The Tenth Muse: Writing about Cinema in the Modernist Period and Moving Forward Looking Back: The European Avant-Garde and the Invention of Film Culture, 1919-1939 (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Henry K. Miller

Abstractionist Hans Richter's Film Studie, 1926

Abstractionist Hans Richter's Film Studie, 1926

The Tenth Muse: Writing about Cinema in the Modernist Period
by Laura Marcus. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. 584 pp., illus. Hardcover: $85.00.

Moving Forward, Looking Back: The European Avant-Garde and the Invention of Film Culture, 1919–1939
by Malte Hagener. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2007. 370 pp. Hardcover: $75.00 and Paperback: $39.50.

In her essay “Film and the Radical Aspiration,” first published in 1966, Annette Michelson evoked an image of the cinematic late 1920s that has inspired historians to this day. “The excitement, the exhilaration of artists and intellectuals not directly involved in the medium was enormous. Indeed, a certain euphoria enveloped the early film-making and theory. For there was, ultimately, a real sense in which the revolutionary aspirations of the modernist movement in literature and the arts, on the one hand, and of a Marxist or Utopian tradition, on the other, could converge in the hopes and promises, as yet undefined, of the new medium.” What followed—the coming of sound, the collapse of the Parisian avant-garde, the purported eclipse of Hollywood’s “hardy adventurers,” and what Michelson construed as “the counterrevolution of Stalinism”—was nothing less than “a Fall from Grace” from which we have never recovered.

Laura Marcus’s The Tenth Muse, which cites this passage with approval, could be taken as an extended gloss on a much-anthologized piece. Providing an exhaustive account of Michelson’s “community of aspiration” among intellectuals in Britain, Marcus focuses on the two institutions that have long dominated discussion of “film culture” here: the (London) Film Society, which, assembling eight times a year between 1925 and 1939, showed banned or uncommercial work to an audience of up to 2,000; and the magazine Close Up, which appeared between 1927 and 1933, monthly at first, reaching a maximum readership of about the same size. Malte Hagener, meanwhile, though sharing Michelson’s starry-eyed vision of the pre-Depression epoch, and covering much the same ground as Marcus on a broader, pan-European scale, argues that there was not so much a Fall as a “slow tapering” in the decade that followed, and that the “the mobile, dynamic and free-floating energy of the avant-garde” was channeled into producing the enduring institutions of what is still recognized as “film culture” today.

As Hagener notes, the interwar years produced the first major histories and theories of film, shaping the men and women who “created the first canon… and subsequently determined which films were written about and preserved. They practically predetermined what later generations were able to watch, read and think about. Their merits notwithstanding, it is surprising how unquestioned this pioneer generation was (and still is) taken at face value in their memories and mythologies.” Despite this pertinent recognition, however, he does not go on to dispute the continuing and distorting legacy of the pioneer generation in the study—indeed, the definition—of “film culture” itself. Similarly, and like Michelson before him, the characterization of the “avant-garde” from which his study proceeds is that of its Frankfurt School advocates. Following Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde, the avant-garde’s “self-proclaimed goal” for Hagener “was the reconfiguration of the cultural sphere and by extension, the change of the political, social and economic foundations.”

This reshaping was to involve, in terms that are repeated throughout the book, “[b]reaking down the barriers between art and society, between culture and politics, between theory and practice.” At least within the sphere of film the evidence for this, as Hagener somewhat inadvertently reveals, doesn’t stack up. Where and by whom among the cinematic avant-garde was this ambitious program of action proclaimed; and moreover, how seriously is the historian to take it? Statements like “art and life had a much stronger link in the Soviet Union than in Western Europe” do not inspire confidence. Perusing Close Up, which Hagener calls “probably the single most important film journal in the interbellum,” and which Marcus says “had an incalculable impact on the developing film culture of this period,” one is struck above all by its reactionary cultural politics and near-total lack of political, still less economic, awareness. Championed as an opponent of censorship, for example, the magazine in fact sought to relax restrictions only for those viewers deemed “intelligent enough to see Potemkin”; the rest of us were dismissed as “scullery maids” or “the class that reads the penny novels.”

At any rate, Hagener’s attachment to Bürger’s admittedly influential view of the avant-garde and its putative aims, even in the face of evidence that he himself adduces, leads to the unintentionally bathetic conclusion that “[i]t did not bring about a transformation of the kind it had hoped for (i.e., a revolution), but it had a considerable impact in a lot of different areas.” The crux of his thesis, as the subtitle suggests, is that “[t]he avant-garde could be held responsible for the naturalization of the documentary as a genre and for the foundation of film archives in different countries, for large-scale government support for cinema in virtually all European countries, for the establishment of film theory as a field of its own, and for the emergence of art house cinemas. The cultural acceptance of cinema as an artistic form and cultural force leads us invariably back to the avant-garde and its wide-ranging activities.”

Here again, Hagener’s adoption of the Frankfurt framework confounds his own ends, insofar as the “historical avant-garde” as Bürger defined it—essentially the Dada–Surrealist continuum—was committed to dissolving such bourgeois notions as “cultural acceptance.” Whether or not we accept Bürger’s view in relation to other art forms, within film what was known as the “avant-garde” at the time was a broader and more contradictory thing; Bürger’s category is after all theoretical rather than historical. As Hagener makes clear, the avant-garde canon as commonly understood, which was indeed instrumental in gaining for the cinema the intelligentsia’s approval, runs the gamut from films commissioned by aristocratic patrons—as in the work of Luis Buñuel, Jean Cocteau, and Henri Chomette—to the thoroughly commercial Abel Gance and Marcel L’Herbier. Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) was “a ‘quota-quickie’ for Fox.” Hagener’s decision to employ Bürger’s terminology in the face of all this leads him to describe these films as “exceptions that prove the rule”; in fact, they drive a coach and horses through a rule that was never convincingly drafted in the first place.

His larger claim, that the avant-garde was responsible for the institutions of film culture, involves a similar feat of intellectual gymnastics—the avant-garde stood “against the traditional networks and institutions of the art system,” and yet it was at the same time responsible for devising for the cinema a set of institutions modeled on the very same system—but allowing for this, few of the achievements he lists had much to do with the avant-garde even broadly defined. Henri Langlois, Iris Barry, and Ernest Lindgren, the three seminal figures in the foundation of the French, American, and British archives, were not avant-gardists; nor by any stretch of the imagination was John Grierson, the documentary pioneer who ran the most successful government-funded film unit in western Europe. Hagener is at the mercy of secondary sources and the memoirs of interested parties in saying that the Film Society was the first attempt at “an alternative exhibition organization” in Britain, but London’s first specialist cinema, a commercial venture meant to serve the popular demand for German Expressionism—generally treated in both books as the preserve of a cultivated elite—predated it by over eighteen months. Hagener asserts but does not establish the avant-garde credentials of government intervention in the film industry, the film festival, pioneered by Venice in this epoch, or the British Film Institute.

Taking Hagener’s book as an account of the institutional basis of elite film culture, one could call The Tenth Muse a description, indeed celebration, of its “superstructure,” of the typical esthetic positions taken by the first generation of accredited intellectuals to write about movies, who defined, per Hagener, “film theory as a field of its own.” In Marcus’s own words, “[t]here are significant connections between these sites of cinematic culture [the film societies and archives of Hagener’s book], the conceptual, literary, and philosophical understandings of the filmic medium, and theories of modernity more broadly.” Against the subtitle, the book is really concerned with writings by a selection of modernists, loosely characterized, about the cinema—and generally what we would now call “art cinema.” The distinction needs making.

Much as Hagener seeks to attribute everything in film culture to the avant-garde, there is a recurring sense in Marcus’s book that the discourse of modernist intellectuals about the cinema, which did not much predate the 1920s (though Marcus makes much of the small number of documented counterexamples before then), was the only discourse that existed, as in her evocation of “[t]he Bergsonism of early writing about cinema,” a phrase that also crystallizes her tendency to view the book’s subject as an undifferentiated whole. There are times when it seems as though cinema only existed as something written about or made by modernists. When the Film Society showed films by Griffith, Sennett, and Chaplin, it was “undoubtedly” owing to the fact that these filmmakers had been discussed by Vachel Lindsay and Gilbert Seldes. (Chaplin in particular was as good as universally revered by the mid-1920s—often, among intellectuals, on the basis of this “universality.”) Hagener makes the similarly bizarre claim that the famous 1928 manifesto by Eisenstein and others was “[p]robably one of the first statements on the sound film by filmmakers anywhere in the world (not just in the Soviet Union).”

Awkwardly structured, The Tenth Muse presents itself as a large number of lengthy quotations, often presented without significant comment, that are forever “anticipating,” “echoing,” “chiming with,” or “linking back to” other quotations. (Variants of “echo” alone appear over one hundred times.) Seldom based on verifiable connections, the repetitive assertion of affinities—sometimes commonplace, sometimes improbable—at once obstructs any appreciation of conflict among the writers in question, and overestimates what they knew of each other. On occasion the echo precedes its source. Whether plausible or not, we do not learn much about Paul Rotha or Béla Balázs from the suggestion that the former may have come to write about “the centrality of ‘face’ (of persons and objects) and the animation of the object in cinema”—surely elementary aspects of the medium—having read the latter. In the most egregious instance, Lindsay’s already cranky notion of “hieroglyphic” cinema “would also seem to echo or to anticipate” Epstein, Canudo, Eisenstein, Kracauer, Adorno, Brecht, and Artaud. There is a persistent refusal to evaluate or distinguish; but at the same time, outside this familiar compass, popular magazines and newspapers, their pages still unturned, their contributors still shadowy figures, constituted “the medium against which those critics and commentators committed to film as an art form, and often writing in the more culturally elite or intellectual press were, implicitly or explicitly, reacting.”

The assumption here that the established cultural elite was the sole and just arbiter of taste over a medium it by and large ignored until its third decade goes unquestioned; but this logic, which underpins both Marcus and Hagener’s books, is essentially that of the interwar intelligentsia, whether “modernist,” “avant-garde,” or otherwise. Its typical perspective is encapsulated in Virginia Woolf’s celebrated 1926 essay “The Cinema,” to which Marcus devotes an eighty-page chapter, though without querying its implications. “[T]he cinema,” wrote Woolf, “has been born the wrong end first. The mechanical skill is far in advance of the art to be expressed. It is as if the savage tribe instead of finding two bars of iron to play with had found scattering the sea shore fiddles, flutes, saxophones, grand pianos by Erard and Bechstein, and had begun with incredible energy but without knowing a note of music to hammer and thump upon them all at the same time.” Mark the date: Woolf was writing in the year after the London release of Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924) and Von Stroheim’s Greed (1924). Her view, and that of her peers, was that before the cinema was taken seriously by intellectuals, it had not been worth taking seriously—and had not been taken seriously at all. The pernicious influence of this fundamentally misguided view goes unchallenged in both of the books under review.

Henry K. Miller is a regular contributor to Sight & Sound.

Copyright © 2009 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.