Saturday, November 9, 2013

Book Review: Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality

Sigfried Kracauer's Theory of Film is a serious read.  It seems to follow a very similar realist vein to Andre Bazin with some elements of the writings of Dziga Vertov.  Kracauer takes an ontological approach to film looking at the fundamental characteristics of the medium, preceding story.  He comes up with a basic aesthetics and guide for visual subject matter based on this.  He then looks at approaches to acting, dialogue and music.  He then takes on questionable theory, examining the audience experience.  He then moves on to clinically examine different types of films.  Lastly, he philosophizes about modern life and culture, puts it into a historical context and ties film into these matters.  On the whole, Theory of Film is a dense book: clinical and highly intelligent.  It's not particularly recommended for beginners, but certainly for those with an interest in film theory and aesthetics.

Kracauer takes an ontological approach to film, preceding any of the preconceptions or structures that many people would bring to the medium.  He begins with an almost encyclopedic look at the history of photography and later film.  He examines the basic qualities of the medium, its most basic being that it captures objective empirical truth.  He then develops an aesthetic from this, what I would call the existential realist approach.  To use film to create fantasy goes against the inherent objective quality of the images.  Movies are an opportunity to contemplate images for their own sake, appreciating both non-plot movies and narrative movies that seem to embrace this approach to some extent.  This is of course in a pre-CGI-era, but he doesn't speak of a mix between animation and live-action, either.  Every image does and should be used to have meaning within itself and not just be a symbolic formalist building block.  In this sense, he is like Bazin, but he never speaks of the long take and is therefore perhaps more similar to Dziga Vertov.

He goes on to list and describe some of the basic photographic affinities of the medium.  At this point, he is still more fundamental than narrative.  Some of film's inherent affinities which he notes are the unstaged, the fortuitous, endlessness, the indeterminate and the flow of life.  Film has an ability to take things we overlook in everyday life and draw us to see them, either again or for the first time, with fresh eyes.

He then moves on to look at actors.  Actors must be casual, being first, before being something.  Dialogue is explored.  Poetic and intellectual dialogue is attacked.  The more complex the dialogue is, the more it fights with the images for primacy.  It tugs the brain in two different directions and creates a mess.  Dialogue should be simple and often expressive through it's pre-lexical qualities, such as volume, tone, etc.  In general, sound should neither upstage the images nor be a redundancy.  Different approaches to music are also explored.

Kracauer looks at the viewer experience, one of the worst-analyzed elements in all of film theory.  I won't go into too many details, but he falls into the trap of using quack Freudian psychology to explain the movie viewing experience.  Movies are like a dream and we are slaves to the experience, etc.  My experience reading Freud's Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and The Interpretation of Dreams leads me to believe he made up a lot of unfalsifiable conjectures so as to undermine traditional moral, especially sexual, values.  Everything is sexual until Freud's the one smoking a cigar.  This section is thankfully short.

The next section clinically explores the three different main types of films: experimental, documentary and narrative.  He looks at the pros and cons of each through his own criteria.  Movies adapted from theater rightly take a huge hit as theater is drawn to humanity and the inner workings of the mind whereas film is more outward.  Theatrical adaptations tend towards formalism.  He also compares film and the novel, examining adaptations that worked and ones that failed.  He also looks at found story, more informal than documentary, and episodic films.  Episodic films are seen by him as potentially reflecting the flow of life.

The last section is interesting and quite different.  It is more of a cultural criticism.  He examines the rise of science and the breakdown of common beliefs and values.  All this ties into man's search for meaning and happiness, the breakdown of culture leading man into an existential crisis.  Science has turned everything into statistics, but art allows us to appreciate beauty once again.

This book is generally great.  While the ideas are similar to Bazin, this book is full and integrated whereas the Bazin books are anthologies of shorter essays.  I generally love what he has to say as this is how I generally look at movies.  A few parts dip into nonsense, as I have already stated.  I would say that the introduction was the most challenging part to read and perhaps the least interesting part.  Lastly, I, of course, like movies of all different types so I find ideological film theories to be interesting explorations, but I feel there is an exception to most rules, so one can't be an absolutist on aesthetics.  This book is a great read for those who really wish to explore film theory and realist aesthetics.

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