Death of Cinema?

Technology is a unifier. It consolidates information and data to make it more accessible and user-friendly. But at the same time, according to Anne Friedberg, it diminishes the differences between various media like tv and movies which have their own specificity and are meant to engage the viewer in different ways. With the dawn of computers the viewer becomes a user, not just a spectator or passive consumer. But Friedberg mentions that this change in the transmission of media has been going on long before the digital age. One of the examples she gives is the VCR, which quickly became a common household appliance after its introduction. It’s ability to record, playback and pause “demolished the aura of live television.” The dawn of video cassettes also introduced a rental market which changed the way people experienced films, increasing their control over what they watched and allowed them to interact with it. Friedberg also mentions cable television as freeing the viewer from the confines of the broadcasting networks’ schedule. The tv remote also changed the way the viewer interacted with the medium, allowing them to “edit at will.”

Philip Rosen talks about “a utopia of the digital” which is the ideal future of digital media that will allow for “practically infinite manipulability of digital images.” Digital processes will free the artist from all restrictions on their ability to express their imagination. Rosen makes a point to say that manipulation of images is not a new thing and has been going on since the beginning of cinema via various processes such as painting the film and using unconventional lenses. The difference is that digital media allow for an increase in manipulability and the rapidity with which it can be implemented. He also makes a point of differentiating the process of capturing images photographically, which is a real process of capturing light, and digitally. Computers have no intrinsic meaning, they must be programmed to do what we require of them.

I’m not an expert, but I’d be curious to know the extent to which photographic images are visually discernable from digital images. Rodowick briefly mentions the differences he sees between the two media in the Godard film he discusses and even the differences that occur when one is transferred to the other. But he’s a film scholar and cinema is made, not just for scholars, but for the masses and I’m fairly certain the masses wouldn’t really be able to tell the difference. Cinema is, after all, and from the very beginning, an illusion. If the image wasn’t real to begin with (studio sets, costumes, actors), is anything really lost when it becomes digital?

Corporeality, Sensation, History, and Spectatorship

Even from the beginning, film has evoked a visceral response from its audiences. Tom Gunning puts early films, during the era of the “cinema of attractions” before the dawn of narrative films, in their proper historical context, relating them to the magic theater and other demonstrations of illusion that aimed to shock and astonish the viewers. This shock had nothing to do with tricking the audience into thinking the images were real (the audience was always consciously aware of the artifice and the spectacle), but was more about the novelty of the medium and the shock of seeing movement where it was previously never experienced. Many of these early films involved a controlled sense of danger, raising the viewers anxiety, questioning their knowledge of the world while also providing pleasure and satisfying a “lust to know.” These early films also provided a distraction from “a modern loss of fulfilling experience” which accompanied the turn of the century by continually assaulting the senses in a variety of ways. The cinema could provide the viewer only with a shadow of the real world and with cheap thrills, but the public was hungry for the illusion, I guess perpetuating a lack of fulfilling experience.

Linda Williams discusses the ability of certain “body” genres of film to provoke an uncontrolled physical response in us. It is important for Williams that these genres be “low” genres that are seen as less meaningful because they don’t fit into the Classical Hollywood Style and allow for a deeper exploration of the power of cinema to affect us physically. These genres include pornography, horror, and melodrama which assault our senses with an excess of sex, violence and emotion, respectively. Theses excesses are usually embodied by a female character and the body of the spectator is caught up in an involuntary mimicry. In pornography, the emphasis is on the female orgasm; in horror, the victims are often female and the villain usually male; in melodrama, the sobbing woman is the focus of the emotional overhaul. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, which leads Williams to believe that the distinctions between these genres are not as clearly cut in terms of sadism and masochism as we would like to think. There has been a rise in bisexual and homosexual pornography recently. In addition, the villain in a horror film is often destroyed by an empowered woman (who is still denied her sexuality). In melodrama, there have more recently been films that involved the emotional development of men, although I would argue that Douglas Sirk’s Written On the Wind depicts the emotional upheaval of men possibly even more so than that of women. These films differ from Classical Hollywood by abandoning the idea of a proper distance between the spectator and the film. The spectator becomes over-involved in the sensations depicted on screen and becomes susceptible to feeling them him/herself. Williams says that these can be a useful way to work out the problems of sexual identity in society by making use of fantasy. Pornography focuses on the seduction fantasy; horror focuses on the castration fantasy; melodrama focuses on the fantasy of family romance.

Vivian Sobchack discusses the viewer as a “cinesthetic” subject whose primary response to a film is unconscious and sensuous. This primary response creates meaning for the viewer before his/her brain has a chance to catch up and reflect on what was just seen or experienced. This sensuous response includes all of our senses, not just sight. Sobchack discusses the body’s ability to smell, feel and taste things that it sees on screen. This sort of synaesthesia enhances our experience of the cinema allowing us to experience the movie both viscerally and cognitively, and create a richer, fuller understanding of the meaning of the experience. This leads to a kind of displacement of the viewer, split between his/her actual experience of sitting in the theater watching and the simultaneous experience shared with the characters on the screen. But what we feel from what we see on screen only partially fulfills us and our bodies turn inward seeking additional fulfillment. Sobchack argues that this reversibility causes our bodies to become even more aware and sensitized to what we see on screen and allows us to not only touch what we see but also to be touched by it.

Christian Metz discusses the fact that cinema differs from the other arts in its relationship with the spectator. Unlike other art forms, which also present an object to be viewed by the subject, in cinema the object is not ever really present and is doubly represented through the acts of projection and perception. Metz uses Freudian psychoanalytic theory to discuss the relationship of the spectator with representation. Basically, we identify ourselves in what we see, but we don’t see ourselves. The subject must find his place outside of the frame. Filmmakers can play with this idea by using shots from the point of view of a character. This creates an interesting relationship between what is imaginary and what is real. What we see projected on the screen is an idealized version of ourselves. Metz goes on to link the act of the spectator to voyeurism and fetishism.

The spectator is a voyeur because he derives a sadistic pleasure from watching the objects on screen from a distance, never interacting. The real pleasure is gained from the absence of fulfillment. I think it’s a little bit extreme to call this pleasure sadistic. The spectator doesn’t have the intention to cause harm and the fact that the film is offered up for projection implies the consent that Metz says is necessarily missing in a voyeuristic situation. The lack of consent is manufactured by the nature of the presentation of film, so is this truly sadistic? Metz discusses the castration complex, which I’ve always been kind of skeptical of. I think it’s assuming a lot to assert that all young boys see their mother naked. I would think a more obvious sexual difference perceivable to a child would be his mother’s breasts, not her lack of penis. I also think it’s interesting because biologically speaking, we all start out as female in the womb. Anyway, so the boy is afraid his penis will be removed, but transfers the fear to some other object, which he becomes obsessed with and derives sexual pleasure from. The filmmaker can direct the spectator’s gaze to a fetishized object (or lack thereof, hinting at something missing) by using framing techniques.

Laura Mulvey applies similar theories to the depiction of women as passive objects of desire who lack agency and are constantly subject to the empowered, controlling, active gaze of a male figure. The female characters serve only as a symbol of the threat of castration, to remind the male of what has been lost (mother) and must be regained (wife). But Mulvey says this is a distraction from the plot. Women are shown as a spectacle, emphasizing their eroticism. Films tackle the question of woman as “the other” in two ways: trying to uncover the mystery or as a source of fetishized pleasure. Mulvey discusses how Sternberg uses the latter and Hitchcock a combination of both.

Mary Ann Doane narrows the field further by looking at the female spectator and examining her response to the male gaze. Women lack the proper distance from the depiction of self on the screen that is required of a cinephile. They are left with two options. One is over-indentification, which leads to a sort of narcissistic response where the female spectator assumes the masculine gaze (a sort of transvestitism), and views what is essentially herself as an object of pleasure (a form of autoeroticism). Women lack the ability to fetishize (really?) because when they become aware of the lack of a penis, they are comfortable enough with it to internalize it immediately. Another response is creating a masquerade of femininity in order to manufacture a distance between what is true femininity and what is false (or exaggerated). Women can appropriate the gaze by losing the glasses and becoming attractive. Glasses are a symbol of the woman’s gaze. Once removed, she loses her gaze. Women who exert their own gaze (femme fatale) are usually seen as dangerous and killed off. Even in naturalistic shots, women are subjected to the gaze of men. This indicates the position of women as dictated by society.

I was struck by the repeated reference in the readings on auteur theory to Howard Hawks and his frequent use of female characters that are just one of the guys, affectionately dubbed the Hawksian women. In my paper, I would like to try to apply ideas about gender and female perspective to examine these characters’ potential appeal to a female audience and how the audience might relate to an idea of woman as constructed by a man. I’d like to examine how this construction tackles ideas about femininity and sexuality and the relationship between men and women. I might also look at the lasting influence these characters have had on the concept of a strong woman in popular culture. I will take a look at Rosalind Russell’s character in His Girl Friday, Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not, and if I have room Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, or Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings.

I haven’t had a chance to look at any of the readings on these topics closely, but it looks like I’ll definitely want to take a look at Mary Ann Doane and Laura Mulvey.

Third Cinema is an alternative to both First World Hollywood cinema and European “author” cinema (second cinema). It adopts the Second Cinema’s aesthetic opposition to Hollywood, but, according to Stephen Crofts, takes it one step further by incorporating a political opposition as well. The goal is to fight against neocolonialism and reclaim a national identity for themselves via an attempt at decolonization. It is a revolutionary cinema. Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino describe it as akin to guerrilla warfare. It must function completely outside of the System, completely underground. It is the most important tool available for revolutionaries to communicate with each other, to gain an audience, to transform the audience from mere spectators to active members of the cause in order to incite a real revolution.

Glauber Rocha discusses the hunger that is felt by colonized countries, which can have no manifestation other than violence in order to be truly communicated to the colonial powers. Julio Garcia Espinosa shares similar sentiments, emphasizing the importance of reclaiming the arts and sciences as a tool of the revolution. But this new art must go beyond the “counter-cinema” of the European directors (as described by Peter Wollen in his piece on Godard and his Vent d’Est) because this cinema still works within the confines of the System. It is important for Third Cinema directors to reclaim their own identity by deconstructing the false identity imposed on them by the colonizing powers. Robert Stam and Louise Spence discuss at length the many ways in which Western cinema imposes its own ideas of race (cannibalism, barbarism) and colonialism (bringing civilization and religion to those who lack it) onto its representation of colonized people.

I couldn’t help but think of Dziga Vertov’s Kino Eye manifesto while doing the readings for this week, particularly the ideas of opening up the field of film-making to the masses and focusing on the depiction of reality in order to wake people up from the fantasy world they have been programmed to accept. The only difference is that the Third Cinema directors embrace art in terms of storytelling and all of the artifice it entails while Vertov was adamant about using only documentary footage. It seems to me that Third Cinema would be a much more effective method of mobilizing the masses, not only by employing them as filmmakers but by incorporating them into the conversation by trusting them to parse through the artifice in order to identify the realities depicted in the film. This way, they are able to reclaim their own identity in the process.

There doesn’t seem to be much consensus about what auteur theory is among critics whether they support the theory or not. In a broad view, it implies that the director of a film has the most control over the interpretation of topics and themes in a film, leaving their own distinct imprint whereby the the film can be identified as their own. Auteur critics thus base their evaluation of a film solely on the execution of the film by the director inclusive of his previous work. This theory tends to ignore creative collaboration, the input of anyone else working on the film: the writer, the cinematographer or the actors.

This theory originated in France and was adopted by critics in America and England where it was co-opted and reinterpreted in various ways, applied as a new way to look at Hollywood films.  The French theorists are given precedence here, according to Peter Wollen, because they were in the unique position under the Vichy government of having been deprived of any American films and when the embargo was lifted, were presented with a floodgate of films torn from their historical context, the critics left searching for meaning seem to have found it in the distinctive qualities of what they considered great filmmakers, or auteurs.

One American critic who adopted auteur theory as the most efficient form of film criticism was Andrew Sarris who endeavored to define what makes an auteur in very simple terms. The first criteria is that the director should be technically competent. The second is that he should leave a distinctive mark of his personality on the film through his style. The third is that the director should tap into some elusive interior meaning, which is representative of his soul. He admits that there is a certain degree of flexibility and that the auteur theory does not apply in every case, but he seems to think those cases are not worth examining. He thinks it’s more important to focus on the career spans of great directors than on any individual film or movement in the industry.

Pauline Kael takes great umbrage to the auteur theory (Sarris’ in particular), dismissing it as a cult of personality built around a director, which prevents the enamored critics from perceiving the faults of the director and ultimately resulting in the reading of greater meaning and merit into what are essentially bad films. She also thinks it is wrong to divorce the film and filmmakers from their historical and ethnographic contexts. She says criticism is an art, not a science and claims auteur theory is nothing more than a sort of brand loyalty, which absolves the critic from having to make any actual judgments based on the quality of the film as a whole and justifies his enjoyment of commercial films that would otherwise be deemed “trash.” She thinks critics should not limit themselves to such a theory the way that Sarris does because it almost arbitrarily separates films into categories of good and bad.

Bazin has reservations about auteur theory, mostly in terms of its application. He agrees with certain of its ideas. He, along with Kael, thinks that the theory builds up a cult of personality, raising directors to the level of the infallible. He also believes that the work can transcend the director and that it is wrong to use auteur theory to read a deeper meaning into what are in actuality “B” films, as in the case of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and Confidential Report. He makes the argument that anonymous art over the ages has been just as meaningful and made just as big an impact as specific artists. However, he also makes a point to discuss authors who transcended the mediocrity of their work to become indispensably influential as is the case with Voltaire. He believes auteurs do exist, but that their work is not automatically more meaningful than the work of newer directors who are still cutting their teeth or the work of generally bad directors who can still have flashes of genius.

It’s unclear and seems very subjective, the way that these critics determine who is and isn’t an auteur. According to Bazin it is someone who directs in the first person. Regardless of what type of film they make, the informed critic should be able to tell what direction the film will go and what kinds of ideas it will explore and expand on. But does this automatically make the film good? Not to Pauline Kael. Howard Hawks may use the same themes and tropes in his films, but only a few of them are good and even then they are merely entertainment.

On the other hand, Peter Wollen finds that the meaning that compounds over Hawks’ different films, in addition to the tension created by his work in two very different genres, builds a greater meaning and brings the viewer deeper into Hawks’ vision of the world. This, I believe, is evidence of Bazin and Kael’s criticism of a cult of personality. It implies that somehow, because Hawks is determined to communicate his unique vision repeatedly throughout his films, that this vision becomes almost transcendent to the material. But is Wollen just reading way too much into what are essentially action films and romantic comedies? Can a movie be good if the material is bad?

Dyer attempts to expand auteur theory, suggesting that it could be applied to actors who have more than the usual amount of creative input on a film and who bring their own vision to their interpretation of a character even if it conflicts with what the director or writer initially imagined.

Pudovkin and Eisenstein agree on the fact that editing is the most important aspect of the filmmaking process, without which film would have no meaning. What they don’t agree on is how editing can best be understood and utilized to this end. Pudovkin believes that separate shots are building blocks that, when joined together, create a larger meaning than any of its individual parts. Eisenstein believes that each shot is part of the editing/montage itself. Perhaps, I should read their essays more carefully, but to me it just seems like tomatoes and tomahtoes. Where their ideas really diverge is in practice.

Pudovkin has a more traditional viewpoint on editing. He believes that the editing should mimic the changing attention of an imaginary viewer. To me, this sounds a lot like the continuity system of editing, especially when he talks about the film cutting between parallel stories just as the viewer begins to wonder what’s happening in the other story. However, he makes a point of examining other uses for editing in order to enhance the meaning of an action or a scene, which are more artistic. He gives the example of a bomb exploding on film and explains how the filmmaker can construct a greater meaning and make the scene more powerful by never even actually showing the bomb explode. Sounds a lot like emotional manipulation, but that’s kind of what art is.

Eisenstein’s ideas about montage and editing are rooted in Marx’s theory of dialectical materialism. He believes that the meaning of the film is derived from a constant conflict between and within each individual shot. In addition, the visual aspects of each shot (lighting, space, planes of view, etc.) should be in conflict with the sound and the titles as well as each other.

Both Pudovkin and Eisenstein liken the editing process to the construction of language, which I found fascinating. I particularly like Eisenstein’s discussion of individual Japanese characters coming together to create a different, greater meaning than either of them alone. I’m not sure I agree that the individual characters were completely devoid of meaning just because they lacked context. A bomb exploding is still a bomb exploding and most people will be moved by an image of a baby regardless of whether it’s crying or laughing.

Pudovkin compares the process of montage with the writing of poetry. A word alone is dead, completely devoid of meaning, but when joined with other words its meaning mingles with that of the other words to create a fuller, more potent image and meaning. Again, I think he’s exaggerating a bit about individual words being dead but he makes a good point.

Dziga Vertov comes from an entirely different school of thought. He believes that filmmaking should be completely divorced from art and should focus instead on describing real life in order to promote unity around the world among the proletariat for the Soviet cause. He’s pretty militant in his views, likening dramatic films to vodka and infections. His tone is kind of disdainful towards the viewers. They need to be woken up and shown the right way. He’s not shy about calling his work propaganda. In terms of practice, he wants to have an army of cameramen on the streets, looking to shoot footage based on a particular theme, which is edited together in order to show the life of the working class and hopefully inspire them to revolution. I’d be interested to know what he thought about Eisenstein’s work, which is rooted in drama, but also manages to get across a very strong political message. I’m also curious how successful Vertov’s work was in appealing to the working class because the bits of Man with a Movie Camera I’ve seen actually seem pretty avant-garde.

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