Archives For Histories of Film Theory

The essay film – something to do with the personal. A view; an experiment; a meditation.

It is not necessarily only reflective or self-conscious in style as Contempt (Godard) might be considered.

The American Heritage dictionary: “A short literary composition on a single subject, usually presenting the personal views of the author.”

The essay tracks a persons thoughts as they follow lines of reasoning to undo a mental knot. It is also the medium by which the thinking takes place. It facilitates the reasoning. An alternative to Socratic dialogues for instance.

“Readers must feel included in a true conversation, allowed to follow the rough mental processes of contradiction and digression and yet aware of a formal shapeliness developing underneath.” (Lopate)

The definite qualities of the essay-film as according to Lopate:

1) must have words in the form of dialogue or text (the corollary would be that any visual medium – a political poster or an ad – could be taken as an essay)
2) Must represent a single voice – or take the appearance of a single voice.
3) The text must represent the author’s attempt to work out some reasoned line of discourse on a problem.
4) The text must impart more than information. It must represent a strong personal point of view. There is a difference here between journalistic and essayistic.
5) The overall language of the text needs to be as eloquent and as interesting as possible. Lopate suggests a cultural standard to bare when reasoning in discourse.

” … a Markerian nostalgia for the escaping present, and a melancholy over the inherently receding reality of photographed images.”

This sense of time and awareness of the inadequacy of mechanical reproduction of time allows Marker to project an ‘historical understanding onto otherwise bland or neutral footage.”

In Sunless recollecting and rewriting an inextricably linked.

Sunless suggests some form of prophecy for a new age of communication, technology and globalisation – which to a large extent is true of Marker’s vision – though the personal, essayistic form inspired by such works seems never to have arrived.

A personal vision does not equate to a personal view.

The camera as a device for recording thoughts: it has a tendency to provide its own thoughts. That is, there are always unintended and accidental consequences of the recording and re-ordering of time and space. This is the foundation to the topic of cinema as a machine for thinking as a topic for discussion.

There is a hint in all this toward the matter of the autonomy of cinema and film form.

Wilhelm Worringer posits a spectrum for the impulse behind art – the extremities of which can be defined as an impulse towards empathy at one end and an impulse towards abstraction at the other.

The fundamental notion at the heart of Worringer’s thesis is that beauty derives from our sense of being able to identify with an object; empathy. This has clear relationships with phenomenology and is a starting point for further research. Worringer is looking to understand the reasons behind how and why a human being is driven or drawn towards a work of art. This will inevitably have to include psychology – the level of the individual – and zeitgeist – the level of the broader culture.

Worringer argues that representational art produces satisfaction from our objectified delight in the self, reflecting a confidence in the world as it is as in Renaissance art. By contrast, the urge to abstraction, as exemplified by Egyptian, Byzantine, primitive, or modern expressionist art, articulates a totally different response to the world: it expresses man s insecurity. Thus in historical periods of anxiety and uncertainty, man seeks to abstract objects from their unpredictable state and transform them into absolute, transcendental forms. Abstraction and Empathy also has a sociological dimension, in that the urge to create fixed, abstract, and geometric forms is a response to the modern experience of industrialization and the sense that individual identity is threatened by a hostile mass society.

from

Abstraction and Empathy: A Contribution to the Psychology of Style

the article opens with Kierkegaard:

I call these sketches Shadowgraphs, partly by the designation to remind you at once that they derive from the darker side of life, partly because like other shadowgraphs they are not directly visible. When I take a shadowgraph in my hand, it makes no impression on me, and gives me no clear conception of it. Only when I hold it up opposite the wall, and now look not directly at it, but at that which appears on the wall, am I able to see it. So also with the picture which does not become perceptible until I see through the external. This external is perhaps quite unobtrusive but not until I look through it, do I discover that inner picture which I desire to show you, an inner picture too delicately drawn to be outwardly visible, woven as it is of the tenderest moods of the soul. Kierkegaard, Either/Or

When we practice the auteur theory – which is to say simply that we summarise and critique an individual film based on its stylistic value as compared to other films of the same auteur – we look for the language of the author – are we really ‘rationalising leaden clinkers into golden nuggets’? My opinion: NO. The language of film is hidden beneath or better yet, encoded in, a films apparent ‘entertainment’ or ‘dramatic’ value. An auteur who is praised must have work worthy of praising – a masterpiece here and there. For William Friedkin we might cite The Exorcist, The French Connection or Kiler Joe. For Michael Mann you cannot go past Heat. Both of these auteur’s have films which were critically rejected during their time at the box office.

Take Miami Vice by Michael Mann for instance. The reaction to this film by and large by the critics was negative. To quote David and Margaret from At The Movies:

The real problem is that this is a nothing plot, we’ve seen it many times before, Mann’s inclusion of a couple of extended sex scenes that are not really so sexy is just a diversion.

Colin Farrell is developing into a deeply uninteresting actor, not that Mann’s screenplay gives any of the actors much opportunity for subtlety or depth.

There’s a lot of jargon. And the end result is that the plot, such as it is, verges on the incomprehensible.

Viewing Miami Vice however in reference to other texts – a more postmodern view – the film can be read as a masterpiece of style. Genre conventions are another viewpoint through which to analyse this film. Though Margaret describes this film as ‘unsexy’ I would have to disagree and assert that this is a romantic film first and foremost in which some action takes place. The final battle that draws us through to the end of the third act is predicated on vengeance for one lover and the rescue of another; duel couplings, just as in the romantic musical genre. Looking at this film through the filter of a Goddard-infused reading one can see the level of pop/fashion/media culture being coded into this film. It is plot-lite precisely to foreground fashion, fast cars, epic Caribbean skyscapes and rock music. The themes are universal: daring, vengeance, love, forbidden love, and eventually existential choices to not live happily ever after on part of Sonny (Colin Farrell).

This does not constitute a ‘see-it-or-you-don’t’ shortcut to scholarship, as Sarris’ critics would determine, but a reasonable A-iconoclastic look at what is described as the language of film; that is film form, convention and style and how these elements might relate to each other and imbue a sense of a human personality talking to us from the screen. We might ask this disembodied, coded voice ‘what do you see in relationships between people?’ or ‘how does one deal with injustice amongst the many?’, or ‘is there a place for honour and trust in contemporary society?’ This is not a shortcut to thinking but a love for film and style as it lights up the screen at 24 frames (I would hope). For structuralism and linguistics and the death of the author – these avenues of scholarship are fine, but taken in isolation can suck the life out of the most exciting form of human expression – that form that comes to us from innovation in technology, from the division of labor and the pursuit of an individual and collective landscape of dreams and desires.

Sarris hits on two interesting, dovetailing points: He says of the French critics that some had succumbed to a European-orientated (rationalist) pragmatism where intention was more nearly equal to talent in critical relevance (sounds familiar – the contemporary Australian film industry). He goes on to summarise that Truffaut had seen the writing on the wall: he and his colleagues had ‘discovered auteurs’ whilst their successors have ‘invented’ them.

This is an interesting lens through which to view the shift from the studio system to the more politically active, independent film making of the post-classical, 1970’s-on period. In the classical era the movies assumed that audiences were autonomous in their own right – that they did not need to be enlightened. Take one of John Ford’s westerns which assumes a level of respect and sentimentality for the formation of civilisation in the wilderness of the American frontier. Or perhaps a Lubitsch comedy in which it was famed that Lubitsch had an unspoken understanding with his audience and innuendo and the unseen canoodling behind closed doors was poetry. The auteur was found in the expression of style within the confines of a rigid, but practical, narrative form. The post-classical era sees auteur’s inventing themselves and what reigns here is not the value of the aesthetic expression as it erupts from a set of conventions and structures but political message and activist agenda – intention more nearly equal to talent. This immediately starts to evolve an ‘in-group’ as with any politically orientated movement – their successors had invented them.

Ultimately Bazin reasons for us with his charisma and gusto:

“How can one review an Anthony Mann western if it were not an expression of the genre’s conventions?”

An important structural element on La Jette’s narrative is the dialogue: ‘Later, he new he had seen a man die.’

This use of the word ‘later’ is a promise to the audience to deliver the significance of the event. At this point the audience has become absorbed into the dreamlike world of the main character and now awaits an emergence into conscious reality – an explanation. Being a mediation on time, memory and the present moment this emergence into conscious reality is always deconstructed, or underscored, by an uncertainty. Images and perceptions of the present moment cannot be trusted. Hence why the subjects upon whom time travel is imposed are all driven mad.

Somewhere in the thesis of this film lies the notion that the wounds of history, the apparent real-ness of history, exists for us only via our memory and only via our interpretation of the events that surround us in the present moment. We are hermeneutically hemmed in. This is another viewpoint from which to understand the source of madness for the test-subjects – when this compass – this structure of memories that keeps us orientated in the present – is ruptured and fragmented across the totality of time. Our ability to stabilise ourselves in the present is shattered and any sense of the empirical world starts to dissolve.

And sketches for themes concerning upcoming video projects…

From ‘Chris Marker: La Jetee’ by Janet Harbord (Afterfall Books)

” […] ‘I will have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering,’ says the narrator in another of Marker’s landmark films, Sans Soleil (Sunless, 1983), ‘which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining’. The comment recalls Nietzsche writing that there could be no hope, ‘no present, without forgetfulness’, as well as Kafka’s statement: ‘One photographs things in order to get them out of one’s mind. My stories are a kind of closing one’s eyes’. We close our eyes, like the cinema’s blink to blackness, and we dream of what has been and might be. Forgetting is not an abandonment of the past, but permission to elaborate, to reconstruct differently, to mix up the syntax. Both memory and cinema work with an unstable set of associations, contingent on the circumstances in which they appear. If the potency of a memory is the opening enigma of La Jetee, the rest of the film is an exploration of the ways in which recording devices, such as film and photography, perform a choreography with memory’s work.” (p4)

Harbord pulls together the exact thoughts I encountered upon studying Nietzsche and recognising the close connection between Nietzsche and the central thesis of the narration embedded in Sans Soleil. This thesis, or theme, attracts me because it provides a solid foundation, or rather inquest, in which to uncover, using the mediums of video and audio, what lies beneath, or next to, or perhaps above everyday reality. That is, the perceived experience of the everyday. For Nietzsche total memory was a prison, and the ability to forget was tied to human happiness.

“Metaphysics calls the permanent Now ‘eternity’. Nietzsche, too, conceives the three phases of time from the standpoint of eternity as a permanent Now. But, for Nietzsche, the permanence does not consist in something static, but in a recurrence of the same.” (p418 – Who Is Nietzsche’s Zarathustra? {Heidegger})

Briefly, Nietzsche’s conception of the superman, or perhaps to coin a phrase less laden with contemporary connotations – an evolved modern person free from the pitfalls of historical ‘man’ – is someone free from the past and therefore free from the spirit of vengefulness and free from the degradation of the present as caused by the attachment to universal ideals. This second point pertains to the Will to Power and the eternal recurrence of the same – a statement on the Being of beings – see Nietzsche blog posts for more info.

Talking about ‘the everyday’ has some implications that need to be set apart. The everyday refers to the perceived everyday experienced by an individual subject. The implication of the activities of the subjects own memories in this everyday experience is that the past is always present and always fighting for attention in the present. The seduction of the past lives with us. It beckons us to grasp what has been and remake it differently. This is the central theme of La Jetee, of Vertigo (Hitchcock), of the Greek myth Oedipus and perhaps even an inversion of the stories of Kafka – that is; to wake up in the present without the desire to reshape it according to an ideal found in both an individual past and collective past. To no longer reshape the present is to break a fundamental contract with the past and with memory itself. In another sense this could be construed as an argument founded in solipsism; that is, the quest to set aside individual subjectivity in order to come upon a form of true objectivity (to prove the existence of others – the brain in a jar, evil demon deception problems) In short, memory construes an idealised past and invades our experience of the present tempting us to not see what is set out directly before us but rather to reshape what is before us to suit an ideal; a fantasy. We want to re-make things that have been in order to repeat them and to change them. Dangerous ground for tragic heroes.

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Memories exist in the unconscious. The unconscious is our storage unit. Drawing on Freud we can construe the unconscious as a land without time or temporality. Moments from the distant past may be buried deep but have no interest in real temporal orientation and so might erupt into the present creating fractures and disturbances. If the activity of memory constitutes our shaping (re-shaping) of the present then we are destined to madness, or a recurring nightmare; the past is simply an unknowable landscape which cannot be mined for truth. Truth being construed here as an objective viewing of the present, real and unfolding world. The scientists in Marker’s La Jetee attempt to mine and use the memories of their test subjects to reshape the future/past. To achieve their goal they need one of Nietzsche’s evolved human beings – a Nietzshean Superman.

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A great lecture by Keith Sanborn – https://vimeo.com/62249185

The key elements of neorealism / Revolutionary Humanism /

Bazin aligns the Italian school of realism with Soviet montage (Eisenstein). It is to the other end of the aesthetic spectrum from German expressionism and Hollywood star system structures. The opposition is described as ‘aestheticism’ vs ‘realism’

The Italian cinema prior to WW2, during the fascist regime:

“a taste – and a poor taste at that – for sets, idealization of the principle actors, childish emphasis on acting, atrophy of mise-en-scene, the dragging in of the traditional paraphernalia of bel canto and opera, conventional scripts influenced by the theatre, the romantic melodrama, and the chanson de geste reduced to an adventure story.” (Bazin, p 14)

chanson de geste – a medieval narrative, a type of epic poem – appears at the dawn of French literature.

It is worth noting that some of the key Italian purporters of neorealism had careers going back to the pre-war era (Vittorio De Sica). It is worth investigating these films and their tone and aesthetic approach. Realism was taking root in opposition to the ‘fakery’ of the Italian mainstream exports before the war arrived on Italian soil. Bazin states that it was the Liberation that never-the-less ‘sets these aesthetic trends [..] free’.

The key elements to the inner structures of neo realist aesthetics:

Social circumstances and movements (post-Fascist Italy, spread of communism, socialism, post-war poverty and social upheaval).

Historical context (Capitalism, Socialism, Communism, WW2, the character of Italian society)

Economic context (poverty, rebuilding and reparations)

Because of the slow and extended nature of the Liberation for Italy, which came with years of Allied occupation and other circumstantial upheavals in the steps towards rebuilding, the films of the immediate post war period were current – they spoke to very real concerns and very real experiences of the average person, and the collective psyche – day to day events.

What does Bazin mean by “revolutionary Humanism’ ??

The zeitgeist of the time, at an international level, is the fear of, and obsession over, terror and hate:

“reality is scarcely any longer favoured for its own sake but rather is rejected or excluded as a political symbol […]” (p16)

Italian films of this period “reject implicitly or explicitly, with humour, satire, or poetry, the reality they are using, but they know better, no matter how clear the stand taken, than to treat this reality as a medium or a means to an end.” (p17) I take this to mean that the films do not aim affect the audience. If one was to argue that the so-called realism of the Soviet cinema was induced to affect the audience – to convert them into revolutionaries – then reality is being used as a medium. The purpose of the Italian cinema might be closer in this regard to the impressionism of Epstein and his photogenie. That is, the goal of the ‘reality machine’ is to reveal unknowns about reality. The revelation takes place at the hands of the spectator himself, rather than at the direction of the message blasted from the screen to the eye.

In regards to a character (any character) to be found in an Italian film: “Nobody is reduced to the condition of an object or a symbol that would allow one to hate them in comfort without having first to leap the hurdle of their humanity.” (p17) This is the humanism suggested by Bazin.

One of the defining characteristics of Modernism (the post industrial revolution western-world), with regard to art history, is the theory laden-ness of art – art and hermeneutics come together and are inseparable. I like to make the argument that cinema is the most defining art of the modern era for no other reason than it was born out of modernism for modernism. Cinema served to advance the spread of 20th century-defining doctrines (Marxism/Leninism in Soviet Russia – an interesting relationship between the film/propaganda industry and the railroads) and the advancement of art theory and practice itself (the French impressionists). The cinema absorbs the other arts; theatre, literature, the composed and framed image and music. The cinema is impossible without capital and technology. Even the most avant-garde and experimental cinema to stand in the hall of cinematic fame (Stan Brakhage, Jean Epstein for example) was shot on industrially produced film, using technology designed and built by the corporate private sector. This might be obvious to most, but what is not necessarily as obvious is the cinemas habit of not just absorbing and taking place along side the other arts as the new technological art, but super-ceding them. This supercession of the other arts places the cinema in a unique position with regard to that characteristic of modernism to which this article is aimed: interpretation. As the ultra-modern art, that medium through which countless generations to come will be able to assess and learn the peculiar characteristics, dreams and fantasies of those that came before them, one might like to romanticise about film theory as a kind of road map that describes the trajectory of those filmic explorations into collective and individual imagination. But what does film theory really look like?

Robert Ray’s assertion at the outset of his comprehensive-cum-complicated essay “How a Film Theory Got Lost” is that theory exists to break the spell, or perhaps the deadlock, that occurs at the cross roads of magic and positivism. This is further explicated as a dialectic; reason against revelation as represented by Eisenstein (reason) and Epstein (revelation). Alternatively, montage against photogenie; the edit against the image. Breaking the spell that exists at the crossroads surely does not consist of simply disregarding one road in favour of another; that being reason over revelation; but rather a diplomatic evolution of the conflict. The question stands: At the heart of the critical theory of the Frankfurt School is one able to find an account of the revelation of the human imagination? A second and pertinent question would also be: to what extent does the Frankfurt school influence cinema studies in general? This second question is important to those who might wish to pick up the torch left behind, glowing but not extinguished, by those pre-1960’s thinkers; the likes of Epstein and Bazin.

First question; are the two roads as posited by Ray mutually exclusive? The factory style production of capital intensive cinema and seductive style and enchantment. The market demanded entertainment and enchantment and those who could best harness and mobilise all the industries and efforts required to produce large scale films that fulfilled these demands had (and have) success. Is money and enchantment such a diametric opposition as Ray suggests?

Second question; what is Bazin’s notion of ‘realism’ and why for Bazin is it so desirable? Supplimentary question: why does the Frankfurt School influence on theory and theorising so disregard it?

These questions will be the subject of further blog posts and trails of thought.