Wartime Kiss: Visions of the Moment in the 1940s
by Alexander Nemerov
Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2012
184 pp., illus. 46 halftones. Trade, $22.95, £15.95
Reviewed by Jan Baetens
Wartime Kiss is a book on the interpretation and meaning of time, analyzed from the viewpoint of an historian and focusing on medium history, photography, film studies, and cultural history in general. It is, though, in the very first place a very personal and exceptionally well written book, and throughout its reading the word that is permanently popping up in the reader's mind is: poetry. Not just in the sense of beautiful language, strong emotional involvement, originality of insights, but in the sense of what makes poetry poetry: the capacity of bringing together two ideas, two words, two events that did only exist as independent, unlinked realities in the mind and the heart of the reader. At the same time, the book is also a seminal example of new ways of writing history, for real poetry and great, demanding scholarship are not all incompatible under the pen of Alexander Nemerov.
The initial corpus of Wartime Kiss is a collection of images, both photographic and cinematographic, some fictional and other documentary, most more or less known (some even so well-known that we do no longer question their meaning) but also more than once totally unknown (if not discussed for the very first time), which all have to do with the dialectic relationship between moment and history, be it real history or mythic history (for in quite some cases moments tilt over in bits and pieces of eternity, and vice versa of course). In this book the moment, the time, the history under scrutiny are those of the 1940s, the heydays of photojournalism as well as of the Hollywood studio system, but the ways in which moment and history interact in order to construct original and complex, yet also very familiar and deeply shared experiences of time cannot be reduced to either of these two dominating models, the documentary modus of Life magazine on the one hand, the dream factory of the culture industry on the other hand. What Alexander Nemerov unearths in the five chapters of his highly personal inquiry into some of the most iconic and some of the most obscure representations of exceptional moments of the 1940s is the existence of a hidden relationship between the visual language of the decade and the issue of being at war.
The book starts with a chapter that deserves to become a classic in all future readers of visual cultural studies: a rereading of Alfred Eisenstaedt's image of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square on V-J Day. However, to reread here signifies much more than to read anew: it is really to read in an unseen and unexpected manner, so that overseen meanings and relationships become suddenly clear, as in a 'flash' - for the whole reinterpretation of the picture is based on the notion of flash (the atomic blast) and its implicit and explicit continuations, first in the picture itself (which Nemerov shows to be a picture of a violent collide, representative of the violence produced by the celeb rations of victory at the home front), second in the picture's surroundings (such as for instance the cover illustration of the Life issue in which Eisenstaedt's photograph appeared: the picture of an underwater ballet swimmer, who career proves to have crossed in countless way the violence of war). Nemerov, however, does never simply list or enumerate the items of the files and archives that his research has gathered on the life (and sometimes death) of the characters represented in front of the camera or working behind them. He weaves them together in a story that takes the reader from one surprise to another, always managing to stay slightly ahead of his or her (increasing!) curiosity and always capable of bringing his reader back to the existential question that spans the whole book: How can we read history in what seems to be the representation of a moment out of time? How does the war reveals itself in situations that may at first sight seem light years away from what is going on 'out there'?
With great brio and panache, Nemerov succeeds in rereading as well four other pictures or groups of pictures: an image of Jimmy Stewart and Olivia de Havilland lying on a picnic blanket (at the moment when they were young lovers and at the height of their career), the dazzling photographs made by daredevil Margaret Bourke-White, some screenshots of a forgotten movie (Twelve O'Clock High) and the sensual experience of seduction, kissing, and falling in love in Hold Back the Down (yes, with the same Olivia de Havilland, to whom Nemerov pays a deeply-felt tribute). In all cases, the author does so with the same mix of spectacular revelations and a strong focus on the reflection on time exemplified by his first chapter. Et in Arcadia ego is one of the running threads of these studies, which show that no moments can be out of time, i.e. of death (even in the case of Bourke-White, whose whole work can be seen as an attempt to live within the pure moment). But the shift from moment to Time is not just a metaphysical one, it is also a leap into the harsh realities of a wartime decade: Stewart and De Havilland shared a passion in flying that will not remain a personal hobby, the desire of the emigrant to be loved by the American girl 'next door' is a cry for war engagement by the US, the strange behavior of some movie characters hints at unspeakable traumas.
Nemerov should be praised for another achievement as well: Although his work is on images, he succeeds also in making us sensitive to the other, non-visual qualities of the images, which become almost tactile objects in his writings. The way in which he describes these stills and pictures turns them into 'thick' objects (although his way of writing is always extremely 'light': like all great classics, he has the elegance not to burden the reader with the efforts that must have been necessary to research these images so thoroughly), with their own warmth, their own touch, their own feeling, in short their own life and presence, in which the pictures discussed and the words that discuss them merge into a new form of historical sensation.