Film, Television, Modernism, and the Internet (a discussion with Victoria H.F. Scott, August 2011)

This was put together at Victoria’s instigation when both of us were employed in the Art History department at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2010-2011 (probably during the latter portion). It hasn’t appeared elsewhere. — J.R.


VHFS: What medium is more modernist, television or film?


JR: For me, it’s fairly obvious that film (from, say, the Lumière brothers to Pedro Costa) is quintessentially modernist and television, from the live transmission of the 1950s to “reality TV,” is quintessentially postmodernist. One could find notable exceptions, of course, such as Ernie Kovacs’ highly modernist comic experiments in the 50s and (say) Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s and Quentin Tarantino’s appropriations of TV in their films, which I consider far more important than their appropriations of (or, rather, derivations from) Jean-Luc Godard.

For me, the parts of film history that matter the most are invariably the parts that counteract or refute the so-called “realism” of the medium (pace André Bazin) in a modernist direction, whereas I would argue that the televisual alienation of Fassbinder and Tarantino (among others) doesn’t even know sufficiently what realism is or could be or should be in order to counteract or refute it.


VHFS: Despite those exceptions, what makes film essentially modernist and television postmodernist? I think in our original conversation we were discussing the significance of the relationship of audience to each medium, and the depiction of the audience in each medium, how television is somehow more theatrical. Why is that? And could you explain a little more about what you mean in that last sentence there? What does it mean to subvert realism and go in a modernist direction? What would that look like exactly? And could you give some examples of “televisual alienation” in Fassbinder and Tarantino? It is a new phrase for me, but I like it…As you mentioned before, I guess what I am trying to get at here is a kind of ontology of television.


JR: In television, visual definition and framing are both much less defined, muddier, so the presence of actors and talking heads, as in theater, becomes primary. Fassbinder and Tarantino build their dramaturgy around this primacy. Even though Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson extolled the painterly aspects of Fassbinder, which they related in some ways to Warhol, the sense of shallow space in his films comes very close to television—and of course TV itself was a major source of his funding. Tarantino grew up watching films mainly or almost entirely on TV. Both filmmakers, in my opinion, have a tendency to turn people into garbage, which in a way is what TV does to everything (and everyone)—a sort of leveling process that I rightly or wrongly associate with postmodernism. Even though I regard Fassbinder as far more important, interesting, and intelligent than Tarantino, I think they’re both cynical and defeatist.

Joyce’s Ulysses, a kind of parody (and thus subversion) of realism via accumulation of “real” details, is obviously a key modernist text.


VHFS: That’s a nice observation about Tarantino because we often think of television and film as separate mediums, but they are extremely dependent on one another, and overlap more than is often admitted. Someone else observed once that television keeps films culturally alive, after they die, and in Europe at least, so much of the funding for films made after 1945 came from state-sponsored television stations. And that complicates the original question substantially I think. Because then what is essential about both film and television, is that they are somehow, indubitably connected, and have been since the debut of television. And then, in turn, television is deeply connected to the way we use, interact with, and think about our computer screens, all the screens in our lives actually, and the Internet.

But going back to this issue of audiences, I was actually talking very literally about audiences. There are rarely depictions of the audience in film, but that some kind on acknowledgement of the presence of an audience is often part of television shows, and somehow that connects to each medium’s inherent modernism, or postmodernism as the case may be.

I am more WB Yeats modernism myself, and less James Joyce.

Also I want to add that I really like your formal point about limits. Modernism is always about testing limits, challenging limits, in painting and sculpture anyway…but television is like a big vacuum that kind of assimilates film. I mean it is not the other way around right? Film does not take in television in the same way. It is not dependent on television the way that television is dependent on film.


JR: We may be speaking different languages, because I’ve never really regarded Yeats as a modernist—at least not in the way that Joyce, Eliot, and Pound are.


VHFS: There are all kinds of definitions of modernism. I am just not very James Joyce. Never have been…but this is sort of off-point. I want to get back to the question of audience, and/or the relationship between film and television.

sherlock-jr in motion

JR: The main references to the audience in movies are direct addresses to them in the “vulgar modernism” of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby “Road” comedies and a few other comedies of this kind in the 1940s and 1950s. (There are also a few earlier flukes, e.g., Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr. (1924), in which Keaton plays a projectionist who falls asleep and then dreams he enters the screen after traversing the auditorium, which I find very modernist. Woody Allen plays on that idea in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). Jim Hoberman has an essay and a book (a collection) called Vulgar Modernism (1995). It’s one of his main subjects. And of course it’s something that extends well beyond movies and TV: e.g., Mad Comics, Spike Jones.

VHFS: You forgot the scene in Orson Welles’s unfinished Don Quixote that includes the famous duel of Quixote with the movie screen…. I think we love that scene exactly because it is so modernist, a very literal and metaphorical testing of the material limits of film and illusion.


DQ confronts screen

DQ attacks screen

DQ faces us

PM at end

DQ just before end

JR: There’s also a similar sequence in Godard’s Les Carabiniers (1963) — and many other examples.


By contrast, the audiences we saw on TV quiz shows and some sit-coms were partially carryovers from radio, which also had these studio audiences. We can’t forget that movies and radio were the two main mainstream media before TV came along, and that TV initially derived many of its own conventions and practices from radio.


VHFS: So you are saying that with film, there is a greater distinction between the audience and the film in a way, whereas with television there is less distinction? Okay, so if we think about this in Michael Fried’s terms, i.e. absorption and theatricality, what you are suggesting is that there is a stronger drive in film to perfect the illusion that the audience does not exist. To give a sense that the figures are entirely unaware of us, that they are absorbed in the activities of their daily lives, completely oblivious of the viewer (when, of course, the complete opposite is true). Mostly. I mean there are the exceptions you mention, but on the whole, film is constructed to heighten the sense that the audience is kind of peeking in at a separate world, completely removed from their own.  That is the strange thing about film, we are usually sitting in a room with a group of people, but the illusion is that we are completely alone. Whereas in television no efforts are made to pretend such a thing, there is an acknowledgement of the audience, a recognition, and inclusion of the audience. What has that got to do with modernism? Your definition of modernism.

Eventually I also want to talk about how all these issues connect to freedom…I remember also, we talked about the history of theater going in America, and how all this relates to that question. How there was a period in American history when everyone went to watch Shakespeare, when working class Americans went to the theater.


JR: I think your categories about TV are way too restrictive. The audience isn’t acknowledged or “present” on screen in MTV or news shows or made-for-TV movies (to cite only three examples), although they are for sports events. So it’s very hard to generalize, except to say that, yes, most commercial movies are interested in sustaining some suspension of disbelief about the fact that they are movies, while TV doesn’t seem to mind being TV. Which is perhaps where and how the idea of TV as an all-purpose garbage disposal comes in.


VHFS: I totally disagree with you. The hosts on MTV and TV news anchors address the viewer directly, acknowledging the audience. Audiences are often present on both kinds of shows – morning news shows anyway.  The depiction of audiences at sporting events makes me think about this amazing film made by French artist Phillip Parreno and Scottish artist Douglas Gordon about the soccer star Zidane, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006). (Michael Fried published a rip-roaring discussion of this film entitled “Absorbed in the Action,” in Artforum). It is a film, but I watched it on my computer the first time I saw it. The film is about two things, as far as I am concerned, the audience and stories that we never really get to the heart of.  But also performance, because what is seemingly more unpredictable than a sporting event? But the whole subtext of that film, is that, just like anything else, when practiced at a very high level, things become less predictable, and because they are less predictable, they can be plotted out, like a script, and so become the very opposite of what we generally think of as a sporting event, and more like pure theatre. It is easy to forget that professional soccer players are extremely conscious of where all the cameras are, at all times. They need to be, not just in order to look good, but also so they can hide things. Keeping a secret while thousands of people are watching you can be tricky. Parreno and Gordon used 17 cameras.


It is also too easy to say that TV is a garbage disposal, even if it is. And you never got around to answering the question about how television is dependent on film, but film is not dependent on television.

Besides all that, do you think the question of freedom has to do with this, if anything? I think film respects the sovereignty, the autonomy of the individual more. That modernism’s attention to divisions between the audience and the work of art, free up the viewer in a way that television, even at its most modernist, cannot touch.


Re theater and the American public, you were talking about how historically Americans, all or more Americans attended what we would refer to now as high culture events such as Shakespeare. Maybe that television ended that era? I was struck by the idea that culture has become much more stratified in America, that opera, dance etc, are much more elitist activities now than they used to be. I could be wrong…when and how did this happen?


JR: I was referring to a particular book on this subject about the decline of things like Shakespeare and opera as forms of American mass culture during the 19th century, and how/why this got changed or overtaken by middle-class values. Lawrence W. Levine’s Highbrow/Lowbrow; The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.


So far, we’ve almost been discussing film, radio and TV as if they were static essences with static cultural functions, which obviously isn’t true. It’s important to realize that the predominant medium of any given era tends to devour and/or absorb the previous predominant medium or media. So TV absorbed both film and radio, and the Internet does the same with radio, film, and TV. I mean this literally: film first existed almost entirely in theaters, then it existed mainly on TVs (and on video); and today, if it isn’t already being watched mainly on computers and iphones, this may be just around the corner.

And of course the whole notion of what’s public and social and how it becomes public and social is undergoing constant evolution, as is the notion of freedom in relation to all this. I’ve argued in my most recent book that filmgoing is in some ways just as social now as it was when more people saw the same films together in the same theaters; today it’s social in the way that they discuss the films before and after they see them, on the Internet.
Or consider the changing functions of language. During the earliest phases of cinema, when it was silent, immigrants who didn’t speak the language of their adopted country could still go to films and follow most of them. The coming of sound changed all that (after an intermediate period when different solutions were tried, such as multiple versions of the same film in separate spoken languages), and we wound up with either dubbing (in some countries), and subtitles (in other countries). Today we’re limited on the Internet by the languages we speak unless we resort to things like Google Translate. Regional coding of DVDs tries to keep the audiences for certain films and releases subdivided and separate, but my DVD column for Cinema Scope promotes the whole idea of multiregional DVD players and multilingual viewing, and my audience on the Internet is relatively international as a consequence.

In some ways, filmgoers have more freedom of choice today than they’ve ever had before, but only if they’re aware of film history and multiregional DVDs, and most of them—certainly most Americans—aren’t. The growth of advertising to create a “planned” consumerist culture has meanwhile severely limited mainstream choices in numerous ways. Even the ways DVD rental outlets subdivide films by genre and “type” is a curtailment of viewer freedom in some respects. So freedom is a highly variable matter. You can only be free if you’re aware of the available choices, even among niche markets, and very few people are.

VHFS: I agree that film and radio were/are devoured by television, in the same way that the internet is devouring television, film, and photography etc… And I guess it would be fair to say that photography devoured (continues to devour?) painting, sculpture, and architecture. But we are getting away from the original question, and I think that modernism, if we consider a Greenbergian or Friedian definition, always has something to do with a medium exploring the characteristics that make it different from every other medium. So they can devour these other mediums, but they only tend toward modernism when they are self-possessed, when they are testing and redefining whatever it is that makes television, television, and the internet, the internet. That is what makes Ernie Kovacs, at his best, a modernist, because he bends the definitive conventions of television, i.e. commercials, insipid news programming, the poncy cultural critic, back on themselves, and by so doing, makes those conventions visible.

But I am convinced that this aspect of modernism has something to do with freedom. It is just a hunch. Like it is a philosophical, ontological thing, that works of art are potentially models for the way we interact with one another, for human relationships, so the more realized, the more autonomous, the more self-possessed a sculpture, a painting, or a video is the more powerful it becomes. Its hard edges make us define ourselves, helps us to realize who we are, and what our place in the world is, with that much more precision. They are a model for existence, and that is why they must be as fully realized, as truthful as possible, otherwise, they confuse things, rather than clarify things. The problem of American insularity and the control and development of certain kinds of audiences for certain films and videos is certainly part of this story somehow, but I was really trying to make some kind of case for freedom and modernism.

Also, I wanted to talk about the internet as some kind of realization of Benjamin’s idea about the author as producer. Now everyone can be a movie star, can be on television, the internet. YouTube being the most obvious example. I mean anyone can have their own channel literally. I even have one. YouTube has 2 billion viewers a day, and 24 hours of video uploaded every minute. Apparently more video is uploaded to YouTube in 60 days than all 3 major US networks created in 60 years ( 70% of their traffic comes from outside of the U.S.. That is a lot of stupid cats to be sure, and I am not sure it has had anything to do with modernism, maybe it just proves Benjamin wrong? Sure YouTube has been important for revolutions in the middle-east, but maybe it has nothing to do with art, modernism, or freedom for that matter.
Otherwise, I don’t quite buy your idea that film going today is just as social as it was…we might be chatting about it on the internet but I am still a big fan of being there.

JR: I don’t know if I can say it’s quantitatively just as social; my main point is that it’s qualitatively different, i.e. social in a different way. When you call yourself a fan of “being there,” I’m not even sure I know what you mean by “there”, because the film for me is always occurring more inside people’s heads than on particular screens.

As before, we’re hamstrung by the fact that I find Greenberg or Fried on their home turfs irrelevant to my life and interests. And in the case of film or TV or video, I don’t think we’ve even defined what these media are sufficiently to be able to say whether they’ve made people freer on the basis of that definition. At what point does film start being film and stop being theater (by virtue of being theatrical, hence shown in theaters), TV (by virtue of being seen on a TV screen), or part of the Internet? At what point are you positing it as “purely” film? And at what point can you posit it as such? Whatever you pick is arguably nothing more than privileging one generational and/or consumerist bias over another. Personally, I currently favor film when it becomes more like literature—when I can take it down from the shelf and browse through it. I personally think that increases rather than limits my freedom. But I wouldn’t dream of making any ontological or existential claims about the nature of the medium based on this preference. I also miss the moviegoing of my childhood in some ways, but it would be arrogant for me to make some essentialist claims about that experience, or to say that I was “freer” just because I had that experience.

The issue of freedom is still, as I say above, totally dependent on what people know or don’t know about the extent and nature of their choices. If people have more and more choices but know less and less about them, in a way they’re less free than they were.

VHFS: You say Fried and Greenberg are irrelevant to what you do, but you have read them. So maybe not completely irrelevant, despite what you claim.

I don’t think film happens inside people’s heads. For me there is always the materiality of the screen in question. I cannot comment on theater. I never go. But if we try to think about what might qualify as a modernist film, well it is a film about film, like Welles’ unfinished masterpiece Don Quixote, a film that is a metaphor about trying to make a film under impossible circumstances. A film which itself continues to be impossible, as film, now even. And it is a story about film that can best be appreciated on film. Maybe. I mean come to think of it…the fact that bits and pieces of it are now available on YouTube, well that is perhaps part of the unfinishedness of the story.

Also I think you can only make ontological claims according to your preferences, otherwise what are you making your ontological claims on exactly? And I don’t know why you think it would be arrogant to make claims about your childhood moviegoing experience. What are you, Canadian?

I really like what you say about freedom though. This it is totally dependent on what people know or don’t know about the extent and nature of their choices. If people have more and more choices but know less and less about them, in a way they’re less free than they were before they had those choices. So maybe we need some internet critics to keep us afloat on the YouTube tsunami. It is the perfect example. The choices seem infinite, but statistically, just because of the numbers involved we can say, we know less and less about our choices.

Recently Artforum published an article about internet art phenomenon Hennessy Youngman. Hennessy is kind of an artist, art teacher/art, fashion, music consultant and rapper. One of his friends, the artist Jacolby Satterwhite described him as Richard Pryor with a paintbrush, but that is not quite right either because his most important tool is the camera on his computer. Since April 2010 he has uploaded about 19 videos directed at the general public and the art world about art. How to make it, what a curator does, a discussion of relational aesthetics, Bruce Nauman, all in character. And the character is sort of this idiot-savant cross between Flavor Flav and Sister Wendy Beckett if she was into contemporary art and Nicholas Bourriaud, embodying all of the kitschy characteristics of African-American culture along with some truth-y observations about the contemporary art world and those who succeed in it.

People tend to describe Hennessy Youngman weirdly as an art critic and the resultant product as video art, but it is truly internet art, YouTube art. It is the talking head of television, coupled with the often intimate diarist, personal quality of YouTube uploads. It has been insanely popular. Reaching beyond the art world, to hip hop fans, comedy fans. A lot of people even think Hennessy Youngman is actually a real person. For me he is sort of the Ernie Kovacs of the internet, though his batting average is a little bit better. Certainly he makes the Guggenheim experiment look embarrassing ( The thing is I cannot tell if it is mostly entertainment or art.

If the ratio was bad for television, will it necessarily be worse for the internet. Which makes Youngman all the more special. Does the fact that more of us can make art, mean that there will be more art? Does the fact that it is easier to publish now, for everyone, mean that there will be better or more interesting writing available? It is just interesting to me that this new medium, has been accompanied, at least in the art world, by a return to the values associated with modernism. And I guess I am just wondering if it has anything to do with the fact that we are all now authors and producers.


JR: I’ve only read Fried and Greenbrg because of the insistence of you and other art historians that I should, but this hasn’t made them more relevant to anything in my life except my exchanges with art historians.

In the case of Welles’ unfinished Don Quixote, we’re only talking about one scene; the issue of film doesn’t arise in the other scenes….The only reason, incidentally, why that scene is available online is that I posted it.
We all have always been artists and producers of one kind or another; all that’s changed are the methods of delivery, the tools of artmaking, and the language of art historians.

VHFS: I don’t think we are all artists, any more than we are all dentists. If we all are artists, we are mostly bad artists.

So how do you define modernism? What would you consider an important modernist film and why?


JR: I agree — we’re mainly bad artists. But I was mainly just picking up on your statement that we are all authors and producers.

Modernism is not a particular interest of mine, at least not these days. This discussion is happening because of your initiative. Following your lead, I suppose a modernist film is a film that reflects aspects of its own formal boundaries and medium-specific qualities. In a way, the recent film that tells me the most about film is A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and the essay I recently wrote for Trafic expounds on this in some detail, on how it functions as an allegory about cinema.



I suppose Bergman’s Persona would be a pretty good textbook example of a modernist film, for better and for worse. It’s not a film I think about much nowadays, however. I suppose you can say it was pretty important during the 1960s and 70s, along with early Godard, and Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution, and, in the experimental realm, Wavelength.

VHFS: Is a bad artist still an artist? We could say there are artists and then there are dentists. There are filmmakers and then there are people who work for television? Since the internet, maybe we are all dentists, or maybe we all work for television now?

I want to say you are writing about modernism, you are a modernist Jonathan. You have told me yourself many times, and your favorite author is Falkner. What do you mean when you say you are a modernist?


JR: By modernist artist, I mainly mean an artist of the 20th century. That’s certainly what Faulkner was, and Faulkner’s own modernism comes largely from Eliot and Joyce.




Postscript, May 2015:


VHFS: Our ending lacks oomph, and could stand some updating. I for one would be
totally interested in your position on watching things on the Internet, now that we know that in fact, it is the Internet that is watching us.


JR: I try to avoid watching things on the Internet — not so much because I’m being watched (or “watched”) in the process, but mostly because I identify my computer screen mainly with writing, and my DVD and Blu-Ray screen mainly for watching — and my bed or sofa, which I watch things from, for reading as well as watching.

But one of the problems with comparisons between digital and analog viewing in general is that there are so many possible variations in each. Some people who access films on their computers watch those films on big screens; others watch them on their phones. When we say “I’ve just seen a film at home,” we can be referring to any number of things in which what we mean by “a film” isn’t really the same thing. But of course there are also variations between 16mm and 35mm prints of the same film, good prints and bad prints, and so on. Speaking for myself, I’d rather watch a good Blu-Ray of something at home than a bad print of it in a theater, but that’s largely because, as a critic, I can stop and start it up again whenever I want, adjust the volume, add subtitles, etc. — which in many cases means I can use it the way I use a printed text. I can browse, in other words.

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