For a very long time, my film reading was limited to journalistic writing, the kind exemplified by last year’s American Movie Critics anthology edited by Phillip Lopate. It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve belatedly come to realize and truly appreciate the value of academic writing on movies, especially the work of auteurist-sympathetic cinephiles who work in academia. James Naremore is a great example. I’ve read quite a bit of Naremore over the last few months, and thought I’d draw up a little guide of reading recommendations from a range of his work.
Three terrific books: (1) The Magic World of Orson Welles (1978/1989); (2) Acting in the Cinema (1988); and (3) More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts (1998). I'm looking forward to his new one, On Kubrick (BFI), which comes out next week.
A few good pieces worth seeking out:
(1) “Authorship and the Cultural Politics of Film Criticism” (Film Quarterly, Autumn 1990): Auteurism had been out of favor in academia since the high theory days of the 70s, but this essay takes an early step in cautiously reclaiming it, not ahistorically, but by acknowledging the intervening developments in film studies. It also takes passages from two reviews Godard wrote in the 50s (of Sirk’s A Time to Live and a Time to Die and Fuller’s Forty Guns) and analyzes them to illustrate Godard’s mixing of modes (romantic, modernist, avant-gardist and proto-postmodernist).
(2) “An ABC of Reading Andrew Sarris” (from Citizen Sarris, 2001, ed. Emanuel Levy): A light, charming autobiographical piece, perhaps modeled on Peter Wollen’s “An Alphabet of Cinema,” in which Naremore lists the letters of the alphabet A through Z, assigning each letter to something he associates with Sarris (e.g. “A” for auteurism, “B” for Bazin, “J” for Johnny Guitar, “O” for Max Ophuls, “R” for Red Line 7000, “V” for Josef von Sternberg, etc.)
(3) “Six Artistic Cultures” (written with Patrick Brantlinger, an introduction to the anthology they edited, Modernity and Mass Culture, 1991). A cultural typology, drawing from extensive historical study, detailing six kinds of cultures: high art, modernist art, avant-garde art, folk art, popular art and mass art. Broad in scope and erudite.
(4) “The Future of Academic Film Study” (in Movie Mutations, 2003). A conversation with Adrian Martin. I’ve included an excerpt below.
Also: available on-line are an interview with Naremore at Senses of Cinema; an excerpt on Marlene Dietrich from his book Acting in the Cinema; and the essay “The Death and Rebirth of Rhetoric,” also at Senses.
Along with Jonathan Rosenbaum, Naremore did the DVD commentary for the Corinth version of Welles’s Mr. Arkadin. It’s one of the best commentary tracks I’ve heard. He also edits the University of Illinois Press series of books on contemporary filmmakers, which has produced volumes on Abel Ferrara (by Nicole Brenez) and Abbas Kiarostami (by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa).
Truth be told, when I come upon writings on film by an English Lit prof, occasionally a slight prejudice kicks in. Perhaps I’ve seen too many such writings foreground the ‘literary’ elements of film (plot and dialogue, a novelistic approach to ‘rich’ character development) at the expense of taking hold, with both hands, of the full audiovisual complex of cinema, treating, as V. F. Perkins put it, “film as film.”
When I first encountered it, Naremore’s writing gave me a bracing corrective to this stereotype. In his Movie Mutations letters, Naremore speaks about his career as a palimpsest, each new stage of evolution overlaying upon previous influences and interests. He started out as a scholar of English literary modernism, and through the years fell successively under the influence of various intellectual movements: (1) New Criticism (which looked long and hard “at the art object and its inner workings” while rejecting extra-textual sources like biography or sociology); (2) the related figure of F.R. Leavis (a key influence on Robin Wood) and his group at Scrutiny; (3) auteurism, both its origins in France and the version that traveled to America via Andrew Sarris; (4) 70’s radical theory in the journal Screen, reflecting the three-pronged theoretical interventions of Sausserian linguistics, Althusserian Marxism, and Lacanian psychoanalysis; and (5) in the 80’s, the cultural studies movement.
But contrary to appearances, this was not a career made upon riding the waves of academic fad and fashion. The books and essays are impressive for the way in which they show how these developments and influences were absorbed and internalized to provide a broad range of tools with which to approach cinema, while also not forgetting about the history of film studies development, finding ways to put this history to work, instead of pretending it never happened.
A Naremore excerpt from the Movie Mutations letter exchange:
From the 19th century onward, liberally educated people from a variety of backgrounds have had at least four ways of responding to the onward march of industrial capitalism and state-supported ideology: they can become bourgeois (like most college professors), they can become anarchists (which means dropping out and behaving badly, like Rimbaud, Tzara and the Sex Pistols), they can become aesthetes (like Baudelaire, Wilde, Joyce, Woolf, and all the great modernists), or they can become revolutionary political activists (like Mother Jones, Lenin, Fanon and Malcolm X). One of the best dramatic representations of these alternatives is Tom Stoppard’s very funny play, Travesties, which imagines a crazy encounter between Tzara, Joyce, Lenin and an ordinary bourgeois in Zurich during World War I. For my own part, I often feel as if my personal subjectivity were split among the four positions. At certain points in my history, some of my selves can form alliances, but at other points, which are the true moments of crisis, the bourgeois, the anarchist, and the aesthete tend to get pushed aside by the activist. Where modern society in general is considered, one of the major crisis periods for artists and intellectuals was the 30s. Another was the late 60s, a period that left its mark on radical film theory in the 70s. As I write this response to you [September 2002], American capitalism appears to be pushing the world ever closer to war, and the contradictions in the system are once again becoming apparent. Perhaps a new crisis will develop, in which case it will become increasingly difficult for any of us to maintain a balance between cinephilia and social action.
A few links:
-- Order of the Exile, the website devoted to Jacques Rivette, is growing fast, adding good new material. More than reason enough to revisit some video-available Rivettes.
-- Zach has new posts on "The Tribalism of Cinephilia" (which includes another excerpt from the Martin-Naremore Movie Mutations letters) and on violence and film form.
-- Andy Rector posts links to Chris Marker's Rememberance of Things to Come, now viewable online.
-- Todd Haynes's Superstar can also be viewed online, on Google Video. (Via The Listening Ear.)
-- David Bordwell on Japanese action cinema of the 20s and 30s.
-- Craig Keller at Cinemasparagus on The Sopranos.