Looking with Arnheim

Routledge has just published a volume I edited titled ARNHEIM FOR FILM AND MEDIA STUDIES. I’ll admit it seems weird to devote a new volume of media scholarship to the work of Rudolf Arnheim. In our culturalist era, Arnheim seems a steadfast (even stodgy) formalist. Weimar intellectuals are ascendant in film and media studies, but Arnheim is not among them. He was notoriously inflexible, maintaining through his long lifetime that Film Art ended with the coming of sound (and color, and wide-screen, and what have you). For me, this is part of his appeal. Obstinanteness can be inspiring, polemics productive, especially in the hands of a brilliant visual analyst. But Arnheim is actually richer and deeper than that, and in editing this book I’ve grown fonder of him than ever.


\When I teach Film Theory, I always start with Arnheim’s FILM AS ART. It is a sturdy gateway into the game of aesthetic theory; the book is nothing if not coherently argued and organized. For students embarking on a semester of increasingly abstract thought, FILM AS ART is solid ground. It virtually outlines itself. Inevitably Arnheim becomes a foil to more overtly complex thinkers like Eisenstein and Bazin, the giants at the center of my course. I inherited this organization from my teachers; it is sound pedagogy. When I was a student, Arnheim struck me as graspable but limited. In labeling some film devices as “unusable” and in rejecting cinema after 1930, he had thrown up barricades that my classmates and I could not cross. But in returning to FILM AS ART year after year I began to see more in Arnheim than a scale model of aesthetic theory. In fact, I think I finally started to discover what I had refused to hear from my teachers — that Arnheim had a fertile, supple, and revealing way of looking at the screen.

The fact that he may be wrong in some respects doesn’t dampen his insight. Consider one of my favorite descriptions from the book, Arnheim’s take on the garden scene in Clarence Brown’s FLESH AND THE DEVIL (1926):

[Garbo] has met the young officer John Gilbert at a party. They have already danced together very absorbedly, gazing into each other’s eyes; but externally everything is still quite conventional – two people who were indifferent to each other might do just the same. Nothing has yet been acknowledged; they only have glimmerings of what might be… They go into the garden, the girl takes a cigarette between her lips, the man lights a match, but instead of lighting up, she makes a tiny retreating movement, the flame illumines the two faces, they look at each other. This sudden arbitrary interruption of the social ritual explains their change of attitude better than any explicit acting out of feelings; it is enough. Something different is going to happen.

Arnheim begins with his memory of an expressive cinematic moment (one of the more famous in silent Hollywood history), he parses Clarence Brown’s goal in directing the scene (to visualize Garbo and Gilbert’s sensuous interchange), and isolates the scene’s formal triggers: a tiny retreating movement, a flare of light on Garbo’s face, the interruption of social ritual. Oddly, Arnheim overlooks Brown’s more direct interventions, like the intertitles (Gilbert: “You are very beautiful.” Garbo: “You are very young.”) and the exchange of shot/reverse-shot close-ups as the soon-to-be lovers eye one another in anticipation [he was undoubtedly working from memory]. But he captures something fundamental, a suite of directorial choices involving framing, staging, and lighting, which carry the affective charge. He does so elegantly.

Arnheim’s general argument about cinema has problems (sound and color did not spell the end of film art; cinema need not define itself by its limitations), but he has an exceptional eye, and a superb grasp of how the silent screen works. The more I wrestle with formal description (and it is always a fight), the more I’ve come to appreciate Arnheim’s deft analyses. In 1932, well before  “film studies,” much less the “historical poetics” of film, Arnheim gave us a way to interrogate the moving image. He viewed filmmaking as the weighing of various solutions to artistic problems, and he opened films up by posing hypothetical alternatives to choices made. When I ask how else my favorite filmmakers might have approached a particular scene in order to cast light on their originality, or when I require my students to consider the range of choices for dealing with a particular kind of scene or action, I am following Arnheim’s lead.

When I read Arnheim as an undergraduate my love of film was strong but narrowly contemporary, and I was quick to disregard a 70+ year-old treatise on cinema aesthetics. Today, I find that FILM AS ART holds up remarkably well. It is full of valuable lessons for filmmakers, such as the idea that an action can gain expressive power through “indirect representation” (his classic example: to depict a gunshot — show the flight of birds from a nearby tree rather than the gun).  Arnheim envisioned a visually literate audience, interested not in simply following stories but in considering how the story is told; like any film educator, he hoped to engender critical thought about popular images. And there were political and cultural stakes. A formally aware audience might be inoculated against the “brutal signs of immediate satisfaction” proffered by Fascist media (Arnheim had to flee both Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy). Though often regarded as an elitist, his taste was surprisingly democratic. Arnheim freely blends references to popular Hollywood and high-profile entries from the European movements.  THE GOLD RUSH, CHICAGO, and DOCKS OF NEW YORK rub shoulders with PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, THE GENERAL LINE, and CALIGARI. FILM AS ART still engages us because Arnheim is so thoroughly in the swim with the films of his day. He draws lessons from movies that we either don’t see, or that have become so familiar (canonized) that we have ceased to really look at them. He also reminds us of what we can achieve by looking seriously at our contemporary, popular movie milieu.

Arnheim’s major intellectual legacy followed his early interest in film. He pioneered the field of the psychology of art with ART AND VISUAL PERCEPTION in 1954, followed in rapid succession by TOWARD THE PSYCHOLOGY OF ART (1966), VISUAL THINKING (1969) and ENTROPY AND ART (1971). [David Bordwell has an excellent discussion of Arnheim’s contributions to the field here:] He never returned to cinema with the vigor he had in the 1930s, but his art scholarship built on ideas he first tried out in FILM AS ART. Film scholars rarely had recourse to this later period of Arnheim’s thought, though it is flush with worthwhile ideas.

A few years ago I became interested in his thoughts about color as an element of composition in painting. He disregarded color film, but he developed a precise theory of how hues interact on a canvas to guide the spectator’s eye. In my work on Technicolor I developed tools for tracking color’s contribution to the moving image, but the great colorists, eluded my reach. Vincente Minnelli was a master of brilliant surfaces; his color designs are both bewilderingly complex and immediately affective. Minnelli’s color work is simply too perceptually demanding to be captured by Technicolor norms. Arnheim’s model, which casts colors as dynamic forces connecting and segregating planes and shapes, offers an analytical foothold. Arnheim helped me to finally begin cracking one of my top cinematic moments, Minnelli’s “Skip to My Lou” dance in MEET ME IN ST LOUIS. [I’ve posted color illustrations for my analysis elsewhere on this site]. Though plenty of questions remain, it is clear that Arnheim’s color theory can sensitize us to the moment-by-moment unfolding of complex formal patterns; it brings us closer to unweaving Minnelli’s rainbow.

The contributors to ARNHEIM FOR FILM AND MEDIA STUDIES revisit FILM AS ART as a relevant text for contemporary scholars, they map productive avenues in his later work, and return Arnheim to his historical and cultural context. Essays deal with his early film criticism, major concepts from his film theory, and their relevance to artworks as far flung as the modernist avant-garde to comic books. The anthology takes up Arnheim’s subsequent studies of sound film, radio, and television, his thoughts on composition, realism, the rhetoric of photography, and the very concept of “style.” Arnheim emerges as multifaceted, nuanced, and more adaptable than we knew him; a visual theorist no less generative or timely than Benjamin or Adorno.

For my part, I keep returning to two quotations from ART AND VISUAL PERCEPTION. Arnheim wrote “all observation is also invention.” Vision is itself a creative act; an artwork is not finished until it is perceived; analysis is itself artful. The second quotation is more particular to my own orientation in film studies: “It is our task to search the perceived object for the formal features that determine what the eyes see.” I take this to be my task as a film scholar, and it is a rewarding one. Film studies has myriad agendas, aims, and targets, but to my mind, the best work always begins by looking, closely.

David Bordwell recently discussed this book on his blog. The project was inspired by one of David’s blogs, linked above. Arnheim would appreciate the symmetry.

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