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Improving Passions$

Charles Burnetts

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780748698196

Published to Edinburgh Scholarship Online: September 2018

DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9780748698196.001.0001

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Sentimental Aesthetics and Classical Film Theory

Sentimental Aesthetics and Classical Film Theory

(p.52) Chapter 2 Sentimental Aesthetics and Classical Film Theory
Improving Passions

Charles Burnetts

Edinburgh University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Explores how classical film theorists of the early-to-mid 20th century were able conceive of cinema as a sentimental medium alongside the sociocultural and intellectual backdrop of modernity and modernism respectively. Theory is selected from formalist and realist traditions, both familiar and less well-known texts, using a critical lens attuned to the representation of individual virtue, the face, the sympathetic ‘auteur’, and cinematic pedagogy. Key work by such theorists as Sergei Eisenstein, the writers of 'Close-Up' magazine, André Bazin and Béla Balázs, are examined in terms of a revisionist understanding of modernist emotion and intimacy. Such theory is aligned in turn with sentimental principles introduced in the first chapter; for instance, in relation to the face in close-up (Balázs on Dreyer’s Joan of Arc), ‘sentimental humanism’ (Eisenstein on Dickens), the importance of a virtuous hero or heroine (Balázs’ critique of avant-garde film) and notions of ‘sympathetic’ filmmaking (Bazin on Chaplin and De Sica).

Keywords:   Film Theory, Modernism, Bazin, Eisenstein, Balázs, Close-Up, Humanism, Narrative

Whether understood in terms of the uniquely American unconscious at play in the classical Hollywood vernacular, or the Rousseauian validation of figures untainted by social order, cinema has continuously negotiated the traditions it inherits from the sentimental period, with its own unique set of formal conventions and constraints. A crucial emphasis for what follows below is a thoroughgoing attention to the formal dimensions of the medium within which sentiment has been supposed, at different times, to have been both ubiquitised and utterly dismantled, depending on the governing rubric at hand. Core to these debates rests the place of US culture and Hollywood in the formation of the melodramatic ‘mode’ introduced above, and the complex strands of influence that this may entail. Thus, in his 1943 essay ‘Dickens, Griffith and Film Today’, the Soviet film-maker and theorist Sergei Eisenstein argues:

In order to understand Griffith, one must visualise an America made up of more than visions of speeding automobiles, speeding trains, racing ticker tape, inexorable conveyor belts. One is obliged to comprehend the second side of America – America the traditional, the patriarchal, the provincial. And then you will be considerably less astonished by this link between Griffith and Dickens.

(Eisenstein 1977: 198)

Thus, in the latter stages of his life and career, Eisenstein observes a key division in American culture, two ‘faces of America’ that contribute equally and vitally to the national psyche. ‘Super-Dynamic America’ represents the nation’s pioneering of new technologies as essential components of a fully rationalised modernity, typified by ‘speeding trains’, Griffith’s cinema, and a pervasively kinetic culture.1 ‘Small Town America’ conversely represents the pastoralism, traditionalism, and sentimentality of a nation that hangs back from such visions of the contemporary, one that is more content with established social structures and ensconced in a hegemony of bourgeois, Victorian, middle-class values. Eisenstein poses Charles Dickens and D. W. Griffith as exponents of both the modernity (p.53) and sentimentality of their respective cultures, yet applied to their work, the dynamic ‘parallel action’ of cross-cutting scenes (theorised as a precursor to Soviet-montage) is largely valorised over the sympathetic depiction of liberal bourgeois characters, the unredeemed victimhood of a lower class, and a confused scheme of ‘virtue rewarded’. Griffith’s ‘classical’ style is deemed by Eisenstein both vital to cinema history yet necessarily inferior ideologically. A modernism in cinematic technique is compromised or undermined by a ‘way down East’ attitude of middle-class morals and manners, or what he further down critiques as a ‘sentimental humanism’ (233).

Eisenstein’s valorisation of cinema’s technological dynamism accords in various ways then with a Soviet and modernist project of revolutionary innovation in the service of transforming an unjust bourgeois world. His scepticism towards America’s pastoralism is evident too, for instance, in his allusions to a New York apartment in the same essay, a passage that expands upon his approval of a Western culture that has adopted modern, rationalised technologies over the nostalgic objects of its past. He describes here a ‘good old provincialism … nestling in clusters around fireplaces, furnished with soft grandfather chairs and the lace doilies that shroud the wonders of modern technique: refrigerators, washing-machines, radios’ (197). A clear scepticism is evident here as to the function of these kitsch objects, specifically with regards to their serving any other purpose than to ‘shroud’ the innovations of current technology. Where the refrigerator or washing-machine signify utility and function, the fireplaces and doilies represent the outdated kitsch of people’s private dwellings. While the machines belong in a futurist everywhere, the kitsch objects are rooted in the nostalgic spaces of the past – at best, decorative and, at worst, ideologically corrupting. Revealed here, too, however, is Eisenstein’s uncertainty as to the clear demarcation between these two Americas, to the extent that the ‘provincialism’ of kitsch ominously pervades an apartment in what was regarded as the foremost urbanised city of the world.2 What remains in much of Eisenstein’s writing indeed is a residual fascination with Western culture as a totality, evinced by a recognition that cementing the connection between Dickens and Griffith involves considerations of both their technical innovation along with their place in a historically humanist or liberal tradition.

Eisenstein’s varied and fragmented responses to American culture manifest thus a central tension between the (foreign) intellectual’s disdain for the US cinema’s alleged subordination to commercial priorities, a cult of the star (or individual), and its concomitant aesthetic of sentimentalism, and an infatuated admiration for its films and the big players that he would (p.54) meet while visiting New York and California. This ambivalence on the part of Eisenstein as to cinema’s excessive, conservative, pathetic, or humanist tendencies, is central, I would suggest, to comprehending the sentimental tradition as it persisted in the cinematic age of the early to mid-twentieth century. While early theories of the cinema were closely aligned, as with Eisenstein, with a formalist attention to cinema’s capacity for manipulating reality, the realities of mass audiences who remained in thrall to human stories, characters, and ‘virtue triumphant’ would also be integral to the theoretical models propounded by figures like Eisenstein, Balázs, and Bazin. I suggest indeed that theorisation of cinema’s unique affectivity involved for many theorists a firm understanding of the medium’s negotiation of older traditions and art-forms. Moreover, I argue below that some of the best-known film theorists of that era realised the centrality of melodrama despite considerable adherences to the austere radicalism of the high modernist moment.

A key question in this debate, as in previous eras, concerned thus the role that cinema could or should play in transformations of subjectivity. The sentimental, as in previous centuries, comes to denote a model of spectatorship for a complacent subject or class that resists the radical potentials of art as a device for change, and art’s sometime complicity with such a model. Pathos would be experienced in the reception of sentimental art without any concomitant change in the subject’s moral treatment of the world, the latter assumed as a first priority for any substantive political change. Yet at the crux of such arguments, as we have seen, is a theory that still bestows importance to agency, or more philosophically, free will at the level of the subject. While sentimental art was deemed to allow, or indeed encourage, the subject to feel the pleasures of sympathy or virtue without earning it (that is, without altering consciousness), superior art could transform the subject politically or ethically, prompting him or her to exert a significant influence upon the social sphere within which s/he interacts. The cinema arrives at a moment, however, when this notion itself has come into question as a naïvely ‘humanist’ position. Determining whether a work of art is sentimental becomes redundant if the teleology of an ethical subject is itself inadequate. This problematic of an ethical subject extends to the moral individuals, families, or social groups depicted within the novel, the play, or the film themselves, the idealisation of whom comes to be deemed anachronistic and once again the indulgence of a cosseted middle class.

An important strand of modernism, therefore, posits technology as the only hope for humankind in modernity, where an alienated subject has become an insignificant element operating within larger structures (p.55) of knowledge and power. Only as part of a larger critical mass does the subject recover any significance. The novelty of cinema gives cause for such euphoric exclamations as to its central role to social change – a grand new medium put to the service of a grand narrative of collectivism. A writer like Walter Benjamin in 1927 posits the importance of cinema in its deployment as a ‘collectivist’ technology, in what could be deemed a dry run for his famous Artwork essay of 1935 (Benjamin 1999). He deems nothing less than the technological innovation of film itself a ‘violent fissure’ in ‘art’s development’, a ‘new region of consciousness’ that is revolutionarily autonomous from its application by man, because

the important, elementary moments of progress in art are novelties neither of content nor of form; the revolution in technique precedes both.

(Benjamin 1995: 626)

As a formalist position that equates a paradigm shift in technology with the redemption of the ‘mass’ or ‘proletariat’, Benjamin’s claim necessarily overlooks the individual, either as the creator or the crucial subject of film. The ‘individual’ only becomes significant as a test-case of the larger social and ideological structures that govern his/her behaviour. Apartments or ‘furnished rooms’ also feature significantly in this essay, as in Eisenstein’s above, except here they are not the repositories of new technologies admixed ambiguously with regressive kitsch but the ‘hopelessly sad’ reminders of individual, atomised (bourgeois) existence that need to be ‘exploded’ by the cinema’s reconfiguration of space and time. An ‘old world of incarceration’ is transformed to a technologised utopia of collectivist rationality and freedom. If socialists from the nineteenth century like G. B. Shaw regarded the cinema as a potentially useful vehicle for socialist ideas and themes, Benjamin advances technology itself as the messianic saviour of such aims, excluding man entirely from the project of his own redemption.

And yet, film theory was formulated in a world that seemed far from ready to abandon ‘regions of consciousness’ that had been inherited from long traditions of the sentimental or realist novel, the melodrama, the ‘well-made play’, and the classical Hollywood film. The ascendency of Hollywood clearly attests to the popularity of sentimental tastes, wherein the ‘mass’ could still be addressed as individual subjects with unique experiences, desires, thoughts, and beliefs. Sympathy or empathy with characters (identification) remained a key attraction of a cinema that accentuated what other art-forms had already delivered on a grand scale. The famous montage sequences of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, a film applauded by Benjamin, would be inconceivable without the crucial reaction shots of (p.56) particular individuals, caught up in the joys and agonies of a crushed proletarian uprising. In a similar vein, much as though Benjamin celebrates the destruction of alienated bourgeois existence through the explosive force of cinema, one is moved as much by his description of those atomised, solitary lives as much as by his revolutionary desire for filmic perception to transcend it. One must recognise that at least in a pervasively philosophical sense, sentimentalism is manifest in both cinematic practice and theory. This should lead us to question what the political stakes were of such ruptures within the ‘hopelessly sad’ life of the subject, if the capacity for pathos would be itself exploded in Utopian efforts to efface the subject.

Early British Film Theory: Close-Up

The writers of the early British film journal Close-Up (active from 1927 to 1933) wrote extensively on the cutting edge of cinematic praxis of the period. Unashamedly avant-gardist in their aims, the contributors were preoccupied heavily with questions of form and spectatorship, and advanced a radical aesthetics that in many ways stood in opposition to the mainstream, commercial cinemas of Hollywood and Europe. Mired in clichés and formulae, commercial cinema is aligned in various articles with a sentimentalism that indulges the spectator’s attachments and moral allegiance to characters, as opposed to work that foregrounds formal innovation. A canon comprising Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, G. W. Pabst’s The Joyless Street, and Paul Wegener’s The Student of Prague, among others, is praised by the magazine’s founding editor Kenneth Macpherson as exhibiting ‘pure form, every single attribute of photographic art, miracles to work in tone and tone depths, light, geometry, design, sculpture … pure abstraction all of it’ (see Marcus 2007: 347).

It is often indeed as ‘pure abstraction’ then that cinema promises here to deliver the world in a simplified, legible state. One of Close-Up’s most frequent writers, H. D., writes analogously of the spectator’s ‘inner speech’, a code that resonates with the abstractions of the modernist film in its paring down of reality. Her comparison of film with hieroglyph, as in Eisenstein’s writings in reference to Japanese ideographic writing, outlines cinema’s affinities for juxtaposition and montage in the service of a universal language of cinema. She thus describes the figure of a woman from the Russian film Expiation as ‘a hieroglyph, that spells almost visibly some message of cryptic symbolism. Her gestures are magnificent. If this is Russian, then I am Russian’ (Donald, Friedberg and Marcus 1998: 126). In a way that is ‘psychic, compelling, in a way destructive’ the realism of such imagery is reflected on by H. D. here in terms of a more radical (p.57) identificatory procedure to that offered by a bourgeois aesthetics of the ‘beautiful’ or the picturesque. While commercial cinema was limited by its inclusion, for H. D., of non-essential elements, or the ‘too extraneous underbrush of tangled detail’ (111), she focuses on the cinema as an ideal of ‘artistic restraint’ (113), filtering out all superfluities. Aligning cinema with the simplicity of ‘light’, she argues for a ‘classic’ aesthetic that paradoxically befits modernity through its avoidance of ‘exaggeration’, ‘elaborate material’, or ‘waste’ (112).

Such claims regarding the specificity and purity of cinematic art correspond with the formalist theory of such figures as Rudolph Arnheim, who would also claim virtue for the cinema in its deviance from the subject’s unmediated perception of the world, amidst a suspicion of the cinema’s mimeticism. Arnheim echoes writers like H. D., for instance, when he claims:

There is serious danger that the filmmaker will rest content with such shapeless reproduction. In order that the film artist may create a work of art it is important that he consciously stress the peculiarities of his medium. This, however, should be done in such a manner that the character of the objects represented should not thereby be destroyed but rather strengthened, concentrated, and interpreted.

(Arnheim 1957: 35)

Emphasising a role for cinema that stresses its enhancement or interpretation of reality, Arnheim rehearses a formalist ‘specificity thesis’ as to the unique role that any art-form must play in order to constitute itself as real art.3 With editing, the cinema justifies its claim as art through its manipulation of a reality that arrives at the lens in ‘shapeless’ form, that is, without any as yet artistic design. Reality becomes the raw material that needs to be worked on, much as rock is chipped away at by the sculptor to create a new artistic object.

A ‘shapeless’ modes of representation is thus the target here for various formalist positions of this era, and as with Eisenstein and other Soviets discussed below (some of whose writings were translated and published in Close-Up), Hollywood is positioned as the paradigm of this non-essentialised cinema. Hollywood’s particular rehearsal of clichés inherited from non-cinematic traditions is aligned with the camera’s unfiltered registration of raw reality. The magazine’s chief financial backer and contributor Bryher writes disdainfully, for instance, of a Hollywood that ‘can produce kitsch magnificently but cannot produce art’ (28). She therefore imagines Potemkin’s remake in Hollywood, for instance, in terms of a heroine’s survival through love for an ‘old father-mother-grandparent’, ‘love at first sight’ between hero and heroine, and a marriage that serves as (p.58) a happy ending witnessed by great crowds including ‘children with doves’ (29). Hollywood’s ‘atrocious domestic and wild west dramas’ are similarly dismissed by Macpherson for their recourse to the upbeat and formulaic. Film emerging from the European movements of German Expressionism and Soviet Montage, by contrast, promise something different for these writers. Macpherson describes Expressionism in terms of its ‘curious details, watchfulness, harking at claustrophobia’ (36), aspects of which he aligns with the ‘REAL.’

This universalistic aesthetic, pared-down of sentimentalised cultural particulars, finds a theoretical counterpart for other Close-Up writers in Freud’s theory of dreams. The psychoanalyst Hanns Sachs (who served as analyst for several of the Close-Up contributors and wrote for the journal) theorises commercial cinema as a body of work that largely fails to engage with the unconscious in such direct ways as H. D.’s cinema of ‘restraint’. Sachs thus describes the predictability of the kitsch film’s emotional itinerary as follows:

Owing to the skill with which the distribution of the emotions is anticipated, the public are indeed saved a good deal of worry, including that of choice, but at the same time the free development of the emotions is restricted; the possibility of lifting them by degrees out of the unconscious and letting them have free play is done away with. The process must have the minimum of psychic activity and must never be arrested.

(Donald, Friedberg and Marcus 1998: 266)

Commercial cinema is argued here then to not so much ignore unconscious desire and fantasy but rather inhibits its coming to consciousness. While ‘lifting’ emotions to consciousness requires the ‘development’ or ‘psychic activity’ elicited by the hieroglyphic aesthetic praised by H. D., kitsch keeps the spectator mired in conscious thought despite the possibilities of the film-viewing process. Kitsch comes of a failure to follow Pound’s modernist imperative to ‘make it new’ and instead conveys the same as what already resides in a collective conscious. Deprived of the richness of the visual world by a sentimental gloss, the spectator of kitsch thus maintains (and complacently enjoys) the self-perpetuating emotional models to which he or she is accustomed while remaining unexposed to transformative data.

Aligning the ‘plainly legible signposts’ of the formulaic film with a pandering to the ‘dullest intelligence’ (266), Sachs unfortunately also here signals some of the elitist undercurrents of Close-Up’s aesthetics, and, of course, of high modernist aesthetics more broadly conceived. Anticipating Roland Barthes’ theory of the ‘writerly’ versus ‘readerly’ text, the unconscious is posed by Sachs here as a repository of emotions that require (p.59) ‘development’ through the film’s activation of creative, ‘writerly’ processes. Film fulfils this function by paradoxically becoming what H. D. terms a ‘cryptic symbolism’, requiring a spectator’s ‘intelligence’ in order to decipher meaning.

While Close-Up theory rests therefore on prescriptions for a universally cinematic language, the sentimental film is critiqued somewhat paradoxically on the grounds that it is excessively easy to understand, or too ‘readerly’ in Barthes’ terms. Disturbed by the passivity of cinematic spectatorship at the time, Macpherson elsewhere, for instance, deploys ‘dope’ in relation to commercial cinema’s lack of ‘real consideration of problems, artistic, or sociological’ (326), Emotions are likewise posed as problematic in relation to the creative process of film-viewing, as indicated in Bryher’s praise for Eisenstein’s October:

Perhaps it is because its entire appeal is to the intellect – not to the emotions solely, but to the brain, which is beyond emotion – the super or over-conscious, that is habitually so starved.

(Donald, Friedberg and Marcus 2007: 339)

An intellectual engagement with film is valorised here then as a process that sits almost necessarily in tension with ‘emotions’. The universal language thesis that informs much of this writing privileges a linguistic paradigm of comprehension and cognition over a more affective model. Commercial cinema is critiqued certainly for its own language of virtue and individualism, but implicated too in these critiques is cinema’s excessive reliance on antecedent arts, where melodrama and its sentimental foregrounding of the bourgeois, ethical subject is positioned as a regrettable dominant of mainstream cinema. Cinema’s capacity to resonate with the subject’s ‘inner speech’ is meanwhile positioned as a mode of understanding that must be evacuated of kitsch and the superfluous materials of the everyday.

Eisenstein and Dickens

The Soviet films of the time would be revered above all by the Close-Up milieu because, compared to the commercial cinemas of America, Britain, and other European countries, such films were deemed to foreground the essential properties of cinematic art, in relation to which the spectator is posed as a vital intellectual force. The British Board of Film Classification’s (BBFC’s) strict regulation of Russian cinema in the UK, bitterly opposed by writers like Macpherson and Bryher, revealed in their view the conjoined political biases and philistinism of censor and film industry. Representing for them the best film-makers of the era for their ‘intellectual’ principles (p.60) of film-making, such figures as Eisenstein, Kuleshov, Vertov, or Pudovkin would meanwhile be positioned antithetically to the cinemas of Hollywood and other Western European countries.

Eisenstein’s theory is notable, however, for its nuancing of such nation-based oppositions, as exemplified perhaps by his discussion of ‘pre-logical, sensuous thinking’ in his autobiography (IM 1983: 211). This phrase, used in reference to ‘pre-lingual’ cultures such as the Aztecs or the Toltecs, shows Eisenstein as a thinker who presciently regards film as a medium that communicates in a radically different order to that of the written or spoken word. Both pre-linguistic yet radically infused with meaning, the power of the cinematic image is acknowledged here in terms of its affective as much as analytic dimensions. Of course, Eisenstein’s films, such as The Strike and Battleship Potemkin, are widely understood to have foregrounded ‘montage’ as the basis of an ‘intellectual’ cinema that almost necessarily privileges thought over emotion. Eisenstein’s writing is nevertheless highly nuanced in its approach to sentimental or humanist principles.

Comparisons between Eisenstein and his contemporary Dziga Vertov, for instance, yield some useful insights as to their different aesthetic agendas. While Vertov’s practice demonstrates similar commitments as Eisenstein to editing and poetics, his theory explicitly proclaims the primacy of a realist aesthetic diametrically opposed to bourgeois forms. As a newsreel and documentary film-maker, Vertov coins the term ‘Cine-Eye’ as the chief metaphor for a body of work that aims to depict the ‘life caught unawares’, an aesthetic he would consider opposed to the ‘film-drama’ and the ‘bourgeois fairy-tale scripts’ (1984: 65) of capitalist society. Vertov is quite explicit in his favouring of electricity and machines over human agency, aligning his project with the transformation of a ‘bumbling citizen through the poetry of the machine to the perfect electric man’ (8). With the movie camera serving as a ‘mechanical eye’, a superior reality is outlined here by Vertov, one no longer reliant on the alleged ‘fiction’ or ‘psychologism’ of bourgeois literature and theatre. In the polemical manifesto of 1922, moreover, Vertov invites the reader to ‘flee,’

  • the sweet embraces of the romance
  • the poison of the psychological novel
  • the clutches of the theatre of adultery
  • to turn your back on music

(Vertov 1984: 7)

Insisting that ‘man’ as such falls short of the ‘precision’ of machines (a ‘stopwatch’ is given as example), Vertov advocates man’s temporary exclusion ‘as a subject fit for film’. This logic fuels Vertov’s criticism of (p.61) Eisenstein’s Strike and Battleship Potemkin, which for Vertov represented the continuance of the ‘acted film’ and so remained antithetical to Kinoeye aesthetics (see 58–60).

Despite beginnings in the theatre and his adoption of a notionally narrative cinema, Eisenstein’s montage aesthetics at first consideration conforms to imperatives very much akin to Vertov’s theory, similarly seeking to differentiate the Soviet cinema from its predecessors through the forceful constructions of filmic meaning.4 His critique of the ideology of the individual, for instance, would extend to problematising the valorisation of the ‘star’, not only as hero of the bourgeois drama but also in terms of artistic contributions to the film-making process. In reference to the bourgeois West, Eisenstein would remark that ‘someone has to be the “star.” One person. Yesterday it was the actor. This time let’s say it’s the cameraman. Tomorrow it will be the lighting technician’ (1998: 68). Opposing such systems to Soviet collectivity and equality, Eisenstein here emphasises ‘unity’ as the aesthetic horizon of Soviet montage, whereby the individual heroic character is effaced by the proletarian mass. Applied to film form specifically, the shot is analogously endowed with complete meaning only through its juxtaposition with other shots and cinematic effects. Indeed, at least in Eisenstein’s initial films, it is rare for central protagonists to emerge with which to identify emotionally, as a spectator may have done in relation to linear narratives and focalised protagonists in Hollywood cinema. Eisenstein’s use of ‘montage’ gains authority ostensibly in relation to the formalist celebration of film’s capacity for abstraction and intellect, as with Vertov and other formalist film-makers.

Eisenstein’s examination of D. W. Griffith in ‘Griffith, Dickens and Film Today’ reveals, however, a tension between formalist and what Dudley Andrew terms ‘organicist’ (65) impulses in Eisenstein’s thought. Written in 1944, Eisenstein had already by this point made The General Line (also known as Old and New), Alexander Nevsky, and Ivan the Terrible, all works that saw him compromise with the Socialist Realist School’s demands for character, plot, focalised heroes, and moral legibility, in an effort to assuage charges of formalism from his contemporaries. He thus comes to argue that Griffith inherits a tradition of narrative construction from Dickens that was to be admired both for the evocative characters he creates and for the parallel editing and cross-cutting between scenes. Discussing the scene that sees Oliver Twist leave his well-to-do grandfather’s house on an errand only to be abducted by Nancy, Fagin, and Bill Sykes – Eisenstein analyses the sequence as the narrative switches between the abductors (now with Oliver) and Brownlow as he waits in vain for Oliver’s return. For Eisenstein, the oscillation between ‘storylines’ (p.62) enhances the emotional impact of the narrative overall, whereby ‘one (the waiting gentlemen) emotionally heightens the tension and drama of the other (the capture of Oliver)’. This leads Eisenstein to construct Dickens as cinematic avant la lettre, alluding to the latter’s mastery of melodrama in the novel as a key factor to Griffith’s success in the cinema. Eisenstein accounts for Dickens’ and cinema’s successes as follows:

What were the novels of Dickens for his contemporaries, for his readers? There is one answer: they bore the same relation to them that the film bears to the same strata in our time. They compelled the reader to live with the same passions. They appealed to the same good and sentimental elements as does the film (at least on the surface); they alike shudder before vice, they alike mill the extraordinary, the unusual, the fantastic, from boring, prosaic and everyday existence.

(Eisenstein 1977: 206)

In this passage, Dickens’ employment of ‘parallel action’ inspires the same technique in Griffith’s films and thereby achieves the same levels of success with their respective publics. We see here Eisenstein’s clear recognition of cinema’s melodramatic roots and its evident popularity as mass culture. Yet his qualification ‘at least on the surface’ provides an insight as to how the Dickens/Griffith style is deemed to differ from Soviet montage at least theoretically. For while Eisenstein recognises the popularity of the liberal-humanist aims of representing virtue triumphing over vice, there is a sense to which such aims have become anachronistic or at least limited in relation to the modernist-socialist ambitions for film. Eisenstein thus expresses surprise, in a footnote, that ‘as late as 1944’ Griffith maintained the above aims as the ‘chief social function of filmmaking’ (ibid.).

While melodrama may for Eisenstein have defined the Dickens/Griffith axis of story construction, Eisenstein affirms his own innovations in film technique as serving more explicitly political objectives. While he regards both figures as precursors to the ‘montage’ that inspires him and his Soviet colleagues, Griffith is argued to have reached a ‘standstill’ with ‘parallel action’. Eisenstein furthermore applies this status of standstill to Griffith’s politics. Thus:

In social attitudes Griffith was always a liberal, never departing far from the sweet sentimental humanism of the good old gentlemen and sweet old ladies of Victorian England, just as Dickens loved to picture them. His tender hearted film morals go no higher than a level of Christian accusation of human injustice and nowhere in his film is there sounded a protest against social injustice.

(Eisenstein 1977: 233–4)

Asserting Griffith’s status as an artist of the ‘bourgeois world’, Eisenstein is ambivalent about the pioneer film-maker’s sentimentality, failings he aligns moreover with the racism of Birth of a Nation or the Manichean (p.63) metaphysics of Intolerance. What then follows in the article is a complex discussion of the differences between American and Soviet technique where political ideology is centralised as a determinative factor of cinematic style. He argues that Soviet ideology facilitates ‘qualitative’ innovations in technique that most expressly problematise American pretences at ‘objectivity’. In order to achieve full political expressivity, ‘montage’ is argued here to have required a more ‘full, conscious, completed’ use, entailing above all the shaping of filmic reality as opposed to the passive registration of bourgeois truism. While ‘parallel action’ signifies here the seeds of a more dynamic cinema, it remains mired in a social and aesthetic conservatism, unable to be ‘freed from narrow commercial tasks’. Thus:

Griffith’s cinema does not know this type of montage construction. His close-ups create atmosphere, outline traits of the characters, alternate in dialogues of the leading characters, and close-ups of the chaser and the chased speed up the tempo of the chase. But Griffith at all times remains on the level of representation and objectivity and nowhere does he try through the juxtaposition of shots to shape import and image.

(Eisenstein 1977: 240; emphasis in the original)

In the name of ‘import’ then, Eisenstein advances Soviet montage as a technique that breaks down the bourgeois values sustained by Griffith’s films. A chief binary in this argument is that of ‘rich’ and ‘poor’, a hierarchy that for Eisenstein dictates the formal parameters of Griffith’s approach. While he recognises the centrality of the binary to melodrama, he rejects what he deems Griffith’s ‘dualistic picture of the world’, which, for both him and Dickens, prevent their ‘moving beyond these divisions’. The ‘parallel’ structure is argued to work differently in Soviet cinema, where via the application of Hegelian/Marxist dialectics in shot composition and editing, the meanings of the image are re-synthesised.

Eisenstein’s chief criticisms of Griffith’s cinema come to centre then on the complacency with which the American film-maker uncritically reproduces his world, and thereby evades a more interventionist aesthetics. This, for Eisenstein, defies Marxian imperatives to change history rather than merely understand it. Where Soviet cinema synthesised meaning in accordance with revolutionarily principles, American cinema problematically reproduced the stagnant subjectivities of bourgeois society. In relation to the nexus of ‘Small Town America’ and ‘Super-Dynamic America’, Eisenstein’s attitude is ultimately thus one of caution. The dynamism of the crowds, stock-market, traffic, and skyscrapers of New York are analogised with the ‘dizzying action’ of Griffith’s set pieces and the montage of his own epics. Its embeddedness in American individualist ideology limits it, however, to the addressing of individual destinies (‘human injustice’) (p.64) as opposed to deeper political change (‘social injustice’). Nowhere is this more evident, for instance, than in Eisenstein’s ‘intimate’ description of the (for him) memorable passers-by and ‘bit-characters’ of Griffith’s Intolerance and its marked contrast with his repudiations elsewhere of Hollywood’s ‘star’ ideology. While the star upheld ideologies of individuality, Eisenstein predictably reserves his praise for characters who ‘seem to have run straight from life onto the screen’ (199).

There is clear recognition in Eisenstein’s writing, in other words, that the human constitutes a vital component of cinema despite the imperatives of an impersonal dynamism in form. Much revisionist scholarship on Eisenstein testifies indeed to this complex approach to identification and affect. The critic Peter Wollen notes a tension, for instance, between the constructivist, semiotic montage theory of the early Eisenstein and the Wagnerian ‘synesthesia’ (44) of his later writings.5 Eisenstein uses terms such as ‘ecstasy’, ‘pathos’, and even the ‘pathetic’ in his later writings (Eisenstein 2004: 6–9), while maintaining distinctions between character engagement and ‘action’. ‘If we wish the spectator to experience a maximum emotional upsurge, to send him into ecstasy’, he argues,

we must offer him a suitable ‘formula’ which will eventually excite the desirable emotions in him.

The simple method is to present on the screen a human being in the state of ecstasy, that is, a character who is gripped by some emotion, who is ‘beside himself’.

A more complicated and effective method is the realization of the main condition of a work of pathos – constant qualitative changes in the action – not through the medium of one character, but through the entire environment. In other words, when everything around him is also ‘beside itself’. A classical example of this method is the storm raging in the breast of King Lear and everywhere around him in nature.

(Eisenstein 2004: 7)

If this passage rehearses Eisenstein’s preferred site of cinematic affect as the ‘super-dynamic’ and the ‘environment’, it should also alert us to the distance between Eisenstein’s modernism and the ‘simple method’ of the sentimental. While the latter method of course works with partial success, there is more than a suggestion here that character ‘ecstasy’ must necessarily be accompanied, and is largely justified, by the larger movements captured by film. While a contemporary director such as Steven Spielberg would no doubt agree with such a claim when one considers his investment in the great spectacle of his films, key ideological differences remain between the two film-makers that may account for the sentimental charges made against the latter’s work (discussed in detail in Ch. 5). If the modernist politicism of Eisenstein’s epic work has traditionally removed him from (p.65) such criticisms, this is precisely what is considered lacking in Spielbergian ‘ecstasy’, despite key aesthetic parallels between the two.

André Bazin

For André Bazin, the importance of cinema was to be gauged by the extent to which the medium could capture reality without modification, and the human struggles for freedom captured by the post-war Italian neorealist cinema exemplified the spirit with which such reality should be conveyed. Much of the revered contemporary cinema of Bazin’s day had reached an aesthetic impasse for him, owing to what he deemed a disrespectful distortion of pro-filmic reality in favour of fabricated, ideologically inflected myth, divorced from a more authentic historical reality.6 One kind of cinematic sentimentality for Bazin, as for others, would be implicated in such dissociations between image and reality, the production of the ‘imaginary’ as opposed to the ‘real’. While modernists would generally advocate greater intervention on the part of the medium between these two elements, Bazin notoriously seeks to collapse them. In this respect, Italian neorealism was deemed to deliver the gritty realities of post-war Italian life through an aesthetic that necessarily eliminated the stylistic excesses of Soviet modernism or the overly stylised classicism of Hollywood and French cinemas. However, the virtues of neorealism for Bazin were also bound up with the ‘love’ of the auteur for characters oppressed by harsh social conditions. In as much as a sympathetic engagement with such characters becomes a vital key to the political relevance of these films, a cultural humanism emerges in Bazin’s theory that conflicts with certain high modernist assumptions concerning cinematic spectatorship.

An example of how montage and the sentimental are implicated with one another in Bazin’s theory is manifest in his critique of Jean Tourane’s Une Fée pas comme les autres where live footage of animals is subjected to editing, voiceover, and narrative in the service of anthropomorphised spectacle. While Bazin is careful not to denounce what he considers a human predisposition for the anthropomorphic, he claims that Tourane operates at its ‘lowest level’ owing to his reliance on ‘trick’ and ‘illusion’. A key problem of creating such stories comes down to a question of ontology:

The apparent action and the meaning we attribute to it do not exist, to all intents and purposes, prior to the assembling of the film, not even in the form of fragmented scenes out of which the setups are generally composed. I will go further and say that, in the circumstances, the use of montage was not just one way of making this film, it was the only way.

(Bazin 2005: 44; emphasis in the original)

(p.66) In accordance with his theory concerning the ontological essence of cinema, Bazin proposes here that if a film evidences the distortion of profilmic reality to the extent that it cannot exist without such distortion, such a film constitutes a fatal deviation from reality. He disdainfully affirms elsewhere that Tourane’s ‘naïve ambition’ is to achieve little more than ‘to make Disney pictures with live animals’ (43), suggesting that, as with Disney’s animal characters, a spectator is tricked into anthropomorphic identification by an illusory cinema divorced from reality.

It is worth emphasising here that Bazin’s critique aims not to attack the sentimental spectator but the film-maker who seeks to exploit the former’s capacity for anthropomorphic perception. With the article concerning itself with children’s literature and film generally, Bazin outlines a theory of best practice that necessitates respect for the authenticity of the image while not entirely abandoning basic cinematic devices – the ‘imaginary’ is a cinematic constant, but, for Bazin, it must also ‘include what is real’ (47). Authenticity becomes the guarantee that the spectator is engaged with a reality that lends itself to the spectator’s imaginary even prior to its capture by the camera, with cinema enhancing that process as opposed to creating it through excessive trickery. Unlike the ‘zoomorphism’ (45) of Tourane’s animals, Bazin praises Lamorrisse’s ‘red balloon’ tale, as the story allows itself to remain a ‘pure creation of the mind’ (46). In other words, Bazin claims that the spectator has a predisposition for a sentimental engagement with the image while nevertheless maintaining that its abuse all too often results from cheap simulations of that otherwise imaginative process.

Bazin applies a similar logic to his analysis of neorealism itself, where the sentimental once more pertains to sympathetic and imaginative engagements with ‘realist’ narrative yet remains a danger of cinema’s excessive emotional engagement as a consequence of excessively visible editing style. In this context, Bazin discusses narrative construction in De Sica’s Umberto D. In as much as the film could be argued to use melodramatic conventions, Bazin paraphrases the criticisms of other critics who see the film as a ‘“populist” melodrama with social pretensions’ (1972: 80). However, unlike such critics, Bazin notes the reductiveness of accusations of the film’s sentimentality. He argues that a central concern of their critique rests on how the film’s evocation of ‘pity’ in the spectator arises out of the manipulation of plot developments in relation to an ostensibly pathetic central protagonist (that is, the hero’s unmistakeable suffering is shown to be causally related to mistreatment by cruel antagonists). In as much as the film concerns itself with the protagonist’s loneliness and poverty (a retired, penniless pensioner, and his faithful dog), Bazin agrees (p.67) that the film belongs to a tradition of melodrama. He claims, however, that the film does not accentuate ‘pathos’ for its own sake, preferring instead to convey events in the protagonist’s life, some of which are pitiable (being thrown out of his flat owing to rent arrears) and others that are not (his comic stay in hospital owing to a harmless angina). Thus, for Bazin, the film conveys man’s downfall due to the ‘the lack of fellow-feeling that characterises’ the ‘middle-class’ (81) and succeeds in producing a variety of emotions in the spectator rather than an exclusive ‘pity.’ Bazin counters the critics by applauding the film’s emotional eclecticism – an important attribute of neorealism, and, as we have seen, of melodrama generally.

Bazin goes on to bracket the above discussion (and his own contributions to it) as a ‘lapsing back into traditional critical concepts’ (81), that is, dramatic construction. With narrative and character constituting the two main factors of such analysis, Bazin claims an exclusive attention to the ‘dramatic’ as superfluous to the true aims of Umberto D (and film generally). Thus, he writes:

If one assumes some distance from the story and can still see in it a dramatic patterning, some general development in character, a single general trend in its component events, this is only after the fact. The narrative unit is not the episode, the event, the sudden turn of events, or the character of its protagonists; it is the succession of concrete instants of life, no one of which can be said to be more important than the other, for their ontological equality destroys drama at its very basis.

(Bazin 1972: 81)

Bazin in the above applauds the film not for its plot or its characters then but for the fidelity with which it captures the reality of the depicted events. If the dramatic elements of Umberto D are still manifest to the spectator (or to the critic who is ready to claim sentimentality), Bazin concludes that such attributes, shared with theatrical and novelistic forms, come secondary to the film’s more unique achievement of ‘ontological equality’. This latter attribute has little to do with the construction of story in dramatic terms, and refers more to the success with which the film conveys ‘concrete instants of life’. Whether pity is still evoked by the film becomes a secondary concern, trumped by the necessity of maintaining a style that is unencumbered by the ‘dramatic’ concerns of more conventional narratives. Describing a scene that dwells on the young maid waking up and going about her chores, Bazin asserts that such mundane moments are free of an ‘art of ellipsis’ that ‘organises the facts in accord with the general dramatic direction to which it forces them to submit’ (81). Drama becomes implicated as a simplistic rendering of reality, a ‘construction’ that must be minimised in order that ‘life might in this perfect mirror be visible poetry, be the self into which film finally changes it’ (82).

(p.68) For Bazin, then, it is not so much the emotions generated by ‘drama’ that are attacked but, as with the Tourane’s animated films, the means by which they would be elicited by styles of cinematic rhetoric that deform reality to an excessive level. As Dudley Andrew notes, Bazin’s notorious claim that cinema ‘is also a language’ rests on the notion of what Bazin considers its more significant attribute of indexicality, an attribute deemed distinct from its linguistic function, both in terms of its modernist and Hollywood dialects (2005: 16). While cinema’s linguistic function risks its manipulation by oppressive, repressive, or sentimental ideologies, respect for the indexical reality of the image serves for Bazin as a stylistic priority that defends the medium from the dangers of abstraction. In these respects, Bazin’s realism remains as austere towards dramatic categories as the formalists, still favouring the conveyance of a politically vital reality to the ‘lapsing back’ towards anachronistic forms. Whether the sentimental signifies emotion shown by characters within narrative, or those evoked in spectators becomes a question belonging to another aesthetic debate in relation to media that still rely existentially on abstraction, unlike the cinema.

While the ‘dramatic’ seems repudiated by both camps, therefore, Bazin’s emphasis on the cinema’s photographic ontology leads him to a greater acceptance of sentiment than the formalists. His preference for an unmanipulated pro-filmic reality leaves the affect inherent in such phenomena available to the spectator as long as it stems from a faithful, unimpeded deployment of cinematography. Moreover, more than any of the theorists so far discussed, Bazin’s rhetoric in praise of neorealist films is suffused with references to the sentimental values of their directors. In another article in praise of De Sica, Bazin applauds the ‘love’ and sense of ‘poetry’ evoked by such films as Bicycle Thieves or Miracle in Milan, virtues that he deems constitutive of a proper auteur. Posing a humanism of ‘courtly and discreet gentleness’ or ‘liberal generosity’ (2005: 70) as key to the neorealism of De Sica and other Italian directors, Bazin positions them within a long line of humanist directors that includes Vigo, Flaherty, Renoir, and most especially, Chaplin. All the above, for Bazin, exercise the ‘tenderness’ or ‘sentimental affection’ (72) required of a cinematic auteur. Noting, for instance, that if Chaplin’s work were transposed into cinema, ‘it would tend to lapse into sentimentality’ (72), he nevertheless poses just such aspects of the director’s work as testament to the latter’s artistry and a chief attribute of the cinema itself. Writing of a ‘quality of presence’, the ‘radiation of tenderness’ or ‘an intense sense of the human presence’ in the work of such auteurs, Bazin affirms a distinctly humanist set of elements as crucial to cinematic representation. He confirms most explicitly (p.69) Chaplin’s place in this cinematic sentimental tradition in the following description of the latter’s oeuvre, for instance:

cruelty is not excluded from his world; on the contrary, it has a necessary and dialectic relationship to love, as is evident from Monsieur Verdoux. Charlie is goodness itself, projected onto the world. He is ready to love everything, but the world does not always respond.

(Bazin 1971: 72–3)

While the above clearly confirms Bazin’s approval of a sentimental aesthetic, what remains problematic is how such humanism is posed in relation to Bazin’s more hard-edged notion of neorealism as an abandonment of the contrived, melodramatic tendencies suggested by an ‘art of ellipsis’. A qualified answer can be offered by observing that while such a sentimental aesthetic as ‘virtue in distress’ is made central here, and historicised as an important cinematic tradition, Bazin retains a certain catholicity as to the kinds of emotion that should inspire such work and to those such work should evoke. As with Umberto D, sympathy remains a complex of thoughts and emotions available to auteur and spectator, in contrast to a singular pity for its protagonist. Instead, Bazin advocates a spectatorship characterised by a ‘dialectic’ between subjectivity (feeling ‘love’ for realistic characters) and objectivity (the witnessing ‘cruelty’ as well as its causes and consequences). In a discussion of Antonioni’s Cronaca di un amore, for instance, he notes the film’s ‘expensive sets’ and ‘melodramatic narrative’ but praises the realism of the film’s characters, such that the Italian director:

builds all his effects on their way of life, their way of crying, of walking, of laughing. They are caught in the maze of the plot like laboratory rats being sent through a labyrinth.

(Bazin 1971: 67)

Bazin’s praise here underlines the importance of human emotion to this film, yet also implies an engagement with human behaviour aligned with the realism of scientific observation. Given that ‘crying’ or ‘laughing’ are inevitable manifestations of human emotion captured by the camera, they must not be excluded from the realist film, for such emotions guarantee the authenticity of the human activities represented. In advocating a quasi-scientific model of sympathy, however, Bazin’s neorealism remains a generous and courtly practice that cannot be too emotionally involved with its subjects. For De Sica, too, Bazin commends in the auteur-director a detached kind of sympathy rather than empathy in relation to character:

[B]ut the affection De Sica feels for his creatures is no threat to them, there is nothing threatening or abusive about it. It is courtly and discreet gentleness, a liberal (p.70) generosity, and it demands nothing in return. There is no admixture of pity in it even for the poorest or the most wretched, because pity does violence to the dignity of the man who is its object. It is a burden on his conscience.

(Bazin 1971: 70)

Bazin’s praise of De Sica’s approach here rehearses a key problem of the sentimental, for while his language evokes the key virtues of sentiment, his message enforces an identificatory process of sympathetic detachment over one of empathy, the necessity of understanding over and above emotional contagion between spectator and character. The cinema permits a ‘gentle’ examination of the world motivated by ‘affection’, ‘love’, or ‘poetry’, yet its best practice for Bazin stops short of permitting the ‘violence’ of pity. Bazin’s outline of De Sica’s ‘love’ is suggestive of the sensibility an auteur must feel in relation to the humanity depicted in his films, yet it must also be a virtue that restrains the impulse to manipulate the spectator’s perspective towards excessively empathic reactions, which all too often arise for Bazin from styles of narrative that overly abstract from the reality of depicted events.

As much as Bazin deems the representation of real, hostile conditions, and an uncaring society a vital task of neorealism, his praise for central characters repeatedly, as we have seen, emphasises the necessity of conveying a well-meaning benevolence. Although the spectator should not be entreated to ‘pity’ such put-upon heroes as Chaplin’s tramp, Umberto D, or Ricci from Bicycle Thieves, Bazin’s praise for the underdog as a necessary rhetorical weapon for change seems implicit in his essay on De Sica. Bazin is nevertheless cautious about an overly idealising framing of the hero. The sympathy one should have for virtuous characters becomes nuanced, for instance, by comments such as those that follow his discussion of Chaplin’s ‘goodness,’ where he compares the latter to De Sica.

Chaplin also chooses his cast carefully but always with an eye to himself and to putting his character in a better light. We find in De Sica the humanity of Chaplin, but shared with the world at large.

(Bazin 1971: 73)

As opposed to Chaplin’s having ‘an eye to himself’, Bazin suggests De Sica’s preference for a virtue that is shared by humanity at large, albeit one that may be exemplified by pathetic protagonists like the tramp. Because Bazin implies that the underdog courts an excessive sympathy when singled out as an idealised symbol of benevolence, Bazin prefers De Sica’s Miracle in Milan with its depiction of an entire group of homeless people divested of their homes and living a poor but honest life in a shanty town. Emphasising the mass as opposed to the individual, this film resembles Eisenstein’s own epics of mass struggle, their shift away from the virtuous (p.71) hero. Bazin’s argument places value on such a shift and reveals his caution with regard to a hero who is overly idealised above other characters.

Béla Balázs

If Bazin expresses caution as to the idealisation of a moral hero, the stakes are raised by the theory of Béla Balázs, for whom truth is revealed above all by the cinema’s attention to the human face and its affinity for conveying the narrative trajectory of a hero. In many ways, Balázs’ theory complements Bazin’s in its emphasis on cinema’s affinity for revealing and explaining the complexities of human nature, yet for Balázs, a shift of focus away from the individual threatens to destabilise that capacity. Balázs’ emphasis remains on the expressivity of man as distinct from the abstract, anti-imitative models of the modernist avant-gardes or the human behaviour captured by the ‘objective’ documentary. Nevertheless, his discussion of cinema’s representation of the human is communicated once more in scientific terms, qualifying the extent to which the spectator’s engagement with the individual can be idealised or sentimental.

Balázs has often been considered a modernist or formalist owing largely to the period and location within which he wrote (1920s Weimar Germany) and a recurrent emphasis on cinema’s necessary transformations of pro-filmic reality. Recent scholarship, however, has problematised easy categorisation of the theorist in either the formalist or realist camps, along with other theorists such as Epstein, Vertov, and Kracauer.7 While Balázs’ admiration of the close-up suggests a modernist’s attention to editing, his invocations of cinematic humanism require a realist’s focus on the referent. The revelation of life’s hidden details, particularly the nuances of human emotion and gesture, become cinema’s special vocation for Balázs, producing a modern human subject attuned to visual signs of emotion. Balázs’ humanist metaphor for the aesthetic he perceives as central to cinema is encapsulated by the title of Theory of the Film’s most well-known sections on the close-up, ‘The Face of Things’. Asserting that normal human perception leads us to ‘skim over the teeming substance of life’, Balázs argues that the camera ‘has uncovered that cell-life of the vital issues in which all great events are ultimately conceived’ (Balázs and Bone 1952: 55). The face here serves as metaphor for the anthropomorphised significance of film, a benchmark for the richness that the close-up is able to convey.

Balázs’ discussion of children and animals as cinema’s newly found objects extends this deep concern with cinema’s ability to reveal authentic aspects of the world. While arguing that their representation forged a new (p.72) style rather than a language of cinema, he writes of both with an almost mystical attachment to the authenticity of their gesture. While adults could be ‘stage-managed’ to act in pre-determined ways, Balázs writes of the autonomy of children and animals from what he describes elsewhere as ‘severe rules that govern grammar’ that he considered to potentially govern gesture or expression. When children act in films, Balázs argues:

This is not acting – it is a natural manifestation of youthful consciousness and it can be observed not only in the human young but in the young of other species as well. It is a transposition such as occurs in dreams, or in a trance.

(Balázs and Bone 1952: 80)

While facial expression and gestures are already rich in ‘polyphony’ for Balázs, children or animals are positioned in the above as guarantors of an emotional realism in their freedom from convention. While Balázs avoids praise for the realism of non-actors over actors (he prefers the closeups of such film actors as Asta Nielsen or Renée Maria Falconetti to the supposedly objective expressions of non-actors), his descriptions of the fairy-tale-like otherness of children, animals, and native savages suggest a latent fascination with the ‘inaccessible nature and inaccessible fairyland’ connoted by them. If such passages undermine his own distinction between a filmic style and a filmic language, his thesis gains strength in its overall veneration of a curious spectator enthralled by cinema’s delivery of a ‘microphysiognomy’ that is beyond linguistic constraints.

What emerges in Balázs’ thought, therefore, is the saliency of physiognomy and gesture, created by the tensions of dramatic action (narrative) and, relatedly, freedom from a kind of emotional barrenness, as applied either to dispassionate film-makers, insensitive spectators, and, indeed, untrained actors. With such sub-titles as ‘Education in Physiognomics’ or ‘Sound Explaining Pictures’, the aims of Theory of the Film accord with a humanistic goal of better understanding between people via film’s affinity for revealing subjectivity. Responding to Soviet methods of creating images of mismatched emotional reactions (his example is the use of a mother’s reaction to her child’s pram overturned inserted by Eisenstein as the reaction shot of a woman facing the barrel of a gun), Balázs writes:

This method is always a deception; it is rendered possible only by the fact that our physiognomic culture is not as yet sufficiently sensitive to be able to differentiate between terrors induced by different causes … The close-up which has made us so sensitive to the naturalness of a facial expression will sooner or later develop our sensitivity further, so that we shall be able to discern in a facial expression its cause as well as its nature.

(Balázs and Bone 1952: 79)

(p.73) Balázs here goes some way in expressing here not only his disdain for the ‘fanatics of “naturalness”’, but also makes salient his aim of allowing cinema to educate the spectator in a new cinematic lingua franca of human emotion. The stakes of this endeavour are couched in the necessity of averting the kinds of cruelty that emanate, for Balázs, in the Soviet directors’ narrow-minded inattention to emotional nuance. Such disregard for the integrity of human emotion in favour of its role in a supposedly superior synthesis of meaning grated Balázs in terms that vary between the ontological (mismatched actual and represented emotions), humanitarian (the directors’ emotional callousness), and educational (the spectators’ exploited ignorance of the sham owing to a lamentable insensitivity to emotion). If emotional meanings could be correctly depicted and then adduced by newly sensitised subjects, Balázs implies that the cinema constitutes man’s best hope for mutual understanding. As a universalised language of human emotion and gesture, cinema promises to emancipate man from the ‘severe rules’ of abstracted meaning that prevented the emergence of a truly popular art. Thus, he argues:

it will probably be the art of the film after all which may bring together the peoples and nations, make them accustomed to each other, and lead them to mutual understanding. The silent film is free of the isolating walls of language differences. If we look at and understand each other’s faces and gestures, we not only understand, we also learn to feel each other’s emotions. The gesture is not only the outward projection of emotion, it is also its initiator.

(Balázs and Bone 1952: 44)

With language differences posing for Balázs, as for many other theorists, a great challenge to ‘mutual understanding’, cinema (especially silent cinema) directly addresses the spectator’s conscious and unconscious. By revealing ‘hidden’ emotions, film would make visible to the spectator truths that had as yet remained occluded by surface appearances. With such descriptions as ‘the hidden mainsprings of a life which we had thought we already knew so well’ (55), Balázs insists that cinema constitutes more than just a quantitative increase in perceptual information; it creates a qualitative change. Anticipating counter-arguments that the close-up may only show new details of pro-filmic objects as opposed to necessarily providing new meanings, Balázs justifies the semiotic value of the cinema’s detailed scrutiny:

The close-up may sometimes give the impression of a mere naturalist preoccupation with detail. But good close-ups radiate a tender human attitude in the contemplation of hidden things, a delicate solicitude, a gentle bending over the intimacies of life-in-the-miniature, a warm sensibility. Good close-ups are lyrical; it is the heart, not the eye, that has perceived them.

(Balázs and Bone 1952: 56)

(p.74) Balázs’ sentimental language in the above passage reveals the underlying impulse in his theory to emphasise the role of human consciousness in the deployment of the close-up. While inadequate close-ups reveal little of extra significance, the good close-up is motivated by ‘intimacies’, whether on the part of the spectator or the film-maker. Anticipating Bazin’s theory of the benevolent auteur, Balázs’ theory of the close-up requires a concern for meaning founded in a ‘tender human attitude’ towards the world, as opposed to an appetite for increased detail for its own sake. Emotional investment suggests the film-maker’s benevolent impulse to show the world in new ways; the ‘mere naturalist’ is posed meanwhile as a non-artistic cataloguer of visual facts in the name of a kind of dispassionate taxonomy.

One can see how Balázs’ aesthetic dismay over both documentary and avant-garde practices derives then from this above formulation of detached film-making. He argues that the avant-garde seeks to represent nothing but ‘absolute visuality’ (159) or the ‘poetry of things’ (59) while the documentary seeks an objective and impartial registration of reality. Narrative remains for him, therefore, the key intermediary between excesses of the subjective and objective, particularly when bound by the necessity of representing a ‘hero’. The mass epics of Eisenstein, the Vertovian documentary, or the ‘abstract’ avant-garde film all abandon, for Balázs, this necessary ‘individualisation’ in favour of an aesthetic of ‘the natural or the logical’, with the following consequences:

The trouble was that if an artist renounces individualisation, what he achieves is not something of universal validity; it is on the contrary, complete disintegration.

(Balázs and Bone 1952: 161)

Balázs condemns the subordination of narrative and the presentation of ‘human destinies’ to what he deems elitist styles because it comes at the cost of comprehensibility and coherence. Only by treating the ‘fable’ or ‘story’ as ‘a closed entity’ (that is, an adherent to narrative form) could the film-maker hope to give best expression to filmed material. The ‘hero’ provides for Balázs the ideal emotional anchor for the registration of ongoing changes in narrative, without which the film risks ‘disintegration’. If these prejudices reveal Balázs’ somewhat conservative conception of film’s ideal practice in his valorisation of narrative over other representative modes, they nevertheless emphasise his humanist concerns. Problematically overlooking the constructed nature of narrative itself, ‘dramatic action’ catalyses the ‘face of things’ for Balázs compared to the avant-garde’s exclusive attention to form or the documentary’s fetishisation of objectivity (p.75) or naturalism. As distinct from the latter practice, for instance, Balázs commends the use of trained, experienced actors over the non-actors of documentary precisely because the former were for him better able to convey the nuances of facial and gestural emotion. While using non-actors would bring an apparent ‘objectivity’ to the film, the richness of human expression and its ‘polyphony’ is lost without the actor’s ability to create physiognomic or bodily meanings.

Nevertheless, despite his emphasis on the ‘intimacies’ of good filmmaking, Balázs’ model of spectatorship, as with Bazin’s metaphor of a ‘maze’, is also likened to the accuracy of scientific observation. Thus, in cinema’s depiction of family drama:

The micro-tragedies in the peace and quiet of ordinary families were shown as deadly battles, just as the microscope shows the fierce struggles of micro-organisms in a drop of water.

(Balázs and Bone 1952: 85)

If the above suggests, as with Bazin, the possibility of the scientist’s vantage point and an implicit emotional impartiality, the two writers both share an enthusiasm for human conflict as the preferred object of analysis. While Balázs is far less concerned with the ontological realism with which such human conflict is staged, there is a shared consensus as to the need for the cinema’s dispassionate scrutiny of human behaviour. The implication for both theorists is the possibility of representing ‘fierce struggles’ and the darker side of human nature as much as morally exemplary behaviour. Despite the ‘warm sensibility’ with which Balázs encourages our encounter with life up close, he writes of what we may find in terms of a moral realism, such as in his description of film’s rooting out of a ‘capable liar’:

In vain does his mouth smile ever so sweetly the lobe of his ear, the side of a nostril shown in isolated magnification reveal the hidden coarseness and cruelty.

(Balázs and Bone 1952: 75)

If cinema’s truthfulness must necessarily convey the moral baseness of the human condition, such as in the lies, cruelty, and coarseness of superficially moral characters, Balázs endows cinema with the moral imperative of revealing it and enabling the spectator to exercise superior discrimination, in relation to on-screen and off-screen characters. With this level of realism guaranteed by the cinema, Balázs is more than content to permit such a model as ‘virtue in distress’ as a legitimate characteristic of the narrative hero. A scorned sentimental trope in other art-forms often owing to the one-dimensionality with which the object of sympathy is drawn, pathos for Balázs lends itself to cinema’s vivid analysis and thereby facilitates (p.76) moral legibility. Chaplin, for instance, becomes a paradigm for Balázs of the heroic individual thwarted by an ‘inhuman society’, his ‘golden-hearted’ nature in no way diminished by the clarity with which the cinema delivers the tramp as ‘shiftless, blundering’ and even ‘cunning’ (285).

With such characters as Chaplin’s tramp serving as moral anchors for narrative action, the melodramatic ‘mode’ becomes, as Linda Williams has suggested, a deeply embedded presence of Hollywood storytelling, with ‘action’ and ‘pathos’ contributing in equal measure to the resolution of conflict between good and evil and the recognition of moral virtue. Cinema, with its affinity for the close-up, the human face, and an incomparable capacity to invoke an omniscient spectator through editing, becomes the medium of choice for melodrama’s articulation of ‘moral legibility’. Invoking the moral realism discussed by Bazin, Balázs, and others above, the subject represented by such figures as the tramp remains a potent signifier of humanity victimised by ‘mechanisation and capitalism’, the plucky hero who asserts his right to life despite the status of perpetual misfit, played for Balázs with a ‘melancholy optimism’ that ‘expresses the opposition of all of us to an inhuman order of society’ (ibid.).

In short, therefore, the sentimental persists as a contested aesthetic discourse surrounding the cinema as it emerged as a dominant medium in the early-to-mid-twentieth century. Despite, or in many ways owing to, the repudiations of kitsch, mass, or bourgeois tastes or simplistic character engagements that informed the critiques analysed above, the sentimental comes to represent much of what a certain hard-edged set of modernisms, formalisms, and realisms sought to problematise and transform. At the same time, the philosophical ideals that motivate such critiques are time and again shown to be rather less than inimical to sentimental values of universal communication, sympathy for those oppressed by economic disparities, and the significance of art’s humanist function. If, as a practice, the sentimental and its reproduction in the cinema were, or indeed are, all too often considered to devalue such ideals for the sake of cheap, unearned emotion, and/or bourgeois entertainment, it is important to bear in mind the extent to which it retained critical importance for theorists of this era as a distinct affective category.


(1.) Ben Singer identifies this alignment of cinema and other dynamic features of modern, urban experience as an important strand of ‘culturalist’ film theory that posits a causal or correlative relationship between such phenomena and transformations in human perception. David Bordwell has critiqued some of (p.77) the central assumptions of this ‘modernity thesis’. See Ben Singer, Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and its Contexts, New York: Columbia University Press, 2001, Ch. 4; David Bordwell, On the History of Film Style, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997, pp. 140–9.

(2.) Writing on the perceptual ‘trick’ of the New York skyscraper, Eisenstein finds the provincial America of private dwellings to be also inscribed in them, enough to find them ‘cosy, domestic, small-town’. See Eisenstein, Sergei, Film Form, J. Leyda (trans.), New York: Harcourt Brace, 1972 [1949], p. 197.

(3.) For a critique of the assumptions underlying the ‘specificity thesis’, see Noël Carroll, ‘The Specificity Thesis’, in L. Braudy, M. Cohen, and G. Mast (eds), Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, 5th edn, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 322–8.

(4.) While Eisenstein engaged in ongoing debates with Vertov as to the function and aesthetics of the new cinema, much of this conflict has been attributed to the fierce competition for funding and prestige in the Soviet Union of that era. See Annette Michelson’s introduction to Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov, p. xlvi-l.

(5.) Wollen argues that while Eisenstein’s introduction of ‘sound and colour’ seemed for 1970s film theory to be explained as a mere compromise with Stalinist demands, he highlights Eisenstein’s continuous theoretical attention to film’s polyphonic or synaesthetic attributes, and his commitment to ‘real bodies and real movement’.

(6.) As Dudley Andrew argues, while prior film theory held film up as a painterly ‘frame’ that invites the artist to create, film for Bazin now served as a ‘window’ on to the world, offering thus a much needed re-engagement with social and political reality. See The Major Film Theories, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.

(7.) See Malcolm Turvey’s critique of Dudley Andrew’s categorisation of Balázs as a formalist in ‘Balázs: Realist or Modernist’, October 115 (winter 2006), pp. 77–87.