In these films, mankind makes preparations to survive civilization.
– Walter Benjamin, on Mickey Mouse
FILM HAS ALWAYS PRESUMED to be the mirror of modern life. From its now remote photographic origins to its manic digital proliferation in the present, the cinema has accompanied and transformed our history so thoroughly as to be inseparable from it. Though historians will tell us that western modernity began in the Renaissance or the 18th century, these dates never feel as convincing as they ought to. Montaigne or Adam Smith may have had more lasting impact on our present, but they will never seem as "modern" to most of us as Charlie Chaplin's walk, or the eyes of Lillian Gish. The eloquent tactility of facial expressions, bodily movement, gesture, or fashion sense — indeed, the basic ability to be rendered and perceived as an image — is now a prerequisite for that kindred feeling of contemporaneity which is now essential to our sense of history in this thickly archived, and amnesiac, culture. The images of film have thus become the inadvertent nursery of all possible truisms that we could tell about ourselves, or about the ostensible modernity we inhabit.
Occasionally, however, the relationship between film and modernity can seem to be not simply a symptomatic analogy but a material correspondence between the accelerated rhythms of industrialized urban spaces and the kinetic delirium of cinematic editing. This idea, sometimes termed the "modernity thesis," is the subject — and also the target — of Malcolm Turvey's impressive new study of avant-garde cinema, The Filming of Modern Life. Turvey traces the genealogy of this idea to Walter Benjamin, who — in one of his notorious footnotes — described the unique relation of film to its audience as based on the city's crowded grammar of shock and perceptual dislocation. Film, Benjamin wrote,
is the art form corresponding to the increased threat to life that faces people today. Humanity's need to expose itself to shock effects represents an adaptation to the dangers threatening it. The film corresponds to profound changes in the apperceptive apparatus — changes that are experienced on an individual scale by the man on the street in big-city traffic, and on a historical scale by every present-day citizen.
Benjamin's claim, however important it has been to the study of twentieth-century culture, is perhaps vague enough to invite the abuse of unquestioning adherence. And so while it has become an academic cliché to assume that all films — in their flicker and cuts — either allegorize or express the shocks of modernity, Turvey urges critics to adopt a more qualified stance. If we take seriously the idea that to experience modernity is to experience it as distraction, he reasons, we must also frankly acknowledge that films are not distracting in the same way as are cit...read more