Jaroslav Andĕl/Petr Szczepaník (Eds.), “Cinema All The Time: An Anthology of Czech Film Theory and Criticism, 1908-1939” (Film Book Review)

Jaroslav Anděl/Petr Szczepaník (eds.), CINEMA ALL THE TIME: An Anthology of Czech Film Theory and Criticism, 1908-1939. Translated by Kevin B. Johnson, Prague: National Film Archive, 2008. 315 pp.

Petr Szczepaník/Jaroslav Anděl (eds.), STÁLE KINEMA: Antologie českého myšlení o filmu 1904-1950, Praha: Národního filmového archivu, 2008. 430s.

Until recently, the history of Czech film theory and criticism has been a subject limited to specialists.  Original theoretical texts dealing with Czech cinema are not easily available and for the most part have gone untranslated. It is therefore not surprising that, until now, the historical importance and cultural value of Czech film theory and criticism was to a great extent unknown in an international context. The anthology Cinema All The Time, edited and annotated by Jaroslav Andel and Petr Szczepanik, has the potential to put an end to this poverty of international inquiry, presenting a selection of important and unjustifiably forgotten texts from the first half of 20th century.

The anthology has been published in both English and Czech, and the Czech edition contains more than forty texts spanning the period from 1904 to 1950. The English edition, translated by Kevin B. Johnson, largely contains works translated from Czech for the first time, but focuses on a short period, treating the years between1908 and 1939.

In their comprehensive and well-founded introduction, the two editors explain their selection of texts and the thematic structure of the anthology while providing extensive commentary on singular theoretical aspects concerning film aesthetics. The editors then divide the anthology into seven sections in which they seek to present some of the central discourses in film theory from this period.  These include the work of such pivotal Czech thinkers as Václav Tille (Kinéma, 1908) and Karel Čapek (e.g. The Cinema, 1910; The Style of the Cinematograph, 1913); Karel Teige’s writings on the aesthetics of film (e.g. Photo Cinéma Film, 1922; The Aesthetics of Film and Cinégraphie, 1924); J. Voskovec’s and Vítězslav Nezval’s manifestos on Photogénie, as well as Alexander Hackenschmied’s essays on the poetics of cinema up to the formalistic-structuralistic analyses of film by  Jan Mukařovský and Roman Jakobson (e.g. A Note on the Aesthetics of Film, 1933; Is the Film in Decline, 1933).

Of particular interest is the decision by the editors to include an 1819 text by Jan Evangelista Purkyně, a Czech scientist born in Libochovice. Purkyně’s experimental work had been influential in the foundation of neurophysiology as a scientific field and his continuing work on vision and sensory experience (which was partially published in the anthology as Contributions to the Knowledge of Vision in its Subjective Aspect) establish him as an important forerunner of film theory.

From this beginning in the physiology of vision, the anthology goes on to feature some remarkable early inquires into the socio-cultural importance of cinema, as well as (V. Tille) on questions of  style and the artistic possibilities of film (K. and J. Čapek). It was manifestos such as these on the aesthetics of Czech avant-garde cinema in the 1920s that opened doors for more thorough aesthetic, technical, and scientific examinations that would follow ( for example, Václavek’s 1924 On the Sociology of Film), and it was in this way that the cinema began to be regarded as an autonomous art form, rather than the passing craze it had seemed in the first few years of the 20th century.  Indeed, for the Czech avant-garde (a group mainly represented by the artistic group Devětsil), film became nothing less than the “machine art of the electric century” (K. Teige), the very epitome for modernity.

The second section entitled “Film as a Poetist Machine,” shows the influence of French film aesthetics on Czech artists of the twenties. Jean Epstein’s manifestos and Louis Delluc’s book Photogénie (1920) are pivotal texts for the development of a uniquie Czech film aesthetic and it is through tracing these influences that one may also begin to discern the development of film as an art in the form of poetist  art, a school of thought that sought to push back against comodification and professionalism though a new focus on amateurism and spontaneity.

Sections Three and Four are comprised of texts such as Vít Obrtel’s Architecture and Film, 1926, Jan Kučera’s Film and Building, 1933 or E.F. Burian’s Music in Sound Film, 1933, and highlight such international theoretical discourses on space and time in film arts that reach beyond medium specificity. The anthology concludes with some better-known pieces of the Prague linguistic circle, which outline a structuralist aesthetics of film and filmic elements, such as time or the actor (e.g. Jan Mukařovský, An Attempt at a Structural Analysis of an Actor’s Figure, 1931; Time in Film, 1933).

Cinema All The Time represents an important contribution to the international history of media theory and aesthetics. With their broadly representative selection and helpful comments, Jaroslav Anděl and Petr Szczepaník demostrate the special importance and originality of thought in Czech media theory in the first half of the 20th century, thereby enriching the field of film theory at large with some important and hitherto unexplored contributions.

Jeanette Fabian teaches Czech literary and cultural studies at the Humboldt-University of Berlin.