John Dewey, and the 21st Century Cinematic Aesthetic Experience 

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John Dewey in his tenth volume written in 1934, Art as Experience, gave his theory on the arts and created a change in the way people viewed aesthetics and how artists created. Even though Dewey does not talk about film in his volume, except briefly once, he does lay a clear foundation of how to experience and evaluate art through focusing on the rhythm, form, substance, materials, and medium alongside emotion and intellect. In this paper, I will evaluate Ari Aster’s 2019 folklore horror film, Midsommar, by applying John Dewey’s theories to the elements of the cinematography of the film and also highlight how light is used as a material, not as a medium, to create an aesthetic experience.

Dewey stated in his chapter, “The Natural History of Form”, that “artists always have used and always will use all kinds of techniques” and that “one of the essential traits of the artist is that he is born an experimenter” (148). I contend his statement credible, because Aster, along with cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, pushed the limits of what they could do and what could be done with natural light in order to execute an unsettling aesthetic experience.
First to lay out a foundation, it is best to give a brief summary of the film in discussion. Midsommar is set in Helsingia, Sweden, where a group of American graduate students visit to celebrate and experience midsummer with their friend, Pelle, who is from a remote commune called the Harga. At the heart of the film, it is a break up story that also highlights dealing with loss, the human condition, culture, and society. Because of the amount of natural light that completely fills the scenes and with the way Midsommar is filmed, everything is at the forefront and nothing is hidden from the viewer’s eyes. With this in mind, I’ll first focus on the role of light as a material.
Each material used must be beneficial in the medium that ultimately results in a piece of art created. Dewey states that “only because the artist operates experimentally does he open new fields of experience and disclose new aspect and qualities in familiar scenes and objects” (149). Aster and Pogorzelski created this new experience by working with the sun and finding the correct tools in order to capture what was needed for the final product. Because natural sunlight can pose many limitations, they did not allow it to be restrictive. This is something that Dewey credits as being “a trait inherent in the work of the artist,...the necessity that he shall not fake and compromise” (193).

The light in the film is a raw material provided by nature, and the white costumes of the commune villagers and the open land where they live served as its backdrop. Because of the overwhelming sunlight and the openness of the field location, it completely dilutes one's perception, due to the fact that everything is in focus and there are not any shadows that can lead the eye to focus on a certain area, person, or thing unless the camera purposely does so. Dewey views light as a medium of expression to create or to highlight a subject in a work of fine art, but excludes film and photography where lighting is crucial in their creation. Light in art works in conjunction with shading and shadows, either through painting, sculptures, or scientific control (126). Natural light is never considered to be used as a material in order to create a medium. It is only replicated through different techniques. Light has continuously been seen as a medium to be manipulated, but not a material manipulated by a medium.

Film, mainly narrative fiction film, is commonly seen as a popular art instead of a type of fine art, and filmmakers as well use artificial lighting as one of its mediums in order to help shape the film they are creating. In Midsommar, the use of harsh natural sunlight as one of the materials used for creating the cinematography is a method in the 20th century that wasn’t readily available because the technology wasn’t there yet. In this film, the camera became the medium that shapes the sunlight in order to capture what is there, and the lens as the tool, lends to the desired effect needed.

The experience of being completely engulfed in harsh sunlight and having the camera be the medium to shape a softness throughout a large portion of the film creates an intense and mystical sensation. But it can also lead to an uneasiness and discomfort from being a spectator. Not only because we can relate to the actors we see in the film constantly squinting from the sun and behaving in ways we also do when confronted with the high afternoon sun, but also because everything they see happen, we do as well. This allows the triadic relationship between the artists, us as the viewers, and the film together to be as one collective. There are things that we would rather be hidden and for us to be shielded from, but Midsommar takes away that sense of comfort to have a separate experience from those in the film, and has you become part of it.

In contrast to Midsommar, Aster’s previous film, Hereditary (2018), focused on the shadows, testing the limits of darkness and what we could not see. If he had done the same in Midsommar, it would have been a completely different film and wouldn’t have lent to a new experience. But, in a way, he did exactly the same thing of pushing boundaries with Hereditary, but flipped. If he had not done so, he would have risked there being “no consistency and no security in his successive acts” (62). The lighting does not add to a previous experience, but enhances the intensity of the experience being had while watching the film. The aesthetic experience of the film focuses on the emotional and practical experiences that one can relate to, while giving meaning to the intellectual experience that the viewer processes during and after the film.

A question one might ask is, how does the use of sunlight add to one’s experience of the film? Well for one, it changes our perspective on how we view a horror film. Dark and muted colors with minimal or low-lighting is common throughout the genre. The horrors we see in the film are clear as day and, again, takes away our safety net as the spectator. It becomes an immersive experience to watch along with the community as an elderly man sacrifices himself and drops down from a cliff just for him not to die immediately because he missed the rock he was supposed to land on. Then watching as the members of the commune wail in agony with him as three others calmly take a large wooden hammer and individually bring it down onto his face to end his pain and misery. We experience this with the foreign visitors as they react in different ways to what they had just seen, just as we react differently to the scene just displayed. There is a discomfort, a sense of shock, and a sense of confusion with no way to stop what is happening nor having something shield us from the events that had unfolded, especially since the lingering camera does not allow us to be removed from the situation.

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Film in the 20th century, and even still in the 21st century, was and is a way to distract from daily life. But as film has evolved over time, there are films that have become a work of art due to the visionaries that wanted to evoke thought and emotion through the complexities of storytelling and visuals, making it a work of fine art rather than just a popular art that helps distract oneself from daily routines. Cinematography is one of the most important mediums in filmmaking and becomes the “mediator” between the artist and the viewer after the director and cinematographer have “convert[ed] it into an authentic medium of expression” (204). Cinematography is similar to photography in that they are images, but one of the biggest differences is that cinematography is made up of multiple images versus the one in photography, that creates a type of rhythm of movement to completion, like writing in poetry.

Dewey states that with rhythm there is symmetry. In his chapter, “The Organization of Energies,” he talks about how “rhythm and balance cannot be separated” (183). But when the symmetry is disrupted or disregarded, which is highly common in films, it can cause a confusion or lack of emotions. Though in independent films, such as Midsommar, this disruption is not commonly found as they are in superhero and other horror films, such as Anthony Russo’s Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and James Wan’s The Conjuring (2013). It is notable in Midsommar that the acting, pacing, camera movement, and lighting allows for there to be a continuity throughout that keeps the balance while still evoking emotion and engagement. The rhythm is kept throughout the film because each interaction and reaction is appropriate and established. For instance, going back to the scene discussed earlier with the collective wailing in agony with the old man who’s ritualistic suicide attempt failed. That was the establishment that this is normal for them. When someone is in pain, they are in pain with them. To the foreigners with them, this is confusing and unnatural for them, because it is not something they have experienced before. But when Dani, the main protagonist in the film played by Florence Pugh, is having a breakdown because she saw her boyfriend taking part in a sexual ritual with one of the teenage girls in the commune, the women with Dani cry and match her so she does not have to suffer alone. In the final scene of the film, the rhythm is kept when two people in the commune volunteered to be the final sacrifices and start to scream from the pain of being burned alive, Dani automatically joins the commune as they wail and scream in agony in sympathy for the dying. She represents the live creature subconsciously adapting to its environment and keeps with the rhythm in order to not break the symmetry established.

The camera to a filmmaker is like the brush for the painter. Techniques are used for both, but the strokes of the brush like the movement of the camera allow it to be an expressive medium for creation. The medium is exploited as the movement of the camera gives perception and later allows for reflection after the initial viewing experience. Light is needed when using a camera, just like paint or oil is needed for the brush in order for the artist to create its piece. The lighting and the camera together allows the light to become “the substance of a work of art” (232). For the sunlight used in Midsommar, it became more than just an ordinary, everyday experience that we take for granted. It became expressive and evocative.

Dewey views substance as subject matter and the artist may only create something new of the subject matter if it is perceived aesthetically. It becomes new repeatedly through each person’s experience of it as well. Midsommar, from an academic viewpoint focuses on the psychological impact of mental illnesses, toxic relationships, and loss. But because the film was not created academically, Aster created an aesthetic experience in order to visually engage the audience in an experience that is about a common or shared experience in humanity while juxtaposing and paralleling the rituals of the Harga commune. The universality of basic human emotion and sense of belonging allows the film to evoke an intensity that can add to their own past or current experiences.

With substance, there is form. The final product is the form, and Dewey, defines form “as the operation of forces that carry the experience of an event, object, scene, and situation to its own integral fulfillment” (142). Form and substance are not separate and form allows the evocation of the substance. This brings us back to the triadic relationship that allows for a rounded experience. The way the camera moves throughout the film and plays with the sunlight, creating a soft glow against the whites of the costumes in the commune gives the feeling of being in a fairytale, but because of the violence, rituals, and the use of psychedelics in the commune, it is made clear that what we are seeing and what is being told to us by the creators is that we are not always safe, even in broad daylight, and we cannot continuously try to ignore the violence and uncomfortable experiences that we are exposed to in our lives. The camera focuses on the characters in wide shots in order to bring the viewer into the openness of the environment and showing us that there is nowhere to hide. Not even when experiencing individual emotional changes. The close-up focus of the camera to show the little details usually ignored or given only a quick glance to adds to the transformation of some of the characters, especially Dani, goes through.

Upon reflection of my own experience as a viewer of the film, it has changed the way I view the safety of being outside in broad daylight and away from shadows. It has caused me to face the reality of the dangers that we face daily even when we tell ourselves that we will be fine, because there are others around who can see me just like I can see them. It has also solidified the notion that the effects of trauma do not end when the occurrence has run its course. The emotional impact is continuously felt through each trigger and that in order for it to end is to either accept and adapt to the changes in your life or to completely let it take over as you lose your grip on the last bit of sanity you have left. I, and others who have experienced watching the film, could see that happening with Dani. Whether her smile at the end meant that she was finally letting go of her toxic relationship with her boyfriend or whether she had lost her sanity in the end brings me back to the driving emotion throughout the film: grief. Grief because of loss, grief because of heartbreak. Aster does well in having this emotion expressed through his writing, through the way he filmed each scene, and the way Pugh interpreted the words written.

With this film, the aesthetic experience is not only in the visuals of the medium, but it is also in the sincerity and the pervading quality presented before us. It is a piece of art that uses experiences that are timeless and in a space that is intensified by light. There is an interest of the human experience that is evident in its creation and is bounded by the use of sunlight as one of its materials and the camera as one of its mediums. There is a sense of clarity we receive from the intensity portrayed and gives us a sense of self. It is the mediator between us and Aster. When Dewey talks about what all art has in common, form and matter are not separate. There is a creative process of doing and undergoing with a sincerity to create the final form. It is a necessity for the act of doing and undergoing to be part of the process of the artist, especially in the cinematography practices, the rhythm would be lost and can risk the experience to be unaesthetic or dull.

Film allows for an immersive aesthetic experience, because it is an observation of life. It is a visual art. Aster as the artist, or the filmmaker, created a film based off of the emotions of the live creature, of the human race. He used the emotions that we are familiar with and have or will experience in our daily life and used light to keep us from feeling like we can hide from them in the safety of shadows and darkness. This is the nature we face and our emotions do not stay hidden in the mind. They are displayed in different ways and Aster found a way to visually bring us through traumatic experiences to a completion. The use of different materials and mediums manipulated by the filmmaker to create the final product ties it to the physical world upon its release to be seen and experienced by others. It communicates and adds to the community of art that is boundless. It changes in our perceptions of life itself. Film is not just an activity to be enjoyed. It is another type of art form that can ask of the viewer to think, to feel, and immerse oneself in what is being portrayed in front of them.

From Dewey’s perspective in the 20th century, film as a popular art is important for daily aesthetic life, but wouldn’t be able to be considered in the realms of fine art. But in the 21st century, that has changed. Film has become one of the art forms that is able to blend a multitude of different mediums—cinematography, sound, painting, acting, ect.— in order to create the final form. Even taking risks and pushing the limits of what one can do helps the industry to continue to evolve and change, especially when it comes to the use of lighting in cinematography. In Midsommar, sunlight was the main material used along with the tools—the camera and lens—in order to add to its film medium. Dewey states that “only where material is employed as media is there expression and art” (69). In this, he is correct, and continuously this has been accomplished through the creations of different films. The film becomes a language complete when it is released to the masses and allows it to be experienced outside of its artistic creators.

Works Cited

  1. “Avengers: Infinity War (2018) - IMDb.” IMDb, 25 Apr. 2018, imdb.com/title/tt4154756/.
  2. Dewey, John. The Later Works of John Dewey, 1925-1953. Edited by Jo Ann Boydston, vol. 10, Southern Illinois University Press, 2008.
  3. Hereditary. Directed by Ari Aster, PalmStar Media, 2018.
  4. Midsommar. Directed by Ari Aster, B-Reel Films, 2019.
  5. “The Conjuring (2013) - IMDb.” IMDb, 18 July 2013, imdb.com/title/tt1457767/.
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