• A Series of Flashbacks

    By Peter Cowie

    I began writing about films more than fifty years ago. My first review was of Ingmar Bergman’s The Magician, in an arts magazine at Cambridge University. I never followed an orthodox career path for very long, starting as a critic for the weekly What’s On in London, sending dispatches to The Financial Times and Sight & Sound, and writing and publishing numerous books about national cinemas and directors. Across the years, I have seen countless films being made, in places as far apart as Belgrade, Stockholm, Vallejo, Singapore, London, and Rome. I’ve escaped by helicopter with Max von Sydow from an Arctic ice floe during the shoot of Jan Troell’s Flight of the Eagle; I’ve seen celebrated directors physically fighting over politics during the breakup of the Cannes Festival in 1968; and I’ve witnessed what so many actors and technicians had already seen—Otto Preminger flying into a rage.

    My affection for Janus and Criterion stretches back to the late 1960s, when Janus was at the forefront of the art-house movement in the U.S. and I was writing essays for their elegantly designed catalogs. Then, in 1986, I recorded on laserdisc one of the first commentaries for the fledgling Criterion Collection (for The Seventh Seal), and, as fans of Criterion will know, I have contributed many such commentaries through the intervening years, as well as liner notes, interviews, and visual essays.

    In 1988, I joined Variety as head of international operations, which brought me into close contact with the industry on both sides of the Atlantic. I learned to endure dinners in Cannes with agents, producers, and studio executives who, by their own admission, had neither the time nor the desire to watch movies other than those they represented. I think it was Lord Lew Grade who, during his annual press lunch at Eden-Roc, declared proudly that he had attended Cannes for twenty-one years and had yet to see a single film there. Preserving the space accorded to “foreign-language” film reviews in Variety was one of the battles I fought with successive “suits” who wanted two pages of ads for every page of text.

    Throughout all this traveling to festivals and getting to know directors, I’ve kept notes on every film I see, as well as jottings in the wake of encounters, planned and otherwise, with movie talent. Sifting through them following a house move recently, I thought it would be fun to share some of the more amusing and off-beat stories. So, tomorrow, I will launch a series of short “flashbacks.” They will not focus on analysis of films or filmmakers; instead, I hope they will offer a sequence of entertaining snapshots of personalities past and present, revealing the human beings behind the movies. Contradictions abound. Some of the nicest directors attain neither fame nor box-office success, while some of the most trumpeted filmmakers can be ornery and arrogant “off-screen,” as it were. Some, understandably, held me at arm’s length, while others took me into their home or to a convivial meal. In any event, these adventures can, I hope, make for hilarious reading.

20 comments

  • By Mark R. Young
    June 18, 2013
    01:24 AM

    I'll be looking forward to reading these. Peter Cowie has always been one of the best authorities on cinema.
    Reply
  • By Peter Thompson
    June 18, 2013
    05:53 AM

    What a treat this will be! I've known Peter for 45 years and he's always been an exemplar of wise and well-informed judgement -- and wonderfully entertaining as well.
    Reply
  • By Bob Posey
    June 18, 2013
    12:20 PM

    We are all looking forward to the first of what we hope will be a long series of informal flashbacks from this highly respected observer of the world of film ...
    Reply
  • By Keith Enright
    June 18, 2013
    01:06 PM

    This sounds like a hell of a lot of fun. Bring them on, Mr. Cowie!
    Reply
  • By Lorenzo
    June 18, 2013
    01:43 PM

    Bravo Peter!
    Reply
  • By Don Groves
    June 18, 2013
    11:24 PM

    Can't wait!
    Reply
  • By Hector
    June 19, 2013
    09:25 AM

    Dear Peter, what a nice surprise. I normally read books in bed, as sleeping pills. This one will certainly keep me awake for hours.
    Reply
  • By Sandrine Imadec-Bentata
    June 19, 2013
    12:21 PM

    THANK YOU Peter, for sharing with us theses precious flashbacks! I always thought that your diary must have been an exciting reading! Now, we'll get the images and the sound!
    Reply
  • By Gord
    June 19, 2013
    05:27 PM

    I will read this [retch-inducing butt kissing comment withheld by author as superfluous]
    Reply
  • By Don
    June 19, 2013
    05:59 PM

    It's also just called being nice. Comments can be used for that, too, Gord.
    Reply
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    • By Gord
      June 19, 2013
      08:35 PM

      Yes, they sure can, especially in the land of the syncophant and the kitschy. Have some pride. And, Don, you bore me.
  • By Gord
    June 19, 2013
    08:40 PM

    Mr. Cowie I'm looking forward to hearing your stories of Ingmar Bergman; that man was so candid on camera I can only imagine what he reveals about himself amongst friends with a glass or two of wine in his belly. :)
    Reply
  • By Rossco1
    June 25, 2013
    05:10 AM

    His book revolution which is about all those great italian,french, german cinema is really well written. His commentaries on the different films in the collection are worth a listen over and over again.
    Reply
  • By Kerry Feltham
    June 28, 2013
    01:35 PM

    This is going to be a treat. I've enjoyed Peter's witty and knowledgable film writing as well as his informative and entertaining Criterion film commentaries for decades. At this very moment I'm looking at the cover of his encyclopedic International Film Guide for 1980 (just one of many years' worth on my shelf), and now there will be more Cowie to enjoy! LIfe is good.
    Reply
  • By Kathleen Carroll
    November 07, 2013
    01:32 PM

    I can't wait to read more of your stories. Your experience with a surprisingly tame Otto Preminger reminded me of a similar experience I had with him. He had invited the then leading film critics of the Daily News, Kate Cameron (her real name was Loretta King but that's a whole other story), and Wanda Hall for lunch at his East Side townhouse, followed by a private screening of his newest movie, "Hurry Sundown." As the rookie in the film department, I was invited to tag along. The movie ended in total silence. We started to leave and Wanda turned to me and said "You have to review the movie. He knows I'm Southern and he will assume that's why I don't like it."
    Reply
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    • By Peter Cowie
      November 08, 2013
      12:38 PM

      Thanks, Kathleen. I remember your reviews well.
  • By Kathleen Carroll
    November 07, 2013
    02:51 PM

    Forgive the spelling error. I meant to say Wanda Hale, a film critic who had the sophisticated elegance of a '50's movie star.
    Reply
  • By Gideon Bachmann
    March 04, 2014
    04:42 AM

    More power to you, Peter, dean of all of us!
    Reply
  • By Brian Mills
    March 27, 2014
    07:42 AM

    Peter, I have such fond memories of reading your books, particularly the insight to Swedish Cinema and Ingmar Bergman and then going to watch his films along with those of Victor Sjostrom and later the discovery of Bo Widerberg. You were such an important part of my film education. Thank you. Brian
    Reply
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    • By Peter
      April 18, 2014
      11:17 AM

      Thanks, Brian. It's good that someone is still attracted to the great Scandinavian film tradition!

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