Mid-Term Take-Home Exam Worth 20% of the final grade Posted: Dec. 8, 2018 Due: before midnight, Friday, December 21, 2018 Submit via cuLearn, through the Mid-Term Exam submission link In the final chapters of his book Reality Transformed: Film as Meaning and Technique, Irving Singer concludes his argument about what he calls “realist” and “formalist” film theory. These have been understood as opposite views, but he says they can in fact be reconciled. His argument culminates in the chapter on “communication and alienation.” Explain what he means by this, and how it fits as part of his overall account of the cinema as a medium of artistic expression. Describe how his argument informs his analysis of Jean Renoir’s film Rules of the Game (1939). Singer is opposed to a view of photography and film which he says is most concisely expressed by the American philosopher George Santayana. He quotes a passage from an essay by Santayana on photography, which, he says, “incorporates various concepts that have been held by theorists of film” (32), both realists and formalists. About this passage, Singer says that “the major theses seem to me suspect, and the general argument erroneous” (32). What is “erroneous” about this argument in Singer’s view? Do you agree or disagree? Explain why. Quote relevant passages from his book as part of your argument. Your answer should be in essay form, between 1500 and 2500 words, in normal 12-point font. You are expected in this exam to demonstrate your familiarity with the material covered in the Fall term—so refer to any readings or films that you think are relevant. Do not use other sources. Refer only to readings and films on the syllabus. You will also be graded on grammar and style, and quality of argument. Follow MLA guidelines for formatting university essays. Insert page numbers, and provide full citations for quotes and references according to MLA guidelines. (See links on the cuLearn course page to MLA guidelines.) Submit the assignment as a .doc or .rtf file (or other “Word” compatible file format, but not as a pdf), via cuLearn. Name the file according to the following format: your last name, first name, and assignment, e.g., “SmithJaneMidTerm.doc”
Film Theory and Analysis: Irving Singer’s Take
Traditionally, film studies have demonstrated a split between those believing and insisting that film is a medium that perfectly captures and communicates reality and those who focus more on its autonomous and purely informal aspects. In his book Transformed: Film as Meaning and Technique, Irving Singer concludes his argument about what he calls “realist” and “formalist” film theory. These are thought to be antagonistic perspectives that, according to the author, are not impossible to reconcile. This paper explains the meaning of Irving’s inference and how his argument informs his analysis of Jean Renoir’s film Rules of the Game (1939). It also explores further Irvin’s view in the context of other concepts in film theory and analysis.
Singer’s argument is rooted in the rift between theorists as to how film acts as a medium for recoding and producing reality. In exploring his argument, merit is found in interrogating if and what art shares with other forms of art. One has to ask whether or not film shares with other forms the freedom of expression as well as the responsibility to remain emotionally powerful, beautiful, and imaginative as far as formal structure is concerned. Clearly, reading through Singer’s argument, it emerges that he is not willing to sacrifice any of the listed functions/characteristics for the other. By and large, he infers that optimality can only be realized by harmonizing formalism and realism. In advancing his argument about the need to harmonize realist and formalist views, he presents that more often than not, people “view the world and its reality, but only through transformations that could not occur without the formalist techniques a film maker introduces to convey the thoughts, the feelings, and the overall attitudes expressed in his or her conception” (Singer 11).
The author attends to various famous classical theorists in film studies like Metz and Munsterberg as well as contemporary philosophers like Kendall Walton and Stanley Cavell. The manner he critiques these figures is quite convincing and this, added to his provocative arguments regarding the film medium and films in particular, makes his argument even more sensible. Quite captivating is his assertion that in as much as film may be powerful and seductive, it still does well to induce “a hidden and corresponding alienation” more so because the audience is not able to interact with contextual performers and characters (136). He makers reference to Walter Benjamin who surprisingly celebrated and found merit in the implied isolation and remoteness, only that he appreciates the mechanized relationship that exists between the screen and audience/spectator and terms it inhuman. According to him, films qualify into the bracket of greatness if the issues that arise of this situation “get resolved in a transaction that is inherently consummatory” (147).
In his argument, Singer implies that while film is a form of art achieves communication, such communication takes place at an expense; in other words it is a compromise (147). He relates this compromise to what he thinks most of life is. By drawing parallels to what most of life has to offer, the author is suggesting that the compromised nature of communication is inevitable, hence the need to strike a balance and harmonize realism and formalism. He emphasizes that the nature of film as a medium gives room for unavoidable alienation that has to be tolerated with eyes fixed on the communication that film achieves. Singer does not stop there: he makes his point by referring to the concept of reproduction in the cinematic medium. How does alienation arise in that case? Indeed, film causes a form of alienation in that while it is thought to be a representation of reality, it cannot perfectly capture that reality. The concept of reproduction clearly implies a “loss of presentness” because in film, the characters thought to be presented in reality are not actually present (Singer 147). In other words, there is less reality in what film is purported to reproduce. The affective inaccessibility of characters in film accounts for a significant portion of the alienation experienced in using the film medium. However, despite this and other aspects of alienation, cinema does well as far as communication is concerned, a fact that elevates more the need to harmonize realism and formalism.
Another aspect of alienation that emerges in Singers’ argument is in relation to the experience of the audience (watching cinema). If cinema would be conceptualized as perfectly representing reality, an audience would be expected to be watching real characters in their rooms, but this is not the case. As they watch in their homes and cinema theatres, they may register “a faithful representation in the visual world” that would be thought to be so close to nature, yet they will never experience reality as it were (137). In essence, what they experience are “screen pulsations of light that are unlike anything else in nature” (136-137). Here, Singer’s point is that in as much as cinema may arouse feelings as would be experienced in reality and even faithfully represent reality in the visual medium, it can never be the same as reality since, after all, what the audience is watching are only rays of light (1376). Overall, it is a case of alienation from the real world. Importantly, in spite of this isolation, Singer makes a point (as to his proposition to harmonize realism and formalism) by illuminating some merits of this isolation. Chief among these advantages is the opportunity that the medium offers for more efficient communication that would otherwise be possible in a medium less artificial. He also explains that even personal communication would not allow for such level and nature of communication to take place. Here, he bases his argument on the fact that cinema as an art medium offers an opportunity for the application of relevant technological skills to, for instance, get rid of irrelevant details that would otherwise be distractions in reality. A film’s thematic purpose is emphasized or maintained by editing the film to the effect of eliminating any perceived distractions. Hence, while film alienates the audience it also makes it possible for filmmakers to more effectively communicate their thematic purpose through application of relevant technological skills (of what would have been initially captured or made). Yet, another disadvantage arises vis-à-vis the aforementioned merit because using technological skills like editing to advance or emphasize a film’s thematic purpose paradoxically risks making the audience lose the sense of what truly constitutes reality. The authors gives an example of a young girl’s expression of what she thought of Jimmy Carter’s height upon seeing him; based on what she had been seeing on television she implied she expected he would be taller. The fact that film does not allow for interaction between characters and the audience is also emphasized, yet the manner it facilitate effective communication is emphasized. This way, Singer drives home is point of reconciling realism and formalism as opposed to discarding or dismissing one at the expense of the other.
By and large, Singer argues the manner in which he envisions cinema as a perfect medium for communication as well as imaginative construction. Indeed, the author is critical of those whose ideals of strict realism more often than not compel them to see art more from a shallow perspective instead of exploring it deeper. Indeed, Singer’s argument (above) informs his analysis of Jean Renoir’s film Rules of the Game (1939). He analyzes this film to illustrate the issues relating to communication and alienation that merit reconciling realism and formalism. Central to his analysis is reference to its literary structure that, when examined, reveals various profound ambiguities. In the context of these ambiguities, Singer takes note of “resonant and intelligible images whose content is always informed by conceptual ramifications that could never have come from sight alone” (156). Here, the author is referring to the differences that are noted between cinema and the reality that it is supposed to be representative of. By asserting that the film “acquires philosophic scope-its penetration into reality at a significant level”, Singer implies that no matter how realistic cinema is thought to be, it can always only be a true representation of reality only to a certain degree (156). Thus, its rendering is neither purely literary nor visual but a mixture of the two. This aspect of coalescence brings to the fore the merits and demerits of each, hence the need to accommodate both realism and formalism in the development of film theory.
To refer to communication and alienation, concepts that he exhaustively explores in his argument, he focuses on the difficulties that human beings encounter in expressing their feelings. The difficulties that André encounters in expressing his love for the woman he loves are particularly informative in the current conversation. Whereas the cinema as a medium facilitates efficient communication, this communication is not particularly guaranteed among the characters. In Singers’ analysis of the film, it emerges that using a radio for communication makes it possible for Andre’s message to be received by multiple recipients in different corners of the globe. While one would be right to consider this aspect from a positive perspective, it equally generates interest to consider the uncertain and chaotic nature of this communication. The fact that using the camera enables filmmakers to capture close-up events and others of interest in their simultaneity helps communicate all details that an audience would be interested in as they follow through the plot. However, some of these events are not even visible to the characters themselves, yet some (events) could be relevant. It is at this vein that Singer refers to a commentary by Berthelin on films’ optical potency. It enables the audience to live through different aspects of the lives of characters. To this extent this is positive as far as communication is concerned. Yet, the chaotic nature of this communication in its complexity and multifaceted nature should not be ignored. In this vein, the extent to which (and accuracy with) which film can accurately capture reality deserves mention as, in Singer’s argument, it cannot communicate reality as it were. This point is illustrated in the analysis of the film through Renoir’s characters, particularly André and Robert who, as they fight, cannot display the same physical movements as would be expected to be motivated by underlying emotions (Singer 168). Thus, cinema may be thought to accurately capture reality (and it does this most of the time) but it can never be the same as reality. This elevates the need to consider both realism and formalism in the development and adoption of film theory. Overall, the role of the camera and technology in general is congruent with many assertions that Singer makes in his argument, including the aesthetic qualities of film and its representation of reality as it were.
Singer is opposed to a view of photography and film as expressed by the American philosopher George Santayana. He quotes a passage from an essay by Santayana on photography, which, he says, “incorporates various concepts that have been held by theorists of film”, both realists and formalists (32). In relation to this passage, Singer says that “the major theses seem to me suspect, and the general argument erroneous” (32). According to Singer (in his argument here), specific aspects that are erroneous include assertions that generally imply or seek to make photography a minor art especially when considered vis-à-vis other forms like sculpture and painting. In Singer’s view, the camera (as in photography) captures a closer approximation to reality than other forms so it is erroneous to dismiss it or label it a minor art on the basis of the alleged human responsiveness associated with other forms of art. While pictures (photographic products) may be machine-made, they still capture reality as is intended, in fact better than any other form of art. Overall, Singer is opposed to the view of photography and film as expressed by Santayana because he (Singer) thinks this art form offers a greater approximation of reality than other forms. Notably, he is not just opposed to Santayana, but also other realists and formalists whose views are congruent with or encompassed in his view. He thinks many of their presentations/arguments are erroneous. For instance, he criticizes Bazin for arguing that since photography automatically depends “on the technology of the camera”, this “affords the possibility of liberation and subjectivity” (133). Singer thinks this is erroneous because even other forms of art like painting and sculpture rely on technology in terms of the brush and chisel respectively. I think Singer is right in his argument because while there can be experts in fine art who can produce artworks (paintings) considered to be near-perfect or close approximations of reality, such approximations cannot match that of the camera. In as far as these approximations are concerned, and even in Bazin’s argument regarding “the possibility of liberation from subjectivity” (133), indeed the camera can yield “a kind of objectivity that no other art can equal” (134).
In conclusion, Singer does well to advance his argument for the need to reconcile realism and formalism in the development of film theory. His explorations of how communication and alienation take place are particularly interesting. Film may bring about significant alienation but does not cease to be a convenient medium through which efficient communication occurs. One can only support harmonization of realist and formalist views.
Renoir, Jean. The rules of the game. Santa Monica, CA: Janus Films and Voyager Press. 1939. Film.