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Jerome Stolnitz THE BOATMAN OF KAIZU: A STUDY IN MOVIE FANTASY The opening scenes of Mizoguchi's Ugetsu1—the departure for the market, the jubilant return, the flight from the marauding soldiers, the rescue of the pottery after they have left—are unproblematically realistic. The next episode is not, however, comparably unproblematic. Again the potter and his neighbor depart for the market, this time with their wives. To escape the roving bands of soldiers, they travel by boat through the thick mist rising from the river. Suddenly another boat appears through the mist and glides silently alongside theirs. A figure lies prostrate in the boat. The two men stare at it in horror: "Oh! A ghost!" The figure rouses itself and protests: "No, no! I am not a ghost! I am a boatman from Kaizu." Siegfried Kracauer's Theory of Film2 is one of the few authentic classics in the aesthetics of the moving picture. Theory of Film has earned this place by its canonical statement of what it means to be "cinematic," a term employed by other critics and theorists as an incantation or shibboleth. For Kracauer, a movie is faithful to the medium when it is "realistic" in his special sense of that ambiguous term.3 In realistic and therefore cinematic movies, the inherent, "eager" propensity of the camera to range over and dwell upon physical things is not ignored in favor of narrative or theme. Thus the camera can disclose things, not as props or symbols or decoration, but as they move and have their being in nature. The camera does not, accordingly, reject but rather welcomes the "fortuitous" action of physical phenomena that could not have been anticipated by any scriptwriter (pp. 62-63). So the realist movie fulfills, as only it can, Griffith's aim—"to make you see." And one "sees" not just exotic or extraordinary sights, such as the details of insect life or a natural catastrophe, but also prosaic events 222 Jerome Stolmtz223 to which perceptual habit generally blinds us, such as the wind ruffling the trees. Since all these events occur within the "continuum" of material existence, the realist movie preserves a robust sense of the "endlessness" of physical reality beyond the picture frame. It follows that films whose dramatic "intrigue" hermetically excludes this reality, whose backdrops are recognizably constructed, whose talk obliterates the visuals, are "uncinematic." Theory of Film, as befits a classic, has become the object of what is now a staple line of criticism. Kracauer's critics contend that a theory whose basic normative concept is "realism" in the above sense is unacceptably narrow. The theory elucidates and justly appraises a substantial but still fairly limited body of movies; it fails with a host of commonly esteemed movies, whose goodness in felt experience belies Kracauer's theoretical prohibitions. At best, then, Theory of Film works only for such films as those of recent neo-realism.4 Thus the theory's pretensions to generality are denied, its limits and limitations specified. There is doubtless some force in the staple criticism. Yet its gravamen has too often been, as one critic puts it, that the theory is a "straitjacket"5 (the term that Kracauer uses in raising the same objection, dialectically, against himself). The theory is more subtle, resilient, catholic, and indeed, more empirical than that. In what follows, I am going to argue this defense of Kracauer by applying his ideas to movies that deal with the supernatural and with the contents of dreams and visions, which by definition fall outside the "continuum" of physical reality. Since fantasy is thus excluded from the one world which, according to Kracauer, is distinctively congenial to the camera, fantasy is a singularly decisive test case. First, however, I will sketch Kracauer's approach to some other kinds of movies, in order to show how he applies his realism. Documentary is at the opposite pole from fantasy. It might therefore be thought that documentaries lend themselves readily to support of Kracauer's thesis. Typically, and thus instructively, Kracauer carries out a detailed analysis of the form, to show that many documentaries trivialize and distort actuality. It is not enough to fill the screen...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 222-237
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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