- The Cinematic Novel:Tracking a Concept
Just as in the 1960's, when students and critics alike were calling just about every important work "existentialistic," there now seems to be a run on the term "cinematic." There is a danger that, like the term "existentialistic," the term "cinematic" will wear out from overuse and misuse.
When Virginia Woolf drolly proclaimed that "in or about December, 1910, human character changed" ("Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" 320), it is doubtful that she was thinking of D. W. Griffith. In late 1910, the director had just moved his production company to Hollywood and made His Trust, Griffith's first two-reeler and one of several works in which he was inventing a syntax for the infant medium. Woolf was not enamored of the movies, though they would reflect, embody, and shape precisely that revolution in consciousness that she associated with modernism and with the novel. The history of cinema is congruent with the history of the modern novel, as it is with the development of the airplane, the [End Page 467] automobile, the radio, the skyscraper, and even the zipper. Yet not nearly as much sense and nonsense have been written about cinematic radios or novelistic zippers as has been about cinematic novels.
Several generations of critics have taken it for granted that ut cinema poesis, that literature is instructively analogous to film. Whether in empirical studies of works by such authors as Cendrars, Dos Passos, Malraux, Robbe-Grillet, or Kosinski, in analyses of adaptations and novelizations, or in comparatist theories of the relationships between literature and the other arts, the term cinematic novel has become a rhetorical commonplace, as if there were no question about what is meant by cinema and what is meant by novel. There is such persistent but conflicting testimony about this bizarre hybrid born in the twentieth century that, like the blind man and the elephant, it is possible that we would not be able to recognize a cinematic novel if we saw one.
In 1907, just four years after the first sustained narrative film, Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery, Henri Bergson was articulating the modernist conception of mind as a function of movement and continuity. He explicitly drew upon the recent technology of motion pictures to illustrate his theory, as if to think is to operate a cerebral movie projector.
Qu'il s'agisse de penser le devenir, ou de l'exprimer, ou même de le percevoir, nous ne faisons guère autre chose qu'actionner une espèce de cinématographe intérieur. On résumerait donc tout ce qui précède en disant que le mécanisme de notre connaissance usuelle est de nature cinématographique.(753)
A decade earlier, it was William James who, in Principles of Psychology (1890), had coined the term stream of consciousness to describe a new sense that the mind functions in and on flux. James did not use the metaphor of movies, but for an increasingly urban population a rapid sequence of still photographs would soon be more familiar than his image of a stream. And in describing these innovative novels that incorporated the insights of the elder James and of Bergson, others have frequently made comparisons with film. In 1932, for example, Joseph Warren Beach explained:
A more enlightening analogy is perhaps that of the moving picture, especially the sort cultivated in Germany, France, and Russia, with its generous use of cut-back, of symbolic themes, of dissolving views, all meant to give the picture a wider and richer significance than that of a mere story told in chronological sequence. It is probable that the moving picture has had a very strong influence on the stream-of-consciousness technique.(525)
And in his 1968 book-length study of that technique, Robert Humphrey evokes specifically cinematic devices:
The ingenious minds of the writers we have been considering, like their contemporaries in the sister arts, especially in the cinema, found techniques which were devised to project the duality and the flux of mental life. Montage, with its function of presenting either more than one object or more than one...