Manchester University Press, 2015
(Review copy supplied by Manchester University Press)
When the globetrotting Australian film scholar Sam Rohdie died in April of 2015, academic film studies and cinephile culture lost a unique voice. Teaching and writing variously in Australia, Ghana, Britain, Hong Kong, and in his final years the USA, Rohdie’s path was an increasingly singular one. In the early phase of this international career, culminating with his 1971-4 tenure as editor of the venerable UK journal Screen, Rohdie was situated at the very centre of cutting-edge developments in film theory and serious criticism, and the often hot debates therein. During this crucial period, he was one of the most lucid English-language writers on then-current French film theorists such as Christian Metz. Later in his life, Rohdie adopted a much more distanced position on such debates and film theory itself, either questioning its primary tenets (many of which can be traced back to that seminal early-‘70s period when Screen was its Anglophone bible) or more often seeking to leave such discussions behind. The result was an increasingly personal, even idiosyncratic, approach to writing on film, the author adopting a reflective, meditative, poetic, and most importantly aphoristic style that sometimes gives the impression of extremely developed journal or travel writing more than reference-flooded film scholarship.
Despite his exponential embrace of an aphoristic style, Rohdie’s final twenty-five years also saw a concurrent expansion of his writing projects’ scope via a series of books. These either concentrate on the great Italian post-war filmmakers (starting with what remains the seminal English-language study of Michelangelo Antonioni in 1990, followed by volumes devoted to Luchino Visconti’s 1960 masterpiece Rocco e i suoi fratelli/Rocco and His Brothers, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Federico Fellini) or more conceptually focused work. These are all, in more and less explicit ways, concerned with the theme and question of modernism in the cinema. Fittingly, the final book in the cycle is simply called Film Modernism. If this topic and the related subjects and figures he elected to write on at length are today well known enough, Rodhie has played an important part in making this so. He was, for example, one of the key figures responsible for the return to scholarly interest of both Antonioni and post-war modernist cinema more broadly (which can now be situated as part of the much larger, trans-disciplinary emergence of modernist studies over the past two decades).
Familiar and relatively canonical as Rohdie’s interests might ultimately be for recent film scholarship, his conceptual approach and style are anything but. In a period when academic cinema studies variously pursued a kind of ‘historical turn’ emphasising industrial and sociological context, the would-be scientific ‘post-theory’ formalism of David Bordwell et al., or rearguard theoretical writing usually overflowing with references to other published work in the area, Rohdie was a true outsider. His books encompass history but in the broadest yet also deepest sense; the writing tends to specific filmic texts but only so as to make a point and move on; and the discussion offers philosophically inflected analysis (and sometimes touching on key points or assumptions of ‘Theory’ without highlighting the fact) without turgid explication. All this is presented through often meditative and increasingly aphoristic writing that remains clear and succinct, no matter how elaborate its syntax and lengthy the sentences can become, usually featuring only scanty references. Concurrently adding substance to and operating far beyond scholarly film culture’s forever-fickle zeitgeist (especially in the area of writing), taken as a body of work Rohdie’s books comprise one of the true gems of sustained, thematically focused writing on the cinema we have in English. This cycle reaches its entirely apposite conclusion with the arrival of Film Modernism.
Challenging Structure, Definition, Form
Substantively complete at the time of the author’s death, with the manuscript then edited by long-time associate Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, Film Modernism exemplifies Sam Rohdie’s interconnected passions: European, especially Italian, cinema of the post-war period, and the ongoing question of film modernism. If you have read one or more of his previous books, a strong sense of déjà vu permeates these pages, which often read as capsule-size, fragmentary summations of more elaborate discussion undertaken elsewhere. And, I think it is fair to say, there is little in the way of genuinely new thinking here. The book is also at times rather repetitive, in part I suspect because the author was not able to complete his own final edit but also in part due to its particular organisation. This lingering sense and occasional annoyance aside, the book’s unusual structure is largely successful, and a perfect vehicle for Rohdie’s late style.
Instead of lengthy chapters, we get fifty alphabetical themes or ‘categories’, each of which interacts or crosses over with multiple others. (In honour of this unique navigational format, below I use the names of these separate yet interrelated section titles as bracketed references accompanying quotes taken from Film Modernism, followed by page numbers.) The author’s stated hope, he writes in the brief Introduction, was that this unusual structure would enable the reader to make regular fecund connections and engage with a generative circularity in keeping with the book’s challenging and often linearity-subverting topic. This is largely successful, I feel, alongside the occasionally irritating repetition. The latter is most notable with the many references to Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma whereby excessively similar points are made. The book’s structure is itself inspired, Rohdie says, by Godard’s “interrogations of History and of film history, especially his stunning Histoire(s) du cinéma.” (p. 1)
The 50 alphabetically presented categories around which the book is based and divided, its author writes, refer less to definitional markers and more “to particular films and directors that raise questions related to modernism, and, inevitably, to classicism”. The reader soon notes that at times classicism appears to receive almost as much attention as its presumed opposite – an opposition Rohdie expertly frames and complicates, as I will go on to discuss. The result is anything but a singular or especially clear work when it comes to defining its topic. He continues in the form of a quasi-explanation: “The book is more in the way of speculations than answers and conclusions. Its intention is to stimulate not only by the substance of what is said but by the way it is said and structured.” (p. 1)
Film Modernism’s starting point is a kind of loose account of what its author sees as cinema’s core interest and claims to uniqueness. In the early pages we get an especially blunt, even polemical passage on this matter: “A scripted or literary film based on the text is essentially ‘dead’ because it wholly belongs to what is already and that it illustrates; it is already complete, finished, whereas the film of images in the present is ‘alive’, open, unfinished…” Rohdie then cites the early Nouvelle Vague critic-filmmakers’ taste for Rossellini as a key trans-European moment that cracks open the above ‘dead’ approach to filmmaking and cinema per se. (‘Archive’, p. 11) While much of the discussion around classicism’s complex role for modernism stresses contradiction and complicated timelines (as also highlighted in the book’s format) – which I explore ahead – Rohdie is not entirely above some linear historical pronouncements. So, a third of the way into the book we get a bold-strokes account that many would question:
Until the late 1930s and for the main part well into the 1940s, the stories that films told, were organised such that every part of those stories cohered. Time was made to be continuous and space homogeneous. One event followed the next in a line of consequence and in a space within which all things belongs to all other things. In such films, there was only a here, no elsewhere outside it, that opposed it, that was different from it, and no gaps in that here, especially not the gap between it and an elsewhere. (‘Elsewhere’, p. 72)
The modernist European cinema that flowers in the 1950s, ‘60s and into the ‘70s, the book surmises, challenges this emphasis. Nearly half way through Film Modernism, the reader finally arrives at a sort-of definition of its topic. This is interestingly set up less in opposition to classicism per se than realism and its representational claims, or albatross, in favour of film as autonomous artwork liberated from such enslavement (ideological and aesthetic) to the world and its appearances. “Film and photography are reproductive, tied to imitation. The ‘modern’ film and the ‘avant-garde’ film,” Rodhie argues in opposition, “sought to free itself from such illustrative, mimetic practices. Modernism, understood generally as a move away from representation and illusionism, towards a concern with art as its own subject and as an autonomous reality rather than the reproduction of a reality outside it, has been most difficult to realise in film in part because of its reproductive vocation.” (‘Insufficiency’, p. 102)
As for many scholars of progressive post-war filmmaking, including famous names like Gilles Deleuze (notably in his 1989 volume, Cinema 2: The Time-Image) but also going back to André Bazin himself, even more than Italian neorealism, Rohdie presents Orson Welles as offering the more fully formed impetus for the feature-film’s ultimate coming into being as a truly modern form. Welles’ central gift, he writes, is the liberation of the fragment:
The make-do, hodge-podge, bricolage quality of his films was not simply a consequence of conditions of production in his non-Hollywood work but also a quality of his Hollywood productions, one reason his films were unfamiliar to audiences and not successful. Rather than sketchiness, fragmentation, lack of finish and heterogeneity being merely a result of economic difficulties, they were characteristic of Welles’s style. … In Welles’s films, the fragment prevails over continuity, the image over what it represents, as if the film and its images, not its representations, are the only realities, the exact reverse of the Hollywood film. The enigma presented in these films is a threat to clarity, continuity, singularity, identity, the stability of any representation as the reality of the image overcomes the realities it seeks, but fails to represent, hence the uneasiness of Welles’s films, their failure to satisfy, to secure. In a Welles film there is no final, resolute reality that unmasks appearances, but rather only the uneasy reality of appearances and these are marked as such. (‘Bricolage’, pp. 33 & 34)
Opposition, Paradox, Contradiction
Unsurprisingly in light of his previous writing, but also when it comes to present-day critical and scholarly consensus for those seeking to chart such a history, along with Welles, Rohdie sees Godard, Antonioni, and Roberto Rossellini as absolutely central protagonists in the post-war modernist cinema story. But Bernardo Bertolucci’s work plays an equally important role in Film Modernism for demonstrating multiple contradictions that concurrently emphasise, enable, and threaten modernist cinema’s aesthetics and claims. More than anywhere else, Rohdie sees in this today less-fashionable filmmaker’s work the crucial fusing of natural and theatrical, and realist and anti-realist, aesthetics by showing how such categories and their apparent oppositions are encompassed and ultimately overcome by cinematic modernism. Of Bertolucci’s tracking shots, Rohdie writes:
[H]e could more easily approach the theatrical without compromising the cinematic and could do so smoothly, thereby proceeding from the natural to the unnatural and back again in a single sequence. Bertolucci’s anti-realism and his theatricality are founded on an anti-illusionism, and, like Welles’s films, have less to do with the reality of the shot sequence as with the mobility of the camera to negotiate between opposites. (‘Contradiction’, p. 49)
The deconstructive power of this inherently fused, contradictory cinematic form ultimately includes itself, he goes on to suggest, starting from post-war modernism’s Bazinian roots in realism, deep focus, and the long take. This results in an exemplary passage recalling Rohdie’s Antonioni book and much else:
Bertolucci’s cinema belongs to that Bazinian question, but without a precise answer, certainly not the restatement of modernism which is already a manifesto, but with what goes beyond it. The Bertoluccian project refuses the answer including that of the modern, instead seeking to keep the question open and by doing so keeping the cinema open, rejecting any closing of any kind whatsoever, and to posit, on the contrary, doubles, enigmas, impossibilities, paradox, that is, obstacles, further questions, nothing in any case resolved. (‘Contradiction’, p. 50)
This emphasis on modernism’s paradoxical power and sometime tendency towards auto-critique or even -destruction is one of the book’s strong through-lines. Ever since the Antonioni book, Rohdie’s work has stressed a primary impact of modernist cinema as being the dissolution of all distinctions and sureties, both at aesthetic and conceptual levels.
Antonioni’s debut feature from 1950, Cronaca di un amore (praised by Bazin upon release for not entirely dissimilar reasons), is evoked with this familiar-sounding description: “All the relations are relations of dissolution, incomprehension, as if without substance, certainly without clear meaning or anything very positive.” The film’s potentially dramatic love triangle, meanwhile (it remains on paper a noir-inflected melodrama after all), “is emptied of any dynamism, hence the relative blankness and lack of dramatic force of Rosetta’s attempted or completed suicide.” (‘Characters’, p. 38) In the 1990 book Rohdie paid notable attention to all the director’s output to date, not just his most famous 1960s films, especially this first feature. Twenty-five years later, again he evokes crucial aesthetic developments that can be easily overlooked in more famous subsequent films by Antonioni and others. Cronaca is again presented as an absolutely key work where classicism and genre, as well as post-war neorealism, give way to a newer and more challenging aesthetic form:
It is extraordinary, certainly extraordinary in relation to the classical past of the cinema, that amidst all these characters and all their relations there seems to be no instance of shot-reverse-shot to bring an audience into the interior of the fiction. On the contrary, Antonioni’s camera and his editing (the sequences are lengthy, mostly in real time and only minimally fragmented – characters are followed, observed rather than constructed in the usual way) are rigorously objective, outside the film, looking in, interested without being directly engaged, at least not in the taking of a position or identifying with one, or even being sympathetic. … The film emerges as an object and the characters and events as its forms, a different kind of notion of reality than had prevailed in the cinema, the classical one and the neorealist one (with the exception of Rossellini). (‘Characters’, pp. 38-9)
If one of the features of modernism itself is encompassing paradox and contradiction, while Rohdie’s final book itself, on the one hand, presents modernism as a radical evolution beyond classicism and realism, on the other it shows how their forms are concurrently both clarified (as ‘past’) and re-iterated anew via more complicated, reflexive, and multi-vocal guises.
Tearing Asunder, Citing, and Incorporating Traditional Forms
With the emergence of modernism, ‘old’ forms are at once assaulted and at the same time never overcome as such. This, Rohdie notes, is most clearly seen in the fascination shown for classical Hollywood (even at its more apparently ‘conservative’ edge) by the young auteurist critics at Cahiers du Cinéma, many of whom would go on to reference such films in their own decidedly non-classical productions upon becoming Nouvelle vague directors. Of such citing, Rohdie writes that these young filmmakers both adored and “tore asunder” the style of classical auteurs like Hawks, “at once rescuing the American cinema by highlighting its classicism, giving it new life and making it part of modernism (the forms of film) while also undermining its classicism (forms were made visible and had a life of their own, no longer merely to serve a narrative).”(‘Classicism’, p. 42)
Moving beyond the cinephile Nouvelle vague generation’s citing of film history in France, Rohdie returns to address modernism’s complicated treatment of the classical more generally when it comes to the establishment of norms in the context of authorship. “The classical system became central to the modern cinema,” he writes, “by being reduced to a citation, part of the heterogeneous texts of modernism, a tradition not so much to oppose … but to set off and play with.” (‘Authorship’, p. 28) This makes the job of defining modernism even more difficult, as these aesthetic forms are based on different assumptions. Rohdie writes:
If classical forms are remarkable for their objectivity, rules and clarity, modern forms are celebrated essentially for their subjectivity, an artistry that goes beyond the norms and establishes a new set of forms and language. Modernism is messier than classicism and norms are more difficult to establish – there is not agreement about what is beautiful or meaningful not even an agreement that beauty and meaningfulness are values at all, nor is there an agreement about forms and traditions. An auteur is someone who creates his or her own system rather than putting into play an existing one (not their own). (‘Authorship’, p. 26)
Classicism thereby becomes ‘modern’ through being self-consciously cited and reborn via particular authorial eyes. But if classicism is presented as objective while modernism is characterized as subjective, how can we explain Antonioni’s cinema – central in the story of post-war modernism, most would agree – and that of many others (such as Chantal Akerman) for the way such work radically detaches the camera’s gaze from a sense of character or overall subjective involvement in the drama or scenario?
Adding genre into the mix makes this film modernism story even more contradictory, but also more generative, showing once again that Film Modernism should appeal to readers beyond those habitably drawn to this ostensible topic. With such a stress on genre and particularly ornate, ‘decadent’ hyper-extension of classical principles (usually with matching thematic and political justification), the singular figure of Visconti demonstrates a more heightened breakdown of distinctions at the heart of post-war European cinema, no matter its designation as modernist or otherwise. What Visconti’s films show in action with each moment, no matter their apparent identity, is at the very heart of modernism’s layered complication when it comes to relations between the viewer, camera, filmmaker, and mise en scène (including actors) – a fundamental ambiguity of the gaze, look, or ‘regard’:
Most regards in Visconti’s films turn back on themselves, as in the hotel lounge at the Lido (in Morte a Venezia /Death In Venice, 1971) where Aschenbach’s look is taken up by the camera that overlaps with it only for the camera to later separate itself from him when Aschenbach’s glance rests on Tadzio and the camera comes full circle to look at Aschenbach looking, becoming objective and detached from him. The play between the objective and the subjective is a constant feature in Visconti, a shifting of perspectives and points of view and, at extraordinary moments, superimposing them… (‘Desire’, p. 55)
What Rohdie calls Visconti’s “fabulous, and magnificent mise en scène” fuses but does not reconcile, reality and desire, encapsulating personal and political dimensions: “For a moment, in the reality of performance, sound, voice, music, movement, gesture, he can find and create the imaginary spectacle of a life that can no longer be lived except in an intense play between the fabricated and the real.” (ibid.) But, Rohdie points out, Visconti’s extended demonstrations of what are often considered key modernist principles, occur in films that are nonetheless seen – understandably, when it comes to the director’s preoccupation with pre-war Italian history as seen through the conflicted or dialectical gaze, or gauze, of aristocratic nostalgia and Marxist critique – as outliers of such a history. Later in the book he comments on Visconti’s particular, contradictory role here: “Modernism tends to be interested in a renewal and transformation of what has been and primarily by work on stylistics and form. For Visconti, what is primary is content not form in the sense that his formal procedures are dictated by a content to be expressed in a performance and a spectacle given to him in a pre-existing text that he stages.” (‘Melodrama’, p. 125)
Half way through the book Rohdie approaches a kind of apogee when it comes to clarifying the non-linear nature of this history he charts and its conceptual layers, arguing that classicism does not become itself until the arrival of modernism. He writes:
Although classicism predates the modern, it is only with modernism that classicism is truly born, is made conscious, pointed to. Though modernism undoubtedly comes after classicism, modernism comes first since it is only with the modern that the classicism that preceded it fully comes into being. Classicism then comes after and, like the sweetness of life, is an aftertaste.’ (‘Inertia’, pp. 96-7)
The paradox seems crucial to grasp. Classicism is both borne of and predates modernism, becoming immediately dissected by it, a form thereby both petrified in the past and relentlessly played with and assaulted, its enabling ruses exposed by the newer form, which in the process ‘destructures’ the older. “The structure of the classical system depended on the continuity out of discontinuous fragments (shots),” writes Rohdie, “the more discontinuous the better to link one thing to another in a chain of logic and events. If the discontinuities that the system ‘covered’ by finding accords between the fragments held within it, it also held within it its own contrary. If the discontinuities were made invisible, nevertheless they existed and indeed were crucial to the architecture and artifice of the classical system.” (‘Destructuring’, p. 57)
One result of the forensic revealing of classicism’s founding ruses, its seamlessness that is really anything but once we are encouraged to see it differently, is that a basically classical auteur like Hitchcock becomes at his peak a proto-modernist figure, his late 1950s-early ‘60s work in particular representing both classicism’s apogee and its immanent tearing asunder (a point Deleuze also makes in 1986’s Cinema 1: The Movement-Image as a crucial bridge to the more overtly modernist cinema laid out in Cinema 2). The words Rohdie uses to describe this peak Hitchcock are, in fact, strikingly similar to those he employs to evoke Antonioni: “[N]o event in a Hitchcock film is innocent, secure or stable and no image that is not liable to misperception. In order to threaten stability in the fiction, the stability of the film is placed under threat (image and action not in accord or their relation placed in doubt).” (‘Destructuring’, p. 60) Very late in the book we reach a single, remarkably distended sentence thus situating Hitchcock, which exemplifies both Rodhie’s style at its apogee and the book’s inside-out approach to film modernism in one long breath:
Hitchcock uses every resource and rule of continuity editing between shots and sequences to bind the spectator (and the characters) within worlds and within a narrative that seem to be true (continuous, transparent, logical, motivated, detailed) – he is a Hollywood director – and then to exhibit, press upon, reveal that an ‘other’ continuity was simultaneously at work either below the surface, hidden away or by means of time, cached in reserve, and that what had been taken to be true was patently false, what had been present was in the past and what was past was in the present, and the only truth then was the falsity and the fictional in which persons, spectators, characters, actors (but not Hitchcock) were trapped because, rather than images reflecting reality, they only reflected and mirrored other images that masqueraded, like them, to be realities (the doublings, the coincidences, the encounters, the repetitions) and what seemed straightforward was instead a maze in a hall of mirrors. (‘Vertigo’, p. 214)
Autonomy and Realism, Image and World
One of the many contradictions – some of them explicitly framed and addressed, others less so – at the heart of Film Modernism, here perhaps not fully explored, is that both classicism and modernism are in fact ‘autonomous’ in the sense of being removed from real life when inspected up close. Yes, as opposed to modernist gestures of difficulty and alterity, classicism features a kind of ‘transparent’, easy realist aesthetics driven by formal rules and enshrined by commercial dictates, rather than allegiance to the actual real world, so that the viewer is encouraged not to notice the heavily coded, industrialised means by which on-screen worlds (one always very different to that which we know) are presented on screen. But Bordwell and many others have long argued that classical Hollywood cinema is in fact no less artificial or, in fact, reliant on viewers’ intellectual processes than modernist films are, and only doesn’t seem like ‘work’ because its conventions are so familiar and doggedly adhered to. And while modernism is often seen as seeking a rarefied and radical autonomy (and thereby an apotheosis when it comes to romantic definitions of art), in another sense it can be seen as a genuinely realist response to actual history as it unfolds since World War Two via an aesthetics now much less transparent. If modernist films look ‘strange’, and make less narrative and moral sense than Hollywood productions, that is because the increasingly media- and image-inflected and defined modern world looks, sounds, and feels this way.
Yet no matter how far we push the line that cinema’s evolution has been at least in part driven by the desire to respond to the quickly changing appearances marking modern reality and concepts driving and transforming it, there remains the lingering question of whether film is really up to the representational task – especially when it comes to the most challenging and devastating aspects of historical and everyday violence. In many accounts, spanning disparate ideological starting points, cinema’s accumulative response to recent and contemporary history has often been its downfall as a serious art form. Of the relationship between modernism and historical reality, Rohdie addresses Histoire(s) du cinema’s citing of cinema’s often-perceived failure to seriously respond to modern history’s true violence and horror. “If the real is impossible to attain,” he asks of Godard’s voice-over and image meditation, “why accuse the cinema of having betrayed the nature and vocation to register it? And why accuse it of failing to confront the actuality and horror of historical events? The problem for Godard is not that narrative fiction is fictional, but rather that it created an illusion as it were not fictional, but like life, as History-writing created false continuities and homogeneities as if true.” (‘Images’, p. 90)
Ten pages later, Film Modernism hits upon the truly challenging aspect of cinema’s power, subsequently spread out to encompass television and now the explosion of audiovisual culture online. “Generally, Godard does not distinguish in this way between ‘essential’ and ‘inessential’ images,” Rohdie writes. “Unlike most film directors, he doesn’t use some images as weak links in a narrative chain leading to strong ones, but only images which, in addition to serving a narrative function, also have independent value.” (‘Insufficiency’, p. 100) No image is inherently closer to reality than any other, more deserving of our respect or attention, as reality itself has become increasingly difficult to define when it comes both to what it looks and sounds like but also which (or whose) values drive its continuation in such a form. And today, delineating the audiovisual world from ‘reality’ seems increasingly difficult or unviable. Ever since cinema’s arrival, films have variously responded to reality’s appearance and perceived substance. But the latter has also responded to, and been influenced by, the moving image. In 2017 any argument about the directionality of this relationship seems hopelessly naïve. In this sense, with all its internal contradictions strengthening rather than undermining its importance, modernism emerges as ever more central to our understanding both of audiovisuality but also of life itself.
This increased bleeding between reality and audiovisual life is, however, far from smooth or without ruptures and multiple sites of crisis. It would be simplistic indeed to suggest a kind of smooth and increasingly ‘virtual’ kind of continuity is now the norm when it comes to aesthetic experience inside or in front of our screens, or beyond. Rather, we increasingly live inside ever more screen-ubiquitous worlds defined by interruption, slippage, fragmentation, and multiplicity, rather than smoothness, linearity, and continuity. On the one hand, our era – sometimes drastically oversimplified and moralised (especially when it comes to generational critique) as defined by the phrase, ‘short attention span’ – can appear out of sync with modernism’s apparent claims to autonomy, aesthetic sophistication, thematic seriousness, and demand for absolute viewer attention. Yet in another sense, we are living inside a post-cinema reality evoked well by Rohdie when he writes:
If something is established in a Godard film, it is almost always interrupted, intruded upon, broken into, dismantled as if the messiness of reality (however conceived) is integral to the orderliness of the film and that this messiness inevitably makes its presence felt and in such a way… (that Godard’s films) gain strength and fascination by their between-ness, a between-ness that his films carefully cultivate and at the same time carelessly allow. (‘Montage (1)’, pp. 143-4)
It is this between-ness that now characterises reality itself for many of us in the developed world: a forever uncomfortable, rushed, incomplete, discontinuous, fragmentary, exponentially uncanny, ubiquitous multi-media experience that finds its earlier aesthetic expression in the cinema often described as modernist. Sam Rohdie’s final book, for all the occasional confusions or repetitions, succinctly bears witness to, expresses, and interrogates this non-linear history, giving it expert valedictory yet newly contemporary voice.