Walter Benjamin on photography and film

The cover of Benjamin's collection of essays, Illuminations

To wrap up our semester on viz., our staff showcases new static content we've added to our "teaching" and "visual theory" sections.  Below is my discussion of Walter Benjamin's canonical essay on photography, film, and the politics of mass media, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction."  Each day this week, we'll feature a new piece of static content on our blog.  We hope instructors, students, and persons interested in visual rhetoric will browse our archives (linked in the top bar) and find useful material for research, pedagogy, and all forms of intellectual inquiry.

Benjamin, Walter. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Trans. Harry Zohn. Illuminations. 1955. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Reprint ed. New York: Schocken Books, 1986. 217–52. 

By Laura Thain

In this seminal essay, originally published in French in 1936, Benjamin outlines shifts in the way art produces meaning after the advent of the photograph.  His essay takes places in fifteen parts, which explore how film is physically produced, how that production influences the way that audiences interact with film, and how those audiences reconcile film with their pre-existing value structures and beliefs.  Benjamin ultimately suggests a method of reading photography and film that accounts for both their material production and how that material production supersedes or alters prior methods of criticism.  Central to critical practice in the age of mechanical reproduction is the establishment of critical distance between audience and media form, so that the audience can resist pure enjoyment and instead ask how photography and film can help us see differently, even as they attempts to perfectly replicate the way we already perceive the world.  Writing from Paris, Benjamin, a Jewish German expatriate disturbed by the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich, explores the political implications of new, mechanized art forms in a rapidly-changing 20th century.

Erasing Wyldstyle: Heteronormativity in the LEGO Movie

artist's depiction of the anatomy of a LEGO figure. Part of a skeleton and some organs are visible

Artist Jason Freeny's LEGO Anatomy Model

Image Credit:

In my last post, I laid out the theoretical groundwork of biopolitics for a critique of the subversive potential of the LEGO movie. Biopolitics, or the epistemological and sociopolitical forces that determine how individuals understand bodies and “life,” lets us examine both the LEGO movie's own critique of social constructivism and comment on the movie's failure to adequately separate itself from static models of gender and sexuality.

The Building Blocks of Biopolitics: The LEGO Movie, Empire, and Multitude

A post for The Lego Movie, featuring main characters Emmett, Wild Style, and others

Image Credit: Forbes

Not only did seeing The Lego Movie (2014) lodge the parodic pop song “Everything is Awesome!” firmly in my skull, it also sent me scrambling for a way to intelligently theorize the film's highly sophisticated commentary on politics, capitalism, gender and the body. I emerged from my search with a brief history of biopolitics firmly in hand, and, with “Everything is Awesome!” still running through my head, I will now start assembling the theoretical pieces needed to construct an insightful critique. Part 1 of my ruminations on The Lego Movie, then, provide an introduction to the theories I'll be using in Part 2. Stay tuned, all, because EVERYTHING IS AWESOME. Hopefully these posts will nicely compliment Scott's awesome thoughts on how The Lego Movie capitulates to some disturbing movie cliches in the name of creativity.

“Memeing” Silence—the Gif and Silent Film, Part 2

A tumblr user asks who the actor who appears in a gif is in a post to his followers.

Image Credit: Deeras23

In my previous post, I outlined DeCordova’s arguments about the emergence of a discourse on acting in the early 20th century, and the contributions that discourse made to modern conceptions of celebrity, beginning in silent film.  In this post, I’d like to translate those arguments into a discussion of 21st century media and attempt to outline a discourse on “gifing,” and what that can tell us about the intersections of gifs and celebrity in the 21st century public sphere.

“Memeing” Silence—the Gif and Silent Film, Part 1

A gif composed of a scene from Chaplin's _City Lights_.

Image Source: Gorgonetta

As gifs begin to occupy more and more space in internet discourse, I’ve been contemplating the various ways they reinvent older media forms.  New media theory tells us this is an inevitable historical trajectory; it is not just a characteristic of post-broadcast media but embedded in mediation as an ideological concept.  What I find particularly interesting about gifs is not just how they remediate the television shows, films, Youtube videos, and memes from which they derive meaning, but also how they relate to a much older form of media: silent film.  And in such a reading, the overlap between the production of fame and celebrity in the silent film tradition and in current gif discourse is remarkable—and worth discussing.     

Reading Django Unchained as Camp

A juxtaposition of the costume design for Django as valet and Thomas Gainsborough's "Blue Boy"

Image Credit: Vanity Fair

Although it’s been two months since its initial release, the internet is still abuzz with social critique of Tarantino’s newest film Django UnchainedRoxane Gay, a staff writer for Buzzfeed, argues that rather than encouraging a national discourse on slavery, slavery is instead “the movie’s easily exploited backdrop.”  The movie functions instead as “a white man’s slavery revenge fantasy, and one in which white people figure heavily and where black people are, largely, incidental.”  Finally, she concludes, “Django Unchained isn’t about a black man reclaiming his freedom. It’s about a white man working through his own racial demons and white guilt.”

Many of Django’s critics couch their arguments in similar terms—that is, that while Tarantino claims to reignite a discourse on slavery in Django Unchained, he in fact privileges genre over content in a way that dangerously decontextualizes our most central national trauma.  I have argued in an early post that privileging medium over content can function as a form of censorship.  Here, I want to discuss how the same aesthetice practice can simultaneously suggest and defer engagement with tragedy and trauma. 

Part II: Suspense is Better than Action

Mushroom Cloud Over Nagasaki

Image Credit: National Archives image (208-N-43888)

Part II: An Objection is Entertained

Last week I argued that suspense makes for more arresting visual effect than does what passes for “action” in Hollywood these days. My main point was that human frailty creates suspense and that psychological realism will do much to improve action cinema. Bigger visuals are not necessarily better at creating an emotional response in the viewer.

Now, you may say to me: Chris, you are not taking into sufficient account how big real visual events have become.

The Artist's Speech

Intertitle from The Artist; white letters against a black background say, "Speak!"

Image Credit: Screenshot from YouTube

H/T: Emily Friedman

The audience hears violins sawing tensely as they watch a man scream on screen; only, he is mute.  He moves his mouth, but we only learn his words through intertitles:  “I won’t talk!  I won’t say a word!!!”  So opens the 2011 Academy Award-winning film The Artist.

The Composition of Popular Romance: Gone with the Wind's Storyboards

Storyboards from the fire sequence in the movie Gone with the Wind, as displayed on the Harry Ransom Center's windows

Image Credit: Rachel Schneider

After a crash of cymbals, the bright brass instruments build to a climax until the violins enter: so begins “Tara’s Theme” from Gone with the Wind. Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 Pulitzer-prize winning novel was a legitimate phenomenon before the movie, but the 1939 film is an artistic achievement on its own merits. Gone with the Wind was one of the first movies chosen for preservation by the National Film Registry in part because of its rich history. Gone with the Wind not only holds the record for the highest box office ever (when adjusted for inflation), but also held the rest for most Academy Awards (10) until 1960. Numerous books and documentaries recount the tangled history of the film’s production, which was plagued with cast battles, multiple directors, expensive delays, screenplay revisions, and a battle with the Hays Office to preserve an infamous final line. Much of the material for this work comes from the Harry Ransom Center’s extensive David O. Selznick Collection, which contains not only the producer’s numerous papers but also various production materials from his films.

Panem et Circenses: The Hunger Games and Kony2012

Early-modern Bear Baiting

Image Credit:

I suspect I was one of very few people thinking of the First Earl of Shaftesbury, Anthony Cooper, as I watched The Hunger Games with my family last weekend. In particular, I was recalling how Shaftesbury lamented in 1711 that the English theater had come to resemble the “popular circus or bear-garden.”

It is no wonder we hear such applause resounded on the victories of Almanzor, when the same parties had possibly no later than the day before bestowed their applause as freely on the victorious butcher, the hero of another stage, where amid various frays, bestial and human blood, promiscuous wounds and slaughter, [both sexes] are… pleased spectators, and sometimes not spectators only, but actors in the gladiatorian parts.[1]

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