October 2008


This is a paper that I recently wrote about Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. I wrote this paper for my Film History class after watching Metropolis a few times. The only reference points here are the film and my reaction.

With Metropolis (1927), Fritz Lang unleashed his complex science fiction vision of a dystopian world. Metropolis was an extremely inventive film with which Lang introduced a complicated society filled with allegorical metaphor alluding to the dangers of a capitalistic (as well as fascist) society in which the separation of classes resembled closely slavery or even a strict cast system. Through the use of Biblical allusion as well as the repeated phrase “The mediator between head and hand must be the heart” as well as innovated film technique, Lang was extremely successful in creating a film that was not only intelligent and innovative, but also entertaining. Metropolis was tremendously triumphant in getting its intellectual perspectives across because of its use of extravagant sets, massive crowds of extras, fascinating architecture, innovative and exaggerated special effects, teamed with a gripping plot.

Throughout the film there are constantly moments in which, if the frame were frozen, the resulting still would be an aesthetically perfect photograph. The Aesthetics of this film are extremely important, which is indicative of the silent era of film. A good example of this being, the use of harsh sharply contrasted black and white cinematography with which the difference between the classes is exceptionally portrayed. Working creatively within the confines of black and white, Lang creates an obvious rift between the “depths” dwelling ‘hands’ of Joh Fredersen’s (Alfred Abel) ‘metropolis’ of a city, and the over indulgent (seemingly) morally corrupt upper class. By utilizing different costume designs, with the lower, literally and figuratively speaking, classes wearing nearly all black jumpsuits, and the privileged upper class wearing lighter more extravagant ‘fashionable’ clothing.

The use of clothing is also extremely interesting in the context of Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) and Maria (Brigitte Helm) in particular, both of which are for the most part dressed in very light or white clothes seeming to allude to their ‘religious’ representation in the film. Freder is portrayed as the mediator, or the ‘heart’ of the society, or in other words the ‘savior,’ whom the working ‘hands’ have been waiting for, and Maria is portrayed as the prophet who has predicted his coming.

On another line of thought, the modern capitalist “mediator between head and hand must be the heart” arc within the film is also interestingly juxtaposed with the Biblical story of Babel, in which the ‘head’ has a vision of a triumph of humanity, yet the ‘head’ is unable to construct such a monument of its own, so ‘hands’ are hired. In the biblical story (as told by Maria), while the ‘head’ and the ‘hands’ seem to speak the same language there is a communication rift between them and the ‘hands’ are unable to see the vision of the ‘head’ eventually resulting in an insurrection, which foreshadows the insurrection within Metropolis itself. The utilization of this story form the Genesis chapter of the Bible is extremely fascinating in relation to the industrial story of Metropolis, the tower of Babel representing a clear cautionary tale.

The themes involving Freder as a ‘messiah’ figure, sent to bridge the communication rift, are set in motion from the very beginning of the film when he placed in the setting of the “eternal garden.” This can easily be compared to the “Garden of Eden,” and everything especially the edges of the frames while within the ‘garden’ are in a very light hearted soft focus, which gives the visual impression of a blissful ignorance. Then with the introduction of Maria and the concept of ‘brotherhood,’ the simple hedonistic lighthearted world loses much of its appeal. Her introduction is also extremely interesting because the viewer is presented with an extremely visually simple yet complex composition, with an almost triangular shape created by the Maria in the center in light clothing surrounded by lower-class children on either side fanned out. Maria is also shown in a very alluring soft-focus, which represents Freder’s point of view, and the moment of his ‘fall’ from his carefree simplistic privileged life. After this moment Freder goes on a very life-altering journey, which is a pilgrimage of sorts.

The contrast between the privileged life, which Freder had grown accustomed to, and the lives of the ‘hands’ is also mirrored exceptionally through the aesthetics of the surroundings. In the beginning Freder is surrounded by soft-focus and a world of a very organic (although seemingly artificial) environment, which is then brought into harsh disparity with the dark sharply contrasted angular exceedingly mechanical world of the ‘depths’ within the ‘metropolis,’ with which his life had little connection up until this point. The glaring example of this was Freder’s first introduction to the world of the ‘depths,’ when he stands by and watches as a dozen or so workers man a huge severe exaggerated symmetrical machine.
This unsympathetic world is very abruptly introduced with an intertitle leading directly into the ensuing organized chaos, which is expressed through the change in music as well as the sharpness of the picture. It is also at this point that the theme of the mindless, faceless, nameless ‘cog in the machine’ aspect of the working class is introduced. This is perfectly shown when the viewer is presented with a wide shot of the machine in which the workers movements are all synchronized and mechanized. Furthermore this idea of ‘cogs in the machine’ is taken in a more metaphorical direction when the machine over heats and pandemonium ensues, in a scene where from Freder’s frightened perspective the machine transforms into a monstrous vision of ‘Moloch’ to which the offending workers are summarily fed, in a strange sacrifice, only to be quickly replaced as if nothing had happened at all. This is however only the beginning of the concept of human labors as expendable and the impersonal vision the working class.

This concept is taken even further with the introduction of the two supporting characters of Josaphat (Theodor Loos) and worker 11811 (Erwin Biswanger). Both of these characters are utilized to further the concepts surrounding the insignificance of the individual in Lang’s dystopian society. Josaphat serves many different purposes within the subtext of the film. When Joh Fredersen fires Josaphat for his seeming inability to keep up with the happenings of the ‘underlings’, it was a perfect example of the ruthless leadership style with which the ‘head’ presides over his kingdom. This is once again visually represented well (in addition to effectively sparking contrast with Freder as the ‘heart’) with the over the shoulder shot directly following Josaphat’s dismissal. Joh’s face isn’t even shown; this effectively aesthetically creates an emotional barrier. By showing only the back of the patriarchs head and the action of his completely emotionally detached shrug in the foreground, in contrast to Freder’s disturbed and emotional reaction in the background, the metaphor of the ‘heart’ as a mediator to the ‘head’ becomes more ostensible and Joh Fredersen, is further shown as entirely detached from the world that he has created.

The use of Worker 11811 is also tremendously valuable in relating the separation between the classes. Before 11811 is singled out and becomes an important piece within the plot, he, along with the rest of the working class, remain an assemblage of seemingly mindless automatons. This is constantly epitomized visually as the workers move and work in large homogenous groups, filtering in and out of the depths in perfect lines and columns, with their heads all bowed in desperation in regards to their forced submission. Lang’s constant use of imagery focusing on the group mentality, filing in and out, up and down, and to and fro all in coordination with the large ten hour clock and the machines which they themselves control, generates a distinctive vision of the monotony within such a system.
But, by singling out one of the workers, 11811, and having Freder take the place of said worker also brilliantly evokes the desired intention. By showing the droning repetitive work and focusing on specific jobs, which are seemingly meaningless, with workers who’s motivations are completely abstracted from the ‘head’s’ vision, Lang effectively mirrors the Tower of Babel story, in which the workers are so distanced from desires of the ‘head,’ that they can’t envision the big picture. The workers under Joh’s city, similarly to the hired ‘hands’ of Babel, are unable to recognize the value of the work which they do day in and day out, because their jobs are so sectioned off they can’t make the connections. This is also obvious when the end result of their insurrection affects them negatively; they have no concept of the hazardous results of their actions.

Another way in which the aesthetics of this film effectively create an intricate society through which Lang’s vision is presented is through the architecture of the city itself. Through many different techniques, especially the focus on the grandiose architecture throughout, the grim reality of the exaggerated mock capitalism and fascism of Lang’s world comes to the metaphorical foreground. Through fast editing montages of the, almost abstracted within the context, sharp rigid buildings shown at Dutch angles, the city itself takes on a harsh and unforgiving personality of it’s own. Lang also directly links the ostensible personality of the city to the inner workings within the city. Shots of the city are paralleled with shots of the pumping pulsating pieces of the machines within the depths that keep the city operational. Lang’s vision of a ‘metropolis’ filled with buildings of unimaginable size, highways crossing throughout the skies and a continuous effervescent energy, is also effective at presenting a world where the individual is completely lost in the shear unimaginable magnitude.

On a different line of thought another way in which religion plays and interesting part in the film is through the idea of the idea of the apocalypse. Through the use of the “Machine-Man” fashioned in the likeness of the pure intentioned Maria, sowing the seven deadly sins throughout the city, in the depths as well as within the more ‘respected’ circles of society, Lang ends up presenting the problems within the upper and the lower classes. In the end all are shown to be ‘human,’ and all give in to sin, but for different reasons, but the machine-man is used as the tool that brings destruction upon society as a whole. When contrasting the sins of the upper and lower classes and the motivations, which make them more apt to succumb to the sins offered to them, it becomes obvious that Lang’s society, which rather disturbingly reflects society in actuality, consists of a gullible, undereducated and overworked lower class, who are tired of being taken advantage of as a means to ends which they are not exposed to, and an overindulgent morally corrupt upper class who take for granted that which is given to them. Both are equally fallible and the mechanical Maria takes full advantage of both of their incentives to induce a sinful chaos within the city.

This brilliantly introduces an interesting dilemma within the society of the film, that of the machine. While in the end the machine-man brought about the destruction of Joh Fredersen’s vision, the destructions of the machines could very well have been to the detriment of the lower class, with the deaths of their children, while only being a minor inconvenience to the higher class. This in many ways brings about the question the part that machines should play within society. While it isn’t completely clear, it seems that Lang is trying to suggest that the industrialization of modern society has gotten out of hand, and if not monitored may quickly get out of hand, creating a dehumanizing environment.
With all plot aside, Lang’s film is as effective as it is through the use of countless fascinating and innovative filmic techniques, which amazingly epitomized Lang’s mise-en-scène. By creating massive exaggerated art-deco sets, rife with symbolism (the use of the pentagram serving as a fine example), as well as scale architectural models the city was allowed to truly come alive in the imagination of the viewer. Also the use of make-up and costume design played a huge part in the ways in which the characters were given their own exaggerated aesthetic, which worked well within the narrative. But aside from all of this, one of the most intriguing filmic techniques were the special effects used, particularly the double exposures which created the vision of ‘Moloch,’ the brilliant mad scientist effects used in Rotwang’s (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) lab, as well as the chaotic environment (as in when Freder first lays eyes upon the ‘machine-man Maria’). All of these elements as well as plenty that have been overlooked in this paper, in conjunction with a complex narrative make Fritz Lang’s Metropolis one of the finest illustrations of the power and possibilities of cinema, past present and future.

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Here is my paper that I just wrote for my philosophy of aesthetics class. It’s basically trying to prove/disprove certain points regarding Clive Bell’s Theory of Significant Form, using Carl Theodor Dreyer’s masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc. So without further adieu…

~The Significant form of The Passion of Joan of Arc~

For the purpose of this paper I will describe the ways in which Carl Theodor Dreyer’s film The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) relates to Clive Bell’s theories of significant form as outlined in his piece “Art as Significant Form: From Art” (Dickie 73-83). Through this paper I will outline Bell’s theories, the work, Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, the ways in which Dreyer’s film works within Bell’s theory as well as putting forth ways in which the film defies Bell’s exclusionary theory. Through this paper I will attempt to ratify Bell’s theory on significant form, while presenting evidence to the fact that significant form is, in direct opposition to Bell’s piece, not the only important aspect of aesthetic philosophy.
In his piece Clive Bell begins by stating that “The starting-point for all systems of aesthetics must be the personal experience of a peculiar emotion.” (Dickie 74) This statement leads quickly to his decision that there is one “quality without which a work of art cannot exist” (Dickie 74), significant form. He furthers this theory by defining significant form as “lines and colours combined in a particular way, certain forms and relations of forms, stir our aesthetic emotions.” (Dickie 74-75) Through the rest of the writing it becomes clear that Bell’s idea of significant form is an almost intangible feature within a work, which few are apt to search for and find, yet it also becomes clear that when speaking of significant form he is referring to a specific use of line, space, and the careful ways in which these are utilized within a work to extricate a certain emotion within the viewer. While Bell mentions that in his opinion the greatest form of art is primitive art that lacks all representation, he also states that while representation is in general in defiance of significant form there are times in which representation doesn’t detract from significant form. As discussed in Class in regards to Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (1942) there are some examples of art where subjects represented become secondary to the significant form within the work. In hopper’s work, which directly represents a view into a late night dinner and the “melancholy” patrons, there is however a certain attention paid to significant form, the angles which Hopper utilizes as well as the expression of color create a certain undeniable aesthetic emotion within the viewer regardless of what is represented.
At this point I will introduce Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Carl Theodor Dreyer was a Dutch auteur who began making film in the silent era. Dreyer’s film The Passion of Joan of Arc is a silent film, shot in black and white, which attempts to present the viewer with an account of the trial, conviction, and execution of one of the most intriguing “martyrs” of recent history, Joan of Arc. The film begins at onset of the trial, the viewer is then carried through the proceedings (of the trial), the different hardships that Joan is exposed to in order to test her, and finally her conviction and end. Dreyer’s film presents the viewer with a very passionate story, however he presents said story in a very sparse way. The film is comprised of mainly extreme close up shots, and settings with very little extravagance. Through the film the slightest difference in setting is extremely important and any variance from the extremely blank background proves to be extremely important to the plot. The film is also filled with intriguing symbolism, such as the use of shadows of imprisoning bars on the floor that seemingly form a cross.
The symbolism, however, is inconsequential for my purpose of relating this filmic work of art to Bell’s theory. The direct way in which this work plays into Bell’s theory is the way in which Dreyer utilizes human form in a seemingly abstract way, to convey a certain aesthetic emotion within the viewer. By showing the specific forms (in this case characters) the way that he does, Dreyer, whether intended or not gives very little value to the actual being and more importance to the way in which they are presented.

The image above is simply one example of the way in which Dreyer aesthetically frames each scene of this film. By presenting the viewer two seemingly disinterested, or distracted subjects, in the foreground of a seemingly white space, he places more importance upon the form, which the two characters take. In the above picture, regardless of the context of the scene or even what the two objects within the frame represent the viewer is presented with a use of space, line and slightly skewed angle which conveys a certain un-nerving aesthetic emotion.
Dreyer’s use of the human face is ever more interesting throughout the film. Dreyer’s characters are presented for the most part, sans make up or special effect (which is also irrelevant in regards to my argument), and in increasingly interesting composition. The composition of the shots is what I would like to focus on in relation to Bell’s significant form, this becomes ever more apparent in such shots as the one below, which begins to show (while presenting the viewer with the emotion within the actresses face) Dreyer’s disregard for the actuality of the object, which nearly fills the entire frame in a way in which every shadow and every angle becomes increasingly more important.

While one can look at this image and see a teary eyed woman, which in itself may bring forth certain emotion, it is when one abstracts the object of the composition that a certain attention to form becomes apparent. The focus and depth of the image as well as the stark contract of the lines breaths a certain indescribable aesthetically charged emotion to this frame (which is a mere still frame).
This effect is even further illustrated by the fact that throughout the film the subject of the frame is often presented in such a way that virtually nothing but the use of line, space and angle is important. This is illustrated well in frames, which are periodic throughout the work, where the subject of the frame for the most part off screen, which serves to further abstract the fact that the subject is a human being.

This is perfectly exemplified by the above still. In this still, which serves as an example, neither the face, nor the hands, nor the action presented is what the scene truly exemplifies; the frame perfectly exemplifies the ideals of significant form. Neither of the two ‘characters’ involved in this scene is shown in full they are both cut off in some way or another, which places the focus less on the actual object, and more focus on the form of the objects. Through the use of shadow as well as the angles at which the lines (which make up the characters) are presented once again provides a certain aesthetic emotion within the viewer. What’s truly important in this still as well as throughout the film is line, shadow (i.e. color) and the angles at which these are presented.
While looking at stills helps to express my point, there is also a certain significant form with which the objects move and are filmed. Throughout the film the viewer is presented with frames composed very similarly to the stills, which I have presented as reference. A fair amount of the film is presented in extreme close up shots, which often serve to abstract the actual character and exemplify a certain aesthetic emotion. When viewed as it was intended as a film, rather than looking at it in stills, the ways in which the scenes change and the ways in which the characters move also convey a certain significant form. By this I mean that the way in which the film is cut is extremely abstract, cutting from close up to close up (often abruptly), with very little for the viewer to pay attention to other than the object which the composition focuses upon. However, the way in which the objects are presented immediately abstracts them, and from that moment having the characters move in a rather deliberate way, and then having the rapidity of the sequence cutting follow the emotional tempo of the particular scene adds to the relation of significant form (linked to the way in which the series of images is presented/portrayed).
Nonetheless, when I started to write this paper on the significant form of a work which has give me, personally, an extreme aesthetic emotion, two problems within Bell’s statements came to mind. Firstly, was the problem of conveyance, this is a problem which Bell seems to fully understand. In his writing he states that aesthetic judgment of a certain work of “art” is completely subjective. As stated earlier, such judgments are based upon personal experience, while this piece may move me toward a particular aesthetic emotion, it may mot effect another viewer in the same way. This point also broaches another roadblock involved in trying to convey a personal reaction regarding the significant form and aesthetic emotion involved in a certain work, and that is the fact that without actually experiencing the work yourself, the statements that I present you with are of very little consequence since you may or may not have actually experienced the work for yourself.
The second and more intriguing problem which The Passion of Joan of Arc perfectly illustrates is the fact that, while significant form is an extremely interesting and important aspect to a work of art there are many other different aspects of the work, which when coalesced give a work of art its power. Bell specifically states, that “In pure aesthetics we have only to consider our emotion and its object.” (Dickie 75) With this statement as well as a fair amount of Bell’s argument he intends for the art critic to separate meaning and representation from the work and focus purely on the significant form and the consequential aesthetic emotion. This is however flawed, when thinking of a work of art such as Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc there are so many things to take into account, for example the morality of the work. In Bell’s opinion art is above morality, however with regard to many artwork, I tend to lean toward the idea that Dickie presented in his article “The Myth of the Aesthetic Attitude” that “a work’s moral vision is a part of the work.” (Dickie 353) The Passion of Joan of Arc is a fine example of this, since it is brilliantly aesthetic artwork within which there are multiple levels of moral commentary. The film is in fact recounting the moral persecution of one of the most fascinating martyrs of modern history, so not only is it remarkable to investigate the morality behind the trial itself, but what the film says about the time in which it was made (what environment called for this dramatic aesthetic interpretation of a moral persecution?).
So, in conclusion, when Carl Theodor Dreyer’s film is examined within the context of Bell’s ideals of significant form it proves that significant form is indeed an aspect of a piece which can have a definite impact on the effectiveness of the work. Through the significant form presented in this work, the viewer is struck with a certain peculiar aesthetic emotion regardless of the representational aspects of the piece. However, Bell’s conclusion that significant form should be the only aspect of a work of art which is critiqued in relation to aesthetics is however presumptuous and proven, through this and many other works, to be a fallacy.

A rather pixilated version of the film can be watched with French intertitles on youtube at the following link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0rQzsqrkbrU

So,

Hello, I’m Ted and this will be my blog about film. In this blog I intend to post all of my papers that I write about films for class as well as some of my general notes and thoughts. I’m excited to get started, and will begin as soon as I get a moment, but for now, I will just say that at the moment I am currently doing research on the Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer. I have written on paper on Dreyer’s film The Passion of Joan of Arc in relation to Clive Bells Theory of significant form, which I will post latter tonight, and I have been continuing my research and within the next few weeks will be finishing up a retrospective about Dreyer, where I will examine The Passion of Joan of Arc, Vampyr, Day of Wrath, Ordet, and Gertrud, as well as an overview of Dreyer as an auteur on the whole. Other things to come, I will also be posting the paper I previously wrote on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis as well as some other thoughts I have had in regards to Lang…

Anywho I am incredibly excited to get started, and I know that no one will be reading this just yet, I am completely fine if it just ends up a way for me to exercise my writing.

So thank you and I will return shortly.