[In this 1930 essay, Rudolf Arnheim provides a corrective to the rhetoric of progress that saw the addition of sound and colour as incremental steps towards increased realism at the cinema. He mourns the loss of the ineffable distance between the image and the real that is lost in the slavish adherence to simulationist aesthetics.]
Film is not an art of the masses, except that it must amass a profit at the box office. Those who try to be lovers of both the people and art – a difficult double calling these days – have hailed film as the illustrated bible for the people. The esoteric pleasures of the art of printing are now to be surpassed by the (equally nutritional) visual instruction provided by the living picture, whose lessons are thought to be best suited to making an impression on the eye of the common man. The developments of the past two years have made this whole pious swindle painfully clear.
For the people would rather have pictures than a bible. They can be educated, but not these days – not so long as the work needed to earn their daily bread is either nonexistent or so overtaxing that the worker drops dead tired into bed at night. The discovery of living photography, of an easily manufactured picture of reality, fit in perfectly with the legitimate need of the employed, from the messenger boy up to the factory director, for distraction and amusement. Thus a cult of the image quickly arose, one that has since turned into a spiritual epidemic. Everywhere that there had been words – that is, thoughts – there was now raw, pointless viewing.
The film industry, as purveyor of such visual amusements, has never been in good stead with the film artists. Similarly, it became apparent that, to a certain modest degree, the desired product could be produced not only by untalented but also talented artists. Thus arose the flattering legend of the great artist as the darling of the people … No sooner did sound film appear than bluff triumphed over quality, and from one day to the next the people’s darlings saw their life’s work in question. The wide country road of film art, whose lovely goal was becoming ever clearer in the distance, was closed for technical renovations, with a detour erected on a bumpy path over the fields. [...] One may welcome the appearance of sound film, but the unscrupulous strangulation of an entire branch of art, the violation of talented and inspired artists, remains a scandal. Silent film was not ripe for replacement. It had not lost its fruitfulness, but only its profitability. Especially when we understand that sound film is more than just an addition to silent film, that it is, rather, an artistic activity unto itself, we ought to reject the popular opinion that it represents an “advance”, one automatically condemning the previous method to the compost heap. Sound film is not an advance, but a new thing entirely – and that is undoubtedly a mixed blessing.
The patron saint of the visual arts has switched over from Saint Luke to the electric company, and the results look it. The world public, just as powerful as it is uneducated, wants film to look more and more like reality. At the cinema they look for the sensation of the waxworks, the ventriloquist – the doll looks and talks like a man! Similarly, technicians see their task as being to conquer sound, colour, and space, and they’re going to reach their goal damned fast. We allowed silent film time to bring at least a couple of well-formed products into the world. From here on in, however, Progress will be in an even greater rush. It will trample the unhatched eggs of sound film with its seven-league army boots, and then it will be obvious to even the most well-meaning opportunist among film lovers that film’s latest achievements cut a better figure in the patent registry than in the annals of art history. [...]
Even if it should be possible to perfect the technology of coloured film so that the colour no longer controls the director, but the director the colour – something that will take a long time, dragging out the production of more or less watchable sound films for another number of years – even then, nothing will have been gained. Rather, one of those qualities of the camera that makes film art possible will be lost again, since every artistic creation demands that distance from reality which Progress is trying to remove.
Rudolf Arnheim, ‘The Sad Future of Film’ (1930) reprinted in Film Essays and Criticism. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1997.