Review: Leo Charney's Empty Moments: Cinema, Modernity, and Drift (Durham: Duke UP, 1998).

Jim Roberts

Enculturation, Vol. 2, No. 1, Fall 1998

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Books attempting to map the movements of a specific cinematic stroke frequently get caught up in the discourse of its own theoretical camp. Bogged down in a desire to employ the language of theoretical predecessors, these texts often read more like explorations of the authors' understanding of the language than acute commentary in their own right. Such is not the case with Leo Charney's Empty Moments: Cinema, Modernity, and Drift (Durham: Duke UP, 1998). Wandering around in the drift created by the cinema of modernity, Charney comes to present the forces that created that drift, "a state of consciousness collapsed into a mode of re-presentation." Unable to grasp, understand, or regulate the emptiness found in modernity's desire to capture presence, cinema came "to mask the emptiness," to endlessly defer each present moment into the future. Meaning, identity, truth, and subject(ivity) were sought and lost simultaneously in the cinematic experience of the fleeting present.

What Empty Moments achieves, then, is not a concretized form of modern cinema but an appreciation for the various forces, those of the philosophical conceptions of time/memory, Cubist perspectives, and theories of presence, that all contributed to the complex cinema coming out of the turn of the century. By working through parts of Proust, Husserl, Kelvin, and Bellour, Charney is able to contribute a fresh look into cinema's development as a cultural and psychic phenomenon. Rather than a historical tour from Eadweard Muybridge to Thomas Edison and on through to the parallel editing of classical Hollywood, Empty Moments works to reveal how "modernity's visual environment plunged the subject into a ceaselessly shifting effort at selection and attention; this process expressed itself in discrete moments through which the urban subject could attempt to fix the panorama of changing impressions."

Throughout, this book complicates our understanding of modernity and the cinematic society through which and into which it was rendered. If Charney's book maps modernity's (failed) attempts to capture presence in the reproduction of the present, then Hal Hartley's most recent film, Henry Fool, seems to revel in the incommensurable moments of subjectification. What forces come together to take a garbage man, one "we all thought was retarded [because] he masturbated constantly," on to the Nobel Prize for poetry? What caesuras must be opened? Hartley's films have never attempted to rectify the fault lines of subjectivity (perhaps this is why Long Island serves such a role as it does in his earlier films: it's a quintessential vector of subject-worlds); indeed, his films have constantly indulged themselves in exploring the gaps that give rise to subjects. Like modernity's drifting subject, Henry Fool wanders. But, rather than wandering to find a place (of presence, truth, or fulfillment) the characters in the film wander for wandering's sake. The wandering is the work and the play, and both Charney's and Hartley's efforts map similar modes of movement, and each is strikingly deft at wandering around the subjects in which it finds itself.

Copyright © Enculturation 1998

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