Sunday, March 13, 2011

Distracting Modern Views: How Tom Gunning Refuted Modern Conceptions of Early Cinema

            Within dominant western societies, we tend to think in straight lines in terms of temporality.  The monarchies of the ruling classes, events such as wars, and even the human life is though of as having a beginning, middle, and end…all taking place within the framework of a straight line wherein one event leads to another and progresses from that event’s ending.  Far different from other culture’s conception of temporality (such as the more circular conception in some Asian and indigenous American cultures), western societies assign this straight line conception of temporality to everything.  One can witness this effect within the construct of film history.  As taught in many undergraduate film studies courses, film history begins with filmed actualities by Edison and Lumiere.  As cinema progresses, this “infantile” stage of the cinema naturally leads to more sophisticated narrative forms, resulting in a straight line from Edison and Lumiere to classical cinema, and then onto Italian Neorealism, French New Wave, New Hollywood, and so on.  These classes are often broken down even further by semester, as Film History I often deals with film history and movements previous to World War II, and then Film History II deals with film history and movements post-World War II.  However, within this conception of film history laid an incredibly problematic issue.  By applying our modern conception of the cinema to the films made during the early years of the cinema, we are effectively robbing it and removing it of its historically contemporary underpinnings and meanings.  There are counter arguments to this popular conception of film history, however.  Tom Gunning stands out in his perception of the early days of cinema, and much of his writing has stood to refute this “straight line” understanding of the early days of the cinema.  Within his essay “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)Credulous Spectator,” Gunning uses the example of the modern myth of audiences terrified before the images of Lumiere’s Arrival of a Train in order to explicate on the differences between what he refers to as a cinema of attractions and narrative cinema.  As he explains, “History reveals fissures along with continuities, and we must recognize that the experience of these audiences was profoundly different from the classical spectator’s absorption into an emphatic narrative.”[1] In order to explicate on his point, Gunning draws upon the history of the birth of the cinema, but contextualizes it within the era of its birth.  Further, through explaining the differences between the cinema of attractions and narrative cinema, Gunning underscores how important this contextualization is.

            Gunning begins to construct his historical argument by referring to the myth of frightened audiences screaming in terror at the image of a train approaching the screen in Lumiere’s Arrival of a Train.  Modern myths about this film assert that audiences screamed in terror at the image of the approaching train, and that some even ran in terror from the image for fear of the train hitting them.  “The first audiences, according to this myth, were naïve, encountering this threatening and rampant image with no defenses, with no tradition by which to understand it.”[2] Gunning begins to refute this myth by contextualizing the invention of the cinema in the era in which it was made.  As argued by Gunning, the audiences of the cinema of attractions were made up of audiences far more sophisticated than many modern film theorists would like to admit.  Drawing upon the exhibitions of the magic theater, illusionists, and trompe l’oeil art, Gunning points out that audiences were not only used to the illusionism of the cinema, but were indeed avid to actually consume it in that fashion.  Far from being frightened enough to actually flee from the approaching cinematic train, the audience’s shocked reaction was expected and fostered by filmmakers and exhibitors.  “The audience’s sense of shock comes less from a naïve belief that they are threatened by an actual locomotive than from an unbelievable visual transformation occurring before their eyes, parallel to the greatest wonders of the magic theatre.”[3]
            To further strengthen his argument, Gunning then points to the characteristics and tropes of the cinema of attractions in order to illustrate the differences between the cinema of attractions and classical narrative cinema.  These characteristics and tropes underline the shocks offered by the cinema of attractions.  They include (but are not limited to) the projection of still images that would eventually give way to motion, subjects within the film that would acknowledge the camera and the viewing audience (often even mugging for it), and narrators or orators that would prepare the audience for the shock in the way that a carnival barker would.  “Rather than being an involvement with narrative action or empathy with character psychology, the cinema of attractions solicits a highly conscious awareness of the film image engaging the viewer’s curiosity.”[4] By drawing upon Arrival of a Train at the Station, as well as Electrocuting an Elephant (Edison, 1903) and Photographing a Female Crook (Biograph Company, 1904), Gunning points out that audiences during this era of the cinema actively sought out the shocks of the cinema of attractions to appease their curiosities and enjoy the visual magic and exhibitionist characteristics of film.  “Contemplative absorption is impossible here.  The viewer’s curiosity is aroused and fulfilled through a marked encounter, a direct stimulus, a succession of shocks.”[5] As audiences came to view these early films in anticipation of these shocks, it is extremely unlikely that the myth of audiences fleeing the moving image in terror have any veracity at all.  By underscoring the “shock” characteristic of the cinema of attractions, Gunning effectively illustrates the importance of contextualizing film history by contextualizing the different ways in which early audiences and modern audiences conceived of and consumed films.
            Within the last section of his essay, Gunning begins to theorize upon why there was this historical (for the era) need for the shocks of the cinema of attractions.  “The peculiar pleasure of screaming before the suddenly animated image of a locomotive indicates less an audience willing to take the image of reality than a spectator whose daily experience has lost the coherence and immediacy traditionally attributed to reality.”[6] Drawing upon the writings of Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer, Gunning postulates that the increasingly modernized, and especially urbanized, societies consuming these films were met with new sights and images every day.  This increasingly industrialized and consumer-oriented society began looking for thrills that were served to them by distracting them with the shock of the cinema of attractions due to the lack of (or loss of) fulfilling experiences.  “Attractions are a response to an experience of alienation, and…cinema’s value lay in exposing a fundamental loss of coherence and authenticity.”[7]
            In formulating his historical argument, Tom Gunning uses the primary mythic example of the audiences’ fleeing before the image in Arrival of a Train at the Station in order to explicate his theory upon the difference between the cinema of attractions and more modern conceptions of the cinema as a primarily narrative form of entertainment.  As explained by Gunning, audiences of the era were actively expecting the shock of the image, as the cinema of attractions was a cinema of visual shocks that had much in common with other entertainments of the era, such as the magic theatre trompe l’oeil art forms (paintings, architecture, etc.), and even freak shows.  Additionally, Gunning also illustrates exactly why these audiences were so inclined to distractedly consume the shocks of the cinema of attractions, as the then contemporary society had become increasingly modernized and began to look for thrilling new experiences.  Gunning has carefully led his readers through a short and concise essay masterfully, and finally reaffirms his conclusion that by removing the historical context of film history, we are doing ourselves a great disservice.  The myth that audiences fled in terror before Arrival of a Train at the Station is not only ridiculous.  It is historically incorrect.  “The audiences’ reaction was the antipode to the primitive one: it was an encounter with modernity.”[8]
            Though Gunning’s arguments are indeed incredibly convincing, one or two issues with our modern conception of film viewing go relatively ignored.  Much of this has to do with Gunning’s assertion that the cinema of attractions largely disappeared.  Though he does make a passing mention that it does appear occasionally, primarily within musicals and slapstick comedies, I feel that films produced today do actually fit Gunning’s description of the cinema of attractions much more so than films of classical Hollywood or even New Hollywood.  The blockbuster cycle that would become popularized in the early 1980s seems nearly as good a description of Gunning’s cinema of attractions.  Though they are indeed supposed narratives, these narratives are often derivative and repetitious.  The main attraction of films today rely more so on special effects (or “shocks”) as well as marketing and exhibition (particularly the common place usage of 3D today than they do on narratives.  James Cameron’s film Avatar is a great example of a derivative and repetitious narrative taking a backseat to the visual shocks offered by modern cinema.  Gunning did write this essay quite some time ago (copies can be found within collections published in 1989), so it was published during the early years of the blockbuster cycle.  It is a small issue taken with the essay, however, and does not undermine his primary argument in the least.
            His primary argument is finally and definitely convincing.  Gunning draws upon a number of instances, such as the then contemporary forms of art that also espoused shocks for entertainment value, that were contemporaries for Lumiere’s Arrival of a Train at the Station.  By illustrating how audiences of the era expected shocks within their forms of entertainment (as well as other pastimes), Gunning solidifies his groundwork for explaining the cinema of attractions.  Then, by explicating the characteristics and tropes of the cinema of attractions, as well as society’s hunger for these shocks, he effectively argues the believable point that contextualizing film history is necessary.  Conceiving early cinema as the beginning of a straight line of history that leads to narrative cinema does injustice to the cinema of attractions, which was actually an entirely different form of cinema from what we conceive it being today.  Gunning points out these issues brilliantly, and makes a strong and ultimately convincing case for those who are writing or studying film history to broaden their horizons and think outside of modern conceptions, idealizations, and myths.

[1] Gunning, Tom. “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)Credulous Spectator,” in Film Theory and Criticism, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), Seventh Edition. P. 750.
[2] Ibid, P. 737.
[3] Ibid.  P. 741.
[4] Ibid.  P. 743.
[5] Ibid. P. 745
[6] Ibid. P. 747.
[7] Ibid. P. 749.
[8] Ibid. P. 750.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Final version

An Analysis of Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

            Arguments about the whether or not film was an art predate the birth of cinema itself, since the debates of whether or not photography was an art were abound before 1890.  Upon the birth of cinema, the arguments about whether or not it was art began almost immediately.
However, one Modernist film theorist argued that the debate over whether or not film was art was ultimately a moot point.  This theorist was Walter Benjamin.  Benjamin was a cultural critic born in Berlin 1892.  Fleeing Germany when the Nazi’s took over, he lived in Paris for a number of years before attempting to escape to Spain when the Nazi’s took France.  He finally took his own life while trying to pass the border into Spain.  Within his seminal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin argues that photography and film have forever changed the conception of art, and so old world arguments about whether or not they are forms of art are pointless as these new forms cannot be critiqued or conceived of in regards to how art once was.  Through the separation of art from theology, location, and point of origin, Benjamin argues that mechanically reproduced art has not only changed what art can be, but has changed the way that the world and society view art as well as changing the world and society themselves.  Though his argument is dated and suffers from a lack of forward thinking in terms of technological advancements now common, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” is ultimately a convincing argument about the advancing of art from one stage to another, as well as its effect on society and politics.
            Benjamin’s essay takes place within seventeen separated sections: a preface, fifteen segmented arguments, and an epilogue.  Overall, Benjamin’s argument within the essay regards how the mediums of photography and film have affected society and politics.  He explains that Marx approached the theory of capitalistic production with a forward thinking method that outlined and assumed a future method of capitalism.  “The result was that one could expect it not only to exploit the proletariat with increasing intensity, the ultimately to create conditions which would make it possible to abolish capitalism itself.”[1] Benjamin’s thesis is that photography and film have become the mediums of revolution as they have democratized both culture and politics, doing away with the Fascist sense of “creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery” with other art forms.
            As Benjamin’s argument continues within the first few sections, he outlines how photography and art differ from previous art forms, and how these differences illustrate a progression in art.  Within the first section of the essay, Benjamin writes, “In principle a work of art has always been reproducible.  Man-made artifacts could always be imitated by men.”[2] He then begins to outline the different forms that underscore the reproducibility of art, primarily in mechanical forms.  Founding and stamping lead to woodcuts, woodcuts led to engraving and etching before lithography appeared, and lithography finally leads to photography.  The form of photography, Benjamin argues, was a revolutionary invention that will begin to change the world both politically and culturally.  He states, “Around 1900 technical reproduction had reached a standard that not only permitted it to reproduce all transmitted works of art and thus to cause the most profound change in their impact upon the public; it also had captured a place of its own among the artistic process”[3].  Later, within the seventh segment of his essay, Benjamin will disagree with critics and pundits who have claimed that photography and film are not art forms.  Or, rather, he will describe how hollow he finds these claims.  “Earlier much futile though had been devoted to the question of whether photography is an art.  The primary question – whether the very invention of photography had not transformed the entire nature of art – was not raised.”[4] Asking himself that very question, Benjamin explains within his essay that the invention of photography had indeed transformed the entire nature of art in three primary ways: it separated art from cult (or the ritual of theology), it did away with the physical uniqueness of the object, and it created a sense of distance between the photographed subject and the viewer.
            In theorizing the how photography and film have revolutionized the definition of art, Benjamin first outlines what characteristics and tropes older definitions of art had clung to.  In defining these outdated tropes, he refers to the “aura” of art.  In outdated thinking, artwork was defined by its uniqueness, or aura.  Art was art because it was unique, and did not exist in another space or temporality.  This, Benjamin postulates, was because artworks were initially created and utilized for cultic or religious ceremonies or places of worship. “It is significant that the existence of the work of art with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from ritual function.” Idols were works of art created in order to worship.  Statues, carvings and engravings (and later paintings) were situated in temples and churches.  These artworks were deemed authentic because they did not exist outside of the ritual of cult or theology. This created an element of tradition that attached itself to the concept and definition of art.  Over time, art was moved away from the concept of theology, and the aura of art instead secularized itself, becoming during the Renaissance what Benjamin refers to as the “secularized cult of beauty.” What was once an object of worship due to its ties to cult and/or theology becomes an object of worship itself due to its authority as a piece of art within modern society.  Art became something to be displayed and worshipped in its own right.  Photography and film, meanwhile, revolutionized this aspect of art and demystified it.  The mechanical reproduction of a piece of art makes any questions of authenticity invalid.  As Benjamin states, “From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the ‘authentic’ print makes no sense.”[5] Mechanical reproduction of art, or as an artistic medium in itself, removes this ritualistic aura from the definition of art and places the newer artistic mediums of photography and film within the political.
            Another aspect of art revolutionized by photography and film, according to Benjamin (and closely tied to the ritualistic aspect of previous art forms) was the physical and temporal uniqueness of art.  In or to see, appreciate, and consume art, society had to travel to these spaces where the works of art could be found.  Because the artwork must be traveled to, and especially in terms of the cultic or theological underpinnings of its creation and display, artwork held sway over us.  Art pieces had the authority, as they could only appear to us in one space and only within the time in which we were in that space. Photography, meanwhile, has done away with this aspect of art.  Old world definitions of a piece of art’s aura no longer make sense in a world in which the mechanical reproduction of art makes it possible for statues and paintings to be copied and seen around the globe.  Society no longer had to travel to consume art, as photography had democratized the process and brought art to the masses.  This created an element of tradition that attached itself to the concept and definition of art.
            This physical distance between the artwork at society meant that only the privileged classes would be able to travel and consume culture. Benjamin states, “The essentially distant object is the unapproachable one.”[6] In Benjamin’s essay, the distance created by older artistic mediums ultimately serves to disassociate the consumer, or the proletariat in the case of Benjamin’s essay, from reality.  Using the metaphor of a magician compared to a surgeon, Benjamin describes the difference between the painter (magician) and the cameraman (surgeon).  The magician, he claims, keeps a natural distance between himself and the sick person and keeps his authority by doing so.  Alternately, the surgeon actually penetrates the sick person’s body in an attempt to claim their authority.  “Thus, for contemporary man the representation of reality by the film is incomparably more significant than that of the painter, since it offers…an aspect of reality which is free of all equipment.”[7] Both the physical distance and the metaphorical distance between the painting, sculpture, etc. and society creates a form of authority over society at large.  Meanwhile, photography and film have revolutionized this process by effectively penetrating further into society and brining culture to the masses.
            Benjamin utilizes the fifteen segments of his essay in order to underscore the increasingly politicized placement of photography and film (due to their processes of mechanical reproduction) as new artistic mediums.  However, whereas he espouses the remarkably democratizing elements of photography and film as revolutionary artistic mediums, he makes a further distinction within the epilogue to the essay.  It is within the epilogue that Benjamin describes how this thesis is ultimately useless within a society ruled by Fascism, as well as the reason why this thesis is ultimately rendered moot.  Whereas photography and film offer information to the proletariat within Marxist societies and democratization of culture within capitalistic or consumer societies, they merely render politics aesthetic within Fascist societies.  This is due to the fact that Fascist societies force the masses to their knees in violation.  When mechanically reproduced art offers aesthetics only to politics, this produces war.  Benjamin states that, “If the natural utilization of productive forces is impeded by the property system, the increase in technical devices, in speed, and in the sources of energy will press for an unnatural utilization, and this is found in war.”[8] So though the progression of art from ritualistic and cultic idols to the mechanical reproduction of photography and film have indeed revolutionized society by democratizing information and culture, Benjamin finally argues that utilizing these processes by aestheticizing politics can ultimately lead to an inverse of this revolutionary aspect of the mediums.
            There are some points within Benjamin’s thesis that are ultimately unsatisfying, particularly in the context of our own modern society.  The single most questionable concept within Benjamin’s work is his conceptualization of distraction.  “The film makes the cult value recede into the background not only by putting the public in the position of the critic, but also by the fact that at the movies this position requires no attention.  The public is an examiner, but an absent-minded one.” For Benjamin, distraction characterizes perception.  The perception of film is interrupted by editing, shot composition, framing, etc. and servers to counter the contemplation of “auralistic” art so that the viewer critically (though absent-mindedly) views it instead of worshipping it.  This is problematic in our contemporary society, however, as there is a broad spectrum of American cinema that is largely worshipped absent-mindedly instead of critiqued absent-mindedly.  The cult of the film director (as directors such as George Lucas and James Cameron are not without their own “cults”) and event films (such as the hollow and synthetic Avatar) certainly serve as distractions, but not distractions that ultimately bring any sort of perception to the world at large.  Contemporary Hollywood films serve largely as glossy, absent-minded distractions without critical or absent-minded critique.  This also elucidates another issue within Benjamin’s theory, and that has to do with his lack of prognostic accounting for the future.  Though he outlines Marx’s prognostic forecast for the future of capitalism within his preface, Benjamin offers no prognostic thoughts of his own outside of the immediate political climate of the time in which he wrote it.
            That said, however, Benjamin’s argument is ultimately incredibly convincing.  In explaining how photography and film have effectively revolutionized the world’s conception of art, he explicitly states that old world definitions of art are no longer useful.  He very clearly outlines his reasoning by drawing upon the history of artistic creation by reasoning how these mediums disconnected art from the cultic or theological ritual, by separating art from location, and by closing the distance created by auralistic art forms.  His argument is further strengthened by illustrating (though briefly) how mechanical reproduction emerged as a form of evolution, and how previous art forms or movements (such as Dadaism) were also greeted with questions about the veracity of their conceptualizations of art.  Though Benjamin’s writing may seem distracted (ironically) and unfocused, his argument is definitely sound and reinforced by a number of evidential convincing arguments.

[1] Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in Film Theory and Criticism edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). P. 666.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid, 667.
[4] Ibid, P. 673.
[5] Ibid, P. 671.
[6] Ibid, P. 670.
[7] Ibid, P. 678.
[8] Ibid, P. 684.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The "old days"

Sometimes I really miss "filmmaking." I've been thinking about borrowing the camera and seeing what I can do with it now that I'm ten years older than this...

Will Thornton Finds Love from evilprimate on Vimeo.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Two random thoughts...

1.) I've read today that Quentin Tarantino is writing a script for a spaghetti western.  I honestly can't remember the last time I was this excited for a movie.  Probably when I read that Herzog and Lynch were working on  a project together (which I think My Son My Son What Have You Done was supposed to be).

All of Tarantino's films have dealt with tropes popularized by westerns, and particularly the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Reservoir Dogs

Pulp Fiction

Tarantino's films have always had a bit of a western flavor to them...whether they've been dealt with robbers, gangsters, assassins, martial artists, or Nazi killing American soldiers.  His films are replete with western themes and tropes of anti-heroes and gun play.

As an American Indian, I have a problematic relationship with the American western...which I'm sure you can read more about in my previous post.  However, I'm sure that a Tarantino directed, Sergio Leone influenced western will be an amazing experience.  And one that I'm quite frankly very excited about the possibility of.  I cant wait to see how that turns out.

2.) For the last few weeks in my Film Historiography course, we've been watching silent films.  Basically, we've been going over Gunning's theory of the Cinema of Attractions, as well as some of the early narrative-based silent films.  However, we kicked off this course a month ago by watching Chaplin's film Modern Times.

Now, before I get started here, I feel that I should defend myself.  I like Chaplin.  I like Chaplin.  Seriously.  However...

REALLY?  Chaplin?  I mean, of the three silent clowns...I just think he's the most overestimated and the least interesting.  Well, wait...that's not necessarily true.  I don't want to say he's not as interesting as Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd.  I just don't enjoy him as much.  I find him a little overly didactic (preachy, even), sanctimonious, and vaguely insincere.  As for his films...yes I realize that he was incredibly important to film history and form, and I'd never take that away from him.  Do I find him as inventive or sincere as Keaton, or as funny as Lloyd?  Nope.

Take for instance, Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr.  Fast forward this to about 0:56 in.

Now that's a far more inventive use of the film form and the ironies of editing than anything done within a single frame of Chaplin's work.

Also, Keaton and Lloyd were just funnier and more exciting to watch.

I guess when it comes down to it, I just don't like Chaplin's use of repeated and prolonged jokes.  Or maybe I just root for the underdog?  Anyhow, I just find watching Chaplin in my courses to be incredibly boring and non-imaginative at this point.  If you're going to watch Chaplin, try Monsieur Verdoux.  It's by far his most interesting film.

Still really preachy, though.