Eighty-seven years ago, Viktor Shklovsky, exiled to Berlin from his Mother Russia, wrote a short work predicting the future of the motion picture and its impact on art as a whole. Last week, Literature and Cinematography finally made its way to my shelves via one of those rogue, half-priced book carts near Central Park.
Encountering this odd book is like viewing a snapshot of the past. Shklovsky knows cinema in its infancy, when jerky silent films were novel and Charlie Chaplin—who Shklovsky likens to the stock characters of ancient Greek comedy—reigned supreme. But for Shklovsky, this new mode of entertainment is a monster to be feared. He dubs it “extraneous to art,” mere spectacle, a beast that relies solely on plot with little character exposition. And while such a polemic is no longer entirely relevant, I couldn’t help noticing the terrifying accuracy of one prediction: “One separate branch of the thriller that is sure to develop is the American film geared toward special effects, with acrobatic numbers and minimal focus on acting” (Avatar anyone?).
However, the more powerful sections of this tract have nothing to do with cinema at all. Rather, they detail Shklovsky’s personal philosophy, which speaks to us beyond his own epoch. More than an outdated critique of film, Literature and Cinematography is Shklovsky’s public plea, begging us to ensure that daily life itself does not become extraneous to art. We must defamiliarize ourselves, he urges. We must never be satisfied with rote and habit, never become insular, never allow the world to simply be recognizable—not in 1923, and certainly not now. No, certainly not now, in our time of express trains and hurried electronic exchanges:
“We live in a poor and enclosed world. We do not feel the world in which we live, just as we do not feel the clothes we wear. We fly through the world as Jules Verne’s heroes fly ‘through the atmosphere in a cannonball.’ But our cannonball has no windows.”
Bio: Rebecca Bates is Guernica‘s blog intern. Read her last recommendation of the book A Common Pornography “here”:https://guernicamag.com/blog/1778/rec_room_rebecca_bates_a_commo/.