Noel King: Your first book was on Virginia Woolf. How did you make the move from writing on English literary modernism to writing on film?
James Naremore: I belong to a generation of people who didn’t have formal training in film, but all my life I was interested in movies and was always a movie buff. As a kid I made a short 16 mm film and I wanted to be a filmmaker, but because of circumstances in my life I never had the opportunity to go to film school. When I went to College I became an English major and I think I’m basically a literary intellectual anyway. I always maintained an interest in movies and profited very much from growing up in the period of the great international art cinema of the early ’60s, the period of the French New Wave. Seeing all those films on College campuses was easy in those days. And then I went on to pursue studies in English in graduate school, under a very rigorous, conservative, old-style English department where you studied the “Beowulf to Virginia Woolf” tradition.
I was interested in modernism and wanted to write on James Joyce but couldn’t think of good topic, and ended up writing about Virginia Woolf. When I came to Indiana in 1970 it was a moment when universities around the country were developing an interest in film and I benefited from landing with some colleagues in Comparative Literature – Charles Eckert and Harry Geduld – who were developing early film courses in the Humanities here. And I gravitated to that immediately.
So most of my background in film has been self-taught and is a natural by-product of the symbiotic relation between literature and film. Once I started writing about film, though, I really didn’t want to do anything else. My big intellectual influence in that early period was auteurism and Andrew Sarris, and Noël Burch’s early book, A Theory of Film Practice. Other than that I was just somebody who wanted to see movies and write about them.
NK: I like the way Noël Burch makes an appearance in your book on film noir, in connection with a little-known avant-garde film in which Annette Michelson played a role as a dominatrix.
JN: I asked her about that because I was a little shy and I was afraid she was going to be offended. But she was delighted to know that I knew that.
NK: How long did it take you to research and write the noir book?
JN: About four years. It takes me a long time to figure out what I’ll write a book about. It always seems to me after I finish a book that I don’t know what to do next. In this case, though, it seems that film noir was something I was always interested in, and my earliest work on film was about Hitchcock and Orson Welles. In fact I think the first article I wrote about film was on The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1944), and it’s now a little part of the film noir book.
NK: It’s reprinted in the volume of essays on John Huston.
JN: Yes. So in a way everything seemed to be pointing towards a book on film noir but I was reluctant to do it because I thought, what can I say? Everybody has already written about this. But once I decided to do it I benefited from being in California on a sabbatical. I went to the Motion Picture Academy Library and started doing lots of rummaging around. And I had a very interesting early talk with Peter Wollen …
NK: In the Film Quarterly piece that came out a few years before the book you say Wollen alerted you to the importance of Boris Vian to the development of film noir.
JN: Yes. That made me think about the French intellectual context. Once I started out on that path I found there was a lot to be said. It seemed to me that most of what had been done about film noir was about gender and sexuality. And I couldn’t improve on that. I wanted to let that work stand for itself, and I would try to emphasise other aspects. I found the book very pleasant to do, in contrast to some other things I’ve written. Early on I had a pretty good conception of how I wanted to organise it, and it was less trouble than some other writing I’ve done.
NK: Have you had good feedback on it? Tom Gunning gave it a very good review in Modernism/Modernity.
JN: It’s been the most successful thing I’ve ever written. I was a little disappointed that it didn’t get issued in a hardback edition with a proper dust jacket – which meant that it wasn’t reviewed in the major press. It has been reviewed in mainly academic contexts. Of everything I’ve written, I thought this probably had the greatest crossover potential. If I had any disappointment, it was that. But really I don’t have anything to complain about; it’s been wonderfully well received and it’s selling like hot cakes. I doubt if I will ever again do anything as successful as it has been.
NK: For anyone familiar with your writing, the noir book contains traces of earlier, continuing interests of yours: you have references to Welles, to Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944), to Hitchcock, and you have an innovative chapter on English literary modernism and noir, with the example of Graham Greene.
JN: I was given a chance by Harry Geduld to write a little monograph on Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) very early in my career. I knew instinctively that Psycho was a great film and I was very excited about writing about it. I didn’t know much about Hitchcock’s full career at that time and the opportunity just fell into my lap.
Then, I really really knew I wanted to write a big book about Orson Welles who was a sort of culture-hero of mine. So there was simply no question but that I wanted to do a book on Welles.
NK: Why was Welles a culture-hero for you?
JN: When I was a kid I was fascinated with movies. If you’ve seen the film Martin Scorsese did for the BFI, A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995), it begins with him showing a book by Deems Taylor called A Pictorial History of the Movies …
NK: Yes, and he says he always wanted to steal that book from the New York Public Library.
JN: I was floored when he said that because I did steal that book from my high-school library, and I still have it. I don’t know if that should be publicised! I practically memorised that book, and there was a still from Citizen Kane (1941) in it. I was totally fascinated by the ‘story’ of Citizen Kane, the few sentences beneath the image, which summarised the film. I think the thing that attracted me was that I was interested in magic as a kid. I did magic shows, and Welles was known as a magician. But the whole idea of Citizen Kane seemed really intriguing and I remember it was re-released in the United States in the late 1950s and I can remember going to a nearby town, maybe fifty miles away, to see it. I don’t think it made such an overwhelming impression on me as I thought it would but somehow the myth of Citizen Kane, for young boys of my generation, was just overpowering. So I felt really compelled to do the Welles book.
How did you come to write a book on screen acting?
JN: After I’d done the book on Welles I really didn’t have another project. Then an editor at Oxford University Press said, why don’t you write something about movie stars? So I sat down and outlined a book on that topic but it never came to fruition. The editor left Oxford and I was a guest teacher in Hamburg, Germany for about one year. I still wanted to do the book but it was evolving and I couldn’t figure out how to do it. I started out with the idea of short essays on 75 to 100 movie stars. Then I came back to Bloomington and sent a proposal to ‘Chick’ (Ernest) Callenbach at the University of California Press and he encouraged me to go ahead with it. As soon as I started working on it I realised this was not the right way to do it. So I started reading about theories of performance, and the discovery of Erving Goffman was important as a theoretical approach. At that same time cinema studies had been going through a whole phase of Screen theory and I was trying to adapt my more-or-less auteurist interests to the radicalisation of film theory. I had been radicalised as a graduate student at Madison, Wisconsin in the late ’60s, and so I felt I had to bring my politics more into line with my cinephilia. I was struggling to do that in the book on acting, and I’m not sure it comes off very successfully. I have mixed feelings about that book. It’s the hardest single thing I’ve ever written and in some ways I think it’s the best-written thing I’ve ever done. It has gotten a bit of a reputation, and lots of people say they use it in teaching, but I always think of it as, sort of, the child who didn’t quite make its way in the world. After that it took me quite a while to figure out how to do the film noir book. But in doing the noir book I was coming back to my roots, in a way.
Also, I think, film studies went through another evolution after I’d done the acting book. That was the turn towards cultural studies and history, which solved a lot of problems for me. I was not comfortable dealing with the more abstract theorising of the ’70s, so I felt more grounded when I got to the noir book. In addition my collaboration with my colleague Patrick Brantlinger on an anthology called Modernism and Mass Culture, and my interaction with my younger colleague, Barbara Klinger, helped me to rethink some of the different things one could do with film. I think it gave my work a little bit more of a political and historical edge. Although I was doing that with the Welles book; I think one of the best things in that book is the discussion of Welles’s politics, which nobody had done much work on at that time.
NK: And so how does the book on Minnelli figure in this sequence?
JN: Once again, that’s something I was offered the chance to do, in a series that Ray Carney was putting together for Cambridge UP. Minnelli wasn’t my first choice. I had the — possibly ambitious — idea of doing Andy Warhol but somebody else wanted Warhol and it had been tentatively promised to them, so I chose Minnelli. In choosing Minnelli I was picking a director about whom, at that time, I didn’t know much. But I associated him with the auteurist moment in film criticism, and I wanted to pick someone like Nicholas Ray or Minnelli, who had been important to the French in the 1950s. I certainly learned more about Minnelli in the process of writing the book than I knew when I began. Once again I think that book shows my work taking a fairly strong cultural studies turn and I think it and the noir book are more in line with where I am now.
NK: Could you say a little about your background. The trace of the Southern accent is still there even after 30 years in Indiana.
JN: I was born in Louisiana and was there until I was 20 years old. I came from a family that had no higher education and my parents died when I was quite young. I was raised by a series of relatives and foster families. I had a talent for public speaking in high school and through an amazing set of coincidences I won second place in the United States in the American Legion Oratorical Contest. It was a speech about the U. S. Constitution. So the American right-wing gave me a scholarship to College.
NK: And which College was that?
JN: I went to Louisiana State University. As a kid I had been reading lots of things. I was interested in theatre, literature, and I haunted the public library a lot, and had read most of the major American authors when I was in high school. I was an avid filmgoer as well. I think I wanted to escape the environment I was in and the movies and the intellectual world were a way of doing that. When I got to College I realised that there were other people like me and I gravitated to them. I had a very good Freshman English teacher, who became a mentor for the rest of my life, so that’s how I started out on the path that I went along.
NK: How did you come to choose Madison, Wisconsin for postgraduate study?
JN: I had a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to Cornell that I had to turn down because my wife and I discovered she was pregnant. I had gotten married at just about the moment I went to graduate school. So for economic reasons I went to Madison. I had applied to several other places but the Madison offer was the most lucrative because they paid teaching assistants very well there. We had a wonderful experience in Madison and as it turned out it was an important historical moment to be there, so I’m glad I chose Madison.
NK: You’ve mentioned that in your early years at Indiana Charles Eckert was a colleague. How was it to work with Eckert up until his suicide?
JN: He was a good friend of mine in those early years — one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever known and certainly an author of incredibly seminal things. I’ve had two friends who committed suicide and it’s something you never quite get over because you feel it’s a criticism of the living, somehow.
NK: How did you make the move from your early interest in modernist literature, to film?
JN: When I went to graduate school I was interested in modernist literature and I wanted to write about James Joyce who was my favourite author. But I couldn’t find a topic that I thought was really good. And I had taken a seminar on Virginia Woolf and she seemed like the next best thing. At the time I was interested in the problem of how to identify the idiosyncratic style of an author. And I tried to do that with Virginia Woolf. The timing of that topic turned out to be wonderful. To use a Woolfian metaphor, it was as if the wave were about to hit the beach. Woolf was about to become the central figure in a wave of feminist literary criticism. My book was very well received but it was benighted in certain ways. I’m embarrassed to look back at it because all through it I call her Mrs Woolf — which was a convention at that time. So the book is really dated. I thought I would spend my life writing about modern literature until I came to Indiana, which had a wonderfully free and liberal attitude about young faculty members, allowing them to follow their intellectual interests. I found other people who were interested in film, and I was quite happy.
NK: Why did you lean more towards English literary modernism rather than American modernism? You are a Southerner and Faulkner is a major mountain in American literary modernism.
JN: I think it was because of the fellow who was my freshman English teacher, Bernard Benstock, to whom I dedicate my film noir book. He became my mentor and good friend and he was one of the world’s great authorities on James Joyce. Because I worked with him a lot I think I gravitated towards his interests.
NK: That interest in English literary modernism persists into the film noir book, especially in the section (which also came out as an article in the Iris special issue on film noir) where you make the innovative move of discussing noir in terms of Graham Greene and “blood melodrama.”
JN: I think that is one of the most successful chapters in the book.
NK: You have been teaching and writing about film for 30 years. Do you have any thoughts on what things have changed in the field of film studies over that period of time?
JN: People always ask me to make these large statements about film study and I’m not very good at it. I think there are wonderful writings about film being done, so in no sense is the field moribund or in crisis or anything of that sort. On the other hand there are some contemporary academic tendencies in the teaching of film that are not necessarily positive.
In my experience, film has always been a problem for academics. When I started, the problem was to argue that film was as legitimate an object to talk about in aesthetic terms as was literature. In a way that’s still the problem. No matter what department I’ve found myself in, whether it’s a literature or a communications department, there’s a desire to see film in pretty much sociological terms. And as much as my work has been influenced by cultural studies today, I think one danger of the cultural studies movement is that it tends to devolve into pure sociology, or in its most vulgar form, a crude reading of the political tendencies of this film and that film. For me there’s always a struggle to make my politics clear and to balance that with my love of the medium and my artistic pleasure. I find that’s the hardest thing to get students to do. I think that film culture has changed a lot and that exacerbates the problem. We’re faced with such a fragmented media world today: everything is in little niches that you can see on television or cable, such that the art of film has come to seem a boutique interest over at the side, whereas it used to seem more central.
NK: Have you noticed any alterations on the cinephilia of your students over that period of time?
JN: I think the students are less intellectually curious about other film cultures than they used to be. But I’m very impressed by Jonathan Rosenbaum’s recent book …
NK: Movie Wars … I liked it a lot.
JN: I think he makes a convincing argument that it’s not the people who are dumb. Hollywood and post-industrial capitalism have organised things in such a way that it’s simply difficult for people to have access to certain movies.
NK: The options — in terms of theatrically released films — simply aren’t there on the scale that they used to be.
JN: I find that my students still have a strong streak of idealism and a strong artistic interest. Maybe they like The Matrix (The Wachowski Brothers, 1999) more than I do but their reasons for liking it are the same ones that I had when I first got excited about cinema. And one should try to encourage that rather than cutting it off. To me there’s a trick in teaching film where you try to make it rigorous but don’t reduce it to a quasi-scientific exploration of purely formal or political features. That’s hard to do in an academic context with any kind of art form.
NK: You mention the question of aesthetics and film. Could you say something about how you try to convey that perspective, especially in an intellectual context which has for some time, at least in some of its domains, stressed the relativisation of certain notions of cultural value?
JN: This is probably the single most important problem for me. Unquestionably, cultural values are relative. One useful aspect of most contemporary theory is that it continually reminds us of that fact. At the same time, though, we need to guard against falling into meaningless relativism. When you think about it, aesthetic values are no more or less relative than political values. They’re historically situated and they’re interdependent. But so what? In my view, we can’t or shouldn’t do without them. Art, like politics, isn’t something that belongs merely to the upper classes or the elite; in fact, it seems to me that Mathew Arnold (a very unfashionable philosopher) was right when he said that the ruling classes tend to be either barbarians or philistines.
I love popular art, but I also worry about academic populism, which is another danger of contemporary theory. My only answer to these problems is that in both my writing and my teaching I try to make my own politics and my artistic tastes and judgements clear, while leaving room for people to disagree or debate with me. I wouldn’t write about movies if I didn’t first of all admire them as an art and have strong opinions about hem. So when my students have strong likes and dislikes about movies, I try to broaden their tastes and show them new and different things without challenging their basic love of the medium. It seems to me important to encourage an intelligent, multicultural and cosmopolitan cinephilia. That’s why I’m basically in favour of ten-best lists, like the ones compiled by Senses of Cinema, the excellent Australian electronic journal.
NK: A few minutes ago we spoke about Jonathan Rosenbaum’s recent book. Are there other writers whose work you like?
JN: Jonathan is someone I read a lot and admire. Among recent things I’ve looked at I like Gilbert Perez’s book, The Material Ghost. I like a Canadian writer, not very well-known, named George Toles. Wayne State is about to publish his essays. He wrote the screenplays for the Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin’s early films, quite remarkable films. He’s a lovely writer. And I’m also crazy about Tom Gunning’s book on Fritz Lang. There are at least a dozen others I should probably mention but can’t recall at the moment.
NK: Can you say a bit about the writing enterprises you are currently embarked on? For example, the film directors series of which you are general editor?
JN: I’m trying to find a book to write and I don’t have anything in mind right now. Maybe someone will just tell me to write something and I’ll do it. In the meantime I’m editing a series of monographs for the University of Illinois, a project concerned with contemporary directors of international cinema. These are designed to be books of about 125 pages that contain a critical overview of the director’s work and an interview with the director. I’ve contracted about a dozen volumes on directors like Abbas Kiarostami, Agnès Varda, John Frankenheimer, Brian De Palma, Manuel de Olivera, Wong Kar-Wai. I’m doing this partly because I feel that writing about directors can still be a real animating force in film study, as it was for me when I started. Also, contrary to the notion that some people have of film as a dying medium, it’s still very much alive and wonderful things are being done in it. The idea of the series is to make people more cine-literate and aware of the very good directors who are working today.
The other project is one that Barb Klinger and I are doing for Blackwell. It’s a two-volume reader, an anthology of previously written pieces on the history of American film. It will make a useful resource of basic writings on film history for people who teach in that area.
Burch, Noël, Theory of Film Practice (London: Secker and Warburg, 1973)
Eckert, Charles, “Shirley Temple and the House of Rockefeller,” Jump Cut 2 (July-August 1974): 1, 17-20
_____, “The Carole Lombard in Macey’s Window,” Quarterly Review of Film Studies 3, 1 (1978)
Gunning, Tom, Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity (London: BFI, 2000)
_____, “Book Review: More than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts,” Modernity/Modernism 6, 3 (1999): 151-153
Naremore, James, The World Without a Self: Virginia Woolf and the Novel (New Haven: Yale UP, 1973)
_____, “John Huston and The Maltese Falcon,” in Gaylyn Studlar and David Desser, ed., John Huston and the American Experience (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993): 119-135
_____, The Filmguide to Psycho (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1973)
_____, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Madison, Wisconsin: Univ. of Wisconsin, 1979)
_____, The Magic World of Orson Welles. New and Revised Edition (Southern Methodist UP, 1989)
_____, Acting in the Cinema (Berkeley: Univ of California Press, 1990)
_____, and Patrick Brantlinger, ed., Modernity and Mass Culture (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991)
_____, The Films of Vincente Minnelli (Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge UP, 1993)
_____, “American Film Noir: the History of an Idea,” Film Quarterly, 49, 2 (1995/6): 12-28
_____, “High Modernism and Blood Melodrama: the Case of Graham Greene,” Iris 21 (1996) Special Issue on European precursors of film noir
_____, ed., North by Northwest Rutgers Films in Print 20 (New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 1993)
_____, More than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts (Berkeley: Univ of California Press, 1998)
_____, ed., Film Adaptation (New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 2000)
Perez, Gilberto, The Material Ghost: Films and Their Medium (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2000)
Rosenbaum, Jonathan, Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We Can See (Chicago: A Cappella Books, 2000)
Taylor, Deems, A Pictorial History of the Movies (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1943)
Toles, George, A House Made of Light: Essays on the Art of Film (Wayne State UP, 2001)