Monday, 9 May 2011

Why they fear Film Theory?

Originally Published in the Viewpoint

In the academic realm of blood stricken Pakistan, film studies have begun to emerge slowly. Partly because of the rising trend of private media (which proudly calls itself a ‘revolution’), partly because of the efforts of many old art academics and partly because of our film-going culture, film studies are becoming a part of our educational curriculum. The institutions offering film courses are usually equipped with latest high-definition equipment for production and post-production. They’ve got outstanding technicians to train students and many young kids – who can afford these film schools – are realizing that they wanted to become ‘directors since childhood’! Artistic ambiance, updates on latest technology, jargon – that’s all these ‘art’ schools offer. That results in film graduates who continue with family businesses afterwards. Others start looking for jobs in private sector. "There’s not much out there you know. So I’ll be studying Business Management now", conceded a fresh film graduate. 
What do you think is missing, that even after studying a medium for more than four years, the students can’t relate to that? Even if they do so, they come up with pretentious attempts of petty creativity. That’s because they’ve never been trained to see film as social practice! 
The most of these elitist institutions lack an essential and the most crucial aspect of film studies- the theory of film. In these schools, film theory is usually messed up with film history in general with a brief overview of its origins and important inventions. Speaking of history, we know how all the widely ‘accepted history’ continues the post-colonial and imperialist legacy. Likewise, the film ‘history’ starts from D.W. Griffith’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’ – an extremely racist American film of 1915 – and ends at ‘Pulp Fiction’ – a 1994 (again) American film romanticizing sex, drugs and violence, usually considered as a landmark of ‘pop-culture’ and ‘post-modernism’ which has become the globally appreciated tendency in arts since the official declaration of the ‘end of history.’

The question arises here that why on earth is academia so uneasy with film theory? The answer is simple. Film theory is closely affiliated with an ideology– which has been nastily opposed by all the advocates of traditionalist intelligentsia, religion, free-market and ‘liberal arts’ – the ideology of Marxism. It relates film to an element – academia has always been uncomfortable with– the question of class and it originated and developed in a land – historians are so biased about – the Soviet Union!

Logo of Mosfilm, Soviet Union, one of the oldest film companies in world

Film theory arose from the scientific and philosophical doctrine of Marxism. It is not a coincidence that the early and most important film theorists and filmmakers were active Marxists who emerged in the newly formed Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. They not merely saw film as a catalyst of social change, but also innovated highly avant-garde formal techniques. In the decade of 1920s, when film as medium was hardly 24 years old, the world started witnessing socially relevant, intellectually innovative and aesthetically rich films that shaped the future of the world cinema. Lenin declared cinema as "the most important of all art forms" and the world’s first ever film school was set up in Moscow. Lenin thought that cinema's role to communicate through imagery had an innately democratizing aspect, one crucial to the Soviet Union's numerous ethnicities and languages. These films were proletarian in content and realistic yet so experimental in form. The earlier Soviet cinema was the most avant-garde in the world and became a foundation of artistic modernism. Let’s just briefly look at the cinematic contributions of the three Soviet film theorists and directors, who agreed on the ideological role of film but were different in their approach towards form. Lev Kuleshov, whose "Keleshov efefct" emphasized the importance of film editing for the first time in cinema, by demonstrating how the interrelationship of shots affect the consciousness of viewers. His most precious contribution, more precisely, is known as Montage in filmmaking. In an article in 1917, Kuleshov wrote, "to make a picture the director must compose the separate filmed fragments, disordered and disjointed, into a single whole and juxtapose these separate fragments into a more advantageous, integral and rhythmical sequence, just as a child constructs a whole word or phrase from separate scattered blocks of letters." He concluded his theory of cinematic montage "Montage is to cinema what colour composition is to painting or a harmonic sequence of sounds is to music."
While Kuleshov believed in harmonizing the narrative and mis-en-scene by creating unification in shots, his contemporary Sergei Eisenstein differed and pioneered one of the most philosophical film theories ever, the Soviet Montage Theory. His idea of film editing was based on dialectical approach, that differed from the linear continuity editing style of the Western cinema. Unlike Kuleshov, he argued that images should "collide" rather than merely be "merged". Eisenstien introduced the Hegelian and Marxian concepts of Dialectics into the film form, where a shot (thesis) collide with another shot (anti-thesis) and form a new meaning (synthesis), an idea he borrowed from Marx that in any society the class oppression (thesis) collides with the oppressed workers (anti-thesis) resulting into revolution (synthesis). His dialectical approach can be seen in the Odessa Steps sequence of ‘The Battleship Potemkin – the most studied scene ever in film history – where the oppressed masses as thesis are shown in an intense parallel cutting with the Tsarist troops as anti-thesis. The ultimate synthesis is the consciousness and awakening of the spectators.

"The film drama is the Opium of the people…down with Bourgeois fairy-tale scenarios…long live life as it is!" said another radical film theorist and documentarian, Dziga Vertov, whose influences continue in documentary filmmaking in the form of techniques like cinema verite. Vertov theorized the primacy of the camera’s lens (the ‘Kino-Eye’) over the human eye. He clearly saw it as some kind of innocent machine that could record without bias or superfluous aesthetic considerations (as its human operator) the world as it really was. His theory and method emphasized the importance of realism. In the manifesto of his school of thought, known as Cine-Eye, he wrote,
"We invite you
From the sweet embraces of the romance,
From the poison of the psychological thriller,
From the clutches of the theatre of adultery,
Into the open, into the four dimensional space,
In search of our own material, metre and rhythm…"

And so the very material, metre and rhythm of the Soviet film theorists, that has inspired and shaped the medium of cinema owing to its strong theoretical but very social foundations, keep haunting the liberal art academics of our time who viciously use the mere term of ‘propaganda’ for the most creative spectrum of the 20th century.

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