Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Yr3 Week 22 (Thurs 26 Mar - MDA3200 Film Theory - Nature of Film 1)

Today was our penultimate lesson with Patrick, the next happening after Easter on the 16th of April. Anyway, today we decided to turn to the question of what is the nature of film?


To answer this, or at least examine with detail, we must delve into film history. We've discussed the divide between the Grand Theorists of Europe, and then the Post Theorists of the US, most famously the Wisconsin School. These challenges to the old, more philosophical guard, lead into the re-evalutaion of the work of the first Theorists from cinema's first 60 years of existence. Within come the questions: what is film (ontological), what is its knowledge (epistemological), and what are its values (ethical)?

We took a look at the 1944 propaganda short film Springtime In An English Village, which is exactly what it sounds like: showing country life, as well as the crowning of the May Queen. Of course, there's a little bit of a twist, as the May Queen is a black girl, and she is chosen by popular vote of her young peers. The message is pretty apparent: it paints Britain as a tolerant and progressive society, and it sends out a positive message to the colonial peoples about their masters, and thus, is pretty clean cut in how it corresponds to the three questions above.


Next up, and more explorative notions, are The Five Propositions (five different theories to examine the nature of film and what it does):
  • Films are Documentaries
This may seem like a 'no-duh' thought, but this doesn't refer purely to just documentary films. Theorist Gilberto Perez posited in 1998 that 'Every Film is in some way poised between the documentary and fictional aspects of its medium'. In essence, film 'documents'/captures something and presents it, regardless if it's out to be educational and informative, or if it is fictitious. It's basically a type of archive, if you will.

  • Films are Ghostly
Films are at once, alive and dead. When we watch old films, or see past times, they are in that inbetween state where we know they are all long gone, yet they come back to life before our eyes. It-s fascinating yet also melancholic and morbid. One such example was early documentatiarians Mitchell and Kenyon, whose short films from the early 1900s detail everyday events like parades and townsfolk going about their business in Northern England. They have been preserved in time and can seem alive to us, despite them not being so.


What's more, in Death 24x a Second (2006), Laura Mulvey states that 'The New technologies work on the body of film as mechanisms of delay - most obviously the pause and rewind facilities'. In essence, through film, we master time and can even turn it back. Certainly puts a new spin on pushing a button on the remote, doesn't it?

  • Films are Sublime
Basically, the 'Wow' factor of film. As Paul Coughlin states in Senses of Cinema, 'That indefinable moment in modern life or art when sensation consumes the spectator with an overwhelming and indescribably profound intensity'. It's the pure delight, the inexpressible, and one could even argue, tied to the 'excesses of film' which we've discussed in past weeks.

  • Films Directly Represent the Real
Sort of an extrapolation of the first idea, only more about the actual capture instead of the documentation angle. Andre Bazin, a film theorist who was none-too well liked by his peers in the 40s and 50s, believed that the camera captured a 'purity' and that 'Only the impassive lens stripping its object of all those ways of seeing, those piled up preconceptions, that spiritual dust and grime etc. etc.' could break and see what something truly and simply was.

  • Film Stages Desire
Exactly what it sounds like, and a topic that we've covered before on this blog. Film enables us to indulge and see things we would not normally be able to. Walter Benjamin in the 1930s said 'Then came film and exploded this prison world with the dynamite of the split second... close up expands, slow motion, movement is extended', effectively, marvelling at the wonders of the camera and its powers. This neatly dovetails back to questions about the 'pleasures of film' and the psychological implications of that, which, again, we've covered at great length in past weeks.

Then, in the seminar, following some technical difficulties, we viewed Le Pleasure (1947), a short tale of prostitutes in 19th century France going off to attend the Madame's niece's first communion. The point here was to look more at 'visual emotion', and how film can communicate ideas and themes without dialogue (Ontological/what is film: a visual medium).

The film does play with the contrast of these city women vs the country life, especially when it comes to space: director Max Opphels really emphasizes in his direction and cinematography how much bigger the country and the house are compared to the smaller, more intimate brothel. He achieves, not just through larger sets and more wide shots, but also a camera with lots of movements, gliding around the sets to create that sense of size. Furthermore, despite the religious connections, the film is not so much about faith or redemption, as much as it is about generosity and being good to others, be it through the dress they give the young girl, or the renewed energy with which they return to work.

This was a pretty hefty discussion, and while it doesn't drastically break new ground when it comes to what I know and think of film, it is always interesting to just go back to the basics and what what something is, irrespective of what it may have become since. It's always interesting to revisit the origin point and see how something evolves or changes, or perhaps simply adapts and, for all the whizzbang and polish applied since, does the same fundamental job it did over a century ago.

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