Book review / Cultural Theory and Concepts

Benjamin Fondane or the Unfilmable Scenario

By Jan Baetens

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Nadja Cohen, Fondane et le cinéma – Paris, ed. Jean-Michel Place, 2016, 112 P., 10 euros

When new media appear, McLuhan argues, they tend to absorb old media, the latter surviving as “content” of the former. Yet if the medium is the message, as McLuhan’s still challenging slogan claims, this meaning does not only rest on its capacity to supersede an older medium. It has much more to do with the global transformation of the mediasphere that it both disrupts and reshapes and, more generally, with our interaction with the world, which is always medium-based.

Hence the importance of new media theory and practices that try to take into account this larger environment, instead of focusing on fetishlike gadgets or the mere pleasure of the novelty for novelty’s sake. One of the key aspects of the modern media environment is the acceleration of history and the subsequent impossibility to rely on stable media structures.

Nadja Cohen’s new contribution to the film and literature debate, after the superb Les Poètes modernes et le cinéma: 1910-1930 (Garnier, 2013), is part of this broader reflection on media change as seen through the lens of Benjamin Fondane (1898-1944). A post-Dada poet and artist, Fondane has elaborated around 1930 a very special kind of literary genre, somewhat uneventfully called “film-poem”, that pushes the new spirit of velocity and impossible stasis to its utmost limits. Fondane’s film-poems are not poems “on” film or “inspired” by cinema, nor are they examples of poetic cinema (whatever this term may signify). fondaneThey are instead screenplays, but screenplays that explicitly present themselves as unfilmable –less in the sense of parodies of screenwriting (this is what Boris Vian will do twenty years later in his fake scenario for the adaptation of I Will Spit on Your Graves) than as attempts to materialize the abstract idea of the ruin of all things solid in an era whose muse was destruction.

Nadja Cohen’s study offers a brilliant contextualization of the figure, the work and the thinking of Fondane, often discarded as a minor Surrealist. It also contains excellent close-readings of some of his film-poems, while astutely exploring Fondane’s lesser known visual collages that are the flip side of his writing production. But above all it, is a marvelously written book, which belongs to the shelves of all poetry and film lovers.