It is difficult to determine exactly what kind of book Geoffrey O’Brien’s The Phantom Empire is, in part because he adopts many different critical approaches and styles of writing to do justice to the many paradoxes at the heart of the experience of film. Film is intensely personal but also shared, communal, public. Films free the imagination yet also bind it to predetermined patterns. Films capture and also dissolve history, in part by making the “past” always “present” and in part by rendering it trivial, if not meaningless. Finally, film in one sense completes the revolution begun by print technology, replacing sound with sight, but the visual culture of the cinematic world radically undermines the visual world of print. Accordingly, The Phantom Empire is, in varying degrees, a personal journal, filled with reminiscences of films watched-freely mixing the common and predictable, such as Casablanca (1942), and the idiosyncratic, such as The Four Feathers(1939)-and a collection of essays on cultural criticism, assuming, rightly or wrongly, that his response to film is both typical and telling. O’Brien’s approach to his subjects often has a veneer of rational analysis, and he frequently adopts linear patterns to tell tales of the historical development of film, with events of one decade following neatly from those of the preceding one. More characteristically, though, the individual essays are parts of an associatively organized sustained dreamlike meditation, at times almost a mystical reverie on the nonrational dimensions of film and its preeminent role in shaping the modern nonrational mind. If the book is often at least on the surface a celebration of film and many happy hours spent in a darkened room in front of a bright screen, it is equally an anxiety-filled query about the health and fate of beings whose eyes have overwhelmed what used to be thought of as the mind.
O’Brien does not acknowledge any particular intellectual or stylistic debts to writers; his references are almost exclusively to films, and in place of the usual bibliography of works cited he includes a fifty-five page “Index of Films Cited.” Still, though, perhaps one way of both understanding and appreciating the complex nature and shifting structure of The Phantom Empireis to sort out several figures who may be key influences on O’Brien, and to whom in any event he may be likened. This is not to suggest that O’Brien is merely derivative or a fad follower, but it is worth examining how he has been stimulated by the ongoing investigation of and response to mass media by a variety of novelists, journalists, critics, and theorists somewhat loosely described as “postmodern.”
Insofar as there is a consistent critical bias in O’Brien’s work, it might be described as akin to that of Marshall McLuhan modified by Michel Foucault and Jean Baudril- lard. McLuhan, the enormously popular and influential-and also much vilified and caricatured-media analyst of the 1960’s and 1970’s, looms much larger in O’Brien’s cutting-edge work of the 1990’s than one might expect. Like McLuhan, O’Brien emphasizes the monolithic power of media to shape human consciousness, perception, and behavior, for better and for worse. Electronic media can link humankind into a “global village” (McLuhan’s famous term) by an ever- expanding neuroelectronic network; more ominously, though, individuals and cultures unprepared for sudden shifts in communications technology experience disorientation, a destabilized sense of reality, and a fracturing of identity. O’Brien envisions an entire world of spectators watching the same films, which establishes a shared cultural vocabulary and even a shared history and common “family” of cinematic kin, however fictional. In a certain sense, everybody goes to Rick’s while watching Casablanca, weeps for joy with Jimmy Stewart in ft’s a Wonderful Life (1946), and roots for the cowboys against the Indians in Stagecoach (1939).
Perhaps O’Brien’s subtlest debt to McLuhan is his heightened awareness of the religious dimension of the experience of film. For McLuhan, modern technology is almost invariably a technology of the sacred, expanding human powers in ways that had only been imagined in key religious texts, especially of the Christian tradition. Electronic media could establish a sacramental world, one in which the spiritual was manifested in the physical, almost to the point that these distinctions might disappear. Throughout The Phantom Empire, O’Brien asserts the intimate link between film and religion. In “The Garden of Allah,” for example, he stresses that the basic mechanism of film is that of magically giving life to insubstantial things. Prayers...
(The entire section is 1953 words.)