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THE SKY BETWEEN THE LEAVES: Film reviews, essays & interviews (1992-2012) by David Walsh

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“For film lovers hungry for feedback chewier than the gossip-flavored crackle-and-pop of what corporate media serve up.”
— Al Young 

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A review from Uruguay of David Walsh’s The Sky Between the Leaves

“The Permanent Revolution in Film Criticism”
By Marcelo Arias Souto
19 February 2014

This review originally appeared February 9 in Spanish, in a somewhat longer version, on the author’s blog. Souto’s comment reflects a growing and welcome interest in filmmaking and film criticism that takes social life, and the problems of wide layers of the population, more seriously.

Some critics have been able to do something more than make a serious and sharp analysis of cinema: they have elaborated their own cinematographic language, challenging, and at times even transforming, not only the viewer’s perception of what he sees on screen, but also his vision of the world, the connection between the reality of a film—necessarily a construction or a representation—and the reality that transpires outside of it. The first that come to my mind are André Bazin, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Manny Farber, Andrew Sarris and Serge Daney.

In the last 30 years or so, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Jim Hoberman, Kent Jones and Adrian Martin have done significant work, and perhaps deserve to be a part of this celebrated list. But in many respects, the most important contemporary film critic is David Walsh. Arts editor of the World Socialist Web Site (www.wsws.org), where he writes about film from a Marxist perspective, Walsh is the cultural journalist who best explores the relation of cinema with the world in which we live. There is no other writer today displaying such a profound historical understanding when reviewing a particular film or a director’s career in general, on the basis of the political, economic and cultural context.

Since I discovered his work, I realized that Walsh was not a mere commentator, but a film thinker: someone with the vocation to develop a personal theory of the history and aesthetics of cinema, with a tone and a way of writing that challenges both the trivial preferences of the most unthinking entertainment journalists, but also the trends and figures appreciated by the most sophisticated moviegoers and critics. As a Marxist, Walsh conducts his work as a means to oppose the existing social order and its culture, to demand that his colleagues not be so indulgent either toward the more conventional cinema or that which introduces itself as its alternative. And his conviction and well-argued passion, his rebellion against any type of cliché, create the sensation of pleasure and the liberating effect that I had found before (or would find later) in the writings of Bazin, Truffaut, Farber, Sarris or Daney.

I experienced the same feelings reading The Sky Between the Leaves, a collection of his film reviews, essays and interviews with directors and colleagues, made between 1992 and 2012. Most pieces of this anthology were posted on the World Socialist Web Site, launched in February of 1998 by the International Committee of the Fourth International. But it also contains articles written between 1992 and 1996, which appeared in newspapers published by the Workers League, the predecessor organization of the Socialist Equality Party.

The book was published in November 2013 and a Spanish translation has yet be produced. But those who know English and prefer to read it in its original version can get it from Amazon or through Mehring Books. At this address, there is also a special site dedicated to the book’s publication where one can see an interview with its author and also read some sections of this work.

As a summary of Walsh’s thought and work, The Sky Between the Leaves confirms his ability to explore every film with an almost scientific meticulousness, stripped of hyperbole and arbitrariness. Walsh is not an aesthetic theorist, he does not focus on the ontology of the image, as Bazin did. Nor is he a stylist as a writer, he has not Farber’s innovative prose. And perhaps he doesn’t have the encyclopedic knowledge of film history of some of his most eminent colleagues. But he does have a historical and social perspective that allows him to think about cinema with greater depth than any critic I know, past or present. He also communicates his ideas with a fluid writing style, which mixes the usual severity of his evaluations with sparks of wit and humor.

The book has an introduction in which Walsh describes his personal and political trajectory over the last two decades, his ideological vision, and his conception of cinema. He reveals that the title of his book comes from Breton’s poem In the beautiful half-light of 1934, which he interprets as “a reference to the attempt to see through the immediate obstructions to a brighter and broader reality.”

After the prologue, the book is structured in four chapters. The first one brings together reviews of Riff-Raff (1991) by Ken Loach, Naked (1993) by Mike Leigh, Through the Olive Trees (1994) by Abbas Kiarostami, A Borrowed Life (1994) by Wu Nienjen, The Thin Red Line (1998) by Terrence Malick, Platform (2000) by Jia Zhangke, Yi Yi (2000) by Edward Yang, Waltz with Bashir (2008) by Ari Folman and A Separation (2011), by Asghar Farhadi, among a long list.

This section also includes an examination of classic films, screened in restored versions, such as Luchino Visconti’s Senso (1954), Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). The second part of the book offers the coverage of some festivals (Toronto, Vancouver, Buenos Aires). The third chapter has interviews with critics Andrew Sarris and Robin Wood, and filmmakers Abbas Kiarostami, Jia Zhangke and Mike Leigh.

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