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Cartographic Cinema

by Tom Conley
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2007
264 pp. illus., 40 b/w. Trade, $75.00; paper, $25.00
ISBN: 0-8166-4357-1; ISBN: 0-8166-4356-3.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens
University of Leuven


In the steadily growing literature on maps and mapping in the fields of literary theory, visual studies, and critical thinking, Tom Conley’s book can be called a major achievement, both for the clarity and profoundness of its theoretical insights and the exceptional brio of its close readings. Moreover, Cartographic Cinema is not just a book that makes a strong plea for close-reading but succeeds in demonstrating the theoretical necessity of this approach, provided it is articulated with strong theoretical perspectives. As such, Tom Conley has written a book that is a major contribution to film studies (and other related fields) as well as an exciting collection of essays on the history of 20th Century cinema, starting from René Clair’s Paris qui dort (The Crazy Ray, 1923) to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000).

How does Conley define the notions of "map" and "mapping"? A specialist of cartography himself, on which he has widely published, inside and outside the field of film studies, Conley argues first of all that maps are not just items or images that can be shown or mentioned in movies, but that movies themselves have to be considered maps (in the rest of Cartographic Cinema, this two-sidedness will be the leading thread of each analysis), i.e. visual structures that shape the imagination of the spectator and can be used as tools for the deciphering of the world that is referred to by the movie. The meaning of maps and mapping is therefore much broader than mere geography (a map offers or imposes also a worldview), while it cannot be reduced to a linguistic approach of the world (maps do not transcribe speech, even if they happen to include many verbal and written elements). As a matter of fact, it is not only the film seen as a whole that can function as a map, but also each of its images, as they gradually unfold and change before the eyes of the spectator. For Tom Conley (and almost all the close readings of the book will provide evidence of the rightness of this conviction), "everything" can obtain a cartographic dimension: the logo of the film company, the credits and intertitles, the very images (with or without visible maps), and so on. In all these occasions, movies do function as actual maps, by showing "where" we are and by linking our identities to that cartographic issue ("who" we are cannot be separated from "where" we are), and just like maps this showing function is not only referential but also ideological, for maps and movies disclose relationships that go otherwise unnoticed. In that regard, it would be unfair to reduce the cartographic function of maps to the appropriative, controlling, and administrative functions they are generally associated with.

Conley’s theoretical preferences and convictions go clearly into the direction of the singular and the event. Claiming that film studies should follow the hypothesis "to each film its map", Cartographic Cinema builds mainly on the work of two other major theoreticians, André Bazin (who had already developed a theory of movies as maps) and Gilles Deleuze (whose writings on Deleuze remain an essential contribution to the modern theory of mapping). From Bazin’s defence of neo-Realism and his ideal of film as representation of the real, Conley uses the idea of the "image-field" which is not the (secondary) background for what really matters, namely the action, but an existential space in which all places are as important as any other and which is shifting itself through time. From Deleuze’s ideas on the work as "open totality", Conley borrows the suggestion that the spatial field on screen is capable of producing events that modify our perception of the world itself. This openness to what may happen on screen, instead of being statically reproduced by the images, makes that Conley’s focus —following in this also the majors beliefs of Deleuze and Bazin— is actually less on the map than on mapping, less on the display than on the making of history, less on the map (and the film) as representation than on the map (and the film) as becoming.

It is this active dynamic that is foregrounded in the close-readings of the book, which are often breathtaking. In ten chapters, Conley makes clear that the choice of the map as a privileged reading tool of cinema can be extremely illuminating, and that the selection of films including maps is a very original and profound way to inscribe the reading of movies into the larger process of cognitive mapping, which is, for Conley and Jameson whom the author is following here, a way of linking the close-reading of often tiny details with contextual, historical, and political issues. The reader of Cartographic Cinema will therefore always hesitate between two types of admirations, appreciating both the cleverness and hermeneutic power of the reading of so many details linked with maps (or made visible thanks to the emphasis put on fragments containing maps or fragments read as maps) and the author’s capacity to link these details with a larger inquiry on the historical and ideological positioning of the analyzed movies. In particular, one should mention here the exciting rereading of Renoir’s La Règle du jeu, Rossellini’s Roma, città aperta, Truffaut’s Les 400 Coups (three films one thought to know by heart, but which Conley manages to "reinvent" completely) or Kassovitz’s La Haine (whose dialogues and various inscriptions the author decodes with the same love and intelligence as did Stanley Cavell with the allegedly insignificant screwball comedies in The Pursuit of Happiness, a book which I think has quite some analogies with Cartographic Cinema). But all analyses by Conley are convincing and rewarding, and since the author happily mixes "art movies" and "commercial movies" (from film noir to post-cinema neo-cinema of attractions movies) it is no exaggeration to hope that his cartography may became a major paradigm in critical film studies.



Updated 1st July 2007

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