On Formalism & Aesthetic Experience

In this paper, I will examine the formalist perspective of film theory, focusing particularly on the work of Rudolf Arnheim and Jean Mitry. I will begin with an overview of the history of film theory, followed by a description of the emergence of formalism in a previously dominantly realist film world. I will then elucidate how Rudolf Arnheim’s views on gestalt psychology and perception shaped formalism and advanced that field of film theory. Subsequently, I will elucidate how Jean Mitry’s phenomenological views about aesthetic appreciation and apprehension (by the mind) helped define the importance of aesthetics in the valuing of the film experience. I will examine his writings on The Aesthetics & Psychology Of The Cinema, paralleling his views with that of Arnheim, and describing how formalism evolved during the classical period of film theory.

From the beginnings of film theory in the 1920s, and throughout the classical period ending in the early 1970s, theorists have debated about what film is, what it can be used for, and why it is valued. Because of the many various perspectives, film theory must, of principle, be descriptive; film theorists, therefore, may only describe what film can do, and cannot suggest what film ought to do. In this way, film theorists have ventured to describe film from their particular viewpoint while defending and advocating the importance of that view. As a result, film theory has not progressed linearly; instead, film theory has developed concurrently through constant negotiation, revision, and cultural and historical implication (different film theories have been prominent in different places at different times).

Of the many debates about film theory, what is arguably the most important fundamental debate is that of realism and formalism. During the early classical period of film theory, realism, which, according to Plato and Aristotle is mimesis, dominated. This view suggested that film was representation, and that it served only by imitating nature (reality). Later, particularly in the late 1920s and early 1930s with Soviet cinema, formalist theories emerged which suggested that film does more than merely reproduce reality. Emerging formalists, such as Sergei Eisenstein and Jean Epstein, claimed that film could create experiences and give impressions that reality and nature could not. In Film And Theory: An Introduction, Robert Stam states that “for Epstein, the cinema is ‘essentially supernatural. Everything is transformed’ (quoted in Abel, 1988, p. 246)” (P. 35). Various theories about how film is more than reality came about. The following statement by Hans Richter aptly describes this phase of film theory: “The main aesthetic problem for the movies, which were invented for reproduction is, paradoxically, the overcoming of reproduction (Ibid., P. 282)”. Theorists realized that film need not necessarily imitate reality, tell a story, or represent particular things; in effect, films could be entirely formal. As a result, various kinds of abstract formalist cinema, such as the avant-garde, montage, and pure cinema were produced. In some ways, film became realized as a means of defamiliarization- a way of taking the audience beyond reality.

One major contributor to the advancement of formalist film theory was Rudolf Arnheim who asserted, in the early 1930s, that “vision in general, and film viewing in particular is primarily a mental phenomenon” (Stam,  P. 60). As a psychologist, he realized that, since film is apprehended by the senses, understanding perception is key to film theory. His research based in gestalt psychology led him to believe that viewing film is a mental experience where what is on the screen and what is perceived by the senses search for a common structure. In gestalt psychology, the duck-rabbit example is commonly used to elucidate this notion: A group of people are shown a simple drawing. Some believe the image represents a duck, some believe the image represents a rabbit. In actuality, they are not perceiving either, nor are they perceiving differently. What they are perceiving are formal properties (lines, curvature, shade etc), and the idea of the duck and the rabbit are mental structures established through the attention of these formal properties. Some psychologists claim that one immediately perceives the ‘wholeness’ of the image’s formal properties, and then the mind effectively limits this ‘wholeness’ by structuring mental ideas. This example explains that what is being represented is not nearly as important as how it is being perceived. With this view, Arnheim considered film as “the art par excellence” (Stam, P. 33). He claimed that film, as a combination of reality and artifice, both entertains and distracts, allowing both for the reproduction of reality, as well as the manipulation of reality. This, he said, gave film its artistic merit; through the manipulation of reality, film allows the mind to perceive that which isn’t ordinarily perceived.

Accordingly, phenomenologist’s aiming to describe how things are perceived began theorizing about film. Jean Mitry, the formalist and phenomenologist who wrote The Aesthetics & Psychology Of The Cinema in 1965, contributed greatly to formalist and aesthetic film theory. His views resembled that of French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty who wrote that the phenomenology of realism concerns itself with the world “not as it is, but as it seems (as it is perceived)”. These writers recognized that film, as all things, cannot be conscious in themselves; they must be perceived. Therefore, film is always an object of consciousness, and the formal properties are those which are being perceived. Jean Mitry directed this concern towards film theory hoping that a phenomenological perspective could describe the inexpressible, aesthetic perception of film. In his aforementioned book, Mitry does three things: psychologically examines the film experience, describes an aesthetic-linguistic theory of film as a means of symbolic expression, and critically reflects on the history of film theory. In this paper, I will examine his writings about the former two.

In the preface of Aesthetics & The Psychology Of The Cinema, Brian Lewis describes Jean Mitry as being “driven by the ‘Wow’ experience” (Mitry, P. VII). Mitry wondered how film could generate such wonderful experiences. He considered that film has the capacity for encapsulating and transcendent experience, perhaps even mystical experience. In the vein of Noel Carroll, Mitry believed that this aesthetic experience of film had primarily to do with one’s attention to the formal (perceptible) qualities of film. With this in mind, he ventured to establish an aesthetic principle to film as art.

Jean Mitry claimed that early formalists, such as Eisenstein, were “too limited” and “focused too much on stylistics” and not on aesthetics (Mitry, P. 2). Speaking of Arnheim, he stated the following:

“Arnheim talked about aesthetics and talked about perception but didn’t go further than a few elementary principles in basing his analysis upon the     differences between real events and their reproduction in motion pictures, without attempting to define the why or the wherefore of the differentiation, and without attempting to justify a system of aesthetics based on this evidence” (Mitry, P.2).

Essentially, Mitry claims that Arnheim, one of few who spoke of aesthetics, attached importance without explaining why they’re important, or how the aesthetic experience is realized.

Husserl posited that “all consciousness is consciousness of”. Therefore, everything must be perceived by consciousness- including consciousness. Furthermore, “consciousness can never visualize pure nothingness”(Mitry, P. 35). However, Mitry, along with most formalists, believes that form, and formal properties, comes nearest to revealing pure nothingness; form without substance is like nothing, but is not nothing. Therefore, attention of formal properties in a work of art, such as film, can allow for one to become conscious of what one is not normally able to be conscious of. The artwork becomes useful in directing our perception in certain ways in order to create or impress a more highly conscious experience. Moreover, because one can be conscious of one’s experience, Mitry advocates active awareness of one’s experience; film should create an experience affecting one’s consciousness, and one should be consciously aware of that experience.

Because film has this way of directing perception and affecting consciousness, cinema is “a means of expression, which allows only the translation of feelings and emotions and is incapable of expressing ideas” (Mitry, P. 13). Images are photographed and chosen as “a means of expression whose extension (ie. logical and dialectical organization) is language” (Mitry, P. 14). The images are symbols which immediately translate into feelings and thoughts via perception. This occurs on a visceral level, as though the aesthetics are perceived and affect one’s feelings and thoughts instantly and effortlessly. The feelings of the artist are, therefore, immediately translated into the viewer’s experience, provided that the viewer attends the artwork in a similar manner. Because of this, Mitry considers “film as a developed language, that is lyrical rather than rational” (Mitry, P. 16). In this way, Mitry accounts for the aesthetic and artistic importance of film, as well as the valuing of the film experience.

Mitry’s formalist view on film theory is just one of many influential formalist theories from the classical period that is, to this day, being reviewed, altered, and developed, not to mention the myriad of theories developed by the various other branches of film theory. Considering its history, I believe it is safe to suggest that film theory will never be an exact science, nor will it ever provide dogmatic definitions of what film is, what it can be used for, or why it is valued. As new perspectives are found, and old perspectives constantly change, film theory will always be an exponentially growing area of interest and never-ending debate.

Works Cited
Stam, Robert. Film Theory: An Introduction. United Kingdom: Blackwell Publishing,    2000.

Mitry, Jean. The Aesthetics And Psychology Of The Cinema. Trans. Christopher King.    USA: Indiana University Press, 1977.


About Kamran Ahmed

I have a Masters in Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto. I work as a freelance writer and film critic in Vancouver. My writing is primarily distributed through Next Projection, an online film journal based in Toronto.
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