Film: A Pure Art Form?

By Tala El Hallak

YSDN

The definition of film has always been an issue debatable between different cinema theorists. Some might argue that film has its own unique definition, its own attributes, its own “cinematic value”. Others argue that film is a mix of many different mediums. It isn’t a medium by itself. Film in its pure form does not exist because it borrows many things from other art. Moreover, in the past, film was all about translating what you see, what nature presents to us into a sequence of images. There were really rough cuts between series of photographs. Theorists thought that the essence of film is photography of realistic things, which I disagree with because it isn’t all about that. Some other forms of films such as animations do not use photography of nature. Also, film isn’t really a translation of nature because of all the effects introduced before the actual film is produced. Nowadays, the whole field has developed a lot and has turned into a complex system of effects, sounds and more. In this essay, I am going to talk about the fact that film doesn’t exist in a pure form, by itself, with its unique attributes. In fact it does borrow a lot from other mediums.

Cinema theorists were attracted by several issues. One of them is an issue that assesses the relationship between the film art and nature. It supposes that film photographs nature, which makes it contain nature in a way no other art medium contains nature, except for photography. This is the opinion, theorists such as Bazin, Cavell, Kracauer and Metz carried. Also Gerald Mast adds in his text “What isn’t Cinema?” the fact that “since film photographs nature, its proper business is nature itself an issue that assesses the relationship between the film art and nature”. [1] Moreover, Siegfied Kracauer argues that the basic properties of film are identical to those of photography. He says, “Film in other words, is uniquely equipped to record and reveal physical reality and, hence, gravitates toward it”. Another issue that attracts cinema theorists is the fact that the whole cinematographic process is artificial just like the materials and methods of any other art. Einsenstein and Arnheim say that film reduces what is three-dimensional to a two-dimensional surface, and alters many things such as our real perception of a certain thing. Mast explains that, “[the cinema] removes any number of sensual stimuli from it, and thoroughly alters our perception of it with lenses (which see unlike the eye) and camera angles (which see what the artist allows)”. [2] The cinematographic process actually changes the way we see things. It make us viewers see it the way the producer wants us to see it and in the angles they use. Also, Jean-Luc Godard, a French director, preferred the great works of the past to experimentation. He puts everything together well, and creates good transitions, making viewers aware of the medium. He uses weird, “intrusive and artificial cinema tricks (freeze frames, accelerated and retarded motion, shockingly disruptive editing) that have more to do with the artifices of shooting and editing than with the mere recording of nature”. This explains that film isn’t simply recording what nature presents to us. Moreover, film doesn’t necessarily photograph reality. For instance when it comes to cartoons or animated movies. Mast says, “In fact, you can make a film without photographing anything at all”. Photography is not the essence of cinema. It is in fact an essential trait of some kinds of cinema but isn’t the only thing that can create cinema. When the question “What is cinema?” is asked to a semiologist, he would answer, “It is a sequential system of encoded signs”. These signs can be spatial or temporal; they can be objects or inferences from additional narrative information.

Another issue that also attracted cinema theorists is being able to distinguish between the uniqueness of the film art (the medium itself) from that of any other art (or medium). This gives rise to the term “cinematic”, which means anything unique to the cinema art. A film is considered cinematic if it does something that film does well or best. However, for the purist, “best qualities” are the things, which the cinema, and only the cinema, can do. It is absolutely unique to the cinema. Mast explains that this way of thinking would imply the fact that a novel should not have a dialogue in it (for dramas do that), painting should not imply a narrative (for literature does that) etc… and film should therefore not include plot, character, dialogue, still life, or any other ingredient of any other art. Basically, he is saying that cinema in itself, as a pure form, does not exist because it includes some other things that other forms of art have too. This implies that there is no such thing as “unique to cinema”.

Theorists are still trying to discover the real substance of films. At the beginning, material is examined in order to capture those creative means unique to film. The well-worn tricks, such as superimposition, deformation, dissolves and the like have nothing to do with the essential elemental means of filmic expression. Theo Van Doesburg says in “Film as Pure Form”, “As in photography where photographic defects such as un-sharp focus, veiled lenses, and so forth, have been used to draw the image away from a dully-imitative reproduction, so too in film every possible trick has been tried to produce a super-realistic pictorial expression”. [3] Film already has a culture primarily oriented towards reality. There are already ordinary realistic films powerful in their effects that experiments in film form simply remain ineffectual. They work, however within the frame of the screen, not in space. To overcome this, realistic things have been allowed in abstract films, therefore stronger effects have been produced but this actually proves that pure film form, constructed only with elements of the film is not possible.

Eisenstein argues that cinema communicates not only by recording images but also by the effects of both emotional and intellectual of joining images together. However, Bazin thinks that this just breaks the wholeness of nature into tiny bits both spatially and temporally. The latter thinks “the cinema’s guiding myth is man’s drive to get nature into his power by recreating it whole, not by breaking it up”. [4] Eisenstein on the other side sees time as primary in the cinema and related the cinematic event to the projection process while Bazin thinks space is dominant and relates the cinematic event to the recording process. When the question “What is cinema?” is asked to a semiologist, he would answer, “It is a sequential system of encoded signs”. These signs can be spatial or temporal; they can be objects or inferences from additional narrative information. There is a distinction between a cinema and a movie. The former is a process whereas the latter is a form that shapes the process. Mast says, “The three terms reflect the fact that a motion picture is a material (film), process (cinema) and form (movie)”. [5] He is trying to explain that film is actually the material of cinema and not photography of nature.

Finally, we can see that film does actually borrow a lot from other forms of art (medium). Also pure film form, constructed strictly with elements of the film, does not exist. To produce a film, you need a narrative, a dialogue, sound, music, lights, camera, angles, shadows, clothing and so on. All these are not specifically related to film however they help produce it. I also don’t think that the idea of film being photographs of nature that are put together to create a motion picture stands straight as an argument because there is so much more than just photographing nature.

 


[1] Gerald Mast, Film, Cinema, Movie: A Theory of Experience, (USA: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 4.

[2] Gerald Mast, Film, Cinema, Movie: A Theory of Experience, (USA: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 5.

[3] Theo Van Doesburg, Film as Pure Form, (England, 1929), 5.

[4] Gerald Mast, Film, Cinema, Movie: A Theory of Experience, (USA: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 11.

[5] Gerald Mast, Film, Cinema, Movie: A Theory of Experience, (USA: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 15.

 

Bibliography:

Mast, Gerald. Film, Cinema, Movie: A Theory of Experience. USA: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Van Doesburg, TheoFilm as Pure Form. England, 1929.

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