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The art of Randy Thom

 Sound designer (FW35)

In conversation with Geoffrey Nowell-Smith

In conversation with Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, ex-editor of the journal Screen and editor of the Oxford History of World Cinema, we discuss cinema and its whereabouts over the years. By Marco Zee- Jotti

Marco Zee-Jotti -  I am sort of curious about your transition from literature to film studies?

Geoffrey Nowell-Smith -  I started off with this kind of double life because I was studying Italian and French literature but I was also very interested in Italian and French cinema and especially the French New Wave. I tried to combine my film and Italian interests by writing about Italian cinema, but the time came when I had to choose between the two. I chose cinema although it was not a good career move because there wasn’t much film studies teaching.

At the time , early 70s, I also wanted to leave England, I wanted to disentangle myself from far-left politics, and I got a chance to teach film in the US. Also, by this time my interest has shifted from art cinema to semiotics, ideology and, increasingly, American films, which sometimes I like because they are very good films, but sometimes because of the various ideological undertones within them. While I was in America I taught classes on melodrama, and I have to say I never liked melodrama, I think it is a very reactionary form, unless they smuggle films in under the heading melodrama and these happen to be films by Visconti, Ophuls or Sirk for example.

So when we talk about melodrama we can be talking about films rich in meaning like Madame de … (Ophuls, 1953) and films that are mainly interesting for the ideology they express, like Bigger than Life (Nicholas Ray, 1956) and which one can approach as a criticism of ideology. Ray, for instance, has got a subject which is the American family, a subject that in American cinema is normally treated in a straightjacketed way. I wanted to deconstruct the ideology, I wanted to explore where these films stood ideologically in relation to institutions, including cinema institutions like Hollywood, which is on the one hand money and on the other ideology.

When I got back from the States in the mid-70s it was the height of the boom in semiotics, and I got involved partly because I had some training in linguistics. However, it did not last very long and the reason is that it has always seemed difficult to me to retain an interest in the aesthetic if you concentrate on signifier and signified, and so on. You can get bogged down in sub-artistic questions. I was editor of Screen for a year during which I mainly wanted to separate it from, or dig it out of, the dead end which it seemed to me it was putting itself in with the kind of post-marxism and Foucauldian attitude