July 7, 2013

Roger Ebert on the Nature of Film: 'A Movie is Not a Logical Art Form'

Roger EbertOne of the great questions that pervades the understanding of cinema is simply this: What is its purpose? There are countless theories that attempt to answer it. Film theorists, like Rudolf Arnheim believed that film is art, in that it shouldn't (and doesn't) represent or replicate real life, whereas André Bazin thought films capture an "objective reality". Roger Ebert had his theories as well, and in a commentary on Dark City, he suggests that film isn't the medium to use when trying to express a logical and intellectual argument. Hit the jump to hear Ebert's thoughts on why cinema is an emotional medium.

There is so much to say about the many theoretical arguments concerning film, which will have to come at a later time, but suffice it to say that Ebert is not alone is his assertion that the very nature of film is the same as its purpose: emotional evocation.

I've always felt that movies are an emotional medium -- that movies are not the way to make an intellectual argument. If you want to make a political or a philosophical argument, then the ideal medium exists, and that medium is the printed word -- a movie is not a logical art form. When we watch a film, the director is essentially standing behind us and saying, "Look here," and "Look there," "Hear this," and "Hear that," and "Feel this," and "Feel the way I want you to feel." And we give up conscious control over our intelligence. We become voyeurs. We become people who are absorbed into the story, if the story is working. And it's an emotional experience.

You can hear his commentary below:

What do you think? Do you agree with Roger Ebert's stance that film is a more visceral experience than a logical one? Do you think films have both? What do you think the purpose of film is -- if it has one?

[via: Cinephilia and Beyond & filmschoolthrucommentaries ]

Your Comment

29 Comments

Yes. I agree completely.

July 7, 2013 at 10:28PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Jared

I think it can be an intellectual argument as long as the director shows both sides fairly of the argument and not favor one over the other but that is almost impossible to do unless we're talking documentary work.

July 7, 2013 at 10:29PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Lwams

Leni Riefenstahl disagrees.

July 7, 2013 at 10:38PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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DLD

This commentary must of been recorded before Ebert lost it and decided to start writing commentary on every issue that crossed his mind.

July 7, 2013 at 11:27PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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moebius22

I don't believe the emotional evocation and intellectual argument are mutually exclusive. I am sure many will agree that after watching a truly great film, the discussions that the film sparks are rarely about what the movie made them feel, but rather where it took their mind and the emotional reactions the viewer had to that place. Cinephiles discuss ideas and themes and how story/characters tie into them. Emotional response is essential to making a statement/argument,

July 7, 2013 at 11:17PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Daniil Deych

I agree...

July 8, 2013 at 1:52AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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StM

When Jesus told parables, they were no less "truth" or "intellectual argument" than the clearly articulated teachings like "love your enemies. But when He told it as a parable, like the "Good Samaritan"... the truths connected with His hearers. Movies can be visual parables... articulating a truth through the medium of story and emotional engagement. One might say it actually is a BETTER way because it can say it AND show it through the various nuances of real life situations. And because the good ones touch our emotions, then the lesson learned may make a stronger and longer impact.

July 7, 2013 at 11:27PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Stephen

the Anglo world is limited by his mental structure and this author is lackluster because emotional communication can reveal philosophical ideas, the greatest filmmakers did.

July 7, 2013 at 11:30PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Arnold

Ebert is making a false distinction here: a film is as much a cognitive experience as an emotional one.

Whilst the immediate apparatus of the cinema is sensual, utilizing sound and image, these things are read and interpreted not by the ears and eyes, but by the brain. Ebert seems to conceive of illusionistic approaches to film language as the default state of the medium, which relegates ideological, didactic or self-reflexive techniques to the status of novelty.

To be blunt, this seems like Ebert's way of avoiding any rigorous interrogation of how sounds and images really work, both on a film-by-film basis and also according to the dominant ideologies which help to form those techniques.

Needless to say, this belief is an essentially conservative one, both politically and aesthetically. It offers no ideas as to how the medium can progress or change. Ebert's argument conceives of society and culture - and the capabilities of the human mind itself - as static: reached out to and engaged with only by an act of emotional button-pressing.

I don't buy this argument for a second: Ebert is judging everyone else by his own conservative standards, and it's supremely unimaginative.

July 7, 2013 at 11:36PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Dolly

So name some examples in film history that prove him wrong. I thought he may be, but I couldn't think of any off the top of the head.

July 8, 2013 at 12:06AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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moebius22

Off the top of my head, Rossellini's biopics for television, Marker's Sans Soleil, Akerman's Jeanne Dielman and The Eighties, and Kiarostami's Close-Up.

July 8, 2013 at 12:24AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Dolly

Dolly, Ebert was anything but a conservative (by the US definition) ideologically. He was what can be categorized as a "typical college town liberal" (he was from Peoria, ILL). For me, the amusing things about him being wrong here lies in one of his old favorites, "My Dinner with Andre". Back in 1982, it made his and Gene Siskel's (from their old "Sneak Previews" show) list of the best movies of the year (may have been the best even) and it was basically a two hour long conversation on a variety of intellectual subjects. So, by stating that "film is not a logical art form", he argues against a much younger and less bitter self.

July 8, 2013 at 12:50AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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DLD

Excellent point re: 'My Dinner with Andre'. I'll take your word that Ebert become more crotchety or bitter with time. It might be worth my seeking out some of his stuff from past decades in that case.

The replies to this topic have been pretty consistent, namely that emotions can contain ideas, and ideas can contain emotions. The important point, I think, is that a filmmaker shouldn't automatically privilege an emotion as the way of getting to an idea: some ideas are best taken straight, without the soda.

One final point I'd like to raise here, apropos the original article: some of the greatest filmmakers have made the delay of emotional gratification central to their aesthetic. To my mind, this means that something else other than direct emotional engagement must be propelling the viewer forward through the narrative. That 'other' seems most likely to be a cognitive process based on reading the film on a formal and thematic level, it's rhythms, language, dynamic opposition of ideas, and so on.

In summary, I don't think we give our analytical powers enough credit when it comes to films.

July 8, 2013 at 1:27AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Dolly

ehhh... This debate can go on forever as most opinions do.

July 8, 2013 at 3:01AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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"When we watch a film, the director is essentially standing behind us and saying, 'Look here,' and 'Look there, 'Hear this,' and 'Hear that,' and 'Feel this,' and 'Feel the way I want you to feel.'

I personally don't agree with Ebert. What he's implying has problematic implications regarding a lot of art house films. Many of these films strive to give viewers the opportunity to think about the material. Such films don't dictate how one should feel, rather they are ambiguous and thought provoking. They inspire discussion.

Ebert's idea that a director must make you feel the way he wants you to feel also reinforces the very mainstream idea that a film has to give you something. I believe a lot of independent cinema is misunderstood and ignored because audiences haven't learned how to appreciate it. A lot of people rely on being told what to think and feel when they watch a film. The result is that they become lazy and impatient viewers. What's more is that they begin to think "real movies" are only A, when in fact real movies are A, B, C all the down to Z.

At wine tastings people don't have wine forced down their throats. They sip it carefully. They also revel in forming their own opinions about the taste. Imagine if more people could approach films in a similar fashion.

July 8, 2013 at 3:40AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Greg

Also, I take issue with Ebert's sentence “When we watch a film, the director is essentially standing behind us and saying, ‘Look here,’ and ‘Look there, ‘Hear this,’ and ‘Hear that,’ and ‘Feel this,’ and ‘Feel the way I want you to feel.’"

This gives me an uncomfortable mental image of the director as some kind of hot-breathed pervert constantly whispering in my ear, like an MC at an orgy. This isn't always the case.

July 8, 2013 at 3:56AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Dolly

But the Director is doing that. She is framing the shot. Approving the lens and lighting choices. Directing what sounds we hear and what we don't. They are not giving us a view of an event, or simply telling us a story. He is giving us a particular viewpoint of an event, telling a story from a specific point of view. Though I think he over steps with, "‘Feel this,’ and ‘Feel the way I want you to feel.’” Some filmmakers try this. Some succeed, but generally I feel this is the sign of poor filmmaking. What is tittilating to one person could be horrifying to another. thinking you can fully control what someone will feel is a fools errand.

July 8, 2013 at 10:29AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Michael speaks the truth.

July 8, 2013 at 5:09PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Nick

Again, I agree. I just had problems with Ebert's metaphor, which for me made the art of direction sound like the work of some clammy-handed hypnotist.

July 8, 2013 at 6:36PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Dolly

I think you're also missing the point here somewhat - as there's been absolutely no discussion of the benefits of increased dynamic range and shooting in RAW...

Ahem...

From a personal standpoint, I find I'm most interested in films that seem to be the expression of an individual - someone showing you their take on things, their tastes, their beliefs. It's that subjectivity - and connection to someone else's outlook - that chimes with me. I'm not as interested when someone tries to take a balanced, 'both-sides' approach. I think (and this is just for me) I prefer it when films argue passionately, rather than discuss from a distance - and I'd much rather read a book if I'm looking for facts and a logical approach.

July 8, 2013 at 7:54AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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But some arguments expressed in a work of art may be less passionate and more ambiguous. A film's hero can have both (universally accepted) positive and negative traits. And sometimes the director instead of "blowing things up real good" a la Renny Harlin will quietly fade to black a la David Chase. A commercial needs to leave no stone unturned but a film/play/TV show can choose a variety of ways to make its point and often a message will be more hazy and less direct. Ebert was simply wrong to place every film under one universal umbrella.

Which is, once again, is odd because films of his era, the 60's and 70's, were full of anti-heroes and conflicting values. Fellini, Godard, Bertolucci, Coppola, Scorsese were masters of the immense emotional AND ideological battles experienced by their characters.

July 8, 2013 at 12:01PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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DLD

Also, I think it's important to recognize that dramatizing all ideas as subjective experience can grossly distort those ideas. It's a question of the right tools and techniques for the job.

A director like Bergman excelled at dramatizing the inner lives of his characters. However, when he tried to account for historical and political change, as in a film like 'The Serpent's Egg', he failed, because his technique wasn't suited to a clear-eyed appreciation of the larger forces at work within his material. Fassbinder, who was a more objective and less emotionally hermetic director, would probably have been more successful in this task.

In short, we shouldn't kid ourselves that being able to generate emotion in an audience is a way to make them understand something. There are numerous and terrible examples from history to prove otherwise.

July 8, 2013 at 7:09PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Dolly

I would agree with Ebert (or at least as his ideas are represented here). But in fact most arts are quite 'emotional' or 'illogical', to varying degrees.

The lack of logic and reason in film is most problematic when we treat it as something other than art, as we do when we watch the news or a documentary. I often watch documentaries and feel as if my mind has been changed about an important issue, but then I think, "What did that film really say? What was the proof, the facts, the other side of the story?" Often the answers are pretty thin and sparse. This becomes apparent too when you see the transcription of a documentary. The lack of reason and good argument is usually quite eye-opening. Nothing takes the place of writing (which also has it's tricks and shortcomings), when you want thorough, well-documented, well-reasoned argument.

July 8, 2013 at 11:47AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Tom

Dramatic film/TV (and even advertising) are probably the most powerful tools ever devised for social engineering/propaganda, so I have no idea where Ebert is coming from on this. Complicated ideas can be reduced to a simple morality play that tugs the hearts of viewers, engaging their emotions in a manner far more effective than a manifesto ever could. I suspect that a less overt message is more likely it is to influence a viewer.

July 8, 2013 at 12:34PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Marc B.

I think this is a slight mischaracterization... Propaganda films and advertising succeed precisely BECAUSE they circumvent intellectual argument altogether. Their very nature is to artificially elicit emotional responses as a means of discouraging rationality. Their purpose is to manipulate acquiescence, not thoughtfully encourage agreement.

You can disbelieve Ebert all you want to, but it doesn't change the fact that film is at its most powerful - and most memorable - when plucking the viewer's emotions. It's done in service of the director's viewpoint (hopefully the writer's viewpoint), but at best the viewer can usually only argue for themselves why they agree or disagree with the viewpoint. There usually isn't enough actual "argument" present in a film to sway opinion effectively. This is less true for documentary films, but even the most popular of those rely heavily on emotional language and presentation (Ken Burns, Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock, etc.).

July 10, 2013 at 4:34AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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"A film is - or should be - more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what's behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later."
Stanley Kubrick

July 8, 2013 at 3:34PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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sbsk

deep.

July 13, 2013 at 2:44AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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rob

I think Ebert is accurate in so far as popular film is concerned, that is films with a definitive financial motive and preconceived audience in mind. I think what gets lost in these debates about the ontology of cinema is the role that capital plays in its development. I think general audiences confuse "art house" films with what can truly be called "Art" (with a big A). I think the work of Stan Brakhage was the closest to popularizing film that was Art is so far as Art may be considered a ongoing process of experimentation and discovery not often tied to an explicit financial motive. But you will never see something like "Mothlight" in the multiplex. Ebert's career was tied to the whims of a market economy where films are assessed by their economic value as much as their artistic merit. And if Aristotle taught us anything it's that pathos (emotional appeals) can easily overpower logos (logical appeals) in an argument. But he also told us that the most effective argument involved all possible appeals to pathos, logos and ethos. I think film as a medium in general has always relied heavily on pathos for achieving the broadest possible appeal. Edison and subsequently Hollywood figured this out very early on for financial gain. Cicero knew that logos was nothing without pathos for an argument to work for manipulating the mob. That's because you don't need to be educated to pick up on emotional reasoning. As Dolly on this thread has already pointed out, there are examples of filmmakers that have actively chosen to downplay the pathos. Now how they've managed to make a living making "art films" is a whole other discussion in it's own right. But I think it is safe to say that it's short sighted to make the claim that film is only an emotional art form. It's perhaps most effective with emotional appeals but by no means does that make it "not a logical art form".

July 9, 2013 at 2:03PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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I believe a large number of people are misunderstanding Ebert here. He's not saying that you shouldn't try to present a philosophical or intellectual point in a film, he's saying that film is not a place for an argument -- a long dissertation, getting preachy about your point.

I'm willing to bet that each and every person reading this has found himself/herself in front of a film that got into that particular mode of wordiness, and they were turned off from it - -maybe switched it off and watched something else.

I don't read novels very often. I happen to read fairly highbrow, intellectual books on topics that I'd dare to say the majority here would not find stimulating. And when I'm having a deep conversation or debate with someone over these issues, I want my opponent to be reasonable; his position well-supported, and my objections pre-circumvented. When I read a book, even one that I don't agree with, I want to see a reasonable, intellectual argument of WORDS, without a bunch of name-calling (though there is a time for even that in the right context) ... but NOT in my movies. The film creator cannot expect keep an audience riveted to the screen with a bunch of blabbering on and on. Show your idea(s) with stimulating visuals, with realer-than-real sounds, with all the things that appeal to the gut level. You can still make your point, though you cannot counter every intellectual argument against it, But neither should that be your goal. Our emotions are important, but mustn't be confused with intellect. There's a time and place for both. Movies are not the place for making an intellectual ARGUMENT. The printed word is the proper realm, so that the reader can stop and re-read and ponder what the writer has said. This CANNOT happen in a film -- not if you're going to actually try to enjoy the film for the purpose for which it was made. THAT, I believe is what Ebert is saying.

July 11, 2013 at 11:29PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Shawn Hare