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An Invention without a Future

An Invention without a Future: Essays on Cinema

Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: 1
Pages: 360
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    An Invention without a Future
    Book Description:

    In 1895, Louis Lumière supposedly said that cinema is "an invention without a future." James Naremore uses this legendary remark as a starting point for a meditation on the so-called death of cinema in the digital age, and as a way of introducing a wide-ranging series of his essays on movies past and present. These essays include discussions of authorship, adaptation, and acting; commentaries on Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Vincente Minnelli, John Huston, and Stanley Kubrick; and reviews of more recent work by non-Hollywood directors Pedro Costa, Abbas Kiarostami, Raúl Ruiz, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Important themes recur: the relations between modernity, modernism, and postmodernism; the changing mediascape and death of older technologies; and the need for robust critical writing in an era when print journalism is waning and the humanities are devalued. The book concludes with essays on four major American film critics: James Agee, Manny Farber, Andrew Sarris, and Jonathan Rosenbaum.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95794-7
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: An Invention without a Future
    (pp. 1-12)

    In the past seventy-five years we have seen the end of Hollywood’s classic studio system, the rise and decline of network television, the development of tent-pole exhibitions and huge marketing campaigns, the emergence of digital cinema, and a variety of ups and downs in the world of independent and international art films. As the millennium arrived, the U.S. film industry found new ways of controlling production and exhibition, digital technology altered the look and even the physical basis of cinema, most people watched movies at home, and the Internet was on the verge of supplanting all delivery systems for words,...


    • Authorship, Auteurism, and Cultural Politics
      (pp. 15-32)

      Motion pictures and television are often described as collaborative media, but their modes of production are nearly always hierarchical, involving a mixture of industrialized, theatrical, and artisanal practices that give some people authority over others. Depending upon the circumstances under which particular films are made, anyone who functions in a creative job might, at least potentially, be viewed as an author. We obviously don’t need to know who the author or authors were in order to enjoy a movie, but the term could be applied with more or less justification and qualification to certain writers (Anita Loos, Raymond Chandler), photographers...

    • The Reign of Adaptation
      (pp. 33-48)

      My title alludes to a relatively little-known essay by André Bazin, “Adaptation, or the Cinema as Digest,” written in 1948 but not translated into English until 1998, when it appeared in Bert Cardullo’s useful anthologyBazin at Work. I especially recommend this essay to readers who think of Bazin almost exclusively as an eloquent proponent of a certain kind of humanist realism in the cinema. Without denying the importance of Bazin’s writings on the phenomenology of the photographic image and the realistic uses of the camera, we need to remember that an entire volume of the French edition of his...

    • Notes on Acting in Cinema
      (pp. 49-57)

      Even a moment’s observation should make it obvious that the art of acting is extremely important to most films, and yet critical literature on the subject is relatively sparse. There are excellent sociological studies of the star system and of individual stars, but not much close analysis of what actors do in specific films. In one sense, of course, movie actors are merely agents of narrative who are assisted by machinery; Lev Kuleshov famously attempted to prove that their performances can be constructed in the editing room, and Alfred Hitchcock once described them as experts in the art of “doing...

    • Imitation, Eccentricity, and Impersonation in Movie Acting
      (pp. 58-76)

      From the eighteenth until the early twentieth century, the Aristotelian concept of mimesis governed most aesthetic theory, and stage acting was often described as an “imitative art.” Denis Diderot’s “Paradoxe sur le comédien” (1758), for example, argued that the best theater actors played not from personal emotions or “sensibility,” but from “imitation” (Cole and Chinoy, 162). According to Diderot, actors who depended too much upon their emotions were prone to lose control, couldn’t summon the same feelings repeatedly, and were likely to alternate between sublime and flat performances in the same play; properly imitative actors, on the other hand, were...

    • The Death and Rebirth of Rhetoric
      (pp. 77-84)

      Most commentaries on film and rhetoric are indebted to the neo-Aristotelian school of literary criticism once practiced at the University of Chicago, and particularly to Wayne Booth’s highly influentialThe Rhetoric of Fiction(1961), which is less preoccupied with overt argument or eloquence than with problems of ethical clarity and “the art of communicating” (i). Again and again, Booth emphasizes the artist’s effort, through techniques of narration and characterization, to help readers grasp the full implications of the work and to impose a fictional or illusory world upon an audience. In a similar though more overtly ideological fashion, writing on...


    • Hawks, Chandler, Bogart, Bacall: The Big Sleep
      (pp. 87-103)

      My subject is Howard Hawks’s film adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s 1939 novelThe Big Sleep, but I’m not concerned with the problem of whether the film is adequate to, better than, or inferior to its source. The critical battles waged in the 1950s by the Hitchcocko-Hawksians have long been won, and few cinephiles today would argue that Hawks was a less important artist than Chandler—or maybe even than William Faulkner, who was Hawks’s collaborator on this and other pictures. The film is certainly different from the novel, but no less entertaining or important. By exploring salient differences between novel...

    • Uptown Folk: Blackness and Entertainment in Cabin in the Sky
      (pp. 104-123)

      Between 1927 and 1954, the major Hollywood studios produced only six feature films that took place in an all-black milieu:Hallelujah!(MGM, 1929),Hearts in Dixie(Fox, 1929),The Green Pastures(Warner Brothers, 1936),Cabin in the Sky(MGM, 1943),Stormy Weather(Twentieth Century-Fox, 1944), andCarmen Jones(Twentieth Century-Fox, 1954). Two other pictures represented blackness in a less substantial way:Tales of Manhattan(Paramount, 1942), which is an anthology film with one episode devoted to black characters, andSong of the South(Disney, 1946), which is a blend of animation and live action.

      The period in question was the...

    • Hitchcock and Humor
      (pp. 124-138)

      One of my earliest boyhood memories from an Alfred Hitchcock movie is of a scene in the American version ofThe Man Who Knew Too Much(1956), in which James Stewart, searching for a gang of assassins who have kidnapped his son, visits a Camden Town taxidermist named Ambrose Chappell. The scene begins in typical Hitchcock fashion, with a slow tracking shot from Stewart’s point of view as he approaches the taxidermist’s shop at the end of a sinister alleyway. Inside, he encounters a shabby and benign-looking group of tradesmen, but the atmosphere is uneasy because we already know that...

    • Hitchcock at the Margins of Noir
      (pp. 139-155)

      The discourse on film noir belongs largely to postmodernist culture but is preoccupied with modernist values in a series of Hollywood thrillers or bloody melodramas from the 1940s and ’50s. The pictures it names are a heterogeneous group, dealing with everything from hard-boiled detectives (The Maltese Falcon) to bourgeois women in distress (Caught), from love on the run (Gun Crazy) to foreign intrigue (The Mask of Dimitrios), from costume melodrama (Reign of Terror) to western adventure (Pursued), and from sleek eroticism (Gilda) to naturalistic social satire (Sweet Smell of Success). Even so, we can make a few generalizations about them....

    • Spies and Lovers: North by Northwest
      (pp. 156-171)

      Although Alfred Hitchcock is identified with a certain type of thriller or murder story, he actually made a wide variety of films, including two costume pictures, a prize fight melodrama, an adaptation of a Seán O’Casey play, a screwball comedy, and (believe it or not) an operetta. His reputation as the “master of suspense” evolved slowly and was determined in large part by a series of critically and commercially successful spy movies he directed at Gaumont British and Gainsborough Pictures between 1934 and 1938. In Hollywood during the early 1940s, he filmed two patriotic adventures about espionage, and over the...

    • Welles, Hollywood, and Heart of Darkness
      (pp. 172-186)

      As I’ve argued in an earlier book, there are several reasons why Joseph Conrad’sHeart of Darkness(1899) could be regarded a distant ancestor of the film noir. Like Hollywood in the 1940s, Conrad employs a first-person narration that involves subjective focalization and a good deal of shifting back and forth in time; he calls attention to the narration by dramatizing it in a manner roughly analogous to the first-person openings and closings of movies likeDouble Indemnity(1944) andMurder, My Sweet(1944); and he gives a great deal of attention to a shadowy, somber mood, so that the...

    • Orson Welles and Movie Acting
      (pp. 187-197)

      Orson Welles began his career as a stage actor, and his work as a film director was enabled and conditioned by the fact that he was a celebrity performer. He was best known to the general public in the 1930s and ’40s as a radio personality but later became famous as the man who played Harry Lime inThe Third Man(1949). Throughout his career he depended on his star image in order to acquire financing for his favored projects. He was, in fact, one of the few Hollywood auteurs of the sound era who performed in almost every film...

    • Welles and Kubrick: Two Forms of Exile
      (pp. 198-214)

      Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick were child prodigies—Welles a theatrical wunderkind and Kubrick a teenage chess master and photographer forLookmagazine—and both became iconic representatives of the cinema of the auteur. Both worked on the borderland between Hollywood and the art film, both made the same number of feature pictures, both directed two excellent films noirs, and both were virtuosos of depth of field photography and the long take. Both used radical distortions of the wide-angle lens to give the world a bizarre appearance, and both encouraged unorthodox acting styles—in Welles’s case an overheated, theatrical technique...

    • The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
      (pp. 215-230)

      The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, B. Traven’s novel published in the United States in 1935, tells the story of three down-and-out American working-men stuck in Mexico at the end of an oil boom. Ragged and almost hopeless, they scrape together what money they have and set out to prospect for gold in the mountains. By extraordinary good fortune they strike it rich, but mutual suspicion, the harsh desert weather, and Mexican bandits all conspire to deprive them of their treasure. There’s no Hollywood-style happy ending and, as the first epigraph above indicates, the very subject of movies is sometimes...

    • The Return of The Dead
      (pp. 231-240)

      My chief concern here is John Huston’s 1987 film adaptation of James Joyce’s “The Dead,” but I can’t resist approaching the topic somewhat indirectly, by means of a trivia quiz about Joyce and the movies. Here are three questions and their respective answers:

      1. What famous Hollywood gangster film contains a couple of heavies named Buck Mulligan and Blazes Boylan, two of the most unsympathetic characters inUlysses?

      Answer: Josef von Sternberg’sUnderworld(1927), an Academy Award–winning silent picture scripted by Ben Hecht, who was an admirer of Joyce.

      2. When Darryl F. Zanuck briefly contemplated a movie version...


    • [PART III Introduction]
      (pp. 243-246)

      In its Winter 1961/62 issue,Film Quarterlyinvited five eminent figures—Pauline Kael, Stanley Kauffmann, Gavin Lambert, Dwight Macdonald, and Jonas Mekas—to comment on their choices of films of the year. The five were writing at a significant moment: thenouvelle vaguehad recently hit the shores of San Francisco and a seismic shift was rumbling beneath U.S. culture. Hollywood was losing some of its popularity, not only among sophisticated urban audiences, who were infatuated with European art cinema, but also among ostensibly ordinary viewers in small towns, who had turned en masse toward what FCC chairman Newton Minow,...

    • James Agee
      (pp. 247-263)

      James Agee is the only major American film reviewer with a significant literary reputation. (Some might say that Vachel Lindsay has the same status, but he wasn’t a reviewer.) As a literary figure, Agee is sometimes compared with Thomas Wolfe: both were southerners (in Agee’s case a border-state southerner) who wrote semiautobiographical novels about provincial childhood; both were influenced by Joyce’sA Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man;both produced huge, unruly manuscripts; and both died at an early age. Of the two, however, Agee was by far the superior stylist, and his major literary achievement apart from...

    • Manny Farber
      (pp. 264-274)

      James Agee came to film criticism by way of journalism and literature, but Manny Farber came by way of skilled carpentry and painting (with college experience as a sports reporter). Despite their different backgrounds, the two men were friends and their careers as reviewers partly overlapped. Farber became an art and film critic forThe New Republicin 1942, replacing Otis Ferguson; with the help of Agee, he moved toThe Nationin 1949 and also briefly reviewed forTime. In 1952, he reviewed the Agee-Levitt-LoebIn the Street, which at that point had no title, naming it, along with...

    • Andrew Sarris
      (pp. 275-288)

      Andrew Sarris was such a profound influence on my writing about movies that I can’t hope to do him justice in a short space. To alleviate the problem, I’ve fallen back on a set of notes (revised and expanded from an earlier published set) that I hope will be true to the spirit of concision in Sarris’sThe American Cinema(1968), his reviews in theVillage Voice, and some of his other writings. I’ve arranged my thoughts as alphabetical entries in a sort of dictionary made up of key words, titles, or names. Some letters of the alphabet are more...

    • Jonathan Rosenbaum
      (pp. 289-304)

      In the interest of transparency I should make clear that Jonathan Rosenbaum, whom I’ll be referring to most of the time as “Rosenbaum,” has been a good friend of mine for over two decades. We have many things in common. We’re almost exact contemporaries (he’s two years younger), we’re both southerners (he was born into a Jewish family and I into a tribe of Baptists), and we have virtually the same politics. We’re both jazz fans, though he can play it and has written a good deal of jazz criticism (for a bibliography of his writing on the subject, see...

    • Four Years as a Critic: 2007–2010
      (pp. 305-326)

      Writing about what one regards as the best pictures of the year is a much easier job than reviewing movies on a regular basis, if only because it’s always more pleasant to praise or defend films than to attack or dismiss them. Nevertheless, anyone who proposes a list of best pictures in a given year is confronted with two practical problems. The first is that no critic, not even one who makes a living by reviewing for the daily press, can possibly see everything. The second has to do with the dating of films. Old productions are found and made...

  8. Works Cited
    (pp. 327-336)
  9. Index of Names and Titles
    (pp. 337-356)