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Sunday, July 10, 2011

What We See at the Movies

In this the third in our Virtual Summer Circle of Thomistic Studies, let’s focus on the theme on which Maritain ends Chapter II of Art and Scholasticism: that art is essentially an activity of reason.

In the final paragraph of the chapter Maritain writes:

The work of art has been thought before being made, it has been kneaded and prepared, formed, brooded over, ripened in a mind before passing into matter. And in matter it will always retain the color and savor of the spirit. Its formal element, what constitutes its species and makes it what it is, is its being ruled by the intellect. If this formal element diminishes ever so little, to the same extent the reality of art vanishes.

Matter? Formal element? Let’s bring these abstract terms to life with some examples.

In talking about art in the passage quoted, Maritain employs the metaphor of bread-making. Art must be “kneaded and prepared.” But in art the kneading and preparing of the dough is done not by the hands, but the mind. In a work of art the mind takes thought and “en-forms” some matter with it. In bread-making itself, the thought involved can be summed up by the word “recipe.” In the writing of a symphony, thought is expressed in the elements of rhythm, melody, harmony, counterpoint, etc., en-forming sound.

Thought is the formal or “shaping” element of art. Matter is the “stuff” out of which the work is made. Hence Maritain defines art using St. Thomas Aquinas’s Latin phrase: recta ratio factibilium: “right reason about things to be made.”     

I want to try and make these thoughts even more vivid by applying them to an interesting discussion in this morning’s New York Times by film critic Manohla Dargis, in which Dargis reflects upon the ways in which habits of cognition and visual perception affect the ways in which we see movies. There are many fascinating items in Dargis’s piece about the ways in which our attention is shaped and how that shaping affects the way in which we watch movies. But I’ll just focus on that part of Dargis’s piece in which she considers a comment by film theorist David Bordwell:  

As Mr. Bordwell recently wrote on his blog,, “perceptually, films are illusions, not reality; cognitively, they are not the blooming, buzzing confusion of life but rather simplified ensembles of elements, designed to be understood.” Both the real world and earlier movies we’ve seen teach us how to look at films: we look at movies and understand them through their norms.

We see movies, says Dargis, based upon habits attained by our history of movie-watching and by our experience of “the real world.” These two sources provide the “norms” of our movie-going experience.

For most us, our history of movie-watching is filled predominantly with popular films out of Hollywood and the distinctive ways in which those films depict action, are cut, make use of dialogue, close-ups, music, and the like. This helps explains why in watching the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, we don’t notice the pirate who in the one scene left his shades on—because our perceptual habits have us focused on Johnny Depp’s face.

The deep grooves of our cognitive habits also help explain why we become slightly weary when films such as The Tree of Life and Into Great Silence don’t move at the pace or make use of dialogue in the ways in which Hollywood films do. As Dargis quotes Bordwell: “Narrative is our ultimate top-down strategy in watching a movie…specifically, I think, classical narrative principles.” In other words, what we look for first in watching a movie, at least those of us who consume a steady diet of Hollywood cinema, is plot. We want to see a hero desiring a clear goal and encountering ever-greater obstacles in the pursuit of it.

To bring this back round to Maritain: when it comes to movie-watching, all of this perceptual and cognitive shaping is owed, on the one hand, to the thought of those artists who make the film, principally the writer and the director. It is these film artists who seek to “say” something by cutting a scene at just this point, or by adding a line of dialogue here, or, as Hitchcock did in the famous scene from North by Northwest, by eschewing music for an entire scene and relying only on ambient sound. In all of these decisions the artist’s reason is “kneading” the “dough” of his art, exerting “right reason upon things to be made.”

Chesterton once said: “Art consists of limitation. The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame.” In this typical bit of Chestertonian hyperbole we find a unique expression of the definition of art. Art does consist of limitation, if by limitation we understand the myriad decisions by which the artist en-forms stuff with thought.  

Recall, however, that our movie-watching history is only one source of the habits we bring into the living room or theater. The other source is our experience of life itself. While it is true that when the house lights go down we tend to look for plot above all else, this expectation is not merely due to all the plot-driven Hollywood movies we’ve seen in our lives. It’s also due to what we know about human beings. Life itself is plot-driven. The narrative structure of human existence is not something filmmakers have invented and wired into our consciousness. It is there wherever a human being exists.

For what else is it to be a human being than to be an agent on the hunt for happiness? 

This insight that life is narrative is the deepest source of “right reason” when it comes to storytelling of all kinds. And to paraphrase Maritain, if this formal element of the art of storytelling diminishes ever so little, to the same extent the reality of the art vanishes.

1 comment:

  1. I have always held that what we get out of a movie depends on what we bring to it , not just beliefs and life experiences but even more immediate circumstances (illness, serious concerns etc.)that are affecting our world-view at the time. For most of us narrative is most important in drawing us in, but for more and more young people with short attention spans and a sound-bite way of thinking chaotic disjointed films that present concepts in a jerky manner like a hand-held camera may appeal.
    Peter E. Dans, author of Christians in the Movies : A century of Saints and Sinners