REVIEW – Soi Cowboy (2008) and James Wood on the challenge of Generic Innovation

Videovista have my review of Thomas Clay’s second film Soi Cowboy.

I reviewed Clay’s first film The Great Ecstacy of Robert Carmichael (2005) for my old site but while I found the film incoherent at the time, I have since warmed to it significantly as my taste in films has evolved.  In fact, I think it is a bold and distinctive piece of film-making (especially when you bear in mind that the director was in his mid-twenties when he made it).

Soi Cowboy is a much tamer affair.  In fact, it seems to serve primarily as a vehicle for the director to ‘pay his dues’ and prove that he is a ‘good cultural citizen’ who has watched all the greats and assimilated their ideas and techniques.  This strikes me as quite depressing as Robert Carmichael was not the film of a director who needed to prove himself.  It is also sad that art house cinema has reached a point where it can be reduced to a set of techniques and formulae that can be reproduced on demand.  As I suggested in my pieces about La Moustache (2005) and Valhalla Rising (2009), this represents the ossification of an artistic tradition into a genre.

My pieces about Soi Cowboy, Valhalla Rising and La Moustache contain quite a bit of irritation about this process of ossification but then I read something that helped me shed some new light on my own thinking…

Cover of the British Paperback Edition

New Yorker critic James Wood’s recent book How Fiction Works (2008) is a rather unconventional piece of literary criticism.  What makes it unconventional is the deeply unfashionable approach it takes towards criticism.  Indeed, pick up most works of literary criticism and what you will most likely find is either a work of philosophical theory or a volume devoted to the interpretation of a text or texts using works of philosophical theory written by other people.  The emphasis in much contemporary literary criticism is upon interpreting a work and not evaluating it.  However, as Wood’s title suggests, he is interested in determining what makes the differences between good and successful works of fiction and works of fiction that simply do not make the grade.

The book itself is a series of short numbered sections devoted to a number of different themes such as character, style, pacing and realism.  Wood explores these different fictional aspects using what can only be called close reading.  He is not interested in looking at texts from the top down in order to determine their meaning or argument, he is interested in looking at them from the bottom up — on a sentence by sentence and word by word basis — in order to find out what makes them tick.

However, though the book as a whole is an intensely enjoyable and insightful read (and one that I shall return to as I don’t think I quite understood all of his points about character) what really surprised me was Wood’s acceptance of the idea that techniques once considered artistic and innovative can, through over-use, become the trappings of genre :

“When a style decomposes, flattens itself down into a genre, then indeed it does become a set of mannerisms and often pretty lifeless techniques” [Page 175]

I think that films like Clay’s Soi Cowboy and Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising show that the techniques of art house cinema, once so vibrant and challenging, are now in the process of decomposing and flattening into a genre.  In a literary context, Wood talks about the genre of “commercial realism” and quotes a passage from a John Le Carre novel as an example :

“Smiley arrived in Hamburg in mid-morning and took the airport bus to the city centre.  Fog lingered and the day was very cold.  In the Station Square, after repeated rejections, he found an old, thin terminus hotel with a lift licensed for three persons at a time” [Page 174]

Wood quotes this passage towards the end of the book.  A book largely devoted to banging a drum for Flaubert.  Because Wood has so expertly articulated what it is about Flabert’s writing that ‘works’, the flat and generic nature of Le Carre’s writing is immediately apparent.  Yes the passage is filled with mundane ‘realistic’ details, yes there is a nice descriptive turn of phrase (Wood is particularly enamoured with the idea of a “thin” hotel), yes there is the unnecessary and seemingly irrelevant detail about how many people can travel in the lift and yes the description conveys a sense of atmosphere and mood but while the passage is clearly underpinned with the techniques of Flaubertian realism, they seem flat and overly familiar.  Generic.

This is precisely the problem, to my mind, with films like Soi Cowboy and Valhalla Rising.  The traditional art house techniques pioneered by the likes of Antonioni, Bergman and Resnais have lost their capacity to move.  They are now familiar.  They are flattened.  They have become generic.

One solution explored by Wood is constant technical innovation born of a constant re-examination of what constitutes realism and how best to express it in written form  :

“Decomposition like this happens to any long-lived and successful style, surely, so the writer’s — or critic’s, or reader’s — task is then to search for the irreducible, the superfluous, the margin of gratuity, the element of style which cannot be easily reproduced and reduced” [Pages 175-176]

However, the problem is that style is linguistic.  In order for fiction and film to be comprehensible to its audience, the audience needs to be on the same page as the author and this means that style is necessarily a matter of convention.  Without convention one cannot have mutual understanding.  As Wittgenstein explains it in Philosophical Investigations (1953) :

“No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle.—Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly changing.—But suppose the word “beetle” had a use in these people’s language?—If so it would not be used as the name of a thing. The thing in the box has no place in the language-game at all; not even as a something: for the box might even be empty.—No, one can ‘divide through’ by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is.”

To have a style is to follow a set of conventions.  So even if filmmakers were to reject the shop-worn tools of the post-war art house directors, they would only wind up using a different set of tools that would themselves start to decompose and flatten through repeated usage.  It is that process of flattening and decomposition that makes a style accessible and a visual language comprehensible.  We do not all share the same reactions to images or operate under the same definitions of words.  Language requires the flattening that comes with common use.

Wood suggests that instead of stressing the importance of formal innovation, we should instead demand insight.  Realism has value not in as much as it captures the way things are photographically, but in so far as it expresses the underlying truth of the world :

“Realism, seen broadly as truthfulness to the way things are, cannot be mere verisimilitude, cannot be mere lifelikeness, or lifesameness, but what I must call lifeness: life on the page, life brought to different life by the highest artistry.  […] The true writer, that free servant of life, is one who must always be acting as if life were a category beyond anything the novel had yet grasped; as if life itself were always on the verge of becoming conventional” [Pages 186-187]

This is why, in my opinion, Soi Cowboy is a better film than Valhalla Rising.  Both are works of ‘good cultural citizens’, both films are stylistically conventional in the extreme and yet whereas Valhalla Rising is content to re-express the same truths put forward by Conrad over a hundred years ago, Clay is attempting to speak of life as it is happening now.  The truths Clay reaches for about the mutually exploitative relationship between the West and the global South (a theme also explored in Paolo Bacigalupi’s intriguingly flawed debut novel The Windup Girl) are fresh.  They are images of a life not yet accepted.  Not yet conventional.


  1. ‘How Fiction Works’ sounds like a fascinating book and I especially like the stressing of insight over stylistic or structural innovation. I’ve recently ordered a few books you’ve mentioned here and there and may have to pick this up as well!


  2. Hey Shaun :-)

    Wood likes his style, the book is kind of an extended love letter to the Flaubertian form of slow description littered with tiny details, but he does try to engage with the (apparently growing) perception that this is just a stilted and largely irrelevant stylistic trend that has long since outstayed his welcome. Stressing insight over form is a way for him to square the circle if you will… to champion his preferred form whilst also stressing the need for new voices and ideas.

    I’ve recently expanded my non-fiction intake quite aggressively and it is starting to filter through into my writing. Glad you’re liking the recommendations, plenty more to come ;-)


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