Thursday, October 12, 2017

Authors in Cinema?

So I have been thinking about the question of "auteur theory."  Although auteur theory appears not to be very popular currently it is hard for me to get past some fundamental facts about my own experience watching movies.  First, I tend to group movies according to directors, a Hitchcock movie, etc., and if I discover a director I really like I want to see more films by that director.  Second, I agree with Truffaut and Sarris that our interest in great directors is such that we want to see all of their films as part of their overall oeuvre:  there is something inherently interesting in even a relatively bad film by Woody Allen, for example.  Third, although I do not have any faith in their objective validity, I like looking at rankings of great films and directors, and I find such rankings to be helpful, that is, if made by a well established film critic or through an amalgamation of evaluations by film critics.  These lists help me to decide which film to see next. 

I understand the anti-auteur position.  For example, I have no trouble with the idea that films are collaborative exercises or with the idea that often the creative force in a film is not the director, but the producer, the main actors, the writer, or someone else.  But I am somewhat skeptical about the overall attack on auteur theory.  I am reminded by these attackers of what Nietzsche referred to as "the last man."  The last man has no trouble with mediocrity, and indeed aspires to mediocrity:  the last man says "what is a star" and blinks.  The last man is someone, actually some big swath of our society, that just does not believe in the possibility of greatness, and resents the idea that anyone might be considered great.  And yet there was Mozart, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Fellini, and the list goes on.  There is something perverse and self-defeating about denying greatness or claiming that certain low-level films are worthy of as much regard as the masterpieces of, say, the 20th century.

I therefore have a problem with Jim Gisriel’s “Auteur Theory: The Cinematic Class System” published Sep 24, 2016 on Youtube,  Although this piece is very nicely produced and I have enjoyed showing it in class, it seems to harp on and on about how terrible it is to have a "class system" in the cinema world.  "Class system" here seems to have nothing to do with economics or oppression of the working class but is simply an attack on the idea of saying that some film, type of film, or director is better than another.  OK, I'm sorry, but what exactly is wrong with such a "class system"?

Truffaut, who was one of the original proponents of auteur theory, provided a list of directors who he believed were better than another group who mainly just filmed adaptations of novels.   The directors on his list, which included Renoir, Bresson, and Tati, among others, have stood the test of time.  The others have not.  Really, no one remembers them.  Gisriel seems pretty excited about some directors who mainly make action or sci-fi movies, and although these directors are probably good within their genres, I have no problem with ranking them below the truly great directors that Truffaut lists. In a hundred years no one will remember them either.  For example, although Gisriel seems excited about a director who features pilots and flying in his films, I find this to be of no real interest.  I favor democracy on most fronts, but I think there really are qualitative differences between artists/directors.  Some directors produce films that encourage repeated viewing, contemplation and reflection.  Some, for example, are worth writing about.  Some cinematic works fall within that category Kant called "fine art" which is to say the art of genius.  Such an artwork induces what Kant referred to as aesthetical ideas in his famous Chapter 49 of the Critique of Judgment, ideas that seem unending and that cannot be explained in language.  So, as the old song goes, my question is: 

"Would you like to swing on a star 
Carry moonbeams home in a jar 
And be better off than you are 
Or would you rather be a mule"  or a last man?

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Currie's attack on the idea that film is importantly like language and that semiotics is a worthwhile endeavor

No one believes that film is literally a language or that there are literal film languages.  So that is a red herring.  But film philosophers since the 1990s have been attacking that idea that film is importantly like language.  One of the most prominent articles in this areas is Gregory Currie's "The Long Goodbye:  the Imaginary Language of Film" first published in 1993 and appear in an anthology I am currently using in a class: Philosophy of Film and Motion Pictures (Blackwell, 2006).  Noel Carroll in his Introduction to Part II of the book endorses Currie's attack on semiotic theory, saying that his critique is "devastating."  Although I think Currie makes some good points I hardly think that his critique is devastating.  It has, however, led me to some serious rethinking about the nature of language itself.  

To introduce my comments I think it is useful to refer to a passage in Carroll's discussion of Curry.  One of the most telling points is that film, unlike a standardly accepted language as English, has no grammar.  This leads Carroll to a claim, based on Currie's premises, which is so outrageously false that the entire enterprise of Currie and Carroll is thrown into question.  The passage in question is in a paragraph about poetry.  "English has a grammar, but English poetry qua poetry does not.  What is right as poetry is not what abides by strict grammatical conventions, but that which, when executed, proceeds in cognizance of how things are usually done, but which nevertheless works with or against traditional procedures in order to move the reader in the way the poet intends.  If an infinitive needs to be split, so be it.  This is not poetically ungrammatical.  For poetry has no grammar.  Ditto film editing."  (62).  On this view, since language requires grammar and poetry has no grammar, then poetry is not language, or rather, not in language.  Sure, he qualifies this by saying "poetry qua poetry" but it is not clear how the "qua" functions here.  So neither film not poetry are language, nor are they in language.  This is so deeply wrong, one has to question the foundations of the entire enterprise. And if contemporary Philosophy of Language entails this then there is something deeply wrong with it too!

For a more thorough analysis we need to turn to Currie himself.  (I recognize that Carroll has written on this issue at length, but my focus here is on Currie.)  Currie claims that film is not in any way interestingly language-related.  But this is dependent on his understanding of natural languages like English.  His view of English (which is, I grant, a standard one, and perhaps close to universally accepted by philosophers and maybe also by linguists) is that it is characterized by productivity, conventionality, recursiveness (meanings are assigned by convention to a finite stock of words and we combine meanings by rules of composition), and it must be molecular (which seems to me to mean the same thing as "recursive" except that it is a metaphor that understand the sentences as molecules and the words as atomic.)  Then he says what I have found shocking (closely related to the implication by Carroll that poetry qua poetry is not in language). 

"Since the atoms - words in English - are assigned meanings individually, and since the composition rules make the meaning of the whole a function of the meanings of the parts, we can say that meaning in our language is acontextual."  I believe this to be wholly false.  The meanings of words used depend on where and how they are used:  meaning is contextual.  (This is my extremely controversial claim.)  Currie must be referring to some abstract thing, called "language," that we actually do not use in daily life.  Currie's big point is that meaning in a film is contextual and, since acontextuality is is required for the presence of language then film cannot be like or involve anything like language.  I grant that meaning in film is contextual, but so too is meaning in language!  The meaning of an English sentence (not some ideal sentence floating outside of real use, but a sentence as used) is as contextual as a meaning of a sequence of shots in a film.  

Then it turns out that Currie (and others like him...they are legion) holds that when we speak of utterance meaning then meaning is contextual.  (I see this as damage control:  a concession to the real world, although, as we shall see, a very weak one, since it the only context it seems to require is assuming the rationality of the speaker, i.e. a Davidsonian move.)  The problem he thinks is that film theorists are confusing semantic (also called "literal") meaning and utterance meaning.  My claim is that there is no so thing as semantic or literal meaning.  It is a fiction.  What is the literal meaning of Currie's sentence "There are several reasons for this, and I shall mention just one of them." (95)  Is it a set of dictionary synonyms for each word in sequence?  We cannot speak of anything like literal meaning here unless we think of the context in which it appears.  The separation of literal or semantic meaning and contextual meaning is bogus.  

The problem, I think, is a kind of Platonism.  Plato believed that real reality was acontextual.  The meaning of the Forms do not depend on context.  

Consider Currie's discussion of the sentence "Harold is a snake."  He correctly observes that it may mean in some context that a human named Harold is scheming.  There is of course an ambiguity in the phrase "this same sentence is used."  Sure, we can use "sentence" both for a set of words in sequence that can appear in different contexts and one instance in which that set of words appears.  The second is the ur-meaning of "sentence."  The other is just an abstraction and it is noteworthy that "sentences" in that sense have no meaning.  Currie however says that the sentence "Harold is a snake" does not mean that Harold is scheming.  He believes, it seems, that the meaning of the sentence is in someplace like the world of Forms.  But that is not how language works.  Language is a living, breathing thing.  Language is how we actually communicate with each other.   If I say that "Harold is a snake" in the context of intending that a human named Harold is a schemer this does not depend in any way on the claim that Harold is the name of an actual snake.  The linguistic idealist like Currie (my label) seems to think that the true (utterance) meaning of the sentence (as it is used) depends in some way on the ideal meaning.  It does not.  Semantic meaning is a myth.  It stands in place for the fact that we have certain models in our minds of how words can be used in certain contexts, models that are usually reflected fairly well by dictionaries (although dictionaries also have some normative force.) 

So it is false that "the meaning of a particular utterance depends in part also on the meaning of the sentence uttered" if the meaning of the sentence uttered is taken to be the semantic meaning!  I do not deny that there are conventions, dictionaries, and grammar books, and that these serve their important purposes mainly in helping us to communicate, conventions being the most important since we could certainly have language without the others.  Semantic conventions do play a role in determining meaning.  

The problem is in how these facts about conventions are used. Currie seems to think that utterance meaning is gained simply by adding to conventions of semantic meaning certain "non-conventional rules of rationality" ones that help us determine the intended meaning of the author.  I do not want to go into all of the questions surrounding the notion of "intended meaning" which, itself, is something of a myth.  But a quick look at the debates over that will show that determining the meaning of a sentence, for example in a literary work, or even in a philosophical writing, depends as much on the context of words that come before and after that sentence as on anything that can count as the "author's intention" which is notoriously nearly impossible to pin down independent of the immediate textual context itself.  I say this without denying that interviews of the author or, in film, the director, can be immensely useful in shedding light on the meaning of the novel or film.  

I would go further and bring up something mentioned by one of my students, that films should be seen as like novels, upon which they are often based.  Neither films nor novels are languages as such, but language plays an important role in each, it is just that novels only use language.  Films of course usually use a lot of language, literally English for example, in filmic dialogue.   But in film we need to recognize that whatever the characters say is inextricably connected with the behavior of the actors who are playing those characters, including various gestures.  When in Citizen Kane Orson Welles talks he is not just reading a script.  The meaning of each thing he says is contextualized and modified not only by what came before and what comes after but also by the movements of his body, the intonation of his voice, and so forth. 

Currie asks "does any of the story meaning that cinematic images convey possess the communicative features that we have attributed to the meanings of words and sentence?"  This is a misleading question. They do communicate in the way sentences do, but this very often involves (and certainly should not exclude) communication by actors portraying characters using a natural language among other means of communication.  It also includes the other surrounding contextual features which film semioticians often refer to as "the language of cinema."  That is they include close-ups, tracking shots and so forth.  This too is part of the overall way that directors and other key players in the film-making art communicate to us.  Actors do part of the job but directors direct the whole enterprise.  Doesn't it make sense that the whole package is language since the goal is communication?  

Currie notes that George Wilson has taken what I consider to be the reasonable position that interpretation of a film needs to look at it holistically.  (94)  Currie then says "Wilson is right to say that what the cinematic images tell us about the story depends on the surrounding context of other images.  But that is true also of words and sentences in a text, where there is no dispute about the presence of language.  What kind of relation between described events is suggested by one bit of text depends upon the role that bit of text is seen to have in the context of all of the other bits...So the context-dependence of interpretation applies to literature as much as to film":  which all seems completely right to me.  But this undercuts the idea that language is irrelevant to film as it also undercuts the idea of the acontextual nature of language.

Currie imagines defenders of cinema language saying that we should not conclude that the "meaning intrinsic to the images themselves is contextually determined."  I agree:  this would be a bad move since it relies on the very same linguistic idealism that Currie unfortunately accepts.   The problem is not, contra Currie, a matter of mixing up semantic and utterance meaning: the problem is with taking semantic meaning as something real.  The defender of cinematic language should just insist that there is no acontextual meaning either in literature or in film, or anywhere else for that matter.


Thursday, September 28, 2017

To what extent are films like dreams?

I have been reading Susanne K. Langer's "A Note on the Film" which appeared originally in her Feeling and Form (1953) and which also appears in Noel Carroll and Jinhee Choi's Philosophy of Film and Motion Pictures.  Film for Langer is a new art which is no longer to be seen as "a new technical device in the sphere of drama." And, as a new art, it exhibits a "new poetic mode."  Before commenting on this new mode, which Langer takes to be related to dreaming, I wish to remark on her methodology.  I applaud her collaborative technique, rare among philosophers:  she says that there were four collaborating members in producing this essay (although she is clearly the leader) and it is they who came up with the results that the "structure of the motion picture is not that of drama" and is closer to narrative (by which she seems to mean novels and epic), and that "its artistic potentialities became evident  only when the moving camera was introduced."  The second result (which seems to overcome the first, since the novel and epic forms hardly feature the moving camera), is also prominent in a much later paper by Arthur C. Danto from 1979 "Moving Pictures," which also appears in the Carroll/Choi anthology.  Following up on this, Langer asserts that "the moving camera divorced the screen from the stage" and that it is only a special technique just to photograph the action on a theatrical stage.  

Whereas many theorists of film have tried to tie it to a previous art form, for instance in the silent era to pantomime, Langer stresses the way in which film is "omnivorous," consuming or rather incorporating many different art forms.  Thus also although film theorist Arnheim worried about sound and technicolor destroying the perfection of the silent film, Langer welcomes these new developments.  She thinks that perhaps people were simply put off by earlier crude versions of these appropriations.  

So film is what she calls a "poetic art" which simply means a creative or "fine" art like painting, sculpture, music, dance, literature, and architecture.  As a poetic art it has what she calls a "primary illusion" or "virtual history" of its own.  Previously Langer had argued that each art form has its own primary illusion.  For example in dance gesture is the primary illusion whereby the dance illusion is realized.

To better understand Langer I find it useful to think of Nietzsche.  Langer herself however, when she mentions Nietzsche in Feeling and Form, seems to misunderstand and oversimplify his aesthetic theory.   She believes that his concept of the Dionysian/Apollonian duality is only about the "preponderance of one principle or the other" like the ones we find in such polarities as emotion vs. reason or instinct vs. intellect. (FF 17).  She actually sees the Dionysian as the extreme of pure feeling and the Apollonian as pure form.  I will not go here into all of the ways this is wrong.  Readers can get my own take on Nietzsche and these two concepts by typing them into the search function of this blog.  

What is helpful, rather, is to think of the Apollonian as setting up something like a dream world on stage, which is precisely what Langer is getting at, except in her case the dream world is related to the virtual reality set up on the screen by film.  The Dionysian is an element that Langer leaves out of her analysis, although that, in itself, is interesting.  Nietzsche believed that the Dionysian element of tragic theater is the sense of oneness between audience member and protagonist who ultimately represents Dionysus himself.  The Dionysian allows for an ecstatic aspect of art experience in which it seems as though one has punched through the selective and god-like illusion of the Apollonian dreamworld to the ultimate nature of reality itself.  I think that this can provide us with an insight that is missed, actually made impossible, by someone like Arthur Danto.  Danto, by setting up the world of art as radically separate from the world of actual things, as something transcendent (because when one appropriately sees Andy Warhol's Brillo Box as art, then it is transfigured into the realm of art, and this is what distinguishes it from its indiscernibly different counterpart in the grocery warehouse), breaks off the intimate relation between art and reality, or rather makes it impossible.  In short, Danto's Apollonian aesthetics excludes the Dionysian.  Langer's does too, but she does not go as far as Danto in that direction, and to that extent is preferable, from a Nietzschean perspective.

So Langer stresses the mode of film art is the dream mode, which is not to say that film copies dreams.   The mode is a "mode of appearance."  She explains this by noting that fiction is in the memory more and that is "like" (she uses scare quotes here in a confusing way) memory.  It is so "in that it is projected to compose a finished experienced form, a 'past'" i.e. a virtual past, not the past of the writer or reader.  Film, similarly, creates a virtual present,  "an order of direct apparition."  To be sure Langer is a bit too systematic here.  There is no reason why fiction could not also project a virtual present or film a virtual past.  But, set that aside.

Now to the comparisons with dream.  Langer says "The most noteworthy formal characteristic of dream" is that the dreamer "is always at the center of it" even though everything else may change, often in strange ways.  Actually this does not correspond with my own experience of dreams, and of course this is a major problem with comparing film with dreams:  you can't confirm any of it since our dream worlds are pretty private and only become public when we describe them to others.  The others cannot verify our dream statements, or falsify them, for that matter.  From the old positivist perspective, our dream statements have to all be meaningless.  But they are not, which is what was wrong with positivism. 

In any case, I do not experience myself in my dreams as the dreamer who is always there.  Perhaps others do.   Nor do I fully understand what Langer means by the "immediacy of everything in a dream."  Some things in dreams seem to happen right away, and some things take time.  Perhaps she is saying that nothing is ever mediated by anything else in a dream, for example perceptions are not mediated by concepts.  But this does not seem to be true in my dreams either.  

But what I get from sentences like "this aesthetic peculiarity, this relation to things perceived, characterizes the dream mode" is the importance of things perceived, the importance of the world of everyday life.  A film, on her view, "creates a virtual present" just like a dream.  I think what is being suggested is that films take the world around us and edits that world, transforming it greatly, but still always keeping us in contact with the things perceived.  

So what then is the relation between camera and the scene portrayed?  Langer argues that the camera takes the place of the perceiver in that unlike the dreamer it is not in the scene.  (She forgets about cameras reflected in mirrors, sometimes).  Again, my own experience is that sometimes I am someone watching the events of the dream but almost more often I am one of the characters in the dream.  In this respect my dream life is not like my perceptual life which is always seen from the perspective of my body, my eyes, my mind, and where I am never part of what is seen except insofar as I can see myself in mirrors, or see my body from the perspective of my unseen by me eyes.

Langer also thinks that the film is not "dreamlike in its structure," which I think actually weakens her case because it really is insofar as things do often happen outside of normal sequencing of space and time (although these distortions seldom seem very odd to the film viewer...we quickly adapt to a virtual reality).  Perhaps she wants to stress how film is coherent whereas a dream is not since she then says about film what she says about any art form, i.e. "[it] is a poetic composition, coherent, organic, governed by a definitely conceived feeling, not dictated by actual emotional pressures."  Well, yes and no, or rather usually, but not always.

A further explication of "immediacy" ensues.  Langer writes that "the basic abstraction whereby virtual history is created in the dream mode is immediacy of experience" which the art of film "abstracts from actuality, form our actual dreaming."  OK, that makes sense:  that the film takes the structure of the dreamworld and abstracts that structure in creation of virtual time.  Sounds Kantian (not surprising, as she was a student of Cassirer, a major Kantian of the time).  Again, Langer's approach is that the audience member enters the virtual world through the camera:  "The percipient of a moving picture sees with the camera;  his standpoint moves with it, his mind is pervasively present.  The camera is his eye..."  and "He takes the place of the dreamer" and yet is not in the story.  The work is an apparition.  I think all of this is foretelling the French new wave cinema with all of its emphasis on hand held cameras and a you-are-there feeling.  Danto, who says something similar, and is clearly inspired by Truffault, is not prescient in this way.

It is interesting that for Langer all of this shows that a moving picture, when good, is a work of art, and also that she sees an important ally in Eisenstein.  Eisenstein of course was the prime advocate of the montage theory of film, a theory which fit his own work, and that of many of his contemporaries, quite well, but which declined when film moved on to other forms.  Of course the very idea of montage, and the look of montage, does remind us of the fragmented nature of our dreams.  In this way an Eisenstein film is even more like a dream than many other films.  There is something surreal about the scene on the Odessa steps in Potemkin, although it should be remembered that Eisenstein himself would have stressed the greater realism of this technique.  Perhaps more telling is Langer's quoting of Eisenstein on the creative process, where he says that the whole is governed by the "initial general image which originally hovered before the creative artist."  Eisenstein and Langer are like Dewey in following the creative process from inception to reception, and not simply understanding creativity in terms of whatever produces a highly valued product, an approach typical of analytic aesthetics.   Along these lines, Langer also endorses (as Dewey would) Eisenstein's insistence that the film viewer must, as she puts it, "use his imagination to create his own experience of the story."  So, again, the film creates an illusion "of the dimension in which [things] go on" i.e. "a virtual creative imagination" because it seems to be the product of one's own imagination, much like dreams.

So film is art because it takes "diverse materials" and transforms them, and, "like a dream, it enthralls and commingles all senses."  

It is only in the final part that Langer draws a parallel between epic and film, which, again, she traces back to Eisenstein who favored Milton over Shakespearean analogies.  What is valuable for me in the last part of this essay is that point that "dream events are spatial - often intensely concerned with space - intervals, endless roads, bottomless canyons....but they are not oriented in any total space."  This, I think, is correct, and also for film.  She concludes that the dreamed reality on the screen can "move backward and forward" in space and time "because it is really an eternal and ubiquitous virtual present" unlike drama which always moves forward, creating a virtual future instead.

Langer's importance for the aesthetics of film has been very much under-rated.  A contrast again can be made to Danto who uses the moving camera to emaphasize not the mediation of the structures of dreaming but the idea of consciousness of consciousness, which he takes to be a sign of advancement, much like Hegel before him, and thus the arthood of film coming with this kind of hyper reflexivity where ultimately it is film about film, or film about film about film, thus taking it away further and further from life, strangely like the problem of the "third man" in Plato, where Plato is forced to hyothesize infinitely further eternal forms of Man, or alternatively, limit the power of God by forcing Him to create only one Man.  In short, Danto's theory separates art form life whereas Langer's ties it more closely to life in the way that dreams are close to life, taking from life, concentrating, abstracting, intensifying, etc.  

Noel Carroll, in his "Introduction to Part II" of the same anthology, thinks he can refute Langer by observing that the "film viewer is not in the center of the array.  She is typically off to one side."  (59)  Aside from the fact that this misreads Langer, who does not put the film viewer at the center of the array, this also fails to see that being to one side in a theater makes hardly any difference in our experience of the film.  We quickly adapt and phenomenologically immediately take up the position of the camera, as Langer clearly states.   But I do agree with Carroll that some of the things Langer thinks are unique to our experience of film and cannot be experienced in theater can actually be experienced in theater.  I just do not think that the difference between theater and film is as great as Langer makes out. 

One can also agree with Carroll that its dream-like nature is not defining for film while still agreeing with Langer that the analogy is illuminating.  The big disanalogy between dreams and films that Carroll finds, i.e. that dreams are absolutely subjective experiences whereas films are shared and "interpersonally available," is not all that impressive since first, as mentioned earlier, we can tell our dreams to others, and second because, when viewing a film, and identifying with the visual perspective of the camera, while identifying perhaps empathetically with the characters, one is having an experience as if in a dream. 

The other refutation of the analogy Carroll finds in a quote from Cavell, i.e. that most dreams "are boring narratives...their skimpy surface out of all proportion with their riddle interest and their effect on the dreamer."  Further, as Carroll observes, we have ordinary events in dreams charged with emotion for no real reason, and this contrasts to films where the events are usually extraordinary, and also, as he argues, "most dreams are not anywhere as interesting as films."  One might reply that most non-music sounds are not anywhere as interesting as music, but this is not reason not to say that much of music is inspired by non-music sounds (and originally, all of it was).   Of course film takes what dreams do and does it a lot better. Moreover, although some dreams are about ordinary situations many are about ones as extraordinary as anything found in film, and this is true vice versa too.  So, overall, Carroll's attempt to discredit the film-as-dream approach to film is pretty unconvincing.   



Thursday, September 21, 2017

Is a photograph a mummy? Bazin on ontology..

Andre Bazin's famous "The Ontology of the Photographic Image" argues that the origin of painting and sculpture lies in what he calls "the mummy complex."  The Egyptians armed themselves against the passage of time, thus satisfying a psychological need of man, by preserving bodily appearance, and these by way of preserving the body itself.  Later, bodily appearance was preserved through statues which then become "substitute mummies" - and here life is preserved "by a representation of life."  Once civilization deletes the magical aspect of this we have the portrait painter sublimating our concern for death on a rational level: "No one believes any longer in the ontological identity of model and image, but all are agreed that the image helps us to remember the subject and to preserve him from a second spiritual death."  But of course Bazin himself does not take this position of rejecting ontological identity. What "no one believes" will be thrown into question.  What we have now is "a larger concept [than survival after death] the creation of an ideal work in the likeness of the real, with its own temporal destiny." 

It should be remarked that this ideal world is almost the opposite of Plato's ideal world.  We might even gain some further insight into Plato's rejection of the imitative arts here.  There seems to be a conflict between two ideals.  The imitation provides us with one atemporal ideal, Plato provides another one, one which is more like mathematics.  Plato kind of hides this:  he never complains that this is what imitative art gives us, or pretends to give us.  Yet he wants to substitute his own ideals for these ideals.  

For Bazin, painting would be vain if they did not satisfy a "primitive need the have the last word in the argument with death." Painting does this by producing "a form that endures." Plato has Socrates defeat death by proving that his soul is eternal and that this lies in seeking the eternal unchanging forms which, precisely, are not imitations.  Imitations as Forms: what a sacrilege, a contradiction in terms!

There would be no disagreement between Plato and Bazin however that that the history of plastic art is a story of resemblance "or, if you will, of realism."  But again, isn't it funny that "real" is a word that Platonists would apply to the world of the Forms, whereas realism can also apply to this need to produce something that defeats time and yet at the same time copies something in the physical realm.   Bazin understands this point, for he suggests that in the Renaissance we have a move away from Platonist realism to instead combine spiritual expression "with as complete an imitation as possible of the outside world," all facilitated by the development of perspective and the camera obscura by which a three-d space is reproduced on a two dimensional surface.  

So, on Bazin's view, painting "is torn between two ambitions" one aesthetic "the expression of spiritual reality wherein the symbol transcended the model," and the other "purely psychological, namely the duplication of the world outside."  It would seem at first that Bazin is saying that photography uniquely does the second: but it is more complicated than that.  First, as he observes, the history of art becomes a history of being consumed by this need for duplication, i.e. to satisfy the "appetite for illusion," and second realism is compelled to express movement dramatically, hence the need for Baroque art (e.g. Tintoretto and perhaps Caravaggio).  And yet the figures in baroque art never actually move:  so Bazin speaks of its "tortured immobility."  And then he says that great artists (can we include the Baroque painters here?) combine the two tendencies (which would seem to be impossible, as how can the symbol both transcend the model and be one with it?) Bazin insists that, despite these exceptions, the "need for illusion has not ceased to trouble the heart of painting," and that this need as a "purely mental need, of itself nonaesthetic" -  which is related to our proclivity "towards magic."  I think that this term "magic" is essential to our understanding of Bazin.  

Bazin at this point in the essay does something strange.  He says "the quarrel over realism in art stems from a misunderstanding, from a confusion between the aesthetic and the psychological, between true realism, the need that is to give significant expression to the world both concretely and its essence, and the pseudorealism of a deception aimed at fooling the eye ....a pseudorealism content in other words with illusory appearance."  The first part of the sentence is easy enough to understand, but are we to think that the aesthetic is now to be identified with true realism whereas just a few paragraphs back it was identified with the transcendence of the symbol from the model?  Clearly we have a new dialectic or a new phase in the dialectic.  The new conception of the aesthetic is tied now with giving expression of the world "both concretely and its essence."  That is, the new conception of the aesthetic is anti-Platonic but also retains the notion of "essence" as well as "realism":  and it is also in opposition to simple duplication of the world, as before, although this time identified with illusory appearance (the kind of complaint Plato would make).  

Thus Bazin seeks to situate himself on another plane than that of Platonists vs. imitative artists, one that retains the mummy and the magical (in whatever modern sublimated manifestations they might take).  In a footnote, here, he associates this new true realism with Eisenstein but not with Russian Socialist Realism.  He calls Eisenstein the Russian Tintoretto, which is to say that Eisenstein is solving the problem the Baroque failed to solve, the problem of being static and silent.  Medieval art naturally synthesized the realistic and the "highly spiritual," and without crisis, but with the rise of perspective, the synthesis dissolves, only to be brought back together by the origins of photography.  Photography frees the plastic arts "from their obsession with likeness" since photography satisfies "our obsession with realism."  Painting can never escape subjectivity, since the "human hand" will always be present, but our appetite for illusion is completely satisfied by mechanical reproduction in which the human is mainly not involved.

Now it is fairly obvious that Bazin is just wrong the the human is completely absent from photography.  Wrong on one level.  But wrong on all levels?  It is deceptive to focus on Bazin's telling of the tired old story of painters like Picasso being freed from the "resemblance complex" by the existence of photography, and how the painter then abandoned this "to the masses" who then identified resemblance with photography and photograph-like painting.  More interesting, although equally problematic, is the claim that "originality in photography as distinct from originality in painting lies in the essentially objective character of photography."  How can the objective (which is also purely mechanical) be original? How can we take seriously the idea  that "between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only the instrumentality of a nonliving agent" and that the image is formed "without the creative intervention of man."  It is hard to given that Bazin admits the photographer does intervene in his selection of the subject, that he has intentions, and that the photograph reflects his personality...all exceptions pretty much undercutting the point. Still, the point is that only photography gains an advantage from the absence of man.  Bazin goes do far as to see photography as like nature and photographs like flowers whose beauty comes in part form not coming from man.  We could I suppose say that we treat photographs as if their production were automatic.  Maybe the whole point is phenomenological.

But this is all set-up for the interesting and controversial close of the essay.  The very claim that photography is like nature leads in the next paragraph past the idea that photography has the "quality of credibility" not present in other pictures, to how we are forced to accept "as real the existence of the object reproduced....set before us, that is to say, in time and space."  It is this sentence that leads up to the controversial one: "Photography enjoys a certain advantage in virtue of this transference of reality from the thing to its reproduction."  And this sentence, which most philosophers would not accept, is footnoted with reference to the psychology of relics which also involve transfer of reality, as also the Shroud of Turin which also has some features of a photograph.  

So, in what sense can the photo give the thing itself:  in what sense is reality transferred form one to the other? This is nothing Plato could have imagined, but it could be imagined by those who believe in relics or magic, that is the vast bulk of humanity for the vast bulk of our history as a species.  But what is this for us science-minded people?  Well, there are different senses of reality. Perhaps the point can be rewritten a bit:  that the oneness of the subject and its photo is phenomenological, that it is "in experience," or psychological?  I am not sure this will capture whatever insight Bazin had here.  I think the key must lie in the notion that the photograph takes its subject out of space and time.  I will discuss this more below.

If we are talking about "likeness" Bazin says, painting does not do the job well, whereas photography "can give us the kind of image of the object that is capable of satisfying the deep need man has to substitute for it something more than a mere approximation, as kind of decal or transfer."   This is followed by the radical but partially explanatory sentence: "The photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it."  The Forms exist outside of space and time, and the photograph does too, and yet what has happened here, much like what happened to Warhol's Brillo Box in Arthur Danto's account of it as taken into the artworld, the photograph takes the object out of its own world into another atemporal world, and yet it is still, paradoxically, a physical thing (just as Warhol's Brillo Box is).  My point:  if Danto does weird ontology with a Warhol, why can't Bazin with a photograph?

Even the photograph of Lincoln at Gettysburg, which shows shows a man in a isn't even sure which one is Lincoln, the "image shares, by virtue of the very process of becoming, the being of the model of which it is the reproduction;  it is the model."  So the photograph of Lincoln is Lincoln.  We see Lincoln in seeing the photograph, but Lincoln transformed.  Well, we do say, when looking the photograph:  "that is Lincoln."  Again, is this in some way like Danto's "is" of artistic identification?   

Bazin thinks this all related to the charm of old family photographs and it is true that unlike paintings we have here "disturbing presence of lives halted at a set moment in their duration, freed from their destiny."  He also observes that whereas art creates eternity, photography "embalms time" because it stops physical corruption.  The photograph of my grandmother shows her always young.

Bazin applies this to cinema in an interesting way since cinema does have its own time:  but in this case cinema takes us away from the frozen-in-time effect we found in both Baroque painting and in photography, and the image of things is now "the image of their duration" so that change itself is mummified.  

It is not that Bazin denies aesthetic quality to photography and cinema.  It has its own aesthetic quality which is to "lay bare the realities."  It is the camera and not the human that is able to bare the reality of the things of everyday life.  (If you are a reader who not only has gotten this far but is actually aware of my work on everyday aesthetics, you will not be surprised by this move.)  It is the camera that "separates off the complex fabric of the objective world." For example, he suggests, in one photograph we have "a reflection on a damp sidewalk" and in another "the gesture of a child."  (One thinks of Bicycle Thieves by de Sica, a favorite of Bazin's.)   

There is something perverse, unbelievable and also interesting in the next sentence:   "Only the impassive lens, stripping its object of all those ways of seeing it, those piled-up preconceptions, that spiritual dust and grime with which my eyes have covered it, is able to present it in all its virginal purity to my attention and consequently to my love."  How naive, we say.  And yet what he captures is the feeling of innocence and love that might attach itself to such belief.   It might capture something of the love of life so closely associated with attentive perception.  It is cool that he mentions love here.  It is sort of a move in a direction of kitsch. But love is so important to us, not only of our streets in the rain but also of children and their very gestures.  He concludes this paragraph with the idea that nature "imitates the artist" i.e. in its creativity by way of the medium of the camera.  

This leads into the idea that photography can surpass art in creative power.  Again, the difference between photography and art is that the "photograph as such and the object in itself share a common being" as does also a fingerprint on a finger and on a slip of paper. This leads Bazin to go so far as to say that photography adds something to "natural creation" and does not just provide a substitute.  Surrealist photography realizes this thematically where, for the surrealist, the mechanical effect of the image is not apart form the aesthetic purpose, and the imagination/real distinction dissolves.  For the surrealist, "every image is to be seen as an object and every object as an image."    

The essay closes with more talk about freeing Western painting from its obsession with realism, giving it aesthetic autonomy, allowing form to be "swallowed up in color" as in Cezanne, and "there is no longer a question of the illusions of the geometry of perspective."   By contrast, the photograph goes beyond baroque resemblance "to the very identity of the model" and we come to admire "in reproduction something that our eyes alone could not have taught us to love" whereas painting can be admired as "a thing in itself."  

In response to this Katherine Thomson-Jones says "What could Bazin mean here given that we usually have no difficulty distinguishing between a photograph and the thing photographed?  ....Taking the claim literally, after all, would seem to commit us to a doubtful metaphysics - one that allows for the identity of things which are clearly not one and the same; namely, a photograph of something and the thing itself."  (Aesthetics and Film, Continuum, 2008, 20).  I am not sure Bazin actually claims identity given that the object freed from space and time is not going to retain all of its attributes.  


Friday, September 8, 2017

Will film eventually stop being capable of art?

Rudolf Arnheim is usually seen as just someone who got it wrong when it comes to film.  Some will admit that he did argue that film is art (in his book Film as Art  1932) and thus raised the status of film.  But he also was unhappy with new technological developments in film, especially the rise of the talkie, and thought that it would be much harder for film with sound to be art than silent film. Although clearly film still has been able to be art after the decline of silent film, it is still arguable that the way in which film is art has changed over time. 

Arnheim, amazingly, was able to predict what we today would call "the virtual reality film," one that is indistinguishable from reality itself. (We haven't got there yet.)  He called this "the complete film."  For Arnheim, the rise of the complete film will make film as art impossible because art requires limitations and requires distance from life.   

(A little cultural background will be useful here:  Wikipedia's article on Arnheim provides this:  "In the fall of 1932, Arnheim had an essay published in the Berliner Tagesblatt. This was about three months before the Nazis came into power, and the essay was published about the nature of Charlie Chaplin’s and Hitler’s mustaches and what it did to the nose in terms of human character. Considering the timing of this essay, and the fact that in 1933 the sale of his book Film as Art was no longer permitted due to the Nazis, some of Arnheim’s friends advised him that he should leave the country and so in August 1933, he moved to Rome.")

Arnheim was mainly worried about the over-emphasis on naturalism which he thought came with the talkies.  He was worried about the "victory of wax museum ideals over creative art." Although he thought that, by accident, sound film really did have "artistic potentialities," these would be destroyed by further technical developments in film (so-called "progress") for example in technicolor and stereoscopic film.  What was great about silent film was its "compositional precision" and its independence from reality.  He admitted that in painting color provides possibilities but insisted that the photographer does not have a "free hand" and must "record mechanically the light values of physical reality."  

Sometimes Arnheim is accused of holding to a medium specificity thesis.  But that is not quite right.  What he argued is that the specific media of the silent film, sound film, and color film are each different and present different potentialities.  This is, I think, correct.  I also think there is something to be said for the idea that film as art should be "divergent from nature."   

One of these divergences can be seen in black and white film. For Arnheim, achromatic film had the artistic advantage of creating a "grey scale" medium.  However, Arnheim argued, similar transformations of colors within color film would not in themselves produce a specific "formative" medium.  He admitted that one can manipulate color by choosing what is to be photographed, and one can do a "montage of colored pictures," but, and here he seems to have anticipated an argument by Roger Scruton, increasingly the artistic part of the work will focus all interest on what was in front of the camera.  This, on his view, would actually relegate the camera to being a "mere mechanical recording machine."   

Arnheim goes further to consider the "three-dimensional film" and wide screen projection.  As the illusion of reality increases "the spectator will not be able to appreciate certain artistic color effects" even though, technically speaking, it would still be possible to artistically and harmoniously arrange colors on the surface.  He observes that with stereoscopic film there will no longer be a plane surface with the compositional qualities that such a surface allows. Film, then, will be reduced to being a kind of theater and not an art form of its own.  Such film-specific techniques as montage and changing camera angle will no longer be useful, and montage will even be problematic since it would take away from the illusion of reality, just as changing the position of the camera would seem to displace reality.  His prediction then: "Scenes will have to be taken in their entire length and with a stationary camera."  And this will entail a regression of film to its beginnings where we only had a fixed camera and an uncut strip.  Now my point here is that although this prediction did not come true, Arnheim may still have a point.  

Arnheim's worry is that although the "striving after likeness to nature" which is ancient in man, can be thrilling, the goal itself is dangerous.  It ignores the counter-tendency to "originate, to interpret, to mold."  Arnheim admires those painters like Paul Klee who have broken with the principle of being "true to nature" but he thinks that the development of film in the direction of this kind of realism indicates how power this idea is.   On his view, it is the very popularity of film that condemns it.  "Since on economic grounds film is much more dependent on the general public than any other form of art, the 'artistic' preferences of the public sweep everything before them."  He does not deny that quality can be "smuggled in" but in the end the "complete film" will fulfill this age-old striving.  At this point the original and copy will be indistinguishable.  When that happens "all formative potentialities which were based on the differences between model and copy are eliminated and only what is inherent in the original in the way of significant form remains to art."    At this point in his argument Arnheim quotes from a writer, H. Baer, whose essay he finds "remarkable" who holds that color film accomplishes tendencies that go far back in graphic art insofar as it has striven for color. The quote from Baer shows Arnheim's alliance with an elitist tendency:
"Uncivilized man is not as a rule satisfied with black-and-white.  Children, peasants, and primitive peoples demand the highest degree of bright-coloring."  The quote goes further to say "it is the primitives of the great cities who congregate before the film screen" and they want bright colors.  It is interesting that Arnheim would go along with this equivalence of the rise of color film with love of the kitsch effects of exclusive interest in bright colors.  

Now Arnheim admits in the end that the complete film need not be catastrophe, as long as silent film, sound film, and colored sound film can all exist side by side.  Complete film is a great way to experience opera and dance, for example.  But only the other forms would be considered by Arnheim "real" film forms.  The existence of complete film might even encourage developments in the real forms.  Sound film can for example work on distinguishing itself clearly as art from the art of the stage.  But he thinks, perhaps pessimistically, that complete film (which he here puts in scare quotes) will "supplant them all" because of its ability to imitate nature.



Monday, August 7, 2017

what the ordinary person in everyday life sees?

"Pudovkin has said film strives to lead the spectator beyond the sphere of ordinary human conceptions.  For the ordinary person in everyday life, sight is merely a means of finding his bearings in the natural world.  Roughly speaking, he sees only so much of the object surrounding him as is necessary for his purpose.  If a man is standing at the counter of a haberdasher's shop, the salesman will presumably pay less attention to the customer's facial expression than to the kind of tie he is wearing (so as to guess his taste) and to the quality of his clothes...."  (Rudolf Arnheim  Film as Art).   The first sentence seems fine, but the second is false.  The ordinary person in everyday life might use sight just to find his bearings in the natural world:  for example, I am walking in the woods and I want to know where north is, so I look to see where the sun is setting.  But this is not the only ordinary use of sight.   Sight is ordinarily often used just to entertain oneself ...for example in observing the people in a museum during an interval between looking at artworks.  The next sentence may be true, although not only for the ordinary person in everyday life but for everyone at least some of the time: for example, a great pianist may focus just on what is necessary for realizing this work by Beethoven in front of this audience.  Also the mind of the ordinary person often wanders from the purpose is at hand.  The next sentence seems wrong too since the salesman, although clearly focusing on what is necessary for the situation, is in fact focusing on aesthetic qualities. He is simply focusing on aesthetic qualities of the clothes and not on the aesthetic qualities of the face.  So, what does this say about the first sentence?   The film maker could focus on the aesthetic qualities of the face, but could equally well focus on the same aesthetic qualities of the clothes that the salesman would focus on.   The filmmaker could give us the world through the eyes of the salesman.  Yes, films take us beyond the ordinary, but let us not think that the ordinary itself is so mechanical and bland.  As Dewey would say, film as art abstracts and intensifies the aesthetics of everyday life. 

Arnheim is not out of accord with this.  For he also gives an excellent description of how a film maker can make something ordinary extraordinary and, through doing so, can highlight features of the world surrounding us that we do not normally notice.

"If an ordinary picture of some men in a rowing boat appears on the screen, the spectator will perhaps perceive that there is a boat, and nothing further.  But if, for example, the camera is suspended high up, so that the spectator sees the boat and the men from above, the result is a view very seldom seen in real life.  The interest is thereby diverted from the subject to the form.  The spectator notices how strikingly spindle-shaped is the boat and how curiously the bodies of the men swing to and fro.  Things that previously remained unnoticed are the more striking because, the object itself appears strange and unusual.  The spectator is thus brought to see something familiar as something new."  (Arnheim  Film as Art)   

Notice that this transformation is not fully described when it is described as a change from subject to form.  It could better be described as a change from seeing the subject just in terms of conventional labels and noticing other features of the subject through seeing it "as something new."  Seeing something formally is not the same as seeing "as something new"!  

To continue on the same quote:  "At this moment, he becomes capable of true observation.  For it is not only that he is now stimulated to notice whether the natural objects have been rendered characteristically or colorlessly, with originality or obviously, but by stimulating the interest through the unusualness of the aspect the objects themselves become more vivid and therefore more capable of effect.  In watching a good shot of a horse I shall have a much stronger feeling that 'here is an actual horse - a big beast with satiny skin and with such a smell...'  That is to say, therefore, not only form but objective qualities will impose themselves more compellingly."  (Film as Art  43-44)  

Thanks to Noel Carroll  Philosophical Problems of Classical Film Theory (Princeton U. Press, 1988)  for drawing my attention to these quotes.  

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Shimmering of Being

This is an experiment in exploring the core of my philosophical position.  Although I have always been closely associated with the American Society for Aesthetics, an essentially analytic philosophy institution, I have an even more fundamental equipment to something else, something more metaphysical.  My early article "Sparkle and Shine" began to indicate this tendency.   My chapter on "aura" in The Extraordinary in the Ordinary pushes it further.   My main heroes in philosophy have been Plato, Nietzsche and Dewey, although other figures have of course played a prominent role, for instance Aristotle, Marx, Husserl, Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Goodman.  From Plato I have learned that the philosophical quest leads to grasping of the good which allows us to see the good in things, the axiological dimension, and, in particular, the ways in which things participate in their essences.  Beauty is the most prominent manifestation of this experience.  From Aristotle I have learned that things are greater than the sums of their parts if those things are organic wholes.  From Kant I have learned that works of genius give us aesthetic ideas which provide us with as if unending thought and connect us to the idea of the supersensible.,  From Nietzsche I have learned that to be true to the earth is to learn how to dance.  From Goodman I have learned that there are many ways the world is. From Wittgenstein I have learned that philosophy is not science and that the search for essences is deeply connected with seeing as.  From Dewey I have learned most everything else, that we need to recover the continuity between everyday life and the fine arts.  From Husserl I learned to look for essences in life experience.  From Heidegger I have learned that what we have forgotten is Being.  

What have religion, art, and even philosophy in one of its modes, looked for?  It is the shimmering of Being.  Being shimmers when it goes beyond itself.  This happens by way of the eruption of consciousness.  I think, therefore Being shimmers.  We see Being when we see/grasp the shimmer of Being.  Being becomes evident when the essential nature of things is revealed.  Essences are emergent upon things and practices, especially those practices aimed towards essences.  Essences, as emergent, and change within the field of consciousness.   A somewhat misleading way to search for essences is to try to come up with a definition in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions.  A better way is to look for a philosophical definition in terms of a key metaphor.  The great definitions of philosophy are the ones that captured a things essential nature in the sense that they were able to light a path to future creation.   Great definitions are evaluative as well as classificatory.  Revelation of essences is worthless without a path to creativity opening up.   Essences are tied to paradigms.  New definitions of essences happen in tandem with new paradigms.  For example Danto's new definition of art was tied to the paradigm of Warhol's Brillo Boxes.   The search for essences is a cultural thing in which philosophy and the arts, for example, work in tandem.  To look at the search for essences just in philosophy is to miss the organic nature of the cultural quest.  Moreover, the essence is not an abstraction:  it is to be found closely associated with the paradigmatic particular.   New revelations of essence are both ideal and real.  The dichotomy of idealism and realism is the great hangup for philosophy.  Plato discovered the shimmering of Being. The point for the philosopher king is not to have a list of definitions in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions but to see how the light of Being reveals things.  The important part of the allegory of the cave comes at the end.  What really is is what shimmers with possibility, or better, with potential.  There is a language game involved with the search for Being:  this is a philosophical language game.  Today we are at a loss for Being.  We are alienated from the quest for Being.