A Note on Benjamin’s Filmic Vision

This is an excerpt taken from a longer term paper on “negative representation” in Kant, Nietzsche, and Benjamin. It begins by continuing the discussion of Benjamin’s musings about film:

Benjamin sees this new technology as pushing the limits of our perception and activating truths before unseen and unknown. Like Freudian theory, it penetrates into the surface of reality, revealing “unconscious optics” and “managing to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action” (236). He says that to ask whether or not the artistic forms of mechanical reproduction are an art is meaningless; the real question is how they change our conception of art itself. He writes, “The primary question – whether the very invention of photography had not transformed the entire nature of art – was not raised” (227). The question of the nature of art is also a question of the nature of the subject. Benjamin writes, “[Film] reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject” (236).

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Sexually Depraved Media: Spring Breakers

Much has been said about Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, but most of it has been with regard to the near-naked bodies gyrating in slow motion — the indelible pleasures of being young and going on spring break. Korine usually makes “alternative” cinema featuring unknown actors yet has here opted to cast two young women well known to teenagers and preteens for their various roles in Disney programming. This is not method acting; this is confusing the “real” and “fictional” worlds, an idea integral to the film. The casting itself is a theme that runs throughout (with “actors” who actually just play themselves), as are the accumulation of large breasts and tone bodies, a staple of MTV’s spring break programming. They are bodies as cultural reference, as coded image — yet, also, paradoxically, as dangerous and murderous. They are not merely vessels of sexual desire but they kill, too.

The unlikely pairing of white, pretty, youthful college girls and a white, drug-dealing, thirty year-old gangster is one of the punch lines. The thug, Alien (played by James Franco, the only one really acting here), tells the girls in revelation, “Ya’ll are my soul mates.” On seeming opposing ends of some social spectrum, the two are of the same metal, of the same ruthless, violent, nihilist, and self-parodying material. They are players in a Disney World gone wild, Baudrillard’s vision mapped onto the lustful, aimless young.

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The Triumph of the Media Artist: Girls wins (over) Richard Brody

Following in the path set by FX’s Louie, HBO began airing the auteur series Girls, created by and starring Lena Dunham, who also writes and directs most episodes. It was this show that moved The New Yorker film critic Richard Brody to try his hand at television reviewing. Brody, who has dedicated much of his career to studying and writing about the films of Jean-Luc Godard (one of the forerunners of auteur theory and the 1960s film movement the French New Wave), claims to have been drawn to the series because its creator is a filmmaker. She had written, directed, and starred in Tiny Furniture, her debut and only film to date. Thus, for Brody it is okay to like Girls, because it is a filmmaker’s work disguised as television. This is a rather absurd perspective, firstly because Dunham had been creating short videos and web series since her early days as a media artist. I say “media artist” because, at this point, it seems moot to say filmmaker. She is not making “films” (few filmmakers are anymore); she is making media.

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Chris Marker and Media Awakenings

A woman, seen – or imagined – by a man who loves her, lies still in bed. It is a photograph, after a series of many photographs that tell a science fiction tale in Chris Marker’s La Jetée. This is a film that only announces itself as such at this moment, when she suddenly opens her eyes with the sun lighting her awakening face. After several super-impositions that speed up the transition between the individual photographs, the film beautifully, slowly, and methodically introduces its medium – the filmic 24 frames per second appears. What leads up to and follows this moment is also a film – composed of photographic stills yet discontinuous ones that each appears for at least a second. However, it is during these particular eerie, beautiful series of seconds that the film celebrates the medium and its materiality – the power of movement and stillness alike, the way in which photography brings film to life while film sets photography free.

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Anticipating New Forms: Benjamin and Duchamp

To be able to best adequately explain his ideas, Plato (through the “character” of the real-life Socrates) often relies on allegories, myths, and representative depictions. The Allegory of the Cave is one such illustration invoked to show the relative, alternately deceiving and revelatory quality of perception. As the story goes, at first believing in the reality of what is but only the projection of shadows against a cave wall, man begins his venture into the truth by simply turning his head towards the fire, thus seeing for the first time the source of the lying pictures. He next exits the cave, his sight becoming more and more accustomed to the sunlight and with each passing moment delving further into the truth. Yet the enlightened – philosophical – man must return to the cave, for he will now see things for what they are and thus be better able to educate his fellow men. Enlightenment requires not proximity but rather distance or looking away before turning back to see again, this time more clearly.

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The Television and Film Wars

Superficially, one could distinguish between film and television by the way they are presented to an audience. The film spectator sits in a movie theater while the television spectator before his or her home television screen. With DVDs, computers, and TV film programming, this difference becomes null, with the slight current exception (soon to be void, I think) that television series are not watched in a cinema. Today, of course, one need not ever step into a theater or buy a TV in order to watch movies or television. But there is still a distinction being made. Television programs are delivered in series, with a different “episode” airing every week and multiple “seasons” of that series airing roughly every year. A film is released once, is normally between 90 and 200 minutes (with longer films being close to three hours), and is typically watched all the way through the first time.

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