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.

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