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Cinema and Modernism (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 46, Number 3-4, Spring-Summer 2009
pp. 610-613 | 10.1353/jjq.2008.0051

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David Trotter's lucidly written book, Cinema and Modernism, belongs to a corpus of recent work that asks us to take seriously the relationship between film and literature in modernism. What distinguishes Cinema and Modernism is its deep commitment to reestablishing the terrain of interdisciplinary methodology, which Trotter makes plain right from the start. In the introduction, he faults other comparative studies, writing that the "great majority of the enquiries into literary modernism's relation to cinema undertaken during the past thirty years have been committed implicitly or explicitly to argument by analogy" (1). Analogy proceeds according to a model where the literary text is "structured like a film, in whole or in part: it has its 'close-ups,' its 'tracks' and 'pans,' its 'cuts' from one 'shot' to another" (1). Techniques of film (Trotter takes particular aim at ubiquitous discussions of montage) are transferred to the literary text in a causal reworking of ut pictora poesis, which renders the relationship between the verbal and the visual one of imitation and runs the risk of anachronism—skirting history for the sake of upholding a teleology of influence. Trotter anchors his own careful approach with calls for both historical accuracy and a theoretical model in which literature, "a representational medium," is recognized to be fundamentally different from film, "a recording medium" (3). He shifts the emphasis from analogy to a more nuanced "model of parallelism" (3), claiming that early filmmakers and modernist writers shared a set of concerns that had to do with the perceived automatism and the neutrality of film.

The book's overall argument elaborates upon the central concerns of André Bazin, whose writing is currently enjoying a resurgence of attention. In his essay from 1945, "The Ontology of the Photographic Image," Bazin understands film as an indifferent recording medium, which delivers an image that might be unhinged from subjectivity. Film's indifference—what Trotter calls its neutrality—deals in a vexed duality, marking, on the one hand, an ability to record "existence as such" or to guarantee presence, and, on the other, to do so in the absence of a human audience (4). As Trotter states in the introduction, "[t]he will-to-automatism was the instrument with which writers and film-makers explored the double desire at once for presence to the world and for absence from it" (11).

Following a chapter on the presence-effects of the stereoscope, whose joining together of the visual and the haptic was a source of fascination for writers and filmmakers, Trotter explores the tension between "immediacy" (cinema's privileged engagement with the real) and "hypermediacy" (abstraction and the inhuman) in a series of "case-studies" of the works of D. W. Griffith, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and Charlie Chaplin (12, 11). He structures his studies by closely reading a crosshatch of films and texts, each firmly anchored by an inquiry into their contexts. In the chapter on Griffith, which takes up the Biograph films made between 1908 and 1913, we read how the filmmaker capitalizes on a mimetic photographic excess in his films through representational strategies that produce both immediacy and abstraction. The "presence-effects" in Griffith "constitute a counter-narrative," working as sites of palpable arrest (79). Trotter writes, cribbing from Bazin, "It is the machine's eye-view which, in producing too much presence-effect, too much immediacy, has laid the world bare in all its cruelty and ugliness" (79). The automatism of the mechanically reproduced image is the primary concern in the chapter on Joyce, which focuses on the "Wandering Rocks" episode of Ulysses, long considered indebted to the cinematic technique of montage for its effects. Sweeping aside influence as a historical or technical possibility, Trotter demonstrates the ways in which "Wandering Rocks" reveals a literature shaped by a "will-to-automatism" that exploits the humanly impossible and "a determination to view the world, for however brief an interval, as a machine would view it" (113, 113-14). Trotter names as the least anthropocentric of camera movements the lateral tracking shot, which pulls sideways away from natural sight lines, and produces a deft set of readings of how this type of shot works in...

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