- The Visual Turn: Classical Film Theory and Art History
Students of Film Studies and Art History have long recognized the centrality of Walter Benjamin's essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" and are accustomed to considering its place in the canon of theoretical writing on the image and on image technologies. Inattentive readers of The Visual Turn: Classical Film Theory and Art History, would, however, be mistaken in assuming that it is solely canonical impulse that has led Angela Dalle Vacche to open her collection of essays with a discussion of Benjamin's classic text. Dalle Vacche invokes a portion of this oft-quoted essay in calling attention to Benjamin's close reading of art historical texts, namely those of Aloïs Riegl —a figure who becomes a "present absence" looming over The Visual Turn and shaping its own dialectical organization.1 Riegl is not the only parental figure hovering over these pages. From Lessing to Wagner to Warburg to Andrew, Dalle Vache introduces discursive strains and disciplinary maps that allow her to pay homage to writers and critics while also expanding her own art historical frame of reference. What emerges is a nuanced view of the art-historical drives of film theory, and a clear understanding that the interdisciplinary study of cinema and painting is actually a "classic" critical paradigm out of which a new interdisciplinary field is swiftly developing. Not only do the contributions to Dalle Vacche's volume offer ample evidence that "the project of viewing film through the lens of art history has a history of its own" (x), as Donald Crafton remarks in the foreword. They also present a sustained argument concerning the extent to which Film Studies has always used art history unwittingly as a "conceptual tool," a move that posits canonical film theorists as distanced readers of classic texts in the history and theory of art.
Inasmuch as painting can be considered the popular doxa for art history (3), the project of The Visual Turn involves casting the image as the doxa for the comparative analysis of film and painting. For readers expecting a work that places the cinema under the rubric of mechanical reproduction and considers it against a backdrop of significant art-historical movements and dates, or within a history of the film industry [End Page 149] and the cultural events that shaped it, this book is not a satisfying choice. Rather, Dalle Vacche's desire is not unlike Riegl's, whose aim, she asserts, was to "handl[e] art historical periods by trying to figure out their organizing principles, or, at least, their basic representational formula" (4). Several of The Visual Turn's bi-partite sections demonstrate how what is now known as classical film theory has in fact understood its object of analysis through an organization of certain formal principles including, for instance, the close-up (Béla Balázs and Jacques Aumont), the frame of the image (André Bazin), and montage (Gilles Deleuze). By pairing Heinrich Wölfflin's "Linear and Painterly" with an excerpt from The Movement Image, wherein Deleuze organizes montage styles into "American" and "Soviet" schools, The Visual Turn cleverly and efficiently identifies an agency internal to Deleuze's formal project—Deleuze's Kunstwollen, so to speak—that amounts to a theory of the image from within formal art historical methods.
The Visual Turn proceeds by establishing a diachronical interface between paired authors, including Erwin Panofsky ("Style and Medium in the Motion Pictures") and Thomas Y. Levin ("Iconology at the Movies: Panofsky's Film Theory"), Rudolf Arnheim ("Painting and Film") and Ara H. Merjian ("Middlebrow Modernism: Rudolf Arnheim at the Crossroads of Film Theory and the Psychology of Art"), and Sergei Eisenstein ("El Greco") and Pietro Montani ("The Uncrossable Threshold: The Relation of Painting and Cinema in Eisenstein"). This approach underscores the importance of the problematics of reception that are posed by now classic essays that place film and painting in an overt dialectical relation, or that implicitly do so when a classic film...