Film school, pocket-sized.
Editors Black, the co-founder of both the Austin Chronicle and SXSW and founding board member of the Austin Film Society, and Swords, one of Black’s research and project assistants, gather a selection of the program notes written for the University of Texas’ “CinemaTexas” film program from the early 1970s to the mid-1980s, meant to provide context for the films screened for students. But these notes go far beyond technical credits and plot summaries. The movie-mad scholars who wrote them, inspired by the impassioned criticism at the heart of the French New Wave, craft rigorously researched and reasoned critiques in handy capsule form, aided in great part by access to the university’s copies of the often difficult-to-obtain films themselves. (The New Yorker’s immortal Pauline Kael subscribed to the notes, for handy reference.) After establishing a historical baseline with looks at such foundational works as Sunrise and Citizen Kane, the collection reveals the progressive tastes of the CinemaTexas programmers, focusing on auteurist cinema (Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges), renegade and maverick directors (Samuel Fuller, Sam Peckinpah), and arthouse/cult fare, including the work of Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger, whose Scorpio Rising, “perhaps the most popular and widely renowned film of the American avant-garde,” is so succinctly and cogently explicated that it makes actually viewing the film seem redundant. The approach of the notes is consistent across the years and different contributors: close reading of the films as texts, emphasizing aesthetic analysis of composition, editing, and other technical elements in the service of narrative and theme. The tone is erudite while avoiding academic jargon or pretentious obscurity, and the brief length of each piece underscores the lively and engaged spirit of the project.
An elegant package of serious, insightful film criticism in an irresistibly concise and engaging format—delightful to dip into for cinephiles and cinema studies neophytes alike.