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Film and Modernist Literature

Le Cinéma et la littérature moderniste
Laura Marcus


Cet article s’intéresse à l’influence qu’a exercé le cinéma naissant sur les autres arts (et notamment la littérature), à l’époque moderniste. Partant d’une évocation de la présence du cinéma dans la littérature de la fin du xixe siècle et du début du xxe siècle, il s’intéresse à l’autonomisation de ce nouveau médium et, au-delà, à son influence sur la littérature, tout particulièrement sur les œuvres de Woolf, de Joyce et de Beckett. Les pages qui suivent se concentrent également sur les relations qu’ont entretenues le cinéma naissant et le théâtre, et sur divers champs critiques qui ont été récemment consacrés au sujet, comme l’étude des « institutions de la modernité », et celle du public (notamment féminin), etc.

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1The close and complex relationships between modernist literature and film have become central topics in the last two decades, driven in part by the desire to understand how film, as it emerged in the final years of the nineteenth century, contributed to the shaping of a modernist literature whose beginnings, though the dating is not uncontested, are frequently also situated towards that century’s close. Nor is the influence from film to literature one way. Film, from its early years onwards, sought narrative form and its stories were frequently drawn from plays, poems and novels. Early accounts of film as a medium, and then as an art, turned to the topic of literary adaptation, as well as to the question of cinema’s particular modes of visual storytelling. There were explorations, too, of the ways in which writers were responding to the threat, and the promise, of the new medium.

2Instances of writers’ earliest representations of the film medium include short stories by H. G. Wells and Rudyard Kipling. Wells, whose engagement with the cinema was life-long, explored new dimensions of visuality, motion and locomotion in his fictions of the 1890s and 1900s, including The Time Machine (1895), The Invisible Man (1897), When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) and Tales of Space and Time (1899). The literature of science fiction and of future imaginings emerges with projections of possible visual technologies which transform the human environment and sensorium. In the short story ‘The New Accelerator’ (1901) the two protagonists take a drug which, by speeding up the nervous systems of its takers, puts the world into slow motion, revealing the minutiae of gestures and breaking down motion into its component parts in ways that recall the stop-motion photography of the late nineteenth century. The Invisible Man plays with the disappearance of the visible human form of its central protagonist, and the seeming animation of the objects in his grasp or on his person, in ways that would become particularly attractive subjects for early film-makers.

3There are strong connections between Wells’s stories and the fantastical cinema of the magician turned pioneer film-maker Georges Méliès. By contrast, Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Mrs Bathurst’ (1904) represents film in a mode close to that of the Lumière brothers, whose one-shot films of the 1890s are known as ‘actualities,’ recording the events of real life: workers leaving a factory, a train arriving at a station. This last topic is the subject of ‘Mrs Bathurst,’ which places cinema on the side of repetition (subject to endless replaying), the interplay of absence and presence, and death (the present it records has since become the past). These early perceptions of filmic ontology would become crucial to an emergent film aesthetics and to the work of number of modernist writers.

4Recent years have seen a radical reappraisal of early film history. The shift from a view of cinema in its first years as the ‘primitive’ pre-history of film to an apprehension of it as a representational form in its own right has been particularly significant. The highly influential concept of the ‘cinema of attractions,’ theorized by the film historians Tom Gunning and André Gaudreault in relation to early cinema, denotes an understanding of film in its first years as a form of spectacle, marked by the display of its own technical powers and possibilities. The focus on the ‘performativity’ of early cinema has, more recently, been extended by a concern with modernism, performance and embodiment. In this field, there has been a particular focus on the importance of the performing and gestural body in modernist literature, film, dance and theatre. There has also been discussion of the ways in which the representation of the ‘hysterical body’ at the turn of the century was taken up in the avant-garde cinema and the poetry of the early twentieth century. The centrality of Charlie Chaplin (viewed as exemplary of the performative body, the ‘shocked’ body of the modern subject, and the body-machine nexus in modernity) has become a major preoccupation in a number of recent studies.

5Absolute distinctions between film and theatre (which were frequently upheld in early writings on cinema, as film sought to establish itself as an autonomous artistic form) have thus begun to cede to a sense of the profound connections between the two. Renewed attention to the film/theatre relationship has led not only to a return to the writings of Berthold Brecht on this topic but, in a different context, to research into the ways in which theatrical performances mediated between novels and their film adaptations in the early years of narrative cinema, including the films of the American film-maker D. W. Griffith. Furthermore, while the novel remains central to an understanding of film-literature relationships in the modernist period, poetry, in addition to drama, has entered the frame in much more substantial ways. Writers such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, formerly held to be highly resistant to the cinema, have been shown to have engaged extensively with the new modes of representation which film brought into being.

6The interest in cinema and modernism in recent decades has arisen in the context of broader theories of modernity and modern experience and an understanding of cinema’s central role in the culture of modernity. As Tom Gunning writes: ‘Given its striking appeal to popular sentiment, its mechanical force and play, its enlivening and contradictory tension between picturing and moving, cinema metaphorised modernity.’ (Gunning 302) The work of Walter Benjamin, including his model of film as the embodiment of the modern experience of ‘shock’ and as the revelation of aspects of phenomenal experience unavailable to the human eye, has been central in this context (see Benjamin 1936). Recent literary critics have proposed models of modernist literature running directly counter to those earlier critiques and accounts which defined modernism as a reaction against cultural modernity. The identification of modernist writing with, and not against, the cultures of modernity has found some of its strongest support in the allying of literature with cinema which, as Gunning suggests, has come to represent modernity tout court.

7A further context has been the intense focus in modernist studies on coteries, networks and publishing history—the ‘institutions of modernism,’ to borrow Lawrence Rainey’s phrase—which has led to a much greater concentration on early twentieth-century film cultures as an aspect of modernism. This has taken in dimensions such as the place of cinema in the journals and little magazines of the period, the work of the film societies that were founded in the late 1910s and 1920s, and the circumstances of film exhibition and spectatorship (see Marcus). The transatlantic ‘little magazines’ of the early twentieth century, including The Little Review, transition and Broom, played a crucial role in sustaining the dialogue between American and European modernisms, in which the machine culture of modernity and of visual culture were central concerns. The British film journal Close Up, which ran from 1927 to 1933, has also been central to an understanding of the close connections between modernist literature and film. Co-edited from Switzerland by the artist Kenneth Macpherson and the writer Bryher [Winifred Ellerman], the magazine published numerous articles by the poet and novelist H. D. (who also acted in three of the four films directed by Macpherson in this period, including Borderline (1930), in which Paul Robeson played the central role) and the writer Dorothy Richardson, author of the multi-volumed autobiographical novel Pilgrimage. The reach of Close Up into the international contexts of film-making and film-culture was near-unparalleled (the journal, for example, was deeply entwined with Berlin film culture and published the first English-language versions of a number of articles by the Soviet director and film theorists Sergei Eisenstein). The journal also retained a strong commitment to the literary in rendering ‘writing about film’ as an artistic or avant-garde practice in its own right.

8Traversing the years of the transition to sound, Close Up also opens up the intense debates in the period over the coming of sound to film, which transformed not only the institutional and economic contexts of film-making but also the very nature of film aesthetics, formed and predicated on the silent cinema (as they would often continue to be in film aesthetics, many years after the transition) and on visuality as the defining quality and essence of the medium. Close Up reveals a gradual accommodation to ‘the talkies,’ supported by the Soviet directors’ model of ‘contrapuntal sound’ or ‘sound montage’ as a way of counteracting the staginess and static qualities of synchronized sound film in its early years (see Eisenstein et al). The two writers for the journal who did not make this accommodation were H. D. and Dorothy Richardson, and this is suggestive of a gendered dimension to the resistance to sound, and to the perceived intrusions of the voice into (as H. D. conceived it) the world of half-lights and dreams.

9More broadly, recent research has made clear the centrality of cinema and film-going to women audiences, the important roles played by women film critics in the early years of cinema, and the importance of film to women modernist writers, including, H. D., Bryher, Dorothy Richardson, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Marianne Moore, Djuna Barnes, Mina Loy, Iris Barry and Elizabeth Bowen. Their writings on film, regular or occasional, anticipated or continued the focus in Close Up on the experience of film-viewing, taking in the space of the cinema auditorium, the paradoxes of solitary viewing within the collective sphere of the cinema (including the implications of this for concepts of aesthetic experience as individual or communal) and the impact of dimensions such as light, sound and music in the cinema space. This attention to sensory experience, which could be understood as ‘phenomenological’ or ‘haptic’ (to be defined as a form of ‘touching with the eye’), is neither essentially gendered nor limited to women’s experience (it plays a significant role, for example, in Kenneth Macpherson’s writings on film). It is, however, more marked in the work of women modernists, and this is reflected in the greater proportion of essays by women writers representing film-spectatorship, including Woolf’s ‘The Cinema’ (1926) and Elizabeth Bowen’s ‘Why I go to the Pictures,’ published a decade later.

10‘The Cinema’ is one of the most significant meditations on film to have been produced by a modernist writer and has generated significant critical discussion. Woolf saw in the cinema a means of capturing sensations and emotions too circumstantial, fleeting or abstract to be the subjects of the established arts. Film would appear to be closer to nature than to art, and Woolf saw in it the potential for a comprehension of ‘reality’ at once entirely new and ‘archaic’ or ‘primitive’: the essay in all its versions comes back repeatedly to an image of ‘the savages watching the pictures.’ While a number of commentators have interpreted this as Woolf’s negative response to film, such a reading reduces and simplifies the complexities of her response. Woolf was by no means alone in understanding film as a medium at once absolutely modern and yet reaching back to the earliest forms of human expression, as in modes of picture-writing, and to the fundamentals of human emotion (Fear, Pain, Rage, Anger, Joy).

11Any aversion to film Woolf felt was centred on its ‘development’ into the adaptation of literary texts, and in particular novels. Film-makers had moved away, she noted, from early documentary films, or actualités, and in so doing had left behind the most powerful dimension of the cinema: its power to body forth the world as it is. The future cinema she envisaged would represent both the world of dreams (in which relations of time and space are subject to no known laws) and present reality in its contingency, detail and, it could be argued, modernity. As she wrote towards the close of her essay: ‘How all this is to be attempted, much less achieved, no one at the moment could tell us. We get intimations only in the chaos of the streets, perhaps, when some momentary assembly of colour, sound, movement, suggests that here is a scene waiting [sic] a new art to be transfixed.’ (Woolf 1926, 595) The representation of the city was a crucial forum for the encounter between literature and film in modernist culture.

12As Woolf worked on ‘The Cinema,’ she was also writing the central section of her novel To the Lighthouse, ‘Time Passes,’ which presents the world of matter through time and in the absence (or near-absence) of a human observer: Woolf described it as ‘eyeless’ writing. The ghostly presences of Mr and Mrs Ramsay—the one absent, the other now dead—appear on the walls of the decaying house in the form of projected film: ‘and faint and flickering, like a yellow beam or the circle at the end of a telescope, a lady in a grey cloak, stooping over her flowers, went wandering over the bedroom wall, up the dressing-table, across the wash-stand’ (Woolf 1992, 149). The passage of ten years between the first and third parts of the novel (though it is also condensed into one night, during which the world tosses and turns in the nightmare of history) has its mirror in the gap of ten years alluded to in ‘The Cinema.’ These come between the present in which the early films are being viewed and the past of the realities they record: ‘We are beholding a world which has gone between the waves […] The war sprung its chasm at the foot of all this innocence and ignorance, but it was thus that we danced and pirouetted, toiled and desired, thus that the sun shone and the clouds scudded up to the very end’ (Woolf 1926, 592).

13The issue of the ways in which novelistic techniques changed and altered as a response to film is a complex and vexed one. We can never know how the writing of Woolf, or any other modernist writer, might have developed without an awareness of film and film technique. We can, however, speculate, with a high degree of confidence, that film made its impact both on Woolf’s approaches to aesthetic questions and on her formal solutions to issues of narrative construction. Thus her way of representing ‘simultaneity’ in ‘The Lighthouse,’ the third and final section of the novel, was almost certainly inflected by a familiarity with cinematic strategies. These include parallel editing (or cross-cutting) as a means to depict events taking place at the same moment but in different spaces, as well as the shot-reverse-shot structure of continuity editing which has its literary correlative in the novel in the views from shore to sea, and back from sea to shore. In ‘The Cinema’ Woolf wrote of a future cinema in which ‘we should have the continuity of human life kept before us by the representation of some object common to both lives’ (Woolf 1926, 352): her novel The Years represents this continuity through various objects—a painting, a chair, a walrus-brush—which survive the years and changes in place and circumstance.

14James Joyce’s relationship to the cinema is rather more diffuse than that of Woolf. Explorations of the topic have addressed the impact on his writing of pre-cinematic technologies (such as the Mutoscope, referred to by Leopold Bloom in the Nausicaa episode of Ulysses in conjunction with ‘Peeping Tom’) and early cinema: Joyce’s founding of the Volta cinema in Dublin in 1909 and his meeting with Eisenstein in Paris in the 1930s add further dimensions. It seems clear that the ludic dimensions of early film, and early film performance, were particularly influential in the composition of Ulysses. The fascination with metamorphoses and with the animation of objects central to the films of Georges Méliès, as well as the quick-change artistry of the performer Leopoldo Fregoli, have been seen as shaping forces on the ‘Circe’ or ‘Night-town’ episode of Ulysses, with its transformations of bodies between sexes and species and its animated objects: Bloom’s singing bar of soap, the brothel-madam Bella’s erotic talking fan.

15The ‘Wandering Rocks’ section of the novel evokes rather different dimensions of the cinema, in its representation of motion and transport around Dublin. In an exemplary reading of the episode, David Trotter finds in ‘Wandering Rocks’ the forms of movement, ‘automatism’ (the neutrality of the camera-eye) and ‘intercutting’ at work in the actualités of film’s earliest years, a cinema which included numerous films of Dublin’s daily life and of public events in the city (Trotter 87–123 passim). Such spectacles would seem to be parodied in the closing part of ‘Wandering Rocks,’ with its representation of a cavalcade in which all the figures who have appeared in earlier scenes are presented and named in the narrative. To this one might add Joyce’s depiction, throughout the episode, of part-objects and persons: ‘The blind of the window was drawn aside. A card Unfurnished Apartments slipped from the sash and fell. A plump bare generous arm shone, was seen, held forth from a white petticoat bodice and taut shiftstraps. A woman’s hand flung forth a coin over the area railings. It fell on the path’ (Joyce 216). This ‘sectional vision,’ and the fragmentation of bodies and objects, seems closer to a rather later cinema. It could be suggested that the relationship between Joyce’s writing and the cinema was one of mutual influence, mediated by, and embodied in, modern urban experience. For the German writer Alfred Döblin, author of Berlin Alexanderplatz, a novel much influenced by Ulysses, Joyce’s novel had shown the extent to which cinema had ‘penetrated the sphere of literature […] To the experiential image of a person today also belongs the streets, the scenes changing by the second, the signboards, automobile traffic […] the fleeting quality, the restlessness’ (Döblin 514).

16In recent work on film and modernism, the figures of Gertrude Stein, Wyndham Lewis and Samuel Beckett have become prominent. Stein has in the past been more fully associated with modernist painting than with film—she and her brother Leo were prominent art collectors in the Paris of the 1920s and 30s—but the close relationship, and at times shared identity, between avant-garde artists and film-makers at this time contributed to the cinematic contexts for her work. As she wrote in her essay ‘Portraits and Repetition’: ‘I was doing what the cinema was doing, I was making a continuous statement of what that person was until I had not many things but one thing […]. I, of course did not think of it in terms of the cinema, in fact I doubt whether at that time I had ever seen a cinema but, and I cannot repeat this too often any one is of one’s period and this our period was undoubtedly the period of the cinema’ (Stein 106). The ‘continuous present’ of Stein’s prose could also be understood as the ‘tense’ of cinema, while her deployment of repetition and/with difference has its corollary in film’s putting into motion, at the level of projection, of a series of still frames whose differentiations mark the flow of time in fractions of a second.

17For the avant-garde film-makers, artists and writers of the early twentieth century Charlie Chaplin (or ‘Charlot,’ as he was known in France) came to stand for the film medium itself. The artist Fernand Léger’s ‘Dadaist’ film Ballet mécanique (1924) is composed of machine imagery, the movements of everyday objects, and the repetitive movements of human figures, opening and closing with a fractured and recomposed representation of the figure of Chaplin. Chaplin’s walk—the defining dimension of the figure of the Tramp—and his gestural screen-life more generally became a focus for the complex and contested understanding of the human being as organic or mechanical/automatic creature. For Walter Benjamin, Chaplin’s unique significance was that ‘in his work, the human being is integrated into the film image by way of his gestures […]. The innovation of Chaplin’s gestures is that he dissects the expressive movements of human beings into a series of minute innervations’ (Benjamin 2002b, 94).

18Wyndham Lewis wrote disparagingly of the ‘infant-cult’ in his account of Chaplin in Time and Western Man (1924), linking Chaplin, ‘child-man,’ to the personae and work of Anita Loos (a highly successful cinema screenwriter and author of the comic ‘Hollywood’ novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) and Gertrude Stein, whose prose he defined as similarly faux-naif and infantilized. His critique of Chaplin, and in particular the Tramp persona, is extended (even as the figure energizes) Lewis’s novel The Childermass, in which the two central characters, Pullman and Satters, are re-united in the afterlife (both having died in World War One) as, in Anthony Paraskeva’s phrase, ‘animated stiffs’ (Paraskeva 100). The despotic Bailiff, who at times appears in the guise of Chaplin, requires that they enact routines from Chaplin’s films. Here the animus would seem to be directed against film’s automatic life, as well as the forms of imitative behaviour and crowd response connected to the Chaplin figure and to cinema as mass culture in general. Yet there were inconsistencies and paradoxes in Lewis’s cultural critiques which were often at their fiercest when their objects came closest to his own ideas: this is almost certainly true of his relationship to Chaplin’s early films.

19Writers in the 1930s were engaging with film as a talking medium, but for many the lure of the silent film remained strong. Chaplin famously held out against sound cinema for a decade after the arrival of the ‘talkies’ and his ‘conversion to sound’ was only ever a partial one. Samuel Beckett’s absorption in film was also closely tied to the silent era: in a letter written in 1936, he expressed his hope ‘that a back water may be created for the two dimensional silent film that had barely emerged from its rudiments when it was swamped.’ Silent and sound film could then become ‘two separate things and not question of a fight between them or rather of a rout’ (Beckett 311–12). Beckett wrote to Eisenstein at this time, ‘to ask to be considered for admission to the Moscow State School of Cinematography,’ noting that he was most interested ‘in the scenario and editing end of the subject’ (Beckett 317). He received no reply. Other letters of this period show him engaging with the writings, and films, of Eisenstein and Pudovkin, and expressing interest in the principles of Soviet ‘montage.’

20The depth and breadth of film’s influence on Beckett (to include not only the Soviet cinema of the 20s and 30s but film in its earliest years) can be observed in his silent Film (1965). Here the former silent film actor Buster Keaton is both subject and object of scenes of looking and looking away, and repeated visual references to Battleship Potemkin emerge. Beckett replicates Eisenstein’s transfer of an eyeglass between figures on the screen, and stages a sequence in which a woman, wearing a pince-nez, opens her mouth in an expression of horror which mirrors that of Eisenstein’s wounded schoolteacher, her mouth held open in a scream, on the Odessa steps. As with the artist Francis Bacon’s Study for the Nurse in the Film ‘Battleship Potemkin’ (1957) the forms and images of silent film, and of the cinema of the modernist period more generally, continued to reverberate in works of literature and art.

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Beckett, Samuel, The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume 1, 1929-1940, ed. Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and Lois More Overback, Cambdridge: CUP, 2009.

Benjamin, Walter, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility’ (1936), Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings vol. 3, 1935-1938, eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, Cambridge MA: Harvard UP, 2002a, 101–33.

Benjamin, Walter, ‘The Formula in Which the Dialectical Structure of Film Finds Expression’ (1935) Selected Writings vol. 3, 1935-1938, eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, Cambridge MA: Harvard UP, 2002b, 94–95.

Bowen, Elizabeth, ‘Why I Go to the Cinema,’ Footnotes to the Films, ed Charles Davy, London: Lovat Dickson, 1938, 205–20.

Döblin, Alfred, ‘Ulysses by Joyce’ (1928), reprinted in The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, eds. Anton Kaes, Martin Jay and Edward Dimendberg, Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1994.

Eisenstein, S.M., W.I. Pudovkin and G.V. Alexandrov, ‘The Sound Film: A Statement from U.S.S.R,’ Close Up 3.4 (October 1928), reprinted in Close Up 1927-1933: Cinema and Modernism, eds. James Donald, Anne Friedberg and Laura Marcus, London: Cassell, 1998, 83–4.

Gunning, Tom, ‘Modernity and Cinema: A Culture of Shocks and Flows,’ Cinema and Modernity, ed. Murray Pomerance, New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 2006, 297–315.

Joyce, James, Ulysses (1922), Oxford: OUP, 1993.

Marcus, Laura, The Tenth Muse: Writing about Cinema in the Modernist Period, Oxford: OUP, 2007.

Paraskeva, Anthony, The Speech-Theatre Complex: Modernism, Theatre, Cinema, Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2013.

Rainey, Lawrence, Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture, New Haven: Yale UP, 1999.

Stein, Gertrude, ‘Portraits and Repetition,’ Look at Me Now and Here I Am: writings and lectures 1911–45, ed. Patricia Meyerowitz, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967.

Trotter, David, Cinema and Modernism, Oxford: Blackwell, 2007.

Woolf, Virginia, ‘The Cinema’ (1926), reprinted in The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Volume 4, 1925-1928, ed. Andrew McNeillie, London: Hogarth Press, 1994, 348–53, variant version 591–95.

Woolf, Virginia, To the Lighthouse, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992.

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Laura Marcus, « Film and Modernist Literature »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 50 | 2016, mis en ligne le 07 avril 2016, consulté le 28 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Laura Marcus

Laura Marcus is Goldsmiths' Professor of English Literature and Fellow of New College. Her research and teaching interests are predominantly in 19th- and 20th-century literature and culture, including life-writing, modernism, Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury culture, contemporary fiction, and literature and film. Her book publications include Auto/biographical Discourses: Theory, Criticism, Practice (1994), Virginia Woolf: Writers and their Work (1997/2004), The Tenth Muse: Writing about Cinema in the Modernist Period (2007; awarded the 2008 James Russell Lowell Prize of the Modern Language Association), Dreams of ModernityPsychoanalysis, Literature, Cinema (2014) and, as co-editor, The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century English Literature (2004). Her current research projects include scholarly editions of the work of modernist writers Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf, and a study of the concept of ’rhythm’ in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in a range of disciplinary contexts.

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