Dudley Andrew’s Film in the Aura of Art is necessarily dated (1984), but serves as a point of reference in Andrew’s own genealogy of film criticism and analysis. Further, as Andrew had intended, the work situates itself within the context of film criticism and theory in an era dominated by Marx and Freud. As Andrew’s essay in Movies and Methods, Vol. II does, this book stands out as a minority voice in a time dominated by political and psychoanalytic approaches. Without ever actually naming itself as “phenomenology,” Andrew comes back to the notion of choice in the book, particularly the phenomenon of “films that choose us.”
Depending heavily on a notion of art reaching back long before the birth of film, Andrew outlines the way certain films set themselves apart from the mainstream mechanisms of their particular national cinemas (whether Hollywood, French, Japanese, or other) and create effects of excess. These works resist traditional criticism, especially of the theoretical varieties that aim to reduce them to tropes and patterns. Without ever denying that political, social, and above all cultural factors play heavily in both the production of artworks and their reception, Andrew pushes the argument that such artworks still stand out from among their cultural context at least as much (probably more) than those critics and thinkers who aim to stand out from theirs by performing meta-commentaries on those cultures. In this way, Andrew avoids the tendency of the critic to transcend the object of criticism. This ironic fact sets thinkers like Andrew apart from more supposedly political and egalitarian thinkers who, in their attempts to level the playing field, ultimately reduce any notion of “art” to its status as products of industry. Foucault isn’t wrong, Andrew is saying, but at the same time, these films have a subjectivity of their own, a voice that interpretation has the ability to liberate in its multiplicity of incarnations.
Andrew spends chapters appreciating and close-reading films like Broken Blossoms (Griffith), Diary of a Country Priest (Bresson), Henry V (Olivier), and the oeuvres of Welles and Mizoguchi. And whereas Andrew’s chapter on Sunrise (Murnau) argues that that film is a marvelous example of hybrid art, produced by a collision of national cinemas and emanating from an artistic genius, his chapter on Meet John Doe (Capra) argues that even this film, embedded in the Hollywood production system and carefully controlled by Hollywood’s most mainstream director, nevertheless produces a work that exceeds its own system.
Perhaps one disappointment remains with Andrews’s book. The book’s title and one of its two opening epigraphs heavily acknowledge Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Benjamin’s argument has everything to do with what he calls “the aura,” that effect of traditional art that technology has come to obliterate, film in particular. By its reproducibility, the photograph and the motion picture have politicized art by rendering it available, distributable. Such a possibility did not exist previously, and so art as a form and an institution fascistically stood apart from the masses. Since it’s only fitting to use an image on this July 4 of national independence, perhaps we can compare Benjamin’s auratic art with the Liberty Bell and the new, non-auratic art with the country’s flag. The former must be visited to be seen; the latter is fundamentally reproducible and capable of being “owned” by any and all. Although Benjamin makes an exception (that the photograph of a dead loved one can still produce something akin to the aura), he argues not only that the aura is gone, but that its absence constitutes social progress.
All this to say, despite Andrew’s shout-out to Benjamin, the rest of his book only interacts with Benjamin in the most distant of ways. Benjamin is never cited following the preface. As perhaps as strong a counterpoint to Andrew’s argument as there is, it seems that more interaction with Benjamin would have helped clarify and situate Andrew’s argument. With frequent references to Andrew’s hero, Bazin, and an overall tone that strongly exudes appreciation as much as analysis (perhaps more?), a little more concrete rigor and a little less abstract prose would help make the book more relevant to today. One wonders if Andrew’s status in the mid-80s as a minority voice allowed him wiggle-room that would not be as acceptable today. Apparent proof of Andrew emerging surprisingly unscathed from this book—which really is a great and even productive read—is Bill Nichols’s positive review in Film Quarterly following its release. Nichols, my own one-time professor, although sympathetic to phenomenology, stands as a pillar of political criticism in film academia. His approval of Andrew’s book strikes one as surprising, since Nichols’s field of documentary criticism and ostensibly neo-Marxist theoretical approach have little on the surface to do with Andrew’s artfilm criticism and phenomenological method.