Exclusive to Film: The Necessity of Seeing Film as Art

“What had hitherto been merely the urge to record certain actual events, now became the aim to represent objects by special means exclusive to film.” – Rudolf Arnheim, Film as Art

The idea of a critic studying the art they critique seems to be relatively simple requirement, one about which no one should have an argument. The art critic learns the history, form, and content of art. The book critic learns the history, methodology, and explication of writing. The music critic must be conversant in music theory, know the history of a genre or an artist. So why should the film critic be exempt from that kind of knowledge, to be content with, even proud of, a profound ignorance of cinema, its history, its unique theories and language? What is different about film?

There’s nothing different about film, of course. Film is an art as much as painting, sculpture, prose, poetry, music, photography, or any other artistic form. What is “different” about film, then, is not the artistic content itself but our perception of the artistic content. Film studies—by which I mean both the academic and autodidactic study of film and film art—is a relatively young discipline compared to other art criticism, because film is a relatively young art. Many of the earliest film critics were drawn from other disciplines—theater, art, music, literature, philosophy, photography—and approached cinema for how it related, or didn’t, to those disciplines. Other early critics and theorists were filmmakers themselves, and approached cinema from the perspective of the artist. Film studies, for many years, was a cobbled together discipline with foundational texts that include philosophers and thinkers, literary theory, psychological theory, sociology, history and historiography, art criticism, and theater criticism, among many others. Most of these texts are still in use in the study of film, using elements of them that are applicable to a medium at once visual, aural, narrative, and poetic, and discarding those elements that are not. In this sense, then, the study of film has long been a bastardized discipline, one invented out of other disciplines, in relation to each but wholly explicable by none.

Now, film studies itself has a sounder methodology, though it still makes use of its antecedents, and has expanded to television, video games, viral video, and beyond. The problem that film has with being taken seriously even by those who critique it is that it’s an inherently, and rightfully, democratic medium. Early film itself crossed language barriers in ways that plastic art and music can, but poetry, narrative, and theatre cannot; it combined elements of various mediums, telling narrative stories, composing visual poems, uniting spectacle, documentary, and visual tricks. Images acted on a stage and recorded on a strip of film could be sent anywhere, the narrative more or less comprehended by anyone, regardless of language. Film stretches beyond borders and unites humanity in a way that few arts can aspire to, and certainly easier than most. It’s one of the most influential and diverse forms of art in the world.

But because of its very ubiquity, film still struggles to be taken seriously as an art. Debates over whether Hollywood-produced films are true “art” still take place; arguments over the difference between art and entertainment, high art and low, still plague public discourse. It might surprise certain critics and viewers to know that these debates are nothing new; they’ve been going on since the invention of cinema and the question of what, exactly, this new medium was capable.

I think that this is the issue at base of the argument over whether or not critics should be required to “study film” in order to be good critics. It’s really a question of whether we take film seriously as an art form, with its own rules, methodologies, jargon, theories, history, and critical approaches. Those critics who argue that they need not know film history, that they need not watch anything other than recent films, films that already appeal to them; that they need not have intellectual curiosity over films from other nations, cultures, or histories; that they need not pick up a book of theory, or read critics who wrote in 1920 as well as in 1986; that they need not research their topic or learn about it inside or outside an academic setting; that they even must ignore all these things because it would sully their personal opinions, their passion for film without interest in the content or context of it—those critics do not take film seriously as an art. For them, it is “only” an entertainment, a hobby, a consumable product that they can experience, say whether they like or dislike, and leave behind. And while this is a perfectly legitimate approach to film for a casual viewer, it’s hardly the approach of someone with the capacity or the right to critique anything to do with an art.

There are other elements here—anti-intellectualism, issues of accessibility of information, perceptions of film history and culture—that fold into the argument. But, ultimately, any critic of any medium should take their medium seriously as an art form. It is one thing to proclaim you love something and another to demand that your opinion on it count. Education stretches beyond a classroom or what a professor, or other critic, can tell you. It exists in the willingness to learn, to search for books, articles, and journals, to stretch beyond comfort zones and seek out films, and perspectives, that you’ve never experienced before. It is the critic’s role to analyze, interpret, and express an understanding of a film, but no critic can accomplish that if they fail to respect criticism as an interpretative mode and film in all its forms. Film is an art form unlike any other, and critics should treat it as such.

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