Early McLuhan on film

In a series of following posts on Sergei Eisenstein, the case will be made that McLuhan came to his topic — understanding media — through a consideration of film and particularly of Eisenstein on film technique.

By the time McLuhan encountered Eisenstein’s theoretical work in the late 1940s, he had been peripherally interested in film for at least 15 years.  Still in Winnipeg, anticipating what he would find at Cambridge in Culture and EnvironmentThe Training of Critical Awareness by F.R. Leavis and Denys Thompson1, he noted in a 1934 article in The Manitoban:

the radio and the movie are even more potent than “bread and circuses” to produce in men that fatigue which is fatal to a civilization.2

Later that same year, now in his first term at Cambridge, McLuhan sent his family a parody of Prospero’s famous lines from The Tempest (IV, 1):

This orgy now is ended. These mad hustlers
As I foretold you, were all bluff and
Are shown to be air, even hot air:
And like the baseless credit of their business
Their sign-capped towers and raucous newspapers,
Their film temples, great Hollywood itself,
And all that it doth breed on shall dissolve,
And like an insubstantial pageant faded
Leave not a rack behind. They were such stuff
Screen-stars are made on and their feverish life
Is quieted now in sleep.3

Then in 1940 in St Louis, McLuhan reviewed Mortimer Adler’s Art and Prudence (1937), a book that had for its subject (in Adler’s words cited by McLuhan) “the influence of motion pictures on human behavior”. Adler’s take was characterized by McLuhan as follows:

Democracy (…) is the result of the mechanization of society and the obliteration of all save economic distinctions between persons and social classes. Thus “one cannot live in a democracy and despise the popular arts”.4 Art in a democracy is an instrument in an instrumental society. And it is thus peculiarly fitting that the art form of a mechanized sub-human society should be highly mechanized. This is the movie. It alone provides for the masses a sense of mass participation in all the functions of society. [While this is a sense] at a very low level, it is true, it nevertheless constitutes a mode of communication between all the functional units of society (units which were formerly persons) without which it is scarcely possible to conceive of Democracy.5

McLuhan’s critique at the time was of course directed at the notion of such an “instrumental society” and its “functional units” — “units which were formerly persons”. This did not prevent him, however, from noting that Adler’s “absence of concern for the technical means (…) of the movie [form] is one of the most striking deficiencies of the volume under review”. Thus:

The trouble with Pudovkin’s Film Technique [1926; translation 1933] and its followers is, from Mr. Adler’s point of view, that they make a drastic critique of the movie (…) [from] within the limits of the art itself.6 Pudovkin and all the critics who speak from a knowledge of the artistic aims and the technical means of the movie are much more devastating and effective in their comment on the old bag of stage tricks which Hollywood serves up as film art…

Already in 1940 McLuhan had a vague sense that “artistic aims and (…) technical means” might not only not be inimitable to the sort of ethical society he championed as a committed distributist7, but might actually help reconstitute and maintain it. It was in pursuit of this notion, particularly in reference to film theory like that of Eisenstein, Zavattini and Balázs, that he would arrive at his topic, understanding media, two decades later.

  1. 1933.
  2. Tomorrow and Tomorrow?’, The Manitoban16 May 1934. Compare in Leavis and Thompson: “whatever play or film he attends for amusement, the pressure of the herd is brought to bear upon him.”
  3. McLuhan to his family, November 3, 1934, Letters 34.
  4. McLuhan cites Art and Prudence p. 114 here.
  5. McLuhan,  Review of Art and Prudence by Mortimer J. Adler, Fleur de Lis, 40:1, October 1940, 30-32.
  6. McLuhan: “they (= Pudovkin’s Film Technique and its followers) make a drastic critique of the movie (medium) he (= Adler) is defending within the limits of the art itself.”
  7. See Autobiography – encountering Chesterton.