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The Cinema & Modernism
Andrew Shail. The Cinema and the Origins of Literary Modernism. New York: Routledge, 2012. xiii + 198 pp. $125.00

In a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, the distinguished novelist E. L. Doctorow has a short essay on Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. At one point, discussing Faulkner's "disdain" of exposition, he mentions that "it was film itself that taught him and other twentieth-century writers that they no longer needed to explain anything—that it was preferable to incorporate all necessary information in the [End Page 122] action, to carry it along in the current of the narrative, as is done in movies." In effect, what Andrew Shail does in his new book on cinema and modernism is to subject this relation—so often made impressionistically or anecdotally—to a full scholarly examination, complete with forays into film criticism as well as historical research and close reading of exemplary modernist texts such as Under Western Eyes, Ulysses, and Jacob's Room.

And what exactly is the relation? Doctorow makes it causal. However, Shail is at some pains to distinguish two types of "influence," one more specific, narrow, and programmatic, the result of individual practitioners, the other more general, broadly cultural, and diffuse, the consequence of "changes in the everyday landscape of whole populations." Which is more proper to the origins of modernism? Shail—in line with newer studies by scholars such as Lawrence Rainey, Michael Tratner and David Trotter—opts for the second idea of influence in which cinema is "a popular experience rather than [a]stylistic toolkit to be sampled and emulated." That is, contra to (say) Doctorow, modernism "was not an aesthetic reformation in response to cinema, but a consequence in literary practice of its appearance." Cinema, in turn, is not merely an "empty space" in the history of modernism, but itself one of its "generative forces."

But not so fast. Both modernism and cinema were also products of what Shail argues (citing Gilles Deleuze) was a "regime of the image," including everything from the use of portmanteau words to the rise of popular film magazines; movies became not so much one thing people talked about as one thing that mediated between urban populations and the meaning of experience itself. So understood, Shail's project is far more complicated than might first seem the case. While investigating a standard question about "influence" (especially the precise aspect cinema had on literary practice), he must concede that both modernism and cinema were subject to the same sociohistorical causes—a fact that complicates the question of "influence" immensely, because it threatens to render the mere effect upon modernism by cinema superfluous.

Take cinema's capacity to be "modernist" in the first place. No wonder Shail wants to "bracket" this particular matter. Too much attention and the separable "institution" of cinema might appear to dissolve into larger historical determinants, and modernism along with it. As it is, Shail posits both cinema and modernism as "institutions" (his term) and proceeds in three densely packed chapters to pair three aspects of the one with three aspects of the other: first, structural narrativity, or [End Page 123] the cinema of "narrative integration" in conjunction with the demise of literary impressionism prior to World War I; second, time sense, or the continuous present of cinema and the temporality of modernism; and third, marketing, or the philosophical-literary idea of mass consciousness in terms of the new image regime of cinema.

It is difficult to do justice to the richness of each of these chapters. Each one contains fine discriminations and subtle distinctions, beginning with the fact that "cinema" prior to 1910 or so was not cinema as we know it today, since the very technology had not yet acquired an identity that fully distinguished it from such Victorian and Edwardian performance or amusement practices as the cinematograph or the magic lantern. This point is not original. The careful, nuanced way Shail brings it into dialogue with an expanded notion of cinema as discourse (its audiences, its production companies, its venues) or the development of new methods of editing (leading among other things to the eventual...