The Cinema

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    The films of Gracie Fields may be ‘more valuable to the social historian than the poems of W. H. Auden’, but Auden’s encounter with the movies is nonetheless highly revealing about a moment with profound and ongoing consequences. Response to the cinematic imaginary is a defining characteristic of the writing of his time, epitomizing how traditional cultural hierarchies came to be increasingly questioned or creatively breached. In 1934, according to Paul Rotha, 18,000,000 Britons saw films each week, generating £40,000,000 in revenue; whereas in 1936, the BBC’s first regular TV service reached only 20,000 sets in Greater London. In this pre-war era, then, commercial newsreels mediated Baudrillard’s ‘hyperreality’ (‘the real’s hallucinatory resemblance to itself’) to the widest audiences, which documentary, although favoured by intellectuals, rarely reached. Arthur Marwick argues that, statistically, popular features tell us more about the political unconscious of the time, ‘the unvoiced assumptions’ of people who watched them. Frequent cinemagoers were typically young, working-class, urban, and female (the opposite demographic to prominent poets); nonetheless, intermediality between 1930s writing and cinema is symptomatic of changes in relations between ‘Literature’ and popular forms. Studies of Auden and film have tended – perhaps understandably, given his practical involvement – to concentrate on documentarism. His writings, however, indicate critical and creative interests in a wider spectrum of genres and audiences. Moreover, Auden didn’t approach film in isolation, but through its interconnections with other media as an ideological matrix, reflecting Charles Madge’s notion of a ‘twisted skein’. A whole complex of cinematic motifs and susceptibilities, that would animate but also increasingly trouble Leftist writers, already figures in ‘Consider this and in our time’ (1930). Its famous topical imperative has the immediacy and virtual presentness of cinematic visualisation in aerial perspective, ‘As the hawk sees it or the helmeted airman’; the noted ‘air-mindedness’ of 1930s culture is indivisible from ‘film-mindedness’. Fliers or mountaineers were modernity’s perfect heroes and the medium’s ideal subjects for showcasing dramatic camera angles, breath-taking perspectives, and vicarious thrills, but also for harnessing the political imagination. Auden’s poem exercises an idealized ‘mobilized virtual gaze’, which Ann Friedberg considers characteristic of cinematized modern sensibility. This mimics organic vision yet enhances it as only technology can, zooming down into pinpoint close-up: The clouds rift suddenly – look there, At cigarette-end smouldering on a border, At the first garden party of the year. (EA, p. 46)

    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationW. H. Auden in Context
    EditorsTony Sharpe
    Place of PublicationCambridge
    PublisherCambridge University Press
    Number of pages12
    ISBN (Electronic)9781139018180
    ISBN (Print)9780521196574
    Publication statusPublished - 2013

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Arts and Humanities(all)


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