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Review: James Naremore’s An Invention Without a Future: Essays on Cinema

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Review: James Naremore’s An Invention Without a Future: Essays on Cinema

If Daniel Herbert’s Videoland views the video store as a history without a future, then James Naremore’s new book, An Invention Without a Future, suggests that cinema, as it came to be defined by various cultural forces throughout the 1960s and ’70s, may be meeting a similar fate as well. At least, the title seems to suggest as much, though it’s actually taken from cinema pioneer Louis Lumière, who supposedly made such a statement regarding the cinema to his brother around the end of the 19th century. There’s no actual record of the remark; Jean-Luc Godard, among others, has attributed the statement to Lumière. Whether apocryphal or not, its ambivalence suits Naremore’s tongue-in-cheek title quite well, since the totality of An Invention Without a Future is anything but a coup de grâce for cinema. Quite the contrary, as Naremore’s collection of essays here, some written years ago, though amended in key places to address contemporary developments, is divided into three sections, but coheres to form an urgent, nearly comprehensive plea to take cinema seriously from a multitude of perspectives.

That multitude, with regard to films, is rather restricted to a specific kind of cinephilia, primarily an overt emphasis on Classical Hollywood. The book’s second section contains extensive case studies on Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, and John Huston and leaves little space for a conception of cinema as anything but an American enterprise, confined to the backlots of Los Angeles. Although Naremore adds the subtitle “Essays on Cinema,” he would have, perhaps, been more apt in titling it “Essays on American Cinema.” Then again, this title would be ill-fitting for the other two sections, each significantly more imperative and structurally arresting. The first (including an introduction) allows Naremore’s academic allegiances to show, discussing matters of indexicality and remediation as they apply to an emergent digital cinema. Moreover, he details the historical emergence of “la politique des Auteurs,” matters of film adaptation, acting styles, and the “rebirth of rhetoric” within cinema, which is defined as “any technique that transforms philosophy into ideology.” Given the array of topics, Naremore achieves an impressive level of coherence, especially in his vacillations from academic to critical discussions.

That multitude, with regard to films, is rather restricted to a specific kind of cinephilia, primarily an overt emphasis on Classical Hollywood.

These vacillations make sense given the third section entitled “In Defense of Criticism,” which provides not only Naremore’s reflections on working from 2007-2011 at Film Quarterly as a film critic (Naremore is also Professor Emeritus at Indiana University), but brief essays on James Agee, Manny Farber, Andrew Sarris, and Jonathan Rosenbaum, explaining each critic’s influence on Naremore, while providing historical context for their importance. At this point, An Invention Without a Future becomes less a lament for a past era than a query regarding the dividing lines of academia and criticism over matters of taste and evaluation. As Naremore explains, academia has sought over the past several decades to make a break from what’s deemed as “cultural gatekeeping,” instead focusing on “formal systems, industrial history, fandom, and identity politics—essential topics without which good criticism can’t be written, but questions that don’t engage directly with questions of art and artists.” While Naremore’s claim is too general for specified application (there are many examples of industrial histories that grapple directly with art and artists), it’s an important point, especially since academic work loses political significance when matters of evaluation become irrelevant. While not directly stating so, Naremore implies the need for reconciliation between critical and scholarly thought—where research is more thoroughly integrated into reviews and matters of evaluation become a vital component of scholarly discussion.

Taken as a whole, An Invention Without a Future serves as a fantastic overview of conversations concerning film history, while providing thoughtful analyses of important Classical Hollywood films and styles. The book should join Bill Nichols’s Engaging Cinema as unorthodox, but razor-sharp introduction to film-studies texts. For those familiar with Naremore’s work, this is hardly surprising; More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts remains quintessential reading for anyone who wants to understand the essence of film noir, as an idea more than a genre. While his latest isn’t quite an identical tour de force, the wealth of discussions and clearly stated case studies will undoubtedly satisfy any reader infatuated with the medium still known as cinema.

James Naremore’s An Invention Without a Future: Essays on Cinema is available now from University of California Press; to purchase it, click here.