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Interview with Film Critic Peter Cowie - A Passage through Berkeley

Updated: Oct 3, 2018


Peter Cowie, film critic and author of more than thirty books on film, has fond memories of UC Berkeley campus and the Pacific Film Archive, which he visited at the start of his career in the sixties. In February 2014, we met Peter at the Berlin International Festival, where he had served as moderator in numerous Berlinale Talents' events for many years. In this interview, Peter, who is also the former International publishing director of Variety, tells us about bookshops on the Berkeley campus, his vision of cinema and about his trips to Napa Valley to do research on Francis Ford Coppola and the Godfather franchise.



When did you first visit UC Berkeley?

In 1975, I was invited to UC Berkeley to give a presentation of two Swedish films at the Pacific Film Archive, a low-profile gem yet with a film library, accessibility and year- round quality film programs. I remember it was two little-known medium-length films by Jiri Tirl: ‘The Pistol’ and ‘Metamorphosis’. At the time, I had published a number of books on Ingmar Bergman and Nordic cinema. What I loved about the campus was the atmosphere, the bookshops, especially Black Oak Books. Tom Luddy, the curator of the Pacific Film Archive, was a friend and he introduced me to American chef and pioneer cook Alice Waters of the French restaurant Chez Panisse, which had just opened.


You have published more than thirty books on film, including critical biographies of Bergman, Welles and Coppola. How did you meet Francis Ford Coppola?

Tom Luddy connected me with Coppola. After I reviewed Coppola’s first film You're a Big Boy Now for the International Film Guide, I got the idea of writing a book about his work. Meanwhile, as a regular contributor to the New York Times, I pitched them my idea of a profile on Luddy.


While at Berkeley, who did you meet who had an influence on your career?

I met Program Director and/or Curator of Film for Pacific Film Archive Tom Luddy and we became good friends. It is through him that I met Francis Coppola. Tom was the producer for American Zoetrope and was an important American contact for several French auteurs, having worked with, most notably, Godard and having been responsible for bringing Abel Gance’s ‘Napoleon’ to the US. The late film critic and historian Albert Johnson, who attended the University of California at Berkeley, had read my review of ‘Les Enfants du Paradis’. He had published in the late 60s in Film Quarterly, which was given new life by the University of California Press and editor Ernest Callenbach that same time. There I served as their London correspondent. Both the festival and the journal continue to flourish. Then, after his return to California, Albert Johnson was the United States editor to British Film Institute's Sight and Sound magazine for 10 years.


You have published more than thirty books on film, including critical biographies of Bergman, Welles and Coppola. How did you meet Francis Ford Coppola?

Tom Luddy connected me with Francis F. Coppola. After I reviewed Coppola’s first film You're a Big Boy Now for the International Film Guide, I got the idea of writing a book about his work. Meanwhile, as a regular contributor to the New York Times, I pitched them my idea of a profile on Luddy. Typically when you write a profile on someone, you follow him/her around and take notes. That is what I did, and during those few days I remember meeting Francis F. Coppola in a café. I let Tom see my provisional manuscript of my study of Francis F. Coppola, and he left it on his desk. Coppola came into the office, took it and read it at home. Fortunately he liked what he read and that’s how I got access to him. He graciously spent 7 hours with me and the end result was the book ‘Coppola A Biography’, which he liked very much. To this day, I consider it one of my best books! I am particularly proud of the fact that, when reviewing the draft copy, Francis F. Coppola amended only the form, not the substance, leaving untouched the parts with my personal opinions. Our collaboration continued with two books on ‘The Godfather’ franchise and ‘Apocalypse Now’. For example, for The Godfather Part III, he invited me to the shooting in Rome. In total, I made two trips to Napa where he lives and had access to the impressive archive he has on the grounds of his home. Being trained as an historian in Cambridge, I loved working from the sources.


You began writing about cinema at Cambridge University in 1960, where you majored in history. Did it help you think historically, theoretically, and analytically about film?

I won an academic achievements-based scholarship to get to Cambridge (of which I am very proud). I stumbled on fellow cinephiles and I joined a film society there. I wrote for Broadsheet, a student magazine on cinema. In Cambridge, I met David Frost (famous for his subsequent TV talks with Richard Nixon, and in those days editor of Granta, which covered a lot of film issues). At the same time, Stephen Frears was a student at Cambridge, although I did not meet him until many years later. These were exciting times: the French New Wave, Italian masters like Fellini and Antonioni, Satyajit Ray, Carlos Saura, Lindsay Anderson etc, all coming together within the space of 5 years coupled with a technological revolution (in sound and camera). Film was the art of the time, people discussed film at parties, and I spent more time reading and watching films at the National Film Theatre down in London (that’s where I got my education in film) than in Cambridge.


In 1963, you founded the International Film Guide, which you edited for forty years. How and where did it all start? It started in London, at my parents' place: all the copies were printed and shipped from the cellar. I launched the International Film Guide in 1963, initially covering a dozen of countries and ending up covering 100+ countries. I got the funding from distributors and exhibitors in the form of advertising. I copied the square format used by the French publisher Seghers, for all my books. Soon we were publishing up to eight titles each year at my little publishing concern, The Tantivy Press.


"Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal" changed my life."

As a longtime contributor of commentaries, supplements, and essays to the Criterion Collection, you were responsible for the commentary on the high-quality edition of ‘The 7th Seal’. How did this Swedish masterpiece mark your life and career?

Ingmar Bergman’s ‘The 7th Seal’ changed my life. The idea that someone could bare his soul on screen and communicate his fears, doubts, and aspirations literally stunned me. Before watching this film, I had experienced cinema as a spectacle I watched with my parents every Saturday. After watching this film, I remember I talked for an hour with my father about it. Then, I went to a season of Bergman films at the NFT in 1959. I became interested in all Bergman's films, Swedish silent cinema and later on Nordic cinema in general.


Each year, you moderate a number of panels at Berlinale Talents, which gathers more than 300 students from around 100 countries, in film producing, directing, film soundtrack composition, screenwriting, sound, acting, and journalism. Would you define yourself as a film critic first and foremost?

I never wanted to be a director. I have no ability to see in images. I am a writer, and I think in words. I see myself as the passage of communication between the metteur en scene and the spectator, shedding some light in the dark tunnel between the filmmaker's intentions and his audience. The landscape is changing with China and India coming forward. Whereas India has Bollywood, China was not historically a film nation (the tradition being more opera and ballet). India is building a film industry aside of Bollywood, and China is well-known for its stream of imaginative films. There seems to be a shift from feature film to non-fiction documentary film today: people want realism and naturalism. Filmmaking is like wine, it goes in vintages: the 60's and 70's vintages were great but today there is a kind of throwback to the Hollywood dream factory. What I am looking for in a film is a film-film, not a book-film or a drama-film.I am interested in the art of film: simply put, when the director speaks to me through the language of film.


"The ultimate film-film is Alain Resnais' ‘Hiroshima mon amour’ in that it broke the rules and redefined the grammar of film, especially in terms of camera work and non-linear story. Many film directors took their inspiration from this revolutionary piece such as Christopher Nolan (in ‘Memento’) or David Fincher (in ‘The Usual Suspects’) to name but two examples."

French critic and founder of Cinémathèque francaise Henri Langlois traveled to Berkeley many times to collaborate with Ronan Sheldon the founder of the Pacific Film Archive. Did you travel to France and did you work on a subject relating to French cinema?

Yes, I love Paris and had my first real success there. I went to Association Française des Cinémas d'Art et d'Essai (AFCAE) and told them about my project of writing about art-houses in Paris. They liked the idea and gave me their official blessing. I wrote about Studio 28 and La Pagode, among others. I made a lot of friends and came across a number of artists and cinephiles, such as Samuel Beckett in a private party in Paris and Lotte H. Eisner, then working at La Cinematheque francaise.


If Les Gens de Berkeley asked you to host a dinner party with film makers, how would you draw up the sitting plan?

I became friends with many first- and second-rank film directors, and the occasional actor. For example, I had a long-standing correspondence with Louise Brooks, and an occasional one with Francois Truffaut. I had an instant rapport with Ingmar Bergman, who was sort of my Doppelgänger. All his greatness was in his work, not his life. Like Kurosawa and Welles, he had great presence. At the table, I would have Welles, Satyajit Ray, not Bergman (who was not much of a socialite), Louise Brooks, Charlie Chaplin, Dusan Makavejev, Coppola of course, and Francois Truffaut, who was a compulsive letter writer, and nicely wrote to me regarding my book on Welles.


You once embarked on a tour across 18 states to give lectures to film students on various subjects close to your heart (the western genre, Nordic cinema and Orson Welles). Was the economic and political landscape in California any different than it is now?

When I gave lectures in UC Santa Barbara, Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Penn State and so forth, that was back in the 70s and I was fortunate to get funding from the Swedish Film Institute. Years passed, and after two oil crises, the Reagan Administration planned to dramatically slash funding for culture. Even the National Endowment of the Arts suffered from the savage cuts in federal spending. Decades later, in the wake of the world financial crisis, the State of California divested from UC Berkeley's budget, prompting the premier public university to chase funding from private sources.


#petercowie #pacificfilmarchive #thecriterioncollection #lacinémathèquefrançaise


The original interview was first published in Les Gens de Berkeley #6 - Summer issue (July 2014)

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