Posts Tagged ‘Walter Benjamin’

Pickin’ a bone with Bordwell

March 18, 2010

Apropos of recent discussions in the blogosphere concerning the contemporary state of film criticism—as a 21-year-old blog-writer, I hope the irony of the fact that I’ve intervened at all in these debates isn’t lost on y’all—David Bordwell has a very worthwhile post in which he spells out a handful of positions he personally holds regarding critical practice and discourse and whatnot.

Being both a cinemaddict and a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Bordwell has had a significant influence on how I think about movies. This is largely due to the fact that the specter of Bordwell (who’s far from dead, don’t get me wrong) looms large in classes offered by the film studies wing of UW’s Communication Arts department. Nevertheless, my relationship to cinema, at least on a conceptual level, is deeply indebted to D.B.’s work. I include this caveat only to clarify that I’m no hater.

I was really taken aback when, in the post I linked to earlier, he writes the following: “Many people think that good reviewing amounts to personal opinions whipped up in frothy prose. Perhaps the snazzy styles of Farber and Kael have led people to weight style too much.”

No way, José. The measure of a film’s strength (and what is “excellence” if not a kind of strength, that is to say, a work’s ability, demonstrated over time, to outlast its historical moment and exert considerable effects in other historical moments, in other situations, be they social, economic, cultural, aesthetic, philosophical or whatever?) is the response it provokes. A critic’s style is, in a sense, the aspect of her writing most symptomatic of her reaction to her subject. Right now, Manny Farber is indeed a patron saint of film criticism; yet, can it really be said that Farber’s reviews and essays emanate from a single voice? I think not.

Every Farber piece flows and twists, stutters, stops completely and starts up again according to the specific rhythms of the film(s) he’s rapping about; his style in each piece mirrors the energies he harvested from the film, energies that fueled his response and enabled him to produce an object—whether it be a capsule review of a nostalgia-laden painting—that stands up as a work of art in its own right. In other words, for each film a different writing style was born of necessity.

Re: writing style, Bordwell also says “Although lively writing is always welcome, though, it gets heft and endurance through its arguments, and that comes back to ideas and information as much as opinion.” I’m on-board with this to an extent, but the notion that ideas are more important than style doesn’t sit well with me. These two aspects of criticism are on the same footing as far as I’m concerned: both are essential for a work of criticism to be a work of art in-itself.

Why should criticism aspire to be art (aside from the fact that art is already a kind of criticism)? For the answer to this question I’ve got to cop-out and refer you to Walter Benjamin’s “The Author as Producer,” because I really oughta get to class.


“A teeter-totter between stability and collapse?”

March 2, 2010

Well, cognitive psychologists are it again. According to this article from the Times, they’re comparing the frequency of cuts in contemporary Hollywood films to the natural rhythms with which the human brain perceives visual stimuli. The article describes this latter phenomenon as follows:

Pink noise is a characteristic signal profile seated somewhere between random and rigid, and for utterly mysterious reasons, our world is ablush with it. Start with a picture of Penélope Cruz, say, or a flamingo on a lawn, and decompose the picture into a collection of sine waves of various humps, dives and frequencies. However distinctive the original images, if you look at the distribution of their underlying frequencies, said Jeremy M. Wolfe, a vision researcher at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, “they turn out to have a one over f characteristic to them.”

[…] Track the pulsings of a quasar, the beatings of a heart, the flow of the tides, the bunchings and thinnings of traffic, or the gyrations of the stock market, and the data points will graph out as pink noise. Much recent evidence from reaction-time experiments suggests that we think, focus and refocus our minds, all at the speed of pink.

Impressed as I am that researchers would think to investigate this in the first place, I gotta admit that I’m inclined to ask the following question in response: So what? Hasn’t film form always been thought to originate, at least partially, in the mind of the individual or individuals involved in the conception and planning of a film? I’m especially skeptical about the following claim:

Plot synopsis: Movies today are, on average, much pinker than the films of half a century ago. Their shot structure has greater coherence [my emphasis], a comparatively firmer grouping together of similarly sized units that ends up lending them a frequency distribution ever more in line with the lab results of human reaction and attention times. “Roughly since 1960,” Dr. Cutting said, “filmmakers have been converging on a pattern of shot length that forces the reorientation of attention in the same way we do it naturally.”

Who would call something like, say, “The Bourne Ultimatum” or “Quantum of Solace” more visually coherent than an older movie whose average shot length is 9+ seconds? If anything, the sense of disorientation that this style of découpage engenders is a reflection of modernity’s (or, rather, post-post-post-post-modernity’s) impact upon human perception and cognition, not the other way around. Of course, as Walter Benjamin argued in his writings on Soviet Montage and as Georg Simmel argued in his writings on the metropolis, the relationship between our immediate environment and our minds is nothing if not a two-way street, so who knows.

As Jean-Luc Godard once put it, “cinema today is better fitted than either philosophy or the novel to convey the basic data of consciousness.” The data in question, however, isn’t all that basic.

Quotes…, 1/21

January 21, 2010

From Walter Benjamin’s “Brecht’s Threepenny Novel” (contained in Reflections):

Coarse thoughts have a special place in dialectical thinking because their sole function is to direct theory toward practice. They are directives toward practice, not for it: action can, of course, be as subtle as thought. But a thought must be coarse to find its way into action.

Great, but what about coarse images? Paging Sergei Eisenstein…

Quotes of quotes of quotes of quotes, 10/19

October 19, 2009

Today’s quote is among my all-time favorites, and it comes from none other than Walter Benjamin, whom I’ve quoted many times during this blog’s brief existence because he just plain fascinates me. This particular passage is taken from Benjamin’s “The Author as Producer”, a very accessible transcribed lecture that can be found in his book Reflections.


When I first read this lecture about a year ago, I took Benjamin’s thesis as axiomatic in the formation of my own aesthetics, and I still think awfully highly of it to this day. Here Benjamin articulates a position regarding the obligation of the artist (which just so happens to be one of the most historically contentious issues relating to artistic practice). In short, for Benjamin, an artist whose work fails to encourage or inspire spectators to try their own hand at artistic production is useless, worthless, borderline solipsistic, an individual who creates art for herself and no one else. Thus, the measure of a work’s greatness or effectiveness is its capacity to stimulate original production from others; to a certain extent, I treat this as a (but not the) golden rule when dealing with a film, a novel, a painting, a song, an installation, and so on. Hopefully this sheds a teensy bit of light—but not too much—on why I think and write about art as I do. It’s all about contagiousness, transmission, dissemination, circulation: “Shouting into the void” is for the birds.

An author who teaches writers nothing, teaches no one. What matters, therefore, is the exemplary character of production, which is able first to induce other producers to produce, and second to put an improved apparatus at their disposal. And this apparatus is better the more consumers it is able to turn into producers—that is, reader or spectators into collaborators.

Quotes of quotes of quotes of quotes, 10/6

October 6, 2009

Just now—some time between that brief sun shower and the rainbow it died birthing—I was outside of Espresso Royale, chattin’ with a classmate o’ mine about all the usual subjects: politics, academia, financial anxieties, etc. Anyway, a few things that he said to me about professors and their capacity to impress ideas upon their students (every Fox News watcher’s greatest fear) reminded me of something I’d read somewhere at some point, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember what it was or who said it.

Sifting through my quotations log, I now realize that the quote I had in mind comes from Walter Benjamin’s unforgettable essay on Surrealism, which can be found in the collection of his writings entitled Reflections. (Is that title generic enough for ya?) What Benjamin is addressing in this passage is slightly different than what my classmate and I were discussing, but whatever: the quote demands to be posted. Benjamin’s conception of subversive politics as “a sphere reserved one hundred percent for images” certainly resonates with anyone who’s interested in political cinema, namely that of the grand inquisitor of images himself, Mr. Jean-Luc Godard.


[…] nowhere do these two—metaphor and image—collide so drastically and so irreconcilably as in politics. For to organize pessimism means nothing other than to expel moral metaphor from politics and to discover in political action a sphere reserved one hundred percent for images. This image sphere, however, can no longer be measured out by contemplation. If it is the double task of the revolutionary intelligentsia to overthrow the intellectual predominance of the bourgeoisie and to make contact with the proletarian masses, the intelligentsia has failed almost entirely in the second part of this task because it can no longer be performed contemplatively.

The other oldest profession

September 5, 2009

Here it is: My obviously unexpected debut as a male model. I was honestly flattered by the whole experience, though I was also more than a little bit perplexed, as I’ve never before been accused of being stylish and/or fashionable. Indeed, I still feel a fair amount of disdain for the whole concept of fashion, in so far as it encourages homogeneity and engenders pervasive, unapologetic vanity. One of my favorite lines from Walter Benjamin is in “One Way Street” when he says of fashion that “against the living it asserts the rights of the corpse. […] The cult of commodities places it in its service.”

But at least it’s nice to know that I shouldn’t rule out a career as a human mannequin.

Quotes of quotes of quotes of quotes, 8/20

August 20, 2009

Though he didn’t write all that much on the subject, I’ve always really enjoyed reading what Walter Benjamin had to say about cinema. Unsurprisingly, Benjamin argued that the emergence of cinema as a popular artistic medium signaled a broader shift towards new forms of collective and individual consciousness; indeed, the same can be said for all artistic mediums, if we accept that there’s even a grain of truth to McLuhan’s assertion that all changes in human consciousness are preceded by changes in our technological environment (the newspaper yields the public; the telephone yields the modern form of conversation; etc.).

But what kind of shift did cinema cause? For Benjamin, cinema served roughly two transformative functions:

1. Cinema injected our modern environment with a sense of pervasive wonder and beauty (it’d be interesting to try to link this notion to the persistent Warholian belief that everything, for better or worse, is art) by uncovering what Benjamin refers to in some of his writings as the optical unconscious (in short: the aspects of our environment which hide in plain sight but which are exposed by means of cinematic techniques like slow-motion, superimposition, cutting, etc.). I think that there are a number of intriguing affinities between Benjamin’s theory of cinema as that which reveals the optical unconscious and Martin Heidegger’s theory of art as a mode of aletheia (the unveiling of concealed truth), but I’m in no mood to work out such a comparison.

2. Cinema accustoms our nervous apparatuses (our noggins) to the “shocks” of our modern environment. This thesis is the central pillar of Benjamin’s short engagement with the Soviet avant-garde cinema of the 1920s and with the silent work of Charlie Chaplin. For Benjamin, the films of Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Dovzhenko and Chaplin effectively trained spectators to be able to withstand the barrage of sensory stimulation that constitutes so much of our experience of the world outside the movie theater, especially for audiences seeing these films in metropolises like Paris, Moscow, New York, and so on.

Today’s quote addresses only the first of these two functions, but it does so in what I think is an eloquent and poetic way. The quote itself is taken from a letter-to-the-editor Benjamin wrote in response to… a book review, I think? I forget precisely what it was responding to, but the letter can be found in the recently published The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, which, despite its cinder-block of a title, is extremely worthwhile (and available here).

In every new technical revolution, the political position is transformed—as if on its own—from a deeply hidden element of art into a manifest one. And this brings us ultimately to film.

Among the points of fracture in artistic formations, film is one of the most dramatic. We may truly say that with film a new realm of consciousness comes into being. To put it in a nutshell, film is the prism in which the spaces of the immediate environment—the spaces in which people live, pursue their avocations, and enjoy their leisure—are laid open before their eyes in a comprehensible, meaningful, and passionate way. In themselves these offices, furnished rooms, saloons, big-city streets, stations, and factories are ugly, incomprehensible, and hopelessly sad. Or rather, they were and seemed to be, until the advent of film. The cinema then exploded this entire prison-world with the dynamite of its fractions of a second, so that now we can take extended journeys of adventure between their widely scattered ruins. The vicinity of a house, of a room, can include dozens of the most unexpected stations, and the most astonishing station names. It is not so much the constant stream of images as the sudden change of place that overcomes a milieu which has resisted every other attempt to unlock its secret, and succeeds in extracting from a petty-bourgeois dwelling the same beauty we admire in an Alfa Romeo. (Walter Benjamin, “Reply to Oscar A.H. Schmitz”)

Quotes of quotes of quotes of quotes, 8/14

August 14, 2009

Today’s quotation is a double, and the subject of both is the practice of writing, sort of a “how to write” type of deal as delivered by two men who have each had a profound influence on my own writing (or at least I like to think so and actively seek to make so).

Over the past few days I’ve been working my way through James Agee’s Letters of James Agee to Father Flye, and thus far it’s been an incredibly rewarding project. Literary bliss is when a writer articulates a certain chain of thoughts that could easily pass for your own inner monologue. I must admit that my love for Agee’s work is partly born of a kind of narcissism: Agee’s writing often reads like a more perfectly composed version of my own attempts at writing (at least as I perceive my own writing), or if it’s not “perfect,” then at least it’s marked by flaws that are so much more interesting and original than mine are.

“I do as a matter of truth believe I could teach, and teach well; and that is one of the reasons I am so generally sure (to the point twice of avoiding following good chances for good jobs) that it would be very bad for me to teach. As for the badness of the writer teaching, I agree all the way; I also think but am not perfectly sure, that there is no job on earth that is not bad for the writer, including writing; and that he who must earn a living has got to take the disadvantages of any job for granted, and seek what advantages in each he can find. Again, though: every job is bad for him, but floating on blood-money can be even worse; killing. There really is no answer or solution and for want of one must say, live as you can, understand all you can, write when, all and what you can.” (James Agee, ‘New York City, November 26, 1934’, Letters of James Agee to Father Flye)

If Agee’s writing is like a much more convincing and captivating version of my own, then Walter Benjamin’s writing is what I’d like nothing more than to be able to replicate. Each and every phenomenon Benjamin encountered bore within it a universe of things to be said and ideas to be had; every cultural object, no matter how ostensibly banal, contained within it the materials to construct an incredibly delicate structure of thought and perception. Perhaps more than any other writer, Benjamin is the one who I’d love to resurrect and take on a tour of the contemporary world, just to see what he would make of it all, and to see whether he’d be able to process the variety of shocks that constitutes so much of our modern environment. I could go on for hours about Benjamin, but I’ll let his quote stand for itself.

“Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens.” (Walter Benjamin, ‘One-Way Street’, Reflections)

Yes, I just figured out how to use block quotes.

Quotes of quotes of quotes of quotes

August 5, 2009

Like two of my heroes, Jean-Luc Godard and Walter Benjamin, I’m a real quotation junkie. When I’m reading (and that’s often all I do), rarely does a catchy passage escape me without being recorded for some future, indeterminate use. On the one hand, over the course of the last year-and-change I’ve kept a relatively complete log of all the different fragments of paragraphs that have struck me like chunks of ice in a snowball fight; on the other hand, I hardly ever share these quotes with anyone, because honestly, when and why would I? I can practically recite some parts of Benjamin’s “One Way Street” from memory (“all the decisive blows are struck left-handed”)… so where’s my trophy?

But now that I’m settling in with this blog, I figured it might be interesting to let a few of these puppies out of the cage, both to stimulate conversation and to offer an indirect explanation for why I think and write as I do. For the first installment, I’ve got a real doozy. This quote is taken from a Manny Farber review that was published in 1966; it goes by the title “The Subverters” in the essential Negative Space: Manny Farber on the Movies. Reading Farber, as I’m sure is apparent from my writing, has had a considerable influence on the way I ingest, digest and then regurgitate art. Here, Farber effectively dismisses the politique des auteurs (or, for our American friends, “auteur theory”) by arguing, sensibly, that it takes a lot more than a brilliant shot-caller to make a film great.

“One day somebody is going to make a film that is the equivalent of a Pollock painting, a movie that can be truly pigeonholed for effect, certified a one-person operation. Until this miracle occurs, the massive attempt in 1960’s criticism to bring some order and shape into film history–creating a Louvre of great films and detailing the one genius responsible for each film–is doomed to failure because of the subversive nature of the medium: the flash-bomb vitality that one scene, actor, or technician injects across the grain of a film.

[…] One of the joys of moviegoing is worrying over the fact that what is referred to as Hawks might be Jules Furthman, that behind the Godard film is the looming shape of Raoul Coutard, and that, when people talk about Bogart’s ‘peculiarly American’ brand of scarred, sophisticated cynicism they are really talking about what Ida Lupino, Ward Bond, or even Stepin Fetchit provided in unmistakable scene-stealing moments.”

-Manny Farber, “The Subverters”