Monday, November 21, 2005

Potential or Realization? Differing Analyses of Aesthetic Quality

When giving platitudes to the creator of a piece, one can approach the comments from roughly two different angles. The first is to honor the piece in a vacuum: aesthetically, for its mastery of the tricks and turns of the trade, as a good story or construction, much like an architect could analyze a building's harsh beauty. The second is to honor the piece's external potential, either as a blueprint for further work within the art or as a vehicle for achieving some other goal, much like an architect could admire a building for the uses to which it will be put. These two distinct possibilities can be seen most profoundly with Walt Disney and The Jazz Singer in the one hand, and Sunrise and Scarface in the other.

Reviewing the analysis of The Jazz Singer and Walt Disney shows that the concern is not exclusively or primarily with the value of the works themselves, but instead commenting on the potentials that the technology and technique of each could be used to break the stultifying tyranny of dominant forms. As Crafton makes clear in “The Uncertainty of Sound”, The Jazz Singer was not acclaimed for rising out of a vacuum (pun intended) and blasting a horn of a new era of sound. The institution of sound was a gradual imposition from sound as a novelty to sound as an expectation that sometimes was not used because of aesthetic choices (watching Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times is disorienting, as Chaplin intended it to because, because sound is used in snippets of appropriate dialogue, but at other times sound disappears to strengthen the impression of the panopticon operating in the factory that suspended all comfortable and natural feeling). Rather, The Jazz Singer bridged the gap between silence and sound: it was a transitory film and not an epochal and novel film, but yet all the more epochal because of it. The Jazz Singer, according to Crafton, uses sound and the lack thereof to symbolize freedom and repression, love (sexual and otherwise) and the squashing of that love, etc. in dichotomous representations. It actually leverages the incomplete application of sound to accomplish its art.

Yet The Jazz Singer is imperfect and incomplete: it “excised... social struggles that united Jews... in trade unions, radical movements...” It even “contains no jazz” in the strict sense, exorcising the essence of the minstrel to opportunistically use its face as a mechanism for Jewish solidarity. The analysis that Crafton makes focusses on the one truly original part of the movie, a relatively minor one in terms of screen time: the racial and sexual implications of the dress-up as black, the “sexual drag”. The subsequent news articles focus on the novelty value of the sound genre, the novelty of Jolson as a singer and of Cantor Rabinowitz, and most importantly on the potential, but not the actuality of the media, expressed most strongly in “Moving Picture Audiences Differ from Musical Comedy” and “'Jazz Singer' Scores a Hit”, both pieces that underscore how Jazz Singer is viewed as a blueprint for a paradigm shift for the movies but not the paradigm shift itself. “Europe's Highbrows Hail Mickey Mouse” describes this same phenomenon with Disney. Jazarin argues that “The animated drawing has fought for its life. It is on the point of triumph... Doesn't it permit the expression of the wildest conceptions...? The animated drawing alone can unite evocative power of design with the impalpable motion of life, with speech and with music. Thus it becomes a complete art...” Morienval says, “The moving and sound drawing has as a matter of fact no limits...” There is little to no discussion of the literary or artistic merits of the Walt Disney pieces as such. Instead, the focus is on their potential, what animation can do in terms of broadening the scope and style of storytelling.

Meanwhile, Sunrise itself is considered to be “Opening A New Day in Movies”. German critics, according to Saunders, viewed Sunrise as a uniquely German-American film, composing something new from more than the sum of its parts, arousing “superlatives for overcoming deeply entrenched beliefs”. Both its critics and its supporters recognized that something new was at work. Sunrise was viewed as an independent masterpiece of raw technique, rather unlike Disney's relatively simplistic animation that ended up reifying the traditional tyranny of story forms and The Jazz Singer's lackluster direction. It had “fantastic cinematographic achievements... capturing ambience with light, lens and rhythm.” The criticisms of it were because of what was believed to be an un-German and even contra-German sentimentality and hope for a good and happy ending, yet it was conceded on all sides to be a hallmark film capable of capturing an aesthetic sensibility without doubt. Scarface was considered so dangerous in constructing a charismatic devil figure who the audience identifies with that it was changed to have artificially-inserted sermons on public responsbility to stop crime. Scarface constructs a reverse Macbeth figure: a character who, while being a monster of viciousness, falls because of his own truly human and positive characteristic, his love for his sister. With masterful lighting and characterization, it was recognized as a tiger that the movie industry had by the tail, something that could glamorize crime and the gangster life.

These two patterns of critical reception occur over and over: the film viewed as a flawed epochmaker, and the film viewed as so perfect that it almost breaks the epoch by destroying any possibility for a film to be anything but a pale imitation. Sunrise became the silent film's last gasp, while Jazz Singer became the sound film's first tentative breath. Who knows when the action film will finally see its perfect realization and finally die?


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