During the last century, film studies underwent many considerable changes. Theorists developed their statements, introduced new approaches, and promoted debates to understand the role of the film industry in human life. In the 1900s, theorists were divided into formalists and realists with their intentions to prove the connection between film and reality. The discussion offered by Rudolph Arnheim touched upon the relation between the chosen concepts. The author stated that, compared to art (painting, in particular), film and photography could not be defined as merely mechanical reproductions (Arnheim 8). Even the absence of sound in silent movies cannot be the reason for diminishing the worth of films in their possibility to reproduce reality. For example, Blackmail by Hitchcock shows that both silent and sound versions can be beautiful and real. In their turn, Russian filmmakers did not believe in the necessity of sound innovation but considered “its significance to unprecedented power and cultural height” (Eisenstein et al. 259). The attitudes of Arnheim and Russian theorists towards reality and film may vary, but no one can deny the fact that Hitchcock’s reproductions are strong either in silent or sound versions.
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Relation Between Film and Reality
The film is a unique artistic experiment with a number of goals being set and specific results being achieved. In his discussion, Arnheim referred to educated people who said that it is wrong to define film as art as it “does nothing but reproduce reality mechanically” (8). An understanding of the nature of art is not an easy process, and it is expected to investigate the basic elements of film making and compare them with the corresponding real characteristics. As well as many realists, Arnheim labeled certain fundamentals like the reduction of depth, the presence or absence of color, size changes, or space-time continuums help to reveal the relation between film and reality.
There are many controversies in the arguments presented by Arnheim. However, all of them prove how complex and unpredictable the way of real representation in films could be. For example, Arnheim compared two-dimensional and three-dimensional images and stated that being plane and solid at once, the effect of the film is somewhere between the offered dimensions (12). What a person sees on the screen may considerably differ from what happens in reality in terms of the chosen size or shape. The film picture might resemble reality in case lighting is properly chosen (Arnheim 15). However, ordinary people cannot ignore the fact that modern methods and film techniques are used to improve the image quality or worsen it to some degree in order to cause necessary emotions. Another remark of Arnheim is based on the unlimited and infinite visual fields of a person (17). When a director decides on the distance between a camera and an object, he or she influences a final image that is observed. In this case, the relation between film and reality is close with the only difference in how people or subjects are represented.
Finally, the relation between film and reality may be challenged because of the space-time continuum. Arnheim introduced a clear idea that, compared to reality or theater, the film may “take far greater liberties with space and time” (24). In movies, montage or other methods are used to shorten some processes or slow down motions with the purpose of underlining the importance of a particular action. Actors demonstrate extraordinary skills like running on walls, jumping extremely high, or beating each other with impressive power. In reality, people can hardly control time and space and have to live in accordance with the already established natural rules.
Following the above-mentioned examples, a number of fundamental differences between film and reality are defined. Real people are not able to move fast, change their locations, and moving subjects. Film deviation from reality is an expected outcome of creating new feelings and attitudes. The skills of film people (characters) depend on the screen and the talent of a screenwriter to develop evens. Still, there is a need for filmmakers to add real qualities, images, and actions so that characters do what they have to do in real life (Arnheim 24). Therefore, despite the existing differences, the reality in the film is an obligatory requirement that arouses the desire to watch, compare, or use behaviors, words, and traits as examples.
The Question of Sound in Arnheim’s Arguments
In addition to visual senses that determine the relation between film and reality, auditory sensitivity has to be mentioned. Arnheim treats the question of sound as if it is an important aspect of filmmaking, but its absence does not change the essence of the movie. The lack of sound is not “an unpleasant violation of the illusion” because “to get a full impression it is not necessary for it to be complete in the naturalistic sense” (Arnheim 33). To understand the idea developed by Arnheim, one should draw an invisible distinction line between what people can do and can observe. In silent movies, viewers do not lose their abilities to hear or speak. They have access to a product with its unique characteristics and people who complete their tasks. While watching a silent movie, one may use imagination and promote sounds, smells, and touches in their minds. There are no restrictions and limitations but a definite image with real people and events.
Similar restrictions occur with other senses as well, but people do not consider such projects as poor ones. For example, it is impossible to take a smell of objects and enjoy the chosen aroma (like in the movie Perfume: The Story of a Murder). The sensations of equilibrium and touch can hardly be conveyed in movies, but their creators use the techniques to reproduce the necessary emotions and feelings (Arnheim 34). As a result, people leave movie theaters with goosebumps, tears, or smiles on their faces because of the experiences they managed to get. The success of silent movies, as well as other projects with the lack of sensations, depends on the ability to “make films of occurrences whose central features” are expressed visually (Arnheim 34). As soon as a person understands that a similar scene may occur in real life, all the necessary senses, sounds, and feelings are developed instinctively.
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It seems that Arnheim likes the idea that films are deprived of some integral elements that are inherent to real human life. It turns out to be a great chance for viewers to develop their imagination, to build the necessary aspects of their perception of a story, and to enjoy a movie with its strengths and weaknesses. In other words, the film is real as long as people want it to be.
Eisenstein et al. vs. Arnheim
There are many opinions about the importance of sound in filmmaking, and Russian theorists are the authors of one of the most controversial arguments. Compared to Arnheim, montage pioneers Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Alexandrov explained a sound-film as a possessor of “enormous power to the expression and solution of the most complicated tasks” (259). However, in their statement, the authors seemed to be not aware of the details of sound-recording. They said that the achievements of the U.S.S.R. in the film industry were limited, and montage was the only basic means that brought cinema to its strength (Eisenstein et al. 257). The usage of sound in filmmaking could destroy or at least challenge many montage principles. Still, it is wrong to neglect the fact that the development of the industry is hard to control, and the task of filmmakers is to adapt and learn new approaches.
Defining sound recording as an obligatory improvement of film and reality, Arnheim did not demonstrate fear or doubts about the growth of sound urgency. Eisenstein at al., in their turn, were not able to cope with their emotions and concerns about the inability to control the way of how a film got changed. The authors introduced many attitudes towards film, reality, and new methods within their statement. First, they supported the importance of visual montage and explained how powerful the effect of this technique in regards to people. Then, they underlined that sound-recording was not obligatory but necessary for “satisfying simple curiosity” (Eisenstein et al. 258). The next step of their discussion was the definition of a sound constructing method as “a greater possibility that ever before” to express film ideas (Eisenstein et al. 259). It looked like the authors discover the benefits and shortages of sound along with the reader.
The comparison of the ideas offered by Eisenstein et al. and Arnheim shows that these theorists could not ignore the emergence of sound-recording as a new technique in the middle of the 20th century. Still, Arnheim used the already known experiences to prove the power of film and its relation to reality, and Eisenstein et al. focused on changes associated with sound films. In both discussions, sound is not a negative feature but a possibility to improve movies and provide viewers with new options.
Blackmail Sound and Silent Reproductions
In addition to the theoretical perspectives of viewing film, reality, and sound relations, examples and experiences cannot be ignored. Hitchcock’s movies can be used as evidence to prove the position of Arnheim that sound does not change the quality of a movie if realistic events and people are represented on screen. Blackmail was created during the period when British International Pictures, a production company, succeed in sound conversion. Therefore, it is now possible for viewers to see a silent and sound version of the movie. In the murder scene, Alice tried to protect herself from being raped by Mr. Crewe (Blackmail). On the one hand, it was introduced as a dialogue between the main characters in a sound version and, on the other hand, it was supported by background music in a silent film. It was a test for the public to compare their feelings about vocal and silent movies. After watching both versions, it is still hard to define which one is the best.
Silent movies provoke imagination development and freedom for the public to use the most appropriate words and sounds. Sound films give enough material to understand the context and actions of characters. Blackmail is good in both directions because real relationships, true emotions, and an excellent job of the cast were offered. Sound was proved as not an obligatory factor in determining the relation between film and reality. Its presence did neither worsen nor improve the quality of the story of Alice and Frank. It was a new attempt to demonstrate how progressive and constantly change the film industry could be. Although the sound barrier was broken by Hitchcock, it did not change the attitude towards a properly created silent movie.
Arnheim, as well as Eisenstein et al., developed interesting arguments about the worth of sound in films. The relation between film and reality is not stable, and much depends on how people perceive the message. There is no need to consider film as another form of art because of mechanical reproductions and other montage techniques. At the same time, it is necessary to understand that film is not a real peace of life but a vision of a filmmaker on a particular topic. Sound or other types of sensations do not change the quality of a movie, but their absence or presence may influence the public. To introduce a good impression and achieve success, film should not be created in its naturalistic sense but contain enough elements inherent to real life. It was the position of Arnheim proved by Hitchcock in his Blackmail and supported by the Russian theorists in their own way.
Arnheim, Rudolf. Film as Art. University of California Press, 1957.
Blackmail. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, performances by Anny Ondra, John Longden, and Cyril Ritchard, British International Pictures, 1929.
Eisenstein, Sergei, et al. “A Statement.” Essays in Film Theory: Film Form, edited and translated by Jay Leyda, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977 , pp. 257-260.