Saturday, July 7, 2012

Book Review: Film as Art

Rudolph Arnheim's Film as Art is currently my favorite film theory book.  Film as Art eschews esoteric philosophy and psychology.  It instead deals in logical thought processes and formal aesthetics.  His overarching thesis is that the deficiencies of film in terms of capturing pure realism and using these "deficiencies" well are what make film art.  The first section, "Film and Reality" deals with why film is not just a mechanical reproduction of reality, a common excuse as to why film was not art when the article was written in 1933.  In the next section, "The Making of a Film," he looks at everything from the first section and how it can be used artistically, bringing up many examples along the way. In the section "The Content of the Film," Arnheim moves away from camera techniques and editing and takes a briefer look at mise-en-scene, the universe of a movie.  In the section "The Complete Film," technical "progress" towards realism is portrayed as destroying art.  An entirely separate essay, "The Thoughts that Made the Picture Move" is not worth a discussion here.  It is merely a history of the development of motion pictures, probably somewhat interesting for those who don't know it, but rather technical and hard to follow.  The essay "Motion," which I will also pass on, is short and deals with the aesthetics of motion in film.  His 1935 essay, "A Forecast for Television," gives some neat insight into the nature of television, but also predictably misses things.  The final essay, "A New Lacoon: Artistic Composites and the Talking Film," written in 1938, deals with the aims of stage and film and the credibility of sound film.

Arnheim begins by looking at why film is not just a mechanical reproduction of reality, but art.  He brings up an example of an ice cube shown from one side.  From this angle, it merely looks like a square and one can not tell what it is.  Every object has an ideal angle from which to be seen that will give up the most visual information of the thing.  Alongside the most "ideal" angle, there are an infinite number of angles a thing could be shot from, each giving its own nuanced meaning to the thing shot.  As he notes, many sculptors, after making a piece, don't know what angle to shoot it from.  He goes on to explore the 2-D nature of film and the compositions this creates that can not exist in our 3-D reality.  Black and white changes the color spectrum and editing plays games with time and space among other things.  The film is full of capabilities that our material existences are not.

The second section, "The Making of a Film," deals with how to artistically solve all the problems from the first section.  He shows how the viewpoint of the camera can cleverly hide details or be used to create symbolic meaning without tampering with the reality in front of it.  Arnheim reminds the viewer of what is usually considered a central rule of art: every detail must have purpose and meaning.  He is against form for form's sake, but he mentions that an uncharacteristic angle can break people from the stupor of instant recognition and draw people to contemplate the thing in front of them as long as this aesthetic does not go overboard and render it unrecognizable.  This should also draw the viewer to look at form.  He moves on to look at reduced depth and the effects that it creates.  This leads to composition.  It also leads to size changes on screen which correspond to distance in shooting: growth, diminishment and foreshortening.  He moves on to espouse black and white over color cinematography.  Good lighting amplifies effects that color could not.  Just look at good film noir.  Lighting emphasizes textures over color and creates mood in scenes.  While he makes good arguments for black and white and reveals many of the secrets to its greatness, for me, as I'm sure most people will agree, he does not show the absolute necessity of being anti-color.  He next moves on to looking at distance from a subject and the limits of the frame.  The frame can be used to hide, show or reveal important details.  It can also be used to capture and bring interest to the nonhuman in ways that other arts can not.  He then looks at the absence of the space-time continuum and the effects derivable from that as well as goes into a divergence looking at the montage ideas of Pudovkin and Eisenstein.  He rightly tears down the idea that editing is everything.  He then moves on to look at how film makes use of the lacking of non-visual sense experiences.  He finishes with a few other techniques the camera is capable of and their uses.  Through all of these discussions, he brings up examples from numerous movies, most of which I have not yet seen, but always in a way that is helpful and instructive and does not make the reader feel out of the loop due to his knowledge mismatch.  He is apparently a huge fan of silent movies who seems to believe the sound medium should not even exist.  Despite nearly universal disagreement on this point, he still has a lot of use to say on film aesthetics in general and he gives an illuminating look on silent movies in particular, often finding different positives than I have.

The third section, "The Content of the Film," moves on to explore the universe in front of the camera.  He looks first at acting and expression.  Film acting is stylized beyond normal human interaction.  Daily interaction is unclear and restrained, masking many things, but in art, everything must be clear or at least subtly clear.  I find this approach useable but not absolute.  He goes on to note, though, that acting should not be too over-the-top and because this leads to a cliched, bombastic approach to every emotion where a little subtlety leads to creative, original expressions.  He then moves on to look at silent film and the expression of ideas.  He notes that film, not unlike literature is not particularly suited to intellectualism and abstract thoughts.  Both involve the description of events and material reality.  He does gone onto say, though, that there can be some level of symbolism and ideas in narrative film so long as it fits naturally into the story.  Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush cleverly contrasts rich and poor in the scene where he eats a boot.

In the section "The Complete Film," Arnheim rants about how technical innovations such as sound, color, etc. are destroying film art.  The argument is that they head too far towards realism and thus away from art.  He laments that artists and even more so the general public are fueling a push towards "naturalism."  This, according to him and I believe he's right, is the main reason people dislike modern art.  He makes an important note that technical innovations move forward faster than aesthetic discovery and budding media are left behind for new forms.  He claims that old forms should still exist among new, which I heartily agree with, but then claims that the sound color movie is not, can not and should not be art, a claim that is rather ridiculous considering that most of the aesthetics he comes up with in the book can be applied to this form. 

The essay "A Forecast for Television" makes some good and bad predictions for what was then the future of television.  He only sees television not as an artistic medium, but as a documentary and news medium.  It has the opportunity to show things on the other side of the world, but it also has the obligation to interpret these things.  Politics can not be covered by sheer imagery.  It is intellect and abstract concepts that require more than sheer images or events as explanation.  The other problem as he notes is:
No longer does one need to be in company in order to celebrate or to mourn, to learn, to enjoy, to hail or protest.
By separating communal values from physical community, television connects us as it tears us apart.  By now this acknowledgement is cliche, but then it was prophetic.

The last essay explores theater, film and the legitimacy of sound film.  He first looks at the historical relationship of dialogue and action in the theater.  A balance must be found between dialogue and action in theater.  The more complex the one, often the less complex the other.  He explores different media and comes to the conclusion that one element should take precedence over another in each media form.  In the case of film, sound should not take prominence because this would be theater, but on the other hand, when sound is added, dialogue can't help but take prominence.  In the silent film all images are equal.  In the "talkie," dialogue has more pull than other sounds and thus leads the visual prominence too much toward talking figures.  The height of aural interest is also the low-point of visual interest: watching meaningless lip movements.  Therefore, the talkie is no different than theater and worse than the silent film.  He fleshes it out a little more than this, but ultimately, he leaves out so much and makes so many presumptions of what sound movies have to be that you can not accept his conclusions, and let's not forget everyone's predilection towards sound film.

All in all, Film as Art is a fantastic book on film theory and aesthetics.  It makes a great case for silent movies, but never succeeds in tearing down sound movies as much as it desires.  Ultimately, it offers a very sensible aesthetic system that can be used towards much good, even if a few ideas are left out.  Much like in the work of Sergei Eisenstein, he attempts but fails to find an aesthetic system that is universal and absolute, but he leaves the door open wider than Eisenstein and comes a lot closer.