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Theodor Adorno and Film Theory: The Fingerprint of Spirit (2013)

Book

Book Review by Brandon Konecny. 

Theodor W. Adorno, one of the most recognized members of the Frankfurt School, is a figure seldom mentioned in film studies—and his scarcity is, admittedly, understandable. For anyone who’s read “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment of Mass Deception,” Adorno firmly establishes himself as a scathing critic of cinema, berating everything from its contaminative dependence on industrial technology to its numerous prefabricated clichés, all of which compromise its status as art. The insertion of his ideas into films studies would thus appear to be a most quixotic, perhaps even laughable endeavor. But such isn’t the case for Brian Wall. In what is, to my knowledge, the first full account of Adorno’s significance for the analysis of film, Wall’s Theodor Adorno and Film Theory: The Fingerprint of Spirit moves beyond the caricature of the German thinker as a curmudgeonly aesthete and explores his sociology, aesthetics, and philosophy in relation to cinema, providing us with a new way to view the filmic object as art.

What’s particularly enlightening about Wall’s book is its convincing case for Adorno’s relevance to today’s film scholarship, wherein the formalist and historio-cultural approaches have come to constitute the dominant models of inquiry. Both camps, for the most part, prioritize empiricism and view serious engagement with film theory as a past phenomenon, like the field’s naïve adolescence in which it read Marx’s Das Kapital, pretended to like Pop Art, and spoke of revolution to its likeminded friends. However, the dust kicked up by film studies’ juvenility has settled, and it has since assumed a sense of professionalism. Within this “post-theoretical” context, film theory consistently finds itself having to prove its legitimacy, perhaps as penance for its unabashed totalizing tendencies of decades past. As Wall sees it, if theory is to proceed within such a framework, Adorno’s concern with the “particular,” here particular films, may very well offer itself as a possible solution. With the adoption of Adorno’s method of “immanent critique,” whereby one locates contradictions in the rules and systems necessary for an object’s production, theoretical inquiry can maintain its specificity by remaining within the terms of a text and considering its details as they present themselves, not in relation to a ready-made aggregate of doctrines. Although not the solvent it may lead some idealistic readers to expect, it’s certainly an interesting thought; and, if widely practiced, this method could aid theory in becoming a decisive voice in twenty-first-century film scholarship.

Beyond its mollifying function in film studies, Wall argues that immanent critique can also serve as an effective means with which to probe the filmic object’s uncomfortable status as a commodity—and the possibility of its elevation to art, even. With his four case studies, The Maltese Falcon (1941), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Repo Man (1984), and The Big Lebowski (1998), he claims that these texts, in consequence of their singularity, leave us with a nagging sense that, inherent in each of them, there is a resistance towards their own commodification. It’s as if they struggle to verbalize their position as artworks. This assertion appears, on its surface, rather speculative and idealistic, to say the least. However, it holds more water if we consider the notion of art in terms of Adornonian aesthetics.

For Adorno, art possesses an innate utopian quality that allows it to transgress the utilitarian orthodoxy of commodification and exchange value, and it can thereby operate within reality as an irritant that produces a negative knowledge of modern existence. But this knowledge isn’t simply a reflection of the social system as in realism; rather it illuminates the world from a point of view that would allow for its redemption, free from exploitive production practices and the overall reduction of humanity. In this sense, it’s the job of theory to bring this out of art, as Walls points out, like an analyst attempting to bring what is repressed in the analysand to the level of enunciation. And in doing so, we can see the artistic object’s relation to the material conditions of its production on which it reflects and comments.

Accordingly, Wall looks at the nature of his case studies’ presentation of the sought after object, and by focusing primarily on their textual action he shows that they seem to suggests something about their own status as commodities. For in each film, the object pursued by all interested parties comes to, by and large, construct the social coordinates of their diegetic realities. These singular objects, being meaningless in and of themselves, seem to possess a peculiar immaterial power, one which gives us pause as to how these objects can have such a decisive, if not frightening, structural role in their respective narratives. It’s this curiosity that guides our attention to the materialist dimension of these films—that is to say, their meditations on the material condition that give rise to such behavior towards the commodified object—and takes us to the heart of the matter, that utopian desires are ultimately unattainable within the confines of late capitalism. Doesn’t this metacritical ability, as propounded by Adorno, come to affirm these filmic objects’ status as art? It would certainly appear so, and such is the argument of Wall. Whether it’s the “Great Whatsit” in Kiss Me Deadly or the luminous aliens concealed in Dr. Parnell’s trunk in Repo Man, we can see that the particular manner by which these singular objects are sought after come to inform these works’ ambition towards art.

For all of its intelligence and novelty, I (alas) can’t say that I would highly recommend this book, especially to those already unfamiliar with Adorno and the Frankfurt School. For one thing, Wall’s writing is the source of a great amount of frustration. It must be said that he’s clearly a talented and entertaining writer, and bespeckles his text with a number of witty and conversational insights. Perhaps my favorite of them is his characterization of theory in contemporary film studies, where he writes, “Hasn’t theory and especially film theory come to seem outmoded, sporting a mullet, dad in a Twisted Sister T-shirt passed out at a party?” But in the absence of these occasional quips, our laughter can no longer distract us from the fact that, starring us in the face, is highly pedantic and verbose prose. For in each chapter, the reader must endure a plenitude of endless sentences, subordinate clause upon subordinate clause, in hopes of getting to the heart of Wall’s argument. But by the time he actually makes his point, one may very well have forgotten the initial issues at hand, leaving readers to flip back pages in an attempt to figure out what it was they missed. Such a flummoxing writing style is, indeed, quite dated and hinders Wall’s flow of argumentation rather than facilitates it.

Wall further complicates this issue with his unclear explanations of some of Adorno’s key concepts. In the early chapters, for instance, he frequently tosses around ghastly Adornonian jargon without giving them much (or any) gloss. And while many of these terms’ definitions can, to be sure, be inferred from their context—Culture Industry and negative dialectics, for example—those such as “truth content,” one of Adorno’s more slippery ideas, requires much more than just a casual usage, as is the case in his introduction. This lack of clarity is particularly unfortunate considering that Adorno’s philosophy, aesthetics, and sociology are, as I’ve mentioned, foreign to many of those in film studies; and this can only result in barring all those who aren’t among the most astute critical theory jockeys from his work. It’s as if Wall, who’s obviously an impressively articulate reader of Adorno, intentionally demands an inordinate amount of familiarity with the German thinker’s work in order to enjoy his book. Whether or not this is the case, it nonetheless makes Wall’s project come off pompous and exclusory, and it’s this dimension of the work, I claim, that is its most unfortunate shortcoming.

For enthusiasts of Adorno and his relation to film theory, this book is not your long awaited messiah; however, it certainly may be thought of as a prophet of sorts. In this sense, Wall’s book marks an important moment in film theory: it represents an impressive effort to introduce Adorno into a field that has, by and large, yet to know his significance. How many film students are introduced to his ideas, or even his name? I’d estimate that it is, at best, only a very few, especially at the undergraduate level. All this makes Wall’s book an especially welcome addition to contemporary film theory. Indeed, perhaps enlightened readers of his book can leave behind the widely held notion of Adorno as a Eurocentric mandarin, and instead view him as a purveyor of opportunities for film scholarship, allowing us to transverse film’s status as a commodity and to see in those promising texts the ambition to enter into the realm of art.

Brandon Konecny is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.

1 Comment for “Theodor Adorno and Film Theory: The Fingerprint of Spirit (2013)”

  1. Thank you for this review. I am glad to read that I wasn’t the only one struggling with the author’s jargon. It takes more than a rudimentary understanding of Adorno’s, but also Freud’s, Marx’s, or Lacan’s thought to be able to follow Wall’s argumentation satisfactorily. Unfortunately for most graduate students today, such an extensive knowledge in critical theory is rarely attained during one’s studies.

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