Monday, May 10, 2010

A Moon in the Gutter Q&A with Editor and Writer John Berra

I am very pleased to present this Moon in the Gutter Q&A with editor and writer John Berra. I first came into contact with John last year when he graciously allowed me to submit some pieces to a volume he was editing for Intellect Books' American Independent Edition of their Directory of World Cinema and my dealings with him have all been quite wonderful. A very supportive and terrific writer, John is the author of the essential Declarations of Independence: American Cinema and the Partiality of Independent Production and he's very busy as an editor these days with Intellect's terrific film series. Enough of my gabbing, I will just let John explain!

1. Thanks so much John for taking some time out of your schedule to do this. To start out, can you tell us a bit about your background and how you first got interested in writing?

John Berra: It’s hard to know where to start with regards to my background and my interest in writing. As with most academics and journalists who specialise in Film Studies, I am lifelong fan of cinema, and spent most of my teenage years watching both new releases and cult classics, gradually getting into film theory through Sight & Sound magazine and other publications. I also started to read such series as BFI Film Classics and Faber & Faber’s interview books with directors like David Cronenberg, John Sayles and Martin Scorsese, and I found that I could not watch or re-watch a film without first learning something about its production background or the career of its director. I also loved the writing of Joe Queenan, the acerbic New York critic whose most famous pieces were published in the collection If You’re Talking To Me, Your Career Must be in Trouble, and I began to respond to critics who had a unique voice and discussed other issues and interests through the medium of film, rather than just providing a value judgement. I considered studying film academically, but wanted to push myself in another direction, so I studied for a BA in Philosophy at the University of York from 1997 to 2000; although it was an interesting degree, one that definitely enhanced my ability to form a convincing theoretical argument, I never felt entirely engaged by the subject and I wanted to get back my core interest, so I relocated to Sheffield to undertake an MA in Creative Writing for Films and Television with the ambition of becoming a screenwriter. It was a terrific course, and being tutored by the celebrated screenwriter Andrew Davies, who is perhaps still best known for his BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, was a wonderful experience, but the eventual qualification did not lead to anything approaching a career. I think that, to really make it in any national film industry, you have to be something of a ‘one man band’, a writer, producer, director, perhaps even an actor, and I never felt that I could be ‘the package’ as I enjoyed the writing process but had little knowledge or experience of the logistical aspects of filmmaking. Fortunately, the senior academic who ran the MA in Creative Writing for Films and Television offered me the opportunity to undertake a PhD, and I spent four years researching American Independent Cinema, eventually publishing the results as Declarations of Independence: American Cinema and the Partiality of Independent Production with Intellect in 2008. Shortly after the book was published, I started writing for magazines and websites, and developed a profile as a freelance journalist alongside my academic pursuits.

2. How did you get involved in the editing field on top of your writing?

I was offered the opportunity to edit a volume in the Directory of World Cinema series by Intellect; I became involved at a very early stage, and may have been the first editor to sign on to the project. I initially agreed to edit The Directory of World Cinema: Japan, because I had been researching Asian Cinema after immersing myself in the world of American Independent Cinema for four years, and I chose Japan because it has a rich history of both studio production and privately financed production, while its output is as culturally revealing as it is aesthetically adventurous. A few months into editing the Japan volume, I realised that the publishing house still required an editor for the American Independent volume, and decided that all the knowledge and research that I had built up whilst writing Declarations of Independence could be further utilised in an editorial capacity, so I also agreed to edit the Directory of World Cinema: American Independent. I did not actually have any experience of editing before I took on the responsibility of assembling these volumes, so the past eighteen months have been something of a learning curve. Finding the right contributors is an example of this; I initially contacted established academics in the field, then journalists, but I ultimately found engaging with the blogosphere to be particularly productive. Admittedly, not everyone writing about film on the internet is a culturally incisive critic, but there are some brilliant writers out there with some very personal websites and blogs, and their style and working pace is perfectly suited to the requirements of the Directory of World Cinema project.

3. Can you tell us a bit about Declarations of Independence: American Cinema and the Partiality of Independent Production?

Declarations of Independence was a condensed version of my PhD thesis, which was written from 2002 to 2006. It started out as a study of the cultural importance of American Independent Cinema by examining key films and directors. I wrote case studies of some significant titles, such as Drugstore Cowboy and Memento, and chronicled the cultural impact of Easy Rider and Night of the Living Dead, but my supervisor kept pushing for more economic context, and it became more of a study of industrial networks and the consumption of alternative media. I used the philosopher Pierre Bourdieu as a theoretical guide, with particular reference to his works The Field of Cultural Production and A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, and studying American Independent Cinema became a way of revitalising arguments concerning the balance between art and commerce, and the value of ‘art’ to both consumers and sponsors. One of the most infuriating – but also fascinating – things about American Independent Cinema is that it is a culturally valid term which is widely used within popular media, but a concrete definition of the term has never been agreed on. Academics such as Geoff King, Emanuel Levy, Greg Merritt and Yannis Tzioumakis weighed in on the subject before I did, and Peter Biskind, James Mottram and Sharon Waxman have offered more journalistic approaches, but none of us have really delivered a finite definition of what constitutes ‘American Independent Cinema’. I delivered a paper at a conference devoted to American Independent Cinema arranged by Liverpool John Moores University in May 2009, and three days of discussion brought about more questions than answers, although this does reflect the inconclusive nature of many of the independent films that have emerged from the United States since the 1960s. I’m very proud of Declarations of Independence, although it’s a book that has received something of a mixed response; if you pick it up expecting it to be full of juicy gossip, as with Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures, then you will be disappointed, and the industrial analysis may not appeal to someone who wants to read textual analysis of their favourite independent films. However, I feel it works as a guide to a thriving alternative production sector, and I have been flattered to discover that other academics have recommended the book to their students and used it to teach the subject of American Independent Cinema at degree level.

Declarations of Independence: American Cinema and the Partiality of Independent Production at the Intellect stand, Society for Cinema & Media Studies Conference, Philadelphia, 2008.

4. Okay, so what exactly is this Directory of World Cinema series that Intellect is beginning to put out?

The Directory of World Cinema series aims to enable further discussion of World Cinema by establishing a reader-friendly format that makes each volume as easily assessable as it is sufficiently scholarly. Each volume will cover a particular cinematic territory and will be structured by genre, or movements, with each section featuring ten to twelve reviews of relevant titles. Intellect aims to publish a new volume for each territory every two years, with future volumes featuring completely new material. So far, the Directory of World Cinema: American Independent and the Directory of World Cinema: Japan have been published and, as the other volumes find their way to the bookshelves of libraries and enthusiasts, the series should form a cultural and industrial map of World Cinema and provide an essential research tool for both students of Film Studies and more general readers. Intellect chairman Masoud Yazdani has been both supportive and collaborative throughout the development of the project, and I think that the series represents a unique opportunity for both established writers and previously unpublished talent to cover a wide variety of films within a carefully structured format.

Intellect editor John Berra discussing the Directory of World Cinema project at Coventry University, February 2010.

5. It’s an incredibly ambitious series. How are the selections made for which films and filmmakers are going to be covered?

I cannot comment with regards to other volumes in the series, because every editor has his or her own approach to putting together their volume, but my process is very collaborative in terms of involving contributors at an early stage and allowing a lot of personal choice regarding the films and filmmakers that will be covered. I spend a lot of time researching relevant films and deciding which category to place them in before sending a long list of topics and titles to contributors who make their selections based on personal preferences and research interests. I also encourage contributors to suggest films and filmmakers, as I try to accommodate their particular research interests within the context of the project. Again, I cannot speak for other editors, but I think that there has been a concentrated effort to balance coverage of films which readers will expect to find in a series such as this, with more obscure titles that are, in their own way, just as important as more obvious cultural touchstones. For instance, in the American Independent volume, we cover such landmark films as Easy Rider, Mean Streets and Pulp Fiction, but we also consider lesser-known titles like All the Real Girls, Human Nature, Society and the Ed Wood tribute film I Woke up Early the Day I Died. I hope that the selection process will result in volumes which provide fresh insight into established classics and also encourage readers to seek out films that have gone comparatively under-the-radar. Hopefully, each volume will distinguish itself by providing a cultural examination of its respective territory through the medium of film, and also provide some insight into industry and distribution alongside textual analysis of a variety of films.

6. Have you had to leave any personal favourite films out of the volume?

There are obviously restrictions in terms of the amount of films and topics that you can cover, so there are some films that I reluctantly left out, but part of luxury of being involved in the Directory of World Cinema series is that you can cover those films and topics in later editions. Some genres will reoccur in the second volume of the Directory of World Cinema: American Independent, but there will be new sections on Mumblecore, Neo Noir and Youth Movies. If I had to pick five films that I wanted to include in the first volume, but could not for various reasons, I would go with Blood Simple, Eraserhead, The Last Broadcast, My Own Private Idaho and Suture. I also bemoan the fact that we did not cover Richard Wenk’s Vamp in the Exploitation USA section; it’s certainly not a ‘great’ film, but it is something of a guilty viewing pleasure and I believe it has a certain cult following, so hopefully it will sneak into the next volume.

7. Are you happy with the American Independent volume and can you tell us a bit about the future volumes that are coming up?

I am delighted with the American Independent volume; putting together any book, whether it is entirely your own work or an edited collection, is always a mammoth task, one that requires a lot of creativity and stamina. Sometimes, you are on a roll, and at others, everything seems to stagnate and you wonder if the project will ever be finished, so I take great pleasure in seeing things come together in the later stages as the various Word documents begin to resemble an actual book as the designer and the typesetter make their contributions to the process. I was thrilled that we were able to secure stills from such celebrated titles as The Cool World, Lone Star, Poison and Stranger than Paradise and I am particularly happy about being able to highlight the work of some filmmakers who have been sadly neglected by the mainstream press in recent years, such as Abel Ferrara, Stuart Gordon and Jon Jost, alongside the breakthrough success stories of Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze and Quentin Tarantino. I feel that the volume provides a thorough overview of American Independent Cinema, and also serves to update Declarations of Independence in terms of assessing the post-recession state of the sector. With the studios shutting down their prestige sub-divisions, American Independent Cinema is coming full circle with more rural productions such as Frozen River and Sin Nombre receiving a fair amount of attention, and I wanted to be able to comment on this sudden industrial shift. With regards to the Directory of World Cinema series, there are many more volumes to come in the next 12-18 months, all of which are being edited by high calibre academics with well-regarded publications in the field; Germany is being edited by Michelle Langford, India is being co-edited by Adam Bingham and Mark Cousins, while Colette Balmain is editing the Korean volume and Birgit Beumers is editing the Russian volume. There are also volumes covering Australia-New Zealand, France, Italy and Spain coming out in the next 12-18 months. I will also be editing the second volumes for American Independent and Japan, which are both due for publication in 2012.

8. What are your future plans as a writer? Your Declarations of Independence was excellent. Are you currently working on another book outside of the Directory of World Cinema series?

A lot of the writing I do is quite unexpected in that I don’t know that I am going to be doing it until I am asked to do it; my current assignment is to write an in-depth essay about the 1963 version of An Actor’s Revenge for a Collector’s Edition DVD that is being released later this year by Madman Entertainment for the Australian market. After that, I will be contributing an article about Kim Ki-duk’s Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring to an Electric Sheep anthology to be published in November 2010. I was a regular contributor to Electric Sheep magazine until the publisher, Wallflower, had to drop the title at the end of 2009 due to the current economic climate, although I have continued to write for the website, which has recently been redesigned, and I hope the magazine makes its way back to the newsstand when the recession lifts. I’m also contributing a chapter to a heavy tome entitled Companion to Film Noir, which is being edited by Andrew Spicer for Wiley-Blackwell, and I have been assigned the task of focusing on post-studio production practices, which means I will once more be exploring the industrial networks of American Independent Cinema. I have been working on a book about World Cinema for a few years now, although the analytical emphasis has shifted somewhat and it is becoming more about Asian Cinema than European Cinema. I am in the early stages of applying for funding to carry out an academic research project in China, which would combine a study of Asian Cinema with Asian Literature. I am waiting to see how those applications progress before I decide which direction to take the next book in, but I certainly intend to publish a book outside of the Directory of World Cinema series in the next few years.

Thanks again to John for agreeing to do this informative Q&A with Moon in the Gutter. The Japanese Volume of The Directory of World Cinema is out and additional info can be found in the links above and the American Independent Edition comes out this week in England and August in The United States. I have ten pieces in this volume including a chapter of Exploitation Cinema (focusing mostly on the importance of Roger Corman, Russ Meyer, Radley Metzger, Wes Craven, Abel Ferrara and William Lustig)and reviews of nine individual titles (Assault on Precinct 13, Buffalo 66, Chelsea Girls, Flesh, Magnolia, Reservoir Dogs, Smithereens, Snow Angels and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Solid interview. I just ordered a copy.