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Bela Balazs: Early Film Theory

Bela Balazs: Early Film Theory: Visible ManandThe Spirit of Film

Béla Balázs
Edited by Erica Carter
Translated by Rodney Livingstone
Series: Film Europa
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 314
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  • Book Info
    Bela Balazs: Early Film Theory
    Book Description:

    Bela Balazs's two works,Visible Man(1924) andThe Spirit of Film(1930), are published here for the first time in full English translation. The essays offer the reader an insight into the work of a film theorist whose German-language publications have been hitherto unavailable to the film studies audience in the English-speaking world. Balazs's detailed analyses of the close-up, the shot and montage are illuminating both as applicable models for film analysis, and as historical documents of his key contribution - alongside such contemporaries as Arnheim, Kracauer and Benjamin - to critical debate on film in the 'golden age' of the Weimar silents.

    eISBN: 978-1-84545-796-9
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vii-viii)
    Erica Carter
  4. Notes on Translation, Glossary and Abbreviations
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. xv-xlvi)
    Erica Carter

    When, in spring 1945, Béla Balázs returned to Budapest after over twenty-five years of enforced estrangement from his native Hungary, he started a campaign for recognition that would absorb much of his creative energy during the remaining four years of his life. Exiled in the Soviet Union since 1931, Balázs had seen his pre-war dream of a progressive cultural internationalism wither in the face of European fascism, a genocidal war, and Soviet state repression. Efforts to publish his major work of film theory had borne fruit at last in the publication ofIskusstvo Kino(The Art of Film), a compendium...

  6. Illustrations
    (pp. xlvii-lvi)
  7. Visible Man or the Culture of Film

    • Three Addresses by Way of a Preface
      (pp. 3-8)

      It seems appropriate to follow an ancient custom and introduce my little book with a plea for a hearing. Your willingness to listen is not just a prerequisite but the true, desired and ultimate goal of my immodest enterprise. However, you should listen not to me, but to the subject matter itself; just as we create objects and build them from the ground up, so in this case you should make them your own by listening.

      The truth is that what I have to tell you at this moment does not amount to much. However, once you have agreed to...

    • Visible Man
      (pp. 9-16)

      The discovery of printing has gradually rendered the human face illegible. People have been able to glean so much from reading that they could afford to neglect other forms of communication.

      Victor Hugo once wrote that the printed book has taken over the role of medieval cathedrals and has become the repository of the spirit of the people. But the thousands of books fragmented the single spirit of the cathedrals into a myriad different opinions. The printed word smashed the stone to smithereens and broke up the church into a thousand books. In this way, thevisual spiritwas transformed...

    • Sketches for a Theory of Film
      (pp. 17-84)

      If film is to be an independent art with its own aesthetics, then it will have to distinguish itself from all other art forms. It is the specifics of a phenomenon that constitute its essence and its justification, and the specific nature of a phenomenon is best defined by what makes it different. Thus we shall attempt to differentiate between the art of film and its neighbours and so demonstrate its autonomy.

      There is today an overriding tendency to regard film as a spoilt and dissolute child of theatre; film is viewed as a corrupt and disfigured variant, a cheap...

    • Two Portraits
      (pp. 85-90)

      He waddles along dreamily on flat feet, like a swan on dry land. He is not of this world and perhaps it is only here that he appears ridiculous. Behind the comedy of his woe we sense the wistful nostalgia for a lost paradise. He is like an orphan who finds himself an outcast among unknown, alien things and who doesn’t know his way around. He has a touching, perplexed smile that apologizes for his being alive. But no sooner has his clumsy helplessness entirely won us over than those flat feet turn out to belong to a fiendishly agile...

  8. The Spirit of Film

    • Seven Years
      (pp. 93-97)

      It is seven years sinceVisible Manappeared, the first theory of the silent film. The book was the theory of an art that had only just begun to emerge from the trashy products of the picture palace. It was an introduction to theory. Calculation, dream, prophecy and the challenge of a great opportunity that seems now to have come to a halt before it could be properly realized. The talkies have put an end to it. It is time to draw up a balance sheet and to write a theoretical epilogue.

      Seven years ago I had to make excuses...

    • The Productive Camera
      (pp. 98-99)

      What defines the specific nature of film as an expressive form? By film, I mean here the celluloid strip, the sequence of images we see on the screen. For it might be thought that the true artistic event, the original creative act in a studio or on location, actually occursin front ofthe camera and even at a point in time before the film is completed. This is where actors act, sets are built and lighting is introduced. The scene is established or selected in the studio. Everything we can see on the screen has existed ‘in reality’ beforehand....

    • The Close-up
      (pp. 100-111)

      The first, radical change in distance was produced by the close-up. It was without doubt a daring stroke of genius when Griffith first severed his characters’ heads and spliced them one by one, full-size, into scenes of human interaction. For this did not simply bring the characters into closer proximity within the same space; it removed them from the space altogether and transposed them into an entirely different dimension.

      When the camera lifts a part of the body or an object from its surroundings and shows it enlarged, the object is still seen to exist in space. For a hand,...

    • Set-up
      (pp. 112-121)

      So everything depends on physiognomy. But there is no such thing as physiognomy ‘in itself’. There are only the physiognomies that we see. And these change according to the anglefrom whichwe view them. Physiognomy depends on point of view, in other words, on the camera set-up. Physiognomy is not only an objective given, it is also our relation to it. A synthesis.

      The specific, unique form that we apprehend in every object is a construction of the mind or an experience of our sense of touch.³ To the eye objects have only an appearance, that is to say,...

    • Montage
      (pp. 122-131)

      In film even the most meaningful set-up does not suffice to give the image its full meaning. In the final analysis, meaning is determined by the position of the image between other images. The issue here is editing, a process for which it is significantly a French term, ‘montage’, that has come to be accepted in the technical vocabulary of film. This is the ultimate refinement of work on film.

      The speck of colour in a painting, the note in a melody, the word in a sentence – all these acquire their ‘value’, their function, their meaning only through their...

    • Montage Without Cutting
      (pp. 132-145)

      Montage without cutting refers to a sequence of images that lacks sharp differentiation. The fade, for example, allows images to sink gradually into darkness or merge smoothly into each other. It is both a method which enables the transition between images, and an expressive movement – one might liken it to a speaker’s diction – that enables that transition to assume a new and quite particular form: to become a particular image gesture which also means something quite specific.

      The fade-out is comparable to the slow, meditative fading of a narrator’s voice. Or to the dulling of a rhythm, a...

    • Flight from the Story
      (pp. 146-158)

      Cinematography has become so rich in its own purely optical means of expression that it has tended increasingly to renounce expressive means of other kinds. In particular, it has tended to abandon literary methods and above all the story. Camera set-up and montage techniques have achieved a creative power that allows them to dispense with preformed literary narrative, and to tackle directly the raw materials of life. The camera aspires to approach life from a completely different angle. It has no wish to illustrate novels. On the contrary, it wishes to be creative in its own way. It looks for...

    • The Absolute Film
      (pp. 159-177)

      I must repeat: ‘Camera set-up and montage techniques have achieved a creative power that allows them to dispense with preformed literary narrative, and to tackle directly the raw materials of life.’¹ The mere occurrence of objects acquires such significance in the image that all poetic ‘shaping’ becomes superfluous. Hence the tendency to abandon the narrative feature film and instead to depict naked, unconstructed existence: reality in its primeval form. At issue here is the desire…no, not the desire, but the dream (wish-fulfilment, anxiety dream?) of absolute, dream (wish-fulfilment, anxiety dream?) of absolute, impersonal objectivity.

      We have seen that all forms...

    • Colour Film and Other Possibilities
      (pp. 178-182)

      Colour photographs of simple motifs were already a possibility seven years ago: here a yellow field of corn rippling in the wind under a blue sky; there a bright red painted boat reflected in green water. As technical sensations, these were beautiful and exciting. Something new had become possible once again. But as yet not something absolutely good. Seven years ago I wrote inVisible Man:

      And, if I subsequently had reservations, they did not arise from these defects. On the contrary, it was the idea of the perfect colour film that made me anxious. For fidelity to nature is...

    • The Sound Film
      (pp. 183-210)

      It is only in the last four to five years that the silent film has begun to gain the momentum for significant further development. This has now been interrupted by a new beginning of a different kind: the sound film. The camera had just started to acquire sensitive nerves and an imagination. The art of montage and the camera set-up had just reached the point of overcoming the resistance of the film material in its primitive state. The silent film was on its way to acquiring a psychological subtlety, a creative power almost unprecedented in the arts. Then the technical...

    • Ideological Remarks
      (pp. 211-230)

      The spirit of film is, like the spirit of language, an object of ‘national psychology’. Or in more concrete terms: class psychology. For the economic and technical preconditions of film ensure that individual forms rarely make their appearance or not at all. Film directors may certainly possess their own personal trademark, just as writers have their own individual style. But only to the point where the universal comprehensibility and popularity, in other words, the profitability, of the film is not placed in jeopardy. If that mark is overstepped, the work remains an isolated case and fails to influence the organic...

  9. Appendix: Reviews
    (pp. 231-234)
  10. Notes on Contributors
    (pp. 235-236)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 237-240)
  12. Index
    (pp. 241-258)