(Post)cinema: Daniel Miller reflects on cinema in the age of the media-industrial complex.
In 2006 the Berlin Biennial launched forum expanded, a section to take account of the new forms of cinema which had been developed in video art. As part of their ambition ‘to show different films differently’, organisers installed a black box in the lobby of the Arsenal movie theatre to accompany a more conventional programme projected on the big screen.
In 2009, the box showed Stefan Zeyen’s short film Farewell, 2009: 1min 41s long and repeating in an endless loop, the work shows a woman looking back from the passenger seat of a departing convertible. The film image is scaled up in counter movement, so the woman never seems to get further away, but the picture quality corrodes as the real distance increases, until the frame decomposes into film grain and white noise. ‘Think of Maria Schneider in The Passenger, 1975,’ Anthony Lane wrote after the death of Antonioni in 2007, ‘kneeling in the back seat of a speeding convertible, turning around, and revelling in the dappled, tree-bowered road that unspools behind her–what finer way to flee your past?’ This time it was cinema itself leaving something behind: Zeyen shot Farewell on 35mm film, in a period in which the film industry is switching to video.
‘I’m never going to go back to film,’ David Lynch said following the release of his video-shot Inland Empire, ‘Film is a beautiful medium, so beautiful, but it’s a dinosaur … You die the death. It’s unreal slow and you die. I don’t want to die.’ Asked to explain his film’s rabbit-hole plot, Lynch could only reveal: ‘It’s about a woman in trouble.’ This insistent link between death, film and women, confirming in the final reel the feminist claim that ‘woman is the very ground of representation’ (Teresa de Lauretis), enjoyed the premiere of its inescapable conclusion some 40 years previously, thanks to a man who had earlier stated that all he required in order to make a movie was a girl and gun: ‘END OF CINEMA / END OF WORLD’ proclaimed the final title of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 movie Week End, as his bourgeois protagonists switched sides in the class-struggle, joining a roving band of revolutionary cannibals.
The flesh eaters provided a colourful culinary metaphor for Godard’s own principal artistic strategy. ‘Godard,’ wrote Peter Wollen, co-writer of The Passenger, ‘treated Hollywood as a kind of conceptual property store from which he could serendipitously loot ideas for scenes, shots, and moods.’ The director, who had once been arrested for shoplifting was not alone in his conceptual kleptomania. The same year that Week End appeared in the movie houses, Guy Debord published Society of the Spectacle, the major literary achievement of a roving situationist movement which believed in the truth of ‘the passage of a few persons through a rather brief period of time’ and which proposed a strategy of ‘detournement’ against the spectacular ‘pseudo-world’ conjured by capitalism. ‘It is obviously in the realm of the cinema,’ wrote Debord and Gil J Wolman in A User’s Guide to Detournement, 1956, ‘that detournement can attain its greatest effectiveness and, for those concerned with this aspect, its greatest beauty.’
Fifty-three years later, 14 months after the 40th anniversary of May 1968 put the situationist legacy back on the agenda, and two months after the silver jubilee of the French New Wave was celebrated in London at the British Film Institute, detournement appears dominant in contemporary creative practice. In the era of what American cyber-lawyer (and Obama ally) Larry Lessig calls ‘remix culture’, musicians make records by assembling raided samples, critics write essays by tendentiously combining quotes, novelists generate books by mashing-up other media, and television shows endlessly cite other shows in a vertiginous spiral of mediation and irony. Analogous processes have always existed. Balzac, the master of immersive simulation (and one-time inventor of the concept of the ‘screen-woman’) peopled his novels with characters fleshed out from paintings, while Shakespeare liberally recycled plots from his predecessors. What has changed lately is scale and extension. The supernova of media created by networked computing has opened a black hole in the centre of social space, turning detournement into a survival strategy. It is no longer possible to escape from the media-industrial complex, and it remains undesirable to submit to it.
What to do? Web-ensnared knowledge-workers, hooked into the net through their jobs, and their jobs through their networks, report feeling alienated from their currently-not-online colleagues. The first group has started to live in a landscape of memes, lulz and virals; the second group struggles for breath in the torrent. This brave new dimension of human incomprehension represents the reverse side of humanity’s massively amplified new communications capacity.
Launching Inland Empire in California in 2007, Lynch read from the Aitareya Upanishad: ‘We are like the spider. We weave our life and then move along in it. We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream. This is true for the entire universe.’ The universe as a web in an age of webs (and the web development software Adobe ‘Dreamweaver’), like the clockwork universe deduced by Isaac Newton in an age of mechanical clocks. Like an internet image-board, or a sequence of YouTube videos surfed automatically (a la Andre Breton), Inland Empire stitched together patches from half-conceptualised ideas, obsessions and signs of distress to create a work that the critic Nathan Lee characterised with a term borrowed from the Rochlitz-born media theorist Friedrich A Kittler: ‘information-system’. According to Lee, Lynch’s film (along with David Fincher’s cool urban procedural Zodiac, Richard Kelly’s execrable Southland Tales and David Simon’s seminal DVD-format series The Wire) constitutes a new form of system-based storytelling for a new-media age. According to Kittler, ‘the general digitization of channels and information erases the differences among individual media’ and provokes an equivalent integration in aesthetic/ conceptual software. As optical fibre networks transform formerly distinct data flows ‘into a standardized series of digitized numbers’, a principle of infinite mediation is ingrained in reality. Every coordinate point in the universe comes to rub up against every other. The result is less the death of cinema than its apotheosis apotheosis (əpŏth’ēō`sĭs), the act of raising a person who has died to the rank of a god. Historically, it was most important during the later Roman Empire. .
‘A face in close-up,’ notes Dennis Porter, ‘is what before the age of film only a lover or a mother ever saw.’ In the golden era of film, the sight remained restricted to the sacred spaces of movie houses. But as sensors and screens have proliferated, cinematic intimacy has become pervasive. Cheap recording equipment has augmented media vision; tethered information appliances, iPhones especially, have rerouted supply lines. The result is a world that is simultaneously a film set and a screening room, flooded with images ripped from their contexts.
This is the world of the image-file, born from the womb of pornography. Following the introduction of consumer video equipment in the 1980s, and the subsequent triumph of the porno-friendly format VHS (Video Home System) A half-inch, analog videocassette recorder (VCR) format introduced by JVC in 1976 to compete with Sony’s Betamax, introduced a year earlier. over its technically superior rival Betamax, the industry experienced the destruction of its traditional distribution model. In 1970 there were 900 adult movie theatres in the US; 17 years later, only 200 remained. In a crucial mutation in social space, pregnant with incalculable consequences, pornography abandoned the city (the polis) and penetrated the living room (the oikia). Consumer tastes individualised and extended into the long tails beloved of new-media economists and the artists who follow them (see ‘Mark Leckey: In the Long Tail’ AM324). Audiences particularised. ‘Every advance in technology,’ notes the critic Dana Stevens, ‘has had the effect of isolating consumers of culture from one another: movies took us away from live actors, video took us away from other filmgoers, and now iThings are depriving us even of our fellow couch potatoes.’
The crucial new prosthetic was the remote control. The new forms of interaction that the device facilitated (rewind, fast-forward, pause) cycled back into production, transforming narrative values. The compilation, a primitive information system which anticipated the interminable links of review articles that appear on websites like Bookforum, achieved mass-market dominance; according to the documentary Pornography: A Secret History of Civilization, 1999: ‘Of the almost 9000 new titles released in 1998, compilations account for almost two thirds.’
The disintegration of blue movies into series of sexual numbers ran in parallel to the shattering of grand narratives in the radical academy. Under the red lights, and on seminar-room OHPs, pornography and theory both came to embrace, more-or-less simultaneously, smaller, more singular, more tactical units. Meanwhile, Godard responded as well. In the words of Wollen, the director ‘abandoned the centre, breaking down his narrative into a mosaic of micro-elements’.
As discourse networks upgraded and conquered the mainstream, these developments became live. From RedTube to YouTube, the internet now proposes a cinema of clips: mobile, hybrid and elemental, sometimes urban-dystopian (‘Bus Uncle’) and sometimes symbolically rich (the many clips of Wii remotes being thrown through TV screens). And beyond the relative calm of the video districts, even smaller units are circulating. On imageboards like 4chan, memes built from an image and a few snatches of text shoot round the planet in minutes, trailing psycho-dramatic sparks (or lulz) as they go. The fact that lolcats remain the most widely known genre of imageboard productions is a striking coincidence, given the status enjoyed by this animal in the history of film: ‘As is well-known,’ writes Jacques Ranciere, ‘the cat is the fetish animal of dialecticians of the cinema, from Sergei Eisenstein to Chris Marker–the animal that converts one idiocy into another, consigning triumphant reasons to stupid superstitions or the enigma of a smile.’
‘The film has enriched our field of perception,’ wrote Walter Benjamin Walter Bendix Schönflies Benjamin (July 15, 1892 – September 27, 1940) was a German Marxist literary critic, essayist, translator, and philosopher. He was at times associated with the Frankfurt School of critical theory and was also greatly inspired by the Marxism of Bertolt in 1936. ‘By close-ups of the things around us, by focusing on hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring commonplace milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, the film … extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives [and] manages to assure of us of an immense and unexpected field of action.’ In the teeth of continuing bien pensant criticism (criticism cinema also faced), the internet has performed the same service with respect to psychology. ‘Fifty years ago,’ noted Benjamin, ‘a slip of the tongue passed more or less unnoticed.’ Even five years ago, feelings of hostility, contempt, derision, envy, vanity, boredom, fear, sexual desire or aversion, plus a great deal of simple self-absorption, which internet blogs and message boards now duly record, remained concealed beneath politesse and reserve. What has changed is the fact that this stuff is now exposed, and this should be celebrated as offering new opportunities.
In 1936, Benjamin separated progressive ‘exhibition value’ from reactionary cult value; where the former facilitated a relationship of ‘testing’ by encouraging an audience to identify with the camera, the latter instilled a logic of reverence and authority, through exclusionary rhetoric and manipulative rituals. In a conference paper published in March 2009, political scientists Eric Lawrence, John Sides and Henry Farrell identified the contemporary strain of this tendency: ‘Blog authors tend to link to their ideological kindred and blog readers gravitate to blogs that reinforce their existing viewpoints. Both sides of the ideological spectrum inhabit largely cloistered cocoons of cognitive consonance, thereby creating little opportunity for a substantive exchange across partisan or ideological lines.’
‘Anything shot anyhow,’ is how Jean-Pierre Melville, who played the novelist Parvulesco in Breathless, once summarised, apparently negatively, Godard’s artistic approach. In Week End the director cut together, in the words of Craig Keller, ‘the themes of class struggle, environmentalism environmentalism, movement to protect the quality and continuity of life through conservation of natural resources, prevention of pollution, and control of land use. , body-politics, commercialisation, and the very end of civilization itself’ in a story of cross-purposes, clashes and unexpected exposures. It was Godard’s striking ability to pull these strands together–no simple matter–which constituted his singular genius. Put in different terms, Godard was the master of structure.
‘At the end of this director’s career,’ the painter and critic Manny Farber predicted of Godard in Artforum in 1968, ‘there will probably be a hundred films, each one a bizarrely different species, with its own excruciatingly singular skeleton, tendons, plumage.’ The political hopes which engage intellectuals–Benjamin, Debord, Godard himself–invested in cinema in the 20th century comes down to the fact that cinema and politics share a common trajectory, as arts of constructing narratives through associations and scenes, dissociations and jump-cuts. ‘Fragmentation, interval, cutting, collage, montage,’ Ranciere summarises, ‘what is involved is revealing one world behind another … organising a clash, presenting the strangeness of the familiar, in order to reveal a different order of measurement that is only uncovered by the violence of a conflict.’
In his masterpiece Histoire(s) du Cinema, originally filmed for French television and released on DVD DVD: see digital versatile disc. DVD
in full digital video disc or digital versatile disc
Type of optical disc. The DVD represents the second generation of compact-disc (CD) technology. in 2007, Godard recounts a story of successive assassinations: the sound film destroying silent film, Hollywood betraying its greatest artists, cinema sacrificed on the altar of commerce. Yet this is not the whole story: as Keller notes for the website ‘Senses of Cinema’, the bracketed ‘s’ in the work’s title was intended to indicate other possible stories that might have been, and which still remain, possible. There is no single history and no standard index, no meta-language controlling the relationships between text and images, or between texts and texts. In this sense the problem remains as it was. ‘It is because this time for real,’ Godard intones over the Histoire(s) voicetrack, ‘the only veritable popular art form rejoins painting. That is: art. That is: what is reborn from what is burned.’ What survives is a slogan Godard displays on a supertitle: ‘Let Every Eye Negotiate For Itself.’
DANIEL MILLER works in Germany.
this article first published here: http://www.thefreelibrary.com/%28Post%29cinema%3A+Daniel+Miller+reflects+on+cinema+in+the+age+of+the…-a0203604938