The Aesthetic Elements of Kracauer’s Theory of Cinematic Realism Present Within Pawel Pawlikowski’s My Summer of Love, by Darrell Tuffs
Siegfried Kracauer – born February 8th, 1889 – was a landmark film theorist, who in 1960, released his expansive book on film, Theory of Film. The book outlines and explores cinema as, “The Redemption of Physical Reality,” as described in the book’s subtitle. Kracauer, like Andre Bazin, was interested in viewing cinema from a realist prospective. However, where as Bazin’s ideas where more focused on cinema as a means to capture a reality already existent, Kracauer’s attention was centred on cinema’s ability to redeem reality, one lost within our unconscious to the world of modernity, and found by the camera’s gaze in the world of the cinema. Where as Bazin’s approach to realism was focused on the question “what is cinema?” Kracauer, in his theory, attempts to answer a slightly different question, in discovering what is “cinematic”. In which, “physical existence” must be established, and used effectively, to allow us to view the world properly.
Kracauer summarises his book as, “(An) insight into the intrinsic nature of photographic film.” (Kracauer, 1960, p.xlvii), moving on to claim that, “Films come into their own when they record and reveal physical reality.” (p.xlix) With these statements, the almost spiritual power in which Kracauer assigns to cinema becomes clear. He suggests that cinema reveals a reality we would be blind to otherwise, suggesting that, “(Modern man) lacks the guidance of binding norms. He touches reality only with his fingertips.” (p.294). And so, for Kracauer, the cinema allows us to gain access to a fuller established reality, “Film renders visible what we did not … It effectively assists us in discovering the material world with its psychophysical correspondence.” (p.300) Meaning that, through cinema, we are engaged and invited to view physical existence and reality within its purest form.
A great number of stylistic choices present within Pawel Pawlikowski’s My Summer of Love (2004) support or call attention to Kracauer’s theories. First, and most strikingly, is the manner in which the film seems to be primarily concerned with the ever-flowing world that surrounds its central characters. Many of the film’s most significant scenes begin or end with shots of trees blowing gently in the wind, or rivers graciously streaming, free of human disturbance or interaction. The film draws attention to the fact that, outside the scope of these characters, and this narrative, the world continues to move and grow. This is extremely significant to Kracauer’s theory; the film’s characters never once comment on, or even seem to notice this flowing world of movement. Kracauer would suggest that the film’s characters are blind to the real world of physical reality; yet we as spectators are not. This is because cinema holds a primal need to capture reality, in wishing for us to explore through it, these fleeting moments, by assigning them significance. Kracauer writes, “In using its freedom to bring the inanimate to the fore and make it a carrier of action, film only protests its peculiar requirement to explore all of physical existence, human or nonhuman.” (Kracauer, 1960, p.45) Supporting this idea further is the way in which the film often obscures parts of the frame with inanimate objects, even at moments of great significance. During one scene at a river stream, an important moment is part obscured by the presence of a rock blocking the frame. Suggesting that, as an audience, we may be primarily interested in the film’s central story, but the world around it still inherently continues to be captured and rendered by the camera.
For the American film critic Pauline Kael, Kracauer’s intense focus on cinema’s ability to render the world around us was almost laughable. She writes in her essay, ‘Is There a Cure for Film Criticism?’ “It is art and imagination that bring the medium to life; not as Kracauer would have it, the recording of ‘reality.’” (Kael, 1965, p.290) She goes on to state that Kracauer’s theory may be a dangerously limiting one to cinema and art. “In all art we look and listen for what we have not experienced quite that way before. We want to see, to feel, to respond in a new way. Why should pendants be allowed to spoil the game?” (p.292)
Also relating to the way in which My Summer of Love successfully renders physical reality, is what Kracauer calls “things normally unseen”, with which, he outlines that, without cinema, we take for granted, “intimate faces, streets we walk day by day, the house we live in … because we know them by heart we do not know them with the eye.” (Kracauer, 1960, p.55) Here, Kracauer is suggesting that cinema is almost an extension of the human eye, since our eyes cannot view the world as a film camera does. This notion highlights yet another prominent feature of both Kracauer’s theory and My Summer of Love; cinema’s ability to render reality using cinematic techniques, which Kracauer admired greatly.
Firstly, it should be noticed that My Summer of Love frequently uses close-ups, extreme close-ups, and establishing shots to great effect. When Mona looks up to see Tamsin for the first time at the start of the film, we are presented with a huge close-up of one side of her face, which is upside down. This, in itself, is a peculiar way to see a human face; it seems unfamiliar and alien. However, Kracauer would argue that this way of viewing a face is closer to true physical reality than what our mind and vision would normally render in everyday occurrences. He writes, “Any huge close-up reveals new and unsuspected formations of matter … they blast the prison of conventional reality, opening up expanses which we have explored at best in dreams before.” (Kracauer, 1960, p.48)
This of course leads us to the establishing shot, with which, we may be drawn to one particular shot in the film, involving a small community village, as they raise a gigantic religious cross over their valley. We view the crowd of people, by way of the camera, as a moving collective, as a random and accidental arrangement of people. Kracauer is critical of the traditional arts, and their failure to render mass groups of people, since the life and motion that crowds encompass cannot be expressed through them. However, as he writes, “Where they failed, photography easily succeeded. (Yet only film) was equal to the task of capturing them in motion.” (Kracauer, 1960, p.50)
Kracauer suggests that there are particular types of motion and physical atmosphere that are inherently cinematic, such as “railway stations, dance, bars, hotel lobbies, airports, etc.” (Kracauer, 1960, p.62) These are the main characteristics of what he calls “camera-reality”, in the sense that, in cinema, their presence reveal to us “ … a region where the accidental prevails over the providential”, in which, “happenings in the nature of unexpected incidents are all but the rule.” (p.62) Nevertheless, the film theorist Robert Stam points out that, “… a skeptic might ask why a film of a staged performance … is less ‘real’ than a shot of a forest … the implicit ontological claims of the word ‘real’ lead into dead ends.” (Stam, 2000, p.79)
My Summer of Love emphasises affection for this idea of “camera-reality” during two prominent dance sequences. Within them, our two female leads seem to spontaneously break into dance, in a way that would suggest a “spur-of-the-moment” type event. At these points, even the camera seems to be taken by surprise; it struggles to follow their movements, darting back and forth, and zooming in and out, as they begin to dance faster and faster. Both sequences use music to pace and blend themselves into the film’s surrounding scenes, creating a sense of significance, one that means everything while present, yet nothing when finished; emphasising the “flow-of-life” captured by cinema. For Kracauer, “Dancing attains to cinematic eminence only if it is part and parcel of physical reality”, concluding that, “(Nothing) could be more inseparable from that flow (of life) than ‘natural’ dancing.” (Kracauer, 1960, p.43)
It should also be mentioned that My Summer of Love uses to great effect, many camera movements, most of which are unstable and shaky, simulating a motion more recognisable to our own perception of vision than that of a traditionally stable film camera. For example, while speeding on a motorbike, Mona and Tamsin are framed abnormally close up; they jolt and shake within the frame, while the camera captures small strands of hair chaotically blowing in the passing wind, and discreet moments of nervous yet excited facial expressions. Kracauer, unlike Bazin, is interested in these more formalist techniques, but stresses their effectiveness only when correctly balanced with realist techniques. He states that, “… these creative efforts are in keeping with the cinematic approach as long as they benefit … the medium’s substantive concern with our visible”, and concludes that, “Everything depends on the right ‘balance’ between the realistic tendency and the formative tendency.” (Kracauer, 1960, p.39)
Kracauer also attempts to explore what is cinematic by looking at the content of films, to which, he suggests that there are particular types of both “cinematic” and “uncinematic” content. “Uncinematic” content is loosely defined by Kracauer as belonging to a “… closed universe governed by mythical beliefs, moral principles, (and) a political doctrine.” (Kracauer, 1960, p.266) In other words, “uncinematic” content may be described as any content that does not accurately represent the “flow-of-life,” but is guarded by fabricated rules and conventional codes that do not enhance our relation to “physical reality.” Kracauer then goes on to describe “cinematic” content as “(picturing) elements of physical reality as the camera alone can capture.” (p.270) Meaning, for Kracauer, the content of cinema itself should inherently be most concerned with capturing a naturally occurring “accidental” or “rambling” quality associated with everyday existence. However, for the philosopher Fredric Jameson, Kracauer’s outline of cinematic realism, and its assigned significance, creates a disservice towards the importance of temporal narrative within cinema. He suggests that within Kracauer’s theory, “narrative temporality as such is reduced to the situation and the pretext in which truth appears not as knowledge, but as event.” (Jameson, 2007, p.255) At this point, it could be suggested that the theme and plot content present in My Summer of Love represents one of pure physical reality. Never does the film create specific plot beats or narrative structures, but rather, seems to flow within and without its main characters, allowing them and their actions alone to control the film’s rhythm and pace. The film’s fundamental destiny doesn’t feel mapped out, or theatrically constructed, but instead, calls our attention to Kracauer’s idea of redeeming the accidental world around us. This is successfully accomplished by showing to us, “… the objects and occurrences that comprise the flow of material life.” (Kracauer, 1960, p.300)
While Kracauer’s Theory of Film is often highlighted as one of the most important texts concerning cinema, its legacy is often repeatedly trashed and disregarded by many other film theorists and critics. The main reason for this is Kracauer’s unstable reliance on photography as the total foundation for his entire theory, of which, the first writer to point out, was Kracauer himself. He states that his book “… rests upon the assumption that film is essentially an extension of photography.” (Kracauer, 1960, p.xlix) This, already, starts to confuse and convolute Kracauer’s theory with regard to our modern, digital film culture, of which, My Summer of Love belongs to.
In the end, how could Kracauer’s theory, one rooted in cinema’s “photographic nature”, be applied to films that are shot, edited, or screened digitally? Miriam Bratu Hansen, within the introduction to Kracauer’s book, suggests, “(Kracauer’s) photographic approach … is as much a matter of aesthetic effect as one of material specificity”, and so, is primarily concerned with “stylistic and rhetorical choices involving particular cinematic techniques, rather than (being) a matter of medium ontology.” (Hansen, 1997, p.xxxv) However, the book, Cinemas of the Mind (2002), highlights the modern challenges now facing Kracauer’s theory; it states “… with the shift from chemical to digital photography … images can be manipulated and generated independently of real-life referents”, and goes on to state that, “the digital cannot wholly float free of the real. But the digital challenge to Kracauer, like the post-structuralist, lay in the future.” (Tredell (ed), 2002, p.100)
And so, although it is apparent that Kracauer’s realist approach to cinema may seem overly romantic, or built upon unstable foundations, within it, a core sense of why cinema appeals to us so deeply is established. It is within the most humanistic of film theories, one that relates to our relationship with nature, and suggests how cinema can bring us closer to a hidden world, one in which we have lost the ability to fully appreciate. Modern films like My Summer of Love, allow us to more deeply understand why Kracauer writes so passionately about ”The Redemption of Physical Reality”, since, within its flowing narrative, and loving focus on the inanimate, we begin to see why and how Kracauer’s work is continually expanding its theoretical relevance in our age of growing cultural and industrial modernity.
Bratu Hansen, M. (1997) ‘Introduction’ in Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Jameson, F. (2007) Signatures of the Visible, New York: Routledge Classics.
Kael, P. (1962) ‘Is There a Cure for Film Criticism? Or: Some Unhappy Thoughts on Siegfried Kracauer’s Nature of Film’ Sight and Sound 31: p56-64, in Kael. (1965) I Lost It at the Movies, Boston: Little, Brown and Co.
Kracauer, S. (1960/1997) Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Stam, R. (2000) Film Theory: An Introduction, Oxford: Blackwell.
Tredell, N. (ed) (2002) Cinemas of the Mind, Cambridge: Icon Books.