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Terry Comito NOTES ON PANOFSKY, CASSIRER, AND THE "MEDIUM OF THE MOVIES" The modesty of my title is not feigned. Panofsky's essay on "Style and Medium in the Motion Pictures"1 is more often quoted than understood, and much of it proves upon examination to be curiously elusive. The notes and hypotheses offered here are tentative ones, meant only to point us in the direction of answers to two questions. How might Panofsky's well-known formulation ("the medium of the movies is physical reality as such") most usefully be construed?—useful for us as viewers and then perhaps as critics of movies. And what might he plausibly be supposed to have intended? It is to be hoped that these two points are not impossibly remote from one another. In a recent discussion of "Fact and Fiction in Literature," Roger Shattuck takes Panofsky's essay as an extreme instance of a "belief in the basically documentary nature of film." According to Shattuck, Panofsky supposes that a "film grows naturally out of material things," that it is generated spontaneously, without the intervention of authorial consciousness, from the "undifferentiated reality" before which a camera needs only to be set in motion. Now this is a familiar enough parody of "realist" theories of cinema. But it would be a curious position for anyone really to assert, and particularly curious for a writer so committed as Panofsky to idealist aesthetics. There is, to be sure, a puzzle about the way such an aesthetic might take account of an art that is said somehow to "do justice" to a materialistic interpretation of the world (p. 31). (We would presumably want to know if the justice in question is distributive or commutative: rendering unto Caesar or robbing Peter to pay Paul?) But does a disciple of Cassirer really need to be lectured at about the priority of the whole to the parts, or to be informed that what we call "reality" is constituted in the act of perception? There 229 230Philosophy and Literature are confusions enough in Shattuck's essay to suggest that he is not our best guide over an admittedly strenuous terrain. He informs his readers that Panofsky (and apparently Bazin and Kracauer too) "anticipate " the views of "many structuralists and semioticians," as if there were not a fundamental difference between the autonomy of écriture and the "animistic" view of physical reality Shattuck attributes to Panofsky and his followers. He then introduces a distinction between documentary and fiction films that makes Panofsky the prophet of Warhol, Wiseman, and South American snuff-films, when in fact he talks about Disney, the Marx Brothers, and the derivation of movies from comic strips and dime novels. All this is worth bringing up because Shattuck does raise some crucial issues, if only by so noticeably fudging them. Like most of us who have responded to Panofsky's essay, he has chiefly in mind the assertion that "the medium of the movies is physical reality as such" (p. 31). He wants to construe this as saying that movies "document" or certify the world of external objects and thereby encourage certain sorts of naivete: the belief that we are secure in our knowledge of the world "out there," and that the world really is "out there," independent of our hypotheses and untainted by our uncomfortable consciousness . That movies have often fueled some such nostalgia for the world seems undeniable, but the question elided in Shattuck's discussion is the critical one. To what extent and in what ways does a statement about the "medium" of the movies commit us to a position as to their proper content, or to a specific social program, or to a particular metaphysical understanding of the world? Shattuck cuts through these knotty matters rather than unraveling them. He talks as if Panofsky claims that physical reality as such is the subject matter of movies—which is where Warhol and cinéma vérité come in, as the inheritors of the tradition of Balzac. But this is not what Panofsky says, and it does not accurately describe the parameters of his taste. He objects to "artistic prestylization" in the manner of Caligari, and he thinks...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 229-241
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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