Friday, January 05, 2007

The troglodyte takes a tangent: "You had to have been there"

Over at Clusterflock I posted a link to Justin E. H. Smith's essay, "Selected Minor Works: Where Movies Came From," the piece that served as the starting point for this recent post of mine. I didn't link to that post over at Clusterflock, but an idea emerged from the comments there that feels connected to the idea of myth that I discuss there.

There in the comments section there's an exchange between me and Mary Jeys (a fellow Flocker and artist whose work is worth having a look at). Mary resists Smith's claim that no one is making "movies" anymore and lists some exceptions to that claim. I do agree with Mary that if we're talking about movies as movies, Smith's claim is too broad to bear up to scrutiny. But in responding to her, it struck me that something Smith could have talked about but, for whatever reason, did not is that his real subject is the loss of shared spectacle that used to accompany filmgoing but now, beginning with the appearance of television and having reached the height of convenience with Netflix and studio plans to make films available online within a few weeks of their theatrical release, has become seriously degraded as concerns our appreciation of that spectacle. We will still have the common texts of the films--indeed, they are already more readily available than ever before and will only become more so--but with the compensatory loss of the spectacle and accompanying ritual of moviegoing we are losing the sense of those common texts as shared texts: that is, as texts collectively and simultaneously experienced in a common space.

Walter Benjamin's seminal essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," is overtly concerned with the question of what happens to the value of "the original" work of art in an age that can endlessly copy its image. But in his discussion of "aura" he turns to address the question of audience:
Unmistakably, reproduction as offered by picture magazines and newsreels differs from the image seen by the unarmed eye. Uniqueness and permanence are as closely linked in the latter as are transitoriness and reproducibility in the former. To pry an object from its shell, to destroy its aura, is the mark of a perception whose “sense of the universal equality of things” has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction. Thus is manifested in the field of perception what in the theoretical sphere is noticeable in the increasing importance of statistics. The adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality is a process of unlimited scope, as much for thinking as for perception.
Throughout his essay, Benjamin makes very clear that he sees photography and film as the ultimate enemy of art, but I'd like to argue that we can apply his concept of aura to the not-so-old days of moviegoing, in which the only way the vast majority of people could see films was at the moviehouse with hundreds of other people. True, scores of copies of these films had to be made, but the audience desirous of seeing a film more than once had no choice but to go to the moviehouse again, in obedience to its--not the audience's--schedule, and then, when its run ended, would most likely never see that film again. Sure: film can endlessly reproduce images of reality; but surely the aura of film lay to a large extent in the fleeting and arbitrary nature of its exhibition. More: each successive viewing of the same film back in those days would itself have been an irreproducible experience. The individual viewer would notice different things each time, think differently about the same things . . . but just as important would be the different composition of the audience each time.

(Aside: I'm not at all versed in Marxist theory, but it does strike me as odd that Benjamin could not see the potential of film as an artform cheaply and readily available for consumption by the masses that, at its best, could transcend its status as mass-produced commodity. But then again, Benjamin wrote his essay in 1936; Triumph of the Will had been released only the previous year.)

I hope no one understands me to be implying that by using the term "shared text" above I mean that everyone present agrees on the meaning of that text. That which is shared is not meaning but the experience, a communal, collective bearing witness to the film--part of which certainly is, or should be, the just-as-collective hashing out of Meaning. And I think it is here that we can see most clearly the link between film and myth: not as media but as, ideally, collectively-experienced media.

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