Cinema and modernism

Modernism was concerned with everyday life, perception, time and the kaleidoscopic and fractured experience of urban space. Cinema, with its techniques of close-up, panning, flashbacks and montage played a major role in shaping experimental works such as Mrs Dalloway or Ulysses. Here Laura Marcus explores the impact of cinema on modernist literature.

The close and complex relationships between modernist literature and film have become central topics in the last few decades, driven in part by an interest in the interactions between technology and the arts. From the early 20th century onwards, critics and theorists have sought to define the essence of film’s identity, in particular through its relations of space and time, as well as its blending of technology and art, of mimesis (film’s doubling of reality) and montage (its cutting and reordering of its materials), of presence and absence effects and of the smoothing of subject (or self) and object. There has also been a desire to understand how film, as it emerged in the final years of the 19th century, contributed to the shaping of modernist literature. One central concern is that of writers’ responses to the threat, and the promise, of the new medium.

Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘The Cinema’

Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘The Cinema’ is one of the most significant meditations on film to have been produced by a modernist writer.[1] The essay first appeared in Arts (New York) in June 1926: a variant edition was published in the Nation and Athenaeum on 3 July 1926 and (without Woolf’s consent) as ‘The Movies and Reality’ in the New Republic of 4 August 1926. Two unpublished typescript drafts also exist: they, like the published essays, reveal both Woolf’s sense of the essentially speculative nature of any commentary on the cinema, in a context in which future developments of the medium were so unpredictable, and the consistency of her particular interests in film. She saw in the cinema a means of capturing sensations and emotions too indirect, fleeting or abstract to be the subjects of the established arts. The earliest draft refers to the sensations we experience (which might be fear or excitement) ‘in a garden where the wind blows a feather pirouetting before us’ or with ‘the emergence of an unexpected shadow’.[2]

'The Cinema' by Virginia Woolf, from The Nation and Athenaeum

'The Cinema' by Virginia Woolf, from The Nation and Athanaeum

Virginia Woolf's essay 'The Cinema' printed in the Nation and Athenaeum on 3 July 1926.

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Film would thus appear to be closer to nature than to art, and Woolf saw in it the potential for a comprehension of ‘reality’ at once entirely new and ‘archaic’ or ‘primitive’: the essay in all its versions comes back repeatedly to an image of ‘the savages of the twentieth century watching the pictures’.[3] While a number of commentators have interpreted this as Woolf’s negative response to film, such a reading reduces and simplifies the complexities of her response. Woolf was by no means alone in understanding film as a medium at once absolutely modern and yet reaching back to the earliest forms of human expression, as in modes of picture-writing, and to the fundamentals of human emotion (Fear, Pain, Rage, Anger, Joy). Any aversion to film Woolf felt was centred on its ‘development’ into the adaptation of literary texts, and in particular novels: her responses to adaptations of Anna Karenina and (as discussed in the draft version of her essay) Vanity Fair are entirely negative. Film-makers had moved away, she noted, from early documentary films, or actualités, and in so doing had left behind the most powerful dimension of the cinema: its power to bring forth the world as it is. The future cinema she envisaged would represent both the world of dreams (in which relations of time and space are subject to no known laws) and present reality in its contingency, detail and modernity. As she wrote towards the close of the variant version of the published essay:

‘How all this is to be attempted, much less achieved, no one at the moment could tell us. We get intimations only in the chaos of the streets, perhaps, when some momentary assembly of colour, sound, movement, suggests that here is a scene waiting a new art to be transfixed.’[4]

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, 1920

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari

Woolf's essay on cinema was inspired by her viewing of the German Expressionist film, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920).

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Mrs Dalloway

The representation of the city was a crucial forum for the encounter between literature and film in modernist culture. Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway (1925), like James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), is a one-day novel with strong connections to the filmic ‘city symphonies’ of the 1920s, which represent a day in the life of a city (Paris, Berlin, New York, Moscow), taking us from the beginning of the day to its close. Central examples include Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1926) and Dziga-Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1928). As in Mrs Dalloway and Ulysses, there is a central focus on perambulation and locomotion around the city streets. Woolf wrote in her diaries, as she was composing Mrs Dalloway: ‘London is enchanting. I step out upon a tawny coloured magic carpet, & get carried into beauty without lifting a finger. … Faces passing lift up my mind; prevent it from settling’.[5] In the novel, she represents, though the figure of Peter Walsh in particular, passages through streets and squares which put the city itself into motion: ‘It seemed as if the whole of London were embarking in little boats moored to the bank, tossing on the waters, as if the whole place were floating off in carnival’.[6] At the close of the episode in which Peter walks across London to Clarissa’s party, the energies of the city, ‘the chaos of the streets’, and their impact upon vision, accumulate to bursting point: ‘And here a shindy of brawling women, drunken women; here only a policeman and looming houses, high houses, domed houses, churches, parliaments, and the hoot of a steamer on the river, a hollow misty cry’ – and Peter finally ceases to be a kino-eye, a camera-eye: ‘The cold stream of visual impressions failed him now as if the eye were a cup that overflowed and let the rest run down its china walls unrecorded. The brain must wake now’.[7]

Both the one-day novels of the period and the filmic ‘city symphonies’ open up the question of ‘modernist dailiness’: the preoccupation with everyday life is combined with the intimation that much greater spans of time and culture are contained within the diurnal (daily) round. Time, and the marking of time, is at the heart of Mrs Dalloway, whose working title was indeed The Hours. In the novel, Woolf uses clock-faces and the sound of church bells to spatialize and segment time: ‘Shredding and slicing, dividing and subdividing, the clocks of Harley Street nibbled at the June day’. She deployed what she described as her ‘tunnelling process’ to move her characters around London while timing their movements in ways that would create the impression of disparate events occurring simultaneously.

To the Lighthouse

In the year after Mrs Dalloway’s publication, as Woolf worked on ‘The Cinema’ essay, she was also writing the central section of her novel To the Lighthouse, ‘Time Passes’, which presents the world of matter through time and in the absence (or near-absence) of a human observer: Woolf described it as ‘eyeless’ writing. The ghostly presences of Mr and Mrs Ramsay – the one absent, the other now dead – appear on the walls of the decaying house in the form of projected film: ‘(and faint and flickering, like a yellow beam or the circle at the end of a telescope, a lady in a grey cloak, stooping over her flowers, went wandering over the bedroom wall, up the dressing-table, across the wash-stand ….)’.[9] The passage of ten years between the first and third parts of the novel (though it is also condensed into one night, during which the world tosses and turns in the nightmare of history) has its mirror in the gap of ten years alluded to in ‘The Cinema’. These come between the present in which the early films are being viewed and the past of the realities they record. In the variant version of the essay Woolf writes: ‘We are beholding a world which has gone between the waves…The war sprung its chasm at the foot of all this innocence and ignorance, but it was thus that we danced and pirouetted, toiled and desired, thus that the sun shone and the clouds scudded up to the very end’.[9]

In To the Lighthouse Woolf transmuted ‘point of view’ into the observation of perception itself, looking at people looking and being looked at, and creating a complex interplay of eyelines and sightlines within the text.

One wanted fifty pairs of eyes to see with, she reflected. Fifty pairs of eyes were not enough to get round that one woman with, she thought. Among them, must be one that was stone blind to her beauty. One wanted most some secret sense, fine as air, with which to steal through keyholes and surround her where she sat knitting, talking, sitting silent in the window alone; which took to itself and treasured up like the air which held the smoke of the steamer, her thoughts, her imaginations, her desires.[10]

Both ‘The Cinema’ and To the Lighthouse record the abundant energies of the moment (as in the first section of the novel, ‘The Window’) and the workings of time and death on living matter. The earliest commentaries on the cinema defined the medium as embodying the presence of an absence (in that film presents a world that is past, and its actors, unlike those of the stage, are not physically present to us). This relation between presence and absence informs Woolf’s essay and novel, and underlies the work of film theorists including Christian Metz and Stanley Cavell. Georg Lukács, writing in 1913, constructed the distinction between theatre and film as one between the ‘absolute present’ of the stage and the ‘lack of this “present” [which] is the primary characteristic of the “cinema” … cinematic images, equal in their essences to nature, are no less organic and alive than those images of the stage. Only they maintain a life of a completely different kind’.[11] It is unlikely that Woolf would have known Lukács’ essay, but her approach to film is similar in many respects: it includes the belief that the cinema represents, in Lukács’s words, ‘a new beauty’ which should not be defined on the basis of the existing arts but ‘is precisely a beauty worthy of its own aesthetic evaluation and determination’.[12]

The issue of the ways in which novelistic techniques changed and altered as a response to film is a complex and vexed one. We can never know how the writing of Woolf, or any other modernist writer, might have developed without an awareness of film and film technique. We can, however, speculate, with a high degree of confidence, that film made its impact both on Woolf’s approaches to aesthetic questions and on her formal solutions to issues of narrative construction. Thus her way of representing ‘simultaneity’ in ‘The Lighthouse’, the third and final section of the novel, was almost certainly inflected by a familiarity with cinematic strategies. These include parallel editing (or cross-cutting) as a means to depict events taking place at the same moment but in different spaces, as well as the shot-reverse-shot structure of continuity editing which has its literary equivalent in the novel in the views from shore to sea, and back from sea to shore. In ‘The Cinema’ Woolf wrote of a future cinema in which ‘we should have the continuity of human life kept before us by the representation of some object common to both lives’[13]: her novel The Years represents this continuity through various objects – a painting, a chair, a walrus-brush – which survive the years and changes in place and circumstance.


James Joyce’s relationship to the cinema is rather more diffuse than that of Woolf. Explorations of the topic have addressed the impact on his writing, in particular Ulysses, of pre-cinematic technologies (such as the Mutoscope, referred to by Leopold Bloom in the Nausicaa episode of the text in conjunction with ‘Peeping Tom’) and early cinema.[14] This history is book-ended by Joyce’s meeting, in the 1930s, with Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein, who had described Ulysses as the most important event in the history of cinema (rather than literature). ‘Montage form as structure is a reconstruction of the laws of the thoughts process’, and in this way it becomes allied to ‘that particular penetration of interior vision which marks the description of intimate life in Ulysses and Portrait of the Artist with the aid of the astonishing method of the interior monologue’.[15]

Letter from James Joyce describing his writing process

Material relating to James Joyce and Ulysses

'A man from Liverpool told me he had heard that I was the owner of several cinema theatres all over Switzerland': Joyce discusses one of several rumours about him in this letter to his publisher and patron Harriet Shaw Weaver, written on 24 June 1921.

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The founding of the Volta cinema in Dublin in 1909, by Joyce and three businessmen with experience of running cinemas whom he had met in Trieste, adds a further dimension. The films screened during the six months of the venture were almost entirely French and Italian, and included ‘art’ films and theatrical adaptations as well as comedies and non-fiction films. Luke McKernan, who has extensively researched the Volta programming, suggests that it is in its multifariousness that ‘we may most profitably look for the Joycean connection’.[16] The playful and fantastical dimensions of early film, and early film performance, were perhaps particularly influential. The fascination with metamorphoses and with the animation of objects central to the films of George Méliès, magician turned film-maker in cinema’s first years, as well as the quick-change artistry of the performer Leopoldi Fregoli, have been seen as shaping forces on the Circe or ‘Night-town’ episode of Ulysses, with its transformations of bodies between sexes and species and its animated objects.

As David Robinson writes of Georges Méliès’s films,

Nothing in his world is what it seems. In an instant, objects turn into people, butterflies metamorphose into chorus beauties, men become women, anyone may vanish in a puff of smoke. Limbs and heads become detached, and go on about their normal business amiably unconcerned until they eventually find their way back to their rightful locations.[17]

It seems certain that Joyce was drawing upon such cinematic effects for his own animations of the object world in Ulysses – Bloom’s singing bar of soap (‘We’re a capital couple are Bloom and I/ He brightens the earth, I polish the sky’), the brothel-madam Bella’s erotic talking fan – and, as Keith Williams suggests, for the phonetic deformations of the text, linguistic versions of the visual distortions found in early animated cartoons.[18]

The ‘Wandering Rocks’ section of the novel evokes rather different dimensions of the cinema, in its representation of motion and transport around Dublin. In an exemplary reading of the episode, David Trotter notes the ways in which the fact of the city brings Dubliners into relation with each other – losing the two central protagonists, Stephen and Bloom, in the crowd – ‘beyond the reach of montage’.[19] Trotter is arguing here, as throughout his study, against the assumption that ‘montage’ should be understood as the central mediating term between modernist literature and film. He finds in ‘Wandering Rocks’ the forms of movement, ‘automatism’ (the neutrality of the camera-eye) and ‘intercutting’ at work in the actualités of film’s earliest years, a cinema which included numerous films of Dublin’s daily life and of public events in the city. Such spectacles would seem to be parodied in the closing part of ‘Wandering Rocks’, with its representation of a cavalcade in which all the figures who have appeared in earlier scenes are presented and named in the narrative.

To this one might add Joyce’s depiction, throughout the episode, of part-objects and persons:

‘The blind of the window was drawn aside. A card Unfurnished Apartments slipped from the sash and fell. A plump bare generous arm shone, was seen, held forth from a white petticoat bodice and taut shiftstraps. A woman’s hand flung forth a coin over the area railings. It fell on the path’.[20]

This ‘sectional vision’, and the fragmentation of bodies and objects, seems closer to a rather later cinema. It could be suggested (as in Eisenstein’s claim for the importance of Ulysses in the history of cinema) that the relationship between Joyce’s writing and the cinema was one of mutual influence, mediated by, and embodied in, as I noted earlier, modern urban experience. For the German writer Alfred Döblin, author of Berlin Alexanderplatz, a novel much influenced by Ulysses, Joyce’s novel had shown the extent to which cinema had

‘penetrated the sphere of literature … To the experiential image of a person today also belongs the streets, the scenes changing by the second, the signboards, automobile traffic …. the fleeting quality, the restlessness’. [21]

In recent work on film and modernism, the figures of Gertrude Stein, Wyndham Lewis and Samuel Beckett have become prominent. Stein has in the past been more fully associated with modernist painting than with film – she and her brother Leo were prominent art collectors in the Paris of the 1920s and 30s – but the close relationship, and at times shared identity, between avant-garde artists and film-makers at this time contributed to the cinematic contexts for her work. As she wrote in her essay ‘Portraits and Repetition’:

I was doing what the cinema was doing, I was making a continuous statement of what that person was until I had not many things but one thing … I, of course did not think of it in terms of the cinema, in fact I doubt whether at that time I had ever seen a cinema but, and I cannot repeat this too often any one is of one’s period and this our period was undoubtedly the period of the cinema’.[22]

The ‘continuous present’ of Stein’s prose could also be understood as the ‘tense’ of cinema, while her deployment of repetition and/with difference has its corollary in film’s putting into motion, at the level of projection, a series of still frames whose differentiations mark the flow of time in fractions of a second.

The question of the relationship between modernist literature and film, and indeed literature and film more generally, also remains an open and active one. We can never fully comprehend the impact of the new medium of film on its early viewers and commentators: we look back from the perspectives of those who have grown up in a film age and, most recently, in a digital age. Insights into the ways in which cinema impacted on literary representations nonetheless continue to be developed. At the present time, they run in a number of particularly strong directions. These include substantial work on film history and film culture and a greater knowledge of the specificities of the films that were viewed and that made their mark; modes of ‘close reading’ of both film and literary texts, and their shared and differing engagements with time, space and narrative form; and a broader understanding of ‘media ecologies’, in which film shares a platform with other technologically-mediated forms of communication, including literary texts. The issues remain as alive and as complex today as they were a century ago.


[1] Virginia Woolf, ‘The Cinema’ [1926], in The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Volume 4: 1925-1928, edited by Andrew McNeillie, (London: Hogarth Press, 1994) pp. 348-354.

[2] Virginia Woolf, Draft 1 of ‘The Movies’, p. 135. Held in the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, The New York Public Library.

[3] Virginia Woolf, ‘The Cinema’ [1926] in The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Volume 4: 1925-1928, edited by Andrew McNeillie, (London: Hogarth Press, 1994) p. 348.

[4] Ibid., p. 595.

[5] The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume 2 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981), p. 301.

[6] Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway [1925] (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 139.

[7] Ibid., 139-40.

[8] Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, [1927] (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992), p. 149.

[9] Woolf, ‘The Cinema’, p. 592.

[10] Woolf, To the Lighthouse, p. 214.

[11] Georg Lukács, ‘Thoughts toward an Aesthetic of the Cinema’, [1913], translated by Janelle Blankenship in Film Studies and Postmodern Theory, Polygraph 13, 13-18, 13-14, (2001)

[12] Ibid., p. 13.

[13] Woolf, ‘The Cinema’, p. 352.

[14] See, for example, Katherine Mullin, Katherine, James Joyce, Sexuality and Social Purity, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[15] Sergei Eisenstein, ‘Sur Joyce’, Change, May, (1972), p. 51. My translation.

[16] Luke McKernan, ‘James Joyce and the Volta Programme’, in Roll Away the Reel World: James Joyce and Cinema, edited by John McCourt (Cork: Cork University Press, 2010) pp. 15-27, p. 27.

[17] David Robinson, Georges Méliès: Father of Film Fantasy, (London: British Film Institue, 1993), p. 55.

[18] Keith Williams, ‘Ulysses in Toontown: “vision animated to bursting point” in Joyce’s “Circe”, in Julian Murphet and Lydia Rainford (eds.), Literature and Visual Technologies: Writing after Cinema, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), p. 107.

[19] Trotter, Cinema and Modernism, p. 91.

[20] James Joyce, [1922], Ulysses, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 216.

[21] Alfred Döblin, [1928], ‘Ulysses by Joyce’, in The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, edited by Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, and Edward Dimendberg, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994) p. 514.

[22] Gertrube Stein, ‘Portraits and Repetitions’, in Look at Me Now and Here I Am: Writings and Lectures 1911-1945, edited by Patricia Meyorowitz,
(Harmondsworth: Penguin), p. 106.

© Laura Marcus

  • Laura Marcus
  • Laura Marcus is Professor of English Literature at Goldsmith's, University of London, and Fellow of New College, University of Oxford. Her research and teaching interests are predominantly in nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature and culture, including life–writing, modernism, Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury culture, contemporary fiction, and literature and film. Her book publications include Auto/biographical Discourses: Theory, Criticism, Practice (1994), Virginia Woolf: Writers and their Work (1997/2004), The Tenth Muse: Writing about Cinema in the Modernist Period (2007; awarded the 2008 James Russell Lowell Prize of the Modern Language Association), Dreams of Modernity: Psychoanalysis, Literature, Cinema (2014) and, as co-editor, The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century English Literature (2004).