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The world in a frame (or on a disc)

My recent post called "Framed" triggered memories of one the most evocatively titled books about cinema: Leo Braudy's "The World in a Frame." (What does it evoke? See quote from Martin Scorsese in upper right corner.) Published in 1976, the sub-title is "What We See in Films," and re-reading the introduction and early chapters reminds me that we no longer see movies the way we did back then. Technology has fundamentally altered our perceptions of what a movie is. Here's an observation (true at the time) from the intro, "Movies in Mind," that I find rather moving:

Incidental talk after a screening, fan magazine biographies, and film criticism -- all serve first of all to bring the short-lived image into a continuous world of ordinary discourse, to ensure its life beyond those moments in the dark, to make it exist. Unlike the products of the other arts [musical or theatrical recordings], movies are ephemeral. They aren't available, at least not yet, for easy reference on bookshelves, in prints, or on records. One of the first problems for the student of film is taking notes in the dark -- to catch for a moment the rapidly vanishing sound and image. So, too, the aesthetic situation of the movie audience in general is reminiscent of Homer's first audiences. Once the bard has sung a line, the audience can't demand to hear it again; and so the movie audience is passively drawn from scene to scene, with no ready text or score against which to judge their particular experience, with only the experience itself to generate its own standards, for when movies are repeated, unless you have a video-tape machine and can pirate fragments, they must be repeated in their entirety.

What Braudy describes there, of course, is the way all but those who worked in the movie business (from camera operators to editors to projectionists) had always experienced movies -- as events that occurred at a particular time in a particular place. When we buy a ticket to a theatrical screening, we're not purchasing anything concrete (besides the receipt that serves as proof-of-purchase for entry); we're just renting space -- a seat in an auditorium -- for a particular length of time while images are projected on a screen, accompanied by synchronized sounds. There's no guarantee that we will enjoy the images, or that we will find the experience worthwhile, only that we'll be shown the movie whose title is printed on the ticket.

The things Braudy describes as uniquely characteristic of the movies are no longer defining properties. Those quaint black plastic bricks with the reels of tape inside them, today's shiny silver discs and miniature hard drives (soon to be replaced by solid-state storage) and on-demand digital downloads and streaming, have radically altered the ways we conceptualize movies (as objects or property rather than ephemeral experiences) and the ways we watch them (anytime, anywhere, any size, discontinuously, while doing other things). In other words, they've profoundly transformed what we mean by "movies." Many have remarked on these evolutionary changes over the years, but as I was perusing "The World in a Frame" -- this time reading it as a historical volume from the perspective of 2010 -- made the transmutations all the more dramatic for me.

One of Braudy's goals is (I suppose I should say "was," but even though the book was published in 1976, I read it in the present tense -- the same way I watch movies) was to cultivate a language for film criticism that approached film as film and not as some bastardized form of literature or theater or dance or painting or some other pre-existing art. That was a big battle in academia at the time, and the movie reviews that appeared in most newspapers and magazines were literary/dramatic plot synopses with a few sentences about the actors and an adjective about the "cinematography."

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Whatever else has changed about movies, the "talk" Braudy mentions above -- in person, in film criticism, online in blog posts and comments, even on Twitter -- is still vitally important. Cinema doesn't mean anything without a culture to frame and give it context and meaning. Without that culture, movies are just diversions and time-fillers -- as most people still experience them. "How then," Braudy writes,

do we create that talk known as film criticism and interpretation, with its special obligation to enlarge and enrich our responses not just to one work but to future works as well? Most of the critical standards that any of us have come from experience and training in the older arts, where the principles of value and understanding have been generally established and the principal artists -- whose work constitutes a definition of value in itself -- are safely dead. Since movies are such a recent discovery, there is only beginning to be a canon of principles and great men [sic]. People may talk about movies or write about them, but such talk and such writing has rarely explored what movies have taught us about themselves -- what conventions of form and content we have learned. Following the late nineteenth-century assumption of a hierarchy of the arts, much serious film criticism has either imported a critical vocabulary from already established disciplines or sprinkled analogies to the work of established artists in other art forms. [...]

At present the two most obvious examples of what I am criticizing in film are the schools of semiology and auteurism. Christian Metz, whose "Film Language" is one of the main semiological texts, ladles out enough terminology to feed a generation of Aristotles. Andrew Sarris, who has popularized the director-oriented ideas of Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and other writers around Andre Bazin's magazine Cahiers du Cinema, is a much looser and more genial figure. But neither should be blamed for the near-religious dimensions that semiological and auteurist methods have taken in many graduate film schools. Both an be fruitful methods of approaching film, but not so long as they are applied with a purified single-mindedness.

David Bordwell ("Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema," "Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies," edited by Bordwell and Noël Carroll) also cautioned against attempts to cram individual works into theoretical cubbyholes. Braudy chose to concentrate on accessible critical approaches to narrative films:

The methodology of film criticism must finally be brought into the world of story, whether fiction or non-fiction. Experimental films may define the limits of film art, but they say little about the rich complexity of what those limits contain and how the normal experience of films has changed our perceptions of the world. I think it is difficult to defend any criticism that discusses a popular form in mandarin terminology designed to limit its audience to the initiates. the potential of film to absorb and renew the other arts is reflected in the potential of film criticism to be the crossroads of humanistic study rather than just another outpost. Experimental films, like purely formalist aesthetics, are finally private languages, understood by few, although potentially by many more. But I am interested here in the languages that are immediately understood by many, the commercial film where private artistic language has been forced to go public.

Contrast this with, say, Kevin Smith's limited view of film criticism as a scam in which critics get to see his movies for free. He's not wrong. He's just a commercial filmmaker who sees criticism as an extension of his movies' marketing campaigns. Again, not wrong. But not the whole story, either...

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