Thursday, August 21, 2008

A few good books


(A bit of a grab bag today, in other words, something of a lazy post: a few observations on some film books I've been reading recently).

At any given moment in time, ask a student or professor what those interests are and their response is likely to be heavily mediated by whichever books have left the greatest impression on them most recently. That is, I think, an absolutely wonderful thing: while discussions of interests and agendas tend to be exclusionary and limited to the contexts in which they developed, discussions of books tend to open up ideas more dialogically (since any good book, like any good film, can't be reduced to the lens through which a single reader, or even a single department, understands it). With that in mind, here's something potentially useful to you: a list of five film and media studies books I've dived into recently, and that in my own orbit proved engaging. Some of these are books that I've used in crafting my dissertation, so inevitably my choosing them - and my comments on them - are the result of my own agenda, but I imagine the reasons they might be useful are too many for me alone to anticipate, so take everything I say about them strictly with a grain of salt.

1) and 2) Garret Stewart, Between Film and Screen: Modernism's Photo Synthesis and Towards a Postfilmic Cinema. Time to kill two birds: two books here instead of just one, but these two are truly a diptych separated by less than a decade. In both Stewart is interested in the ways in which cinematic textuality - celluloid's twenty-four photograms per second - ruptures and intervenes in the generation of a stable narrative form on another level. In Postfilmic Cinema he is interested in seeing how this idea develops in the digital age. The most inspiring idea to me in these books (wrapped within Stewart's playful, recessional prose style) is that filmic style is not a mere adjunct to narrative, but can operate contrapuntally and deconstructively to narrative in even the most apparently conventional films, reminding us that the pull of celluloid through the projector is not unlike the phonemic unspooling of written prose. In Postfilmic Cinema, and more implicitly in Between Film and Screen, Stewart is also interested in showing that hermeneutics and textual analysis still have a place in a field that often seems to disavow them in favor of a view of films as part of a homogenous cultural archive. But Stewart himself isn't disavowing the value of media archaeology per se; he is simply imbuing it once again with the question of media specificity, showing how those acts of analysis and interpretation can in fact demonstrate that films themselves, even if they cannot be reduced to a single material essence, nonetheless intervene into their own material histories.

3) Richard Brody, Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard. Actually, like the Stewart books this too could be part of a scholarly diptych: put it alongside Colin MacCabe's Godard: Portrait of the Artist at Seventy and you've got yourself a great single volume on Godard. Taken apart the flaws of both become more apparent. I don't mean to belittle the achievement of either author: I don't know of another film scholar or critic who could have tackled such an elusive subject more comprehensively, and thus any present attempt is going to remain, I think, only a fragment of a fuller picture. MacCabe is strong on JLG's childhood, so Brody (thankfully) leaves that aside. His approach is to chart the personal life and then use the personal life as a yardstick with which to judge the films. This is more than a little problematic, since reducing Godard's filmography to biography is to settle for reducing the most contentious film practice of the last sixty years into a linear personal narrative. Especially disappointing is his tendency to speak of the early films almost exclusively as if they were all tortured love letters to Anna Karina. Of course, they are this on some level, especially Contempt and Pierrot le fou, but is that all they are? If you've really responded to a dense work of art like Pierrot in a way that changes you, does it really matter to you whether or not Godard and Karina were getting along at the time? Maybe it's an interesting factoid at best. Brody seems to think it's a relevant aspect of the film; although I certainly acknowledge this, and am appreciative of Brody's attempt at characterizing Godard's work as a personal cinema up to a certain point, I'm not convinced of the salient importance of the artist's love affair in any interpretation of a work of art. (And despite the fact that this is a biography, a biography need not interpret every film through the artist's life; see MacCabe's earlier volume for evidence, or Chris Fujiwara's recent volume on Otto Preminger, which separates the author's charting of the life from the author's reading of the films). Anyway, for anyone interested in Godard this is still required reading, especially since Brody does such a good job of situating Godard within the shifting fads of postwar French intellectual life.

4) Claire Colebrook, Deleuze: A Guide for the Perplexed. Despite the title, this isn't "Deleuze for Idiots." To my eyes it's a major addition to film scholarship on Deleuze, despite the fact that Continuum's marketing department has pigeonholed it as an introductory volume. Colebrook isn't, strictly speaking, a film scholar, but nevertheless the value of this book for film scholars is the book's tendency to privilege the philosopher's work on cinema as a lens through which the rest of his philosophy can be understood. (Being someone who took forever to plow through Deleuze's two Cinema books, and who continues to remain daunted by the rest of his corpus, Colebrook's project is invaluable to me). Colebrook argues that the Cinema books, far from simply comprising the side project of a thinker taking a break from "philosophy proper," are actually central to understanding his thinking. The author does this by showing how the concepts central to Deleuze's work on cinema are, in actuality, central to his understanding of life.

5) Malcolm Turvey, Doubting Vision: Film and the Revelationist Tradition. Turvey, a film scholar deeply influenced by analytical philosophy (in particular Wittgenstein), performs what he calls an act of "destructive criticism" on the revelatory tradition within classical film theory, as embodied in the work of Vertov, Epstein, Balazs, and Kracauer. His interest is to show that these theorists' insistence that the specificity of cinema lies in its ability to reveal natural phenomena otherwise imperceptible to human vision is based on a flawed understanding of concepts of human vision, arguing that the "visual skepticism" which undergirds the work of these theorists (and their contemporary brethern, such as Cavell and Deleuze) is unfounded. For a book so "destructive," however, what is most useful about Turvey's volume is his attempt to discover what might still be useful about the revelationist tradition once the conceptual confusion he diagnoses in the book has been jettisoned.

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