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.