juliet koss, my former professor, recently published an epic book entitled modernism after wagner. i don’t want to say the book is entirely dedicated to me, but chapter six is called “the specter of cinema.” so draw what conclusions you will…i certainly have.
the title and dedication aside, koss’ “the specter of cinema” follows her usual genius pattern of eloquently bringing together seemingly disparate phenomena. in this case, koss thoughtfully explores cinema’s role in mass consumer culture by attempting to understand the perception of flatness in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
in 1873, friedrich nietzsche nicely summarized the popular conception of flatness in conflict with a fully cultivated and educated individual when he wrote that modern man “lets himself be emptied until he is no more than an objective sheet of plate glass.” but, as modernism progressed, flatness became increasingly associated with technological efficiency, including the technology of cinema. the initial connection is simple: obviously the screen itself is flat, and physically the viewers are arranged in flat rows. conceptually, the shared, communal cinema viewing creates a flat experience in which there are no dimensional individual understandings. in fact, siegfried kracauer claimed that films “drug the populace with the pseudo-glamour of counterfeit social heights, just as hypnotists use glittering objects to put their subjects to sleep.” whew!
the first ever serious film critic hugo münsterberg believed that the flatness of the film screen forced viewers to use their imagination in order to create dimensionality, and this effort is what makes cinema a legitimate art form. “by calling attention to the artifice of its images, it demanded a greater effort from its spectators, who were forced to confront flatness and depth simultaneously,” koss writes.
so, because film is two dimensional, the viewer must insert their own ideas onto the screen in order to make the projection real. this idea reminded me a lot of a great new york times article i read a few years ago about perceptions in the mirror. the object inside the mirror is imaginary and only exists via our interpretation. disturbingly, people tend to have a very skewed idea of what the mirror is reflecting, both in the size of the image on the glass (it’s actually only half the size of our real self) and in the level of attractiveness depicted (people see themselves as more attractive and others as less attractive). films require a similar self-awareness, which makes placing ourselves as viewers into the moving picture all the more dangerous. narcissus killed himself staring at his own reflection; could films, as kracauer believes, transfix us to the point that we can no longer function outside their virtual environment? read modernism after wagner to find out…