Savage Theory

Cinema as Modern Magic

Savage Theory

Book Pages: 216 Illustrations: 3 b&w photographs Published: November 1999

Author: Rachel O. Moore

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Cultural Studies, Media Studies > Film

Savage Theory articulates the powerful mythology of cinema as the premier medium for magic in modern times. Envisioning the cinema as a form of magical ritual that possesses the power to enliven, heal, and enchant, Rachel O. Moore explores modernity’s relationship to the primitive by analyzing understandings of primitive belief and ritual in early film theory alongside illustrative scenes from popular as well as avant-garde film.
Moore mines the theories of language, spectatorship, and cinematic expression in the writings of Vachel Lindsay, Sergei Eisenstein, Siegfried Kracauer, and Walter Benjamin, among others. Illuminating the links between these theorists’ preoccupations with cinema as a form of primal communication and the numbing effects of modernity, she demonstrates how movies are uniquely able to negotiate the fragmentary and isolating nature of a modern world. In constructing an alternative to cognitive, psychoanalytic, and ideological approaches to film analysis, Moore provides eye-opening discussions of films such as Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, Hollis Frampton’s Nostalgia, and Robert Bresson’s l’Argent. Drawing from Marx’s theory of the commodity and Lukács’s work on second nature, she outlines the fetish character of the film image and reveals the emergence of the camera as a magical tool replete with animistic powers otherwise lost in the storm of progress.
Bound to influence the way future scholars think about the connection between modernism and primitivism, as well as the role of cinema therein during the early twentieth century, Savage Theory will be welcomed by scholars of film theory and anthropology and will also appeal to a wider cultural studies audience.


“Moore’s prose is powerful, her scholarship wide . . . .” — Roberta Morris , Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism

“Through her beautifully written, detailed analysis of ‘primitive’ ideas and beliefs left behind by postEnlightenment culture, Moore not only provides us with a highly original and dynamic account of the magical powers of cinema, but like the texts that she analyses, fans the spark of hope (Benjamin) for a film practice which, instead of perpetuating reification, would seek to awaken and transform its audience.” — Tara Forrest , UTS Review

"Moore's book is an important one. . . . This is the kind of book that, in referring as much to ongoing debates in film studies, philosophy, and critical theory as to films as such, is indispensable for upper level, advanced and post-graduate work in the field." — Lisa Trahair , Theory & Event

"This is a complex, deftly argued text that crosses many theoretical boundaries. . . . Finishing the work I was struck by Moore's intense and intimate engagement with early theorists and pondered how this seemed to reflect something more than academic curiosity. In a way she has opened a space for the restoring of magic to a place in which it had almost been lost." — Jeff Power , Scope

“The author’s fresh and individual approach catches new aspects of familiar works and, astonishingly, [she] makes some of her most daring insights with such clarity you end up thinking you must have already thought them. But no work has interrelated classical theorists in the manner Moore does. The book possesses intellectual grace and energy, as well as incisive jabs of pure insight. Beautifully written, engaging, and witty, it clears a new path for film theory.” — Tom Gunning, author of An Invention of the Devil? Religion and Early Cinema

“This is a strikingly original work of film history that shows how the tropes of early film theory shared anthropology’s fascination with the magical in the primitive, and further how this fascination continues to show up in the subsequent course of avant-garde cinema. The pleasure of reading Moore’s study is in experiencing the unfolding of a subversive genealogy of traces that remakes commonplace understandings of the wonder of movies.” — George Marcus, Rice University


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Rachel O. Moore is an independent scholar living in New York City.

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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2388-4 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2354-9
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