THE PHANTOM EMPIRE by Geoffrey O'Brien


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 Pop-culturist/spiritual autobiographer O'Brien (Dream Time, 1988; Hardboiled America, 1981) spins a brilliant, bullying monologue telling you Everything You Always Felt Was Happening Just Below The Surface Of The Movies. Like Michael Wood and David Thomson, O'Brien is convinced that he can generalize from his own experience of films (which seems heavier on German silents and Italian splatter flicks than on, say, Renoir's French films or anything since 1980) to a sense of ``The Movies.'' Substituting a challenging rhetorical ``you'' for the more customary ``we'' (``the films get their hooks into you by propping up memory, or perhaps more accurately by substituting for memory''), O'Brien presents cinema as contemporary religion, history, and epistemology rolled into one. In chapters on the relation between realism and dream in the art film, on the coercive function of the director, on the western and the horror film, on TV as the ultimate recycler and trivializer of visual magic, he comes up with one gorgeous aperáu after the next. On movies as Scripture: ``Why settle for words when you could go see photographs of God?'' In Fritz Lang's geometric films, ``existence could be defined as what was demarcated by walls.'' Genres keep developing ``as if everybody set out to make exactly the same movie...and failed in revealing ways. The failed imitation then became someone else's original.'' But the shower of epigrams has a price: Instead of developing a sustained argument from chapter to chapter, or even from paragraph to paragraph, O'Brien keeps reinventing the reel with every indent. And his strenuous reverie borrows too much from Michael Wood's America in the Movies and Leo Braudy's The World in a Frame to justify what comes across as his relentless mannerism. Not the history or social anatomy of the movies the jacket copy promises, then--or even the systematic explanation of their enduring power--but a bracing trip through O'Brien's personal movie landscape, which just might turn out to be yours too.

Pub Date: Oct. 25th, 1993
ISBN: 0-393-03549-2
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 1993


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