Thursday, January 16, 2014

What Is Cinema?

I am a media scholar by training, and I spend much of my time as both an historian and a theorist of different forms of moving image media. This blog is not, in fact, much of a record of my professional or academic pursuits at all. Nevertheless, as some root level both my cinephilic and blogging impulses as well as my scholarly ones are very much the same, because I am interested in questions about the ontology and the significance of different forms of images and different forms of audiovisuality. So I think a lot about what distinctions are to be made between, say, a film and television program. Or film in general versus television in general. Truth be told, by my reckoning, most "handy" distinctions between film and video, or between film and television, start to wither under philosophical scrutiny. This is not to say that there are no distinctions. It is only to say that the professed meaning, extent, or nature of these distinctions seem to be prone to exaggeration, or in some way, less than logically airtight. Many of the common dichotomies don't really hold up ...

Audience or no audience. One can see a film where one is the only one in the theater, and one can project a DVD or show something on a TV screen to a large audience.

Big screen or small screen. If I recall correctly, Jean-Luc Godard once famously said that one looks up at the cinema, and down at the television. Strictly speaking, this isn't true. There are cinemas with stadium seating where one can look down at the screen, and there are countless ways in which television can be hoisted up above the viewer. This is simply an example of extrapolating certain conventional viewing practices onto the ontologies of media themselves - and thus, on a philosophical level, simply wrong. In any event, if you throw a celluloid film image onto the wall in a small screening space, it may indeed be smaller than a television today.

Celluloid or not. If you have a good-quality film print of a work, and it is in the "original" exhibition gauge, and you have a way of showing it without inordinate breaks between reels, then great. I don't think anyone would dispute that this is close to ideal. Almost nobody has this capacity though. Also, prints are often damaged or edited, and it is in their chemistry to decay. Let me ask a loaded question. If you had to choose between a 69" HDTV home screening of a Blu-Ray of Il deserto rosso or a very pink 16mm (or even 35mm) print of the same film at a dank, smelly theater with a few noisy patrons in attendance, would you really choose the latter? Every time? I think not. In fact I want to say that I remember even Fred Camper (one of the great and noble defenders of celluloid) indicated he wouldn't necessarily go for film over video in conditions like those. (Could be wrong here, though.) It's not that the I discount the importance of celluloid as a technology and medium distinct from video formats; in fact when I've taught college students I've sometimes tried to emphasize to this digital generation that this difference exists at all. There are some qualities of film that, due to the photochemical emulsion and its projection onto the wall, simply won't translate or translate fully to digital forms. At the same time, I am unconvinced by any placement of the total ontology of the art of cinema in the materiality of celluloid. For one thing, I've yet to come across any accounts of such an ontology - i.e., cinema that is reduced what is truly filmic and not simply "moving images" - that don't still operationalize metaphors from other, more desirable, less "invasive" art forms, like painting ...

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Why do you insist on a distinction, at least in terms the unique aesthetic qualities of the medium, between television and film?

This is meant to be a sincere question.

Anonymous said...

Continued...

I'm having trouble with this [cinema that is reduced to what is truly filmic and not simply "moving images"] not so much the throat clearing at the beginning of the post.

I don't understand why 'moving images' doesn't suffice. Is it because it would include as an example, television?

If so...

ZC said...

Anonymous commentator,

The distinction between television and film is not really mine. In many ways I am agnostic, undecided, or even have contradictory feelings about the ontological and epistemological statuses of discrete media. But I suppose what I am insisting on is taking seriously the fact that other people believe in this distinction. In conversations or think pieces I have encountered persistent ways of talking about one medium or the other that usually draws such lines in the sand. Say, an argument about the power of cinema that has a dismissive aside like, "Oh, but TV can't do that." Or television critics might throw in some snooty discussion about how film is "inherently" something-or-other. People will often bracket off or simply disdain the other medium (the bad object) without ever bothering to define what that other medium is and how we can know it, can recognize it.

E.g. - see my response to some things critic Brad Stevens wrote here http://elusivelucidity.blogspot.com/2013/09/tests-of-time.html ... if you want more examples of the kinds of things I'm responding to, even if only implicitly responding, say so and I can do a little googling to recover some of these essays.

For this reason, it's why I say "moving images" might not suffice. I'm not saying that it can't suffice for some people, and maybe it can work for me too. (Though it does ignore sound, or stuff that doesn't strive toward the perception of moving, e.g. flicker films!) But it doesn't work for everybody, and I want to better understand why.

So I think you may be interpreting my inquiries as normative when they're meant in the spirit of description & interrogation. Thank you for reading and commenting!

Anonymous said...

Got it.

I have to mention, if you already didn't know, I was also the anonymous poster that left a clunky joke in the Stevens article you pointed to.

Thanks, as always, for the thoughtful response.

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Jaime said...

I agree with the spambot.