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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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Film 270 Post

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.