Thursday, April 22, 2010

Neil Harris's term "operational aesthetics" covers much, if not all, of my interests in cinema. Harris develops the term in his book Humbug on P.T. Barnum. Noting that audiences flocked to Barnum's productions, even though they were known to be hoaxes and the ways Barnum's advertising invited audiences to "decide for themselves" - Harris elaborates a particularly American attitude, skeptical and information-seeking, that seeks to know how things look and how they work. It refers to the capacity of productions to appeal to the analystic,investigative, and problem-solving faculties. To elucidate his point, Harris even discusses Poe's invention of the detective story and its popularity. Yet operational aesthetics in cinema perhaps stretch beyond American borders. Early documentary forms, especially something like Basil Wright's Night Mail can be seen to be constructed around a desire to show --just as much as poeticize -- Britain's rail mail. Additionally, Eisenstein discusses something very much like the operational aesthetic (in a quote contained in Annette Michelson's essay "Dr. Crase and Mr. Clair") when he talks about the school film, and the ability of cinema to show pupils "how a power station, a newspaper, a book, a glass factory, a colored illustration is produced.."(paraphrase - from Conversations with Eisenstein trans. harry brose, 1970) . Urban cinema -- film which shows "how a city works" is one mode of operational aesthetics (and Eisenstein alludes to the urban nature of the school film earlier in this quote.)

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