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Sight, Sound, Motion: Applied Media Aesthetics Developed at San Francisco State University, this textbook isolates the five fundamental image elements of television and film--light and color, 2D space, 3D space, time/motion, and sound--examines their aesthetic characteristics and potentials, and structures them in their respective aesthetic fields. The fourth edition adds sections on inductive shot sequences, electronic cinema, and alternative storytelling techniques. ***

Cinema & Culture: by Dudley Andrew

Humanities, Vol. 6, No. 4 (August 1985), pp. 24-25
* Materials in Humanities (published by the National Endowment for the Humanities) are not copyrighted, as they are publications of the U.S. Government. They may be freely reproduced, although the Editor of Humanities has asked that credit be given to the original publication.
About the Author: Dudley Andrew is a Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Iowa.
Paragraph numbering below has been added to facilitate class discussion. [The Major Film Theories. Oxford University Press, 1976.]

#1. The cinema is a captivating, if complex, route to the past. As a popular art, set in the economic, cultural and political spheres, film inevitably bears the birthmarks of its passage into light. As a technological art, crucially defined by its capacity for the automatic registration of sights and sounds, it is composed of pieces of the culture it represents. In order to recover the full discourse that films advance, therefore, the student of film must be at once a historian and an interpreter of art, able to shift constantly between the objective examination of the context of a film and the subjective immersion in the experience it offers.

#2. Paintings, music, poetry and films are part of our present in a way no peace treaty, court record, or standard historical artifact ever is. Yet works of art affect us in part because they are of another time and lace, because they come freighted with the unknown even while they appear so wonderfully knowable.

#3. What freight do films bring with them onto the screen? They bring their own private histories, to be sure, but beyond these birthmarks, one can sense the obsessions of an age. In French films of the 1930s, the group that particularly interests me, for example, images of exotic lands, of Africa especially, remind us that France still thought itself a tough colonial power. But pictures of forlorn exiles in these lands (Alerme in La Petite Lise or Gabin in Pepe le Moko) more poignantly define the depths of France's self-image. In Pepe le Moko (Julian Duvivier, 1937), we confront an image of pure nostalgia and hopeless desire. Gabin, French expatriate and master criminal who has become king of the Casbah, utterly loses his self-possession when faced with the elegant Gaby, a seductress from Paris. Giving up his kingdom in exile, he follows the lure of her perfume, only to watch her sail out of sight. Surrounded by police on the wharf, Gabin stabs himself, victim of a longing for Gaby and for the France she represents, which itself has receded from him into the past. The lawless exoticism in the labyrinthine alleys of the Algerian ghetto with its multiracial swarm runs up against the elegant but equally lawless Parisienne Gaby. We are overwhelmed by the mood that results: No one, not even Jean Gabin, can recover a lost world.

#4. An examination of contemporary French editorials and political speeches, which betray the fear of a people believing themselves the last free country in Europe as their neighbors fall one by one to fascism, assigns a more specific character to the nostalgia and helplessness evoked by the film. A similar cornered, emotional state pervades the novels of Drieu or MacOrlan. The study of film, then, requires both a subjective appreciation of a film's emotional message and an objective refinement of this message through the examination of other expressions of the culture's sensibility.

#5. In the case of these films, this approach takes us swiftly to the full arena of social life in the thirties in order to understand not so much their literal truth (on the whole they avoided the great issues of the day), but their need to speak in the way they chose. What pressures, competitions, passions forced the French filmmakers of the thirties away from the experimental avant-garde to popular material? Jean Vigo, Rene Clair, Marcel Carne, Jean Gremillon, Claude Autant-Lara and many others who had experimented with surrealist and impressionist styles in the late twenties, began creating blatant melodramas. More puzzling than these successes are the failures of the great heroes of the 1920s: Abel Gance (Napoleon), Jean Epstein, and Marcel L'Hubier. Why did their work in the thirties become so conventionally theatrical?

#6. For some filmmakers the change marked a defeat by the new technology of sound; for others, it was a response to the growing social concern of artists in the face of the Depression. Sound impaired Gance's visual imagination, while it freed Clair and Vigo to create wonderful rhythms. The huge cost of making sound films initially stifled the independent avant-garde, but as first, Clair, then Renoir discovered, larger budgets brought to their films a serious interest in quality by those producing them. These producers, for their part, could not ignore the pervasive Hollywood presence on European screens. Some succumbed to pure emulation of this international style, while others hoped to profit through product differentiation. Marcel Pagnol's Marseilles dramas thwarted the sophistication not only of American movies but of Paris's attempt to imitate America.

#7. Outside the circle of immediate influences on film production lie the spheres of cultural and political pressure. The films of the thirties partake of the populist turn of Gide, Malraux, and St. Exupery as these men came to terms with the Depression and the lures of fascism and communism. Although few films take up directly the social and political crises of the day, the change in tone from the chic twenties to the populist thirties reflects a new sensibility.

#8. Cinema is not only a good index of culture, but better, perhaps, than painting, music, or poetry, because it visibly partakes of the stuff of cultural life. Moreover, the solutions it arrives at in the artistic struggle to represent that life can be trusted as broadly social solutions, tied to groups who lived through the era, rather than to the private comprehension of the gifted, but inevitably more isolated, individuals who dominated these other arts. The very compromises and business decisions leading to the production of a film ensure that it be related to its era.

#9. How does a film exist in culture and culture in film? As satisfying as is the /p. 25 metaphor of movie screen as cultural mirror, the power of the camera to set the scene of culture is a power much stronger than that of mere reflection. The cinema literally contributes to a culture's self-image, inflecting, not just capturing, daily experience.

#10. In 1936 Jean Renoir teamed up with Jacques Prevert to produce The Crime of M. Lange, a delightful fantasy about the establishment of a workers' collective. Its lightness and wit, its clever meditation on the collective spirit necessary for its own existence, and its fondness for all its characters, keep this film in our classrooms today, a treasured product of another age. But in that age, in 1936, it provided more than diversion to a depressed populace, for it was meant to foster, by representing, the conditions of a "popular front" against the privileged class and ultimately against Hitler. This program was part of the film's appeal in a year that saw France's first elected socialist government. In a very real sense Renoir and Prevert produced the culture they wanted to address, by telling a story that was vaguely a part of the common experience of the day, a story, it must be added, that had been drowned out until then by the brassier theatrical productions against which it had to compete.

#11. The Crime of M. Lange is too perfect an example of the cinema in its dual role as index and motor of culture. Until that film, Renoir's works were ignored by the populace and Prevert was a marginal and whimsical anarchist. Neither was listed in "those to watch" by Film Daily Yearbook in its 1935 survey of foreign competition. Should we then devalue Renoir's earlier work? Of course not. If films do not contribute to, as well as reflect, their eras, this relationship is anything but direct, and the competition to be heard is not of the sort that a study of the marketplace (with its criteria of box office receipts and even of critical reception) is likely to comprehend. Purely economic studies shade one's eyes from the scintillating visions expressed in important films, especially in those films ignored or misapprehended in their own day. This is precisely a problem of "phasure," of the lack of coincidence of a representation with the conditions under which it might best come to life. When Jean Vigo's Zero for Conduct was resurrected a few years after his death at a communist party rally, and when film enthusiasts continued to demand to experience this vision that failed in its own era to find an audience, we pronounced him prophetic.

#12. While Vigo and Renoir surely hungered for contemporary success, they just as surely aimed to change the rules of artistic discourse so that their films could be received by a culture ready for them. If it took years for these changes to come into effect, if Rules of the Game is often cited today as the greatest French film, although Renoir madly recut it to help stave off the utter disdain with which it was received in 1939, we cannot say that such films are not of their times.

#13. This is hardly a new problem in the history of art, but it is a problem the cinema raises most insistently, and raises, I think, in a way that can be treated. We are accustomed to histories of art or literature that wander from lone genius to lone genius, isolating the stylistic glories each was able to achieve. Style here is the personal, nontransferable character of a discourse. Its opposite, in Roland Barthes's famous scheme, is language, the bare rules of discourse that force themselves on all who would be heard. In art history we can think of language as the ruling systems or conventions at play in various epochs. Thus Rubens was a shining genius, twisting the language of the baroque to his own design. The same holds true in literature where we treat Wordsworth as an inimitable soul who gave to the romanticism of his age a peculiar sound and feel.

#14. The film history I have been discussing cannot be understood in this heroic manner but needs an intermediate term, one akin to Barthes's "ecriture," to insist upon the struggle, rather than the products of history. The very business of cinema, with its problems of distribution, censorship, limited production, and collaborative labor, makes us see it as the site of fights over the nature of representation, over the right to represent experience in a particular way. This social struggle involves genius, no doubt, but genius that can hardly be termed "lone." In 1933 Andre Gide supported a kind of cinema that would result in a popular, poetic realism by helping his friends Colette and Marc Allegret realize their adaptation of Vicki Baum's Lac aux Dames. This same year he joined an association of artists against fascism, the AIER, that many historians feel made possible the popular front. Did his presence inspire Prevert, Renoir, Carne, and others? It certainly contributed to the prestige of an emerging "ecriture," one that would turn the best French films away from their theatrical heritage and toward the recit or short novel. Gide and Renoir, who are as close as we might come to geniuses in their time, were defined by, as they helped define, the culture of the thirties. So it is with the cinema as a whole.

#15. In sum, a cultural history of cinema must reconstruct the temper of the times, neither through the direct appreciation of its products nor through the direct amassing of "relevant facts," but through an indirect reconstruction of the conditions of representation that permitted such films to be made, to be understood, even to be misunderstood, controversial, or trivial. More than this, as certain key films attest, the movies create as well as display a culture's imagination.

[ Philosophy of Art & Beauty class ]

"Subject Paper" -- 600-1000 words (ordinarily, this would print out to 3-5 pages, double-spaced, with normal margins and type sizes). CONTENT (left, bottom).

[ sample ]

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