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

By Hock, Stephen | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 2005 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

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


Hock, Stephen, Literature/Film Quarterly


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).

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.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
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.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
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?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
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.

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.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?