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Declamation on Film
Parker Tyler
Film Culture, No. No. 22-23, 1961, pp. 26-33.

Presented in partnership with Anthology Film Archives

Today a formidable superstition has taken root that the eye of the film camera is not only often dedicated to the ends of illusionist realism but also, by its nature, can accomplish no other ends. How absurd! To equate photography, still or moving, with the objects which are portrayed by the artificial eye of the lens is as silly as believing that everyone sees (e.g., comprehends what he sees) just alike. Vision is a psychological as well as a mechanical process. Even the most "objectively" made documentary is a psychologically prejudiced form of vision, automatically persuading one to see as it sees. What may seem like the most impartial reporting, as in the case of printed news-stories, is always (however obliquely) angled and thus (however consciously) attests some pre-existing attitude toward what it reports. The larger the scope of subject matter in film or newspaper, the more likely it is that a "slanted" view of it is being taken, because so-called "impersonality" in "refraining from comment" erects a morally negative attitude toward all facts. This sort of negation, this poker-faced acceptance of facts, is a material influence on man's moral and emotional life.

Those who speak of "photographic painting" as having originated in the Renaissance, when that period was inspired by the discovery of the anatomically proportioned sculpture of ancient Greece, may be unaware of how misleading their words may appear. Comprehensively speaking, the question is not one of conceiving painting in the Renaissance as having installed "photographic" accuracy as art's classical tenet, and the flowering of all plastic education, but of ascribing to the imitation of appearances that absolute value which the photograph (and implicitly the film) has wrongly come to symbolize. It is plausible to say that what the Renaissance acquired morally and aesthetically from the Classical past was the ability to idealize the real: to create the consciously visionary; to achieve, in some sense, the "unreal." But AndrŽ Malraux, in pointing this out in his book, The Metamorphosis of the Gods, nevertheless aligns Renaissance technique with photographic accuracy. To my notion, it is not to the point that the historic reputation of painting must survive this inexact juxtaposition with the formal possibilities of the photograph, but rather that the reputation of the photograph is now called upon to survive it. The confusion has been immensely promoted, of course, by the vast "informational" tendencies of film and by so-called illusionist realism in the commercial films. But besides the illusionism of realist aims, the history of film offers a great deal of evidence for the realism of illusionist aims — a bird of a quite different feather.

To isolate from a film, for example, a single shot — that is, to take a genuine "still" or single frame from the reel — is to verify that every compositional element which may be present in painting may also be present in film. Now, according to the care with which the mutating compositional elements of film may be controlled, they are analogous with those of legitimate painting. When it is said that film, in the main, has not progressed beyond 19th-century painting, the statement is itself highly prejudiced, generalized, and thus, while true in a sense, inaccurate. Many commercial films, of course, give the impression that the statement is wholly true. But the opinion, as flatly given, is critically irresponsible, and the best reason this is so is that 19th-century painting itself is not so much of a piece as to warrant thus referring to it. One cannot even say that what is meant is the "academism" of illusionist realism, for now, if one cares really to look at what has happened in painting in the last two decades, one sees that an academism of the free abstract schools exist today, that "wild plasticity" has become "academically tame" since so many do it with such glib, mediocre results. It is true that no major artist has yet essayed the painting-in-motion of which technically the film is capable. But this is not due to the fact that such a major achievement is theoretically impossible.

At times, much is made by some critic of the fact that Cézanne declared that he did not paint "apples" but "pictures," whether they happened to show apples or not. Cézanne's claim was a timely form of art-semantics and expressed his aversion to "photographic" representation in painting. This did not mean, however, that some academic painting of apples was any the less a "picture" insofar as no painter, however ambitious to "imitate life," has ever hoped to "make" apples out of paint as the alchemists hoped to "make" gold out of other elements. Ancient Greek painters, of whom legend says that their painted fruit attracted birds to peck at it, were as much makers of pictures, rather than fruit, as Cézanne was. Today, the imitation of appearances, or so-called illusionist realism, is unpopular in advanced circles; the fact remains that in this century there exists a continuing cult of magic realism, which is naturally affiliated with the "imitation of li fe" seen in the work of Surrealist painters such as Dali. True enough, this sort of painting has for one aim the exact imitation of appearances but is used in contexts which are not naturalistic or representational at all, but fantastic and symbolic. It is well known that the Surrealist films have carried out this principle, using photography as a medium of presenting an entirely synthetic and imaginary, and thus quite "unrealistic," world.

One of Malraux's formulations, in the book mentioned above, is that painting and sculpture in ancient Egypt and Greece aimed at "transmuting appearances into Truth." This is to give art the transcendental value of religion: to place it beyond anything to be photographically verified in this world; or for that matter, photographically inventable. Malraux's distinction between the "unreality" based by the Renaissance on appearances and the Truth based by previous ages on the transmuting of appearances is aesthetically valid but actually has nothing to do with the photograph's optional faculty of changing ordinary appearances; nothing to do with the film's or the stage's many illusions that are based on appearances but by no means identical with them. We know very well how deliberately and successfully the "real" illusions of stage and film may be achieved. There is, therefore, a psychology by which the eccentricities of pre-Renaissance form can be placed in line with later art and which rejects as irrelevant Malraux's distinction between "Truth" and "appearances." To him, Botticelli's Venus meant the visual beginnings of the Unreal — which Malraux conceives as the Untrue — but think, today, to how many people Botticelli's Venus is "truer" than are the earlier Venuses from whom she anatomically stems. The evolution of ideas of the Truth have outrun religious belief. If to Malraux and others, the Truth is still God, to some it is certainly still Beauty.

What "truth" could Cézanne's non-photographic still lifes, or his also abstractly defined persons, be said to proclaim? That they are not wine bottles or wine drinkers? — that they are, rather, "pictures"? It seems to me that Cézanne's often quoted proclamation is easily misunderstood. It was simple propaganda against the kind of painting he was repudiating. In any case, his homely, non-photographic persons seem no more or less "true" than do the beautiful persons of Botticelli or Leonardo, painters who, according to Malraux's way of thinking, begin the line of illusionist realism that leads to our day. In fact, as beings, the persons of Cézanne's painting may be considered less eloquently human than Leonardo's intense idealizations and Botticelli's transfiguring goddesses. Specifically, the Renaissance conceived man as in the image of the gods — or vice versa as you like. What is wrong with this? Why — according to Malraux's school of thought — is the wood carving of an African ancestor "truer" than the supernatural beings and princes whom Botticelli conceived as in one inseparable order? In every man, one might say, dwells the sacred image of his ancestors, consciously or unconsciously, whether he be a modern savage or a Renaissance prince. The manner in which he may objectify this truth, of course, would vary.

One thing which the film makes triumphantly plain is that the image, as distinct from the person or thing, is, positionally speaking, neither in front of nor behind anything, in that it is not fixed, but plastically variable; psychologically, any image, like any thing, is meshed and continuous with space, not positionally distinct and fixed in it. Although technically, most paintings imply only a moment of time, surely they also imply the ability of the spectator to take a peripatetically fluid view of the subject and the locale in which it is seen, just as a painting from a past time asserts, in fact, that the world has undergone a general change. If a painting be an "eternalization of a moment," it is that of a past moment which offers some contingent relationship to the present; hence, the movement of time cannot be eliminated by art. The chief function of the film camera is not to cement and exploit mere appearances, mere "reality," but to imply all kinds of changeabi lity, all mutations, whether of time or space. The film camera, therefore, would imply the movement, the changing relations, between man and all sacred and divine subjects; between, in brief, man and his gods, including the direct transformation into God that is exemplified by the story of Christ. All such transformations are also subject to the mutations of spectatorship.

Is a Cézanne apple a non-apple, or is it perhaps a self-evident transformation of an apple into something merely apple-like? I cannot see that it makes any difference so long as the picture is well-painted, well-composed. Does a Cézanne still life (or one by Picasso, for that matter) belong in "another world"? If so, then all images as such, no matter how representational, belong in "another world." A likeness, however mathematically accurate, can never be the thing itself. One does not eat a painted apple, any more than one kisses a woman on the screen, except of course by the process known as psychic projection, which is automatically part of aesthetic appreciation. However, aesthetic reality is not lessened by the fact that a painted apple may look good enough to eat or a film actress attractive enough to kiss. The world of art, no matter how much it resembles reality, is forever physically closed to the spectator, regardless of how much he is give n the illusion (as in certain stage and film devices) that he is part of the action.

In other words, illusion is not reality. A better term for illusionist realism, thus, would be realistic illusion. Compare, on this point, the very contrasting stylistic views of Vermeer and Monet toward light. Both, so to speak, "painted light," regardless of how immediately recognizable are the things and persons on which it falls. Each, according to his lights, was a realist of illusion. For, in the most accurate sense, the light in each painter's case intermingles with the objects shown and is inseparable from them; in the same way, no matter what the plastic style on the film screen, its chiaroscuro has claimed, as a formal element, whatever object or person has been delivered to the camera's eye. And if film chiaroscuro has not made this claim, it should have done so.

As there is a "still" element inhering in the movies, there is a moving element inhering in painting; and not only in paintings of obvious movement, but in still lifes too. No spectator of a still life, whether by Cézanne or Chardin, can forget that the life in which he himself stands, as the ticks of time go on, is not a static thing; no matter how many technically static elements are present, he is an illusory fixedness in a realistic flux; just as he can also be, of course, the opposite, a realistic flux (peripatetic) in an apparent fixedness, such as an actual place. In this sense, man is a camera: a thing all eyes and capable of pointing in any direction at will. But he is not a film any more than Cézanne himself is a painting. The film and the painting are objective ways of seeing the world and should never be confused with the world either in its static or its moving aspects.

Each visual work of art, even each form of visual documentation, is a judgment of the world in terms of selectivity and the desire to inflect and transform the pulses of visual life. If a painter or a film-maker decides to ignore the mere "mirror reflection" of the camera's artificial eye and make abstract patterns of what is visible, he both selects and transforms. Yet it must be remembered — above all with respect to film — that both these elements are form-determining, and that selectivity, even in the mode of what is called illusionist realism and allied with photography as a norm, is by no means to be equated with the rashly termed "slice of life." Through formal representation, one can slice life thick or fine, and even reduce plastic invention, or "theatrical illusion," to a minimum; still, one has a formal product, not a piece of physical reality, to show for it. Necessarily the film screen, like the painting surface, is actually flat (except for certain modifications of relief in the case of painting) and thus, primarily, the third dimension is part of the aesthetic artifice.

There is the modern vogue of so-called candid photography. As recent adventurous photographers have shown, this is simply a style which aims at the transformation of the common and the given into the grotesque. Candid photography can be just as mathematically and empirically falsifying as the polite studio photography which prettifies. After all, studio photography as flattering was, and is, simply a reflection or extension of the artifices of life itself, where persons try to emphasize their best points to create an illusion of charm or beauty; candid photography simply scuttles this campaign through extravagant foreshortening and glorifying the pouch and the wrinkle. The tricks by which the film camera distorts normal or casual vision are well known and manifold; the only thing about them is that often they are used for oblique or irrelevant ends, mostly "for fun," whereas (as the Experimental Film shows) they can be used for serious plastic purposes. Quality in photogr aphy has numerous devices which actually parallel the quality given a painting by brushstrokes and outlines. It is simply that the commercial film, which admittedly strives to look common and undistinguished so as to conform with the eyesight of the uncultivated, does not utilize the avenues of "quality," of plastic form and texture.

True enough, the medium of film offers many more difficulties than the mere training of a painter's hand in wielding a brush, in forming an outline. Hence the myth of the film's true mŽtier as the representation of physical reality, absurd as it is, is not surprising as a phenomenon. But this myth is arbitrary and uncourageous; moreover, it propagandizes for a prosaic, unimaginative and reportorial view of the world and the life with which it teems. It seems to me highly prejudicial that the chief use of the film should be a grand channel of information, like a super-journalism. As I say, as neutral as news-conveying supposedly tries to be, its very tendency is a judgment of life in terms of moral emphasis and aesthetic quality. In journalism and science, everything is implicitly on the same level of straight-faced thus-and-so, qualified only by sensationalism and coarse humor. In its sensational aspects, journalism (like science in its sensational aspects) merely shocks and appeals to low-grade emotional appetites; or at the most phenomenal, anticipates a trip to the Moon. Yet today, even science-fiction writers understand that a trip to the Moon, though it should become as easy as a jet-plane flight to another continent, would not necessarily solve any serious human problems or provide the thrill of pleasure that is "aesthetic." Nowadays certain people may be weary of turning to art to achieve an ultimate satisfaction with life; this indicates the old accusation against the love of art that it is "escapist." On the contrary, I should say that the escapist element of the popular imagination is centered precisely in the science myth of man's trip to the Moon, about which we can read so much "news" these days. The art of the film remains "esoteric" and "unpopular" only because, for a variety of reasons, the masses of the people are hard to educate into the essence of any art. Nevertheless, art, and not physical reality, remains the film's most important métier no less than its most challenging problem.

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