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In response to: “Sigfried Kracauer: From Theory of Film – Basic Concepts” from the book “Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings” by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen
A response paper for my Advanced Film Theory and Criticism class
In this reading entitled “Sigfried Kracauer: From Theory of Film – Basic Concepts” from the book “Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings” by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, realist film theorist Sigfried Kracauer highlighted the crucial role of photography in the development of moving picture. He started with a brief history of the major turn of events in the development of photography, showing how its significant milestones came decades apart. As film’s parent, photography naturally paved way to shooting still elements and eventually enabled shooting moving elements.
The early days of moving picture led to the accidental development of the film narrative, discovering the potential of storytelling in elevating the mechanical nature of film into a creative endeavor. This accident, in the case of the Lumiere brothers’ works as cited in the reading, proved how film’s values go beyond its creator – making artistic, narrative, and thematic impact to its audience that can extend beyond the original intent of the filmmaker. This idea still applies today.
According to Kracauer, given the radical differences in their approach, the strict realist Lumiere and the more explorative George Melies who “gave free rein to his artistic imagination” worked as “thesis and antithesis in a Hegelian sense.” Lumiere initially expressed that he considered film as nothing more than a scientific curiosity, adding how his “cinematograph could not possibly serve artistic purposes.” Meanwhile, Melies expressed how he catered to the demands left out by photographic realism, taking over the waning appeal of Lumiere’s reality-based style. He further added how creating illusions with the aid of techniques still unexplored in film renewed and intensified the fading medium when the appeal was quickly losing touch on the unimpressed audience. Contributing to early special effects, his playful narratives and magic tricks offered staged illusions beyond the contrived plots of everyday incidents. However, at this point of film’s development, he preferred to keep the camera immobile while filming, reflecting theater’s tradition in telling stories.
Kracauer discussed the realistic tendency and its early development until more modern cinematic techniques were explored. For him, realism allowed more suspension of disbelief. He said, “In order to narrate an intrigue, the film maker is often obliged to stage not only the action but the surroundings as well. Now this recourse to staging is most certainly legitimate if the staged world is made to appear as a faithful reproduction of the real one. The important thing is that studio-built settings convey the impression of actuality, so that the spectator feels he is watching events which might have occurred in real life and have been photographed on the spot.” On the other hand, in his discussion of the formalist tendency, he mentioned two most general types of composition: “the story film and the nonstory film.”He added, “The latter can be broken down into the experimental film and the film of fact, which on its part comprises, partially or totally, such subgenres as the film on art, the newsreel, and the documentary proper.”In discussing the clashbetween the two tendencies, he described the “unnatural alliance between two conflicting forces” where the two tendencies can still possibly be infused together in a film project.
He referred to the filmmaker’s approach being “cinematic” if it acknowledges the basic aesthetic principle and this materializes in all films following the realistic tendency. He also implied that “even films almost devoid of creative aspirations, such as newsreels, scientific or educational films, artless documentaries, etc., are tenable propositions from an aesthetic point of view, presumably more so than films which for all their artistry pay little attention to the given outer world.” Yet, he also explained how more creative efforts can still contribute to the cinematic approach “as long as they benefit, in some way or other, the medium’s substantive concern with our visible world. As in photography, everything depends on the ‘right’ balance between the realistic tendency and the formative tendency; and the two tendencies are well balanced if the latter does not try to overwhelm the former but eventually follows its lead.”
Kracauer went quite a different route compared to prior formalists who thought art straightforwardly came from the restrictive filming of reality, avoiding the path to mere duplication. He also presented a terminological dilemma in “art,” which he thought, in a traditional sense, is misleading. There is that confusion of attributing something as art when there is an attempt to rival achievements in fields like fine arts, theater, or literature. He said that such “obscures the aesthetic value of films which are really true to the medium” and “if film is an art at all, it certainly should not be confused with the established arts.”
Indeed, film theories take into account historical tendencies, cultural values, society’s changing sensibilities, and existing technology of the time. In the earlier decades of film development, formalist and realist tendencies may have been considered rivals, but now, they both contribute well in effectively telling stories using the film language.
Braudy, Leo and Cohen, Marshall. “Sigfried Kracauer: From Theory of Film – Basic Concepts” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, Oxford University Press, New York, 1999.