “Citizen Kane is a game of mirrors…” (p. 83) “Citizen Kane is about memory.” (p. 85) “What each of these filmmakers have in common is an uncommon control over their medium and their filmmaking lives.” (p. 17) “Is” happens to be a small word used of course in many different contexts, but in Kolker’s book it can hamper thought rather than facilitate it. That the word ‘is’ asserts itself rather than explains itself. This might be part of a bigger problem one may recall from the other books: that there happens to be in Kolker’s thinking a set of moral presuppositions which suggests in his approach to thought and the image that the extraordinary can only penetrate so far. What do we mean by this? Again, let us provide a couple examples. “In the end Eyes Wide Shut (1999) remains a hard nut to crack. It has the least immediately attractive character in any of Kubrick’s films.” (p. 137) Bill’s wife in the film is chatted up “by a Hungarian lothario, more lounge lizard than seducer.” (p. 140) These are odd statements to make in the first instance, because most would assume that Alex in A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Jack in The Shining (1980) are more dislikeable than Bill, in the sense that both are villainous while Bill is merely compromised. This doesn’t mean that Bill is more likeable, but it is an instance where the burden of proof rests with the writer unless he assumes a very clear moral line about behaviour. Is Bill the least likeable because he is the least villainous? In other words if somebody commits a clear offence (like murder or assault), they move out of the category of the likeable or dislikeable and into the realm of the criminal? Yet this is not at all explored, as though Kolker finds Bill’s behaviour despicable because it does not chime with what he assumes is his own value system. And yet shouldn’t a writer or for that matter any viewer have enough of a disinterested relationship with the experience to view the characters’ behaviour within an ethical system the film itself generates?
This is a big question perhaps, but part of generating extraordinary images is also generating extraordinary value systems too. When Alex is being beaten up after receiving treatment in A Clockwork Orange, we are caught in a state of moral tension that Kubrick films aloofly. We are not in sympathy with Alex, but our dismay at the way he is being treated means we can not at all be sympathetic with his perpetrators, which gives us a sort of back door sympathy towards our central character. We soon notice in Kubrick’s work that he does not create likeable or dislikeable characters so much as the least dislikeable. All his characters come through the back door, as it were. The extraordinary images he creates rest partly on this point. Think of the wide-angle shots of the Droogs breaking into the houses of the writer and the cat woman early in the film. The writer and the woman are not victims per se; they are entitled, spoilt figures who Alex manages to shake up. We might not care much for Alex’s bevaviour, but neither do we care at all for the attitude of those whom he attacks. Kubrick’s images are as distorted as the values they reveal.
And what of the Hungarian lothario? He is given so little time that we can not know exactly what to make of him, and Kubrick’s cutting deliberately does not help us here. We never find out what happened between the Hungarian and Alice while Bill has been attending to a drug overdose in an upstairs bathroom. Nothing, presumably, but there is an ellipsis between Alice’s brief exchange and her later looking very drunk at the party. It is the next evening that she tells Bill about the moment she could easily have left him: when she fell instantly in love with a naval man, whom she never even talked to, one afternoon. Had she an echo of that feeling with the Hungarian count? We do not know, but neither can we dismiss him as a lounge lizard with any certitude. In both A Cinema of Loneliness and The Altering Eye we sometimes notice that, fine critic though Kolker is, his attentiveness to form is not always matched by an attention to certain assumptions. In A Cinema of Loneliness, for instance, he talks of Taxi Driver, and again and again mentions the clichés of the environment that happens to be the world seen through Bickle’s eyes, that Bickle is drowning in clichés and that Scorsese has “rooted his film in the very earthbound context of the madness of a lonely barely coherent individual who cannot make sane associations between the distorted fragments of his perceptions.”1
In The Altering Eye, meanwhile, Kolker talks of Nic Roeg’s Bad Timing (1980) as “a nasty bit of business about sexual degradation in which the formal experiment of his previous work is reduced to its most banal components.”2 Of Bresson’s Une Femme Douce (A Gentle Creature, 1969), he believes “the jealous husband stalks the wife: he drives her to illness,” and moments later says “personality is never revealed.”3 If personality is never revealed, how can Kolker say with such certitude that the husband drives her to illness? Moments before, Kolker has addressed his own presuppositions in form but does not attend so rigorously to his thinking on characterisation. A Gentle Creature “begins with the suicide of the central character. More accurately, it offers partial glimpses of a suicide: a table falling over in a balcony; the sound of a screeching car below, a shot of a white scarf falling from the window…”4 No critic can go as far as they might wish in addressing the nuances and subtlety of a film, but as a consequence it is here that we need to do our best not to make claims that can not be matched by or are contradicted by the evidence, especially when many an extraordinary image is created partly to foreshorten the assumptions we can usually make in relation to other films?
If one aspect of the extraordinary image rests on an indeterminate relationship with meaning, another might reside in influence. There are a number of images that impact on cinema both as cultural assimilation and formal innovation. Somebody in film offering a word as an object falls out of their hand, who shrieks gleefully as they put an axe through a door, or where a woman takes a shower and we hear the strings come in, are doing so within the context of Citizen Kane, The Shining and Psycho (1960) respectively. These examples are what we might call the cultural, which seems finally more important than the technically innovative. Thus we can see that if a scene is done in a certain way, even if the technique is not new, it seems to be the source for new possibilities in the art form. The always historically attentive David Bordwell is no doubt right when he says “the best way to understand Citizen Kane is to stop worshipping it as a triumph of technique. Too many people have pretended that Orson Welles was the first to use deep-focus, long-takes, films within films, sound montage and even ceilings on sets when these techniques were child’s play for Griffith, Murnau, Renoir, Berkeley…”5
Thus it is not the originality of origins that matters, but the originality of aesthetic purpose. Match cuts had long been used before 2001 (1968), but the cut from the bone to the spaceship is the definitive example of it. The deep-focus shot of Charlie in Citizen Kane playing in the snow as others decide his future in the foreground remains exemplary. Vertigo (1958) was the first film to use the dolly-zoom but The Shining was not the first to deploy the steadicam. Yet we associate their use in each instance because of the aesthetic application; not chiefly the innovation. These are all extraordinary images, and all used by the directors under discussion, but Kolker never quite builds an argument and instead offers what we might call elaborate enthusiasms. There is no doubt these are directors he admires, but we do not have much of a sense why these three over numerous others beyond personal taste and a perhaps misguided sense that they are underrated. “One of the things driving me to write this book”, he writes, “is a desire to overcome the uneven responses to these three filmmakers.” (p. 13) Such an approach might be applicable to Roeg, Philippe Garrel or Paul Mazursky, for example. These are filmmakers who have either gone out of fashion or who never quite, internationally, came into fashion, but Hitchcock, Welles and Kubrick are directors as impregnably canonical as any.
Perhaps it is best to see the book as a beginner’s guide to form and feeling, with Kolker using three so indisputably important directors to state: this is what cinema is capable of, this is what masterful cinema achieves. Kolker has always been interested in accessibility, evident in the relative absence of the theoretical and the philosophical in his own work.6 He is most happy attending very specifically to form, and the best bits of The Extraordinary Image do exactly that. Usefully relying on screen grabs to elucidate many of his points, viewers relatively new to film can see how precisely Hitchcock illustrates power-play in Vertigo as Elster towers over Scottie within the frame, or how the director generates tension in the high angle shot in Shadow of a Doubt. “The feeling that all is not well in Hitchcock’s film is so often communicated by his signature high-angle shot.” (p. 122) In Welles we see how often he adopts sweaty close-ups, as though the figure wants to burst out of their own skin, evident in images from Mr Arkadin (1955), Touch of Evil (1958) and Chimes at Midnight (1966). The images from Kubrick’s films often indicate compression, squeezed worlds of limited human feeling, particularly noticeable in the stills Kolker takes from 2001. Perhaps if Kolker had worked his book around these fifty illustrations then a more meditatively inclined tome would have been the result. As it is they prove illustrative, pointing up the well-made observation without quite creating a fresh one.
One of the book’s epigraphs is from New Yorker critic Richard Brody. “The greatness of images isn’t in the coherence of their narrative logic, or the nuance of their dramatic implications, but in their excess – not in what they mean but in what they are.” This seems to beg a question that Kolker would wish to answer; yet it is this question, we might feel, that remains unanswered by the end of the book.
Robert P. Kolker, The Extraordinary Image: Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, and the Reimagining of Cinema (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2017)
- Robert P. Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 184. ↩
- Robert P. Kolker, The Altering Eye (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p. 222. ↩
- Ibid., p. 218. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- David Bordwell, “Citizen Kane”, Bill Nichols. ed. Movies and Methods (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976), pp. 273-290. ↩
- It is notable, too, in a footnoted remark in The Altering Eye where he talks about Christian Metz’s unreadability. ↩