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Arnheim for Film and Media Studies

Arnheim for Film and Media Studies

by Scott Higgins, Editor
Routledge, London, 2011
283 pp., illus. 23 b/w, Trade, $125.00; paper, $37.95
ISBN: 978-0-415-80107-2; ISBN: 978-0-415-80108-9.

Reviewed by Ian Verstegen
Moore College of Art & Design


Although he has enjoyed a reputation amid the great theoreticians in Europe, Rudolf Arnheim has suffered in the English-speaking world as slightly too formalistic, modernist, conservative, to be truly interesting. However, this book – coming from the progressive fields of film and media studies – changes all that. Arnheim is back, contextualized, put to work and updated. It might be the case that the book has single-handedly brought him back, or at least captured the sea-change in thinking that allows us to look at him again in a new light.

Part of the major change of the chapters in this book is the interpretation of Arnheim with charity in concert with historical contextualization. The authors, reading Arnheim’s Film as Art in the 1957 edition, come across a strange passage. But instead of concluding with what they know of Arnheim from secondary sources, they pass onto his larger theoretical commitments, providing a rounded picture.

This big picture is provided in David Bordwell’s short essay and in Meraj Dhir’s more synoptic chapter. Stressing Arnheim’s psychological commitments, Dhir urges us to withhold judgment on Arnheim’s apparently normative statements in favor of interpretations of the expressive properties of experience. In a remarkable essay, Malcolm Turvey questions his earlier discussion of Arnheim as modernist and produces some fascinating insights relative to Arnheim’s supposed media essentialism through a comparison with Clement Greenberg. Eric Rentschler gives a very rich overview of the Weimar context of Arnheim’s early career, making interesting comparisons with Siegfried Kracauer, emphasizing commonalities over differences.

A couple of chapters deal with the ontology of the photographic image. Thus, Patrick Keating departs from Arnheim’s comments on Italian neo-realism to show how Arnheim’s emphasis on the formative powers of film can also accommodate contingency. Vincent Bohlinger emphasizes similarities between Arnheim and Bazin, noting in an interesting way that for Arnheim it is impossible to show realist authenticity without form. Jinhee Choi successfully disambiguates the sometime conflation of medium and aesthetic principle in Arnheim. It is not the color film per se that is objectionable to Arnheim, it is the question of aesthetic control. Digital intermediaries, for example, could allow control of color in new ways, while a traditional black and white film could be discordant.

I place these discussions first because they aid the further discussions of sound, color and avant-garde experimentation. Nora Alter’s chapter on the sound film is the most skeptical of the whole collection and does not really take up Choi’s suggestion. Higgins, however, is very complementary to Choi in pointing out the use of color composition in Vincente Minnelli’s work in a way that upholds Arnheim’s concerns. Finally, Maureen Turim discusses Arnheim’s connections to the New York experimental scene in the 1950s and 1960s. Although many would see Arnheim as opposed to such filmmaking, their opposition to the narrative and language-based effects of mainstream Hollywood cinema led them quite comfortably to Arnheim.

Leading more to new media, Shawn Vancour discusses Arnheim’s contribution to radio, suggesting that Arnheim’s thinking is open to “extra-formalist” considerations of the kind he demonstrated in his more sociological work at Columbia University during World War II. Doron Gallili’s chapter on television sees Arnheim in his most progressive light, suggesting that Arnheim understood television as both convergent (combining film and radio) and remediative (of theater). Another chapter considers a new medium that Arnheim never studied: comics. Greg Smith uses Arnheim’s “New Laocoon,” which tried to settle the aesthetic question of the combination of media definitively, to understand the relative balance of image and text in a comic, and recommends using the “processual” or psychological elements of Arnheim’s theory over those that are “prescriptive,” which stalls discussion. Finally, Colin Burnett treats of an Arnheimian theory of style, which can successfully separate stylistic device from historical classes.

Burnett’s chapter is a fitting conclusion to the book because super-individual concepts are the very root of Arnheim’s project. In other words, to appreciate Arnheim for what he can offer is to realize that one must eventually leave postmodern nominalism. After reading this book, some rules of thumb emerge: one has to recognize Arnheim as a psychologist (and not aesthetician) of media, one has to read all of Arnheim’s work to successfully contextualize his film (or radio) work, and lastly one has to believe that media and their effects really are different, even if this difference is dynamic and stratified and not ‘essentialist.’

Last Updated 4 July 2011

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