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Cinematic Fictions

Cinematic Fictions: The Impact of the Cinema on the American Novel up to World War II

David Seed
Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: 1
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Cinematic Fictions
    Book Description:

    The phrase ‘cinematic fiction’ has now been generally accepted into critical discourse, but is usually applied to post-war novels. This book asks a simple question: given their fascination with the new medium of film, did American novelists attempt to apply cinematic methods in their own writings? From its very beginnings the cinema has played a special role in defining American culture. Covering the period from the 1910s up to the Second World War, Cinematic Fictions offers new insights into classics like The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath discussing major writers’ critical writings on film and active participation in film-making. Cinematic Fictions is also careful not to portray ‘cinema’ as a single or stable entity. Some novelists drew on silent film; others looked to the Russian theorists for inspiration; and yet others turned to continental film-makers rather than to Hollywood. Film itself was constantly evolving during the first decades of the twentieth century and the writers discussed here engaged in a kind of dialogue with the new medium, selectively pursuing strategies of montage, limited point of view and scenic composition towards their different ends. Contrasting a diverse range of cinematic and literary movements, this will be compulsory reading for scholars of American literature and film.

    eISBN: 978-1-84631-519-0
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    This book asks a simple question: given their fascination with the new medium of film, did American novelists attempt to apply cinematic methods in their own writings? There have been a number of studies of individual writers’ close involvement with the cinema and with movie production, and I draw on these, in several cases adding to this historical documentation. But these details offer a necessary preamble to my main subject of methodological influence and congruence. Notwithstanding the invaluable studies by Garrett Stewart and David Trotter, I argue throughout for an interchange between the media, recognizing of course that any such...

  4. 1 Beginnings
    (pp. 7-25)

    As early as 1891 Thomas Edison began experiments with a ‘kintoscope’ (later called ‘kinetoscope’), which would become the first movie camera. Only three years later this device featured as a ‘visual telegraph’ in John Jacob Astor’s novelA Journey in Other Worlds, where it has become elaborated into a means of transmitting live video sequences. The instance is symptomatic of the 1890s, when references to visual technology began to be evident in American fiction. The period from the mid-1890s to 1920 marks a transition between such early references to a situation in which film has become fully recognized as a...

  5. 2 Modernist Experiments: Gertrude Stein and Others
    (pp. 26-48)

    The simultaneous emergence of modernism and the cinema helps to explain why writers found in the new medium possibilities of representing and recording experience.¹ In her survey of the impact of the cinema on modernist practice, Laura Marcus has stated that ‘new ways of seeing and animating the object world entered into and shaped literature in the early decades of the [twentieth] century’.² Recent studies of modernism have all linked literary experimentation with the new technology of visual representation and David Trotter has argued that the new media promised direct representation of experience while at the same time putting the...

  6. 3 H.D. and the Limits of Vision
    (pp. 49-67)

    Unlike the writers considered in the previous chapter, the poet and novelist H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) was actively involved in film-making for a time. Throughout her career she remained obsessively preoccupied with the visual but constantly pushed against the limits of visibility. ‘Vision’ was a term which oscillated in her works between the physical and the transcendental, and for her film was a crucial medium for exploring this border area. Although she witnessed the shooting of scenes for a Mary Pickford film in Carmel in 1920, her closest involvement in the cinema took place between 1927 and 1933, and in the...

  7. 4 Ernest Hemingway: The Observer’s Visual Field
    (pp. 68-85)

    Although he does not extend his works in a transcendental direction, the writings of Ernest Hemingway, like those of H.D., emerge from a matrix of modernist experimentation in which the nature of visual perception is explored. Hemingway, however, presents the unusual case of a writer who rarely commented on film and who made a positive point of avoiding Hollywood, only becoming interested in film-making in the 1930s; yet whose work has long attracted commentary on his cinematic method. Probably the earliest instance is that of a French reviewer who declared, on the evidence ofA Farewell To Arms(1929), that...

  8. 5 Success and Stardom in F. Scott Fitzgerald
    (pp. 86-106)

    F. Scott Fitzgerald was the supreme novelist of style. Throughout his writings he paid particular attention to how his characters constructed their social personae and what self-image they strove to project. Unlike Hemingway, he was drawn to all aspects of the movie business and one of his keenest disappointments came from his failure to achieve success in Hollywood. In 1936 Fitzgerald expressed his perception that the craft of the novel was ‘becoming subordinated to a mechanical and communal art […] in which words were subordinate to images, where personality was worn down to the inevitable low gear of collaboration. As...

  9. 6 William Faulkner: Perspective Experiments
    (pp. 107-127)

    Like Hemingway, William Faulkner initially deploys quasi-cinematic methods to represent the processes of perception, but he also pursues experiments with the interplay between limited perspectives. Throughout the 1930s his novels make progressively more and more reference to film in their representational methods. Particularly since the 1970s, a considerable body of criticism has been built up on William Faulkner’s relation to the cinema and most of his screenplays, even those for television, have now been published.¹ Claude-Edmonde Magny concludes his studyThe Age of the American Novelwith a chapter discussing Faulkner’s use of witnesses to establish point of view, reversal...

  10. 7 John Dos Passos and the Art of Montage
    (pp. 128-150)

    We have seen instances in the previous chapter of William Faulkner using montage. We now need to turn to the leading theorist of montage – the Soviet film-maker Sergei Eisenstein – and to a novelist who from the beginning of his career saw film as helping his aim of social investigation: John Dos Passos. Although Eisenstein will figure in this chapter as a leading practitioner and theorist of montage, he himself admitted that this form of construction had been suggested to him by the methods of D. W. Griffith, the ‘most thrilling figure against this background’ as he called him.¹ As many...

  11. 8 Dreiser, Eisenstein and Upton Sinclair
    (pp. 151-172)

    In addition to sharing Dos Passos’ conviction that film should inform representations of society in his novels, Theodore Dreiser’s interest in the cinema had a long history, as has been partly acknowledged by three critics.¹ In 1928 Dreiser published an article about Mack Sennett in which he records that he had been an enthusiastic viewer of his films since 1910.² In 1938 Dreiser wrote to Sergei Eisenstein, whom he had met in Moscow ten years earlier, declaring: ‘ever since the inception of the moving picture technique, I have looked on it as an artistic medium far surpassing for most expressive...

  12. 9 Documentary of the 1930s
    (pp. 173-193)

    In the cases of Dreiser and Sinclair we saw examples of fiction embedding their action in reports on social conditions, in other words of fiction approaching documentary. It has been an abiding dream of the cinema that it could depict reality directly. A 1902 advertisement for the kinetoscope claimed that it could give ‘apparently life itself’ in its directness and breadth.¹ Documentaries, it seemed, had finally achieved this ultimate objectivity. The term ‘documentary’ was first applied in 1926 toMoana, a film about a Polynesian family, and by 1930 had taken on its current sense of a generic marker. The...

  13. 10 John Steinbeck: Extensions of Documentary
    (pp. 194-211)

    The flourishing of documentary gives us a context within which to situate the most famous works of John Steinbeck. Indeed there is some evidence that he plannedThe Grapes of Wrathto be a photo-text and, if so, he was picking up on a two-media kind of reportage which was becoming popular in the 1930s.¹ Agee and Evans did most of their work forLet Us Now Praise Famous Menin 1936, the same year in which Steinbeck produced his articles on the migrant workers of California, which were to lead ultimately toThe Grapes of Wrath.² He was invited...

  14. 11 Taking Possession of the Images: African American Writers and the Cinema
    (pp. 212-233)

    During his campaign for the governorship of California in 1934 Upton Sinclair was partly defeated by bogus newsreels showing unkempt migrants heading for that state. He was, in other words, defeated by images over which he had no control. And when the migrants inThe Grapes of Wrathare called ‘Okies’ they are being framed by an abusive label, which Steinbeck’s visual techniques are designed to counter. African American writers at the beginning of the twentieth century were even more severely disadvantaged by the fact that they were operating within a culture in which they were already colonized by hostile...

  15. 12 Into the Night Life: Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin
    (pp. 234-257)

    In the chapters on Dos Passos, Dreiser, Steinbeck and documentary the emphasis has tended to fall on exteriorities, on a naturalistic use of film to help writers in articulating their perceptions of America. At the same time, in the cases of Fitzgerald, Richard Wright and others, we have also seen how film complicates such perceptions by creating fantasies which repeatedly collide with actuality. We turn now to writers – primarily Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin – who were fascinated by the new possibilities film offered of expressing the inner world of dream. In 1936 Walter Benjamin expressed a conviction which was implicitly...

  16. 13 Nathanael West and the Hollywood Novel
    (pp. 258-280)

    The rise of the Hollywood film industry was closely followed from 1912 onwards by a growing number of novels engaging with what one critic has described as the ‘hyperbolic cultural symbol’ of the USA as a whole. For John Springer the Hollywood novel – a broad category that included romance, satire, and crime fiction – revolved around a central theme, the ‘confusion of illusion and reality’.¹ My focus in this chapter, however, is not to repeat such surveys but rather to examine those Hollywood novels which appropriate or imitate the very representational techniques of the film medium they are describing. Again and...

  17. Bibliography
    (pp. 281-306)
  18. Index
    (pp. 307-318)