Why I watch film

NOTE: The following is taken from an ongoing personal project.

My interest in film–and media in general–relates back to the work of Walter Benjamin and Sigmund Kracauer. Their concern as is mine is how the reproduced image begins to precede the individual’s experiences and in a perverse way attains a form of autonomy unattainable by the actual human being. That is, various forms of media: the photograph, the radio, and film become modes of transmitting the body, the voice, and the action in a completely mediated way that is likened to real life.

Although the dark implications by certain academics lends many to see the replacement of the human body with an autonomous soulless person; especially once one considers that robot–from “serf labor” in Czech–seems to embody the replacement of the human being with a “harder, better, faster” version–of course the “robot” motif is then oddly one of becoming human. However, I believe that a very different problem arises. Due to the fact that the image precedes the human being, one must always fight against the “that’s not the real me.” This has been used in countless films from The Student from Prague to 6th Day and Black Swan and most recently Oblivion. Although often taken as fantastical, the double (doppelganger or the Shadow) is a real problem in the transition between viewing media and viewing life. The work that I have found the most helpful in weeding through this has been Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation as well as Nietzsche’s “The Uses and Abuses of History for Life.” Although written a century apart, both tackle the fact that stories–either empirical history or television–present the human being with the idea of being recorded and involved in a larger story, whatever that may be. The problem to them is clear: we live in an age of constant narrated observation. I would not argue that they are predicting reality television, I would say that instead reality television offers up the real problem that although one must “act” in front of a camera, we all too often “act” when we are aware that our actions will be recorded; recorded in a job interview, family dinner, a wedding ceremony, etc. Although the former differs from the two other examples, all take on a modern tinge based on the fact that each becomes a story we tell as we live it. The constant struggle comes between “being in the moment” (i.e. being present) and “narrating the moment” (alienated). Our lives go between movie-like glamor and unnarratable mundane, yet this is not really what’s “going on;” what may be truly enjoyable to us may indeed appear mundane to the observer; even if it is supremely meaningful. So then the problem becomes in our alienation, that we observe ourselves so that we can tell a better story.

A last example: When two mirrors placed parallel to one another, one gets a sense of the infinite repeating not only in front of them but behind them as well. One becomes more fascinated with the repeated infinities behind and in front than with the fact the subject has not changed. Standing in the middle between the two mirrors, I strive to see behind—beyond—myself. Is this not how we respond to new interfaces? Instead of noticing our centrality and living from that point, we strive to look around ourselves to narrate ourselve. Perhaps this can be understood in the oxymoronic phrased “centered around.”

In hoping to bring this introduction back to film, I wish to point to one of my favorite almost-at-war films: Meet John Doe. The film works, for me, on two layers. One layer explores, exposes, and critiques the modern world; expressed early in the film through the jackhammering away of the old motto—“The Bulletin: A free press means a free people.” In its stead “The New Bulletin: A Streamlined Newspaper for a Streamlined Era” reveals that the new era has arrived and something drastically different is on the horizon.

The second layer even more interestingly can be seen as an allegory for film itself. John Willoughby becomes John Doe, and the actor has an agent played by Barbara Stanwyck and the producer is the evil business magnate, etc. This second layer operates in showing how we–the audience–falls in love with the actor through his role and not in his actual experience. Similar motifs can be found in Christopher Nolan’s Inception and wonderfully inverted in The Truman Show.

This is in no way meant to suggest–as Benjamin seems to imply–that film is not an art. On the contrary, I wish to make clear that film perhaps represents the great compromise between art and capitalism. Film without a doubt involves artistic creativity, from story/screenwriting, set-design, acting, and directing, but it is also deeply enmeshed within the modes of production. Films are cut to keep the best parts while less than stellar parts are discarded; whole scenes are removed due to time constraints; major film stars are given top billing for what can only be described as a cameo (Steven Seagal in Executive Decision is a striking example); the DVD offers a way of handling surplus footage through “behind the scenes” and “additional scenes” features–the “cutting room floor” suddenly goes from the trash bin to receiving its own focus in DVD reviews. Perhaps, Benjamin would be kind enough to consider Hitchcock’s sparse filming closer to artistic, although one should recall that Benjamin was concerned about the all-too-common practice of the 1930s of terrorizing actors into giving “perfect performances.”

The reproductive arts (film, radio, photography) critique and examine real life, revealing something true about our lives; at the same time, we become more aware that we too are being reproduced either in an Instagram, a tweet, or a Facebook post. These of course are the new narrative forms but I believe that this has been worth noting as a 20th century phenomenon.

So as art more accurately begins to imitate life (hence many an upset over Girls), we begin to imitate art.

Note: I have had trouble updating the image citations, below are the citations.

Victor Talking Machine is public domain.

“Mirror image” is from Google Images and the link does work to take you to the appropriate URL.

Capra, Frank. Meet John Doe. Hollywood, CA: Warner Brothers, 1941, 122 min.

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