Edited by Murray Pomerance and R. Barton Palmer, Thinking in the Dark: Cinema, Theory, Practice comprises a series of reflections by an impressive selection of established and emerging film and media scholars on twenty-one figures whose thought and writing have shaped the directions and concerns of our discipline. This volume promises much and, to be sure, delivers on several fronts; ultimately, however, several shortcomings leave me unable to wholeheartedly recommend this book either to the amateur enthusiast or the first-year graduate student.
Thinking in the Dark is distinguished by its editors’ choice to have each contributor not simply present an overview of their figure of choice, but to also think through their figure by commenting on two films – one from cinema’s earlier years, and one from its present days. When this strategy works (and it often does) the reader witnesses the critical acumen of this or that figure unfold in praxis, and the results prove immensely instructive (particularly if it happens to be an unfamiliar figure). This review will first address specific contributions that I felt attained this high bar with particular aplomb, and subsequently disclose in some detail my concerns regarding this book.
Let’s begin with Daniel Morgan’s outstanding chapter on Stanley Cavell, whose thought on cinema was in many senses out of (before) its time when his best-known work on the subject appeared (1971’s The World Viewed), and whose extended reflections on audiovisual work must be traced across his many books, essays, and lectures. Moreover, the Cavellian understanding of cinema is remarkably subtle yet unusually generous – remember that he turned to writing on cinema in an age of medium-specificity and ideology critique – which makes it easy to misread him. Indeed, it is the case that Cavell is commonly considered one of the more idiosyncratic thinkers on film, and most of us likely are familiar solely with The World Viewed.
Morgan briefly surveys Cavell’s contributions to the study of film and media (ranging from considerations of cinema and visual technologies to Hollywood screwball comedies and melodramas), but his chapter’s richness lies in its mapping of several persistent themes in Cavellian philosophy. Morgan achieves dual ends here: on the one hand, he repositions Cavellian thought (on cinema and media) within the larger context of Cavell’s philosophical concerns, allowing its density greater room in which to breathe. On the other, and almost as a consequence of this move, he asserts Cavell’s immense importance as a prescient media theorist whose work ought to inform us today as we confront a seemingly ever-expanding mediaverse. Morgan makes his position clear when he writes that “Cavell’s writing on film in fact provides a way of thinking about cinema marked by flexibility and openness; rejecting the idea that cinema is best understood through a single key feature, his approach is committed to ongoing developments in the fluid life of films.” (p. 163) In other words, Morgan contests Cavell’s standard reception, which has tended to view him as a sort of intellectual successor to the likes of Erwin Panofsky, Siegfried Kracauer, and André Bazin.
Morgan instead underscores Cavell’s rejection of the notion that “photography and painting are competing solutions to a wish for realism.” (p. 164) Cavell further rejects technological determinism, emphasizing instead the strategies we as spectators adopt in forming relations to the images we observe. This concern with how we speak of what we see is amplified in Cavell’s unique perception of theorizing about cinema as being fundamentally bound up with one’s experience of cinema. As Morgan notes, “for him criticism involves finding words with which to account for his own experience of movies; criticism is empty, he argues, without this orientation.” (p. 165, emphasis in original) This is a refreshingly agile way of thinking about the cinema “that is responsive to changes in technology, techniques, and the social forms of movie-going.” (p. 166)
It is the notion of “automatism,” a lynchpin of Cavellian media theory, that grounds the rest of Morgan’s discussion. His comparative study of Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai (1949) and Leos Carax’s Holy Motors (2012) in terms of how they operate self-reflexively, relating form and narrative content back to the materials of the cinematic arts, is consistently precise and does a great deal to explicate the concept of automatism, which even in Cavell’s own writing is sometimes difficult to grasp. By its conclusion, I was convinced of the enduring vitality of Stanley Cavell to cinema and media studies, especially as we continue to develop new vocabularies for a new century of the moving image.
Jean Epstein is another figure that has recently seen a critical rediscovery of sorts. Christophe Wall-Romana’s excellent Jean Epstein: Corporeal Cinema and Film Philosophy appeared courtesy Manchester University Press in 2013. Just a year earlier, Sarah Keller and Jason N. Paul’s formidable critical volume on Epstein had set the stage with a range of new translations and essays by the likes of Jennifer Wild, Nicole Brenez, Ludovic Cortade, and others. In her chapter in the present volume, Keller offers an overview of three crucial aspects of Epstein’s thought and practice: lyrosophie, photogénie, and his use of sound. Keller moves the reader through Epstein’s development as filmmaker and film theorist, tracing the emergence of the concept of lyrosophie in his La Lyrosophie of 1922. She succinctly clarifies the term as “the idea that modern life’s attendant fatigue holds out the promise of reconfiguring modern beings’ relationship to time, space, and perception. By suppressing a learned and potentially faulty logic of the too-conscious mind, fatigue offers access to the fuller potential of the mind.” (p. 67) As Keller has it, then, lyrosophie allows cinema to operate under a double logic: that of the intellect and that of affect. Hence, as she writes, “images [in Epstein’s understanding of cinema] do double duty as both logical and affective meaning makers.” (idem.)
Keller is similarly attentive to the flexibility of Epsteinian photogénie, which, as she notes, is “a notoriously elusive yet provocative idea.” (p. 68) Yet she exfoliates it with aplomb, paying particular attention to specific cinematic techniques like superimpositions and close-ups which allow multiple meanings (ranging from the concrete to the increasingly abstract and unstable) to develop – as though in layers – around a specific object, inanimate or not, on the screen. The moment of photogénie arises in a flash and, although it can linger on, it is essentially ephemeral. Keller weaves these discussions into her treatment of Epstein’s work on film sound, which she characterizes as “the aural correlative to photogénie.” (p. 69). She traces the workings of these three distinct characteristics of Epstein’s film theory in Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011). Objects take on lives of their own in Deren’s film, both motivating narrative development and “[existing] on their own terms,” rich in symbolic charge. Similarly, argues Keller, the opening shots in Melancholia stand apart (yet not altogether disconnected) from the remainder of the film. The shots in the prologue tend to hold on specific images, as tableaux rendered in extreme slow-motion, and provide a sort of thematic and structural overview of the film’s story, major arguments, and points of narrative conflict. Where the intense focus on near-still images and objects once again produces a play of signification, the accompanying Wagnerian soundtrack allows for “affective meaning within the scene” which, in turn, produces yet further expansions of meaning. Ultimately, Epstein’s importance for cinema in its expanded field lies in his visionary conception of meaning-making across technologies and their affordances. It is at once quintessentially modernist and yet welcomes cinema after modernity.
I view these two chapters as particular high points in Thinking in the Dark, but that is not to ignore other fine contributions. Tom Gunning contributes a reliably engrossing chapter on Vachel Lindsay and his concept of hieroglyphics, discussing it in relation to Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life (2011). Gunning finds Malick’s “images [to] take on the qualities of hieroglyphics, not simply as symbols but rather carrying the complex of meanings and sensations that an image composed of light and movement can summon up in the viewer.” (p. 29) These are images both significant and tactile, both conveying meaning and moving beyond – as it were – communicable or anyway intelligible meaning. Gunning, via Lindsay, calls it a “conversation between images.” It’s a beautiful phrase.
In what must’ve been one of Gilberto Perez’s final scholarly publications, he engages with Jacques Rancière’s aesthetics. Beginning with a discussion of aisthesis and surveying the (relatively) modern history of aesthetics, Perez swiftly zeroes in on the centrality of ethics to (Rancière’s, but also more general) considerations of aesthetics. He moves across several of Rancière’s terms like dissensus and le partage du sensible (the distribution of the sensible), before spending some time on Rancière’s account of politics as that which “disputes police order but ceases being political if it seeks to establish order of any kind.” (p. 219) Perez probes the limits of this thesis in a discussion of John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), setting it alongside Jean-Luc Godard’s Nouvelle vague (1990).
Other chapters on the likes of Siegfried Kracauer and Walter Benjamin (of course) are similarly effective, as is Dudley Andrew’s overview of André Bazin. Andrew makes a leap in his discussion from Delmer Daves’ Dark Passage (1947) to Cristian Mungui’s recent 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), a film that has since become a touchstone of the New Romanian Cinema of the twenty-first century. It is a generous gesture that moves beyond the general New York-Paris-Berlin circuits of cinema that recur across most of the other essays in the book, and it acknowledges other quarters of the globe, many of which have been responsible for some of the most interesting recent turns in the unfolding history of cinema.
It is troubling, therefore, that these several excellent chapters (and, to be sure, most of the others that I’ve not mentioned) do not succeed in absolving the book’s numerous – and fairly serious – shortcomings. The first point of concern appears in the very first sentence of the introduction, which frames “film theory” as “broadly […] that area of inquiry in which the object of the study is the medium itself.” (p. 1) This raises an immediate question – especially for twenty-first century readers perhaps new to the scholarly study of cinema – as to how the editors intend that word: medium. The uncertainty raised here deepens further along in the same sentence, which includes within the purview of film theory “the various social, economic, and cultural practices in which film plays a central role.” No further clarity emerges in the succeeding sentence, which specifies that the editors do not have in mind “specifically the content of a film” but rather “the way in which that content is filmic, and what ‘being filmic’ can mean.” From this, I take the editors to bear in mind some interpretation of “the medium” of film as exceeding its technological base, but questions of what constitutes “filmic,” and, even more broadly, the cultural institutions variously implicated by and within cinema, are very large ones indeed. It poses an early obstacle, then, that these large issues are raised but not further clarified, especially given the rich variety of thinkers and theorists whose work is under discussion.
In the second paragraph I encountered another puzzling passage where “film theory”, according to the editors, potentially “lacks scientific or even philosophical rigor” despite its widespread influence. This is perplexing not only because the volume includes chapters on Gilles Deleuze, Stanley Cavell, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Rancière (eminent philosophers all), but also because it seems arbitrary to suggest that film theory gains some sort of critical cachet by aspiring to the condition of scientific or philosophical discourse (or, conversely, to suggest that “rigour” remains exclusive to these latter discourses). Cavell, whose work is famous for its relentless insistence on rigorous precision in thought and writing, poses a particularly strong refutation of the notion that theorisation about film need lack critical rigour.
One further significant problem in the remainder of the introduction requires discussion, as it inflects the address of this book at large. Introducing the book’s premise, the editors make a commonly-encountered note to the effect that numerous thinkers on cinema could not be included for practical reasons. Accordingly, the editors “have only touched here on the rich and complex history of the cinema, which assumed substantially different forms as it spread globally and during a century of especially dislocating and radical historical change.” (p. 1) This is of course an admirable statement and acknowledges the transnational – indeed global – character of cinema: an art that has benefited from the thought and practice of men and women from nations around the world for more than a century.
It is precisely because the editors clearly are aware of the global condition of cinema that it is galling to discover that precious little of this “rich and complex history” is actually borne out in the choice of critical figures. A glance at the table of contents reveals not a single figure from beyond North America and Europe. One thinks of Japan (Gonda Yasunosuke, Taihei Imamura), India (Ritwik Ghatak), much of Latin America (the Argentine Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino’s “Toward a Third Cinema” remains enormously influential, for instance) and the Global South in general. Is it really the case that one or two figures from all of these regions could not be squeezed into the list of twenty Americans and Europeans? It seems rather problematic for a volume intended as “an introduction to the practice of thinking about film” (p. 3) to present such a narrowly-conceived picture of that practice in 2016.
Adding to the problem of constructing an overwhelmingly Euro-American history of thinking about the cinema, just one of the critical figures under discussion (out of twenty-one altogether) is a woman. And just two of the contributors are themselves women scholars. Here lies more difficulty. Although Judith Butler is by all measures an enormously influential thinker across disciplinary lines, is she really a more apposite choice for an introductory survey of film theory than, say, Laura Mulvey, Linda Williams, Miriam Hansen, or Vivian Sobchack (none of whom feature herein)? And what of the severely imbalanced makeup of the contributors, given the many illustrious women scholars – both established and emerging – who work in film and media studies? Despite the book’s introduction paying lip service to cinema’s global condition and the “distinct national experiences” that inform writing on the cinema, this volume ultimately presents a history of thought on the cinema as entirely white, mostly Euro-American, and overwhelmingly masculine.
I don’t mean to belabour these criticisms, but they are fundamental concerns for a book that aims at presenting any sort of overview, no matter how selective, of the history of thought on the cinema. In the wake of growing recognition – and acknowledgement – of systemic aporias and absences in our critical canons, such an impoverished perspective as presented by this book is indefensible. One is forced to ask: whose film theories are these, and for whom are they presented? These would not be points of concern if the editors clarified the focus of this volume as being restricted to, perhaps, cinema’s first half-century (or thereabouts). But they do not do so.
I want to conclude by returning to my first point of criticism concerning Thinking in the Dark, namely, that it fails to define its object of study with sufficient precision. Toward the end of their introduction, the editors make two statements, both admirable, and both undone by the content of the volume. They write that this book “offers a different, if complementary, model for the study of film theory centered on major figures” (p. 5) and that “film theory demands a continual thinking about and reassessment of the central figures who have come to constitute the field.” (p. 6). If the first is partially redeemed by the strategy of having each contributor discuss both an older and a more recent film, the second is unfortunately left to fend for itself. This book re-inscribes a very particular view of the development of cinematic discourse and does not in fact engage in much reassessment of who the “central figures” are that constitute an ever-changing field. Almost as if to underscore this crucial shortcoming, the cover image of the book is strikingly reminiscent of a work of “expanded cinema” by the British-born, New York-based artist Anthony McCall: a recent variation on his landmark 1973 work Line Describing a Cone. There is, of course, no sense in this volume that cinema even exists in the expanded field, or that it behooves those interested in our discipline to acknowledge the many and varied voices who have developed, since at least the 1960s and 70s, sophisticated accounts of its possibilities. In this and other senses, then, this is a book that thinks in the dark.