Woolf's essay "The Cinema" is probably one of my favorite essays of hers that we have read this semester. I am currently taking a class on Philosophy of Film and I thought it was very interesting how Woolf, in 1926 and thus, years before the main realist critics, paved the way for them with her own musings upon the art of cinema. The fact that she considers it an art, but a completely new one, with its own, unique possibilities, is what was so interesting to me, because it is years later that Bazin and Kracauer seem to echo these sentiments against the current of the orthodox school, members of which wanted to elevate cinema to the heights of literature and thus, insisted it is similar to other types of classical art such as that or painting. What I also found interesting was Woolf’s connection with the Russian filmmakers (we all know she loved Russian writers and literature) – Eisenstein and Pudovkin. Both of them believed in the power of montage as the key ingredient of cinema, something that equated it with the literature for instance, in that through montage, the filmmaker is thought to actually create an art form from scratch – from separate shots. However, this ties in with Between the Acts quite interestingly; through montage, the filmmaker believes he can make associations for the viewer, create them as his own. This is not something Woolf particularly looked for in any kind of art, as she admired the possibility of “shared meaning” arising from the author and the audience as well as the players. So, inspired by this essay, I wrote my term paper for Philosophy of Film upon this subject – Woolf and Film as Film, Woolf and the realist school. I thought I’d share some of my reflections upon this subject through what I wrote in my paper.
What is very interesting about Woolf’s essay is that she, perhaps unknowingly, acknowledges different sides of the argument that surrounded the medium of film at its birth. In “The Cinema”, she addresses the view that films are not art and are often considered below such mediums as painting and that of her own, writing. In the beginning of her essay she writes, “Yet at first sight the art of the cinema seems simple, even stupid” (1), but still refers to film as an art and even compares it to the art of music, the art of Mozart. To Woolf, film is to her contemporary, modern man the same as “two bars of iron” to “bright-eyed naked men who knocked them together and heard in that clangour a foretaste of the music of Mozart” (1). Thus, it is evident from the very beginning that Woolf sees film as a medium with great potential in the hands of modern men, however, she is convinced these modern men are not exactly sure of what to do with what they have been given. This is probably the core of the argument between the orthodox and realist schools; each group held its own kind of restrictive extreme, whether it be attempting to elevate films to the status of literature and painting or insisting that film creates a new understanding of reality, while heavily relying on it, to the point where, as Perkins writes, it was not due to these critics that film became more and more popular and loved, but rather because of talented filmmakers that took this new medium and ran with it (10). It seems that Woolf is very much right in this comparison; both schools created so much clamor with their bars of iron in their own defense of film, because nobody was entirely sure of what to do with this new medium and how to legitimize it in the eyes of the public. Woolf rightly describes the chaos that arose from the birth of film, “All is hubble-bubble, swarm and chaos. We are peering over the edge of a cauldron in which fragments of all shapes and savours seem to simmer; now and again some vast form heaves itself up and seems about to haul itself out of chaos” (1). Here, Woolf seems to almost compare film with some sort of magic, still a bit obscured from view for the modern man, but struggling to free itself and reach its full potential.
Yet in her musings upon the art of cinema and her analysis of this medium, Woolf tends to lean towards the likes of Bazin and Kracauer. While she acknowledges that people may perceive film as a medium where “the brain, agreeably titillated, settles down to watch things happening without bestirring itself to think” (1), she ends the same paragraph with the statement, “The eye says to the brain, ‘Something is happening which I do not in the least understand. You are needed.’ Together they look at the king, the boat, the horse, and the brain sees at once that they have taken on a quality which does not belong to the simple photograph of real life” (1). Thus, here she begins to lay the groundwork for the realist school’s thought that film enriches reality, even though it mirrors it to a certain extent, because of its imitative nature. But Woolf, much like the realists after her, does not dismiss this certain degree of imitativeness, but rather embraces it and elevates it to a new height by saying that these objects depicted on the filmstock have become “more real, or real with a different reality from that which we perceive in daily life. We behold them as they are when we are not there. We see life as it is when we have no part in it” (2). This is very similar to what Perkins writes about Bazin and his idea that film eliminates, liberates art from the presence of man, which leads to a new kind of experience of reality, a more objective one, a new dimension, rid of habit and prejudice (29-31). Very similarly, Woolf goes on to say, “From this point of vantage, as we watch the antics of our kind, we have time to feel pity and amusement, to generalize, to endow one man with the attributes of the race…we have time to open our minds” (2).
Woolf also emphasizes her realist stance by directly challenging the orthodox school’s attempts to elevate film to the status of art. She begins another paragraph,
the picture-makers seem dissatisfied with such obvious sources of interest as the passage of time and the suggestiveness of reality. They despise the flight of the gulls, ships on the Thames, the Prince of Wales, the Mile End Road, Piccadilly Circus. They want to be improving, altering, making an art of their own. (2)
This reference to the flight of the gulls and ships on the river is, of course, a very realist one. To Woolf, this notion that life goes on despite the absence of an immediate spectator other than the lens, the passage of time, the accidental occurrences caught on film, the busy Piccadilly Circus in London, all of this is very much important to Woolf in regards to cinema and its capabilities. She is most interested in these notions she mentions earlier, notions of watching life and beauty as an observer, an uninvolved spectator, and delving deeper into newly unearthed dimensions of life, ones that one might miss while in the midst of action and life. She is not very interested in leveling film with literature or painting, because she seems to understand that cinema is capable of something different than these two already established and beloved mediums, and she clearly admires all three.
This direct challenge of the orthodox school, which included the likes of Eisenstein and Pudovkin, is perhaps her acquaintance with these Russian filmmakers. In his essay, “Virginia Woolf and Cinema”, David Trotter poses the hypothesis that Woolf, in fact, attended screenings at the British Film Society founded in 1925, where various films were shown, including German Expressionist and Soviet montage films, and various filmmakers came to speak, Eisenstein being one of them. This is perhaps where she borrows from her notion that film should portray “emotions mingling together and affecting each other…the most fantastic contrasts could be flashed before us with a speed which the writer can only toil after in vain” (5). This notion of contrast is strikingly similar to Eisenstein’s theory of montage, where juxtaposition and collision of images creates an explosion of meaning. However, similarly to Bazin and Kracauer, Woolf recognizes the dangers of montage. As Trotter writes, “What Woolf didn’t like about films of this kind was what she didn’t like about novels of a certain kind: their determinism, their reduction of suggestiveness to meaning” (18). This recalls Bazin’s belief, as quoted by Perkins, that montage is “essentially and by its very nature opposed to the expression of ambiguity” (33). For Woolf especially, this is a very dangerous thought. In her essay, “The Authority of Illusion: Feminism and Fascism in Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts”, Patricia Klindienst Joplin explores the notion of authority and fascism and what it meant to Woolf as an artist. As a writer, Woolf understood very well the possibility of swaying the audience into her way of thinking, a very tempting possibility for a woman in a patriarchal society. However, as a writer preoccupied with the thought of subjectivity as well as peace and the prospect of World War II approaching Britain ever so fast, Woolf rejected this kind of meaning that Eisenstein sought to provide with his montage films. To her, the very underlying notion of authoritarianism was such abuse of language, in this case the language of film, abuse that abolished the freedom of ambiguity and of continuously created meaning outside of that of the author (90). In contrast, Eisenstein’s belief was that the collision of images created meaning for the spectator and thus, manifested the genius of the director, who arranged the images in a particular, meaningful way through the art of montage. In this way, the filmmaker was presented as creating a film in a fashion similar to the creation of literature by a writer; by placing images in certain spots and sequences, he was almost as if arranging words on a piece of paper, creating prose rather than reproducing already existing reality. Even though this representation of film and the filmmaker was a noble attempt to legitimize cinema as an art flowing from the creative genius of a person rather than simply imitating reality outside of filmmaker’s control and creativity, this method still tended to hand meaning to the spectator on the proverbial silver platter. This was not something Woolf approved of and it was certainly not what she sought in the cinema.