Film As Film: Understanding And Judging Movies
Victor F. Perkins
V. F. Perkins’ Film As Film is like that invisible little kid in the last bench who stuns the class one day. The smallest of all the books in the pile on my shelf, Film As Film nevertheless offers insights and information that perhaps the others, put together, can’t. Divided into nine chapters, the book discusses broadly about the history of film criticism, importance of form in movie making, criteria for assessment of narrative cinema, issues about authorship of a film and the need for judgment of films. Written with an intention to view films independently as films and not as a mishmash of other art forms, Perkins’ book, to a large extent, shows that “cinematizing” a piece of literature is far from “visualizing” it. Using examples from popular Hollywood cinema, especially those of Preminger, Hitchcock and Nick Ray, he elucidates the role of a director and the importance of mise en scène n a film, without ever making it look like a class textbook.
Perhaps the most surprising of all the chapters, “Technology and Technique”, takes up a subject often ignored by historians and theorists. Perkins illustrates how a study of history of cinema entails a study of not only the history of photography, but also that of projection. He examines how the invention of photography brought in realist concerns (with reality being a unique property of the photographic image) into the already popular projection techniques – from the Magic Lantern to the Kinetoscope. He proposes an interesting argument, emphasizing that cinema existed even before the invention of the camera, whose properties were merely absorbed into the existing techniques. Furthermore, Perkins explores how the advancement in film technology gave directors a wider range of choices and hence provided a better measure of the talent of the filmmaker. Consequently, he argues that technology has never been a huge limiting factor as far as the maker’s vision is concerned, although it made sure that clarity need not imply crudity.
There is another impressive section called “Direction and Authorship”, where Perkins speaks about the collaborative nature of cinema and the role of the director amidst various dissenting voices and thought processes. He cites various examples where the creativity of the director is brutally marred by the norms of the production house and also those where the final product shines much more than one would have expected from the talent of its director. Perkins’ point is not to discredit the director or to prove that it doesn’t belong only to him, but that one must concern himself only with the coherence of the finished film and not with the means used to achieve it. He says: “Provided that a film has its own unity, it seems unimportant whether the unity was evolved through cooperation and compromise within the production team or conceived by one man and imposed on his collaborators.”. He insists that a freedom from the studio system does not necessarily warrant quality and conversely, a director working under the obligations of a contract need not sacrifice his personal vision and style, however alien the content is.
But the USP of the book is clearly the first few chapters where Perkins analyzes the development of film criticism and the dichotomy that subsequently developed between those who insisted that films exploit unique cinematic qualities and those who believed in the capturing of reality without the artist’s abstraction. Though, initially, I found myself supporting the early theories of Rotha and Eisenstein, Perkins manages to convince how most of these orthodox theories were, actually, pulling a potential art form into some sort of scientific practice. It’s amusing to see how divergent these two schools were. One championed cinema that moved closer to reality and the other praised films that moved as away from it. One placed artist as the centre of creation whereas the other, the world. Kracauer’s quote perhaps sums up the entire atmosphere: “…the intrusion of Art into film thwarts cinema’s intrinsic properties”. Perkins distances himself from both the theories and even holds the orthodox one with a bit of contempt.
The second part of the book mainly concerns itself with the understanding and judging of films, based on certain criteria that Perkins suggests. And this is where I found myself a bit disappointed by the otherwise masterful book. Perkins suggests two principal elements when judging narrative cinema – coherence and credibility. The issue of coherence in cinema’s narrative pattern is quite an intuitive one and one wouldn’t at all object to Perkins’ claims. But, additionally, he argues that films must, first and foremost, be true to the world they construct and its actions within them must first be befitting of the reality of that world, strictly obeying causality and rationality. Perkins’ theory limits itself to mainstream narrative cinema and clearly disallows symbols for the sake of symbols, self-reflexivity, Brechtian disengagement and many other modernist principles. Further, it proves weak when trying to judge a bad film. The theory devises a sufficient condition for films to be good but not really a necessary one.
However, Perkins vindicates himself in the excellent last chapter titled “The Limits of Criticism”. He neatly illustrates the drawbacks of the theory and clarifies that it must primarily be used for testifying why a film is good rather than why one is bad (“Within the positive criteria suggested, a critical argument which demonstrates coherence must, other things being equal, take precedence over one which does not.”). This is quite evident from Perkins’ attitude that clearly stands against critics imposing a structure on the filmmakers. One could even say that he considers criticism to be slightly subservient to filmmaking. He seems to be of the opinion that film criticism only enriches itself with movies that push the envelope and can successfully judge only the films that are conventional enough to fall within its established norms. He even mentions at one point that film theory is not the theory of film making but of film criticism. In essence, Film as Film becomes a book that urges one to enjoy a good film for the right reasons, but not one that allows the readers to berate bad films, even for the right reasons. There is nothing more to ask for, especially if you are one who wants to love cinema for what it is and not how it could have been.