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Toward a New Film Aesthetic Review by Adam Miller Bruce Isaacs
London/New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2008
$29.95/Trade Paper

The title of Bruce Isaacs' Toward a New Film Aesthetic implies a kind of innovation or debut of a "new" theoretical approach to film. In reality, Isaacs' book works more to defend an aesthetic produced by the past thirty years of filmmaking with a special focus on the 1990s. The book effectively recounts and critically organizes the ideas developed by filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction [1994]) and the Wachowski brothers (The Matrix [1999]) but does little to add to them. Isaacs' more incisive contributions come by way of his critiques of the critical stances of earlier theorists who contributed to visual culture like Theodor Adorno and Frederic Jameson.

The first chapter of the book is, for the moderately initiated film student, an efficient review and analysis of the cinematic realism propounded by André Bazin and Siegfried Kracauer. For these theorists, cinema was envisaged to offer a depiction of reality in ways which prior visual forms like painting and photography could not. With the advent of "moving pictures" artists could at last capture the "real" object of the photograph in the context of dynamic time and space. So powerful was this innovation that, according to Isaacs', it remained the dominant aesthetic goal for much of twentieth century cinema.

By contrast the "new aesthetic" to which Isaacs refers is informed by Jean Baudrillard and other postmodern thinkers. Rather than films attempting to present an ever more "real" experience, the most exciting instances of contemporary cinema, for Isaacs, are those which are "always already" presentations of cinema. The difference between mere cinematic quotation and reference and the "always already" cinematic aesthetic is that the latter never puts filmic quotation marks around its references. Rather, the reference is not used referentially at all, but rather is incorporated into the logic of the new film. In Isaacs words these films are "hermetically enclosed cinematic quotations" (181). Although the well-versed consumer of film will recognize these references, the offending film never explicitly acknowledges that it reaches into other films for content.

Consider, as Isaacs does, Tarantino's oeuvre. Tarantino plays with genericity (his characters get into genre-defined character on screen—think Jules and Vincent right before they put the hit on a bunch of college kids turned crooks in Pulp Fiction). Likewise, Kill Bill (2003) quotes kung fu films (Uma Thurman's character at one point dons the same costume worn by Bruce Lee) and Westerns (Thurman's character, again, is an utterance of Sergio Leone's "Man with No Name"). But again, these references to other films are simply incorporated into the logic, the ontology, the "realism" of Tarantino's films.

As a second example, Isaacs argues that in The Matrix Keanu Reeves' character, Neo, dies and is resurrected despite the fact that the "realism" of the film makes clear that if you die in the Matrix you die in real life. Neo is slain by the adversarial Agent Smith but is brought back to life by his lover's kiss. Isaacs argues that the impetus for these events is not a kind of realist logic, but rather a sequence of quotations—Sleeping Beauty and the mythology of Christ, for example—which The Matrix quotes as justification for Neo's resurrection. His survival only works, logically, if the movie watcher is familiar with and accepts these quotations as ontological of the film itself.

Perhaps even more provocative than the "new" aesthetic is Isaacs' suggestion of the new role for the film critic. Isaacs rejects what he considers the aloof positions of T.W. Adorno and Frederic Jameson, two critics who keep the act of consuming popular culture at arm's length. What some might call "critical distance," Isaacs regards as critical disconnect. He thus coins the term "spectator/critic." Rather than thumbing a critical nose at popular culture—see Adorno and Max Horkheimer's formulation of "culture industry" in their book The Dialectic of Enlightenment, or Jameson's definition of "pastiche" as a mutation of what was traditionally considered "parody" in his Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism—Isaacs believes that critics should participate in consuming it right along with the average moviegoer. His reasoning is twofold. First, consumption of popular cinema is necessary for the critic to be able to "pick up" on the above discussed new cinematic aesthetic. Second, Isaacs worries that film theory is quickly losing relevance to the actual experience of going to the cinema and participating in the current discourse of film watching.

Isaacs' analyses of the The Matrix and Pulp Fiction are insightful, but Adorno and Jameson still provide important insights into the production, if not consumption, of pop art. The Matrix and Pulp Fiction are "good" films—already the subject of both popular and critical celebration, but does Isaacs' theory hold up to broader case studies? Simply put, what about "bad" films which nevertheless captures the mass audience's attention? If Tarantino is the darling of 90s cinema, what does that make Michael Bay (Pearl Harbor [2001], Transformers [2007])? Transformers grossed almost $320 million five months after its opening weekend, more than doubling its cost of production. Would Isaacs concede that Bay's films are pastiche or are they also hermetic quotations? (Some would even claim that Bay's The Island [2005] is an outright plagiarism of the 1979 cult hit Parts: The Clonus Horror).

Aside from questions of aesthetic labeling, there is also the only briefly addressed issue of the politics of a film. Isaacs notes that the last era of films which sought to express the referential ideas or beliefs of their creators was the 1970s (think Apocalypse Now [1979]). Instead the rise of popular blockbusters like Star Wars (1977) led to the new aesthetic of pop cinema quotation/discursivity. Star Wars, for example, "quotes" Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress (1958) not to mention the Hollywood Western. Star Wars also quotes Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will (1935) in its concluding scene. Isaacs calls such quotations "fetishizations" of the earlier films which is "essentially an aesthetic practice" (56). He adds, "Film has generally been pressed too hastily into the service of an ideological project" (58).

It's hard to disagree with that statement. Any criticism made "too hastily" is likely to run into error. Perhaps the real ambivalence is among politically-minded critics who fear that the manipulation of aesthetics by less than politically correct filmmakers can prove threatening. If so, then all the more reason to read Isaacs' book and find out just what to expect from this new film aesthetic.

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