Monday, November 30, 2009

Revisting Benjamin and Cinema: an interpretive update moving away from marxist conceptions of History & Tradition

Because of our privileged historical vantage point almost 75 years after he published Benjamin published his essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility" in 1935, I believe we can offer some important interpretive corrections to Benjamin's arguments and characterizations of the significance of the introduction of mass cinema. Additionally, the resulting revisions of Benjamin's analysis encourage us to abandon Benjamin's Marxist conception of history and tradition, and instead adopt a characterization strikingly similar to Gadamer: where revolutionary artistic challenges to present understandings of the tradition are best explained through the re-conceiving and expanding pre-existing ideas and strands within the tradition itself.

In his essay, Benjamin argues that the introduction of sound in the movies was not an especially revolutionary development, saying sounds were more or less implied by the images on the screen. That might arguably be true for films like run-of-the-mill early actions, where it would be natural to associate the sound of an explosion with the action screen, or to subconsciously imagine the playing of a somber musical score when one of the good guys dies in a really old war movie. But, this kind of a characterization of images and sound seems a lot less accurate for things like opening scene of the Normandy beach invasion in Saving Private Ryan. In that scene the shaky camera work, quick cuts, desaturated images, visual effects, and the disorienting, deafening sound of the explosions all seamlessly blend in such a way so as to depict to the audience an unromanticized horrific vision of what it was like for American soldiers on those beaches during D-Day. Similarly, Benjamin's claim that moving pictures necessarily implied particular sounds feels forced when grappling with inventive uses of music. Examples that immediately come to mind are the director Quinton Tarantino's use of the song "Stuck in the Middle with You" during the infamous ear cutting scene from Reservoir Dogs, or director Stanley Kubrick's use of a classical music score throughout 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick's use of sound works to simultaneously deepen our understanding of the movie's space visuals and also detach us from them in such a way that we constantly contemplate the significance and meaning of what we are seeing on screen, instead of dealing merely with the visuals in an instrumental sort of way by simply saying "oh look, a bunch of stuff moving around in space going from here to" or even “so and so is piloting the ship in order to land on the moon."

Since I imagine a lot more people in the class haven’t seen 2001 than the other films I mentioned, here are some clips from the movie. Watch them at your leisure; they aren’t really a part of the presentation. I posted it mostly to encourage people the people who haven’t seen 2001 to give it a shot and also provide a tangible companion to the above paragraph.

Consequently, it seems that Benjamin underestimates the way movies utilize sound, rather than the mere facticity or superficial content of a particular sound usage so as to imbue the work of art, or at least our experience of it, with a kind of intentionality. After all, with a huge Hollywood budget, what movie maker couldn't buy the rights to a Leo Strauss song or put first-rate sound effects or special effects into a war movie? Significantly, to a large degree, we can account for the strikingly different ways films have employed sound over the years with the ideas of earlier thinkers, such as Kant's notion of purposiveness or Hegel's sensible presentation of a concept. Those traditional ideas may need some expanding and revision, but their basic explanatory foundation still seems up to the task of making sense of modern examples of sound in motion pictures as well as older ones.

Naturally, this makes me fairly skeptical of Benjamin's characterization of the introduction of mass cinema and photography as a kind of complete Marxist artistic revolution: a revolution where the quantitative proliferation of mass-reproduced copies of images altered those images qualitative content for the people viewing them in such a way so as to decay the aura of authenticity surrounding the image. While many of those points may remain valid, others seem dubious, like Benjamin's assertion that old concepts like "genius and creativity" have been totally "neutralized" and completely emptied out by the development of cinema so that they are unavoidably dangerous and in need of being discarded.1 To the contrary, with the benefit of historical hindsight, it does seem like the earlier examples I mentioned of sound in cinema, particularly some Tarantino and Kubrick films’ use of music, indicate that such concepts are still relevant. Thus, it seems more fitting to characterize the response to the unique challenges to existing historical conception of the artistic tradition put forward by photography and film, not as a dramatic sort of Marxian Revolution where the conditions capitalism unavoidably creates, namely the creation of the working class and thereby the proletariat, are the same ones that end up necessitating a complete revolution in the economic structure that brought them into being, but as one where historical variation can be accounted for through the expansion and preservation of existing strands within the historical artistic tradition. Still, Benjamin's fundamental analysis is sound. Our understanding and attitudes toward old concepts has to be different now from what it was back in the 1930s in order to avoid exploitation. Today we are much more cognizant than people in the 1930s likely were of how movies, such as the Triumph of the Will, can use aesthetics for political propaganda.

At this point, I'm going to backtrack a bit and mention one of the more immediate consequences of introducing talking and sound to movies that was enormously significant to the trajectory of movie production, namely the beginning of the musical film genre (think Westside Story, My Fair Lady, Singin' in the Rain, and even movies like The Wizard of Oz.) While the heyday of that genre definitely seems to have passed, recently we've experienced a resurgence in Hollywood making this kinds of films, as evidenced by movies like Chicago, Dreamgirls, and Moulin Rouge. I mention this, not only because it re-enforces some earlier points, but it also challenges Benjamin's characterization of the relationship between the stage and celluloid. While Benjamin is certainly correct to maintain that theater and film are two separate art forms, he seems to think that the gap between them, particularly for actors, is wholly unbridgeable. In fact, stage and film, while definitely separate art forms, have historically influenced one another a great deal. Most of the musicals on film were basically imported Broadway stage musicals, such as Oklahoma!, or Yankee Doodle Dandy (both of which were released well after Benjamin published his essay.)

Additionally, it’s worth mentioning that Benjamin was writing in an era where, in most films, actors functioned like automatons that were subservient to the producer and director's vision of the film and often acted out one dimensional roles. (To a lesser degree, we still can see this approach operating in more modern movies. Take, for example, Platoon, where director Oliver Stone forced his entire cast to go through 2 months of boot camp prior to filming in order to guarantee the movie performances that had an exhausted, weary quality, instead of an affective, polished quality that actors may unintentionally give off.2) One of the clearest examples of directorial approach to acting around the time Benjamin was writing is the 1915 silent film Birth of a Nation. In this clip, the actors hardly do any acting at all and the limited bit that is there is either laughable--such as, overstated gestures and movements--or painfully one dimensional, the heroic Klansmen riding in to save the day or the ravenous, rapist African-American male character played in black face. Watching a couple minutes at the start and then the last minute or so, ought to give one a pretty solid idea of what little even some of the better regarded silent films (AFI ranked Birth of a Nation #44 on its Greatest Movies List) have to offer in the way of non-caricatured characters that seem remotely authentic.

Still, I don't think he gives film sound acting is proper due, even at the time he is writing, mostly because of the emergence of more credible acting portrayals by rising acting stars like James Cagney. Look at this scene from the very influential 1931 mobster movie The Public Enemy.

Cagney, who was a stage actor himself, has palpably more naturalistic style compared to the two other actors in the scene--whose work really seems dated, wooden, and insincere/inauthentic by comparison. No more tilted gestures, long stares, over-enunciated diction, and the melodramatic stage mannerisms that were the hallmark most other early talking pictures and silent films. To audiences at the time, Cagney was himself, the real thing, or at least appeared that way. Since Public Enemy was a box office smash released in 1931, 4 years before Benjamin published his essay, it seems much more appropriate (and less presentist) to hold Benjamin’s feet to the fire for his frequently overstated, almost absolutist, claims about the nature of film acting than his views on sound and the movies or even the relationship between films and theater (since Hollywood did not really start cranking out tons of musicals until the late 30s-early 40s). Cagney, however, was the exception at the time and not the rule. He definitely helped raise the bar, so that god-awful acting (like the acting by the other people in that scene) was no longer acceptable in Hollywood, but one would be hard pressed to say that most of the performances, particularly those by some of era's top stars, such as Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Marlene Dietrich, Rita Hayworth, or Gary Cooper, would seem just as fresh, human, and fitting if the movie was made today.

Most critics would agree, historically, that is owed to the next revolution in screen acting, which occurred in the early 1950s due to emergence young stars, such as Marlon Brando and later James Dean, who famously practiced a style of acting referred to as "method" acting. Again, demonstrating the influential relationship between stage and film, "method acting", based on the writings of Russian theater director Stanley Stanislavsky, had its roots in the theater. Its greatest early film practitioner, Marlon Brando, similarly began his career in the theater and achieved Hollywood superstardom playing the role of Stanley Kowalski, which he had earlier played on the stage. Dean studied acting under Lee Strasberg, who also taught such famous actors as Al Pacino, Paul Newman, and Ellen Burstyn. Strasberg described his approach, particularly the technique of emotive memory, as follows, "the idea is you learn to use everything that happened in your life and you learn to use it in creating the character you're working on. You learn to dig into your unconscious and make use of every experience you ever had."3 However, one shouldn't overestimate the importance of this technique to all "method" acting schools. Other "method" teachers, such as Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro’s teacher Stella Adler typically downplayed this technique either as a starting point or a crutch. Adler once quipped to a student in one of her acting classes "your life isn't big enough to play King Lear" in order to show its limitations and underscore the need for other routes toward empathetically acting out a role.4Consequently, other method schools, such as Adler's and Stanford Meisner's, put a stronger emphasis on studying the text, researching the role, instant and inner justifications for actions, "being in the moment", and using one's imaginative capabilities to help create the character.5Because of these important historical developments in film acting since 1935, I think we can safely soften Benjamin's overly bold proclamation that "[because the camera is substituted for the audience in film] the aura surrounding the actor is dispelled—and with it, the aura of the figure he portrays," so that we understand these claims in a much less absolutist way.6

Works Cited
1. Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility," [class handout], 20.

2 Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert, “Siskel & Ebert – Platoon (1986)” [video], Retrieved 29 November 2009, from

3 Mel Gussow, "Lee Strasberg of Actors Studio Is Dead," New York Times, February 18, 1982, D20.

4 Stella Adler, The Art of Acting, edited by Howard Kissel,(New York, NY: Applause Books, 2000), 83.

5 Adler, 162-163, 125-127, 64

6. Benjamin, 31.

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