Rudolf Arnheim died on Saturday in Ann Arbor, where he taught and
lived for decades. He was 102 years old.
I only managed to meet him once. He was a kindly old man (just shy of
100 at the time, but sharp as nails). Arnheim is, of course,
notorious for taking the hardest of hard lines on the artlessness of
the sound film. Most people got over this pretty quickly, but Arnheim
wouldn't budge, preferring the glories of the late silent era to the
clunky realism of the classical sound cinema. This is perplexing, but
I have to admit it makes for great material for pedagogy. We teaching
Arnheim every semester here, not simply for the canonical status of
Film as Art—he challenges students to pay close attention to the
riches of silent cinema, to recognize the pressures the given state
of the art places on theoretical and critical discourses, and to
puzzle through their own ideas on what constitutes artful cinema.
He basically claims that he stopped watching when he gave up on the
form, started writing on other media, and settled into teaching here
at University of Michigan. So when I met him, the pressing question
was if he watched any films in the last half-century+. The answer:
"Oh, not really." I pressed him. Surely he must have watched films.
No way could he have made it through the 20th century, having started
out as a critic and scholar of cinema, and simply stopped watching.
"Well, I did watch this one film. What was it? A musical, set in
"Could it have been Sound of Music?" I suggested.
"Yes! Sound of Music. That was nice."
A formalist to the end!
Japan might have been the first country to publish a translation of
Film As Art, the year after it's debut, but you really don't see that
much mention of him in the 1930s. Munsterberg and Balasz pop up quite
a bit, along with the French (Epstein, Dulluc, etc.). But Arnheim
didn't seem to take. We might flip the question over: why didn't
Arnheim capture the imagination? Some Japanese critics griped about
the artlessness of the sound film. And so many Japanese theorists,
critics and filmmakers were entranced by Soviet montage theory, you'd
think that they'd find Arnheim useful when the government started
cracking down on the left; this was, after all, the same moment when
Arnheim gets translated. How about in other languages?
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