I’ve recently had a thought of sharing some of the papers I write on here. So, here’s a half-assed essay on Kracauer and Her. I’ve made some additions and changes to this before publishing it here (As a result it’s now full-assed), becuase if some kid finds this and steals from it to do their final essay for a class they’ve not been in all semester, I don’t want them to have the wrong information. Most of my additions come in the form of my favorite motif, the parenthesis! But other times, they are just re-written paragraphs.
So yeah, here’s my take on Seigfried HACKauer and film as art.
Kracauer and Her.
Film as a medium is “equipped to record and reveal physical reality” (Kracauer). Over time, we’ve learned to define this as an art form. The problem here is, when we try to examine what makes a film artistic, according to Siegfried Kracauer, it is nearly impossible to call any film an art. This is because an “artistic” film in the most traditional sense, is usually a film that neglects the medium’s obligations, which according to Kracauer are the properties by which film reflects life and reality. He says this because he feels that if any film was given the stamp of approval for being art, then it would be nearly impossible to appreciate a large amount of creativity that goes into the process. While I do agree with Kracauer to an extent, I like to think that my definition of why film is an art form is a lot more complicated than that. In the following paper, I will attempt to explain why I think so using examples from a film that I feel is deserving of the title “art”, called “Her”(2013).
The source of Kracauer’s theories lie in the shorts produced by the Lumière brothers and Méliès. He feels that the Lumière brothers did film right to begin with by establishing what film can do. They achieved this by filming the mundane activities that interested them, or funny shorts. This established the key component to film, the theatre and reality. While the Lumières indulged in nature and the real, Méliès started to break through that. He added “staged illusions” to substitute for “unstaged realities”, adding a level of artistic play in his work. I like to think that Georges Méliès was to the Lumière Brothers that Edwin S. Porter was to Edison. Both changing the way film was thought about by their predecessor. Therefore this idea of artists breaking the rules set by other artists, creating new rules for said art, was cemented in Kracauer’s theory.
Kracauer then talked about the idea of the two tendencies of film. The realistic and the formative. The realistic tendency was something that evolved from photography. So editing, composition and camera mobility played a huge role. But with all of this came a caveat, which was the fact that it drew attention away from what needed it the most. So, in making film realistic, we were driving away the sole factor that makes film, film. Which put by René Claire, was “movement”. The formative tendency was born out of the thought that film had a whole dimension to it that made it different from photography. As a result, there was a need to define the format of a film, which came in two forms, “story film” and “nonstory film”, which is also known as experimental film (Although any good narrative film, is an equally good experimental film. So it’s not much of a binary, it’s a spectrum. Films just lean more toward either Narrative or Non-Narrative. Like Meshes in the Afternoon (1943) has a narrative but it leans more towards the experimental side of film). Kracauer also introduced the idea of when there is a clash between the two tendencies, but never defined them since there are many.
This brings us to what Kracauer thinks is art. He tries to first define what “cinematic” means and then close in on what “art” is. According to Kracauer, anything that depicts reality is cinematic. But with reality comes a “strait-jacket” that doesn’t allow the filmmaker to break the rules set by the previous auteurs, as a result, it is not considered art. Art, to Kracauer, is anything that is not cinematic.
Before I begin talking about what my theories around this topic are, I want to justify why I picked this film. Kracauer wrote “Basic Concepts”, which is where he discusses ideas about what makes film an art form, in 1960. So, it’s safe to assume that color talkies were being shown at this time. At around the same time period, films that dealt with the idea of fantasy were also popular. This decade saw films such as “2001: A Space Odyssey”(1968) and “Planet of the Apes”(1968). Hence, I wanted to pick the closest parallel in terms of narrative or setting that I could from when Kracauer wrote his book. In “Her”(2013), the film is set in Japan, or at least a version of it, and it depicts a future that is much like our present but has more advanced technology. Lastly, much like “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), the film’s major characters are people who have been a part of that reality all their lives, and it’s about technology rising to the ranks that it becomes more intelligent and self-aware than the human mind.
I’m indifferent towards Kracauer’s statements about any film being cinematic to be art. However, his definition of “cinematic” and how “art” is whatever that isn’t cinematic raises some eyebrows. According to Kracauer, Her wouldn’t be art. I think it is.
A scene from this 126 minute film, that I think perfectly outlines this, is the beach scene from the film which includes Theodore (our protagonist) on the beach with Samantha (the operating system that Theodore is in love with) which then follows them going back home and Theodore telling Samantha about what it was like to be married. On a purely narrative point, this is an interesting setup. Only because so far, in a lot of films, we’ve seen technology rise to a point where it overthrows humanity but never to the point where it is in harmony with humanity, let alone fall in love with it. In addition to this, the film needs to explain an important abstract concept that is very difficult to explain in words even if you’re an eloquent person. Kracauer will call this cinematic and not art once again because it’s real to the point that the characters feel like real human beings, and the film depicts a reality that can be true, and the way the actors portray it, it feels like it is. To him, this is constricting film and everything it can do.
The scene starts with an establishing shot of Theodore lying in the sand, lens flares coming on and off and nondiegetic music playing. This then turns into diegetic music because Samantha mentions that it is a piece she’s written to reflect how she feels with him at that moment. Followed by a cut that ellipses time but not the music, turning it back into non-diegetic music. This is incredibly interesting and important because it reflects the nature of their relationship (I’m a sucker for German Expressionism and look for it everywhere), the reason I say this is because this shift in diegesis is constant throughout the film. In the film, Theodore and Samantha leave each other and get back together several times. Until finally when she leaves, and the film closes with non-diegetic music. That is a beautifully structured, well-thought choice, that not only uses all the technical aspects of film that we have at our disposal but also breaks the idea of realism creating this clash of ideas.
The next thing I want to bring to the forefront is when Theodore is telling Samantha what being married was like. This I find incredible because it flips the Kuleshov effect and uses it in a way that is very interesting. The filmmaker uses voice-over to have Theodore talk about what being married was like. Shot A was of his face before he started talking, Shot B immediately juxtaposed that with him lying down on the grass and his old partner Catherine, kissing him. This is important because that is something Theodore cannot experience with Samantha, So while the filmmaker is successful at showing us how Theodore felt about Catherine, at the same time, with the voice over and the flashback images, he’s able to portray the physical disconnect between Theodore and Samantha, clearly showing us the difference between the relationship Theodore had with Catherine and the relationship he has with Samantha, without ever saying the words “I had a great relationship with someone physically present”. This would go against Kracauer because the filmmaker didn’t break the rules set by Lev Kuleshov, but instead, molded it to fit a completely different context by still maintaining the meaning of the rule. This is brilliant work not only because it uses everything film has to offer as a visual art form but also moulds certain aspects of this art form to fit the ideas that the filmmaker wanted to portray. This is beautiful and interesting because even though a lot of films do this, this one used the choice on a completely new metaphorical level.
Lastly, The color pallette of the film is important. This is an idea that Kracauer never addressed in his arguments (at least in the snippet of “Basic Concepts” that was available to me, I remember talking to one of my professors about this, and I recall them telling me that Kracauer hated color, I don’t know how valid it is, but if it’s true, it only helps my argument). I feel that with the advent of color in mainstream film, it becomes a huge factor in deciding whether or not a film is a piece of art. Much like real art, “A starry night” by Vincent Van Gogh, would have a completely different meaning if it was made in different colors (See Rod Sterling’s Twilight Zone vs Night Gallery, same show, different perception ONLY because of color). Hence, with the dull tint that film has, along with its excessive use of primary colors, adds to the conversation of the film. The tint starts to disappear over the course of the film, signifying Theodore’s acceptance to the fact that he’s not married to Catherine anymore and that his life is taking a turn of the better (Again, a sucker for German Expressionism). Not only that but because this film is a thought experiment, the fact that the colors aren’t saturated forces us to think whether or not falling in love with an Operating System is good. But this is not something that is new to this film, films like “The Florida Project”, “La La Land”, and even “Do the right thing” does this. This whole aspect of film was ignored by Kracauer.
So although I do agree that non-cinematic films like, “Meshes in the Afternoon” or “A Movie” are works of art, I don’t think cinematic films should be avoided from that list. Only because, art is subjective and having a rubric for what makes a piece of art good or bad should be a loose rule since it’s much more complicated than that.
Jonze, Spike, director. Her. Annapurna Pictures, 2013.
Kracauer, Siegfried. “Basic Concepts.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, 8th ed., Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 113–125.