Art Imitating Life?
In his assessment of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, (1920), Noel Burch describes the film as a play on “carefully contrived ambiguity,” (Burch, 174). The spectator of the film, the audience is both drawn in as a participant, a “motionless voyager” (Bordwell, 96, quoting Burch) forced to imagine their own dialogue, action, and expression, and then all at once, harkened back to severe reality with contrived moments. This play between audience immersion and expulsion from the film’s environment characterizes Director Robert Wiene’s simultaneous acceptance and rejection of what we would call institutional mode of representation (IMR). In this essay I will discuss IMR and key moments in film where departure from it is obvious, focusing my attention to moments of the film where the style breaks from a true representation of reality in order of increasing subtlety. While doing so, I will discuss Burch’s opposition approach to film style and my own reaction to how these breaks from the IMR style reveal the intention of audience involvement rather than simple narrative consumption.
First, and most obviously, an audience member cannot help but notice the manufactured set. This is first noticed in Francis’ flashback to his hometown, Holstenwall (0:03:14). Especially when contrasted to the realistic setting of the garden, where Francis begins his conversation with a friend as his “fiancée” walks past. It also cues the audience, with its disjointed lines, flat, painted backdrop, and maze-like stairs that perhaps something is not quite right in this memory; the ambiguity of which Burch took notice is clearly present. As such, the audience is engaged as a participant in the film—as soon as irregularities are obvious, they are piqued to begin investigating the film rather than simply observe it. Because Burch opposes the IMR (the reflection of a bourgeois desire to mechanize reality as a means to immortality) he applauds this “precocious” method,...
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