The book of ‘The Film’, part 2

5th February 2013

I posted yesterday about my discovery of the remarkable book The Film: Its Economic, Social and Artistic Problems, which published in English by The Focal Press in 1948. Do take a look at that blog for an introduction to the volume, and allow me to return to it here to highlight two strands that I find of particular interest. One its its unabashed Marxist analysis of the woes of the film industry, illustrated with wonderful diagrams of monopoly capitalism in action (a detail of one is above). The other line of thought that chimes with much that I am thinking about in current productions is concerned with the distinctions between Film (which is often capitalised in the book and regarded as essentially monolithic) and Theatre (ditto).

The film (if it’s not capitalised it is preceded by the definite article)… ‘The film is not theatre,’ The Film states on the left-hand page of lay-out 2. ‘The theatre has its principles; the film has its principles.’ And indeed much of the book is concerned with determining the specific principles of cinema, which is understood as a pictorial art and one to which ‘montage’ is fundamental. This latter idea had been developed by the Soviet theorist and filmmaker Pudovkin, and his influence can be recognised throughout The Film. ‘A well-acted and well-photographed film is not by this alone a good film. It is the montage that completes the film.’ (rhp. 42)

As for theatre…

The theatre-goer always remains emotionally outside the stage action to a certain degree, while the film-goer is alternately involved and excluded by the motion picture drama; he stands in the midst of the action and is repeatedly forced to change his viewpoint. He has not time to be aware of the distance between himself and the action on the screen. The suggestive power of the theatre seldom goes so far as to blot out completely the distance between the spectator and the stage; for the theatre-goer the distance between from the stage action remains, assuring objectivity in the guarantee of artistic experience. The film-goer is hardly able to consider the film objectively, that is to keep it away from himself – he experiences it as (photographed) reality. Therein lies the enormous suggestive power of the film, but therein also lies its enormous artistic danger.

Such thoughts are both intriguing and (we would say) wrong-headed, but I find it fascinating to glimpse how the two art forms were understood by the authors at this moment. They illustrate their ideas with a ‘Film and Theatre’ page that has a scene from a Basel production of The Weavers by Gerhart Hauptmann to the left and photos by Hans Richter, reproduced at a tiny scale, to the right.

Film + Theatre

Considering the economics of motion picture production, The Film begins its analysis by lamenting that the movie goer has no idea of how film financing works. After all, the book says, a producer can ‘dare to use the gigantic production costs as propaganda’:

‘ “This film cost five million dollars!”5,000,000 dollars – it must be a great film.’ If the film-goer knew how much in human principlesand artistic quality had to be sacrificed for this ‘record sum’, it would hardly be possible to use the high costs of production and the high salaries of the stars as publicity any longer.

The Film is packed with ‘facts’ about average production costs and amortization (the number of buyers that it takes to cover what a painting or a theatre production or a film cost to make. Costs have been increasing (length, longer schedules, larger crews, sound, colour) and this means the necessity of films appealing to an international market. It’s a familiar story, no? And the consequences? Well, according to The Film, this could be ‘the spreading of valid human ideas’ but in reality ‘is today predominantly the exploitation of the wishful thinking of the film-goer’.

The problem is the need for very large capital investment, and

The results of the high capitalization of the film industry are: the rapid concentration of invested capital, international interlocking of the great production companies, and an encroachment by the production companies on the previously independent distribution companies and also on the movie theatres.

All of which leads The Film to these remarkable visualisations of the monopoly structure of the cinema industry.

And just to give you a better look at those two diagrams…

The Film concludes this section with a lament

The market risk

limits the artistic freedom

creates fear of the new

leads to standardization of film production.

To which I can only add… plus ca change.

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