Susan Sontag and the Criticism of Cinema's Modernity: An Introduction

By Andrew, Dudley; Burnett, Colin | Post Script, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Susan Sontag and the Criticism of Cinema's Modernity: An Introduction


Andrew, Dudley, Burnett, Colin, Post Script


After the new wave had broken all along the cultural shore, you could see young people cavorting--or floundering--in the sea of cinema. I was one of those who floundered, yet nevertheless refused to swim back. Looking around desperately, I latched onto a brightly lit buoy like unexpectedly close at hand, Susan Sontag. She was virtually Truffaut's age, with an ear to prophets of the earlier generation, like Ingmar Bergman, who were still admonishing our culture and the art we cared about. I found her wherever I could: in the Partisan Review, The Tulane Drama Review, Film Quarterly, Sight and Sound, and Tri-Quarterly (where my own name appeared in print for the first time, there on the cover below hers, just as I had dreamed it might). Sontag muscled open a space where you could think and write about films that at first seemed to close off discussion. She gave us the directors--most famously Godard--that we made our own over the next decade. Going back to these studies, only her analysis of Persona still shimmers as a brilliant reading. Her other film essays don't pretend to be adequate to their objects and certainly don't try to possess them. Sontag wrote about and around Godard so as to feel at ease being in the same room as his images. Film Studies would soon enough institutionalize and discipline a discourse directly addressing modern cinema, but someone needed first to hollow out a volume where reflection about it could take place. Sontag did exactly that. And the fact that she never entered the discipline, that her articles, although canonical, never shaped a method, shows her more in tune with the spirit of the films than with that of the academy. "Against" interpretation, indeed! But "for" criticism.

Nearly a decade ago, when she penned her lugubrious "Decay of Cinema" piece for the New York Times Magazine, Sontag carefully distinguished between the decline of the artform and that of the culture that sustains it. Good movies there are aplenty (Truffaut said the same thing at the end of his life), but the feverish attention they once inspired has cooled. That attention can best be measured by reading the thermometer of criticism; what Sontag lamented was probably her own flagging investment in criticism and, more certainly, the yield of that investment in the wider culture. I have always taken the modern cinema to stretch from the end of WWII to the end of Viet Nam--1945 to 1975--believing it can be defined not only by the magnificent artworks of a litany of auteurs we love to name, but by the institutions that grew to showcase those works: film festivals, art theaters, cine-clubs, film journals, and serious criticism. Naturally great critics preexisted WWII, but their role simply supplemented a self-sustaining industry and belonged far more to the industry of journalism. Then came the complexity of modern films, each insisting on its distinctive originality. Critics suddenly played an essential role in the artistic economy, naming the films that needed to be seen and identifying the values one could discover in watching them. Sontag did this better than anyone else.

Her trick was to have located those values outside cinema, in Warhol's painting, in the theater of Brecht and Beckett, and in the essayistic, philosophical prose of proto-novelists like Leiris, and Cioran. She watched cinema with such figures in her head and so of course was attuned to distantiation, all-over style, fragmentation, askesis, and self-reflection. She also had the knack of looking to cultural limits where interpretation might falter, as with pop art on one side and abstract art on the other. In cinema this came down to Godard and Bresson, whose very different styles she glorified as having been willed into existence. Their obtuseness gave her courage to try out new styles herself. And why not? Normal film criticism amounts to little more than the terminal redundancy in a system of rote repetition (a concept pitched to a producer, followed by a treatment, a screenplay, the decoupage, then rehearsals, filming, and editing--each stage matching its predecessor). …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Susan Sontag and the Criticism of Cinema's Modernity: An Introduction
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.