what is cinema, now?
landon a. palmer
Though such a question must necessarily be posed, to ask what will entail the “future of cinema” involves accepting the use of a term that can often prove itself to be reductive, misleading, elusive, or downright irrelevant. To ask what will befall the future of cinema arguably implies a degree of stasis in what defines a media object as “cinematic.” Yet, in examining the history of cinema, it becomes indisputably clear that cinema has been anything if not amorphous, continuously changing its shape, form, and means of transmission to eventually become almost unrecognizable from its previous incarnation.
Defining “cinema” simply as a succession of moving images has become far too broad, and too many questions now arise to sustain this definition. How do we then reach a definition of cinema that can sustain the medium’s natural elasticity? Is cinema merely a succession of “captured” moving images? If so, then how is animation, or other types of imaging completely fabricated without analogue to a signifying diegetic source, not cinematic? Cinema taught us long ago that images do not have to be moving at all to be considered manifestations of cinematic practice. The natural inclination from here is to define cinema as an image projected onto a screen. But most of our experiences of moving images now lay outside of the traditional theatrical experience, as both old and new cinematic objects are now exhibited in virtually any medium that can sustain images, moving or not. Is cinema, then, simply that which is sustained within the confines of the frame? Then what do we say about immersive forms of moving images, either by the appealing collective experience of a giant peripheral screen or a personal technological device? Perhaps more immediately relevant, the prevalence of multiple screens have determined our experience of moving images via the Internet to be one that does not regard a single cinematic object to be an isolated experience in a uniformly realized, authoritative form, but rather part and parcel of a feast of interrelated media objects sharing the same screen and simultaneously competing for our attention.
In Thomas Elsaesser’s assessment of new media, “The New Film History as Media Archaeology”, he posits Tom Gunning’s discourse on early cinema’s appeal to attraction rather than narrative integration not as a revelatory rewriting of the dominant annals of cinema history, but as proof that cinema’s means of expression and reception have never been homogenous. Elsaesser argues the continuing pleasure drawn from special effects in mainstream cinema as evidence that the medium’s natural trajectory has never been from its roots in a nascent era of attraction to a perfection of its perceived “natural” state of narrative integration, but an ongoing oscillation and competition battling varying degrees between the two. In this way, we may view the changing forms of cinematic modes of production, distribution, and reception as surveying new grounds with which moving images can be consumed and received while never being completely separate from older forms of cinematic experience. For instance, the many YouTube outings where one can view a multitude of interconnected and (to varying degrees) interrelated short-form media objects can be regarded as a 21st century analogy to cinema’s first home, vaudeville.
What is illuminating about Elsaesser’s essay is that he argues that all these fears, doubts and hopes suppose that cinema has some sort of pure, pre-ordained destination that all formal modes will eventually ascribe to. While technology has historically proven to have the power to drastically change the modes of cinema spectatorship, all of cinema will never simply “be” one of these many options. There is currently a multitude of media outlets, and there is no reason to think that they will eventually combine into one necessary outlet. What Gunning’s “cinema of attractions” illuminates is that, unlike previous film historiography argued, early cinema was never necessarily on a “trajectory” towards narrative integration, and cinema has no normative mode. Elsaesser urges for narrative integration to not be regarded as the wish fulfillment of some narrow conception of total cinema, that one instead must consider a host of factors that determine whether or not technological developments “change” cinema:
“Thus, a real challenge even for the genealogical approach is our lack of knowledge about the many interconnections—but even more so, about the gaps—between the media. No medium replaces another, or simply supercedes the previous one.” 1
Cinema, then, cannot be organized into a historical typology of direct causes and effects that bring it to inevitable narrative integration. Cinema’s history is more segmented, more episodic, and media scholarship should move away from a sort of historical narrative development of the cinema.
With a twist on Andre Bazin’s idiom, we may not ask not, “what is cinema,” but “what is cinema, now?” It’s a question that must continually be asked again and whose attempted answers must be reassessed and readdressed with each technological and theoretical stretch of the term. It’s a question that can only be answered in the moment, and not even then. What we previously conceived as cinema is now unrecognizable from its supposed original form while simultaneously being indebted to its old means of expression. The editors of Movement understand that to even attempt to define cinema would be to attach a term to an idea that would inevitably become unstuck in no short time, as new exceptions to perceived rules become immediately clear. Thus, digital media and other “challenges” to the classical conception of cinema should be viewed not as harbingers of the death of cinema or irrelevant trends of momentary distraction, but the means to further cinema’s inevitable evolution, and we should likewise expand our scholarly approach to the medium and its intermedia relations. As each new technology has developed, it has been perceived as a newfound threat to the idealized classical cinematic experience, and arguments regarding the death of cinema have been seen as early as the development of synchronous sound and the innovation of television, yet all of these technologies have only allowed cinema to arise again in a new form, accommodating new means of expression, innovation, and consumption.
While the editors of Movement realize that giving a sustainable answer to “what is cinema, now” cannot be accomplished in one journal issue, or can arguably not be accomplished at all, what the following essays have in common is the signification of a movement beyond the inflated rhetoric and dogmatic ultimatums pronouncing cinema’s “death” in the wake of new media technologies and changing patterns of reception, instead favoring revelatory and insightful scholarly assessments of cinema’s present and future through thoughtful and detailed examinations of certain media objects and blocks of theory and historiography, all with their own implications regarding changes in form and reception.
Nathan Carroll’s “Double Exposure: Framing the Athletes of Marx & Coca-Cola at the Beijing Opening Ceremony” illuminates the elasticity of a cinematic experience and its intermedia relations, as the Olympic ceremony transposed a iconic directorial eye to a real-life televised media event, and blurs the line between reality and fiction through the melding between the “event” and the perceptual manipulation and intervention of that event through technological utilities previously perceived to be specific to cinema. The ceremony’s various manifestations through different media paradigms and distribution channels further represents the loss of a canonical, authoritative version of a media text characteristic of our current media culture, instead employing different versions of the same event, none of which posits itself as having authority over another.
Dwayne Avery’s “The Future is Behind You – The Reclamation of Place in Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind” assesses the confrontation of new and old methods of distribution, production, and technological means of communication in relation to the determination of cinema’s past onto its perpetual present and future, articulated through the means in which communities formulate processes of regional identification through a discursive relationship with media. As Avery argues, and as Gondry’s career shows, the trajectory of cinema’s future is inextricably tied to a nostalgia for its past, which in turn determines processes of interpersonal relation and identification with place in a society constantly defining itself through medias old and new.
Peter Dallow’s “Future Sense: Screen Metaphors in the Digital Age” assesses the applicability of classical and modern film theory to developments of the screen in new media, and how these inform challenging implications in methodologies of reception regarding the possibilities and utilities of the screen in the digital age, forcing cinema scholarship to adapt new conceptual paradigms to the screen. Dallow’s article effectively argues that new developments in media technology can drastically change our ideas of what is cinematic while still being rooted in established ideas regarding the utility of the medium within its older forms.
Tilly Walnes’s “Story Without End? Found Footage in the Digital Era” explores the historical precedents for alleged developments in new media, focusing on how found footage films have had a history of appropriating and combining moving image materials in order to create new products with radically different meanings, thus putting into question the allegation that YouTube “mash-up” videos bring a wholly new democratic means for handling such materials. Walnes’s arguments explore how cinema’s technological and historical past reverberate and determine developments in its future, offering insight into the ways in which technology enables a means for such “new” communicative practices. Walnes further explores, like in Avery’s essay, developments in communications and intellectual property law that continue to change as new media technologies allow for means of communication never previously considered in terms of “ownership,” also detailing processes on how old media forms are preserved by new media forms.
Although Movement is a journal that primarily seeks written works of media scholarship, the editors firmly believe that the pragmatic, utilitarian considerations of media production are inextricable from the academic discourse that springs from it. In other words, media scholarship and media production should never be mutually exclusive. Thus, we have included in this issue a personal account of Internet filmmaking by neighborhoodfilms creator Daniel Robin. This article explores several issues regarding the future of cinema as evidenced by his personal experience, most notably Robin’s insightful argument that web video can now be seen as a self-sustaining cinematic medium in of itself, with its own advantages particular to its means of reception and distribution, rather than a process to ultimately enter a career in “legitimate” filmmaking. Finally, Gregory Zinman’s review of Daniel Barnett’s Movement as Meaning in Experimental Film explores the application of classical film theory to cinematic objects that utilize alternative methodologies of expression, while also illustrating the limitations of such an approach.
For the inaugural issue of Movement, the editors have chosen a collection of articles that represent an assessment of the future of cinema with due regard to both the implications of such a statement while contextualized by a careful and ever-changing evaluation of the medium’s determining past. This issue will hopefully establish Movement as a journal that is continually examining cinema’s past and future with an availability to consideration of new perspectives and information in hopes of further developing the various possible approaches to cinema within film and media scholarship.