Thursday, September 28, 2017

To what extent are films like dreams?

I have been reading Susanne K. Langer's "A Note on the Film" which appeared originally in her Feeling and Form (1953) and which also appears in Noel Carroll and Jinhee Choi's Philosophy of Film and Motion Pictures.  Film for Langer is a new art which is no longer to be seen as "a new technical device in the sphere of drama." And, as a new art, it exhibits a "new poetic mode."  Before commenting on this new mode, which Langer takes to be related to dreaming, I wish to remark on her methodology.  I applaud her collaborative technique, rare among philosophers:  she says that there were four collaborating members in producing this essay (although she is clearly the leader) and it is they who came up with the results that the "structure of the motion picture is not that of drama" and is closer to narrative (by which she seems to mean novels and epic), and that "its artistic potentialities became evident  only when the moving camera was introduced."  The second result (which seems to overcome the first, since the novel and epic forms hardly feature the moving camera), is also prominent in a much later paper by Arthur C. Danto from 1979 "Moving Pictures," which also appears in the Carroll/Choi anthology.  Following up on this, Langer asserts that "the moving camera divorced the screen from the stage" and that it is only a special technique just to photograph the action on a theatrical stage.  

Whereas many theorists of film have tried to tie it to a previous art form, for instance in the silent era to pantomime, Langer stresses the way in which film is "omnivorous," consuming or rather incorporating many different art forms.  Thus also although film theorist Arnheim worried about sound and technicolor destroying the perfection of the silent film, Langer welcomes these new developments.  She thinks that perhaps people were simply put off by earlier crude versions of these appropriations.  

So film is what she calls a "poetic art" which simply means a creative or "fine" art like painting, sculpture, music, dance, literature, and architecture.  As a poetic art it has what she calls a "primary illusion" or "virtual history" of its own.  Previously Langer had argued that each art form has its own primary illusion.  For example in dance gesture is the primary illusion whereby the dance illusion is realized.

To better understand Langer I find it useful to think of Nietzsche.  Langer herself however, when she mentions Nietzsche in Feeling and Form, seems to misunderstand and oversimplify his aesthetic theory.   She believes that his concept of the Dionysian/Apollonian duality is only about the "preponderance of one principle or the other" like the ones we find in such polarities as emotion vs. reason or instinct vs. intellect. (FF 17).  She actually sees the Dionysian as the extreme of pure feeling and the Apollonian as pure form.  I will not go here into all of the ways this is wrong.  Readers can get my own take on Nietzsche and these two concepts by typing them into the search function of this blog.  

What is helpful, rather, is to think of the Apollonian as setting up something like a dream world on stage, which is precisely what Langer is getting at, except in her case the dream world is related to the virtual reality set up on the screen by film.  The Dionysian is an element that Langer leaves out of her analysis, although that, in itself, is interesting.  Nietzsche believed that the Dionysian element of tragic theater is the sense of oneness between audience member and protagonist who ultimately represents Dionysus himself.  The Dionysian allows for an ecstatic aspect of art experience in which it seems as though one has punched through the selective and god-like illusion of the Apollonian dreamworld to the ultimate nature of reality itself.  I think that this can provide us with an insight that is missed, actually made impossible, by someone like Arthur Danto.  Danto, by setting up the world of art as radically separate from the world of actual things, as something transcendent (because when one appropriately sees Andy Warhol's Brillo Box as art, then it is transfigured into the realm of art, and this is what distinguishes it from its indiscernibly different counterpart in the grocery warehouse), breaks off the intimate relation between art and reality, or rather makes it impossible.  In short, Danto's Apollonian aesthetics excludes the Dionysian.  Langer's does too, but she does not go as far as Danto in that direction, and to that extent is preferable, from a Nietzschean perspective.

So Langer stresses the mode of film art is the dream mode, which is not to say that film copies dreams.   The mode is a "mode of appearance."  She explains this by noting that fiction is in the memory more and that is "like" (she uses scare quotes here in a confusing way) memory.  It is so "in that it is projected to compose a finished experienced form, a 'past'" i.e. a virtual past, not the past of the writer or reader.  Film, similarly, creates a virtual present,  "an order of direct apparition."  To be sure Langer is a bit too systematic here.  There is no reason why fiction could not also project a virtual present or film a virtual past.  But, set that aside.

Now to the comparisons with dream.  Langer says "The most noteworthy formal characteristic of dream" is that the dreamer "is always at the center of it" even though everything else may change, often in strange ways.  Actually this does not correspond with my own experience of dreams, and of course this is a major problem with comparing film with dreams:  you can't confirm any of it since our dream worlds are pretty private and only become public when we describe them to others.  The others cannot verify our dream statements, or falsify them, for that matter.  From the old positivist perspective, our dream statements have to all be meaningless.  But they are not, which is what was wrong with positivism. 

In any case, I do not experience myself in my dreams as the dreamer who is always there.  Perhaps others do.   Nor do I fully understand what Langer means by the "immediacy of everything in a dream."  Some things in dreams seem to happen right away, and some things take time.  Perhaps she is saying that nothing is ever mediated by anything else in a dream, for example perceptions are not mediated by concepts.  But this does not seem to be true in my dreams either.  

But what I get from sentences like "this aesthetic peculiarity, this relation to things perceived, characterizes the dream mode" is the importance of things perceived, the importance of the world of everyday life.  A film, on her view, "creates a virtual present" just like a dream.  I think what is being suggested is that films take the world around us and edits that world, transforming it greatly, but still always keeping us in contact with the things perceived.  

So what then is the relation between camera and the scene portrayed?  Langer argues that the camera takes the place of the perceiver in that unlike the dreamer it is not in the scene.  (She forgets about cameras reflected in mirrors, sometimes).  Again, my own experience is that sometimes I am someone watching the events of the dream but almost more often I am one of the characters in the dream.  In this respect my dream life is not like my perceptual life which is always seen from the perspective of my body, my eyes, my mind, and where I am never part of what is seen except insofar as I can see myself in mirrors, or see my body from the perspective of my unseen by me eyes.

Langer also thinks that the film is not "dreamlike in its structure," which I think actually weakens her case because it really is insofar as things do often happen outside of normal sequencing of space and time (although these distortions seldom seem very odd to the film viewer...we quickly adapt to a virtual reality).  Perhaps she wants to stress how film is coherent whereas a dream is not since she then says about film what she says about any art form, i.e. "[it] is a poetic composition, coherent, organic, governed by a definitely conceived feeling, not dictated by actual emotional pressures."  Well, yes and no, or rather usually, but not always.

A further explication of "immediacy" ensues.  Langer writes that "the basic abstraction whereby virtual history is created in the dream mode is immediacy of experience" which the art of film "abstracts from actuality, form our actual dreaming."  OK, that makes sense:  that the film takes the structure of the dreamworld and abstracts that structure in creation of virtual time.  Sounds Kantian (not surprising, as she was a student of Cassirer, a major Kantian of the time).  Again, Langer's approach is that the audience member enters the virtual world through the camera:  "The percipient of a moving picture sees with the camera;  his standpoint moves with it, his mind is pervasively present.  The camera is his eye..."  and "He takes the place of the dreamer" and yet is not in the story.  The work is an apparition.  I think all of this is foretelling the French new wave cinema with all of its emphasis on hand held cameras and a you-are-there feeling.  Danto, who says something similar, and is clearly inspired by Truffault, is not prescient in this way.

It is interesting that for Langer all of this shows that a moving picture, when good, is a work of art, and also that she sees an important ally in Eisenstein.  Eisenstein of course was the prime advocate of the montage theory of film, a theory which fit his own work, and that of many of his contemporaries, quite well, but which declined when film moved on to other forms.  Of course the very idea of montage, and the look of montage, does remind us of the fragmented nature of our dreams.  In this way an Eisenstein film is even more like a dream than many other films.  There is something surreal about the scene on the Odessa steps in Potemkin, although it should be remembered that Eisenstein himself would have stressed the greater realism of this technique.  Perhaps more telling is Langer's quoting of Eisenstein on the creative process, where he says that the whole is governed by the "initial general image which originally hovered before the creative artist."  Eisenstein and Langer are like Dewey in following the creative process from inception to reception, and not simply understanding creativity in terms of whatever produces a highly valued product, an approach typical of analytic aesthetics.   Along these lines, Langer also endorses (as Dewey would) Eisenstein's insistence that the film viewer must, as she puts it, "use his imagination to create his own experience of the story."  So, again, the film creates an illusion "of the dimension in which [things] go on" i.e. "a virtual creative imagination" because it seems to be the product of one's own imagination, much like dreams.

So film is art because it takes "diverse materials" and transforms them, and, "like a dream, it enthralls and commingles all senses."  

It is only in the final part that Langer draws a parallel between epic and film, which, again, she traces back to Eisenstein who favored Milton over Shakespearean analogies.  What is valuable for me in the last part of this essay is that point that "dream events are spatial - often intensely concerned with space - intervals, endless roads, bottomless canyons....but they are not oriented in any total space."  This, I think, is correct, and also for film.  She concludes that the dreamed reality on the screen can "move backward and forward" in space and time "because it is really an eternal and ubiquitous virtual present" unlike drama which always moves forward, creating a virtual future instead.

Langer's importance for the aesthetics of film has been very much under-rated.  A contrast again can be made to Danto who uses the moving camera to emaphasize not the mediation of the structures of dreaming but the idea of consciousness of consciousness, which he takes to be a sign of advancement, much like Hegel before him, and thus the arthood of film coming with this kind of hyper reflexivity where ultimately it is film about film, or film about film about film, thus taking it away further and further from life, strangely like the problem of the "third man" in Plato, where Plato is forced to hyothesize infinitely further eternal forms of Man, or alternatively, limit the power of God by forcing Him to create only one Man.  In short, Danto's theory separates art form life whereas Langer's ties it more closely to life in the way that dreams are close to life, taking from life, concentrating, abstracting, intensifying, etc.  

Noel Carroll, in his "Introduction to Part II" of the same anthology, thinks he can refute Langer by observing that the "film viewer is not in the center of the array.  She is typically off to one side."  (59)  Aside from the fact that this misreads Langer, who does not put the film viewer at the center of the array, this also fails to see that being to one side in a theater makes hardly any difference in our experience of the film.  We quickly adapt and phenomenologically immediately take up the position of the camera, as Langer clearly states.   But I do agree with Carroll that some of the things Langer thinks are unique to our experience of film and cannot be experienced in theater can actually be experienced in theater.  I just do not think that the difference between theater and film is as great as Langer makes out. 

One can also agree with Carroll that its dream-like nature is not defining for film while still agreeing with Langer that the analogy is illuminating.  The big disanalogy between dreams and films that Carroll finds, i.e. that dreams are absolutely subjective experiences whereas films are shared and "interpersonally available," is not all that impressive since first, as mentioned earlier, we can tell our dreams to others, and second because, when viewing a film, and identifying with the visual perspective of the camera, while identifying perhaps empathetically with the characters, one is having an experience as if in a dream. 

The other refutation of the analogy Carroll finds in a quote from Cavell, i.e. that most dreams "are boring narratives...their skimpy surface out of all proportion with their riddle interest and their effect on the dreamer."  Further, as Carroll observes, we have ordinary events in dreams charged with emotion for no real reason, and this contrasts to films where the events are usually extraordinary, and also, as he argues, "most dreams are not anywhere as interesting as films."  One might reply that most non-music sounds are not anywhere as interesting as music, but this is not reason not to say that much of music is inspired by non-music sounds (and originally, all of it was).   Of course film takes what dreams do and does it a lot better. Moreover, although some dreams are about ordinary situations many are about ones as extraordinary as anything found in film, and this is true vice versa too.  So, overall, Carroll's attempt to discredit the film-as-dream approach to film is pretty unconvincing.   



No comments: