I’m a sucker for a good epigraph. A good epigraph can put the reader in the right state of mind for what follows, creating in her consciousness what film critic Manny Farber referred to as “negative space” – those portions of the screen “that are more or less unfilled.” Rather than beginning with a blank canvas, the background is painted in as a negative space, appropriately foregrounding the author’s words. But perhaps most importantly, or at least in the case of James Naremore’s An Invention Without a Future: Essays on Cinema – the latest book by one of America’s foremost academic film critics – a good epigraph persuades the reader into believing that she shares the same aesthetic sensibilities as the author. It seduces. Consider one of the three epigraphs from Naremore’s book:
In twenty-five years there will be very few scoffers at the movies; in fifty years the most cultivated men will be reading movie literature; in a hundred years such men as von Stroheim and Murnau will be spoken of as reverently as Mozart and Dickens are today, and The Last Laugh will be as enduring a work of Art as Vanity Fair.
– James Agee, 1926
This, of course, implies that Naremore agrees with Agee – if not on his specific predictions or the accuracy of those predictions, then that such names as Mozart and Dickens should be held in reverence, and that the names of von Stroheim and Murnau should be held in equal reverence. Most importantly, what is implied here, what is explicitly stated in Naremore’s work, and what makes him relatively unique among academic film writers, is the notion that any name should be held in reverence. Agee’s words have an indignant tone, calling for a reverence that is out of fashion in much academic film criticism, and which Naremore clearly champions. In fact, Naremore’s work involves unifying this brand of cinephilia – what Jonathan Rosenbaum once referred to as “maniacal, unreasoning” cinephilia – with the critical theories and cultural studies that have dominated academic film discourse. But what I love most about the above epigraph is that Agee wrote it for his prep-school magazine at the age of sixteen; it was clear to the sixteen-year-old Agee that we would be watching von Stroheim and Murnau a hundred years later. In this way he reminds me of Naremore. He assigns value, champions (at times passionately) the artists he believes will endure.
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Naremore’s introductory essay, “An Invention without a Future,” discusses one of the most relevant issues of contemporary film criticism: what is the authentic movie experience? Is there such a thing as the authentic object and the simulacrum when it comes to watching a movie? What is the difference between seeing a movie on film in the theatre, on digital video in the theatre, on a home video screen, on your laptop, on your smart phone, by yourself, with others in private, with others in public? Many of these changes in the movie-watching experience are a result of the digital revolution, something the first century of cinephiles didn’t have to deal with. Such discussions are not unique to cinephiles. Similar issues of remediation arise in most other art forms – think of audiobooks, live music vs. recorded music, an original painting vs. a reproduction, and so forth.
Naremore’s definition and discussion of cinema is largely an ontological one, defining cinema as the art of the moving image, a definition that lets cinema transcend any particular technology. Defined in this way, cinema is alive and prospering. For Naremore, the various technical formats are different “types” of cinema, “all offering rich artistic possibilities, none of which is inherently superior to the others.” (p. 5) But many of the twentieth century’s masterpieces, and most of the films that Naremore discusses in his book, “belong to a dead cinema – dead not only because it was produced by an old technology but also because the institutional, economic, and cultural conditions that determined it are things of the past.” (p. 8) While others have argued that the technical changes have resulted in profound ontological changes – that the fall of celluloid and ubiquity of digital video has “destroy[ed] our faith in the possibility of an indexical relationship between image and world” – Naremore claims that “photography is neither inherently deceitful nor inherently indexical, and the same can be said of digital video.” (p. 7) He reminds us that from practically its birth, cinema has been associated with optical illusions – think of Melies’s cinema, or how Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1940), was “filled with optical printing, lens distortions, black-art setting, painted backgrounds.” (p. 7) The change in the photographic basis of cinema to digital video may not, therefore, result in the profound ontological shift some have predicted. The obituary to our faith in the indexical relationship between image and world may be premature. But Naremore cautions that it still may be too early to judge. “Just how transformative these shifts will turn out to be remains to be seen,” (p. 6) he writes.
For Naremore, then, there is no authentic or simulacrum, just various types of cinema. This is one of the few places where I see things a little differently. Though it is obviously horribly reductive: all art does not exist without being experienced, and therefore it is best, I think, to define authenticity based on phenomenology rather than ontology, on what it does to us rather than what it is. The setting in which cinema does what great art is supposed to do – redeem, morally instruct, exalt, appeal to the noblest parts of our humanity – is the dark, public theatre where we can watch movies on the big screen. Leaving the public venue of a movie theatre introduces two major weaknesses into the art form. First, it cripples the communal, public experience of theatre. To experience the images personally, but still collectively, seems to be an integral part of the authentic filmic experience. In this way it becomes akin to theatre, where no two performances are exactly alike or experienced the same way. Second, by taking it out of the theatre, you have also robbed the images of some of their grandeur. I have watched Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1970) several times in the theatre, and the loaf of Wonder Bread in the apocalyptic last scene doesn’t seem to float as languorously or as threateningly on my home computer. The whole experience of being engrossed in that violent, end-of-days, rapturous, annihilation of western consumerism is dampened on the small screen. Would von Sternberg have told us to turn our laptops upside down to appreciate the beauty of his lighting?
Viewed in this context, I’m freed of some the issues of technological purism that bothered me in my younger cinephilia days. I’m no longer a staunch purist of celluloid over digital, but rather a supporter of the theatrical experience. This is not to say that remediation is a bad thing. It provides us access to many movies that would otherwise be inaccessible. It’s just, for me, an only mildly fulfilling substitute for the real thing. Naremore concludes the essay with “A certain kind of cinema is dead. Long live cinema.” (p. 11) I certainly agree with the second sentence; but it is not that a certain kind of cinema is dead – there has always been one cinema – it’s just that the (Bazinian) definition of cinema we thought we knew should be slightly altered to accommodate the technical changes but still preserve the purity of the filmic experience. Perhaps, “The phenomenology of the projected image.”
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An Invention Without a Future: Essays on Cinema is a collection of work predominantly written over the past fifteen years, and is divided into three sections. The first section is devoted to general film issues, including a history and defence of auteurism, the legitimacy of film adaptation, and a defence of the imitative forms of acting as opposed to the creative Strasbergian forms of method acting. This section can be summarized as an attempt to (rightfully) champion ideas that are out of fashion in serious cinema discussion. The piece on auteurism, in which he discusses the history of the politique des auteurs, its decline during the high theory days of the seventies, the subsequent rise of cultural studies, and then attempts to reassert the necessity of a modern auteur theory, is particularly emblematic. He implicitly acknowledges the importance of Screen and the red years of Cahiers du Cinema, the “theoretical conjunction of Saussurean linguistics, Althusserian Marxism, and Lacanian psychoanalysis,” and the rise of the cultural studies movement in film culture and history. But he laments that “Today […] academic writing tends to oscillate between large-scale arguments about the Hollywood ‘apparatus’ and studies of genres and audiences. The critical study of authors is no longer a central activity.” (p. 29) In an interview in 2002, Naremore said, “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.” (1)
One of the pleasures in reading Naremore is his pluralism, his use of these multiple approaches without losing sight of the primary target – film. Take, for example, his essay on Vincente Minnelli’s 1943 film Cabin in the Sky. The piece proceeds in the mode of cultural studies by analysing the racial discourses surrounding the film: black rural folklorism, the representation of stereotypical black comic or menial roles in film, the commodification and packaging of black culture, and what Naremore calls “a chic, upscale ‘Africanism’, redolent of café society, Broadway theatre, and the European avant-garde.” (p. 112) Indeed, despite his reputation as an auteurist, Naremore’s critical approach can vary from cultural criticism, auteurist/historical criticism, traditional formal analysis, and at times a seamless blend of literary and film criticism – a close reading of both texts and films. This interweaving of literary and film criticism makes for particularly great reading, and is best seen in his essays on The Big Sleep (Chandler’s novel and Hawks’s film), Heart of Darkness (Conrad’s novel and Welles’s notes for his planned film adaptation), and The Dead (Joyce’s story and Huston’s adaptation).
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The second section of essays in An Invention Without a Future offers the reader a range of case studies, including Hawks, Hitchcock, Welles, Minnelli, Kubrick, and Huston. These each reflect Naremore’s main aesthetic fascination: modernism as the twentieth century’s main cultural and artistic movement, and how that movement was manifested in the cinema. (2) His analysis of North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959), presenting it as the penultimate “Hitchcock movie,” demonstrating the various modernist features of this ostensibly formulaic Hollywood suspense story – including the film’s scepticism towards established institutions, its morally ambiguous approach to character, and the close formal control of point of view (switching from subjective to objective shots) – is particularly compelling.
Even more fascinating is his piece on Orson Welles’s planned adaptation of Heart of Darkness. As Naremore writes, “The very idea of such a project is enough to fascinate cinephiles and create an anxiety of influence in later directors” (p. 173), especially when considering that Welles planned to play both Marlow and Kurtz. The film was never made and Naremore suggests RKO shelved the project for a variety of reasons, including cost, the movie’s formal peculiarity, and Welles’s plan to suggest a sexual relation between Kurtz and a black woman at a time when miscegenation was strictly forbidden by the Motion Picture Production Code. Welles planned “to create a cinematic analogue for Conrad’s narrative technique […] the story would be told almost entirely from Marlow’s point of view, with a first-person camera.” (p. 178) The subjective camera, Naremore explains, had been used intermittently in Hollywood films before, but Welles’s adaptation would have been the first film to use it for an entire film – it would have been the cinematic equivalent of the first first-person novel. Welles was convinced that Heart of Darkness was a suitable story for the technique, and before the film was shelved he shot one experimental sequence that convinced him he was correct. Just like the original eight-to-ten hour version of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924) – seen only by a dozen or so chosen few, and reportedly burned by Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg at MGM to extract the few cents’ worth of silver contained in the nitrate – we will never know.
Naremore’s interest in all aspects of cinema, his total and single cinephilia, draws me to cinematic subjects, such as movie acting, that I normally would not have much interest in. In the spirit of auteurist sensibility, he argues that Welles’s movies have a distinctive acting style: a focused theatricality. The traditional paradigm is that theatre acting should be loud and expressive, whereas good film acting is subdued and “realist”. The actors in a Welles movie, however, do not tone it down. Rather, the acting is geared to the camera – a focused theatricality. Welles himself denies the traditional distinction between theatre and film acting, and says that both should be expressive. The only difference is that in the theatre, expressivity is horizontal, while in film, it is vertical. Naremore explains Welles’s horizontal-vertical analogy:
He’s referring to the stage actor’s need to aim performance toward the full width of an auditorium. In film, the situation is reversed; instead of many eyes watching from different vantage points, there’s a single camera eye, which ‘takes [the actor] where it’s put.’ The actor can use, full, undiminished energy narrowed to that one spot. (p. 192)
In other words, a Welles actor is still theatrically expressive, but in Welles’s “theatre”, only a single spectator is moved around by the camera, allowing the actor to focus his or her expression onto that single spectator. Naremore provides convincing examples, including “Menzies express[ing] grief by dropping his head down on a table and speaking in operatic despair […] and Dennis Weaver’s performance as the crazy Mirador Motel ‘night man’” in Welles’s Touch of Evil (p. 191). But viewed through this lens of focused theatricality, you can see it in any of Welles’s characters. There’s something so uplifting about the notion that the Everett Sloane of Citizen Kane or The Lady from Shanghai (1947) is as much a creation of Welles as Sloane himself, that the artist’s hand can extend so far.
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An Invention Without a Future’s final section is devoted to the state of affairs in cinema criticism as represented by four major American film writers: James Agee, Manny Farber, Andrew Sarris, and Jonathan Rosenbaum, fittingly unifying film and film writing. (3) Naremore doesn’t hold back, chastising academics for both their hermetic writing and denying the importance of evaluative criticism, as well as journalists for becoming, at times, nothing more than what J. Hoberman has called “underpaid cheerleaders.” Much of the discussion has been polluted – in the academy by a “suspicion of canons and any attempt to educate taste; to behave otherwise runs the risk of being called a cultural gatekeeper or even worse” (p. 244), and in journalism by a complicit mercenary relationship with the industry, blurring the line between review and advertisement. Naremore is still hopeful though, and he points to contemporary writers (David Bordwell, Dave Kehr, J. Hoberman) on both sides of the academy-journalism divide (a division that is clearly arbitrary to Naremore) as examples of “critical voices [that] still exist,” it is just that, “today’s media environment makes it relatively difficult for them to be widely heard.” (p. 246)
As a literary academic and cinephile, Naremore is particularly well suited to discuss film writers. He reminds us that great film writing can do exactly what great film can do, that it is – when in the hands of a great artist – high art, and that it should be rightfully considered a literary genre. He appropriately quotes W.H. Auden on Agee’s column for The Nation: “His articles belong in that very select class […] of newspaper work which has permanent literary value.” (p. 247) Naremore claims, “I can never see The Searchers without thinking of Sarris,” (p. 25) and for my part I can never see Monsieur Verdoux (Charles Chaplin, 1947) without thinking of Bazin.
Naremore has wonderfully precise descriptions of the styles of these four iconic writers. Agee is “highly adjectival or adverbial and attentive to the effects of rhythm. His sentences often have a bell-like quality.” (p. 249) Farber’s distinct style is a result of his tough-guy American tone, his obsession with space, his baroque lexicon and syntax, and absurd metaphors. His description of Sarris as “an amateur in the etymological sense of the passionate lover, while also functioning as a critic and a scholar” (p. 276) sounds a lot like Naremore himself. The pages are filled with eye-opening critical gems, like Farber’s preference of Anthony Mann over John Ford as an example of Farber’s love of “negative space”.
Of the four writers Naremore discusses, Jonathan Rosenbaum is the only one still alive and writing. He is, unquestionably, one of the most highly regarded film writers in the world, the “elder statesman” of American cinephilia, according to Akiva Gottlieb. His personal history follows much of the last fifty years of film history. He began with novelistic ambitions (he has written two unpublished novels), lived and worked in Paris in the high cinephilia days of the late sixties, worked for the British Film Institute in the seventies during the influential period of Screen and Sight and Sound, was recruited by Manny Farber to teach at UCSD, wrote reviews for the alternative weekly Chicago Reader for twenty years, and has been working as a freelance writer for the past six years. To make criticism, out of grind-it-out, week-in-week-out reviewing is not, I imagine, an easy task, and for that criticism to have lasting value is even more difficult. Even though Rosenbaum’s style can be described as polemics over aesthetics, it’s this attribute that makes him an appropriate descendant of Agee and Farber. I’m probably not alone in saying that rather than pressing our noses against the window of a sixties Parisian kiosk, wondering if the latest issue of Cahiers had been released – as they did in that mythical time and place – we would open our internet browsers in similar anticipation, hoping his most recent article had been posted.
It is, of course, impossible to summarize Rosenbaum’s work over a fifty-year period into a pithy epigram. But what was most important to us, and continues to be, is the notion of cinema as high art in the face of all the forces against that notion: academic trends, an ever-growing philistinism, industry and capitalism. For Rosenbaum, the common ways of defining “professionalism” – a degree granted, institutional affiliation, pay for work – are dubious; “professional” and “amateur” are existential distinctions. In this way, he carries the same torch as Naremore, and they can be considered two “existential professionals”, opposite sides of the same coin – academy and journalism.
Like Rosenbaum’s work, An Invention Without a Future is a book that implies a unified cinephilia – academy and journalism, film and film writing, all modes of criticism (cultural, historical, evaluative, theoretical) scholarly research and weekly reviewing, politics and aesthetics. It has, as the cliché says, something for everybody, bringing the various factions of film criticism together under a banner of mutual interest. But most importantly, it is a book imbued with “existential professionalism” – a profound knowledge and unabated love of cinema.
James Naremore, An Invention Without a Future: Essays on Cinema (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014)
- Naremore, in Noel King, “Interview with James Naremore”, Senses of Cinema no. 20 (May 2002). URL: http://sensesofcinema.com/2002/feature-articles/naremore/
- Naremore began his career as a scholar of Virginia Woolf.
- The notable, or maybe not so notable, absence of Pauline Kael is another example of Naremore using traditional forms of criticism. The harshest criticism is always the silence of implied irrelevance.