Siegfried Kracauer's writings on film, and his outline of the decline of a common cultural foundation based on religious beliefs, are rooted in his attempt to soothe a culture that he describes as disoriented and fractured. Kracauer, along with Benjamin and Adorno, are essentially humanists, and their critiques and analyses of the workings of mass culture are motivated by an attempt to identify the sources of the chaos and confusion of the masses.For Kracauer, film is the primary source, and he plunges deep into its manifestations to both point out its splintering and controlling effects and its potential for revealing truths about our relationship to the material world. Kracauer's ideology of film theory is based in his belief that, for the filmmaker and photographer, artistic tendencies should not attempt to overwhelm reality.
He delineates the 'formative' and the 'realistic' tendencies of filmmakers, and demands that the formative never outweigh the realistic, though he clarifies that an even balance is permissible and inevitable. This mandate is formulated from his ideas on the nature of photography. He believes photography possesses an inherent ability to capture a concrete perspective of the external world, apart from ideologies and personal perspectives, and through this, to separate the viewer from habitual, ingrained perceptions of the objects being depicted.He recognizes vast potential, the possibilities of a purification of mass consciousness, in this natural ability, and his theoretical writings on film are mostly intended to remind filmmakers that this ability should be developed and explored, not fought against through clever affectatio...
He defines the "cinematic approach" as films that literally "show what they picture. " He clarifies that even in films that include images of the real world, this approach is most often subverted for artistic purposes. In the work of art, nothing remains of the raw material itself - the real-life material disappears in the artist's intention...
their function is not to reflect reality but to bear out a vision of it. " He says that the average theatrical film, and most avant-garde films, "exploit, not explore" images of reality, images taken from the real world, and this method often serves to reinforce the dominant ideology, and to "sustain the prevailing abstractness. " Kracauer encourages us to embrace the concreteness of everyday experience through film.His enthusiasm is founded in his belief that film, above all mediums, has the potential to reveal the basic nature of our relationship with the natural world, and that our very sense of alienation from it, and from each other, allows filmmakers to portray this relationship with a unique purity of vision. "(Film) effectively assists us in discovering the material world with its psycho-physical correspondences.
We literally redeem this world from its dormant state, its state of virtual nonexistence, by endeavoring to experience it through the camera. And we are free to experience it because we are fragmented. " His frustration lies in his observation that film most often has the opposite effect on individuals and on the culture. People look to film as a means to escape from, not relate to, the everyday world, and both filmmaker and viewer ignore its potential to reveal connections. Ther
is an absence of consensual understanding of the nature and potential of the medium outside of its ability to entertain and to make a profit.
He traces the cause of this deficiency back to the decline of religious values, and the loss of a common ideological foundation, a common filter, through which the world is understood and experienced.This transition, he claims, lessened the importance on the "inner life", or spiritual development, of individuals. A basic human trait is the struggle to gain 'respectability', and Kracauer claims that, for the greater part of human history, this was to be gained through a focus on spiritual development and relationships within communities. When these communities, and the commonly held cosmologies and beliefs that bound them together, began to disintegrate, the means to respectability shifted; it was no longer based in community, but in rational self-interest, in profit.
He outlines the shift of ideologies from a spiritual basis to an industrial, scientific and technological basis, and explains how, in what is in a sense paradoxical, the scientific focus has obscured a concrete understanding of the material world, and has solidified an abstract perspective, resulting in further isolation of individuals and fragmentations of cultures. Science, he says, does not deal with objects of ordinary experience. Its goal is to quantify, and its faith is in numbers, which are indeed irrefutable. As a means to a common cultural foundation, however, this approach fails.
The quantification of phenomena bleeds over into the social sciences, which have attempted to understand aspects of society and social relations through relationships between statistics. This excludes, and thus complicates, an understanding of the conditions and situations under which human beings interact with each other. This technological disconnect does not address what Kracauer sees as the basic problem of modern society: the lack of a solid foundation apart from any form of ideology. He thus offers a solution: "The remedy for the kind of abstractness which befalls men's minds under the impact of science is experience - the experience of things in their concreteness. " Film, for Kracauer, is the ideal means to portray this kind of experience. It is a means to a solid foundation that goes beyond ideological abstractions, which he urges us to circumvent.
"In trying to meet this challenge, we may still not be able to cast anchor in ideological certainties, yet at least we stand a chance of finding something we did not look for, something tremendously important in its own right - the world that is ours. 6 Informing all of his theoretical writings is the presumption that men have always searched for absolute truths, and that they will continue to delve into phenomena to tease out the irreducible. However, these cultural postulates have most often been founded on a supernatural understanding of the world through religious beliefs. In the modern age, since people have been able to explore for themselves the validity of supernatural belief systems, the search for absolutes has taken on different qualities. Kracauer outlines three modes of thought relative to this: the skeptic, the "short-circuit person", and "those who wait.
" The skeptic remains unsure as a matter
of principle; the short-circuit people attach themselves to any ideology that gives them the rush of religious rapture, and willingly engage in self-deception; and those who wait are signified by their openness to the absolute. They are distinguished from the skeptics by their hopefulness, and their assurance that a foundation is possible outside of a common, or supernatural, belief system. 7John Dewey addresses this search for an absolute foundation outside of religion in his work A Common Faith. He claims that we are capable of separating the religious fervor from supernatural beliefs and applying it to achieving "ideal ends" in our world. "A clear and intense conception of a union of ideal ends with actual conditions is capable of arousing steady emotion.
It may be fed by every experience, no matter what its material. " His ideas of the ideal and the actual also resonate with Kracauer's notions of the formative and realistic tendencies of filmmakers. Dewey urges a marriage between the two, and says that "it is the active relation between ideal and actual to which I would give the name God. " This relationship is the essence of Kracauer's writings on film. He explains that the formative tendency "does not have to conflict with the realistic tendency.
Quite the contrary, it may help substantiate and fulfill it. " He provides an example from Proust's work, in which a character observes his grandmother without her knowing he is the room. He views her as a stranger, and his perceptions are thus purified and free from preconceived notions. Proust suggests that emotional detachment is the ideal state for a witness, or a photographer. Kracauer agrees that a sense of alienation is necessary for a purity of vision, but disagrees that this implies a need for emotional detachment. He claims that a photographer, or a filmmaker, must be selective, and that this process is "closer to empathy than disengaged spontaneity.
" To create the ideal image of reality, a photographer must see things in his "own soul", and his images must be rooted in "real respect for the thing in front of him. "This selectivity "is still inseparable from processes of alienation. Once this empathetic but alienated perspective is acquired and maintained, the photographer or filmmaker becomes capable of creating images that combine the formative and realistic tendencies, but do not subvert the images for the purposes of artistic or ideological expression. Kracauer offers a vision of film that combines the two tendencies: (The films) will certainly not move from a preconceived idea down to the material world in order to implement that idea; conversely, they will set out to explore physical data and, taking their cue from them, work their way up to some problem or belief.
They proceed from below to above. ' The films of Nathaniel Dorsky closely resemble Kracauer's mandate. There are no intellectual payoffs or artificial effects in his films, which are shot on 18mm film cameras with no soundtrack. They focus directly on the quotidian aspects of life, as Kracauer suggests, slowly panning across images and objects such as folded-up napkins and broken glass reflecting the sky. He often
cuts away before the images fully reveal themselves, effectively maintaining a sense of hypnosis and slight disorientation in the viewer. He is a master editor, and blends shots based on colors, shapes and patterns, creating potent relationships between disparate images.
His films, in stark contrast to theatrical films or social-issue documentaries, have as their goal a purification of perception of the everyday. Kracauer believes that in such films lie the potential for a rediscovery of our inner lives, and a refocusing of our motivation away from rational self-interest and toward a sense of the common good for "the world that is ours". Kracauer notes that film naturally 'gravitates toward unstaged reality. The ideal setting for this, he claims, is the 'street', which he defines as "a region where the accidental prevails over the providential. " He claims that "cinema comes to its own when it clings to the surface of things.
" He urges filmmakers, along with social historians, to assist us in re-imagining the surface of the world, and of cultural products, through their distinct means of perception, for the purpose of revealing their essentialities, their absolute foundation in the world that is ours. He presents a counter-argument to his faith in film's ability to reshape our cultural priorities.His encouragement to filmmakers to focus on the external world, on the surface, could be seen, he acknowledges, as leading to a neglect of things we consider essential, a neglect of the 'inner life' of individuals. He offers thoughts from Valery, who calls film an "external memory endowed with mechanical perfection", that "tempts us to imitate" what we see on the screen rather than explore our authentic identities.
The result, for Valery, is that he "no longer has the zest for living, for living is no longer anything but resembling. I know the future by heart. He says that films encourage a life focused on appearance and imitations, thus robbing it of the uniqueness that alone would make it worthwhile. The inevitable result is boredom, and a desertion of the core, the inner life, of an individual. Kracauer claims that we deserted the inner life long before film was invented, and thus Valery's argument is untenable.
I believe Kracauer fails to engage Valery because of the extreme, and thus flawed, distinction he makes between the internal life of pre-industrial and post-industrial man, a distinction defined by a focus on spiritual and religious beliefs. Fragmentation and confusion was by no means created by this decline, nor was it substantially exacerbated. Kracauer acknowledges the power of film to create mass memories and impressions in his essay The Little Shopgirls go to the Movies, but he does not fully acknowledge the unavoidable nature of the relationship between film and audience: it is, irreducibly, a form of distraction, regardless of the intentions of filmmaker or viewer. If Kracauer's goal for film is to become a tool for spiritual self-fulfillment and cultural redemption, the role of film in our lives must significantly shift from a means of entertainment to a means of spiritual understanding.
The medium may have the potential, but its audience, being fragmented by nature, not by cultural conditions,
may lack the ability to realize it.
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