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Film as Art Paperback – 10 Mar 2006
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"More than half a century since its initial publication, this deceptively compact book remains among the most incisive analyses of the formal and perceptual dynamics of cinema. No one who cares about film can afford to remain ignorant of its insights and wisdom. As digital technology fundamentally alters motion pictures, the lessons of Film as Art commend themselves as excellent insurance against reinventing the wheel in the new media landscape and hailing it as progress." - Edward Dimendberg author of Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity "After more than eight decades, Rudolph Arnheim's small book of film theory remains one of the essential works in defining film art, understanding film less as reproducing the world than as opening up new possibilities for formal play and unexpected imagery. Anyone serious about film, whether scholar, filmmaker or simply a lover of cinema, must take Arnheim seriously." - Tom Gunning, author of The Films of Fritz Lang (2000) and D.W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film (1994)"
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"More than half a century since its initial publication, this deceptively compact book remains among the most incisive analyses of the formal and perceptual dynamics of cinema. No one who cares about film can afford to remain ignorant of its insights and wisdom. As digital technology fundamentally alters motion pictures, the lessons of Film as Art commend themselves as excellent insurance against reinventing the wheel in the new media landscape and hailing it as progress."--Edward Dimendberg author of Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity"After more than eight decades, Rudolph Arnheim's small book of film theory remains one of the essential works in defining film art, understanding film less as reproducing the world than as opening up new possibilities for formal play and unexpected imagery. Anyone serious about film, whether scholar, filmmaker or simply a lover of cinema, must take Arnheim seriously."--Tom Gunning, author of The Films of Fritz Lang and D.W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film "An aesthetic theory based on the formal 'limitations' of the medium, Arnheim's Film as Art always provokes students in an age of few limits and less formality, and they argue and engage this classic text with unparalleled passion. Written in the wake of sound's transformation of the cinema, Arnheim's essays are not only central to understanding a major historical moment in theoretical debates about what constitutes the 'essence' of film, but also are a must read for anyone seeking a lucid, detailed, and rigorous argument about how works of art emerge from expressive constraint as much as expressive freedom."--Vivian Sobchack, author of Carnal Thoughts See all Product description
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On the other hand, Arnheim's book is not merely a reactionary treatise intended to prove that film really is a unique art form. Moreover, the book does more than merely defend one of the classical positions in the "realist" versus "formalist" debate -- Arnheim's position in this debate is much more nuanced than the standard histories of film and film criticism tend to attribute to "formalist film theorists." According to "formalism," the essence of film art lies in the formalist techniques available to the filmmaker, and that allow her to manipulate and transform film from a merely mechanical reproduction of reality into something genuinely creative and meaningful. This is supposed to be in contrast with "realism," according to which the essence of film art (and what makes good film art good) is its capacity to capture reality directly in its raw form. But Arnheim's position is much more interesting than either opposed position seems to allow.
First, he argues that the apparent limitations of film -- the fact that it is two dimensional, that it was originally lacking sound (and later that sound had to be captured with great difficulty and lacking in the multidimensions that our experience of sound possesses), and that film is always a selection from what is visible within a frame, etc. -- these apparent limitations are precisely what open the space for and require creativity and manipulation on the part of the film artist. Because the filmmaker can't show all of reality or even a strict simulacrum of experience she needs to be creative in deciding which aspects of reality to select in order to capture the essence of a reality, and in order to convey the precise meaning that she intends from each shot. On the other hand -- and here is where the division between Arnheim's "formalism" and the so-called "realism" of Kracauer and Bazin begins to break down -- Arnheim insists that the very best filmmakers use the formal techniques of editing and selecting available to them in the service of reality. The very best filmmakers don't simply use their creative freedom to break free from the constraints of reality but employ that freedom in order to reveal something important about the reality they film. This is true even of experimental filmmakers who seem to break beyond representation completely -- there is something missing if their work does not in some way teach us to see the world anew and more clearly. This critical perspective on film remains valid -- and explains, for me at least, what I find unsettling about some of the virtuosic CGI effects in film that ought to impress me, and the difference between films that use their effects selectively to convey a genuine experience that would be otherwise difficult to imagine (e.g. Memento) and films that use their effects as mere dazzling artifice (the examples are too numerous to mention). Arnheim's Film as Art remains important and engaging reading for anyone interested in the nature and potential of film.
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.