FILM-PHILOSOPHY

ISSN 1466-4615

Volume 3 Number 35, August 1999

 


 

Bohdan Y. Nebesio

How to Account for Cinematic Experience?

 


 

 

 

Jean Mitry

_The Aesthetics and Psychology of the Cinema_

Translated by Christopher King

London: Athlone Press, 1998

ISBN: 0-485-30084-2

403 pp.

 

Jean Mitry (1907-1988) has been considered an important theoretician of cinema since the publication of his monumental two volume _Esthetique et psychologie du cinema_ in 1963 and 1965. [1] His influence, however, has been far greater in continental Europe than in Anglo-American film studies. Therefore, the long overdue English language translation of Mitry's seminal theoretical work fills the void in the body of French film theory available in English and restores this prominent theoretician's place within classical film theory.

 

_The Aesthetics and Psychology of the Cinema_ is one of the rare instances when a book had been studied and critiqued in English long before it became available in translation. Most notable of these are Brian Lewis's _Jean Mitry and the Aesthetics of the Cinema_ and Dudley Andrew's chapter on Mitry in his _The Major Film Theories_. Therefore, it is inevitable that this review reiterates some critical points made over past 35 years.

 

_The Aesthetics and Psychology of the Cinema_ is probably the first theoretical reflection on cinema from an academic perspective. Up until the 1960s the theoretical enterprise had been dominated by filmmakers, film critics, and art/literary critics rarely affiliated with academia. Mitry brings to film theory a scholarly rigour and an aura of objective study, or at least the perceived necessity to ponder on issues from multiple points of view. These qualities, on the one hand, guarantee Mitry a unique place in the history of film thought, and on the other account for Mitry's equivocal reputation. A reader of _The Aesthetics and Psychology of the Cinema_ is above all overwhelmed by the very scope of Mitry's project, where he not only presents his views on the film medium, but at the same time outlines a history of film theory, some theoretical debates surrounding various issues, as well as an aesthetic history of the medium. An undeniable richness of the book resides in the wealth of secondary sources Mitry brings into discussion. His copious citations from nearly all important theorists before him gives the book an encyclopaedic range.

 

Mitry's ambition is to present an all-encompassing view of cinema. We can distinguish two main objectives behind his endeavour, which he accomplishes with a varied degree of success. First, and most important for him, is the unification of two trends present throughout classical film theory: the creationist impulse and the realist tendency. [2] Mitry appropriates the former mainly through the work of the Soviet and French theorists of the 1920s and 30s, and the latter through the writings of Andre Bazin. In principle, Mitry's synthesis of the classical theorizing is similar to V. F. Perkins's project undertaken in _Film as Film_, although both authors' conclusions and purposes differ significantly. Second, parallel to this project is a linkage between Mitry's synthesized classical theory and the question of 'film language' understood in terms of pre-Metzian film semiotics.

 

Classical film theorists recognized that cinema had both creative and recording capacities. The major difference between the creationists and realists resided in their priorities in delineating the essence of cinema, or 'the filmness', to use the Formalist term. The creationists saw film's potential in its expressive powers achieved through exploiting the recording limitations of the medium. This was in line with the creationists efforts to defend cinema as a legitimate art form against attacks from the purist camp, who contended that film could not be an art because it was merely a mechanical reproduction of reality. Instead of perfectly duplicating reality cinema thus needed to rearrange reality to serve expressive artistic purposes. It is not surprising that editing ('montage' in both French and Russian) became a key device in describing cinematic essence.

 

On the other hand, realists like Bazin and Kracauer saw the essence of cinema in the recording competence of film, which was rooted in the photographic base of the medium. For them, film's proficiency to mechanically reproduce was not to be criticized but celebrated, while the stylization of the creationists was rejected as 'going against the grain of the film medium's most essential constituent, photography'. [3] The argument went that the casual process of photography was responsible for showing objects, places, and events from the past. Cinematic representation was thus closer to reality than the representation of other arts and media. The uniqueness of cinema among the arts, derived from the ontology of the medium, needed to be preserved by stylistic choices. The 'spatial realism' of Renoir, Welles, and Wyler was for Bazin a preferred style closest to the cinema's ontological essence.

 

How does Mitry go about synthesizing these two supposedly irreconcilable views in film theory? What is the nature of cinema for Mitry? Dudley Andrew claims that cinema for Mitry is at once the 'window' and the 'frame'. [4] These indicative metaphors refer, of course, to the impressions about the specificity of cinema made by earlier theorists. 'Bluntly put,' Andrew explains, 'Eisenstein and Arnheim conceived of the spectator as being before a framed image (as a painting); Bazin claimed he sat before a window; and Mitry intertwined the notions finding that cinema's specificity lay precisely in the oscillation between window and frame'. [5] Both metaphors encapsulate the duality of cinematic appeal and, for Mitry, come as a result of his search for the middle ground between extremist positions held by earlier theorists. For that reason it is 'far easier to sort out the theories of extremists like Eisenstein or Arnheim, on one side, or Kracauer, on the other, than to firmly grasp the mobile and self-qualifying assertions which Mitry tries to lay ever so delicately between them'. [6]

 

Mitry's claims for cinematic specificity differentiate his synthesizing efforts from those of V. F. Perkins, who attempts to abandon the question of film specificity altogether in favour of the foundations of film criticism. The dialectical synthesis of the two tendencies is possible for Perkins because he sees cinema as a hybrid medium with potentially conflicting tendencies which a filmmaker of narrative cinema must reconcile. [7] Mitry on the other hand seems to propose that there is a cinematic essence which resides in the very duality of the medium to be objective (window) and subjective (frame) at the same time. This essence does not inhabit the film itself but, rather, is crucial to the cinematic experience which reflects two spheres of culture and appeals simultaneously to different realms of human psychology. Cinema gives an impression of dealing with a concrete world and, at the same time, can transmit abstract ideas. It is a technical record of objective data and at the same time transfers the most subjective contents of human consciousness.

 

Mitry's theory is more interested in potential psychological rather than social effects of cinema. In order to account for a total phenomenological experience Mitry describes perceptual, imaginative, and aesthetic experiences. Cinematic experience for Mitry moves from the perception of the moving image towards the elaboration of a world. In some films the cinematic experience can be brought to an aesthetic level where our own experience can be scrutinized and reflected upon. However, Mitry is careful not to set rules or advance a definition of film aesthetics. He even wonders if such aesthetics can be outlined:

 

'There is no such thing as aesthetics in cinema if by that we mean a body of rules and regulations governing the conditions of the individual film and the qualities which make it what it is. Interpreted in this way, aesthetic principles are conceivable only in terms of Art in the classical sense, i.e., in terms of a form and representation whose elements, more or less stylized, are subject to laws and rules by reason of their very stylization or whose methods are limited both by their object and by processes which they employ.' (379)

 

Mitry structures his book in a manner similar to those who were interested in a poetics of cinema before him. He selects a number of issues -- the cinematic image, editing, as well as time and space in film -- around which he builds his argument. The problem of rhythm is a leitmotif for Mitry and surfaces throughout the book. Obviously indebted to the French film theorists of the 1920s, Mitry develops their ideas much further. Instead of seeking parallels to 'pure cinema' in musical rhythm, he demonstrates that, in fact, there is very little correspondence between the two. In a detailed analysis he shows that our sight can perceive proportions, but is not well adapted to perceive rhythms of duration, like our ear. Cinematic rhythm is therefore a combination of two sorts of superimposed rhythms, temporal and spatial, both of which are quite heterogeneous.

 

Rhythm in cinema has far reaching consequences for Mitry as he ties it to the issue of 'language'. According to him there are two kinds of language, lyrical and logical, and cinema is the only art form capable of bringing them together. The synthesis of the two languages is 'able to reconcile reason and emotion, reaching the one through the other in an interdependence whose reciprocity remains constant' (28). In this resemblance to natural language Mitry sees the same duality in the character of cinema that he tried to propose by synthesizing the two main trends of classical film theory. In a manner similar to the Russian Formalists Mitry distinguishes a 'practical' aspect of a language as well as a 'poetic' one, with the former roughly coinciding with the realist position and the latter recalling the creationist stance. Rhythm in cinema adds a lyrical dimension to an otherwise realist cinematic image, much like rhythm and meter in poetry transform logical language into the lyrical. He writes:

 

'Just as lyrical language is based on verbal logic but transcends its meaning through the rhythm to which it surrenders or through a symbolic function, the language of film is based on the logic of reality but transcends its immediate meaning through reciprocal associations in the organic continuity of the film. The images being subordinate to a predetermined rhythm, a new rhythm emerges as a consequence of that rhythm'. (28)

 

Mitry's reference to 'language' puts him at odds with the linguistic film theory emerging in the same period. Because he follows neither the communication model nor linguistic model, his use of the term 'language' as a metaphor for the means of expression drew criticism from a new generation of film theorists, particularly from Christian Metz. In fact, Metz's early articles are a direct criticism of the Mitry's work and his use of language metaphors. Metz gave the linguistic metaphor more weight and approached it with a great degree of scepticism by testing it against contemporary linguistic concepts. In this respect Mitry's theory has been seen as a direct, albeit adverse, influence on the developments in film semiology closely linked to Christian Metz. The bone of contention seems to be in the understanding of the process of signification which, Mitry claimed, does not always occur in cinema like in other arts. 'In the cinema,' he wrote, 'what must have priority is not the signified or the signification but the *continuous passage from the nonsignified to the signified, the transition from the emotional to the intellectual through a constantly contingent signification*.' (239)

 

The 'constantly contingent signification' puts cinema in a different category than classical arts. Although Mitry is biased towards cinema as art and as a creative process (176), he is careful not to follow the traditional pitfalls of signification, but rather sees it as a differentiating element specific to cinema: 'Whereas the aim of the classical arts is to signify movement through an absence of movement, life through an absence of life, the responsibility of the cinema is to express life through life itself. It begins where the others leave off, and it therefore remains unaffected by all their rules and principles.' (379)

 

Mitry's writing style and frequent shifts between film history, aesthetics, and psychology, supplemented with lengthy digressions, do not make for an easy reading. _The Aesthetics and Psychology of the Cinema_ is a demanding and often frustrating text. One critic wrote about the original French edition: 'descriptive statements, historical statements, critical judgements and experimental data respond to the needs of the immediate argument, often at the expense of greater logic and clarity. Mitry's lack of expositional rigor is typical of a long tradition of intuitive, eclectic studies of the 'cinema in general'.' [8] The English language edition of Mitry's has not improved significantly in this respect, despite the process of condensing, editing, and translating.

 

If we assume that the use of basic film terms had been standardized by the 1960s, the reader of Mitry's book cannot be always assured of that. For example, a shot for him can only be from a single point of view (62). This certainly complicates our understanding of shots taken with a mobile camera where the point of view changes with each frame. Similarly ambiguous is Mitry's understanding of a long take as a chain of shots 'edited in camera' (64). Mitry's questioning of the term 'shot', instead of dealing with the changing nature of the shot brought about by technology, is one of many examples that show his theory to be deeply rooted in silent cinema. This is clearly evident not only from Mitry's use of cinematic examples but also from the structure of the book. He certainly has more to say about the image track than the soundtrack of the movies. Although present in the book, soundtrack seems to occupy for Mitry a supportive function in the overall design of a film. He talks about images, montage, movement, rhythm, time and space, and, although he often uses musical analogies, they recall the writings of the French impressionist theoreticians of the 1920s with their search for 'pure cinema' rather than an effort to unite the visual and aural stimuli into a single aesthetic experience.

 

If we consider a film theory as a generalized, systematic explanation of the nature, forms, and functions of film, then Mitry's theory does not score high on explanatory strengths. In the tradition of phenomenology Mitry is more interested in describing phenomena rather than explaining them. In the same tradition Mitry's theory is diachronic, as the author is more interested in tracing the origins and historical developments of film devices rather than presenting a system of interrelations and significations. Not that he isn't interested in the latter, but simply that his priorities and overall design tend to favour the phenomenological bent. It is also one of the reasons why Mitry's quest cannot be easily summarized or pigeonholed, as I suggested at the beginning. In the phenomenological tradition Mitry embraces art over rhetoric, or the expression model over the communication model.

 

In this reviewer's opinion a few details should have required more careful attention from the editor. For some reason Mitry's original bibliography has been omitted. As a result we have only partial or nonexistent bibliographic references to works quoted by the author. As I have already mentioned, the value of the this book for today's reader resides in the rich and diverse sources utilized or consulted by the author. With partial titles of books, missing dates of publication, not to mention the lack of pagination, the access to these sources is made very difficult. The book also contains several factual errors for which Mitry and the translator are equally responsible. For example, the name of actress Aleksandra Khokhlova is given as Anna (100), the real name of Dziga Vertov is given as Yuri instead of Denis Kaufman (382 n1). Furthermore, the French spelling of some names has been preserved instead of recognizable and accepted English forms.

 

Overall Athlone Press needs to be commended for putting out this major, though often overlooked, work in film theory. The result is an elegant and pleasing volume that will lend Mitry's ideas a second life. Because of the renewed interest in phenomenological theories of film in Anglo-American film studies [9] the book should quickly become a standard reference work.

 

University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. _The Aesthetics and Psychology of the Cinema_ is a translation of an abridged version of the French original with cuts suggested or approved by Mitry.

 

2. Noel Carroll's terms, used in his _Philosophical Problems of Classical Film Theory_.

 

3. Ibid., p. 177.

 

4. Andrew, _Concepts in Film Theory_, p. 134.

 

5. Ibid., p. 12.

 

6. Andrew, _The Major Film Theories_, p. 189.

 

7. Carroll, _Philosophical Problems of Classical Film Theory_, p. 212.

 

8. Lewis, _Jean Mitry and the Aesthetics of the Cinema_, p. 31.

 

9. See, for example, Kevin Sweeney's article 'The Persistence of Vision: The Re-Emergence of Phenomenological Theories of Film'.

 

 

Bibliography

 

J. Dudley Andrew, _The Major Film Theories_ (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976).

--- _Concepts in Film Theory_ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984).

 

Noel Carroll, _Philosophical Problems of Classical Film Theory_ (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988).

 

Brian Lewis, _Jean Mitry and the Aesthetics of the Cinema_ (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1984).

 

Jean Mitry, _Esthetique et psychologie du cinema 1: Les Structures_ (Paris: Editions Universitaires, 1963).

--- _Esthetique et psychologie du cinema 2: Les Formes_ (Paris: Editions Universitaires, 1965).

 

V. F. Perkins, _Film as Film: Understanding and Judging Movies_ (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1972).

 

Kevin W. Sweeney, 'The Persistence of Vision: The Re-Emergence of Phenomenological Theories of Film', _Film and Philosophy_, vol. 1, 1994; online at <http://www.hanover.edu/philos/film/vol_01/sweeney.htm>.

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1999

 

Bohdan Y. Nebesio, 'How to Account for Cinematic Experience?',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 35, August 1999 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol3-1999/n35nebesio>.

 

  

 

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