Final Roundtable - What Was Cinema?

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A few thoughts on the final ARTHEMIS session:

From the seemingly banal to the seemingly abstract:
First, as a direct response to Cassetti. It is difficult for me to disagree with the aphorisms of Walter Benjamin. But, as Tom Gunning pointed out, there was a more precise context for Benjamin’s thinking about the present and the past than simply to understand or assert that we should always to a degree reflect on the relations between the two.  Obviously, neither the past nor present was simple or transparent for him.
How the basic fact of history writing (always grounded and in dialogue with a range of temporalities) works itself out in actual scholarship and in discussion of that scholarship is of vital importance. But, I would like to take this further and build on Gunning’s wise and playful suggestion that history is more uncertain than the future. I feel quite strongly that we must work assiduously to avoid the all-too-easy divisions not just between the present and the past, but also between history and theory. The dichotomy may be useful in many contexts but there are also many instances in which its disservice to good thinking must be called out.  There is also a strange asymmetry that seems to manifest regularly: historians are frequently asked about why their work matters. Where is the theory in your history? Fair enough. But, I can see no reason why theorists and philosophers shouldn’t have to answer the same questions. Where is the history in your theory? And, why does this theory matter?
For instance, our working definition at this conference of what constitutes “film theory” should be situated historically. Theories of language, meaning, identity and perhaps experience all seem to easily fit under the rubric of “film theory.” But there are many other kinds of theory that inflect film studies today. Perhaps Noel Caroll’s use of the new and old film studies is a helpful one in that it reminds us that film studies (and thus what might count as film theory) has changed. In other words, there are lots of theories that shape film scholarship today that we did not discuss. Cultural theory. Media theory. Sociological theory. Educational theory. I could go on. That we did not discuss them is fine. We are human and there is only so much that get done in three days. But, let this be a reminder: the particular family of ideas that have earned the privilege of being called “film theory” must now be put in dialogue with a whole range of other theory. That task has already begun. I suspect it will continue.
Secondly, there is history in all theory. Particular iterations of particular theories foreground their history to differing degrees. Just as certain iterations of certain historical phenomenon foreground their theory more than others – and by this I mean to refer to the theory which historians require to make their arguments and assemble their evidence, and the theories they may be implicitly or explicitly arguing against or perhaps simply complicating with their histories.
Let me supply a vital example of the necessary relationship between history and theory. Several times throughout this conference, references were made to the fundamental change wrought by the VCR and the Digital to Cinema. In its most general and often banal sense, the basic fact of this change cannot be disputed. Any 15 year old with an IPHONE can tell us this. But, there is a range of historical knowledge available to us that helps to make the nature of this change more precise. For instance, as a friendly correction to my colleague Martin Lefebvre – the analytical projector was not born of the need to review football games. This is simply, plainly, categorically wrong. The fully functioning analytical project was developed for military purposes and then worked its way into other applications. The obsessive review of masculinist brutality was one among the many. Yet, the ability to stop the image was a constitutive aspect of portable projectors from their beginning, widely available in department stores, camera shops, radio and television retail outlets, classrooms and so on throughout mid-century and into the 1970s. But, the advanced abilities that the analytic projector possessed (the projector of choice among cinephiles, artists, salesmen, and scientists alike) to stop, rewind and rearrange the celluloid strip through projection practices was clearly in place and widespread before the VCR. What the VCR did was make this function widely available to an expanded range of film viewers, with a vast, multi-valent set of interests, tastes and viewing purposes. So, when did cinema change enough to talk about a fundamental change? When was cinema irretrievably a new apparatus? A more complicated cinema than before?
Theory uses and dare I say misuses history all of the time. Just as I am sure that historians could likely better use theory. Neither is an innocent.
But, I want to assert passionately that the best history is theoretically informed and that the best theory is historically informed.
And, as a friendly response to continue the discussion with Francesco Cassetti: the present in the past of portable projectors, or film’s imbrication in a range of media forms at mid-century is a history of mobility and movement. It is a history of different and unfamiliar components of the film industry coming into dialogue with everyday users, with artists and cinephiles but also make-up counter sales girls and county-fair goers. It is a gendered history of home cinema but also a corporate story about publicity, technological wonder and business prowess. It is a consideration of amplification, scale, the human body, automated entertainment, human-machine hybrids, miniaturization, power grids, and malleability and augmentation of human expressions, pleasure and pain. A history of the projector’s mobility casts a different light on our ongoing wonderment at the VCR, the IPOD and YOUTUBE, and the mobility of our so-called digital age. It shadows over the often facile uses of the term “new” and perhaps shifts the question from  - what is the new cinema to what was the cinema we thought we knew? It reminds us of how much we don’t know and how our field is perpetually regenerated, our object always being negotiated, because we are in dialogue with then and now, here and there. 

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