Classic film books: Film Past, Film Future

Tim Cawkwell's Film Past, Film Future is a thoughtful, intelligent look at how cinema works and where the art form is going...

We are all amazingly talented at understanding how film works. The way shots are cut together, the use of light and sound, the methods by which time and settings are manipulated: we read these elements and process them without even having to think about it much any more, because cinema has worked hard to establish its own set of rules, and to teach those rules to us.

This is a brilliant thing in many ways, but sometimes I wonder where it might lead. Is there room for us to learn new rules when it comes to cinema? What lies ahead, as technological developments bring new opportunities? Film Past, Film Future is prepared to have a stab at answering some of those questions, and not in a vague, predictive way. Instead Tim Cawkwell looks back through the years of film-making and uses varied examples to bring together an argument that led to a very interesting conclusion about where film is going that I won’t spoil here.

It’s great to find a book that’s happy to talk about the big issues in cinema, and Cawkwell plunges right in, splitting the subject into two sections. The first section deals with how cinema stimulates our imaginations by looking at the particular examples of, for instance, fantasy films and war films (and where they overlap, such as the large-scale battles of Lord Of The Rings, say), where complex emotions jostle against each other. How does cinema manage to make the subject of war both ennobling and morally repugnant? A close look at Holocaust films in particular is well-handled, discussing the risks we take with the past when we turn such subjects into film. The vibrant quality that cinema gives to life brings its own strengths and drawbacks to interpreting history.

Section one also looks at how film stimulates our emotions compared to other art forms such as painting, photography, opera, and the written word. What does film bring to these forms of self-expression that is unique? This subject, and the others raised, are fascinating if you’ve ever felt a sense of unease about the way that we have immersed ourselves in cinema and television. Cawkwell’s exploration of such matters is made all the better by the fact he does not delineate between different types of film when he makes his arguments. By looking both at, say, Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956) and Kevin MacDonald’s Touching The Void (2003), as examples of establishing small increments of narrative tension you really feel that all film (whether fiction or documentary, considered art or entertainment) has an awful lot in common. Whether you like The Terminator or Last Year At Marienbad, the basic rules of film currently remain the same.

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The second section of the book is, for me, less successful in establishing a cohesive feel because it looks into how certain components of filmmaking work, and at times during this in-depth examination the thing that I loved about the first section (namely the passion for film in all its forms) was less visible. In fact, one of the great problems of writing constructively about how films work comes to the forefront here – do you assume that the reader has seen the film? Here Cawkwell examines some little known pieces of cinema and we are given lengthy descriptions of them, which is fair enough, as I certainly hadn’t heard of them before. But that long, dry process of description robs the book of its flavour. In a way, it’s easier to write about a blockbuster because the starting point for critical discussion can be the assumption that everyone knows the film in question.

I don’t think there’s a straightforward answer to this problem. In a way, Cawkwell’s book reminds me of Paul Merton’s book about Silent Cinema; both take the time to get into the nitty-gritty of description, and risk losing the reader for the sake of clarity. But does it work to simply plough on instead, assuming that the reader will put down the book and go and seek out the film to understand the point?

Well, perhaps the solution is to write about that particular film well enough to make the reader want to go and find it for themselves, and there were moments in Film Past, Film Future where I jotted down the titles of films I had not come across because Cawkwell described them with passion, and there were films that didn’t pique my interest in the least. Perhaps that’s less his fault than a reflection of my personal taste.

Still, it means that Cawkwell’s book has a lot to offer to a range of readers, and it’s not short on interesting theories and big conclusions, no matter what type of film you’re into. It’s not a book of academic writing, but more a personal vision of someone who obviously loves film in all its shapes and sizes, and it’s good to think that there are people out there who want to engage with the question of what film means, and where it’s going. It’s not, after all, a question that belongs only to journals or university departments. It belongs to us all, and if you have an interest in it too then this is a very enjoyable set of opinions to compare to your own.

One further thought – I really wish the book had included a separate list of all the films mentioned, so that the reader could, at a glance, be reminded of those titles not yet seen that sounded interesting. I’m sure I forgot some along the way, amongst the ones that did not quite float my boat. But then, if there’s one thing that Cawkwell’s book brings home it’s that writing about a subject and watching a film about the same subject is an entirely different experience. It makes me think that maybe I should go and seek them out, if only to see if the problem lies in my personal interpretation of what certain films might be like to watch, or in the impossibility of describing films in words in the first place.

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