April 12, 2008

Re-Enchanting the Screen: Tarkovsky vs. Benjamin

hair slicked back with gel
two spikes in front, two behind
damn wheres the jean-jacket?

The German theorist Walter Benjamin’s 1936 text, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” stands as one of the major analyses of the changing role of art in the 20th century. Discussing the changes that artwork undergoes when easily reproduced, he focuses largely on cinema as the art form only possible when easily manufactured for mass consumption, and as a form that inverts the elitist conception of putting art on a pedestal, requiring people to approach the artwork. As examples, he largely points to directors such as Charlie Chaplin and Sergei Eisenstein—entertainers and propagandists, using the tools of montage to destroy space and time. However, starting in the 1950s, the Art-house film, largely coming from Europe began to question the disposability of film, and attempted to make the screen important on its own. Among the many directors who attempted to mystify film, such as Michelangelo Antonioni, Robert Bresson, Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, and many others, the director that stands out above the rest in his attempts at injecting film with aura, was the Soviet Andrei Tarkovsky. In his writings in “Sculpting in Time,” as well as more importantly in his films such as Andrei Rublev, Stalker, and Nostalghia, he expressed ideas firmly opposed to Walter Benjamin’s concepts of fragmentary and disposable art.
In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin’s main thesis involved the change of how art is appreciated, due to its availability. When there was just one painting, one had to visit the cathedral that housed it. When there are 3 million copies of that painting, all approximately the same, one doesn’t have to go to the cathedral, but instead can see it anywhere. In such a manner, the space component of objects is at first eroded, and then with arts like photography and film, eliminated. When the art form is designed to be uniform across a mass amount of objects, it’s the equivalent of the painting coming to you. This also changes the time commitment an appreciator of art needs to put in—with art that’s owned and easily accessible, people can start and stop looking, change the ways they see it, and see it over and over again. In such a way, the time component of art is shifted, and in some ways rendered moot. Even the creation of films lead to this dismissal of time and space, in which a few seconds of screen time can be filmed over the course of months and in separate continents. Benjamin says of this, that: “nothing more strikingly shows that art has left the realm of the ‘beautiful semblance’ which, so far, had been taken to be the only sphere where art could thrive” (“Work of Art” 232). Each of these films needs appreciation on a mass level, such that: “the critical and the receptive attitudes of the public coincide. The decisive reason for this is that individual reactions are predetermined by the mass audience response they are about to produce” (236).
And, for the most part, this has been the course of film history. ‘critical reaction’ to film has largely consisted of either lengthy recommendations, or as frames to talk about culture in general, ignoring the film itself. Even the intellectual forces flocking around film largely seemed like the French New Wave—giddy film geeks appreciating it on the same level as everyone else, and trying to spread that disposable art. Mainstream cinema has by and large remained a matter of product manufacturing, intent on fleeting instances of shared escape for the audience. But from approximately the late 1950s, through the mid-1970s something shifted, and for a brief period a new trend, of serious, self-conscious film as traditional art appeared. A fairly large group of self-proclaimed cinematic artists appeared: Bergman, Antonioni, Bresson, Kurosawa, Paradjinov, and Tarkovsky. More than any of the rest, Tarkovsky elaborated upon, and explained his world-view, opposed to mass reproduction, whether in his films, or in his book Sculpting in Time, full of maxims opposed in nature to those ideas drawn by Benjamin. As case in point: “Art can never have the interplay of concepts as its ultimate goal. The image is tied to the concrete and the material, yet reaches out along mysterious paths to regions beyond the spirit” (Sculpting in Time). Tarkovsky’s films are full of moments that have no explanation, which cannot be appreciated by a mass audience and an informed on the same level. He reaches for the moments that have no real narrative purpose, instead searching for a mystical moment.
His second feature film Andrei Rublev, opens with a man building and then crashing in a hot air balloon, followed by a slow focus on the horse he has hit by crashing the balloon. Sure, there are symbolic meanings within that sequence, but it is one that exists on its own. The horse never comes up again, and would have no reason to do so. As the horse writhes on the screen for what seems an interminable moment, the audience is forced to focus, not absent-minded like the audience in Benjamin’s conception, but full of question and appreciation of simple, terrifying beauty. As one of the monks says shortly thereafter: “when you know you’ll never see something again, it means something to you.” Which is of course interesting, because one of the components of film that Benjamin highlights, is that of course people can see moments over and over again. But the way Tarkovsky uses this, is by creating strange, ungraspable moments in cinema, one is forced to pay attention each time, and as the projector spools through the film, that moment is lost for good. The audience member can watch the film again, but the moment being sublime, is if anything reconstituted for the viewer, the moment is gone. The film is created, as a whole, discrete object, that exists as long as the light from the projector shines, but once it stops, can never be reconstructed in the same way. Taken outside of its role as simply something to sell popcorn and fill a demand for product, the film on its own becomes something essential in-itself, as it can be exchanged with nothing else.
This trend of attempting to mystify film, may be reactionary in the sense that it seeks to reverse the trend brought on by industrialization, and make film less of a mass form, and more elitist. Yet, there’s something utopian about this that would fit into Benjamin’s semi-Zionist leanings. This is the attempt to create the sublime on Earth, take the mystical and powerful, and bring it to people. If this is reactionary, it reacts not to the increased political potential in this idea, but rather to the danger suggested in Benjamin’s epilogue to “Work of Art.” While citing the rise of fascism and its war machine, he sets forth the idea that: “Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic” (244). Responding to the self-alienation that follows the rigidity of art in the industrialized age, Tarkovsky and his contemporaries attempted to destroy this self-alienating impulse of art. As Tarkovsky puts it, “Eisenstein makes thought into a despot: it leaves no ‘air,’ nothing of that unspoken elusiveness which is perhaps the most captivating quality of all art” (Sculpting in Time). In as many ways as they moved to rid art of its 20th century characteristics, they also sought to inject it with something of a post-revolutionary holiness.

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