In 1927, Russian literary scholar Boris Eikhenbaum published an essay entitled “Problems of Cine-Stylistics,” wherein he discusses what is commonly known as cinematic specificity; that is, what makes the cinema a unique art form, particularly in comparison to its two closest relatives: photography and the theatre.
Now, I know you must be wondering why the hell I’m telling you this. Would you believe me if I said it was related to the Oscars? I promise. Bear with me.
In discussing the profound differences between the theatre and the cinema, Eikhenbaum focuses on the spectatorial subject. He argues that theatre is a communal art, which requires an audience to be fulfilled, whereas film is a contemplative and individual experience, which given access to the required equipment could even take place in total isolation. I can’t help but think that the guy would be totally jazzed about DVDs.
I got to thinking about Eikhenbaum while passionately grumbling about the Oscars – an annual pastime for myself and everyone else with Internet access. You see, I loved The Social Network, and was disappointed to see it lose Best Picture (Full disclosure: I think the best of the top 10 nominees was Winter’s Bone, but I can recognize that it would never win in a million years. The Social Network at least had a strong chance.) It’s not that I didn’t like The King’s Speech. I thought it was a very good film. (For a wonderful, passionate defence of the film and interesting discussion of its gender politics, check out Sissy LaRue’s article from Persephone.) And as I was trying to nail down what it was that I didn’t quite do it for me, my mind wandered back to Eikhenbaum ““ a relative footnote in Film Theory, but one who nonetheless illustrates my own problems with the film.
As I re-read his work, I realized that the issue I found with The King’s Speech was not its subject matter ““ I like a good ol’ story of triumph over adversity as much as the next person ““ nor its performances ““ I think Colin Firth’s Best Actor Oscar is very well deserved, along with Helena Bonham Carter and Geoffrey Rush’s nominations. It was its theatricality. Screenwriter David Seidler (did anyone catch his adorable acceptance speech on Sunday night?) originally conceived of and wrote the project as a play, so this is not altogether surprising. But it undoubtedly the issue I had. To me, the film felt static and stuffy. As Eikhenbaum argues, “theatre has only a single temporal and spatial perspective and a static nature.” What I love about cinema is its “specificity” ““ its ability to construct parallel action, embrace depth of time and space, and show us, as spectators, what can’t be shown on a stage.
Eikhenbaum was among a group of Russian Formalists who passionately promoted the aesthetic innovation made possible by the cinema. I take a dramatically less ideological route: this is but one opinion on one film, from one Oscar season, from one year. As Eikhenbaum noted over 80 years ago, the cinema is a personal experience. Everyone has a film (or many films) that they love or hate just because or even in spite of “¦ My roommate loves Jurassic Park because when she was 10 years old, she saw it 12 times over a summer she spent on exchange in Costa Rica ““ she didn’t speak Spanish and it was the only building in the town that has air conditioning. Despite a bloated script, questionable directing and at times embarrassing performances, I still love Titanic, because it was the first film that made me want to learn more about how it was made. One of my favourite films is Into the Wild. I could write you an essay about the formal qualities of the film, from the breathtaking cinematography to the masterful
Editor’s note: The witty and delightful filmschooled allows me to run amok through her blog on a weekly basis, finding bits and pieces of interesting things to share with our readers. You can read her post in its original context here.