Rudolf Arnheim's "Film as Art" is an important work of the cannon of cinematic theory. It should continue to be read, if for that reason alone; its influence on subsequent film scholarship is unquestionable and profound. It provides great insight into the aesthetics of the silent era, opening a window on the intellectual climate of the Weimar Republic. Paradoxically, it is, at once, both Comtian and Kantian. On one hand, it invites us in: Film is photography in motion and, as such, exists in the realm of the visual sense. On the other hand, it shuts us out: Film ART is a whole greater than the sum of its parts. The shot is greater than the sum of its frames. Montage is greater than the sum of its shots. The finished opus, production of the auteur's complete intellectual and emotional capabilities in perfect harmony, is greater than the sum of all of its episodes. In other words, to be considered art, film must demonstrate not only the perfection of each element, but the perfection of those elements in relation to each other... melody, harmony and overall composition. Each frame must serve the whole; one frame more or one frame less and the work would be irreparably damaged.
And yet... how odd it is that the vast majority of "Film as Art" focuses on filmic techniques, the very idiosyncratic building blocks upon which the 19th century artist-photographer once mused. In a desperate attempt to justify the medium as capable of high art, Arnheim descends into a technical-scientific argument that, in effect, nullifies his efforts to establish its end product. That is to say: If film art is truly the production of the heart and mind in concert, such devices would merely be means to an end, the bridges crossed on a journey deep into the soul. Still, Arnheim time and again returns to the theme of the mechanical: "Three dimensional images projected onto a two dimensional plane," distortions in time-space via cutting, lenses, filters, emulsions, etc. Vainly, he struggles with the idea of art in opposition to the mechanical reproduction of reality by enumerating the mechanical tools employed in dodging it.
I find Arnheim thoroughly unconvincing, not only for the aforementioned reasons, but, more importantly, on a purely intuitive level. To Arnheim, the spectator is reduced to recepticle, the end-user of artistic production. Both the Kantian and Comtian in him should have provided the viewer with a more active role. He should have realized where the perception of light sensation resides; he should have understood that it is the mind that receives such perceptions that fashions them into complete images, actions, episodes and so on. Instead, he focuses intensely on cinematic tricks and devices which, by present standards, are part of the cinematographer's toolbelt. He is captivated by the means to the end rather than the end in itself. For example, he explains montage in terms of its formal aspects, failing even once to discuss what "montage" actually is (in the manner of Kuleshov, Eisenstein, Pudovkin, etc.) Curiously, the cinematic end becomes more of an afterthought than anything.
I also find Arnheim's assertion of the universality symbolism (much like Eisenstein's artistic notion of ideograms as fundamentally monadic) rather silly, at best. Black is bad; white is good. For some reason, Arnheim never stopped to think of other paradigms or the very possibility of their existence. At worst, the book is downright dangerous. The blond-haired, fair skinned matinee idol is inherently striking whereas the brunette begins with a decided disadvantage. And this from a man of Jewish heritage amid a rising tide of Nazism! Can we forgive this the product of a "pre-semiotics" Eurocentric modernism? Or would such forgiveness, in itself, give substance to the insidious zeitgeits, serving as yet another relativist apology for the brilliant-yet-flawed?
As a Jew, I sense "Film as Art" as the product of self-hatred. I sense that Arnheim was part of an intellectual community and yet APART. The pain derived, in that sense, from reading the book is interesting. Ultimately, however, it is another universalist blind alley: An attempt to speak in immutable terms about an ever-shifting medium of motion pictures. It argues for the preservation of the already-gone (e.g., black and white, silent film, etc.) It is illiberal, ill-conceived, unsatisfactory and unsatisfying. It can only read as yet another volley in the ongoing (and futile) battle between the formative and realistic schools.