"Stories Told Sideways out of the Big Mouth": John Dos Passos's Bazinian Camera Eye

Article excerpt

Donald Pizer opens his article, "The Camera Eye in U.S.A.: The Sexual Center," by noting, "Most general readers of John Dos Passos' U.S.A. have been troubled by the Camera Eye portion of the trilogy," and he goes on to comment that "the Camera Eye in U.S.A. has usually either been read casually-almost as an awkward interruption-or for its occasional reference to events present as well in other portions of the trilogy" (417). In fact, what Pizer writes of "general readers" could just as easily apply to many of Dos Passos's critics. None of the four modes of writing in U.S.A.- biography, narrative, Newsreel, and Camera Eye-has generated as much critical confusion, disagreement, and outright derision as the Camera Eye.1 Though in recent years the critical treatment of the Camera Eye has become more nuanced, the Camera Eye has never enjoyed the same sort of consistent critical approval that has greeted U.S.A. 's Newsreels as examples of Dos Passos's application of the cinematic technique of montage to literature. In contrast to this standard reading of the Newsreels in cinematic terms, readings of the Camera Eye have, in fact, often ignored the relation of the Camera Eye to the cinema. Moreover, when critics have examined the Camera Eye in terms of the cinema, they have generally identified the Camera Eye as simply another instance of Dos Passos's use of montage, an attitude that overlooks the specificity of the Camera Eye as a mode of writing distinct from the Newsreels.2

Indeed, much of the criticism of Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy recognizes the importance of montage as the key to understanding not only the Newsreels, but also the trilogy as a whole. The overall structure of U.S.A., with its stylistically different narratives, biographies, Newsreels, and Camera Eyes juxtaposed to one another, and more specifically the Newsreels, with their juxtapositions of fragments of newspaper headlines, songs, and other sorts of texts, has justifiably prompted many critics to recognize montage as an underlying principle governing Dos Passos's work. As Barry Maine comments, "the narrative function of montage [is not] a new subject; it is paid lip service in virtually every critical study" of U.S.A. (76).3 Dos Passos confirmed the importance of montage for his writing on numerous occasions. He commented in a 1968 interview at Union College, for instance, that one of the reasons he wrote the three volumes of U.S.A. in four different modes was that he "always had an interest in contrast, in the sort of montage Griffith and Eisenstein used in films" (283), and explained in his 1967 address, "What Makes a Novelist": "The artist must record the fleeting world the way the motion picture film recorded it. By contrast, juxtaposition, montage, he could build drama into his narrative. Somewhere along the way I had been impressed by Eisenstein's motion pictures, by his version of old D. W. Griffith's technique. Montage was his key word" (272). However, the critical view that understands Dos Passos's relation to the cinema simply in terms of montage overlooks the degree to which the Camera Eye, while it does share some qualities with Dos Passos's other modes of writing based on the montage of figures such as Eisenstein and Griffith, suggests a concept of cinema that also bears affinities to the sort of documentary realism associated with a competing strain of film theory represented by André Bazin.

Obviously, the fact that Dos Passos wrote U.S.A. years before Bazin wrote the essays collected in works such as What Is Cinema? precludes any question of Bazin having influenced Dos Passos as did Eisenstein. Indeed, Bazin himself, after rhetorically posing the issue of "whether or not the art of Dos Passos, Caldwell, Hemingway, or Malraux derives from the technique of the cinema," answers, "we do not believe it for a moment," and argues, "we should rather reverse the usual theory and study the influence of modern literature on film-makers" (61-62). …