I first read Michael Fried’s art criticism, and “Art and Objecthood” in particular, during the time when I was becoming interested in film as an academic pursuit. I found the essay to be wildly exciting. This in part had to do with the discovery of a new conception of modernism, a historical episode that was suddenly illuminated by, and that illuminated in turn, a new approach to artworks I had come to care about. But even more, the excitement was about a way of doing criticism, a way of talking about art in which the ability to describe what was happening in the artwork, and in the act of description to show what mattered, could provide, I want to say, a philosophical elucidation through description. Few things I had been reading within film studies had this ambition; nothing articulated it with such force and clarity. And yet Fried himself was strikingly absent from academic conversations about film. While the extent of this absence may have changed slightly in the intervening years, the fundamental situation remains the same
Looking back fifty years later at the 1967 publication of “Art and Objecthood” in Artforum, it is hard not to see the absence of a conversation between Fried and film studies as something of a missed connection. 1967 was in a sense the watershed of Fried’s role as a critic of modern art, especially painting and sculpture, but it was also the moment when film studies was beginning to emerge not only as an academic interest but as a discipline of its own. The English-language translation of André Bazin’s seminal What Is Cinema? Vol. 1 came out that year, and the Society of Cinematologists—which would become the current Society for Cinema and Media Studies—founded Cinema Journal as a vehicle for producing and transmitting ideas about film to a more academic audience.1 Programs at colleges and universities were being started, courses were being taught—most notably, for this story, at Harvard, where Stanley Cavell had already taught a graduate seminar on cinema in 1963.
The conditions for an encounter were certainly there. Fried had arrived at Harvard in 1962 and quickly become friends with Cavell, auditing the seminar on cinema. The two sustained an intense dialogue throughout the next decade (and more), one that was focused not least around their shared interest in the arts and questions of modernism.2 Fried, though still a graduate student, was already an established critic. His writing for major art journals was widely known, and variously praised and criticized. On its publication in Artforum, “Art and Objecthood” would help to shape (and sharpen) many of the debates within contemporary art criticism over the years to come. As a result, many film scholars—especially those living in the New York area—were familiar with Fried and his writing, and would likely have read “Art and Objecthood” upon its publication.
Yet if the stars were aligned, no real engagement occurred. Film scholars by and large ignored Fried, and the emergent force of film studies had little, if any, effect on Fried’s writing. To the extent that Fried addressed cinema at all in these years, it is with a brief digression in “Art and Objecthood” that summarily dismisses the medium from his concerns: “cinema, even at its most experimental, is not a modernist art.”3 This may be a familiar gesture with critics of high art, but while their rejection is often due to ignorance (or simple elitism), the point of the above narrative is to make clear that this was not the case with Fried. It was a considered, albeit mistaken, judgment; the point of this essay is to show that it had consequences.
The failure to establish a connection between Fried and film studies was a real loss, which wound up being detrimental to each side: avenues for exploration were closed off; methodological opportunities were missed; and a rich dialogue that ought to have taken place never happened. This essay aims to explore some of the reasons for the failed encounter, looking at the surrounding intellectual context at the time as well as at the details of Fried’s key essay on modernist aesthetics. In doing this, I also try to sketch out something of what an encounter between Fried and film studies might have been able to achieve, and why the possibility for a belated and overdue encounter still holds excitement.
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Despite the missed connection, there have always been film scholars deeply influenced by Fried’s work. For this group, and I include myself among them, there were at least two major ways of thinking about film that Fried’s art criticism made possible. The first involved the central concept of acknowledgement he drew from Cavell’s writings. As Cavell put it, “Acknowledgment goes beyond knowledge. (Goes beyond not, so to speak, in the order of knowledge, but in its requirement that I do something or reveal something on the basis of that knowledge.)”4 From this model, Fried extracted a way of talking about reflexive, modernist art that eschewed a reductivist strain in the account of the relation between an artwork and its physical material (one that marked even such a text as Clement Greenberg’s “Modernist Painting”). Engaging with the conditions of a medium, Fried argued, did not mean that a work needed only to display them in order to know them—as if it were sufficient to simply point a camera at a mirror. Rather, acknowledgement meant doing something with the knowledge of these conditions, producing a creative response to them. And in the way the acknowledgment took shape, a viewer would be able to grasp something new about the deep conventions that structured that medium. For example, in accounting for what he describes as modernist painting’s “continuing problem of how to acknowledge the literal character of the support,” Fried saw Frank Stella’s paintings as one solution for understanding “what counts as that acknowledgement.”5 Stella, he writes,
by actually shaping each picture… was able to make the fact that the literal shape determines the structure of the entire painting completely perspicuous. That is, in each painting the stripes appear to have been generated by the framing edge and, starting there, to have taken possession of the rest of the canvas, as though the whole painting self-evidently followed from not merely the shape of the support, but its actual physical limits.6
In no way is Stella finding the key to showing how painting draws on and makes explicit the essential feature of its physical medium. Rather, Fried understands Stella’s aesthetic strategy, at the intersection of paint and shape, to be a way of doing something with the basic knowledge of how painting works, of creating a painting that acknowledges—in some way—how the materiality of the medium matters. It’s precisely in this that the activity of criticism is located: the specific account of how acknowledgment functions within a given work, and what it means there.
This strain of Fried’s thought was formative for my own work. His adaptation of acknowledgment, translating the term from epistemology and ethics to aesthetics, provided me with a range of resources to rethink a set of debates within film theory, especially for figures who blurred the line between theorist and critic. It gave me a model, in particular, for reimagining the way medium-specific theorists were often take to hypostasize the basic facts of cinema, seeing in them instead a model in which the given conditions of a medium could be set out yet the terms of a film’s relation to them not determined in advance. In my work on Bazin, this allowed me to argue that the ontological commitments of his reliance on film’s photographic basis, and its connection to reality, did not inherently conflict with the diversity of his critical insights. There was no capacious critic and naïve theorist: the theory provided a fulcrum, not a constraint, for the criticism to work around. Even more, Fried’s example let me see how a devotion to medium specificity that marked realist film theory, and that was generally taken to be anti-modernist in nature and ambition, closely matched the logic of key exemplars of modernist aesthetics.7
A second line of Fried’s work is less overtly formulated but no less central to his importance for some film scholars. This is his commitment to description, and a sense of the necessity for prose that would not only be adequate to the complexity of the artworks being described but that could thereby reveal the philosophical significance within the very logic of the artwork. Cavell labeled this project “philosophical criticism,” with the explicit recognition that in Fried’s hands it often proceeded through nothing other than “uninterrupted descriptions.”8 Take, for example, Fried’s extraordinary discussion of Anthony Caro’s Carriage (1966):
the use of mesh enables Caro simultaneously to delimit—almost to enclose or box in—a tract of space and to assert its continuity with the rest of the sculpture’s immediate environment. How one ought to describe the mesh itself is a nice problem: for example, although there is an obvious sense in which one can see through it, there is another, perhaps less obvious (or obviously important) sense in which one cannot. It is not transparent, but opaque; one looks both at and past it—as opposed to the way one looks through a pane of glass. By partly superimposing at an angle two meshes of different degrees of openness, Caro establishes a plane of variation, not of transparency exactly, but of visual density. It is as though the mesh is seen as cross-hatching—as literal but disembodied shading of value. In this respect Carriage is intimately related to Jules Olitski’s spray paintings, in which fluctuations of value are divorced from their traditional tactile associations. More generally, an adequate discussion of Caro’s use of mesh would relate it to the opticality both of his own work since 1959 and of the most important painting since Jackson Pollock, whose Number 29 (1950), a painting on glass, deploys mesh in the interests of accessibility solely to eyesight achieved by his allover paintings as early was the winter of 1946-47.9
When I noted at the outset of this essay that it was Fried’s descriptive prose, and the way it created at one moment an account of an artwork, an artistic lineage, and a sense of philosophical importance, it was with passages like this in mind. Working through the basic elements of Caro’s sculpture, Fried’s description conveys a sense of its visceral power while also making two large arguments: about the connection between sculpture and painting, about the place of Caro within a modernist lineage marked by Clement Greenberg, and about the difficulty of critical language in articulating these relations. It’s a complex argument contained within a descriptive account of a single sculpture. Moving beyond the terms of a reductive medium specificity, he shows how two distinct media—painting and sculpture—might be taken to share a common project, and a common set of materials. In this move, in describing the way the mesh produces a sense of touch through sight—and in providing prose that is able to convey the power of that cross-sensory insight—Fried begins to push into a kind of tactile phenomenology that is missing from other instances of modernist criticism at the time (Greenberg’s emphasis on the centrality of opticality for the modernist project is one example).10
For those of us for whom Fried’s criticism matters, it is about more than the specifics of his account of modernism. Such passages pose a key methodological challenge: your own descriptive prose needs to carry the philosophical (or theoretical) weight of the argument. Fried’s writing showed not only the power but also the difficulty of this way of placing criticism at the center of theoretical and philosophical arguments about the terms and appeals of art.
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This reception of Fried, however, was always in the minority. In truth, it’s not hard to see why Fried was left outside the emerging discipline of film studies. As it began to develop its disciplinary boundaries during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the differences with Fried were stark and deep. Two in particular stand out. The first has to do with how the major artistic movements of the twentieth century were defined and championed. Both Fried and film studies—despite the diversity of its trends, I use “film studies” here to mark its central thread—worked to uphold the banner of modernism, but their accounts of what modernism was were irreconcilable. Whereas Fried drew on a line of modernist art that culminated in Abstract Expressionism and work by contemporary sculptors such as Anthony Caro, film scholars were driven by an aesthetic (and political) sensibility that favored a different tradition, seizing on the politically radical and avant-garde movements of the 1920s: constructivism; suprematism; surrealism; Dada; even expressionism.11 This legacy, solidified by the growing importance of Walter Benjamin—who was part of and emphasized these movements—and Bertolt Brecht, defined the artistic inheritance of the twentieth century for film studies on widely different terms than for Fried. And it led to a contemporary valuation of precisely the minimalist (or literalist) artists that Fried opposed in “Art and Objecthood,” such as Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Tony Smith, and Carl Andre.
Second, modernist-inclined film theories of the late 1960s and 1970s were overtly concerned with the way that cinema seemed predicated on the forceful positioning of the spectator with respect to the screen. Jean-Louis Baudry’s work was emblematic of this trend, in which the pleasures of cinema, and its claim to provide a sense of reality, were dependent on the structural positioning of the spectator within an apparatus of projection.12 To talk about the cinema meant to talk about the way an individual film works with the viewer’s expectations, fantasies, and fears. Thus, much of the academic writing on cinema at the time took up the question of how films position the viewer: apparatus theory; models of suture; psychoanalytic theory; cognitive theory… the list goes on. Even Bazin found himself working through this topic when he defended his preferred technique: deep focus, he says, automatically makes the spectators’ relation to the screen close to what their relation is to reality.13 By contrast, Fried dismissed such structural concerns from the orbit of modernist aesthetics. Writing about the new “literalist” sculpture he found mistaken, he claimed that for it “the beholder knows himself to stand in an indeterminate, open-ended—and unexacting—relation as subject to the impassive object on the wall or floor” (155). More succinctly, he argued that “the experience of literalist art is of an object in a situation—one that, virtually by definition, includes the beholder” (153). For Fried, to the extent that art was interested in these questions—and, by extension, to the extent that critics were interested in discussing them—they were failing in their duties to the material and the history of their medium. “Art and Objecthood,” in this way, was a polemic in an extended battle for what important contemporary art was going to be recognized as, whether it was about creating a situation for a relation of beholding—what Fried pejoratively called “literalism” or “theatricality”—or producing an experience out of the formal articulation of the art object itself. Fried advocated what we might describe as a dual defense of modernism on the grounds of formalism—“the individual elements [of an artwork] bestow significance on one another precisely by virtue of their juxtaposition” (161)—and immediacy—“the condition… of existing in, indeed of evoking or constituting, a continuous and perpetual present” (167).
Fried’s account, whatever its powers, felt woefully inadequate or naïve to many contemporary critics, and the position he espoused seemed anathema to many film scholars. Given the way cinema was understood to produce an inherent sense of presentness—the “there it is” that Roland Barthes singles out to contrast with photography—Fried’s description of the struggles of modernist aesthetics seemed irrelevant at best.
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The striking thing is that it’s not clear that Fried would disagree with this assessment. Even for film scholars sympathetic to Fried’s account of modernism and his critical method, there has been a large and seemingly intractable obstacle to bringing Fried into thinking about film. This is Fried himself.
When Fried does talk about cinema in “Art and Objecthood,” it is with the intent of removing it from consideration in his broader account of the modernist project. Fried takes cinema to be something of a puzzle: why have so many modernist artists found untroubled and uncritical pleasure in movies, whether major works of art cinema or (especially) genre films from Hollywood cinema? How can artists who demand excellence in their own media, or any of the media associated with key modernist movements, be content with run-of-the-mill films? Fried’s answer revolves around the struggle he sees modernist artists engaged in with theatricality. Despite its inherent theatrical setting, “cinema escapes theater—automatically, as it were—it provides a welcome and absorbing refuge to sensibilities at war with theater and theatricality” (164). The idea of a refuge is a common trope for intellectual film viewers (think of Wittgenstein’s descriptions of going to the movies to escape the burdens of philosophy). But what matters here is the small phrase: “automatically, as it were.” Unlike modernist art, for Fried cinema does not have to defeat theater; it is simply outside its aesthetic arena. The refuge is “automatic, guaranteed” by the nature of cinema itself; we are absorbed simply by being present in a movie theater. (Curiously, this is close to theories of the apparatus, which take absorption not to be a principle of style or an effect of narrative but a basic donnée of the viewing situation itself.) And so, because cinema is “a refuge from theater and not a triumph over it,” Fried concludes that it “is not a modernist art.” All the formal dynamics and art-historical stakes that apply to “painting, sculpture, music, and poetry” do not hold when it comes to the movies.14
This is the challenge for Fried’s admirers within film studies: if you want to adopt Fried’s terms, categories, and methods for thinking about films, you face the problem that he explicitly refuses to countenance such a gesture. To be sure, one could—as many have done—just ignore Fried’s comments on the cinema, and regard them as a view simply disconnected from the history of film. That is certainly fair: from the in-jokes of Hollywood film, to the meta-cinematic reflexivity that spans comedies like Hellzapoppin’ (1941) and movements like the French new wave, to the radical deconstruction (and reconstruction) of the cinematic apparatus in a film like Daisies (1966), to the American avant-garde of Deren, Brakhage, Snow, and Frampton, to the Brechtian tradition of filmmaking that wound up with late-60s Godard and Straub-Huillet (among others)—there is no shortage of filmmakers who have taken the absorptive qualities of cinema less as a given than as a problem to be negotiated, even defeated, in their filmmaking.
I’ve also been tempted to write off Fried’s rejection of cinema’s modernist potential. However, even if Fried’s views about the cinema are wrong—and I think they are—I’m not sure that the reasons behind them have been fully understood. And that’s to miss something important. Less an account of a viewing space, a reading that draws on the repeated description of the cinema as a “refuge,” Fried’s argument in fact turns on a particular understanding of how cinema negotiates a relation to its own past.
In many ways, the question of a past is at the heart of Fried’s account of a modernist sensibility; time and time again, he will argue that the distinctive quality of modernism is the need to create art that stands up to the best instances in the history of the medium. This is central to Fried’s major essay on Manet in 1969, and it runs throughout his work on modernist painting. Fried claims that painting under the conditions of modernism means that the modernist artist is under an obligation to justify him- or herself in relation to the great art of the past. In other words, painting, if it is to have importance in the modernist moment, can no longer be minor; it must be major or not at all.15 To do this means finding new solutions to problems that previous great art had encountered and resolved in its own way. This is the modernist burden of seriousness, in which a failure to produce work that stands up to the great art of the past results in the failure of the modernist enterprise as a whole. And this dynamic is what, for Fried, cinema avoids.
Fried’s insistence on the idea of a necessary relation to the past can sound antithetical to familiar rhetoric about modernist claims to novelty, to creating radically new art. It sounds almost like it should be part of the anti-modernist vocabulary, of a piece with reactionary trends against new artistic forms. But there is an important, if sometimes overlooked, modernist inflection to this emphasis on the past, one that finds its fullest articulation in T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Tradition, for Eliot, means something quite specific: an understanding of the past in relation to creative activity undertaken in the present. “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.”16 The past is also, and importantly, unstable: “when a new work is created something happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. [They are] modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them… the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered.”17 Because the past exists for and through the present, the nature of the tradition—the very terms of the history of an art—changes in response to the contemporary works being made. So, it’s not just that Tennyson influences Eliot; as Eliot writes poetry, he changes Tennyson’s significance—in a sense, he changes what Tennyson is.
I think this idea is hovering around Fried’s account of modernist art (however much the influence of Greenberg supersedes it), though to show that would take me too far afield. What I want to do here is give a sense of how this way of thinking shapes his approach to cinema. And to see that we need to turn to Cavell. In the opening chapters of The World Viewed, Cavell makes his strongest case for film’s philosophical significance, using classical Hollywood cinema to stake a claim for film’s uniqueness among the arts. This claim is, not least, based on a particular form of its popularity: “The movie seems naturally to exist in a state in which its highest and its most ordinary instances attract the same audience… in the case of films, it is generally true that you do not really like the highest instances unless you also like the typical. You don’t even know what the highest are instances of unless you know the typical as well.”18 This condition, he notes, is uniquely true of cinema—“anyway until recently”—and it is part of what separates cinema from the modernist programs happening in the other arts at precisely this time. It structures film’s status as “the last traditional art,” a position Cavell rehearses throughout the book.19
Cavell isn’t forthcoming about the influence of Eliot, but it is there throughout the book. He even embeds the name of Eliot’s essay early on, but without being explicit that he’s doing so. Discussing the way films relate to the history of their medium, and placing this in relation to the emergence of the auteur theory, he observes: “Each of the arts knows of this self-generation, however primitive our understanding remains about the relation between tradition and the individual talent.”20 What marks cinema is its ability for individual works to negotiate their place within a tradition without any of the self-consciousness of the avowedly modernist arts, or what Cavell glosses as cinema’s “natural relation to its history.”21
We can see this line of thinking in Fried’s brief remarks about cinema in “Art and Objecthood.” Note how Fried highlights what Cavell emphasizes, that the key feature to understand about cinema is the indiscriminateness of its pleasures. His puzzlement is not about why great movies have appeal, but over the fact that “movies in general, including frankly appalling ones, are acceptable to modernist sensibility” (164). Movies are beyond good and bad, beyond the categories of value that so centrally comprise the modernist project. They are something else entirely.
This is where it’s worth returning to Fried’s striking phrase: “cinema escapes theater—automatically, as it were.” The appeal to the “automatic”—an appeal that anticipates Cavell’s emphasis on the term in The World Viewed—suggests a claim that is grounded in the physical basis of the medium, structured by what Fried describes as the phenomenology of movie-going (the place of the screen, etc.) (171n20). But this is in fact dependent on a view about the relation of films to their past, the fulcrum around which Fried’s rejection of cinema as a potentially modernist art turns. Note that, for Fried, movies entail “absorption not conviction”—not, in short, the kind of claims that modernist art has to make toward its past, the justifying of each instance of art in light of the major art that has come before, but the pleasures of a kind of simple immersiveness. Cinema doesn’t “automatically” escape theater solely because of its viewing situation; it has to do with the way, at least within classical cinema, there is nothing fraught in its relation to past instances—what Cavell refers to as a “natural relation” to its history. (That is, Billy Wilder doesn’t feel the need to equal Ernst Lubitsch, to surpass him, in claiming him as an influence; Lubitsch is part of an inheritance that Wilder can draw upon without anxiety.) This is what Bazin was getting at when, pushing against what he saw as the fetishism of directors that was coming to define French film criticism, he isolated the power of Hollywood film as “the genius of the system.” The power was not in the mythic success of individuals but in a way of making film, an art form that thrived on the industrial system behind it.
I focus on Fried’s argument here, and its links to what will be the core of Cavell’s The World Viewed, because it allows us to better see the yawning gap between “Art and Objecthood” and the path of film studies over the next decades. Not only did Fried explicitly reject what so many film critics and theorists argued for—that cinema was an essentially modernist art, and that it needed to be understood as such—but he essentially bracketed off the role of the historical study of film. After all, if the unique feature of cinema was that it had no issue with its own past, what need is there to seriously investigate that history? to see it as anything more than a straightforward progression? And so when the first waves of the New Film History began to emerge in the late 1970s, and in many senses offered a radical phenomenology of the history of cinematic forms—think of Tom Gunning’s influential idea of the “cinema of attractions”—it could have been a moment for a rapprochement with Fried’s enterprise, one that combined description, historical awareness, and new aesthetic models. That such a rapprochement didn’t occur was in part due to the way a focus on the historical specificity of film-going entailed a range of different aesthetic models, and so was antithetical to the appeal to cinema tout court in “Art and Objecthood.”
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The point of showing how Fried and film studies failed to interact is not to criticize either, to show blindspots, or to talk about differing evaluations of artistic media. I think something was lost in this missed connection, something that would have benefitted both. The absence is more evident, though tricky to get out, with Fried, since he clearly missed, for close to four decades, the opportunity to engage with ambitious photographic media. In his 2008 book, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, Fried explicitly acknowledges a longstanding lack of interest in writing about photography. What changed, he noted, was the way that, “starting in the late 1970s and 1980s, art photographs began to be made not only at large scale but also… for the wall…. [As a result,] such photography immediately inherited the entire problematic of beholding” that he had traced from eighteenth century French painting to the conflict between modernism and minimalism described in “Art and Objecthood.”22 Two things are worth noting here. The first is the key condition that allowed Fried to pay attention to photography as an art: the creation of large-scale images—especially Jeff Wall’s lightboxes—that were hung on the wall as if they were paintings. The second is the conclusion Fried drew from this fact, namely that as a result such photographs “immediately”—he might have said “automatically”—inherited an artistic past, a tradition out of which they could work. And indeed the bulk of Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before is devoted to showing how a selection of contemporary photographers negotiate the historical dialectic between absorption and theatricality.
In this context, it’s not surprising that when Fried finally turns to moving images it’s only when he sees them on the gallery wall. In the discussions of video art in the photography book, as well as in the subsequent Four Honest Outlaws, the importance of the gallery as a viewing site is key.23 Even in his extensive discussion of Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s Zidane: A Twenty-First Century Portrait (2006), Fried makes clear that his interest in the film stems from his encounter with Godard’s previous work in gallery spaces.24 I draw attention to this not because of any problem in talking about video art, but to note the way Fried seems to require the space (or the idea) of the gallery in order to be able to take seriously the claims of moving images to engage the viewer in a complex way. In all this, the existence of the cinema goes missing: even when Fried opens himself up to the discussion of moving image works, the vital institution of the twentieth and twenty-first century is absent.
Yet Fried’s treatment of Zidane also points to the difficulties inherent in this act of bracketing. Unsurprisingly, he is largely keen to pull the film into the orbit of his concerns. Responding to the filmmakers’ invocation of Warhol’s screen tests, he pushes against their significance: “[That they were an influence] is doubtless true, but grasping the significance of Zidane also requires viewing it against the background of” the dialectic of absorption and theatricality, and what he describes as “the interest of coming to grips with the ongoing problem of portraiture.”25 This is familiar terrain for Fried, yet a strange move occurs as he goes on. Noting Gordon and Parreno’s almost obsessive interest in images of Zidane’s feet as he walks, runs, scuffs, and stands, Fried writes: “His gait becomes intimately familiar to us by the end of the film. (Somewhere in the neighborhood is Robert Bresson’s magnificent Au Hasard, Balthazar ).”26 It is a moment of brilliant critical insight, evoking complex issues of intention, physicality, and desire that structure each film. The sense of the donkey Balthazar here is not a diminution of the skills of Zidane but a recognition of the deep ambitions—what does it mean to be human? how might a portrait show this?—on the part of Gordon and Parreno. (Fried will again refer to Bresson’s film in Four Honest Outlaws (2011), in the context of a discussion of the “‘human-related’ animals” in the works of Gordon and Anri Sala.)27 The alignment of Zidane with Balthazar also makes both into figures of absorption, of the kind that Fried has been interested in throughout his career: figures turned inward, seemingly oblivious to the (self-evident) fact that they are being beheld.
Yet in making this apt critical gesture, Fried implies something that he otherwise denies: that theatrical cinema, not just of the 2000s but of the 1960s as well, can be involved in the dialectic of absorption and theatricality. Without his having been explicit about it, we are far from the ban on cinema’s modernist aspirations in “Art and Objecthood,” a ban that was rooted in a claim about the capacity of cinema to engage critically and self-consciously with its own past. Fried, that is, allows Zidane to engage with a tradition in the way that, for example, he traces the “sources” of Manet. And this is exactly right. What Fried seemingly stumbles onto, struck by his deep insight of criticism, is a recognition of the way that films—like painting—have always been engaged in evoking and revising their own history (and the history of the media around them). This has been true throughout the history of cinema: Cecil B. DeMille’s parody of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) in his comedic adventure Male and Female (1919), where the famous Babylonian episode is evoked in the guise of parody; Chris Marker’s revision of the Odessa Steps sequence from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) in Grin without a Cat (1977), his account of the rightward turn of French politics after May ’68; or the shared insight between Anthony Mann and Alfred Hitchcock about the dark aspect of Jimmy Stewart’s persona (developed especially in the films of Frank Capra). The point about the examples is not their uniqueness but that they are profoundly ordinary, part of the warp and woof of film history. Many recent historiographic accounts, like Miriam Hansen’s idea of “vernacular modernism,” have emphasized the complex ways that films have drawn inspiration from a wide range of international sources, creating their aesthetic structures not out of a unique vision but out of an amalgam of pre-existing sources.28 (As Cavell puts it, “a movie comes from other movies.”)29
Of course Fried knows—and has known—that references happen in film, that films refer to one another in all sorts of ways. That kind of knowledge is not a trade secret. My point is somewhat different. When Fried assumes that such work within films happens “of itself,” that it takes place “naturally,” he brackets off the way films self-consciously engage in an artistic project he recognizes in other media. I mean here not just the dynamics of reference, the interest in past artworks against which the success of the present can be measured—though certainly that does matter. The point is even more specific. Films—not some idealized notion of “cinema” but actual films—have sought to work through the dialectic of absorption and theatricality that Fried isolates as the central engine behind modern (and modernist) art. This takes place not so much through characters and events, or even narrative organizations; it has to do with formal structures.
In lieu of a more extensive discussion, let me offer one example. This is shot/reverse-shot, one of the fundamental building blocks of the “continuity” or “invisible” editing technique that dominates classical Hollywood cinema. In its most basic form, we see a character looking, then a shot that isolates what the character is looking at, followed by a shot that returns us to the initial set-up. In one of its most prominent uses, the depiction of a conversation, we often begin by looking over the shoulder of one character at the face of the person they are talking to, followed by the reverse over-the-shoulder shot that gives us the face of the character the camera had been initially positioned behind. This is straightforward, part of what we expect when we see a movie; a range of critics and theorists have argued that it works by showing us what we “naturally” want to see.30 Phrased differently, we could say that shot/reverse-shot constructions are basically absorptive, immersing the viewer in the viewpoint of a character within the world of the film. This sense was the basis of Laura Mulvey’s famous essay on the logic of the “male gaze” in Hollywood cinema: by forcing us to look with a particular character, films made us inhabit their worlds in a particular (and invariably masculine) way.31 More recently, James Chandler has argued that shot/reverse-shot constructions work as a basic form of sympathy, a way of putting the spectator in the mind of the character.32 All of which should call to mind some of Fried’s discussions, especially in Absorption and Theatricality, of the way that artists position figures within their paintings so as to provide an access to that world for the viewer—creating what he called the “supreme fiction” that the ontological barrier between work and world could be overcome.
What allows shot/reverse-shot to resonate with Fried’s work, especially his multi-volume account of what he describes as the unfolding dialectic of absorption and theatricality, are the permutations that have been wrought on its structure. Some of this is extreme: Eisenstein rejected the technique out of hand as part of what he took to be the bourgeois ideology embedded in Hollywood cinema—even though he used it himself—as it created too close an identification between the viewer and a single character (rather than seeing the mass as subject).33 But there are more subtle variations as well. A number of films have experimented with using split-screens to incorporate shot/reverse-shot constructions within a single frame, from Lois Weber’s placing of several lines of action within the same frame in Suspense (1913) to Norman Jewison’s use of multiple frames to depict telephone interactions in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) to Ang Lee’s mimicry of the look of comic panels in Hulk (2003). Or take the way the Bourne trilogy and other contemporary films eschew the stable logic of continuity editing for a series of rapid shots with hand-held cameras, where the identification with characters happens less through access to an optical point of view than through the way that the form of the film conveys their state of mind. This is a kind of filmmaking that has been described variously as “intensified continuity,” “post-continuity,” and “chaos cinema,” and which forms the stylistic template for much of the mainstream narrative films and videos today. In each of these examples, we could say that filmmakers found the basic way of identifying with characters through shot/reverse-shot to be lacking, and that an alternate structure had to be invented for the new conditions so as to continue to draw the viewer into the film.
The truncated story is not exactly like the one that Fried tells of the modernist artist, engaged in a relation to the past as part of the necessity to create major work. Jewison and Lee do not respond to Weber (or to other early examples) in that way. Yet all the same it is a technique that is about relating to the beholder, and one that changes in response to the circumstances—historical, aesthetic, technological—around it. There is, in short, nothing “natural” here, nothing that happens “of itself”; what we see is a carefully constructed formal technique articulated in relation to past examples. (Other techniques could be addressed in this way as well, from subjective shots to parallel editing to jump cuts.) Thinking in this way, we might recast Fried’s wonder about why modernist artists went to the cinema. Perhaps they were not (just) seeking refuge from the burdens of the seriousness of their work; perhaps they saw in the cinema a range of different ways of negotiating the same questions about the relation of artwork to beholder that they were themselves preoccupied with. On this view, cinema does not stand apart from Fried’s modernist history; it continues that history by other means.
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This open-ended query about missed opportunities goes in both directions, and leads to a question about what film studies lost in its failure to take Fried’s criticism into consideration. As I discussed at the outset, the period following the publication of “Art and Objecthood” was characterized by the emergence of “theory,” the belief that the primary object for analysis was not the individual film itself but the structures that governed it (whether mental, political, cultural, etc.).34 That’s not to say that there were no significant works of descriptive analysis. But many—Alfred Guzzetti’s study of Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know about Her (1967), William Rothman’s account of Hitchcock in The Murderous Gaze—fell by the wayside, while the ones that were taken up—Raymond Bellour’s studies of Hollywood films, for example—were characterized by the way they brought established practices of theory to bear on individual films.35 It was in the wake of these tendencies that a strain of philosophically inflected film analysis emerged, part of the broader trend often grouped under the term “film-philosophy.” In it, film scholars sought to give an account of the ways in which individual films could lay claim to philosophical significance, how films could be understood as doing the work of philosophy itself.
My conjecture is that Fried’s example as a critic, especially his writings clustered around “Art and Objecthood,” could have helped film scholars avoid a set of difficulties attached to this approach. Writing about how films had philosophical ambitions has tended to make one of two problematic assumptions: to treat films as, in a sense, glorified thought experiments, complex representations of familiar philosophical problems that can help sharpen and enliven existing debates; or to posit a “mindedness” to films that gives them the agency needed to ground the “making” of an argument. The first fails to take the complexity of films seriously; the second makes an implausible, even incoherent, claim about the intentionality of the film as object. I think it is in the sense of their inadequacy that scholars have recently turned to Cavell’s writings on film (and, in a similar way, to Deleuze). What Cavell does is to make the work of criticism central in eliciting the philosophical stakes implicit in the basic operations of films—whether that has to do with the way films employ conventions, work through references and allusions to other films, or provide insights into to the medium itself. The kind of philosophical work films can do is not given in advance; it is only discoverable, Cavell insists, through critical engagement—the providing of a compelling reading with a philosophical backdrop in mind—with the films themselves. But Cavell’s writing has its own in-built limitation, as it focuses on what we might call, adapting a title from Donald Davidson, “actions and events.” To read Cavell’s criticism is to work through the significance of what people do in a film and how this is shown through the film’s narrative structure (and the attendant thematic features). The critical insight is breathtaking, but it often ignores the details of images and sound that make up the formal textures of a film.
This is Fried’s difference from Cavell. The power of Fried’s writings on modernist art is to take this kind of philosophical and critical project and to show how it can work as a mode of formal analysis. This is a formalism in which the description itself brings with it the philosophical stakes. Again we can listen to Fried on Caro, this time from “Art and Objecthood”:
A characteristic sculpture by Caro consists, I want to say, in the mutual and naked juxtaposition of the I-beams, girders, cylinders, lengths of piping, sheet metal, and grill that it comprises rather than in the compound object that they compose. The mutual inflection of one element by another, rather than the identity of each, is what is crucial—though of course altering the identity of any element would be at least as drastic as altering its placement. (The identity of each element matters in somewhat the same way as the fact that it is an arm, or this arm, that makes a particular gesture, or as the fact that it is this word or this note and no another that occurs in a particular place in a sentence or melody.) The individual elements bestow significance on one another precisely by virtue of their juxtaposition: it is in this sense, a sense inextricably involved with the concept of meaning, that everything in Caro’s art that is worth looking at is in its syntax. (161-2)
From the point of view of a film scholar, it’s hard not to see in this description an account of montage, of the way that individual units of a film hang together—where the meaning is less in any individual shot than in their juxtaposition. (Eisenstein’s writings on film and art, and the way they embody principles of montage, may be the closest comparison.36 ) What Fried brings to this description is a sense of aliveness, the way that the particular object—here, Caro’s sculptures—not only motivates but also furnishes the very terms of a wider account of juxtaposition. The philosophical question is about meaning, about how it emerges from visual form. That account is not given in advance, derived abstractly, but elucidated through an encounter with the specificity of the art objects themselves. Fried achieves his philosophical—and art theoretical—insights by staying with the critical act of looking his prose seeks to capture.
This is what has stayed with me from “Art and Objecthood.” Beyond the account of modernism and the evocation of presentness, what opened a door is Fried’s demonstration of how criticism could work, how art and philosophy could come together through the practice of description. In Fried’s writings, we get a sense not just of why art matters, but also of why talking about art—in the most fine-grained way—matters for a philosophically inclined aesthetic project. This is the as yet unfulfilled promise that “Art and Objecthood” has for film studies.