Murray Smith:  Film

In Berys Gaut and Dominic Lopes, The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics (2001) 


This document is a summary of M. Smith. 
My personal comments are in red. 
These comments have been added to help students understand his arguments.

Main issue: Is film an art because of the technology involved in film-making? Or is film an art in spite of the technology involved in film-making?

Arguments that film is not an art 

Roger Scruton [who has done important work in the aesthetics of architecture and music] argues that films are not art. Art involves an artist's vision: art interprets whatever it presents to the audience. Art presents a fiction to the imagination. But the recording process is essential to film, and the recording process is mechanical and independent of an artist's imaginative transformation of what it depicts. Therefore films are recordings of other artistic achievements involved in the imaginative design of a fiction, such as writing and acting. [Obviously, animation is a special case.]

Arguments for film as an art 

Film is art in its deviation from the reality that it records. Eisenstein emphasizes how film design (through editing and montage) creates meanings that cannot be found in the things that have been filmed. Arnheim argues that the transformation is even more basic. Every frame of film transforms whatever it films, imposing its own form on the things filmed. In this respect, Arnheim regards black-and-white, silent films as TRUE film. (The black-and-white film requires transformation into many shades of gray; the two-dimensions of the screen impose their own order onto the pictured space; silent film requires juxtaposition to SHOW what is too often said.) The combination of film with synchronized sound was not an advance in film. On the contrary, it stopped the development of the art by turning away from what is SPECIAL about film.

The specificity of film 

What is specific to the art of film, essential to it and found in no other art? It should be medium specific. The search for this specificity is the hallmark of CLASSICAL film theory.

The transformation of traditional aesthetic criteria 

Walter Benjamin and Andre Bazin sought film's specificity in elements that made it unlike the arts as they were traditionally conceived. For Benjamin, the MASS ART status of film (many copies, no one of which is original) frees it from associations with the "aura" of individual authorship. [Attempts to treat directors as artists responsible for films are in sharp contrast to Benjamin's proposal of what is good about film.]

Bazin agrees with Scruton that the film's power to RECORD reality is its essential feature. A film is a TRACE of an event. So film uniquely shows us what is real. So montage and other editing is a defect in a film, not a strength.

Contemporary developments 

Over time, film theory has developed a different focus from philosophy of film. Film theory concentrates on issues of interpretation and meaning. So film theory is a branch of semiotics (the study of signs), not aesthetics. Film aesthetics emphasizes the EXPERIENCE of film as more central than analysis of its messages.

Bordwell has argued that interpretation is less important than the way that film DEFAMILIARIZES what is otherwise familiar. [Film gets us to look at what we would not otherwise see.]

Carroll calls into question the essentialist assumption of the specificity thesis. Film has no feature that is unique to film. Nonetheless, film characteristically employs design features that make it cross-culturally accessible in a way that is not true of most art.

                        Last updated April 21, 2004