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Cinemas of the Mind: a Critical History of Film Theory
Nicolas Tredell, ed.
Cambridge: Icon Books UK (Totem Books US), 2002.
£11.99 ($15.95), 287 pages, ISBN 1-84046-354-6.

Nicolas Magenham
Université de Paris X - Nanterre

Reading Cinemas of the Mind, one realizes that there is no definitive film theory yet, that for a century, theorists have only determined "what aspects of films [film theory] should aim to cover and explain", as Tredell puts it. This uncertainty about what film theory should be has led to the emergence of a hotchpotch of ideas that can be confusing. Therefore, one of the main concerns of Nicolas Tredell in this book was to "tidy up" this rich history.

His desire for clarity manifests itself in many ways. For instance, Tredell has peppered the texts that he has chosen with more or less long notes, whose aim is to make such-and-such details as clear as possible. Though merely functional, those notes are nevertheless precious for anyone who is not familiar with film theory, or even with cinema. They consist in biographical elements concerning filmmakers (dates, films…), English translations of foreign terms, or precision about evasive ideas or about former works by the same authors. The book also contains a glossary of cinematic and critical terms that is very useful, even though obviously neither exhaustive nor very detailed.

Tredell's book contains significant extracts from the greatest texts of film theory, but Cinemas of the Mind is far from being a digest: the original texts are not only quoted almost integrally in order not to betray the authors' thoughts, but Tredell always develops his point of view on them too. In other words, Tredell is far from being a run-of-the-mill editor, his personal involvement is interesting and substantial. He does not hesitate to bring out the radical or schematic aspect of some of those fundamental texts, qualifying or even contradicting certain positions. For example, even though he acknowledges that Colin MacCabe's psychoanalytic critique of classic realism in the journal Screen is "lucid and forceful", he also thinks that "there are a number of problems with MacCabe's account" (Tredell points notably at his schematic analysis of Alan J. Pakula's Klute (1971), a radical analysis that "leaves little room for alternative interpretations"). Because of the revolutionary context, many 1970s theories and reviews can be seen as oversimplified, but some of them have nonetheless kept all their strength. It is the case of Laura Mulvey's "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema", for instance.

In chapter I, Tredell's critical distance is very sharp in this section dealing with early film theories. He occasionally underlines the visionary aspect of certain ideas, as when he evokes Rémy de Gourmont who, at the beginning of the twentieth century, was "interested not so much in categorizing different kinds of films as in the general effect of cinema on its audiences". In this respect, de Gourmont "broache[d] what was to become a concern of cognitive film theorists in the later 1980s and in the 1990s". In this chapter, Tredell also refers to theorists whose predictions on cinema were to turn out to be wrong (the German psychologist Hugo Münsterberg predicted in 1916 that "the photoplay of the day after tomorrow will surely be freed from all elements which are not really pictures"), or whose utopian visions make us smile today (in 1911, the Italian writer Ricciotto Canudo thought naïvely that cinema was going to create a "revival of theatre and bring about a new sense of human community").

Questioning the texts, Nicolas Tredell implicitly evokes one of the characteristics of film theory—and of criticism in general—, that is, the fact that many fresh theories are built on former theories, usually in reaction against them. For example, in the 1990s, cognitive theory—which proposes to "understand the mechanisms, and structures by which [language, visual phenomena, or behavior] are processed by the human mind-brain" (Torben Grodal)—was directly opposed to the psychoanalytic, post-structuralist and deconstructionist approaches that were fashionable in the previous two decades. Besides, Tredell seems to be attracted to cognitive science, since it is even the subject of the fine cover of the book. It represents Anthony Perkins in Psycho (1960), who is transformed here into an imaginary viewer appalled by the well-known and terrifying image taken from Luis Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou (1928) and showing a woman whose eye is severed.

In the history of film theory, there are other examples of theorists who opposed the radical opinions that sometimes constitute a new theory, even within the very movement that originated it. For instance, in the 1950s, André Bazin was a dissident (and sensible) voice among the Cahiers du Cinéma members, since he seriously questioned the revered auteur idea. Auteur theory implies that every film made by a filmmaker considered as an auteur is inevitably interesting, which was a concept that Bazin could not accept: "as soon as you state that the filmmaker and his films are one, there can be no minor films, as the worst of them will always be in the image of their creator". For him, some important creators sometimes produce unconvincing works that do not necessarily deserve to be looked into (Bazin evokes Voltaire's plays and Beaumarchais's La Mère coupable). On the other hand, the Cahiers du Cinéma unfairly neglected many films because their directors were not labeled as auteurs, I'm thinking of films by such French filmmakers as Julien Duvivier or Jean Grémillon, for example.

So Cinemas of the Mind brings out the everlasting conflicting visions that constitute the history of film theory, but unfortunately, if Nicolas Tredell is aware that film theory has always been the staple diet of theorists themselves, he never mentions that it has been the staple diet of filmmakers too. For instance, Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, and many other important directors learned a lot from such Russian theorists and directors as Eisenstein or Pudovkin, and they used to pay their respects to them as soon as the opportunity arose. Wilder often said that he was fascinated by (and sometimes worried about) the power of editing, of montage, as it was theorized by Eisenstein in the late 1920s. Wilder even thought that the powerful ideas created by such a clever juxtaposition of individual shots could lead the conservative and capitalist viewers of a film like Battleship Potemkin (1925) to be persuaded that communism was the good cause. As for Hitchcock, if he was also very influenced by these early theories, it is worth noting that his films were in turn the main inspiration of recent film theorists: Vertigo (1958) is abundantly mentioned by Mulvey in her article quoted above, Rear Window (1954) is at the heart of Torben Grodal's work on cognition, etc.

So Nicolas Tredell's Cinemas of the Mind is an excellent introduction to the rich history of film theory, especially for undergraduate students in film studies. But its clarity makes it accessible for any non-specialist who wants to become acquainted with the topic.

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