Réné Clair

French director René Clair (1898-1981) dubbed Georges Méliès the creator of “the fiction film and the film of poetic freedom” in order to distinguish him from Louis Lumière, whom Clair considered the “forerunner of the realistic cinema.” Writing in 1970, Clair was echoing an oft-repeated maxim about the evolution of film aesthetics. One textbook, for example, tells us that

the most elemental dichotomy of film aesthetics is that between the early films of the Lumière brothers . . . and Georges Méliès. The Lumières had come to film through photography. They saw in the new invention a magnificent opportunity to reproduce reality, and their most effective films simply captured events. . . . These were simple yet striking proto-films. They told no story, but they reproduced a place, time, and atmosphere so effectively that audiences paid eagerly to view the phenomena. On the other hand, Méliès, a stage magician, saw immediately the film’s ability to change reality—to produce striking fantasies. . . . Significantly, many of Méliès’ films had the words “nightmare” or “dream” in their titles. The dichotomy represented by the contrasting approaches of the Lumières and Méliès is central to film and is repeated through the years in a variety of guises.[1]

A similar proposition had been put forth in 1960 by the German-born American critic Siegfried Kracauer (1889-1966), whose treatise Theory of Film exerted a strong influence on film studies in both England and the United States, in part because it appeared at the precise moment when the serious study of film was emerging as a discipline in the English-speaking academic world.[2] Kracauer argued in retrospect that


             Siegfried Kracauer

Méliès’s tremendous success would seem to indicate that he catered to demands left unsatisfied by [Louis] Lumière’s photographic realism. Lumière appealed to the sense of observation, the curiosity about “nature caught in the act”; Méliès ignored the workings of nature out of the artist’s delight in sheer fantasy.[3]

Unfortunately, Kracauer’s argument undervalues the impact and importance of the films of Louis Lumière. Moreover, it bolsters a theory of the development of the cinema that oversimplifies film history—certainly any film history that looks carefully at the huge variety of documents of which it’s actually composed. In the first place, it seems woefully inaccurate to contend that, even at the dawn of the century, filmgoers were already experiencing “demands left unsatisfied by Lumière’s photographic realism”: although Lumière’s actualités may have been mundanely realistic, audiences at the time certainly found them sufficiently fantastic. In addition, the notion of Lumière’s actualités as “proto-films”—as early technical experiments unencumbered by aesthetic curiosity—also tends to overlook such factors as the care with which their action was visually framed. (See Reading 2.3: “In Theory: The Visual Intuition of Louis Lumière.”)

“An Outspoken Affinity for Unstaged Reality”

Paradoxically, Méliès’ approach to the cinema is in Kracauer’s scheme of things an aberration in the artistic development of film, for Theory of Film is in many ways the quintessentialargument in favor of the cinema as a realist art form. Kracauer contends that cinema is bound to photography by a technology whose inherent properties endow it with

an outspoken affinity for unstaged reality. Pictures which strike us as intrinsically photographic seem intended to render nature in the raw, nature as it exists independently of us. . . . [N]ature is particularly unmanageable if it manifests itself in ephemeral configurations which only the camera is able to capture. . . .

[T]hrough this concern with unstaged reality, photography tends to stress the fortuitous. Random events are the very meat of snapshots. . . . This affinity for the adventitious . . . implies that the medium does not favor pictures which seem to be forced into an ‘obvious compositional pattern.’. . .

[P]hotography [also] tends to suggest endlessness. This follows from its emphasis on fortuitous complexes that represent fragments rather than wholes. A photograph, whether portrait or action picture, is in character only if it precludes the notion of completeness. Its frame marks a provisional limit; its content refers to other contents outside that frame; and its structure denotes something that cannot be encompassed—physical existence.[4]

As for the cinema, its “basic properties are identical with the properties of photography. Film, in other words, is uniquely equipped to record and reveal physical reality and, hence, gravitates toward it.” For Kracauer, “it follows . . . that films may claim aesthetic validity if they build from their basic properties; like photographs, that is, they must record and reveal physical reality.”[5] Only by acknowledging these properties and practicing the principles that follow from them can a filmmaker adopt what Kracauer calls the truly “cinematic approach,” which succeeds by pursuing natural structures rather than imaginative constructs. (See Figure R3.17 [6].)

Realist and Formative Tendencies  

Similarly, the “cinematic approach” can be identified by distinguishing between the two key “tendencies” in both photographic and cinematic aesthetics:

Which brings us back to the Lumière/Méliès “dichotomy”: “If film grows out of photography,” argues Kracauer,

the realistic and formative tendencies must be operative in it also. Is it by sheer accident that the two tendencies manifested themselves side by side immediately after the rise of the medium? As if to encompass the whole range of cinematic endeavors at the outset, each went [to] the limit in exhausting its own possibilities. Their prototypes were Lumière, a strict realist, and Méliès, who gave free rein to his artistic imagination.[9]

Méliès, of course, “ignored the workings of nature out of the artist’s delight in sheer fantasy.”[10] In the films of Lumière, on the other hand,

the crowded streets captured by the stereographic photographs of the late 1850s . . . reappeared on the primitive screen. It was life at its least controllable and most unconscious moments, a jumble of transient, forever dissolving patterns accessible only to the camera. The much-imitated shot of the railway station [Arrivée d’un train à la Ciotat], with its emphasis on the confusion of arrival and departure, effectively illustrated the fortuity of these patterns.[11]

Assertions, Counterassertions, and the Rich Body of Evidence

Theory of Film is a compendium of assertions grounded in a restrictive set of premises about the nature of photography and its hold on the nature of cinema, and it’s hard to confront assertions with anything more effective than counterassertions. But as American critic Dudley Andrew points out, opponents of Kracauer’s conclusions usually take up their strongest positions when they focus on his underlying logic.[12] Perhaps we should object, for instance, to the assertion that “the basic properties [of film] are identical with the properties of photography.” We might even disagree with the assertion that photography—and therefore cinema—has “an outspoken affinity for unstaged reality.” Kracauer, however, not only accepts these premises but goes on to apply to them what he calls “the basic aesthetic principle”: “It may be assumed that the achievements within a particular medium are all the more satisfying aesthetically if they build from the specific properties of that medium.”[13]

Needless to say, we could also argue with this statement. In addition, it does not follow from either the two premises that we isolated above or any other strain in Kracauer’s argument. In fact, when we reject the connection between this third assertion and the first two, we are prompted to question the relationship between the first two. If we are inclined to accept the proposition that there is, as Andrew puts it, “a binding link between the forms of an art and its material,” we will at least gain the advantage of focusing more intently on the “forms” that an art form has in fact taken: in other words, we are more likely to concentrate on describing the evidence rather than making judgments about it, and in so doing, we should realize that even if the “material” of “unstaged reality” somehow binds the forms of the cinema, it does not do so with nearly enough strength to justify Kracauer’s claim about aesthetic satisfaction.

Kracauer, for example, announces that he is concerned with editing, “which serves to establish a meaningful continuity of shots,” only “as a means of implementing—or defying, which amounts to the same—such potentialities of the medium as are in accordance with its substantive characteristics.”[14] Note, conversely, the historical opinion of René Clair, a longtime practitioner of the art form, as he takes his thinking on the matter a step beyond the basic Lumière/Méliès dichotomy that he had originally accepted: “Editing,” he maintains,

permits the eye of the camera to effectuate arbitrary cuts in time and space in a fraction of a second. In the past, Méliès would film tableaux from start to finish as if his lens had replaced a spectator in the theater. Thanks to the first craftsmen who juxtaposed and intercut various scenes or shots taken at different distances, that which had been up to then only photography in motion became the language of cinema {see Figure R3.18 [15]}.

“Dynamizing Space” and “Spatializing Time”


                Erwin Panofsky

In this sense, it seems reasonable to suggest that, in practice, “the language of the cinema” slipped the bonds of its photographic heritage for the simple but very good reason that it was seeking a qualitatively different model for its relationship to its subject matter—a model based not on the objects that inhabit “raw reality,” but rather on the laws that govern our consciousness of objects and the world that we share with them. Contrary to Kracauer, art historian Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968) has argued that “the unique and specific possibilities [of the cinema] can be defined as dynamization of space and, accordingly, spatialization of time”—as the capacity, in other words, to confound, through editing, an audience’s expectation that the continuity of space and time in the concrete work of art must parallel their continuity in the physical world.[16] From this perspective, the cinema developed as it did because it found itself caught up in the same speculations about the working of “time and space” as contemporary physics.

This is, of course, no place to discuss the role of editing as a “basic property” of the cinema (rather than, as Kracauer would have it, a merely “technical property”). Nor is it necessary to decipher the elements of “the language of cinema” in order to substantiate the proposition that no theoretical approach to the cinema has ever been completely persuasive in endowing the medium with absolute aesthetic values of any kind. Here, we should simply point out that, even before the publication of Theory of Film, other critics, notably the French theorist-critic André Bazin (1918-1958), were sketching out principles of the “realistic” film image from points of departure located not far from Kracauer’s. Photography, admits Bazin,


                   André Bazin

has radically affected our psychology of the image. The objective nature of photography confers on it a quality of credibility absent from all other picture-making. In spite of any objections our critical spirit may offer, we are forced to accept as real the existence of the object reproduced, actually re-presented, set before us, that is to say, in time and space. Photography enjoys a certain advantage in virtue of this transference of reality from the thing to its reproduction. . . . The aesthetic qualities of photography are to be sought in its power to lay bare the realities.[17]

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the repercussions of this new way of representing images were most serious for painting, but Bazin argues that, under the auspices of the post-impressionists, especially Paul Cézanne, painters wisely abandoned the desire to engage us in “the existence of the object reproduced.” Instead of seeking realistic analogues in “the illusions of the geometry of perspective,” painters turned to a use of color that denied to their forms any “imitative value. . . . The painting, being confronted in the mechanically reproduced image with a competitor able to reach out beyond baroque resemblance to the very identity of the model, was compelled into the category of object.”

Ironically, then, photography itself encourages us to “admire the painting as a thing in itself whose relation to something in nature has ceased to be the justification for its existence.” It is not necessary to trace in detail the development of the cinema in the era immediately after that of Lumière and Méliès to suggest that it, too, sought its own most viable “category.” The advent of narrative—and, even earlier, of staged spectacles—in the cinema reminds us that it evolved toward this model as a response to its own essential theatrical properties as well as to its essential photographic properties (see Figure R3.19 [18]).

[1] James Monaco, How to Read a Film: The Art, Technology, Language, History and Theory of Film and Media (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1977), p. 233.

[2] See J. Dudley Andrew, The Major Film Theories: An Introduction (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1976), p. 106.

[3] Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1960), p. 32.

[4] Theory of Film, pp. 18-20.

[5] Theory of Film, pp. 28, 37.

[6] For Figure R3.17: Theory of Film, pp. 32-33.

[7] Theory of Film, p. 5.

[8] Theory of Film, pp. 6, 7, 35.

[9] Theory of Film, p. 30.

[10] Theory of Film, p. 32.

[11] Theory of Film, p. 31.

[12] See The Major Film Theories, pp. 129-33.

[13] Theory of Film, p. 12.

[14] Theory of Film, p. 29.

[15] Cinema Yesterday and Today, trans. Stanley Appelbaum, ed. R.C. Dale (New York: Dover, 1972), p. 147. For
Figure R3.18: Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant Garde in France, 1885 to World War I, rev. ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 1968), p. 170; “‘Clair,’ René,” in World Film Directors. Volume I. 1890-1945, ed. John Wakeman (New York: H.W. Wilson, 1987), p. 132; Allen Thiher, “From Entr’acte to A Nous la liberté: René Clair and the Order of Farce,” in The Cinematic Muse: Critical Studies in the History of French Cinema (Columbia and London: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1979), pp. 66-68; Clair, “By Way of an Epigraph,” in Cinema Yesterday and Today, p. 13.

[16] “Style and Medium in the Motion Pictures” (1934), in Film: An Anthology, ed. Daniel Talbot (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1959), p. 18.

[17] See “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” (1945), in What Is Cinema?, ed. and trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1967), pp. 9-16.

[18] For Figure R3.19: Bazin, “The French Renoir” (1952), in Bazin, Jean Renoir, ed. François Truffaut, trans. W.W. Halsey II and William H. Simon (1973; rpt. New York: Delta, 1974), pp. 85-86; Bazin, “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema” (1950-55), in What Is Cinema?, p. 34; Andrew, The Major Film Theories, pp. 158-59.

Back to top

Back to CHAPTER 3/Part 2