- Literature and Film:Take Two
For those who tend to consider "literature and film" an out-of-date topic, there is good news: in the last decade or so, a number of intriguing studies have shown that this field is alive and vibrant. After what can loosely be called a first wave of academic publications on cinema and literature around the 1960s and 1970s—most of the earlier, numerous writings on film and literature were produced by theorists, literary authors, and filmmakers outside of academia—the subject tended to be disdained in some circles, or rather, the disdain in which it had been held by those who previously wanted to free film from the dominating influence of literature loomed up again, sometimes in other guises. An exclusive focus on cinema tended to be regarded as somewhat outmoded since the advent of new(er) media changed the focus of what came to be named "media studies," and the connection between literature and cinema seemed to extend the reign of literature as (one of) the most respected and central art(s). This shift was in part due to institutional changes in humanities faculties. After literary scholars wrote the first studies of film, studies that often combined this subject with literature, the rise of film and media studies departments prompted the scholars in these new programs to highlight the autonomy of their discipline, even if they were often originally literary scholars. If these turf wars have not exactly come to an end, they now appear somewhat outdated in turn, [End Page 771] and scholars again seem to feel free to look into the relations between literature and film, and not only in the blooming but also somewhat limited area of adaptation studies, which should not be identified with the much larger field of literature and film. The results might convince even some of the most inveterate detractors of the field.
Andrew Shail proposes an intriguing and provocative thesis in The Cinema and the Origins of Literary Modernism: namely, that the influence of cinema on the appearance of modernist fiction has been underestimated. This book intends to show that cinema is an "originating cause for modernism"; not the only cause—although the author does not mind presenting things this way if needed—but this extremely well-documented and far-ranging monograph centrally argues that "cinema is ultimately one of half a dozen . . . major generative influences" on modernist literature (198). It is important to note that "cinema" here does not mean "certain films": Shail wishes to "avoid construing modernist form as a product solely of certain films" (34). Instead, his main thesis is that the new medium of cinema created a new "image-regime" and that "cinema's image-regime influenced anyone who was an occasional patron of the new institution" (34). And so, "Given that the cinema was experienced as an image-regime, the question of whether individual modernists were picturegoers becomes less important" (35). Whether high-modernist prose writers in the U.K. went to the "pictures" or not, whether they appreciated the art form or loathed it (as Conrad did to some extent), "cinema exercised an extensive unconscious influence on modernist writing" (36).
In this generally very carefully crafted monograph, concepts are usually defined with precision, and this certainly holds for the two central concepts "cinema" and "modernism." Here as elsewhere, Shail does not avoid going into detail. As for the first concept, the substantial introduction shows that cinema was born twice, as film critics such as Gunning and Gaudreault have also demonstrated. Its first birth was as a form of entertainment that was used in music halls and other venues to diversify (and partly to replicate by other means) the already existing program of live acts; its second birth was as an independent form of entertainment shown in "picture...