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(Response Paper) Film as Art vs. Film as Mechanical Imitation of Reality with Rudolph Arnheim

In response to: “Rudolf Arnheim: From Film as Art – The Complete Film” from the book “Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings” by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen

Film theorist Rudolph Arnheim started this chapter entitled “Rudolf Arnheim: From Film as Art – The Complete Film” from the book “Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings” by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen with a sort of warning saying, “the technical development of motion picture will soon bring the mechanical imitation of nature to the extreme,” and he was clearly pertaining to the inclusion of synchronous sound on film. This departure from the silent film era meant losing the grip on cinema as a form of art. Ultimately, he found technological development restrictive. Instead of supposedly watching a mere copy of reality complete with dramatic speech on a black-and-white picture, silent film’s limitation of having no live sound recorded became its ally for it to evolve into an art form. Yet, there was a point later on when he described “sound film as not only destructive but also offers artistic potentialities of its own.”

Considering Arnheim’s time and milieu when he expressed such strong words allowed me to gain some ruminations on how he perceived sound film as a vehicle to the art of motion picture’s impending doom. So why do we need to acknowledge his dated statements against sound film when they are clearly not applicable at this time and age anymore? Personally, it all boils down to knowing cinema’s roots, how it developed, and how it evolved through the years and decades. We have to take into consideration the how’s and why’s of putting forward such bold statements, which were later on proven to be not in line with how we use cinema today. In doing so, we find more maturity learning from the past in order to better deal with the present and future technological advancements in cinema. Come to think of it, the friction between silent film and sound film is not so different from the debates initiated between black-and-white film and color film, 2D film and 3D film, and the film projected on the big screen inside a theater and the film streamed using a mobile device. For each era, the cusp between two relatively clashing technologies always brings issues to the table.

It is interesting to note that Arnheim successfully predicted the future of cinema amidst his initial take on the medium going a downward spiral as filmmaking technology progressed. He foresaw how black-and-white film will soon develop into color film and how the format’s 2D perspective will eventually develop into 3D stereoscopic.

He compared painting, which he claimed, “involves perfectly free hand with color and form in presenting nature,” with photography and its offspring cinematography, which he then said were “obliged to record mechanically the light values of physical reality.” He also expressed how black-and-white film was sufficiently independent and divergent from nature, and even innovative addition of color to the medium, including physically tampering with colors on a roll of film, is something he felt would only become a “transposition of reality, mechanical shifts, whose usefulness as a formative medium may be doubted.” He had strong convictions on losing things artistically because of film’s “inartistic demand for naturalness (in the most superficial sense of the word),” instead of seeking independence from reality. Midway through the reading, he softened a little with his analysis of color film professing it can then be utilized creatively, but his former take on it turned to stereoscopic film, saying that “there will no longer be a plane surface within the confines of the screen” and “what remains will be effects that are also possible on the stage” – making film no different from theater. I wonder how he would react with the modern use of tracking shots in movies now, as well as the formats utilized in virtual reality and augmented reality being technological and artistic breakthroughs of this age. I wonder how he would find computer art and DI (digital intermediate) and how they changed the landscape of artists’ means to creatively “paint” using the digital realm.

By the end of the reading, Arnheim focused on the so-called “complete” film. I found his parting words a bit confusing, particularly his stand on what I understood to be a “complete” film. If I got it correctly, he referred to the nearest documentation of reality using the film medium as a “complete” film. He said that “it will supplant them all,” but he didn’t make it clear how much of an art form it should be compared to silent film, sound film, and color sound film, which he said would still co-exist with it and they would even evolve into better art forms due to the repercussions of co-existing with it.

With all these musings, I found myself pondering even more on cinema’s development and how it impacts society. Arnheim’s take on film’s technological advancements says a lot about how film is best understood with trial and error. In due time, filmmaking would find its way and figure out whether things will or will not work. Up to this point, filmmakers and producers find it surprising when certain films wouldn’t live up to expectations despite following the existing trend or formula – add up film’s dynamics with psychology, cultural studies, history, and political economy all at play, complicating things that no one can really come up with a conclusive formula for both sure-shot box-office and artistic successes.

Work Cited:

Braudy, Leo and Cohen, Marshall.“Rudolf Arnheim: From Film as Art – The Complete Film” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, Oxford University Press, New York, 1999.

Related Readings (Film Theory and Criticism):
Rianne Hill Soriano
Rianne is a director, writer, educator, and consultant in film and commercial productions. From mainstream essentials to independent flair, she knows the drill in making entertaining and well-meaning productions. She can lead a pack passionate about extreme action and technological edge; she can breathe an endearing and sentimental style for a team with a sweet disposition.

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