Peter Cowie's Revolution

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By Sean Axmaker

The author of over 30 books on films and filmmakers, the founder and editor of The International Film Guide for over 40 years before his retirement, and the editor of the Tantivy Press line of film books that flourished through the 60s and early 70s, Peter Cowie is one of the most important writers and editors on cinema of the past half-century. He is one of the leading authorities on Ingmar Bergman and Scandinavian cinema and, in addition to his numerous books on the subjects, has contributed commentary tracks and essays to numerous Criterion DVD releases, including eight Bergman films, and has penned three books on Francis Ford Coppola and his films.

One of his most recent books, Revolution! The Explosion of World Cinema in the Sixties, quickly became one of my favorite film histories. Rather than a traditional history or film study, the book is a vibrant portrait of the dynamic of the cinema culture of the era, featuring interviews with directors recalling the films and the film culture around them as they developed as well as Cowie's own memories of the excitement over the period, filtered through the understanding of a historian and veteran film critic. Just as importantly, he delves into lesser-known names and national cinema and the culture of political and social cinema and narrative experiments, all with a breathless brevity and thrilling immediacy that brings back the excitement of discovery for a cinema culture decades past.

Peter Cowie currently lives in Switzerland, in the French-speaking Vaud region, with his wife (who is French) and his son (who is bilingual). "It was a move that worked out well," he explained. "There are few more beautiful countries than Switzerland, and the lake and the mountains are, I find, very inspiring to a writer. I even appreciate the political system here, which is based on across-the-board consensus rather than the confrontational 'Left-Right' politics of Britain or France."

The interview was begun in January and was scheduled to go on for a couple weeks. It continued, on and off, via email, over the next four months, with breaks as Mr. Cowie continued to travel to festivals and for personal appearances.

 


You've been editing the International Film Guide for, what, 30 years or so? How and why did you help found this annual survey of film?

Actually I retired from the editorship after forty years, in November 2002. The idea came to me while I was still an undergraduate at Cambridge University, where I had become passionately involved with writing about film. It was a good vontage - one had everyone from David Frost (the broadcaster who interviewed Nixon) to Corin Redgrave, from Stephen Frears to Charles Barr (who wrote an excellent book on Ealing Studios), from novelist Margaret Drabble to stage director Trevor Nunn. Film was the most exciting art around, and I edited the film page (sometimes 2 pages!) of the Cambridge weekly, Varsity. I used to trek out to the massive University Library and sit for hours poring over old copies of Sight and Sound and Close-Up while others around me were swotting for exams.

My father ran an annual for antiques-lovers called The Antiques Yearbook, which was sustained by advertisements, and had a yellow cover. I resolved to launch a similar publication for "serious film." So immediately I left university, in June 1962, I began preparing the first edition of IFG, writing most of the material myself, and flogging most of the ads. Initially, the heart of the book was a round-up of art-houses throughout Europe. I would visit each one in Paris, Munich, Lausanne, wherever, and talk to the owners and then write up the cinema, evoking the special qualities of each place.

The first edition of IFG appeared in November 1963. I had 30 days in which to pay the Dutch printer, and thank goodness, sufficient of my first-time advertisers paid in time for me to settle the bill. From then on, the book went from strength to strength. It was hailed by the critics, but most of all by film buffs. We sold 200 copies in the first week at Zwemmer's Bookstore in the Charing Cross Road, I recall. It was a period when every book that appeared on films seemed like the first in its field.

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