Tilting the Magic Window
by Alex D'Arata Newby
In my last blog I explored some of my thoughts about the rather tricky relationship between authorship and the inherently communal aspects of film-making. Today, I’m going to dive back into that sea of conflicts and contradictions. As individuals who want to make films, we must first ask ourselves why we choose the medium of film. Does cinema have some essential property that differentiates it from other art-forms? It seems like a hopelessly broad question, and I don’t know how equipped I am to attempt to answer it, but hopefully my thoughts will provide some small morsel of food for thought.
At its core, film appears to be a uniquely naturalistic medium. This naturalism is, of course, a false naturalism. Still, it is an essential, maybe the essential, characteristic of the medium that we happen to process what it offers as if were reality. The camera captures light and records a series of images onto film which is then threaded into a projector, but this is not what we actually experience. Instead, we experience film as something like a magic window. We sit in a dark room and we look through the screen into another world.
Early film was content to revel in this fact. We’ve all heard the stories of early film-goers screaming in terror as the train in the Lumiere brothers’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat barreled toward them from behind the screen. It seemed to simply capture and repeat the pure, visceral reality of human experience. For this reason, it was not uncommonly thought that moving pictures were a passing trend; it was certainly never speculated that film would grow into one of humanity’s most vital art forms.
The first phase in the evolution of film began when films realized they could use their own naturalism to portray reality in a certain way and for certain ends. The advent of the principles of classical editing began the transition of film from an reflectively naturalist mode to a didactic-naturalist mode. Filmmakers began to create prescriptive (rather than descriptive) realities within their films. Films became the manifestations of the subjective realities and artistic visions of their creators. They were the ultimate escapist media, allowing people to see through the magic window into worlds other than their own; worlds with natural laws that followed a familiar and comforting narrative pattern.
Still, and this is key, films never simply lost their naturalistic character. Although the vision of reality they offered was immensely artificial and manipulated, the sense that they still, on some level, were real, remained an intrinsic structural element of the medium. Reality itself began to change over the course of first half of the twentieth century to better correspond to the reality of the cinema. People’s actions and personalities were based on those of Hollywood stars. People’s opinions about war, and love, and politics, were all influenced and influenced by the cinema.
It was only then, when cinema as a popular medium and as a way of changing reality had reached its peak, that a few directors began to realize it could be something more. A film also has the potential to subvert the naturalism at its core, not to imagine a world that plays by some obvious set of rules, but instead reveal the innate human capacity to change the rules, and see the world in a whole new way. This, film could only do by renouncing the Faustian pact earlier cinema had made, by which it gained the power to be taken seriously as reality at the price of its ability to provoke and be taken seriously as art.