Heidegger and Cinema: Das Man and Medium Awareness

When viewing a film in a cinematic environment the individual spectator is absorbed into the audience. They are drawn into the 2D illusion and into empathizing with the characters, their eyes are dictated to by the camera. This is a face-value interpretation of cinema, and is one that reduces the experience to a simple subject-object dichotomy. This dualism, whether correct or not, situates neither film nor audience in a positive light: the object, in this case the film, dictatorially absorbs the viewer in an illusionistic world, whilst the role of the subject is occupied by the audience, who passively submits to the filmic journey. This understanding of film is a simplification, according the film theorist Vivian Sobchack who posits an interpretation of cinematic experience that is based on communication. In her book ‘The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience’ Sobchack states that there are two entities which exist as both subject and object:

The direct engagement, then, between spectator and film in the film experience cannot be considered a monologic one between a viewing subject and a viewed object. Rather, it is a dialogical and dialectical engagement of two viewing subjects who also exist as visible objects. (V.S, 23, 1992)

The interpretations and criticisms of cinema can be linked to the texts of Martin Heidegger. The film as object and audience as subject relationship is one that he positioned himself against. Therefore, Heidegger negatively viewed representationalism and aesthetics due to the fact that they perpetuate a subject-object mode of thinking. Hubert L. Dreyfus and Barbara Bolt both discuss this. In ‘Art Beyond Representation: The Performative Power of the Image, Barbara Bolt analyses Heidegger’s thoughts relating to representationalism. In Dreyfus’ book ‘Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division 1’, he states that: Heidegger questions the view that experience is always and most basically a relation between a self-contained subject with mental content (the inner) and an independent object (the outer).” (H.L.D, 5, 1991) The cinematic audience can also be viewed within Heideggerian thought through the Dasein and Das Man.

By applying these concepts to the cinema, the relationship between the film and viewer will be analysed in order to explore whether the audience truly is a passive entity, and whether this could ever be broken without disintegrating the cinematic experience. For this text, the analysis of the filmic encounter will be limited purely to those that take place within a cinema auditorium. Therefore, any other showcase of film, including those projected onto the white wall of a gallery, will be excluded. These encounters are each different to the one experienced in a cinema, and thus must be considered separately. Within this text, when speaking of cinema, one refers to the apparatus of commercial cinema, what Erika Balsom, in ‘Exhibiting Cinema in Contemporary Art’, refers to when she uses Michel Foucault’s term the dispositif[1]:  “In the case of cinema, the classical dispositif would thus include everything from the celluloid print to the projector, the theater, ticketing policies, audience protocol, distribution practices, advertising methods, and more.” (E.B, 16, 2013)

In order to examine the communications between film and viewer the notion of a standard ‘Hollywood’ film will be contrasted with two examples, the art work of Janet Cardiff and Georges Bures Miller and the films of Robert Bresson, that can be seen to attempt to break the illusionistic hold that film has with the viewer.

The simplified understanding of the filmic experience, which Sobchack theorizes against, places the viewer within the passive entity of the audience. This can be aligned with Heidegger’s concept of Dasein and Das Man. In ‘Being and Time’, Heidegger sets out his thoughts surrounding the human being, or the Dasein. Heidegger’s concept of human existence is a being-in-the-world; it is not an idea of life within solitary confinement. Instead the being is tied to a full world, it is an essential part of existence: “But to Dasein, Being in a world is something that belongs essentially. Thus Dasein’s understanding of Being pertains with equal primordiality both to an understanding of something like a ‘world’, and to the understanding of the being of those entities which become accessible within the world.” (M.H, 13, 2008) However because Dasein is a public being it potentially becomes an inauthentic entity, which Heidegger referred to as Das Man, which is often translated as the ‘they’ or ‘one’[2]. The Dasein falls away from itself and into the Das Man, which is a public mass of beings, as Heidegger explains:

“In utilizing public means of transport and in making use of the information services such as the newspaper, every Other is like the next. This Being-with-one-another dissolves one’s own Dasein completely into the kind of Being of ‘the Others’, in such a way, indeed, that the Others, as distinguishable and explicit, vanish more and more. In this inconspicuousness and unascertainability, the real dictatorship of the ‘they’ is unfolded.” (M.H, 164, 2008)

The fallen Dasein is an inescapable possibility, due to the fact that the Dasein is a being-in-the-world. When applied to the apparatus of cinema, the Das Man becomes the audience, a public entity, which the spectator has fallen into. The passive cinematic Das Man lets the film wash over them, as Geoff King describes: “Sitting back and simply ‘taking-in’ the spectacle, the impact of the ‘big’ special effects, seeing to be as important a source of pleasure in these films as the joys of narrative; perhaps more so, or at least more obviously so for many viewers.” (G.K, 29, 2000). In ‘Spectacular Narrative: Hollywood in the Age of the Blockbuster’, King discusses the typical large-scale, big budget, Hollywood film, citing ‘Independence Day’, ‘Titanic’ and ‘Star Wars’ as examples. This form of film can be contrasted with those that draw attention to the medium and make the viewer medium-aware. In ‘Projecting Illusion: Film Spectatorship and the Impression of Reality’ Richard Allen, like Sobchack, argues that the subject-object duality is illogical. Instead Allen, using the theories of French critic Jean-Pierre Oudart, states the viewer actively takes part in the illusionistic realm of cinema. Allen applies Richard Wollheim’s theory of ‘seeing-in’, which Wollheim sets out in ‘Painting as an Art’. Within the realm of painting, the spectator sees a painting, the painterly marks, and how it forms the pictorial illusion: “On the other hand, the medium-aware viewer of a representational painting – the viewer who looks at a painting as a painting of something – looks at the way in which the surface of the painting has been marked in order to produce an image of the object.” (R.A, 83, 1995)

By applying this to cinema, Allen suggests the medium-aware spectator. This is a viewer who is aware that they are seeing a ‘projected illusion’; they entertain the idea that what they are seeing is real, but know it is not. When discussing medium-awareness, Allen states that it is not predictable and not stable. Allen also discusses the nature of perceptual oscillation, where the viewer is unable to see both the brushstrokes within the paint and the depicted object at the same time. If this is applied to film, two states can exist within cinema for the spectator, the first is the zone of medium-awareness where the viewer is awake to their surroundings within the cinematic apparatus, the second is where the spectator is subsumed within the audience and immersed into the illusionary spectacle of cinema. Within the second space, the viewer has lost their sense of self: the Dasein is absorbed into the cinema and into the Das Man.

Within the Das Man, according the Heidegger, the being looses the ability to make judgments by themselves: “We take pleasure and enjoy ourselves as they [man] take pleasure; we read, see, judge about literature and art as they see and judge; likewise we shrink back from the ‘great mass’ as they shrink back; we find ‘shocking’ what they find shocking.” (M.H, 164, 2008) Therefore, when viewing a film the Das Man-audience will feel the same, they will empathize with the main character. One method in which the audience will become medium-aware is through reflective filmmaking. Susan Sontag discusses this form of art in ‘Against Interpretation’:

“In reflective art, the form of the work of art is present in an emphatic way. The effect of the spectator’s being aware of the form is to elongate or to retard the emotions. For, to the extent that we are conscious of form in a work of art, we become somewhat detached: our emotions do not respond in the same way as they do in real life.” (S.S, 123, 1982)

Within a reflective film the medium-aware viewer is less emotionally tied or manipulated by the film. They are, therefore, less immersed within the film experience. This type of interaction can be directly contrasted with the blockbuster spectacle that Geoff King explores. Within ‘Against Interpretation’ Sontag explores the work of filmmaker Robert Bresson and links his work to her thoughts on reflective art, stating that Bresson’s films allow intelligence to prevail over emotion. Sontag refers to Bresson’s film ‘Procès de Jeanne d’Arc’ (The Trial of Joan of Arc). Bresson’s distant, almost cold filmmaking that Sontag discusses has the potential to enable a medium-aware viewer. ‘The Trial of Joan of Arc’ is a short film, lasting only 60 minutes, in which Bresson recreates the trial of Joan of Arc using the minutes of her interrogations to form the screenplay. The viewer is told this at the start, which aids the documentary feel of the film. The viewer now knows that what they see is extremely close to what actually happened. Sontag discusses Bresson’s “quasi- documentary” style in relation to his films, stating that everything that is there for purely decorative reasons is left out. (S.S, 135, 1982) Bresson’s films are incredibly minimalist. In ‘The Trial of Joan of Arc’ the camera angles are static, through which the characters move, this often means that the ‘action’ happens in the corner of the screen, instead of the camera panning or moving with the action. When the guards and Joan walk downstairs, for example, the action happens in the bottom half of the shot and in Fig2, where Joan is seen reaching for an item in the lower left side of the camera’s view. Paul Schrader discusses the effect that these slow or static shots have upon the viewer in ‘Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson and Dreyer:

Fig.2 Screenshot from The Trial of Joan of Arc’, 1962, directed by Robert Bresson. (http://janusfilms.tumblr.com/page/7)

“The film is composed of static, medium shots of people talking; the scenes are the inexorable sequence of Joan’s interrogations. The principle of editing anecdotal material is here carried to its extreme. There are no interludes of any sort. It is a very deadpan construction which puts a sharp brake on emotional involvement.” (P.S, 68-69, 1972)

This style of filmmaking does not absorb the viewer into the film to the same extent that Geoff King’s spectacle films will. King discusses the fast action paced editing within the ‘Star Wars’ films. This method of filmmaking draws the viewer into the illusion; they feel immersed within the action: “Conflict also obeys an aesthetic of the ‘zap’, provided by laser-type weapons that fire bright beams of energy and appear to kill quickly and cleanly. Even some of the transitions from one scene to another are characterized by this dynamic energy.” (G.K, 75, 200)

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 14.15.32
Fig.3 Screenshot from Star Wars: A New Hope, 1977, directed by George Lucas (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2WBG2rJZGW8)

The difference in camera composition can be seen in fig.2 and fig.3. The use of the minimalist static compositions also provides a gap between the actor’s[3] face and the action carried out. Jacques Rancière discusses this in ‘The Future of the Image’, in which he states that the focus “reduces the action to its essence.”(J.R, 2007, 5) This approach creates distance between the face and the hand carrying out the action, it breaks up the flow of the film. The spectator cannot sit back and let the action and camera flow before them. Instead of this, Bresson creates an intensity of looking. Robert Bresson also creates an intensity of attention within the sounds, as Michel Chion explores in ‘Film, A Sound Art’. Like the visuals, the use of sound is very minimalist. Instead of the “Wagnerian” soundtrack created by John Williams for ‘Star Wars’, Bresson focuses on the everyday. (M.C, 138, 2003) He creates a minimalist rhythm that focuses the action undertaken in ‘The Trial of Joan of Arc’: “In shot, Bresson emphasizes everything in life that consists of constant repetition of similar and reversible actions: you open a door, and close it; you go upstairs, and you come down; you leave, and you return.” (M.C, 2003, 112)

The use of sound to create a medium-aware viewer is also explored within Janet Cardiff’s and Georges Bures Miller’s work ‘The Paradise Institute’. The installation work was originally created in 2001 for the Canadian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Instead of exploring cinematic film in a gallery environment, they built a cinema auditorium, which the visitor stepped into.

Fig.4 Janet Cardiff and Georges Bures Miller – The Paradise Institute (Installation View), 2001 [photograph, mixed media] (http://www.cardiffmiller.com/artworks/inst/paradise_institute.html#)

Upon entering the auditorium the visitor is presented with a projected film and headphones. The film is a loose narrative that focuses on a man undergoing treatment in a hospital, a nurse and a man who is seemingly frightening. Whilst wearing the headphones the viewer will hear the aural soundtrack and dialogue to the film but also the sounds of an imagined audience. The viewer will hear the sound of a mobile phone ringing, as well as a female voice who continuously whispers in their ear asking mundane questions: “Here’s your drink. Did you want some of my popcorn?” and “Did you check the stove before we left?” (J.C, G.B.M, 2001) These sounds and questions bring the viewer back into the auditorium and away from the immersive nature of the film. Janet Cardiff discusses this in the catalogue to accompany the installation: “ We are trying to work with different levels of how the viewer functions within a theatre, how the viewer participates within the movie in their minds. How they take on the roles of the players and how we can really push that further and further through the audio.” (J.C, 2001, 15)

Fig.5 Janet Cardiff and Georges Bures Miller – The Paradise Institute (Installation View), 2001 [photograph, mixed media] (http://www.cardiffmiller.com/artworks/inst/paradise_institute.html#)

‘The Paradise Institute’ explores the oscillation between immersion and medium-awareness examined in the film theories of Richard Allen. The use of the headphones constantly switches the viewer’s attention between the film and the created audience. The installation work therefore, uses the theory that a spectator becomes part of a passive entity when watching a film and seeks to manipulate this. The artistic duo explore the apparatus of cinema, blurring the lines between what is real, the headphones, the seats the viewer can sit on, and what is imaginary or created, the film and the audience.

Cardiff and Bures Miller work with the apparatus of cinema, which includes the role of the audience. The work begins when the viewer enters the installed theatre, which mimics the act of entering a cinema, as Wayne Baerwaldt describes:

“The process begins with the act of entering the theatre. Viewers climb stairs to enter through one of two doors into a carpeted balcony, navigating the dimly lit space to choose a seat from which their references to reality will continue to shift. The familiar allusions to a cinema experience are extended below the railing of the balcony by a hyper-real perspective of a seemingly distant screen, model theatre seats on the ground floor and side balconies. (W.B, 3, 2001)”

The ‘Paradise Institute’ involves a choice by the viewer, whether or not to enter the installation. The viewer, once inside, gives themselves over to the work. Like this work, the choice to enter the cinematic apparatus is one made freely by the visitor. When the modern day viewer steps into the screening room they are aware that what they are about to see is an illusion. Today’s cinematic viewer is an intelligent film-goer, educated in the illusionistic methodology of cinema. They are unlike the viewers of the Lumière brothers ‘L’Arrivee D’Un Train A La Ciotat’ (The Arrival of a Train at la Ciotat Station), who, when shown the 1896 film (fig.6), were said to leap out of their seats in panic at the oncoming train.

Screen Shot 2015-11-06 at 13.19.52
Fig.6 Screenshot from L’arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat, 1896, directed by Auguste and Louis Lumière. [website] (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d_9N68MO9gM)

When going into the cinema, according to Sobchack, the viewer is a willing participant within the illusion: “I am not a mere bodily receptacle for the film’s visual address, but rather a hospitable host, allowing this other visual address temporary residence in my visible address, in my body.” (V.S, 271-272, 1992) This explains this initial process in cinema attendance. The cinema viewer allows the filmic process to take place. They willingly walk into the cinema, choose a film to watch, purchase a ticket, have the option to buy snacks and drinks, walk into the theatre, choose which seat, and are aware that the apparatus they perform in is one of illusion. In becoming a host, the viewer gives themselves over to cinema and there is an inescapable loss of self as the spectator submits to accommodating the film, however willingly. There are moments of full medium-awareness, when the viewer is aware of their surroundings. This, as shown in ‘The Paradise Institute’ can occur when other members of the audience disturb the film. Another level of medium-awareness exists within certain films, like Bresson’s ‘The Trial of Joan of Arc’, which explore the medium of film (camera angles, editing, sound, actors) to create a reflective work. However, the cinema-goer does possess a level of medium-awareness, even in a spectacular film, as they do not believe that what they experience is real, they see it for an illusion, but the empathy and emotions they go through during the film is real. There is, therefore, an acceptance of the oncoming film experience, an anticipation of the loss of self. This is close to what Renée van de Vall calls ‘passibility’ in ‘At the Edges of Vision: A Phenomenological Aesthetics of Contemporary Spectatorship’. According to van de Vall: “Passibility is not the same as passivity. It is a capacity or an awareness, a receptivity for experience that does not pre-calculate that experience, but receives it as a donation.” (R.v.d.V, 135, 2008) Passibility is a readiness to accept the experience, the “otherness”. (R.v.d.V, 139, 2008). The otherness in this case is the film. Therefore, passibility is a willingness to accept a temporary loss of self in order to experience the film. If this is applied using the terminology dasein and das man, it means that the dasein willingly submits to becoming part of the das man in order to fully participate within film and the cinematic apparatus.

[1] Balsom states that Michel Foucault uses and defines dispositif, in ‘Confessions of the Flesh’ in ‘Power/Knowledge’.

[2] ‘One’ is the translation that Hubert L. Dreyfus uses for Das Man in ‘-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division 1’. ‘They’ is used in the English translated version of ‘Being and Time’ by Heidegger.

[3] The term actors here refer to those performing on screen, however, it is useful to note that Bresson used entirely non-professional actors for ‘The Trial of Joan of Arc’. He discusses this in his interview on the DVD copy of the film.

Fig.1 J.R. Eyerman – Bwana Devil, 1952,  Photograph (http://time.com/3878055/3-d-movies-revisiting-a-classic-life-photo-of-a-rapt-film-audience/)

Allen, R., 1995. Projecting Illusion: Film Spectatorship and the Impression of Reality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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 The Trail of Joan of Arc, 1962. [DVD] Directed by Robert Bresson. London: Artificial Eye

Interview with Robert Bresson. In: The Trail of Joan of Arc, 1962. [DVD] Directed by Robert Bresson. London: Artificial Eye

Wakefield, T., 2014. Archives online: British Pathé’s Death Jump – Eiffel Tower (1912). Sight & Sound Magazine, Online Exclusive [website] accessed from <http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/reviews-recommendations/bytes/archives-online-british-path-s-death> [Last accessed 6th November 2015]

This text was originally worked on at Goldsmiths, University of London

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