Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Cinema and Zeitgeist

On top of my bedtable book tower right now is David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson's Minding Movies. Observations on the Art, Craft, and Business of Filmmaking (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2011). It is a book based on their excellent blog, one of the best in the world wide web.

Bordwell and Thompson are central figures in academic film studies, well-known for their sober reasoning and language. They are on a warpath debunking sloppy clichés that ofter cover laziness of thought.

An example of such a cliché is Zeitgeist. David Bordwell criticizes it among other reasons because 1) there's no reason to think that millions of movie-goers share the same attitudes, 2) completely different movies are popular at any moment, 3) the movie audience is not a good cross-section of the general audience, 4) people don't necessarily find the same meanings in movies that critics do, 5) buying a ticket to a movie does not mean that the viewer shares the movie's values, 6) many Hollywood films are popular abroad in nations presumably possessing a different Zeitgeist or national unconscious.

I think everybody who uses the term Zeitgeist (the spirit of the age) in film criticism should pause to consider these tests seriously. Yes, Zeitgeist is a poetic concept that should be profoundly elaborated in serious film studies. There is a relevant science of such studies: the history of ideas. There is no single and universal Zeitgeist, but there are useful tools to research the multi-level development of ideas, such as the concepts "dominant, residual and emergent" by Raymond Williams.

An example of the conventional wisdoms Bordwell and Thompson are debunking is even more generally the approach that "We can best understand cinema by seeing it as a reflection of society". They comment: "Journalists and academics think so. We think that the variants of this idea - Zeitgeist thinking, national character, collective psyche, or identity politics - usually lead to vague and vacuous explanations, and they seldom illuminate the artistic power of cinema."

True that may be, yet a great history of the cinema in several volumes could and should be written exactly from that viewpoint. A film can be an unforgettable crystallization of the great spiritual movements of the age, and movies can even change the world. For instance the Italian cinema's school of liberation and reconstruction in the 1940s played an important part in the spiritual regeneration of the country, and the impact was universal, felt even in Hollywood.

Abel Gance: I Accuse
Erich von Stroheim: Foolish Wives
Fritz Lang: Dr. Mabuse the Gambler
Sergei Eisenstein: The Battleship Potyomkin
Marcel Carné: Le Quai des brumes
John Ford: The Grapes of Wrath
Orson Welles: Citizen Kane
Charles Chaplin: The Great Dictator
Michael Curtiz: Casablanca
Roberto Rossellini: Rome Open City
Luis Buñuel: Los olvidados
Alain Resnais: Hiroshima mon amour
Jean-Luc Godard: Breathless
Michelangelo Antonioni: L'avventura
Marlen Khutsiyev: I Am Twenty
Dennis Hopper: Easy Rider
Martin Scorsese: Taxi Driver
Mikko Niskanen: Eight Deadly Shots
Andrzej Wajda: Man of Marble
Andrei Tarkovsky: Stalker
Wim Wenders: Der Himmel über Berlin
David Fincher: The Social Network

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