Peter Conrad taught English literature at Christ Church, Oxford, from 1973 to 2011 and has written more than twenty books, including the superb Orson Welles: The Stories Of his Life and The Hitchcock Murders. So it’s no surprise to learn that his latest volume, The Mysteries Of Cinema: Movies And Imagination, has won glowing reviews from the likes of The Observer, The Guardian and The Dublin Review Of Books, who hailed its “arresting vignettes” and “forensic research”. What may be surprising to those unfamiliar with his work is the wit and playful style he brings to a subject which could so easily have emerged as a dry dissection of the whos, the whats and the whys.
Ranging from the late 19th Century to the present, this exhilarating volume explores the ways in which the medium of cinema has changed the way we see the world.
In the 19th Century, the first moving pictures both delighted and alarmed audiences. Early commentators were equally divided. Some praised cinema for ‘bringing back the dead’. Others likened it to a hypnotic trance or a hallucinogenic drug. The Mysteries Of Cinema sets out to map this ambiguous territory by taking readers on a thematic roller-coaster ride through movie history.
Through out the book, directors and critics speculate about the nature of cinematic vision, with contributions to the debate from writers like Kafka, Virginia Woolf and Joan Didion, artists such as Salvador Dalí, George Grosz and Fernand Léger, and the composers Arnold Schoenberg and Dmitri Shostakovich.
The book begins with a look at the audacious innovations of silent film, filtered through the lens of French surrealism and German expressionism. Other chapters deal with the appeal of Hollywood genres like the Western, horror movies, and musicals. The book ends by considering the fate—and future—of the moving image in today’s visually-glutted society.
Film has always been a medium that’s excited by speed. It enjoys sending the body on furious kinetic chases; at the same time, it stealthily probes our minds, invades our dreams and titillates our desires. Although this is an art kindled by light and inflamed by colour, it’s nurtured by darkness and can reduce life to an insubstantial shadow play. Either way, as Peter Conrad argues in this brilliant book, the movie camera has given us new eyes and changed forever our view of reality forever.
Combining contagious enthusiasm with an eye for the subjective quirks of filmmakers and the allure of favourite performers, Conrad ’s new book is a playful, insightful, and eminently readable exploration of humankind’s most energetic, expressive, and elusive art.
The Mysteries Of Cinema: Movies And Imagination by Peter Conrad is 312 pages of cinematographic joy. Out now in hardback from Thames & Hudson.