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Cinema - The Complete Art Form
by Dr. Lawrence Nannery
2012-05-03 08:50:56
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I believe that the cinema has always been the “Complete Art Work” sought by every high civilization since the Greek democracy under Pericles.

In German, the term is Gesamtkunstwerk, used by Wagner to describe his operas.  For they had myth, dance, song, music and drama rolled into one.  So, however poor Wagner may have been at writing libretti, however uninteresting the songs were, and however hokey his mythology may have been, the concept of a work of art that uses every available resource in one work has been the ideal, and one seldom achieved.

My thesis in this essay is show that the cinema, created in 1896 by the Lumiere brothers, has for many decades achieved what Wagner claimed for his operas.  Following in the footsteps of Rudolph Arnheim, I want to put forward some rudiments of such an argument.  I shall do so, not by examining in detail the history of cinema, about which there are so many good books already, but by taking all the elements of the arts, and showing how the cinema successfully uses all of them, and usually uses them to better effect than the art form in which they were first used.

These elements are: (1) language, sung or spoken; (2) spatial depth; (3) action, either in motion or in emotions in dramatic sequences; (4) time and space in infinite variety as settings for action; (5) emotional meanings at every level, and in depth and nuance; (6) background music, which colors the tone of the actions and emotions; and (7) intimacy of speech, such as the aside to the audience, the whisper, and the internal monologue.  There are many others as well, such as mise en scene.

If I can show these elements to be present in most movies, then I shall have made my case that it is the most liberal, most inclusive of all the arts in all history, and has an added, powerful effect on its audience as a matter of course, and requires less “suspension of disbelief” than any of the others.  The size of the screen is primarily responsible for this effect: a wince of surprise or anguish is more powerful when it is 20 feet high and 20 feet wide than otherwise.

Writing in the 1920’s and 1930’s, Arnheim noted that most mistakes in criticism of the formal nature of film are made on account of a false analogy with painting.  After all, they both were thought of as purely visual media.  But even if film were silent and without musical accompaniment this analogy would still have been misleading, for immediately before the viewers’ eyes is action, not repose.  I believe that those who made this judgment were generally those who admired belle époque painting, which emphasized similitude.  Later styles of painting favored the flatness of the medium, which should have put a dent in this prejudice.  Let us not forget photography, which also depicts physical objects in the real world, with different laws from painting.  In any event, film is very distinct from both painting and photography.

But that is not the essential difference between film and painting or photography.  If a filmmaker were to take an unmoving shot of a still object over a period of time, and during this time nothing moved, the result would be liminal, and arguably not a film.  The late Norman McLaren, from Canada, made many short films in which he used only sequences of photographs of inanimate objects that were slightly repositioned again and again, and at each point a photo was taken, and thus a resemblance to motion achieved.  But these efforts never achieved any widespread acceptance because it is not filmic, for film depicts motion, either physical or emotional or both. This is the reason why films go by the names of Kino, Ciné, and Moving Picture.

Let us take a look at depth as an element in the cinema.  Depth is never missing in cinema, not even when auteurs decide to give their images a flat texture.  This gives an initial advantage to realism, since all real objects in our common visual experience are three-dimensional.

It does seem paradoxical to some that depth should be supplied by a medium that is a strip of film not more than a few millimeters thick.  But that is the magical thing: most 20th century art forms violate the dogma of literalism that dominated in the arts in the 19th century.  But it was never true that the medium must be of the same nature as the things depicted.  What does the word “laugh” in a novel have to do with actual laughter in real life?  Art depicts, representation means “presenting again”, and this fact frees the artist up to use any technique he chooses to achieve any effect he chooses.  A fortiori, non-representational art forms were always free of this error, necessarily so.

In the arts we are always free, whether we know it or not.

Those who prefer the stage to the cinema often argue that it is “more real” than the latter.  This is a naïve assertion because it assumes that “natural” things should be depicted by “natural” techniques.  And what is experienced in watching a film completely belies this confidence in “naturalism”.  From a logical point of view, it does seem that this cannot be so, because the reality is three-dimensional and the medium is not.  After all, the Paris Opera House has the deepest stage set of any theater, I believe, even to this day.  Yet the set designs fool no one in the audience, even though they are designed to deceive, or at least suspend disbelief.

A recent article of The New York Review of Books (May 10, 2012 ed.) takes note of a statement of Alfred Jarry in 1896: “I am absolutely convinced that a descriptive placard has far more ‘suggestive’ power than any stage scenery.  No scenery, no array of  walkers-on could really evoke ‘the Polish Army marching across the Ukraine’.”  Indeed, just at the year of the birth of cinema it was perfectly correct to say this, since the stage can never do more than suggest large things, or things in depth, because it is not a fully realistic medium, despite the fact that the actors and the sets are themselves three- dimensional.  The players in a stage play are three-dimensional, but they are not the characters they play, and the sets, similarly, are not the background objects they depict, but are there merely to suggest those objects, whatever they may be depictions of.

What is the basis of the ability of the cinema to convey depth and the objects in those depths more definitively than any quasi-realistic element of the stage?

How is this possible?  It was an accidental discovery, which is the most primitive level of technical discovery, according to Ortega y Gasset.  Ortega would have said that the discovery was of necessity accidental.  The cinema has an advantage in being able to dissemble movement in depth, using films of preshot materials to give the audience of a conversation, let’s say, taking place in an automobile, or, say, an army on the march.  These kinds of shots are much more effective in giving the illusion of depth and motion than any stagecraft.  Add longshots of large expanses of territory, and the picture in nearly complete.  As Arnheim tells us, technical studies show that this effect is the result of stereoscopic recordings plus the slightly flatter and less stereoscopic nature of the human cornea.  So, the magic of it is accidental.  So be it.

In sum, film is so versatile that it can be the most or the least realistic of all media.  It can do whatever it chooses to do with depth, and with all the other elements of cinema as well.  KINO gives the illusion of reality much more convincingly than either painting or the theater.

That is the magic of the medium.


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Emanuel Paparella2012-05-03 11:14:01
Well done Larry. To chat a bit, this is undoubtedly a very interesting take on an art form that indeed may encompass all arts and that’s what makes it so magical and mysterious and a genuine source of inspiration. As a screen junkie myself I can appreciate the nexus of cinema to Wagner’s conception of opera as Gesamtkunstwerk encompassing all the forms of art. I wonder under which of the nine muses or daughters of Mnemosyne and Zeus would a Wagner or a Nietzsche, or yourself for that matter, place this art medium.

As you know, I always enhance my classes on Italian language and/or literature with a half a dozen award winning Italian top notch Italian films. I also give them an overview of the history of Opera.

One could indeed assign the reading of Lampedusa’s novel Il Gattopardo for the purpose of giving students a flavor of the historical context of Italian national unification, or one can show them Visconti’s film by the same title and accomplish the same in three hours giving them via he visual, which stimulates the imagination much more than a literary piece or even masterpiece, exactly because the film takes in historical context, the Sicilian country side, architecture, dancing, music, etc. utilizing both the senses of sight and hearing.

I am invariably asked by students: why do Italians make such good movies? My succinct answer is: because they invented Opera and they are still very good at it. One thinks of some of Puccini’s operas which seem to have cinema in mind when they were created. Nevertheless the debate on whether novels are betrayed by movies goes on.

Be that as it may, what remains a mystery for me is how does film music, or opera music for that matter trigger emotional responses in its audience. The score of a movie like The Leopard or Dr.Zhivago uses many techniques but ultimately the exact means music employs to make us feel more strongly during a movie or an opera remain rather elusive. Most likely, the emotional effects the score of a film has on its audience are due to a complex intermeshing of factors that are simultaneously personal, neurological and cultural. The "why" of music's role in cinema can be somewhat conclusively studied, but the "how" continues to remain mysterious. One knows it instinctively or intuitively but one does not know it rationally and intellectually.

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