To what all can we equate the cinema? For starters: lost causes, mirror images, failures, dream-food, a drug, a certain form of reality, lèse majesté, toadying, bullying, pleading, pornography, a captured sequence of sounds/images that may give a reasonably identical experience to the viewer over multiple viewings, a substitute for action, a displacement of life, a patriarchal funhouse, today's Grand Guignol, faith, celluloid, maybe pixels, beginnings and ends, a two-lane blacktop.
(The more I disregard “dominant” cinema and try to distance myself from it, the more refreshed I think I am in looking at it, finding more clearly its parameters, its strengths and weaknesses. For those movie-mad folks who watch only television shows and feature-length narratives [brought to you by DVD]: don't you ever get bored? Staring at the image of my former self, my adolescent self, that I hold in my own head, I am furious. How, why, did I have no sense of foundations, of supplementation? I was a very smart child and am spending my twenties trying desperately to reclaim some of that freedom and some of that focus, against the obstacles of deeply worn-in damage caused by my teenage years. This is why pedagogy matters to me: I am convinced I, and others, have been robbed of a proper education—I'm hardly using this as a synonym for schooling—and must grab it back by force, inches at a time, before it's too late. Too late for what? What makes it too late? I don't know and yet feel compelled, propelled all the same.)
The suspicion is that the best way to answer the question, What Is Cinema?, is to ask, What Is Cinema For? Which means: for whom is the cinema (and the true answer is complex but this doesn't mean diffuse beyond interpretation); how the cinema got to be; why; how it has developed—all of which is inseparable from the prior question of for whom.
The fundamental issues of cinema & politics are neither content nor form but, underlying it all, ownership and use. They set the terms of debate for form/content; they inform them. Of course I do not mean to say that they replace or displace form/content (though frequently we may find the prior manifest in the latter). Obviously, form/content matter. The playing field has not always been correctly identified, however.
In late 1940s Italy, as in 1960s Brazil, people were hungry, and the powers weren't always able or willing to help, and the films said something meaningful about this hunger, spurred by this hunger. Out of desperation they could reach beauty and intensity and significance. The poverty of means of production eclipsed the merely cosmetic to arrive at genuine aesthetics. (This is why a routine Hollywood production will look "better," "more professional," than Killer of Sheep but Burnett's film is more powerful, more aesthetically gripping and richer, than all but a tiny, tiny handful of Hollywood's finest masterpieces. It's not merely "superior content" or "intelligence"—it is also a clear difference muddied by a common confusion about the references available to us from our word, aesthetics.) Spurred by the recognition of hunger, people like De Sica and Zavattini and Rossellini and Rocha made films—some good, some bad, some masterful. They weren't always produced with pure anti-imperialist money, either. (For shame to expect such angelic origins always!) Still we see the popular, the resonant, quickly co-opted, transformed. To see the "vulgar" pink neorealist film of the 1950s, or the hip-exoticist poverty film of Brazil (like City of God) we must not think them only as products of a perverse, empowered sociopolitical motion, though that they are. We must understand that they are origami, sculpted garbage heaps, reactions as much as appropriations. This is as true of them as it was of the films which they twist and distort and perhaps even mock (perhaps even from the vantage point of the capitalists themselves).