Spielmann on Parker-Flynn (2021)

Parker-Flynn, Christina. Artificial Generation: Photogenic French Literature and the Prehistory of Cinematic Modernity. Rutgers UP, 2021, pp 246, ISBN 978-1-978825-07-9

To some extent, the topic of this book is sketched out in the lengthy subtitle. Broadly, the author's goal is to argue that “French Literature” was proto-cinematic, that it experimented with techniques and an aesthetics of representation prefiguring film, with photography as an early reference. Thus it was strikingly modern before the concept was even coined, and founded a visual expressivity that can still be observed in contemporary film. Such a hypothesis is immediately intriguing to a reader familiar with both nineteenth-century French literature and early film history.

The book is divided in two parts, one devoted to “Literary simulations” and the second to “Cinematic replications.” Each chapter of the first part deals with a specific work by a single author: Théophile Gautier's 1836 La Morte amoureuse, Villiers de l'Isle Adam's 1886 L'Ève future, and Oscar Wilde's 1891 play Salomé. The second part includes a chapter discussing various works that relate to the “statuesque” in early cinema, followed by a second focused almost exclusively on Hitchcok's 1958 Vertigo. An epilogue centering on Denis Villeneuve's 2017 science-fiction film Blade Runner 2049 closes the volume.

Indeed, what Parker-Flynn really explores is duplication of the human female by male creators under all its possible forms, of which artificial generation is but a subset. She tends to conflate the literal engineering of a life-like female creature—the andréïde in L'Ève future, the “replicant” Rachael in Blade Runner—and metaphorical creation by an artist. The Pygmalion myth is a kind of leitmotif in this book, notwithstanding the fact that there is an ontological chasm between deliberately building an android, from scratch or from recycled human parts (as in Frankenstein), and sculpting or painting a (female) figure, which then magically comes to life. Such distinctions are downplayed in an attempt to link various elements from various works in various media and various genres into a vast interconnected web, a plan that does not entirely work out because Artificial Generation largely rests on analogies: often, one element in a whole entity being somewhat analogous to another element from another entity is taken as evidence of a global analogical relationship. For example, we are told that Gautier's La Morte amoureuse is about a fantastically convincing illusion (a long-dead woman who seems alive enough to seduce the hero), and that film provides images that, in their own way, create the illusion of reality; as a result, the 1846 tale should be regarded as “proto-cinematic.”

While the core concern of Parker-Flynn’s study seems to be “French Literature,” it begins with a discussion on the nature of film under the title “Modernity's Reori-gene-ation” (sic) and a quote by Delluc who claimed that “cinema surpasses art by being life,” clearly a rhetorical statement. Parker-Flynn tends to make similar claims that are metaphorical for the most part, and then treat the metaphor as established fact. For instance, she notes that to audiences who had never seen a film, its images looked realistic to an unprecedented level, and spectators may have mistaken them for life itself (127). Yet cinema is not “life”—it is constituted by projected images, which are not biological material, pace early theorists who developed a mystical view that Parker-Flynn endorses with the concept of photogénie, borrowed from Epstein (1924). She sometimes treats the process of “creating life” as a metaphor, and sometimes literally, using the ambiguity to bolster her argument.

There are several major threads running through this book: illusionistic optics (adducing to filmic representation), duplication, female beings as created by male engineers (Edison in L'Ève future) or artists (Pygmalion and his numerous later epigones), the power of the subconscious and of symbols (which pops up notably in chapters one and five). Demonstrating how they all cohere into a solid, convincing whole was manifestly the author's aim, but many of the links she proposes remain somewhat speculative, especially those based on disputable analogies.

Artificial Generation reads more like a collection of essays on topics that are, to some degree, related, either by thematic strands or common elements, yet do not amount to a coherent whole. Hence the lack of a clear research question in the introduction, and the absence of a conclusion at the end. On the micro level, there is much provocative commentary on specific aspects of specific works, but digressions keep distracting us from the main point, or perhaps sometimes underline the author's struggle to make a point.

From another perspective, it seems like the author could have more fully considered the developmental arc of a theme or movement from which she selected material to analyze. I was struck by the relative status of “artificial generation” (here chosen as the main theme) in the greater concern of the difference and boundary between life and death pervading a great deal of what Lovecraft called “weird literature,” to which La Morte amoureuse and L'Ève future definitely belong. I was therefore expecting much more importance given on the one hand to Poe's Valdemar, Premature Burial and House of Usher, and on the other hand to Woolstonecraft's Frankenstein, or for that matter to François-Félix Nogaret’s 1790 Le Miroir des événemens actuels, ou la belle au plus offrant: Histoire à deux visages, which features a female automaton. But I also expected extensive engagement with Alex Garland's 2014 film Ex Machina, and perhaps Spike Jonze's 2013 Her, both exploring the conceit of an artificially created woman. Conversely, fond as I am of the figure of Salomé (in Wilde's play, Strauss' opera and various other iterations), I did not find its inclusion particularly relevant at first. Even less so the chapter devoted to Hitchcock's Vertigo, in which Parker-Flynn never really manages to articulate how it relates to her earlier corpus, other than metaphorically.

In fact, this last, apparently detached essay might provide a clue as to the impression of fragmentation in Artificial Generation. The real topic is the “problematic” female figure in modern art and how it is produced by men in literature, drama, painting, acting, dancing and on film; how men, yearning to obtain an ideal woman and unable to find one among ordinary female beings around them, decide to create her in different ways. From that point of view, Parker-Flynn's analyses seem much more compelling, as she outlines the recurrence of certain motifs under various guises. Thus we understand how the protagonist of La Morte amoureuse constructs his ideal love interest from a vision of a cadaver, not unlike the protagonist of Vertigo who fashions his new paramour by seeing her as a new iteration of a now dead woman, whereas others opt for building their ideal woman, literally. No matter what the chosen method, the outcome is never fully or durably positive—suggesting that this Promethean (or Pygmalionesque) ambition is inevitably doomed to fail.

One wishes that Parker-Flynn had managed to reach a more definitive conclusion to her explorations; certainly she establishes a continuity between early literary treatments of the created female and its later filmic realizations and brings out recurring elements in works that might otherwise appear unrelated. While not always connecting the dots in the most satisfactory fashion, Artificial Generation is an engrossing read for all those interested in how the specificity of cinema may be better understood in relationship to other art forms, in ways that are infinitely more complex than a straight derivation model would let us believe.

Guy Spielmann
Georgetown University