The Screenplay-novel Manifestos

Less is more vivid

Saturday, July 15, 2006

A Philosopher Considers the Medium Itself

M. S. Smith on Susan Sontag:

The number of film critics who have indelibly shaped my understanding of the cinema is relatively small, maybe three or four, perhaps a dozen at the most. Susan Sontag is chief among them, though I've never thought of her as a critic per se. During a youth spent at academic institutions in Berkeley, Chicago, Cambridge (MA), Oxford, Paris, and New York, she was trained as a philosopher and thought and wrote like one. And like a philosopher, Sontag had a very precise intellectual agenda; as David Denby wrote in a wonderful summation of her love of the movies, she had absorbed the ideology of the 1960s intellectuals who wrote for The Partisan Review and then attacked their view of modernist art, partly because they had undervalued European experimentalists in film, a medium which they hardly considered worthy of attention.

It is something of a banality to point out that Sontag was a major critic, or, as the terminologie courant has it, a "public intellectual". She could be uneven; sometimes articulating new insights, other times not pushing an idea far enough. Nevertheless, it was her capacity to interest that predominated. Her book On Photography is the kind of work -- which, even though you might disagree with it or simply wish she had extended an argument further -- makes you think about the photomechanical (and now, photodigital) process of generating images as a medium. The corollary that follows from this is that when we think of a particular mode of art specifically as a medium, we are more likely to think of it, too, as a mode of experimentation.

I suppose this is something of a pet concern of mine, given that I sometimes feel the screenplay-novel idea is criticized for being too experimental or not experimental enough. It's probably worth remembering that there are many ways of experimenting, and many reasons for doing so; artistic experimentation often springs from the cultural context it finds itself in.

Experimentation is by definition an attempt to discover "newness". But that newness does not exist as an isolated (or, as they say in academe, discrete) quality. Instead, it has a relationship with the larger cultural context. In short, newness is often an attempt to redefine, and hopefully improve, the cultural context it finds itself in. Newness can co-exist with other, older cultural forms, and doesn't need to be set in opposition to them.


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