I am going to do an end of year review-type thing tomorrow (1 January 2016), so if you are interested in my adventures in cinema in 2015, then you will have a full run-down then…
But this post is really just a brief note prompted by a couple of books that recently I have read and greatly enjoyed (I know I generally only write about films I’ve seen; this is in contrast a slightly different type of post).
The books in question are Francesco Casetti’s Lumière Galaxy: 7 Key Words for the Cinema to Come (Columbia University Press, 2015) and Pavle Levi’s Cinema by Other Means (Oxford University Press, 2012).
I am afraid that I am not going to write a review of either book, since I plan to engage with them more fully elsewhere and in a more traditionally academic fashion.
However, I should just present a gist of their arguments in order to set up my brief note.
Taking them in chronological order, Levi argues (brilliantly) that we should not just think of cinema as audiovisual phenomena, but that cinema can also be created via (the clue is in the title) other means: using filmmaking equipment in unusual ways/devising and creating unusual filmmaking equipment; writing scripts that are never meant to be filmed, but which nonetheless might constitute cinema; the role that darkness – and not light – plays in cinema.
Casetti, meanwhile, argues (excellently) that in the contemporary world cinema has migrated out of the movie theatre and is still manifest in new media, including DVDs, streaming movies, gallery spaces and more. That is, cinema has adapted and changed, and we need some new words in order better to understand it – but that these other media are basically still cinema. Casetti is also interested in the role that darkness plays in cinema.
I personally tend to agree with Casetti. Indeed, my own forthcoming book, entitled Non-Cinema (details of publication pending), also argues that in the contemporary age cinema remains at the heart of new media, and that what I term non-cinema challenges the domination of a certain type of (capitalist, mainstream) cinema by adopting techniques and dealing with subject matter that the (capitalist, mainstream) cinema generally ignores. In this way, non-cinema is still cinematic – even if it does not adopt the now-predominant capitalist logic of cinema (it must grab attention in order to use eyeballs to make money). Suggesting that digital technology has intensified the potential for and the actualisation of such an a-capitalist non-cinema, I also argue that darkness has a key role to play in non-cinema.
Nonetheless, while I generally agree with Casetti (I do not agree with him on everything), what both he and Levi’s books make me wonder is how real the cinema has ever been. By which I mean to say: in exploring cinema by other means, Levi implies that there is, or at least that there once was, such a thing as cinema, such that we can identify what those ‘other means’ are. Similarly, in saying that new media are more or less still cinema but in modified form, Casetti equally suggests that an unmodified cinema once existed.
The point I want to make is subtle (if I am capable of subtlety). For, I do not disagree with the idea that cinema has existed and continues to exist: cinema generally is a place that one visits (a theatre dedicated to showing films), while also involving moving pictures and sounds projected on to a white screen/wall (cinema is also a set of equipment), and equally something that one watches in the dark (cinema is also a way of viewing films).
(This is not to mention that cinema for some also involves strips of celluloid or polyester that are passed first through a camera, then through an editing suite, and finally through a projector; in the digital age, this material base – you can touch a film strip – has disappeared.)
I also cannot disagree with the argument that in the contemporary world we watch films that do not involve visiting that place, which do not involve the projection of images on to a wall and accompanied by sounds, and which we now increasingly watch not in the dark but in broad daylight, as Gabriele Pedullà would put it.
Indeed, this morning I watched Il se peut que la beauté ait renforcé notre résolution: Masao Adachi/It May be that Beauty has Strengthened Our Resolve: Masao Adachi (Philippe Grandrieux, France, 2011) on the Doc Alliance website. This involved neither a dedicated film viewing space (I watched it in bed – where I also write this blog), nor a projection (it was streamed on to my computer screen), nor being in the dark (even though dark outside when I started to watch the film, I still had a bedside lamp illuminated throughout viewing).
(Philippe Grandrieux is for me a good example of a maker of non-cinema, and so it is perhaps fitting that I watched this film online – the only place that I can in fact find it these days.)
However, while all of the above is for me true, what I wish to suggest is that even when one does watch a film in a darkened room, using a projector and in a building dedicated to the viewing of that film, this still is not a flawless experience.
That is, while cinema has changed in the contemporary era (Casetti), and while it has long since existed by other means (Levi), cinema has only really ever been imperfect.
In 1998 at the UGC Ciné Cité in Lille, I see Alien: Resurrection (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, USA, 1997) and the sound is about two seconds out of sync with the image.
In 2013 at the Ritzy in London, I see Only God Forgives (Nicholas Winding Refn, Denmark/Sweden/Thailand/USA/France, 2013) and the sound is so loud that I have to pull my hoodie over my ears to muffle the noise.
In 2014 at the Odeon Putney in London, I see The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, USA/Germany/UK, 2014), and after about an hour and 15 minutes, the film freezes and will not continue until maintenance work has been done.
In 2015 at (if memory serves) the Cinema Village in New York, I see Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, France/Mauritania, 2014) and the sound is turned off for the first 15 minutes of the film.
In 2015 at the Milenium Cinema in Skopje, I see Every Thing Will Be Fine (Wim Wenders, Germany/Canada/France/Sweden/Norway, 2015) in 3D, and the bulb on the projector is so weak that the film is barely visible, so dark are the images.
I also remember seeing a film in Paris (I am pretty sure at the UGC Orient Express, but cannot remember which film; in my head it was Cop Out, Kevin Smith, USA, 2010) where/when the staff forgot to turn off/down the houselights.
And I remember seeing a film (I cannot remember which one, though in my head it was something like A Cock and Bull Story, Michael Winterbottom, UK, 2005) at the Gate Cinema in Notting Hill, London, where the film was out of focus – prompting several rounds of oneupmanship from various patrons regarding the technical reasons for why this was so.
The simple point that I wish to make, then, is that if the ‘other means’ and the contemporary, extra-theatrical practices of cinema demonstrate by implication/comparison a ‘classical’ cinema (place, projection, mode of viewing), that so-called ‘classical’ cinema exists only really as an ideal – while in reality cinema is an imperfect process, as my examples highlight.
My examples only become more clear when we add in the distractions of toilet breaks, people talking, people munching popcorn, people snogging, people tapping on their phones, people walking in and out.
The examples only become more clear when we add in the fact of watching imperfect, scratched prints of old films – even if digital restorations give to an old film a renewed life. The scratches are not part of the film as intended by the makers, but they are often a much loved part of the film as experienced by the viewers.
In other words, we have never really seen a movie in the ideal way. Reality always intervenes somehow.
But, more than this, I wish to say that these are not distractions from the viewing of the film (even if we find some of them annoying – other people talking, for example). Rather, my suggestion is that these everyday realities of viewing films are precisely part of cinema.
That is, the ideal of cinema might well be watching a film uninterrupted (and yet communally). But this ideal does not exist. Instead, the reality of cinema is interruption, imperfection, and so on. And these interruptions and imperfections define cinema as much as, if not more than, the ideal. Indeed, when we think about memorable viewing experiences, those that linger in the memory are often imperfect viewing experiences, as per my examples above.
In this way, we might say that there is no cinema. Or at the very least we might refine what cinema is and say that there is no cinema without reality, and that reality always interrupts into cinema, and that reality is imperfection, but also memory, perhaps the defining feature of cinema, and perhaps the source and cause of cinema’s great beauty. In the terms of my pending book, there is no cinema without non-cinema. Recognising the importance of non-cinema to cinema, then, recognising reality itself, instead of escaping from reality, is perhaps not only the greatest thing that cinema can do, but also our most pressing job to perform as film viewers.