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Writing in a Film Age is a collection of ten essays in which novelists describe the influence of film on their work. Keith Cohen provides a 44-page general introduction, a brief and informative biographical and critical introduction to each novelist, and a concluding bibliography and filmography listing works by and films that have influenced each novelist.
While Cohen, in his preface, rejoices in "the intellectual diversity and broad cultural spectrum" of his collection, the books and films with which it is concerned are in fact deadeningly uniform. Cohen's ten novelists—William S. Burroughs, Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Alexander Kluge, Ronald Sukenick, Jorge Luis Borges, Jonathan Baumbach, Ben Stolzfus, Manuel Puig, and Pier Paolo Pasolini—can all (with the possible exception of Pasolini) be loosely categorized as first generation avant-garde postmodernists. The films they (and Cohen) find praiseworthy are almost exclusively works either of traditional modernism or of the International Art Cinema of the 1960s and 1970s. Conspicuously absent from his collection are most of the significant literary trends of the past thirty years (dirty realism, ethnic literature, feminism, magic realism, punk), most sorts of film (Hollywood films are barely mentioned), and almost any sort of film theory.
It is difficult to imagine an audience for this book. Cohen's polemical introduction is not likely to impress either literary or film scholars with its theoretical sophistication. Purportedly drawing on Plato and Burroughs (!), Cohen finds in his collection an overall interest in the "relationship between visual signs and verbal signs" in connection with the "content of consciousness." Instead of pursuing this admittedly interesting philosophical issue (for example, by consulting Gilles Deleuze's Cinema 1 and Cinema 2 which explain the historical [End Page 1005] relation between the movement-image and the time-image using the ideas of Henri Bergson, C.S. Peirce, Sergei Eisenstein, and others), Cohen merely concludes, with Burroughs, that "consciousness is a cut-up and life is a cut-up."
Such simple conclusions abound in Cohen's book. Throughout the introduction and in many of the essays, questionable beliefs are unproblematically asserted, usually to support the idea of an uncomplicated individual consciousness, the salutary expansion of which then becomes the noble work of great novelists and filmmakers. For Cohen, the latter group achieves this expansion by means of such stock art-film devices as repetition, montage, and the visualization of characters' memories. The long-take, deep-focus, moving-camera style of Hollywood film presumably leaves individual consciousness no larger than it finds it.
In fact the dull predictability that Cohen claims to find in Hollywood cinema might be more appropriately attributed to his own ruling assumptions. Cohen's theoretical paradigm toes the traditional structuralist and High Modernist line, employing the concepts of such practitioners as early Barthes, Genette, Iser, Proust, and Joyce. Again and again, Cohen and his essayists set a heroic experimentalist-aesthete against a vulgar herd of critics and industry functionaries. While he calls for a revolutionary "openness to the processes in the other arts," he seems quite content with the singularly constricting assumptions of an elitist group whose reputation continues to decline.
The lone exception to this pattern in Cohen's book is Pasolini's "Aspects of a Semiology of the Cinema" (1967), reprinted from Louise Barnett's and Ben Lawton's Heretical Empiricism. This essay, despite its age, remains challenging and experimental. Though Saussurean structuralism no longer carries the power it did 25 years ago, Pasolini's critique of its goals remains valid; his essay raises key questions about theory, film, and aesthetics. If all Cohen's essays were this insightful, his book would have come far nearer to achieving its commendable interdisciplinary goals.