An Alphabet of Peter Wollen

Curator's Note

An Alphabet of Peter Wollen


Peter Wollen’s “An Alphabet of Cinema” was first published in New Left Review in late 2001, after being presented as the Serge Daney memorial lecture at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in February 1998: it later appeared as the opening essay in Paris Hollywood: Writings on Film (Verso, 2002). Simultaneously a tribute to one film critic and an indirect autobiography of another, my imitation/homage/collage plays by (following Wollen’s lead) the rules of the game: I don’t simply repeat Wollen’s items for each letter (though I do provide his original alphabetically-arranged topics in brackets following my selections), and I don’t even try to imitate his sharp, evocative entries.  My desire is to evoke, in memoriam, items central to the career and life of this essential critic, teacher, and artist.   All direct quotations below come from his writings.


A is for Auteur, and for AMY! (1979) and for Americanism [Aristotle/Avant-Garde]


B is for Barthes and Benjamin and Bataille and Brecht and Breton but also for Budd Boetticher: “he is lucid about his own films.  It is high time critics were equally lucid.”   [Bambi]


C is for Cinema One, the 28-volume book series published from 1967-1977 that included #9, Signs and Meaning in the Cinema [Cinephilia]


D is for Diaghilev (“… with dandyish disdain, decadent fervour, and committed hedonism …”), Dance, Design, and Décor  [Daney/Dance]


E is for Viking Eggeling, “… a visionary committed to a synthesis of the arts (music, poetry, painting, dance) for which film provided a dynamic, technological vehicle …” [Eisenstein]


F is for Sam Fuller, the subject of Lee Russell’s first film essay (1964) for New Left Review: “The America he celebrates is teetering into lunacy.” [Festival]


G is for Hotel de la Gloria, where the camera wanders for seven unbroken minutes in The Passenger (1975), co-written by Wollen, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Mark Peploe [Godard]


H is for Edward Hopper, whose “paintings invite us to speculate, to imagine our own screenplay, our own interpretation of past, present and future, our own reorganization of time and space.” [Hitchcocko-Hawskianism]


I is for Internationale situationniste: “The wasteful luxury of utopian projects, however doomed, is no bad thing.”  [Industry/Ince]


J is for Jackson Pollock: “Rather than abstract expressionism, his work would be more accurately described as ‘American automatism.’”  [Japan]


K is for Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti (1983): “I hope that writing about Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti is more a step forward than a look backward.”  [Kane]


“L and M take us to the middle of the alphabet, but to the beginning of cinema …” and are now for Laura and Mulvey [Lumière and Méliès]


“N, there’s no doubt about it, has to be for” New Left Review [Narrative]


O is for Ornamentalism: “… the renunciation of ornament is not only a denial of exhibitionism, but also a trait of anal eroticism, an orderly cleaning-out of the superfluous and a parsimonious dislike of the excessive and unnecessary.” [Online]


P is for Penthesilia, Queen of the Amazons (1974): “… a mismatch between the written and the spoken … a kind of counterpoint between sight and sound, seeing and hearing.” [The Passenger]


Q is for Raymond Queneau, co-founder of Oulipo, seeking creative inspiration through predetermined rules and constraints [Qu’est-ce que le cinéma?]


R is for Lee Russell, the precocious New Left Review film critic interviewed by Peter Wollen in 1997. [Roberto Rossellini/Rome, Open City/Renoir/Rules of the Game]


S is for The (Riddles of the) Sphinx (1977) as well as The Spiv, icons of classical femininity and modernist masculinity [Sternberg/Shanghai Gesture/Surrealism]


T is for the Two Avant-Gardes (“… it is crucial that the two avant-gardes should be confronted and juxtaposed”) and for Tilda Swinton, star of Friendship’s Death (1987) [Telecinema/Third Dimension/Television/Technology]


U is for the University of Oxford, and for UCLA, for the transversal of the UK and the US [Underground Film]


V is for Vent D’Est (1970), “a pioneering film, an avant-garde film, an extremely important film.  It is the starting point for work on a revolutionary cinema.  But it is not that revolutionary cinema itself.” [Voyeurism]


W is for Paddy Whannel, Wollen’s supervisor and colleague in the BFI Education Department (“We were intellectual activists”) and for Orson Welles and for Andy Warhol [Wavelength]


X is (for Wollen) for Epstein’s photogénie or Barthes’ punctum, and now for Wollen’s own extraordinary, exceptional eccentricity.  [“X stands for an unknown quantity”]


Y is for Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) in which “Like a missile with a homing device, he homes in on the lies he senses and explodes them.” [Les Yeux Sans Visage]


Z is for Fred Zinnemann, the endpoint in a primal scene of alphabetic cinephilia: “I would underline each film after I had seen it – in my battered copy of Coursodon and Boisset’s Twenty Years of American Cinema, a compendium of Hollywood film in which the films were listed by director, from Aldrich to Zinnemann …” [zoom/Zorns Lemma/Zero]


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