Precious Bodily Fluids

Modernism in the Narrative Cinema, William Charles Siska

SiskaIt’s worth noting at the outset that, although published in 1980, this is a doctoral dissertation from 1976. As such, it is dated and functions chiefly (at this point) as a critical artifact that helps trace the discourse of art-cinema criticism. Siska begins by more-or-less establishing “genre” as something determined by its audience (1) but then as something that also carries its own “sub-language” and particular conventions (2). It isn’t clear which is primary or what the relationship between the two is. He corrects another author who identifies The Bicycle Thieves as an art film, countering that art films didn’t come around until the late 1950s (3). (Siska doesn’t break down modernist cinema between the early and the late modernist period like Kovacs does in his book.) To support this claim, he notes that De Sica’s film possesses a classical narrative structure, which testifies to the fact that the art film isn’t merely a historical phenomenon but a formal one. Siska opposes “modern” with “Aristotelian,” noting that the descriptions of the classical style (remember, this pre-dates Bordwell’s famous work) are fundamentally Aristotelian (4). He says that art films have an “intellectual framework” in which “abstract and conceptual issues are foregrounded as subject matter”; the plot is subservient to the theme (6). Before getting very far, he acknowledges what everyone after him has also had to acknowledge, that lots of popular cinema contains elements of art films (7). A somewhat-close reading of Arthur Penn’s Night Moves follows, proving the point along with how critically confusing such films can be. Roger Ebert, Vincent Canby, and others didn’t know what to do with Penn’s film when it was released. They could describe it neither as successful art nor as successful entertainment, a failure shared with the film’s distributor, Siska notes, who should have had the film exhibited in art movie theaters.

Regarding the opposition of intellectual culture (art film) and popular culture (mainstream film; Aristotle), Aristotle argued that the purpose of the arts is for giving pleasure (20). An affinity exists between Aristotle’ Poetics and the “structure of the Hollywood movie.” Popular culture is rooted in myth, in how a society feels about itself (23). When Siska uses the term “intellectual,” he says that he doesn’t mean it in terms of high-brow or academic per se, but in terms of its reflective or contemplative approach. Intellectual/art/modernist films, he says, demand their audiences to know more stuff to make sense of them. That is to say, spectatorship is more intellectually active and less passive than standard Hollywood fare (25). Intellectual culture questions or rejects the myth of the collective unconscious and creates a new mythology. Myth is at the basis of proletarian art, Siska states. “Myth is a response to a problem with does not have a solution outside of myth” (27). As such, myth is a self-perpetuating narrative discourse that gives meaning to its own community, demanding only internal coherence and functions as a model for making sense of reality. It may, indeed, be the model for reality. Modernism, on the other hand, has a form and a content, but the modern myth is that form is content (29). Modernism is art without transparency (see also Bordwell), in which the apparatus/author is visible and making the audience conscious of its own artifice.

This entry was published on August 18, 2014 at 3:39 pm. It’s filed under Book Summaries and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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