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Flickers by Gilbert Adair

by Erik Gregersen
My favorite book on film is Flickers by the recently deceased English critic and novelist Gilbert Adair. It was published in 1995 to commemorate the centenary of cinema. It consists of 100 movie stills, 1 per year from 1895 to 1994, each accompanied by a short essay about the specific film, but more often branching off into considerations of the director, the genre, or cinema as a whole. What immediately attracted me to this book when I saw it on the shelf of the University Co-op bookstore in Austin, Texas, were the profuse illustrations (often a deficiency of books about film), then the fact that some of my personal favorites (Lawrence of… Read more

My favorite book on film is Flickers by the recently deceased English critic and novelist Gilbert Adair. It was published in 1995 to commemorate the centenary of cinema. It consists of 100 movie stills, 1 per year from 1895 to 1994, each accompanied by a short essay about the specific film, but more often branching off into considerations of the director, the genre, or cinema as a whole. What immediately attracted me to this book when I saw it on the shelf of the University Co-op bookstore in Austin, Texas, were the profuse illustrations (often a deficiency of books about film), then the fact that some of my personal favorites (Lawrence of Arabia, The Color of Pomegranates, 2001, Black Narcissus, Citizen Kane) were included, and then Adair’s lapidary prose style (which is impossible to boil down to brief extracts, Adair would have never tweeted), coupled with startling judgements (some unusual: an insistence that silent movies should be projected silent, without score) but quite a few that, to my mind, are absolutely correct. For example, on film noir (1956: Beyond a Reasonable Doubt):

“There is, though, a most curious paradox in the film noir. I yield to no one, as they say, in my love for the genre and I recognize the pertinence of much that has been written about its inherent pessimism. Yet I must confess to never having found that pessimism very convincing. No one in the forties ever went to a film noir with a sense that he was about to submit to a harrowing but salutary dose of existential nihilism (a nihilism that isn’t just a matter of critical interpretation but is quite perceptible in both narrative detail and visual texture), just as no one ever need recoil from watching one on television now. Films noirs are great fun, for God’s sake, great fun primarily because they never really do persuade one that the despair that they portray is ultimately a truth of the human condition—in the way that, at least while one is experiencing it, a film by Bergman does, or a novel by Kafka, or an opera by Berg. For most of us, I suspect, their fabled negativity is precisely that: a negative (in the photographic sense of the word) of the fundamental American positivity and optimism. The people who made them (and who were usually, as I’ve said, European exiles) loved America, just as did the people who watched them. Secretly, I believe, they were not even meant to convince.”

Since first reading Flickers, I have always turned to it after checking off another of its films that I hadn’t seen before. (And strangely enough, the one film I thought I would never see, Bardelys the Magnificent, which Adair uses as an example of the many lost silent films, was found, and I watched it on TCM.) Flickers reminds me of the old slogan for Jay’s potato chips, “You can’t eat just one.” You cannot just read one line or page. It must be devoured.

Films not in MUBI:

1897: Fatima’s Dance (Anon.)
1898: The Battle of Manila Bay (J. Stuart Blackton)
1899: A Visit to the Spiritualist (J. Stuart Blackton & Alfred E. Smith)
1901: The Execution of McKinley’s Assassin (Edwin S. Porter)
1908: The Assassination of the Duc de Guise (Andre Calmettes & Charles Le Bargy)
1910: A Tin-Type Romance (Laurence Trimble)
1911: Max Sets the Fashion (Rene Leprince & Max Linder)

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