Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Interviews

Interview: Peter Cowie

Film historian Peter Cowie has launched a new series of essays for Criterion called “Flashback,” a series of pieces devoted to the filmmakers he has gotten to know over the course of his career. To mark the occasion, I reprint an interview I conducted by Mr. Cowie via E-mail back in 2007 and originally published on Greencine. – SAx

The author of over 30 books on films and filmmakers, the founder and editor of The International Film Guide for over forty years before his retirement, and the editor of the Tantivy Press line of film books that flourished through the sixties and early seventies, Peter Cowie is one of the most important writers and editors on cinema of the past half-century. He is one of the leading authorities on Ingmar Bergman and Scandinavian cinema and, in addition to his numerous books on the subjects, has contributed commentary tracks and essays to numerous Criterion DVD releases, including eight Bergman films, and has penned three books on Francis Ford Coppola and his films.

Peter Cowie

One of his most recent books, Revolution! The Explosion of World Cinema in the Sixties, quickly became one of my favorite film histories. Rather than a traditional history or film study, the book is a vibrant portrait of the dynamic of the cinema culture of the era, featuring interviews with directors recalling the films and the film culture around them as they developed and Cowie’s own memories of the excitement of the period, filtered through the understanding of a historian and veteran film critic. Just as importantly, he delves into lesser-known names and national cinemas (such as Scandinavian cinema, inevitable given his background, perhaps, but eye-opening as well) and the culture of political and social cinema and narrative experiments, all with a breathless brevity and thrilling immediacy that brings back the excitement of discovery for a cinema culture decades past.

Peter Cowie currently lives in Switzerland, in the French-speaking Vaud region, with his wife (who is French) and his son (who is bilingual). “It was a move that worked out well,” he explained. “There are few more beautiful countries than Switzerland, and the lake and the mountains are, I find, very inspiring to a writer.  I even appreciate the political system here, which is based on across-the-board consensus rather than the confrontational ‘Left-Right’ politics of Britain or France.”

The interview was begun in January, 2007, and was scheduled to go on for a couple weeks. It continued, on and off, over the next four months, with breaks as Mr. Cowie continued to travel to festivals and for personal appearances. This being an E-mail interview, I preserved the European spelling of Mr. Cowie’s responses to my questions and limited my editing to catching typos, of which there were very few. Once an editor…

You’ve been editing the International Film Guide for, what, 30 years or so? How and why did you help found this annual survey of film?

Actually I retired from the editorship after FORTY years, in November 2002.  The idea came to me while I was still an undergraduate at Cambridge University, where I had become passionately involved with writing about film.  It was a good vintage — one had everyone from David Frost (the broadcaster who interviewed Nixon) to Corin Redgrave, from Stephen Frears to Charles Barr (who wrote an excellent book on Ealing Studios), from novelist Margaret Drabble to stage director Trevor Nunn.  Film was the most exciting art around, and I edited the film page (sometimes 2 pages!) of the Cambridge weekly, Varsity.  I used to trek out to the massive University Library and sit for hours poring over old copies of Sight and Sound and Close-Up while others around me were swotting for exams.

My father ran an annual for antiques lovers called The Antiques Yearbook which was sustained by advertisements, and had a yellow cover.  I resolved to launch a similar publication for “serious film”.  So immediately I left university, in June 1962, I began preparing the first edition of IFG, writing most of the material myself, and flogging most of the ads.  Initially, the heart of the book was a round-up of art-houses throughout Europe.  I would visit each one in Paris, Munich, Lausanne, wherever, and talk to the owners and then write up the cinema, evoking the special qualities of each place.

The first edition of IFG appeared in November 1963.  I had 30 days in which to pay the Dutch printer, and thank goodness, sufficient of my first-time advertisers paid in time for me to settle the bill.  From then on, the book went from strength to strength.  It was hailed by the critics, but most of all by film buffs.  We sold 200 copies in the first week at Zwemmer’s Bookstore in the Charing Cross Road, I recall.  It was a period when every book that appeared on films seemed like the first in its field.

You are one of the pre-eminent authorities on Scandinavian Cinema in general and Ingmar Bergman in particular, and have been since the 1960s. Did this focus come about as a matter of personal interest, professional observation, opportunity, or something else? Did the films of Bergman bring you to Scandinavian cinema?

I have written in the opening chapter of my book Revolution! (Faber/Farrar Straus & Giroux, paper 2005) about how I came to Bergman.  But yes, when I went to Stockholm in the fall of 1963, partly for IFG and partly for the Financial Times, who had commissioned a piece on Bergman’s notorious The Silence, which had just appeared, I found myself instantly in tune with the young critics and filmmakers I met.  They included Vilgot Sjöman, Jörn Donner, Bo Widerberg, and Jonas Cornell, none of whom wanted exactly to be like Bergman, but all of whom were in his shadow.  I had always loved Nordic culture, before I even discovered Bergman — starting with the music of Sibelius, the novels of Sigrid Undset, and the plays of Strindberg and Ibsen.  So you could say I embraced Swedish cinema without hesitation.  My family is Scottish on both sides, and there are close links between Scotland and Scandinavia (even to words like “Kirk” for church, “bairn” for small child etc).  I also loved the landscape — the lakes, the forests, the silence of great spaces.

Do you still revisit Bergman? Do you still discover new aspects to the films of Bergman after all these years? 

I find that the directors who impress you in youth, like poets and painters and composers, remain with you in senior years.  Thanks to Criterion, I do revisit Bergman several times each year, or rerun the movies mentally.  In the coming months I will be working on the Criterion DVD of The Magician for 2008 release, and also plunging into an immense book project on Bergman, the largest ever undertaken.  I’m very excited about this, as it will take me back to my archives, and to the tapes I made with his collaborators during the 1970’s.  Bergman’s essential humanism keeps him relevant today, and the fact that his films were not anchored in a particular social reality have helped them to survive while others made in the same period have not.

You are one of the few writers of your tenure to have a foot in both cinema’s academic world – teaching, writing biographies and film studies — and business world, with the International Film Guides and your positions as an international manager at Variety. Do you find it difficult to switch gears between the two approaches? Are they completely different kinds of pursuits, or do they feed one another? I guess what I’m asking is, does coming at cinema intently from these two different angles all these years give you a perspective on both the art and business of movies that serves both functions?

It’s a good question, and reminds me of a dinner I had with Thomas Yoseloff of A.S. Barnes & Co. in 1967.  He wanted to acquire The Tantivy Press, and told me that with their help in the US we could increase our output of paperback film books from four a year to a dozen.  I responded that I did not want to grow into a huge publisher, that I wanted to retain my freedom as a writer too.  He looked at me and said, “Well, I think you can.”  And I did, and I have.

Thanks to having the International Film Guide as a profitable central beam of my publishing house, I was able to commission books that would only just break even (such as Tom Milne on Dreyer, or Boleslaw Michalek on Wajda).  I was also able to continue writing books of my own at an average pace of about two every three years.

I do feel conscious of the cinema as an art and an industry.  I get mad when some critics and intellectuals confuse the two, for example reading all manner of themes and undercurrents into a Hollywood film that’s manifestly made for financial ends only.  Don’t misunderstand me: I love James Bond as much as the next guy, and I love watching classics from Hollywood’s golden era, whether it be Casablanca or Sudden Fear.  But deep down I am drawn to the thoughtful cinema of a Bergman, a Kieslowski, a Rohmer, a Visconti and, Stateside, to a Todd Field or an Alexander Payne.

However, I found it difficult to stomach the dinners and lunches at Variety with executives who rarely went to the movies, knew naught of European or Asian cinema, and whose conversation revolved solely around money or name-dropping.

In the collision of art and industry, don’t you think that there are times when artists get behind the script or camera of otherwise mundane projects and put some of themselves into the film, whether it be John Sayles and Joe Dante and others for Roger Corman, or Bryan Singer in the big-budget X-Men films? Or that even commercial creations without much serious intent can reflect what’s going on in the culture or even in the minds of the people behind the camera, consciously or unconsciously?

Yes, and the most obvious example of that is Alfred Hitchcock.  Today, I suspect that the director, whoever he or she may be, has more control over the final cut than ever before in the history of Hollywood.  So my comment was levelled more at the studio boom days of the 1930’s and 1940’s, when directors like Lewis Milestone (to take just one example) could move from one film to another almost without missing a beat, bringing in a project on time and with verve and gloss, but without necessarily imposing (or seeking to impose) a “personal vision” on the film.  I may sound like a heretic when I maintain that Casablanca owes its success more to its screenplay and to its performances than it does to Michael Curtiz.  Sometimes even a great producer — Mark Hellinger or even Roger Corman — can exercise more influence over a movie than the director he hires to shoot it.

Tantivy Press was one of the essential publishers in the explosion of film scholarship in the sixties, publishing a number general film histories – genre overviews and introductions to American cinema and many national cinemas – as well as some of the first books about the great directors. What was in the culture that created such a thriving market for books on cinema? Can you describe the atmosphere in the publishing world at this time? What was your guiding principle as a publisher in choosing and initiating projects during this time?

Film books were thin on the ground in the Anglo-Saxon territories.  We had found much-thumbed copies of Paul Rotha’s The Film Till Now, and Roger Manvell’s Penguin Film Review, but clearly the French were doing something we were not — writing about filmmakers both European and American in a way that made you want to see a director’s earlier work.  So at Cambridge University my friends and I tended to spend far too much money asking local bookstores to import copies of Cahiers du Cinema, and copies of books like Chabrol and Rohmer’s study of Hitchcock.

One particular film book series fascinated me.  It was published by Seghers, and profiled individual directors in a square format, so that, when lined up together on a shelf, they looked conspicuously different to normal bound books.  So I decided to adopt the same dimensions when I launched Int’l Film Guide in the fall of 1963, and issued three of my own monographs in one slim paperback: Antonioni-Bergman-Resnais.

Sales proved good, and so I commissioned from a university pal of mine, Peter Graham, a Dictionary of the Cinema, the first in English insofar as it included everyone from Stan Brakhage to Leni Riefenstahl.  I think I mentioned in an earlier response that the Tantivy Press was the name of my father’s publishing firm, specialising up to that point in poetry and books on antique collecting.  When my father retired, to focus on his own creative writing, he gave me the name of the Press — no assets, no money, but a reputation — which means that European bookstores took quantities of our film books because of the Press’s track record.

Suddenly we realised that each new book we published was the first or second in its field.  Every furrow we plowed was fresh, and that was exciting, because it meant you were given space by the critics in newspapers and magazines, and also window exposure at the better bookstores.  I think the Dictionary sold 200 at one Charing Cross Road store in the first week — and a reprint was soon in hand.

So my guiding principle was to produce a series of monographs that reflected the passions of the 1960’s — a passion above all for auteurist cinema, and auteurist European cinema.  Having said that, we paid homage to Welles, Hitchcock, the Marx Brothers etc., but deep down I felt that the “true art” came from places like Poland, Sweden, France, and Italy!

The success of the Press was due to the fact that we had our finger on the pulse of our time.

From my vantage point, the sixties and early seventies was a golden age of film scholarship in the publishing industry. My bookshelf is filled with volumes from this era. Decades later it’s a very different story. Today, such works of film scholarship are the almost exclusive domain of university presses or the labor-of-loves companies like Scarecrow and McFarland, and new books need to stake out its own unique approach to, in effect, justify publication and entrée into the field. What changed between then and now? Coming from the heart of this culture, do you see it as a golden age, or am I romanticizing the movement?

I think it was a golden age, not because I’m nostalgic for my own vanished youth, but because, as a wine-lover, I KNOW that there are indeed such things as vintages, and that some are indeed better than others.  By the same token, although I did not live through them, I recognise that the 1920’s marked a golden age for culture too — jazz, literature, painting, whatever.  So, yes, the period 1956-1969 was indeed a golden age — for international cinema at least!

Today, if you launch a book on Hitchcock, it must fight for survival against 20-odd titles already in print.  A conductor recently told me that classical music is confronting the same problem — not because of pirated downloads but because there are so many recordings of all the great symphonies and concerti that the record companies are reluctant to risk money on another.

We should not forget, however, that film scholarship is infinitely superior now to what it was in my youth.  The advent of video in all its forms has permitted critics and scholars to study every aspect of a film with anal intensity.  When I wrote my book on Welles in 1964, I paid the British Film Institute to project a 16mm copy of “Othello”, and frantically scribbled notes in the dark.  At one point I asked the projectionist if he could pause in some way so that I could look at a scene again, and he scoffed at me.  “D’you want a bloody fire here, mate?” he asked.

DVD in its turn has brought classics, fresh-minted in the case of Criterion, to a generation of filmlovers who were not even born when Truffaut and Godard were first at work.

Not all the books we published stand up today, any more than do the films of the 1960’s.  But they were trailblazers, and I think that we did create a climate for reading about the cinema.  When the movie brats took over in Hollywood in the 1970’s, European cinema paled into the background, and our role was pretty much fulfilled, I think.

Your original A Ribbon of Dreams was (to the best of my knowledge) the first English language book-length study of the films of Orson Welles – an American director whose sensibility crosses the divide between American and European cinema. I own the revised and expanded 1973 edition, the first Welles book I ever owned and read and still an essential work on the director. I was especially inspired by your perceptive analysis of his style as an essential component of meaning in his film. Today there are a half dozen major biographies of Welles and dozens of books on his films and his career. Have you kept up with the writings on Welles? If so, which of the books do you admire the most? Are there any that you believe do him a disservice (apart from Charles Higham’s biography)?

Thanks for the nice words about this little book.  Peter Noble had written a book about Welles in the 1950’s, but it was more about the man and his impact.  I wanted to focus on the films themselves, and I was fortunate enough to meet OW at the Ritz Hotel in London in 1964.  He agreed to answer any further questions by mail, and he kept to his word, sending me letters from the Hotel Suecio in Madrid where he was in pre-production for Chimes At Midnight.  I do read some, but not all, the books on Welles, and I dislike the biographies by Leaming and Higham. Simon Callow’s is the most exhaustive, but ultimately I think Peter Bogdanovich’s This Is Orson Welles offers the richest source of material for the Welles fan.  I also often refer to Frank Brady’s Citizen Welles.

World Cinema: Diary of a Day is a fascinating project, a snapshot of filmmaking around the world through the journals of hundreds of filmmakers in various stages of production and/or release of a film. Can you tell me how and why the project came about? It’s a huge undertaking; as editor of the book, what was your creative role, beyond merely organizing so many participant?

Again, thanks for the recognition.  The BFI wanted to celebrate the centenary of cinema (in 1995), and came up with the idea of asking hundreds of individuals around the world to keep a diary on a specific day.  We tried to include every kind of person involved with film, from screenwriters to projectionists, from producers to editors.  They all submitted their material on standard forms, and I and two assistants ploughed through them, reducing the more than 1,000 entries to around 400, and then abridging the longer ones (poor John Boorman wrote too much, refused to cut his text, and so had to be omitted!).  I was especially pleased that we had some truly great names contributing — Kurosawa, for example, Kieslowski, Vittorio Storaro…  It remains a unique document, a snapshot of cinema on one particular day in 1993, and a tribute to the passionate commitment nearly everyone in the industry brings to the art and the business of movies.

Revolution!, which is subtitled “The Explosion of World Cinema in the Sixties,” is the most exciting and invigorating film book I’ve read in years. The personal angle gives an immediacy to events decades in the past, and the first person interviews with filmmakers of the era bring us the perspective of witnesses to a movement. Why is this period is so essential? What inspired you to revisit the era from this perspective, rather than a more traditional critical study or film history?

In most of my writing on film, I’ve tried to take an objective stance — my training as an historian, I suppose!  But, encouraged by Walter Donohue, my editor at Faber and Faber, I decided to come forward into the picture, as it were, for Revolution!  After all, I was fortunate enough to be 20 years of age when the 1960’s began, and it was such a stirring time — a time of transition from postwar gloom and conservatism to a more confident exploration of life and art.  Of course there was the French New Wave, and Bergman, and Fellini and Wajda and goodness knows who else — but there was also the election of John Kennedy, the arrival of the Beatles, the fashion revolution (mini-skirt), and so on.

For me, the 1960’s remain a period akin to the 1920’s — the Jazz Age, as Scott Fitzgerald termed it.  It certainly was not without faults, and all too many of the 1960’s movies now appear arch and inconsequential.  But the SPIRIT was there, the IDEALISM was there, and the RISK-TAKING was there.  For me, too, it was the decade in which I established The Tantivy Press as a flourishing publisher of film books, in which I launched the annual International Film Guide, that would against all odds, endure into a new millennium.  It was a decade of discovery in every sense.

Revolution! tracks film culture across the globe, observing how European films influenced filmmakers in Asia, South America, Eastern Europe, and how those films came back to enrich the culture in Europe and the U.S. The very nature of modern media – satellite TV, worldwide film distribution, DVDs, the Internet – makes it easier for films to cross borders today. What made the cross-fertilization so much more dynamic then? What do you think is missing from today’s film culture?

An intriguing point.  The easier it is to communicate, the less important the quality of the communication — or so it seems.  For a start, the American cinema was hidebound during the 1950’s and well into the 1960’s.  It was ripe for a revolution, and European cinema influenced that “movie brat” generation, and, just before them, maverick moviemakers who are undeservedly forgotten, like Bob Rafelson (Five Easy Pieces) and Richard Lester (Petulia).  My belief is that Europe has lost its influence on world cinema, for 3 reasons.  Firstly, the American “independent” cinema has cloned much of what was most exciting about European cinema forty years ago.  Secondly, Asian cinema has risen to the fore with extraordinary speed (when we started International Film Guide only Japan could possibly merit a section).  And thirdly, the collapse of communism has left Eastern Europe gasping for creative air, subjected abruptly to the laws of capitalism (you’re only as good as your last film), and without the political oppression of yore to react against.

During the 40 years of editing the International Film Guide, you’ve seen the rise of international cinema in the film cultures of the US and Britain — where foreign films were staples of the art cinema and regularly discussed in the mainstream press — and the subsequent waning of foreign film distribution. How do you account for that? What effect do you think this loss has had on the film cultures of the U.S. and Britain, in aesthetic and commercial terms?

I’m not sure I agree with that assessment.  On the face of it, foreign films are no longer on everyone’s lip at the proverbial “cocktail parties”.  But in fact, festivals have replaced the art-house.  Practically every city, every community, sports a film festival of one kind or another.  In the heyday of the art-house, there was only a handful of such events in the U.S. and Britain.  The advent of DVD has brought foreign cinema not just into the living-room but into the classroom as well.  I would say that the average college student has a richer knowledge of modern foreign cinema today than he or she would had forty years ago.

That said, that same student’s knowledge of the cinema prior to Star Wars or The Godfather is haphazard at best.  The silent period seems as remote as Italian 14th century painting or Ming period porcelain — the domain of specialists.  That’s why I think it vital that film history retain its portal place in college courses, and at film schools.

The film culture of the U.S. and Britain is today much more “mainstream” than it was when I was young.  Films like The Departed, for example, would never have been “recognised” in the 1960’s, so orthodox is their approach to film technique, and so aimed as they are at a wide audience.

Revolution! makes the greatest case for the importance of film festivals I have every read: how it invites film directors to see other films, meet other directors, share ideas, and then return to their own cultures (some of them quite insular) infused with ideas and excitement. In the sixties and seventies it was certainly the primary, if not the only, way for this kind of cross-cultivation. Do you think they still serve that purpose? I know that you are still attend festivals – we had to suspend the interview for the Berlin Film Festival – so why do you think they are still important today?

I refer to that above, of course, but let me add this: As the multiplex continues to dominate, as the power of the “opening weekend” dictates the policy of the Hollywood studios, so it’s absolutely essential for festivals to root out the offbeat and the experimental movies — the films from lesser nations, and the films made on small budgets that nevertheless exhibit imagination and commitment.  Indeed I disdain the policy of Cannes in particular, with its kowtowing to the majors in the hope of getting stars and starlets to grace the red carpet at the festival.  How could a festival with the strength and history of Cannes decided to screen films such as Troy or The Da Vinci Code?

Personally, I prefer the festivals with smaller programmes, chosen by a programmer with discriminating taste.  Twenty excellent films are better than 500 of every shape and size.  Sundance and Toronto, for example, resemble nothing so much as metaphorical shopping malls for the movie industry.

Do you have a personal favorite film festival or two? 

The festival I admire most is Berlin, because of its zest for cinema.  The festival I actually like attending most is Venice, because I can relax and enjoy the movies.  And on two occasions I have had the good fortune to be invited to Telluride, which enables you to run into all kinds of unusual heroes, far from the madding crowd of bodyguards and PR folk (I’ve met, on line in Telluride, Laura Dern and Renny Harlin, Salman Rushdie and Danis Tanovic, Stan Brakhage and Les Blank, James Ivory and Peter Bogdanovich.  How eclectic can you get!)