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Week 9: A Question of Possession

Let’s get a bit personal. When I was a child, I was introduced into the world of fairytales through the very first Disney princess film that I watched, Cinderella. Young as I was, I automatically fell in love with the idea of having a fairy godmother, wearing pretty dresses, singing with animals and, of course, falling in love with a prince and living happily ever after with him sweeping me off of my feet and into the castle of my dreams. However, as I grew up, my fondness in reading and watching has introduced me to many more versions of Cinderella such as Ella Enchanted and Ever After, which tackled her story in different ways, but with both refusing to portray her as a damsel-in-distress, but a rather independent and strong character. Of course, in my fascination, I eventually ended up discovering some other versions which are very grim and involved sisters cutting off their heels and getting their eyes pecked by birds. Still, I read and read and was fascinated by the different portrayals and versions of the same character throughout different times and cultures. The same is true with my relationship with music. Being a musician, myself, I have always been fond of listening to modern takes of old classic hits. It’s always refreshing to hear an artist cover a song because each take is reflective of different emotions and contexts, making each listening experience unique and new.

As evident with what I have shared so far, I have always been more inclined to focusing on the content rather than who made it. I was always the person in the group who knew the song but not the singer. This tendency of mine made it difficult for me to adjust in my years in secondary school, as well as in college, because higher education demanded a certain fixation on authorship. In every literary lesson, there always had to be prior research and discussion on the author before we proceed to talk about the work. Everything was talked about—from the author’s childhood, career, issues, difficulties, advocacies, down to gossip. And all these were somehow incorporated into the discussion of the work as an effort to “contextualize” it. This led me to my understanding that the need to always look for and get to know the author was a staple item in the process of the analysis of art. With this, I have identified four main reasons as to why there is such a need in the first place.

First, and probably the most relevant reason nowadays, is the demand for accountability. We live in a fortunate time where change is being proactively pushed for. To state an example in the context of cinema, early films have always been about strong masculine characters saving damsels-in-distress. Female characters have always been subjected to the male gaze, and their primary purpose in a film is to supply the sexual visual needs of the dominantly male audience. Back then, white actors painting their faces black to portray African or Asian characters was totally acceptable. Stereotyping was the norm, racist and sexist jokes were also funny to the audience, and LGBTQ+ characters were always comedic side roles. Fortunately, the succeeding generations have grown to realize that these portrayals are not accurate, and neither are they okay. “Clearly, the cinema “reproduces” reality” (Comolli & Narboni, p. 755, 1971), and these portrayals unrealistically fail to capture the totality of the human beings they have been trying to show. Instead, they created their own version of reality that was watched by all and, thereby, influenced the actual reality to be shaped accordingly. And now, humanity has been shaken enough to understand how they have been played by what was shown to them all along. This led to anger, frustration and, eventually, the demand for change. 

The primary steps taken in this demand was to call out the continued misrepresentations and, in contrast, to acknowledge those who are doing things rightfully. In the process of calling out, it is understandable that there is a need to identify who is responsible for such work of art. This eventually puts emphasis on the determination of who is accountable for this wrongdoing so that the public could criticize and, somehow, crucify the author. Although some call outs are necessary because this is how the generation of artists will learn from their mistakes, still, there are some call outs that are unnecessary and were only triggered by the “cancel culture”. Nevertheless, such are reflections of a society outraged by the tremendous errors of the past. On a positive note, the same society also looks for the author of a “rightful” piece and glorifies her/him for getting things right. The author is amplified as much as her/his work so that s/he may serve as an example to aspiring and current artists about what the current generation demands for in terms of content. Such process is, indeed, a product of the evolution of society and, with it, the evolution of art.

The second reason for the need to identify a sole author of an artwork is the innate human desire to interpret art. I would like to quote a statement by Susan Sonntag that absolutely agree with,

“Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable.”

(Sonntag, p.4, 1966)

It is very human for us to look for the meaning behind things which we do not understand. Art can be a surreal experience, unique and different to each who views it. Despite the fact that some art aims to mimic reality, realities of the artist still differ from the realities of the viewer. This tension behind realities creates confusion and possible misinterpretation of the work. Naturally, we are scared of what we don’t understand, so we seek comfort in one who can explain things. In the case of art, this pertains to its maker—the author.

“The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always in the end, through the more or less transparent allegory of the fiction, the voice of a single person, the author “confiding” in us.”

(Barthes, p.313, 1967)

People demand for the explanation when they are aware of the existence of the person who they can demand it from. By pinpointing who is accountable for a work, they seek the affirmation of their interpretations because having a realm of endless possibilities to a story is more frightening than taking a single explanation as it is and moving on. People crave for the gossip, the facts, the ultimate “truth” of the art, and they do not hesitate in identifying the author, cornering her/him, and imposing that it is her/his responsibility to explain the art which s/he enabled them to consume. This desire to interpret ultimately leads to the third reason for seeking the author, which is the people’s urge to criticize.

“When the Author has been found, the text is “explained” — victory to the critic. Hence there is no surprise in the fact that, historically, the reign of the Author has also been that of the Critic. In the multiplicity of writing, everything is to be disentangled, nothing deciphered.”

(Barthes, p.316, 1967)

Back then, when criticism was largely equated to interpretation, the goal was to derive meaning from the work, and the easiest way to do so was to let the artist explain. The reason behind this was most likely because of the urge to verify first the meaning of a work before saying something about it. It was ultimately playing safe to avoid errors in judgment and to form a more concrete opinion based on the established meaning of the work, rather than one’s own interpretation, which is deemed unreliable as compared to the artist’s claim. Once one true interpretation has been established, another objective might be to find loopholes.

“Once we realize that it is the nature of the system to turn the cinema into an instrument of ideology, we can see that the filmmaker’s first task is to show up the cinema’s so-called “depiction of reality”…Certainly there is such a thing as public demand, but “what the public wants” means “what the dominant ideology wants.””

(Comolli & Narboni, p. 755, 1971)

As a capitalist product, cinema, both consciously and unconsciously, complies to the system it adheres to. In line with criticism is the objective to inspect whether or not the work of art complies (or complies enough) to the standards revolving around the ideology it is bound to. The critic will, not only try to find loopholes in the work’s adherence, but also question the sufficiency of its conformity. The critics are also tasked to determine how the author makes use of the ideology in the work, whether or not s/he tries to oppose or agree with it, and whether the art is a criticism of this ideology or a complete product of it. 

“Every film is political, inasmuch as it is determined by the ideology which produces it.”

(Comolli & Narboni, p. 754, 1971)

“In this sense, the function of an author is to characterize the existence, circulation, and operation of certain discourses within a society.”

(Foucault, p.305, 1969)

Another task of the critic, once provided with the definition and meaning of the art by the author, herself/himself, is to determine the politics of the work. In its purpose of disentangling the work, rather than deciphering it, the critic determines where the art stands in terms of its politics. Whether or not it goes for or against the system, there will always be criticism depending on the standards of those in power. Ultimately, the author will be held accountable for the work’s standpoint in matters that it does not necessarily address, but is obliged to address as per the dominant ideology. 

The final reason for the need to identify a sole author of an artwork is the desire to humanize the work. When a work of art is associated with a singular name, its transcendence is reduced to a humanized entity, thereby making it more accessible to those who wish to grasp it. The artwork, in its full form, is beyond human understanding. When it is (a) accounted for, (b) interpreted, (c) criticized, and thereby (d) humanized, it is reduced to something tangible and ultimately to what it really is—a capitalist product. When the viewers are finally able to take a hold of art, they eventually are inclined to possess it and, finally, co-author it.

“We know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.”

(Barthes, p.316, 1967)

In society’s quest to dwell on the author, I would like to state that it is impossible for a work to have one singular author. There is no such thing. Each person holding a pen, a brush, or a camera has realities which are products of the works that precedes them, as well as the evolution of the society they live in. There are multiple influences in one mind and, therefore, many voices in one text. To give credit to only one voice is to disregard the history of the others. The experience of art is unique to each individual, based on their own personal realities. As a reader, for example, reads a text, s/he reads it and reflects on it based on her/his reality. Therefore, the meaning of the text diverts away possibly from what the “author” originally intended. As the reader unintentionally personalized the text, s/he becomes co-author of the work because, by this time, the work is already her/his own. Art, then, becomes possessed by s/he who digests it, reflects on it, and embodies it. It is rare for art to be taken as it is. Even so, it is still contextualized according to the realities of the readers-turned-co-authors. Ultimately, consumers of art are co-authors because they take the art and make it their own. During this process, the initial “author figure” is aware that s/he must let go of the work because it is not her/his anymore. Art is and has always belonged to everyone. The sooner we realize this, the more likely we can finally focus on giving due appreciation to the power and transcendence that every work of art rightfully deserves.

References:

Barthes, R. (1967). The Death of the Author. Aspen, 313-316.

Comolli, J., & Narboni, P. (1971). Cinema/ldeology/Criticism.Screen121(1), 752-759.

Foucault, M. (1969). What is an Author?. Lecture, Collège de France.

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Film 270 Post

Week 7: Redirecting Cinema

There is no singular person or organization that could be identified as the one who invented cinema. An early account, though, is the development of the Kinetoscope by Thomas Edison and William Dickson in the year 1891. This innovation enabled a person to view moving pictures through perforated celluloid film strips. This was the predecessor of the soon-to-be projector. This became a commercial success and, soon after, in 1895, the Lumière brothers from France developed the Cinématographe, a film projector, printer, and camera, which they used to project over 1000 moving pictures to an audience. Most of these depicted scenes from everyday life, with Workers leaving the Lumière Factory being the first. When the pioneers saw cinema as nothing more than a scientific innovation, more and more filmmakers, such as Georges Méliès and Edwin Porter, were given the platform to experiment and develop its potential through effects and methods of storytelling.

“Photography and the cinema on the other hand are discoveries that satisfy, once and for all and in its very essence, our obsession with realism.”

(Bazin, p. 12, 1967)

“Seeing people immobile in space, the photographers realized that what they needed was movement if their photographs were to become a picture of life and a faithful copy of nature.”

(Bazin, p. 20, 1967)

The fascination with cinema began with the desire to explore how to better capture reality. It was an experimentation with photography that succeeded in furthering existing technology. Man’s natural inclination towards creation has led to this obsession with, not just capturing reality, but recreating it. This obsession is evident in the evolution of art, mainly paintings, that for many centuries tried its best to place nature and humanity on a canvas. It was only during the expressionist era where art began to be more expressive rather than imitative. With cinema, early films were more for exhibitionism. When people got used to the idea of freezing, not only moments, but a duration of movement, narrative came into play. From here on, both cinema as an art form and cinema as business developed. But in terms of content, cinema has always been about projecting reality or a version of reality in one way or another. In the context of this projection, as stated by Bazin, “in spite of any objections our critical spirit may offer, we are forced to accept as real the existence of the object reproduced, actually represented, set before us, that is to say, in time and space” (Bazin, pp.13-14, 1967) Cinema has evolved from the concept of reality, and is continuously progressing towards perfecting this purpose. Not only has it been successful in projecting reality, but it has also developed so far as to tweak, alter, and reimagine it. Given this, can we already assume that the essence of cinema is reality? I would argue not.

Cinema’s initial, not primary, purpose is to represent and recreate reality. Reality is, indeed, a solid part of its identity, but it is not its essence because it has evolved and expanded away from realism just as much as art in paintings and sculptures did. One good argument is that the essence of cinema is time because, in cinema, “time is manipulated. It’s controlled. And in the end, it’s what we capture, as well as what we experience” (Renée, 2013).  This argument further distinguishes cinema from photography, as photography freezes time, while cinema works with it and shapes it. While I agree with this, I would also like to propose that the essence of cinema also lies in its ability to communicate. 

Cinema is almost everything one could ever look for in a work. It is a very vast art form that makes use of a whole lot of combinations of other art forms such as music and sound, illustrations, photography, coloring, etc. Through these, it is able to construct the perfect illusions and representations of life. By this, cinema is able to communicate reality. It is also able to communicate time, whether it be by its stillness or its passage. In fact, it is able to communicate a lot of other things, among which are emotions, psychology, and spirituality. Cinema has long advanced from its sole identity of being a method of imitation towards being a method of communication.

“The real primitives of the cinema, existing only in the imaginations of a few men of the nineteenth century, are in complete imitation of nature…Every new development added to the cinema must, paradoxically, take it nearer and nearer to its origins. In short, cinema has not yet been invented.”

(Bazin, p. 21, 1967)

If we are to take this logic that an object or a concept has never been invented because everything that it has gone through has only contributed to reaching its future potential, then any object or concept will cease to exist. Say for example, in the context of the Philippine National Cinema, scholars are finding it extremely hard to define it because its evolution has been influenced by so many factors which make it hard to determine what is solely ours. There have been studies that limit “national cinema” to films produced either in the Philippines or by Filipinos only. There are also those who argue that “national cinema” does not exist because it is still being developed or defined. However, I would like to quote Prof. Nick Deocampo in his statement that one cannot have a national cinema without acknowledging all the historical and international influences that it has acquired throughout its years of existence. National Cinema is defined by Filipino-made and produced films, but it is also defined by the Hollywood influences, the early Spanish ideologies, the imported technologies, as well as the cultural preferences that the nation has inherited from its colonizers. Its identity should be taken as a whole, in all its developments, rather than being isolated for what it was initially made for. Going back to the context of cinema, with the logic that has been illustrated, cinema has, therefore, been invented. It has just evolved to fully capture its essence, rather than to go nearer its origins, contrary to what Bazin claims. 

“Today, the making of images no longer shares a question of survival after death, but of a larger concept, the creation of an ideal world in the likeness of the real, with its own temporal destiny”

(Bazin, p. 10, 1967)

Cinema’s origins lie in its function to imitate. But with times changing and technologies rapidly growing, cinema has expanded into being a tool for creation, adaptation, as well as criticism. It’s creation aspect is rooted in man’s natural tendency to build. However, it is also a nod to the artistic inclination that seeks to produce a new reality, rather than emulate one. Cinema as a form of adaptation stems from its history of recreating existing moments. However, beyond simulation, it is also a form of creative expression and retelling of stories that have been told countless times. Lastly, cinema has progressed to being a form of criticism, seeking to evaluate and push further the art form, as well as the world that surrounds it.

“If cinema in its cradle lacked all the attributes of the cinema to come, it was with reluctance and because its fairy guardians were unable to provide them however much they would have liked to.”

(Bazin, p. 21, 1967)

With this diversion away from its original purpose, did cinema actually evolve backwards? I would disagree. The cinema that we know now, with all its history, does not only imitate reality, but it also bravely addresses it. The concept of a total cinema is, indeed, a myth, primarily because it is ever changing. To attempt to redirect which path cinema should take or what cinema should be is to limit it. As with any other form of art, it should evolve freely, getting closer and closer to what it is meant to be at a particular period of time. It does not have to stick to its original purpose and form because its identity is constantly being defined by the circumstances it goes through. This does not mean that it will never be what it is just because it is constantly “being”. Rather, it should be set free from any historical and contextual limitations so that it can explore the fullness of its potential and possibly, like photography, give way to the discovery and development of another form of art with another purpose. 

References:

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Week 5: Defining Reality

Before the emergence of written language, there existed rock carvings, cave drawings, and stone arrangements in Prehistoric Art. This was followed by Ancient Art’s spiritual and symbolic imagery. Medieval art somehow resembled this, but was leaning towards a bit more gothic themed. Then, eventually, the Renaissance period entered with its prioritization of details, realism, and fascination with elements of nature. In the succeeding eras, these realist features are exaggerated and embellished, until the peak of this grandeur and dramatic style culminated in the Baroque era. The eras that followed, such as Neoclassicism, Romanticism, Realism, and Impressionism, all differ variously in styles, but not in their subject. The subject was always what is real, and the style just serves as an exploration and expression of that reality. It was only in the Post-Impressionism era, when abstraction was put in the spotlight. But even then, and with the emergence of Expressionism and Cubism, art was still about reality. 

“In defining them as art, it must always be kept in mind that even the most creative filmmaker is much less independent of nature in the raw than the painter or poet; that his creativity manifests itself in letting nature in and penetrating it.”

(Kracauer, p,153, 1960)

However, around the early 1900s, Sigmund Freud inspired an artistic movement that explored the surreal, thereby fueling movements such as Abstract Expressionism, and Optical Illusions. But with the advent of industrialization, our focus on dreams and worlds beyond ours were diverted again to what’s in front of us. The emergence of industries paved the way for Pop Art, and has forced art to focus on beautifying commodities so that they will sell. Years later, when marketing principles have been established, art is free again to find its new identity. This rich history of stylistic exploration has eventually led to Contemporary Art, which is ultimately an exploration in itself, of Postmodernism, expressionism, digital, street art, and many more. All these, of course, are still excluding other forms of art such as music, literature, and film. But even so, the emergence of photography and film still served the main purpose of capturing reality in one way or another. However, my primary intention in writing down this brief history of the evolution of art is to emphasize the fact that, in the majority of the entirety of its existence, art’s subjects have mostly been about what is “real”. This leads us to the question of what, actually, is so artistic about reality that attracts us to dwell on it so faithfully? Answering this question will lead us to the examination of the functions of art, four of which, I will highlight. 

First, we are inclined towards making reality the subject of art because we are naturally compelled to record data, more importantly, visual data. In a continuously growing society, time is of the essence, and people are constantly given the task to record as much as they can because, in truth, time will keep running. This is why we have avenues for recording such as journalism, the study of history, photography and, ultimately, film. The more we record, the more we can remember and grasp a moment that cannot be frozen in time. Beyond this, recording is also an effort of communicating, whether it be in today’s time, or from one generation to another. Art has to record because it has to keep conveying and expressing the realities of current generations as witnesses of evolution.

“It is entirely possible that a staged real-life event evokes a stronger illusion of reality on the screen than would the original event if it has been captured directly by the camera.”

(Kracauer, p.149, 1960)

Second, human beings are natural storytellers. Anything about everything can be made into a story. The best storyteller is one that can convince an audience that her/his stories are real events. Real stories are the more haunting ones because they either tell a historical occurrence, or they depict a version based on what really happened. This is why, when we watch horror movies or tragedies nowadays, it is more chilling if the film claims that it is “based on true events”. Of course, this way, art tends to enhance reality for the sake of entertainment and economic value, and people are aware of this and they are fine with “altered reality” because they would easily accept any story told to them, so long as it seems convincing. The world is very much obsessed with “chismis” or gossip culture, which boosts up the economic value of talk shows and reality shows. This is because gossips are real stories, masked or modified, to portray a reality apart from ours. One tendency to this is that people may become tired or bored of their own realities that they are drawn to the realities of others. Another possibility is that we insist on intruding on other people’s stories because we would like to grasp a reality of theirs that may seem unattainable to us and, therefore, is intriguing to us. In short, we want to hear stories of other people’s realities because we would like a taste of that which we may never experience. The value of the truth is so high, that people are so invested in investigative stories and shows that feature infidelities, guess-the-father in unexpected pregnancies, and other stories that are highly intrusive of other people’s lives.

Third, art has long established its function as a social commentary, even as materials for political discourse and propaganda. Art that is based on socio-political realities attracts people who either share similar views or are opposed to it. Since this particular function of art also aims to persuade masses into certain viewpoints by highly influential leaders and institutions, viewers are inclined to question the truth out of it so that they could decide on their standpoint. 

“The viewer is presented visually and ideologically with a single flat picture of the bourgeoisie world not to be unthinkingly accepted as transparent and easy to understand, but to be examined, criticized, and rejected.”

(Braudy & Cohen, p.3, 1974)

Overall, people are drawn towards art that represents realities which can be viewed, questioned, reflected upon, and criticized. This is mostly because people like having opinions and having a safe space to express these opinions. They appreciate commonality, but are also attracted to opposition. With art providing this avenue for discourse, people can keep deciding on matters of the past, present, and the future.

Lastly, art is an outlet for emotions. Humans, being naturally emotional, would always look for avenues to express their emotions. Physically, these are shown very easily through uncontrollable facial emotions and body languages. This is why Balasz, in his essay, emphasizes the value of the closeup. He says that close ups “show the faces of things and those expressions on them which are significant because they are reflected expressions of our own subconscious feeling” (Balasz, p.315, 1945). He further states that, “A good film with closeups reveals the most hidden parts in our polyphonous life, and teaches us to see the intricate visual details of life” (Balasz, p.315, 1945). More than expressing our emotions, we are inclined to find similar emotions in art which we could relate to. But beyond viewing art, another important self expression related to reality is imitation and, when pushed further, interpretation.

“Imitation also permits people to cope with significant experiences. It provides release and makes for a kind of reciprocity between the self and the world…In practice, there has always been the artistic urge not simply to copy but to originate, to interpret to mold.”

(Arnheim, p.185, 1933)

It may be true that the evolution of art is always in parallelism with reality, because reality is what we see, and imitating it is the only way we could possibly make sense of things. This way, we end up treating imagination as symbolism, and we consciously insert our own formative tendencies to depictions of realities. Ultimately, this leads to imagination being a method of redefining reality, where it’s role is just to push the limits of how far we can stretch reality to the point that it is still believable. At one point, there is indeed truth to these statements. But I would like to argue otherwise. I believe that there is no such thing as an absolute reality.

Reality is subjective. We often discuss reality as basically just what we see in front of us. This includes nature, people, societies, culture, etc. But, in my opinion, that is not the case. That is only a fragment of reality. Choosing to see reality as only such would limit it to visual reality, alone. This definition is clearly lacking. Instead, reality is a culmination of everything—the visual truth, historical context, personal experiences, down to emotional value. In the context of film, Kracauer, in discussing cinematic approach, mentions that,

“In strict analogy to the term “photographic approach” the film maker’s approach is called “cinematic” if it acknowledges the basic aesthetic principle…It is evident that the cinematic approach materializes in all films which follow the realistic tendency.”

(Kracauer, p.152, 1960)

This, in the context of my argument, is false because visual realism alone should not dictate the standards for aesthetic principles. To be clear, I am not saying that whatever we see in the world is not real. I am simply stating that they should not be the basis for reality, alone

Artistic movements beginning in the era of surrealism suggests the appeal of the surreal. Even nowadays, we are thrilled by the emergence of augmented reality, multiple-dimensional images and film experiences, as well as virtual reality. As Kracauer mentions, “the underlying formative impulses are so strong that they defeat the cinematic approach with its concern for camera-reality” (Kracauer, p. 153, 1960). There is a strong inclination to the formative approach because we are beginning to grasp the truth that the language of art is not caged in reproducing the physical world. Like in beauty, art is slowly rebelling against standards that have long been set by those in power. In terms of cinema, we are now seeing a dramatic advancement of the experimental genre, as well as a rising economic value for fantasy. Even an imagination of a reality can eventually be another person’s actual reality. The reason why contemporary art has barely any distinct overpowering style is because we are at an era of new discoveries and understanding of the potential of art. Art, therefore, nowadays, is not anymore caged to its ancient purpose of mimicking reality. It aims to redefine reality, talk about it, amplify it, and shape it in whatever form reality might take.

References:

Arnheim, R. (1933). The Complete Film. In Film and Reality.

Art History Timeline: Western Art Movements and Their Impact. (2019). Retrieved 11 October 2020, from https://www.invaluable.com/blog/art-history-timeline/

Balasz, B. (1945). The Close-Up. In Theory of the Film.

Balasz, B. (1945). The Face of Man. In Theory of the Film.

Braudy, L., & Cohen, M. (1974). Film Language. In Film Theory and Criticism.

Jirousek, C. (1995). The Evolution of Art. Retrieved 11 October 2020, from http://char.txa.cornell.edu/ART/introart.htm

Kracauer, S. (1960). Basic Concepts. In Theory of Film.