Retro Film Theory Feels Important but Romantically Distant in ‘On the Eve of the Future’

As hybrid art critic-scholar, Annette Michelson writes with a complex beauty that toggles between mechanical and poetic.

I experienced a fragmented nostalgia of sorts while reading and reviewing On the Eve of the Future: Selected Writings on Film. As the title suggests, the volume collets key writings from one of the most influential advocates and architects of Film Studies, Annette Michelson. For the uninitiated, Michelson serves as Emeritus Professor to the Department of Film Studies at New York University. The art/film critic is also a leading voice behind the scholarly journal October, and her editorial-contributor roles helped shape and legitimize criticism’s role in response to popular culture. Her storied placement and legacy now archived alongside film history, On the Eve of the Future represents an opportunity to catalogue scholarly insights and theorizations throughout Michelson’s career.

The names and conversations that flow throughout Michelson’s ruminations speak directly to key discourses occurring within art criticism societies throughout the earliest years of film studies. Thus, this review comes with a fair warning that not unlike the film circles that elide casual audiences, readers may encounter a text more insular than invitational.

At times, reading through Michelson’s On the Eve of the Future is like sneaking into a high culture conversation early in life but without the proper channels of ritualistic indoctrination. One knows the voices share perspectives forged at a syncretic level, with sharp appreciation for the craft and care and rigor for each idea. And yet one must sometimes focus with a level of ignorance, allowing the process of absorption and reflection to emerge as shared perspective.

The selected opening essay charters a convoluted admixture of sorts, where the film theorist mixes metaphorical mediums between essays on photography, technology, art, in a kind of creative reflection on film’s problematic history of objectifying the female form. The reader doesn’t receive this information outright (let alone early on), but like several rhetorical theory essays I was walked through by a trained eye, a thesis emerges on the backside like the twist ending to a noir mystery.

To call On the Eve of the Future cryptic, would be, I suppose, a compliment. A wry smile cracks across my face at the thought of a young grad student venturing into the table of contents only to shortly thereafter wither away in defeat. The collected essays mirror reflections about reflections about film, and a kind of looking glass effect takes shape within these pages; the camera lucida process put to prose for the cinephilic intelligentsia.

The second chapter — or rather, second entry since the collected anthology is not necessarily linear in chronological origination — delves into familiar terrain with early film scholarship, the relationship between photography and film, influences between mediums, and the critic-scholars’ role in looking for (and often creating) meaning with and without a desire of author’s intent. Here Michelson’s essay “The Art of Moving Shadows” stresses and celebrates the technological (and artistic) paradigm shift as the medium of photography, through stenography, evolves toward cinematography. The author’s words are kempt, but there are hints of giddy passion that dance between historical excerpts.

Film students and scholars will recognize the myriad of asynchronous theoretical language as it pivots from page to page — the film critic’s paint on canvas or light-image on celluloid strip. Michelson marches in the who’s who of names tethered to experimental film (and film criticism) history: Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, André Bazin, Maya Deren, and so many become interwoven in conversation with one another, sometimes as it were in life.

Michelson employs the page as canvas to wrestle with profound theorizations concerning film’s artistic virtue, and she takes on an avant-garde medium long before synergistic franchises now dominate studio profit margins for industry financiers and global stakeholders. As hybrid art critic-scholar, she writes with a complex beauty that toggles between mechanical and poetic. Contemporary editors would frown upon this type of writing style, but there’s much to cherish in Michelson’s bygone voice. Yet this distance may generate a language barrier of sorts for potential readers. Her essays suggest a time capsule of introspection more foreign to contemporary ears and eyes and prosumer audiences.

If the text sounds impenetrable, then this description is doing Michelson’s work justice. This is not a bad thing at all, per se, but the masses (and publisher) might increase its vantage point through expanding an editorial voice. This type of collection would benefit greatly from translation in the form of running commentaries between units, something akin to Nicholas Mirzoeff’s “keyword” ruminations between chapters in his more readerly Introduction to Visual Culture (2009, New York: Routledge) or perhaps the guest commentaries that bookend each chapter of Kathleen Glenister Roberts’ teacherly edited anthology Communication Theory and Millennial Popular Culture: Essays and Applications (2016, New York: Peter Lang).

Ultimately, On the Eve of the Future is an ironic title for a medium (e.g., film) in artistic decline. The effort is there but mass translation is not on the menu. Michelson’s manuscripts speak to inner circles and insular conversations. The evidence is breathtaking, but only to the initiated. Outside of film studies departments, where these vintage ruminations provide a criterion edition of archival insights, this read will likely provoke a “glance” at best upon the casual sitting room table. I’m reminded of other circulated texts in grad school programs and nonconformist clubs, works like French philosophy and Marxist theory and many other “dirty words” begrudged by mainstream publics. I love it, in theory. But sometimes, in theory, that’s the way we prefer art and art criticism; discrete and in small doses, in the secret company of a select few.

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See also Annette Michelson on Sergei Eisenstein.

RATING 6 / 10