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The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poemsThe St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poemsThe St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
Screening the Past: Memory and Nostalgia in Cinema
by Pam Cook

Routledge, October 2004

Reviewed by Jason Ranon Uri Rotstein

Pam Cook situates her work on the frontiers of new discovery in film studies. Film is her field and she sees herself—and says—we should see ourselves as playing a vital role in its evolution. In her new book, she sees to posit a ‘growing preoccupation’ with ‘memory and nostalgia’ in film over the past two decades. We live in era, she says, where cinema is hyper self-conscious of its place. In the context of the history of cinema, it could be said that we are living in era after “the fifty year trial period for film” as a medium. If film has surpassed all expectations as a form of industry, Cook challenges us to think of how much further we must go in the intellectual inquiry that we call film studies; how much fruitful we can make film studies as an intellectual discipline.

In this postclassical age of cinema, it may be reasonable to look back at, eulogize, allude to and represent with nostalgia the films that brought us to this place. Still, it would be wrong to think of memory and nostalgia as a contemporary current. Film and photography are ‘framed’ according to their history as the medium of memory and nostalgia. Film was the invention that could document brief as well as extended moments worthy of memorializing. Cook notes the interdependency of the faculty of memory and of film in relation to modern films like Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000). Nolan brings into focus the reception of film as a mnemonic technique and of films dependency on the mnemonic expectations of its audience for coherence and comprehension. Cook speaks of Nolan’s talent for upending the mnemonic equilibrium: ‘Indeed, narrative continuity itself, and our ability to understand or read a film, depends on memory, as Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000) demonstrated so brilliantly’ (p. 98).  What Cook has in mind then for her study of modern day trends in ‘memory and nostalgia’ is more a coming to terms with and response to modern day ‘memories and nostalgias’ that are in effect, as she says, re-writing history. She wants to play a role in the writing of that history.

For Cook, ‘postmodernism’ as an idea is one that is expressed in nostalgia. And she says the postmodern individual’s existential task is one that is inherently nostalgic. As such, she proposes in this study: to ‘offer a personal perspective on some of the most exciting and challenging developments in film culture, in which I have been intimately and passionately engaged’ (p. xi).

If the book aims to be a comprehensive survey of nostalgia and memory in film, it fails—largely due to the fact that it disproportionately concentrates on films that are not American and that it has not a single word to say about the prototypical director of American nostalgia Terrence Mallick. But as a project it works because it gives us a rare glimpse into the mind of a true film collaborator.

Academic film writing is perhaps most effective when it does offer us an “insider’s perspective.” Otherwise, we would be content to read reviews in papers or appreciations from the blogs of fans. This also due to the fact that we are sensitive as audience members to analyses of the films that we love and hold onto, like the photographs of family members.

Cook realizes her potential in this book to ‘personally’ ‘write back’ to the codes she sees being written, or, more often than not, re-written about film today and swaying our consideration of classical film. The book, as such, forms something of a time capsule of a British film critic’s evolving ideologies over the past twenty-five years. Most of the essays included here were published previously and are reproduced here with ‘minimal revision’ (p. xi). That fact comes down to us with a criticism of the book itself; that there is not enough attention paid to more recent endeavours in memory and nostalgia. With few exceptions, the book restricts itself to movies released pre-1995. Cook has updated the story somewhat by including a “prologue” that deals with two recent films, ‘Rethinking nostalgia: In the Mood for Love and Far From Heaven.’ While many of the same sentences and constructions appear time and time again in the book—as a result of the history of the separate origins of these chapters—there is little in the way of introduction or linkage between the five parts in the book: ‘Reviewing the Past: History, Gender and Genre,’ ‘Memory in Popular British Cinema,’ ‘Stars, Iconoclasm and Identification,’ ‘Martin Scorsese and Postclassical Nostalgia,’ and ‘Reinventing History: Costume and Identity.’ The book then is loosely held together as a whole and we often get the sense that what we are reading while highly engaging is only remotely related to the theme.

The only place where we get an introduction is in the ‘prologue’—as I refer to it—where Cook defines the terms of the study. ‘Nostalgia,’ she says, ‘plays on the gap between representations of the past and actual past events, and the desire to overcome the gap and recover what has been lost’ (p. 4). She describes the ways in which a typical ‘nostalgia’ film functions: 1) ‘nostalgic fictions depend upon a slippage between current styles and period fashion in order to draw audiences in to the experience’ (p. 11); 2) ‘is less concerned with exploring colonial history than in taking a self-indulgent, backward look at an idealized, lost culture and way of life’ (p. 6); 3) and ‘while not necessarily progressive in itself, nostalgia can form part of a transition to progress and modernity’ (p. 4). Throughout this study, Cook examines the implications of what this ‘turning back’ or allusion may mean for modern day codes of operation.

Cook’s selection of films is idiosyncratic and entertaining and her attention to the detail of mise-en-scène is revelatory. Still some of her localized analyses are uneven. In her analysis of In the Mood for Love, she says that it is important for the authenticity of the quaint old-fashioned morality that the film seeks to portray that the characters of Su Li-zhen and Chow Mo-wan do not consummate their adulterous affair. She says the same of the affair of Laura and Alec in Brief Encounter later. I have consulted both films again and I think Cook’s view is too clear-cut. Audiences in North American, including critics at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Wong Kar-wai’s film was first screened, assumed that the affair was consummated. This they say is implied in the film itself and that it is simply never shown explicitly to enhance the mystery and slipperiness of these unions. (The sequel to the film, 2046, also seems to confirm this). The same can be said of Brief Encounter. It is not altogether clear from Alec and Laura’s liaisons in the country that the affair is not consummated. And there is evidence enough when Alec’s friend storms in on the couple and Laura is force to retreat down the back staircase to suggest that it was consummated—or at least it is understood to be consummated by other characters in the film. There is something illicit going in these films and it is precisely sexual. Don’t the films comment on the struggle to keep up appearances in public in spite of the driving desire for progress in private?

Elsewhere Cook gets it dead on. Her verdict on Raging Bull says something about Scorsese’s entire corpus and has a bravery of conviction that could convince any critic: ‘it seems to be far from progressive, bypassing the question of female desire, denying the value of many of the changes that have taken place in the area of sexual politics, retreating romanticism and ant-intellectualism’ (p. 180). Cook sifts through Scorsese’s litany of ‘movie brat references’ to at times unmask what is pseudo-intellectualism.

Cook is at her best when she argues the big issues. She attempts to negotiate and reconcile the disreputable area of film theory. In the middle to the later half of the book, particularly in the chapter, ‘No Fixed Address,’ her true passions come to the fore. Cook attacks the assumptions of specific gender and genre address in films of nostalgia. She reveals the potential for an anti-definition of “fluidity of identification” across genre or gender divides, where there is ‘no essential pre-existing body’ (p. 232) but only outer representations. Her formulation is a point of fruitfulness for film studies and has the potential to alter the course history away from such archaic conceptions of film as ‘a male-dominated industry.’ Ultimately, she encourages us to keep the options open. 

Jason Rotstein is the Film Review Editor for the Adirondack Review.