Thursday, March 24, 2005

Walter Benjamin and Film

Earlier this month, the New York Times ran an intriguing article titled “Is a Cinema Studies Degree the New M.B.A.?” Written by Elizabeth Van Ness, the article explores the idea that cinema/media is a new form of literacy, a professional language of the future. The article highlights several students who have applied their film school degrees in other realms such as public policy, the military, and other art media. One of the students profiled in the article—one who hoped to do work in the arena of public policy—states, “People endowed with social power and prestige are able to use film and media images to reinforce their power—we need to look to film to grant power to those who are marginalized or currently not represented.”

This quote brought me back to the work of Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), the influential German-Jewish literary critic and philosopher. In my grad school days, we studied one of his seminal essays THE WORK OF ART IN THE AGE OF MECHANICAL REPRODUCTION. Originally published in 1935, this essay explores the impact of photography and film on the traditional world of art. It is a rich and far-ranging work; anyone could go on for days (or spend lots of pages) discussing the various nuances of his ideas. Two things must be noted about Benjamin and this essay: one being that, unlike many of his intellectual contemporaries, he viewed the rise of the film medium as a good thing; and two, that he believed film has the potential to have an enormous positive effect on the common man. Benjamin, a Marxist, advocated for the people to take up the camera and portray themselves, while warning that the “capitalistic exploitation of the film denies consideration to modern man’s legitimate claim to being reproduced. Under these circumstances the film industry is trying hard to spur the interest of the masses through illusion-promoting spectacles and dubious speculations.” (section X). Back in 1994, I wrote this musing in a journal kept for a film history class:

“Both [Russian filmmaker Dziga] Vertov and Benjamin called for the workers to take the camera in hand and represent themselves. The act would be both empowering and subversive. Benjamin warned, however, that the great ‘danger’ of film is becoming a circus of the masses. The popular TV show “America’s Funniest Home Videos” perfectly embodies Benjamin’s fears. “The people” send in their homemade videos, usually of family events peppered with slapstick mishaps, which are aired for all America to see. The studio audience then votes for “the funniest” and the winner receives a cash prize…Can a revolutionary idea retain its dignity and still become popular to the masses? I don’t think so, not in this society.”

What a difference a decade can make! I was wringing my hands, so to speak, over “America’s Funniest Home Videos”! While one can argue that things have gone downhill, with the explosion of “reality TV” competitions, it can also be said there is great promise on the horizon with the rise of new technology—affordable digital cameras, home filmmaking software, etc.—the opening up of alternative outlets for presentation, and the new emphasis on media literacy programs in the schools.

Benjamin’s ideas, I believe, are just as relevant today as they were at the beginning of the 20th century. This site offers a very comprehensive view of Benjamin’s life and work, and includes the full text for The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. This site offers a concise discussion—a sort of Cliff’s Notes—on The Work of Art

Benjamin, a German Jew, committed suicide in 1940, believing that the Nazi’s were closing in on him at his hiding location in Spain. The woman that initially helped Benjamin escape, Lisa Fittko, died earlier this month at the age of 95. Fittko’s obituary, while covering this remarkable woman’s life, fills in the story of Benjamin’s last days.

P.S. Benjamin was a highly quotable writer. This quote has nothing to do with film or The Work of Art…. I just loved it for its wittiness:

"Genuine polemics approach a book as lovingly as a cannibal spices a baby."

A list of Benjamin quotes can be found here.


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