Cinema and War – Thoughts on Walter Benjamin

Posted: November 26, 2020 in Uncategorized

Here’s a reply I wrote to one of your peers, who asked me a few excellent questions yesterday. Perhaps some of you will find my spontaneous thought on this extremely influential thinker to be interesting and helpful.

Joe,

I’m super impressed that you chose to read this essay, even though it was not officially assigned, as was the case in semesters past. Your endeavor speaks very well of you. I admire your hard work and thoughtful remarks. They will certainly count positively toward your overall grade. In the short term, having read this essay will do much to prepare you to read Beatriz Colomina, who is our next author.

Benjamin’s essay can be a bit confusing. Even persons very experienced in these matters are not always in full agreement over Benjamin’s contentions. Im these matters, I often find myself disagreeing very powerfully with persons who are much smarter and better informed than I. So take my opinions for what they’re worth.

In any case, Benjamin, from the very beginning, announces that art, since the rise of the modern machine age, has undergone a number of changes. These are not incidental modifications, but they are radical transformations that cut right to the very heart of human experience. They reveal that we now live in a reality the likes of which earlier societies had no notion. Benjamin is clear in his belief that the first works of art had a religious and ritual function. Each work of art was utterly unique and existed only in a single place. Persons wanting to experience such works of art – which originally was for devotional purposes – had to go on a literal pilgrimage. Further, such works generally could be viewed only one person at a time. This is what Benjamin means by ‘aura’ (which derives from the Latin word for gold). The work of art was special, singular, valuable, irreplaceable. The Sistine Chapel ceiling didn’t come to you, but you had to travel to the Vatican to see it.

With the rise of mechanical reproduction – of which Benjamin gives a quick survey – the poles are reversed. As art can now easily be copied and distributed through mechanical means, it is now possible to have the Sistine Chapel ceiling, or Michaelangelo’s David, in your own home, and on demand. And all you have to do is pay a few dollars and flip a switch. The work of art, under these conditions, loses its singular qualities, its aura. Further, artworks no longer need to be viewed by isolated individuals, one at a time, but they can be viewed simultaneously by a mass of persons.

Nothing embodies the new conditions of production and consumption more completely than the latest form of art, cinema. Cinema is not just the newest form of art, but it is also the most complex and expensive form of art. Entire factories, with diversified teams of employees, come together in a coordinated effort to produce a movie. And the material resources upon which they draw to make a movie come from every corner of the globe. Indeed, the only other human creation whose production involves such an enormous coordinated effort is war. Already politics begins to enter into the picture.

In addition to mass production, films also involve mass consumption. As I said, we watch them not in isolation but rather as members of a large audience. What Benjamin suggests is that the process of movie making – which involves scripting, set and costume design, lighting, filming, editing, and a thousand other tasks, as the credits of at the end of any movie will indicate – not only assembles an artificial reality of a sort that could never be achieved on stage, but it also assembles a mass of viewers which could never be created through any other means. Filmmakers are not just making movies, but they are actually creating mass consciousness. This means not just that movies fill our heads with thoughts which would not occupy them otherwise, but they also create a kind of conscious, a massive ‘herd mentality’ through which an entire population can be made to think, feel, and act alike.

This group think is especially alarming to Benjamin, because he realizes that it can and will be used to political ends. Not only can films create the larger-than-life media image of political leaders, but they they can also create a mass of millions of persons willing to follow that leader to war. These are things Benjamin holds generally to be true. But in particular he has in mind major events occurring in his own day. Hitler had recently come to power in German, and a major contribution to Hitler’s rise were the political rallies regularly organized to display him and promote his ideas. These were popular and successful events, but they were nothing in comparison to what could be achieved through the power of cinema.

The year just prior to Benjamin’s essay saw the production and distribution of a major film by director Leni Riefenstahl, Triumph of The Will. For all her questionable motives, Riefenstahl was unquestionably brilliantly innovative and hugely ambitious young woman who used all the means made available to her to create a work of art the likes of which the world had never seen. Looking back at her work now, it is easy to be horrified. But it’s also hard not to be simultaneously impressed by the way Riefenstahl turned a bunch of loosely organized public speeches into Olympian events – she actually makes a remarkable documentary film of the Berlin Olympics – but also by the way she manages to turn a dumpy and homely little man with an odd mustache into the greatest movie star of the day. It was a tremendous feat that actually won Reifenstahl an award at Cannes for ‘best propaganda film of the year’ – though nobody would offer that type of award these days. Who knows what will be the case in the coming years.

Anyway, Benjamin is rightly alarmed by these happenings and writes his essay to reveal the awesome and dangerous power of film. But he also admits that because filmmaking is a highly technical process, one can learn, if not to make films for oneself, then at least to ‘read’ film so as not to be deceived and indoctrinated by it. Indeed, it’s possible, and Benjamin insists absolutely necessary, to make experimental films which resist indoctrinating the masses and actually educate people so that they can see that the world we take for reality is in fact the product of the media industry. There are numerous examples of such experimental, pedagogical cinema to which I might refer you, but the director whose work I hoped to show you in class was the Soviet filmmaker Ziga Vertov, whose Man With a Movie Camera expressly sets out to teach its audience how films are made, to reveal all the hidden labor behind the finished product.

This should explain Benjamin’s concluding remarks. Thinking of the intimate relationship between movies and war – something we still see today – Benjamin remarks that never before has it been possible for humanity to look at the destruction of the world, at the destruction of itself – from the perspective of the very gods – and perceive it to be the greatest show on earth. In the light of this possibility, it becomes imperative for Benjamin that we begin think of art always in political terms. As politics has become the dominant form of art, it now becomes urgently necessary to reverse the equation and expose the political motives underlying any art. The motives may be hidden, but Benjamin insists they are always there.

TV audience views atomic bomb test for first time – Las Vegas


In addition to launching an entire new academic discipling known as Media Studies, Benjamin’s work marks a decisive turn of art and criticism toward the political. It becomes the role of the critic now to point out the underlying political motives associated with all art, however hidden those motives may be. Most every art critic following Michael Fried will have read Benjamin and the greatest care, and taken his ideas very seriously. If Fried believes that art should be the last sanctuary which remains free of all personal interest and above all politics, any serious critic coming after Fried reject this utopian ideal and instead follow Benjamin’s recommendations, rejecting any notion of art as value-free and existing for its own sake. Everything we read for the rest of the semester will proceed along these lines.

Ok, that’s it for now. I just the just genuinely explanatory and interesting. Thanks so much, as always, for your participation!

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