January 30, 2007

Distraction as Reception/ Perception

Discussing the manner in which spectators “absorb� film into themselves, their seemingly passive reception of film, Benjamin invokes architecture. “Buildings� he tells us in “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Reproducibility,� “are received in a twofold manner: by use and by perception. Or, better: tactilely and optically� (120). B proceeds to privilege tactile reception, which he links to habit, indicating that tactile perception (and therefore habit) “largely determines� how we see buildings, how we understand their place in our world. Film, B argues, functions like architecture. The spectator, though distracted, forms habits as a result of her engagement with film. This shapes both how the spectator sees film and how the spectator understands film’s role. But more than this, film trains the spectator in a particular manner of seeing. Film helps make the spectator receptive in distraction. Thus, film opens itself up to distinctly political uses.

Kracauer pursues a similar train of thought, laying out its political implications, in his (earlier) essay “Cult of Distraction.� He claims that in distraction “the audience encounters itself; its own reality is revealed in the fragmented sequence of splendid sense impressions. Were this reality to remain hidden from the viewers, they could neither attack nor change it; its disclosure in distraction is therefore of moral significance� (326). But, he goes on to say, “this is only the case if distraction is not an end in itself� (326). Distraction, K suggests, can either mask disintegration, which distraction through film is particularly likely to do when it presents a false unity, when film aspires to be like theater, or it can expose disintegration. Now, if aiming for unity masks disintegration, aiming for something more openly fragmentary may well serve to expose that disintegration. Enter montage?

Howard Eiland suggests just that, in his essay “Reception in Distraction�: “Kracauer does not himself use the term montage in connection with the revue form that occasions a positive idea of distraction. But we have only to recall the references to "music hall and circus" in Sergei Eisenstein's discussion of the "montage of attractions" to grasp the pertinence of the term here� (58). Montage, for Eisenstein, presents a means of mobilizing the masses; montage operates as a political tool. If we can read in montage the realization of Benjamin and Kracauer’s theorizations of distraction, then distraction, for B and K, is not properly opposed to attention. Rather, as Eiland points out, “The opposition now would seem to be between mere distraction and, shall we say, productive distraction—between distraction as a skewing of attention, or as abandonment to diversion, and distraction as a spur to new ways of perceiving� (60).

January 15, 2007

Hugo Munsterberg

The development of film as an artistic medium is, for Munsterberg, clearly linked to the capacity of film to reach a broad audience (2). This connection is particularly interesting given M's admission that the technologies which helped film reach that broad audience were the result of intellectual and academic work hardly intended to serve the aim of audience amusement (5).

M argues for film as something more than a poor copy of theater, and to this end he relies heavily on the technical innovations possible with film, the way in which film can manipulate time and space (time-lapse photography, the close-up, etc) (11-13).

Of particular interest to M are the psychological processes which occur as an audience views a film, the state of mind of the viewer, the mental work the viewer does. M stresses the viewer's perception of depth and movement, both problematic as the film cannot really represent either. As M notes, the perception of movement and depth cannot be understood through reference to film itself. Rather, "a characteristic content of consciousness must be added to such a series of visual impressions" (26). More to the point, M notes: "Depth and movement alike come to us in the moving picture world, not as hard facts but as a mixture of fact and symbol. They are present and yet they are not in the things. We invest the impressions with them" (30).

Attention, memory, imagination, and emotion are all, according to M, both mirrored by film and directed by it (through the use of the close-up and the manipulation of space, flashback and the manipulation of time, etc). This means, for M, that film overcomes "the forms of the outer world, namely space, time, and causality" and adjusts "the events to the forms of the inner world, namely attention, memory, imagination, and emotion" (74). This it does for the purpose of telling the human story with the complete unity of art.

Film, then, moves us away from physical reality (because we are forced to recognize its constructedness at every turn, because we can't help but see the screen) and moves us toward the mental world (75). What this seems to mean, for M at least, and here we're back to his focus on audience, is that film, more than other art forms,can act on the minds of audiences. M refers to this aspect of film primarily in terms of the dangers of "low" films (which he, to some degree, dismisses) and the possibility, made available through higher order films, of "remolding and upbuilding the national soul" (96). Film, through its unique interaction with the mind (and perhaps because of its physical requirements--the audience's "suggestibility during those hours in the dark house") requires special attention both as an art form and as a cultural phenomenon.