Clocking in at barely 171 pages and change (including front and back matter), Gabriele Pedullà’s In Broad Daylight: Movies and Spectators After the Cinema is a breezily written – if conceptually original – account of the transformations and possible future of cinematic spectatorship. Although in this sense the book is an early entrant in an area of research that certainly needs rapid and rigorous critical development, it is Pedullà’s approach that marks his specific contribution. For him, the history of moving images is inextricably bound up with the history of their (re-)locations. Emerging thus in the wake of Francesco Casetti’s groundbreaking work on the relocation of art and experience in the digital age, Pedullà’s book attends to the crucial and under-examined function of architecture both as it led toward the age of the movie-theatre and (in a looser sense) toward the dispersion of cinema into television channels and new media systems. But for all that, it is nonetheless difficult to recommend the book without some reservations.
To my knowledge, architectural histories of cinema – or indeed of the moving image – are unusual. By the phrase “architectural history,” I do not mean those various accounts of cinema’s representations of urban space and the built environment (by way of example, consider the cityscapes of Blade Runner or the spaces of Chungking Express). Rather, I have in mind the relations between the history of architecture and the history of the moving image as they have inflected each other.Such investigations might explore historical transformations of the screen, exhibition spaces, the theatrical stage, and (in a more contemporary vein) the art gallery as it increasingly accommodates moving-image displays. Certainly, the “atmospheric theatres” of old have attracted some attention. (1) However, it is only recently that critical attention has turned to the question of the screen. What are we to make of the admittedly obscured history of the screen itself? Erkki Huhtamo may have set the course here, with his call for an archaeology of the screen, or a “screenology,”(2) but as others have shown, cultural notions of the screen – as a site of display, and even before that, as architectural form – have a long and rich history that is yet to be adequately understood. The screen in its material specifics, the practices it encourages and enables, its architectures and the lived spaces it reconfigures – these are questions at once deeply historical and of crucial importance to our time, particularly as screens come to mediate more and more of our quotidian experience. Happily, we seem to have recently struck a vein; both Pedullà’s effort and, from somewhat different angles, Giuliana Bruno’s just-published Surface: Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality, and Media attend to the material forms of screens, screening spaces, and embodied experience. (3)
The revisionist film histories crafted by early pioneers like Tom Gunning, André Gaudreault, and Charles Musser indicated several decades ago that cinema is more fruitfully understood in its continuity with (but also differences from) far more longstanding traditions of moving-image display like the magic lantern, phantasmagorias, and shadowplays. However, despite the wealth of information their efforts produced concerning the aesthetics and technologies of the amazingly heterogeneous moving-image culture that pre-dates cinema, it can reasonably be argued that we still lack a detailed sense of the physical spaces in which these spectacles were constructed. Consequently, we lack a sense of how spectators and audiences negotiated these spaces: what might their lived experience of these spectacles in these spaces have been like? Such questions open up a useful channel of inquiry, for they allow us to contextualize the spectator in a given historical period in a way not possible with sweeping histories of spectatorship that interpret the spectator as a site of ideological negotiation. This is the channel Pedullà tunes into, and it is the line of inquiry that runs through his book.
Early on, he sets out his claims. Before the cultural notion of “going to the movies” encountered any plausible challenge (i.e., from alternative models of spectatorship that have emerged in the form of television, Netflix, and other digital ways of experiencing the moving image), we never really wondered about the specific practices – almost ritualistic in retrospect – that we observed when we went to the movies. Accordingly, we could not really begin to see the ways in which architecture had influenced the design of spectatorial dynamics. As Pedullà remarks, the dominance of the movie camera and projector caused “the theatre itself to fade into the background as less significant than those devices (which critics conventionally call the “apparatus”).” (p. 5) In short, it is only with the fragmentation of these spectatorial dynamics that we are able to observe the fault lines in the history of their construction. Thus becomes visible a historical framework of cinematic spectatorship from an architectural perspective, allowing us to reach past the movie theatre’s absolutism and consider spectatorship as it stands today and what it may become tomorrow.
Briefly criticising two interpretive models that have long dominated discourses in film and visual studies (Plato’s allegory of the cave and Jean-Louis Baudry’s apparatus theory), Pedullà asserts that both risk losing sight of the “aesthetic function for which the movie house was imagined (italics, here and henceforth, in original).” (p. 12) To overcome this, Pedullà posits that the movie theatre should be read as “an integral part of the cinematic apparatus: a special device, the equal of the camera or the projector, conceived for giving the spectator a kind of experience different from all others.” (p. 13) This line of thought, considering the cinematic auditorium as “an aesthetic technology designed to encourage the spectator’s concentration,” (p. 16) leads Pedullà to posit the “dark cube” model, which systematically perpetuates six major aspects of spectatorship: the physical separation of an auditorium from the exterior world, near-complete darkness, imposition of silence and immobility upon the attentive spectator, an enormous screen, and the enforced communality of viewing movies under such conditions. (pp. 24-25) This is a model that Pedullà identifies as having emerged only gradually, over the first few decades of cinema.
Pushing his investigation further, Pedullà argues that the origins of the dark cube model of spectatorship lie in Renaissance theatrical architecture and practices, which worked toward the creation both of a particular ritual of spectatorship and, conversely, the development of a theatrical style that solicited and responded to such spectatorship. Although Pedullà posits a teleology in positioning the movie theatre as a solution of sorts to sixteenth-century aspirations of the Italian playhouse, his logic is convincing when he asserts that the central function of the auditorium, powered by its architectural form, is that of disciplining the spectatorial body (and its gaze). I dearly wish Pedullà had devoted many more pages to deepening this fascinating thesis (here we pay the price of the book’s breezy style), but he skips along merrily to identifying what he finds to be this old tradition’s doom: the emergence of television and the “spectator’s extreme volatility.” (p. 77)
The dark cube model, then, emerges and endures but briefly; the rise of television shifts Pedullà’s chronicle into a new phase. It is of interest that the dark cube model, which certainly defines one (nostalgic) conception of cinematic spectatorship, in fact appears to have endured for barely a generation despite having had such lasting influence. Pedullà offers a neat division of the history of moving images into three broad phases, based upon his perception of the “viewing style” that characterises each. The first period, lasting generally from 1895 through 1915, constitutes “the age of the cine-variety and the fairground format.” This coincides roughly with what Tom Gunning describes as the period of the cinema of attractions, when narrative was less of note than the wonder of the moving image itself. The second – dominated by the dark cube – runs from 1915 through 1975, and is a period characterised by the growing dominance of a spectatorial code emphasising “maximum constraint and […] maximum concentration.” The third, from 1975 to our time, is a period when new technologies and systems of moving image display and transmission have delinked the spectator from the dark cube framework, permitting “maximum liberty and extremely variable concentration.” (pp. 74-75)
Neat classifications notwithstanding, I found myself wishing Pedullà had maintained his focus upon the fascinating entanglement of architecture and spectatorship that he sketches out so tantalisingly. It is worth considering the implications of a thorough archaeology of cinematic spectatorship that unfolds the history of why we watched movies the way we did, and how this history influences the way we watch movies today and may continue doing so in the future. In the remarkable third chapter (“Vitruvius’s Sons”), Pedullà constructs a cogent argument for the rise of narrative form and the feature length film as having to do much more with the specific viewing styles enabled by the architectural supports of cinema than hitherto imagined. He convincingly directs our attention to the necessity of closely examining the ideas, innovations, and responses put forward by architects like Thomas Lamb, Frederick Kiesler, and Giuseppe Lavini when they considered spectatorship and cinema. Pedullà’s conclusion here is that the dark cube “facilitated the rise of a different form of pleasures that movies had previously offered.” (p. 58) It’s a line of thought that offers a valuable addition to our understanding of precisely how the early cinema of attractions gave way to narrative. These are promising insights, and Pedullà might have developed them more richly, but his swift shift of focus to television and our contemporary era cuts things short.
On the whole, I am less than convinced by Pedullà’s take on the ways in which the emergence of television have affected stylistic changes in cinema itself. He draws, I think, a too-convenient connection between what David Bordwell has called intensified continuity (increased cutting, close framing, and a narrative comprised of numerous spectacular effects-driven attractions strung together) and the victory of dispersed spectatorship over the dark cube model. For Pedullà, it is principally a question of the movie industry desperately making stylistic decisions calculated to advance what he wittily deems an aesthetic of the shark: in short, attractions intended to grab the spectator’s attention and thus delay the channel being changed, the Safari tab being skipped, or the Quicktime window being closed.
His key hypothesis, that “movies change first of all because spectators change,” (p. 81) is certainly worth bearing in mind as we continue to grapple with rapid shifts in systems and platforms of spectatorship today. Pedullà mounts a Cavellian account of spectatorial engagement with both theatre and cinema, arguing (after Cavell) that it is the marked separation between a screen-world (or stage-world) that is held away from the spectator that opens up possibilities of affective and ethical encounters. The emergence of television and subsequently of “new media” systems more or less disrupts this dynamic, sharply reducing the cathartic powers of old: we now live “in the age of low-impact catharsis.” (p. 122) This, finally, is Pedullà’s conclusion regarding cinematic spectatorship today. The issue is one of qualitative difference in terms of our spectatorial participation, and the (reduced) possibilities held out to us by cinema today as a direct consequence of the pervasive changes in its architecture.
I mentioned earlier in this review, and have indicated at some points, that Pedullà’s book is not without some problems. In part, these may well be a consequence of the project’s impressive ambition forced into too-few pages. His reading of the movie theatre as it produced, maintained, and expanded the dark cube model as part of a genealogy that stretches back to sixteenth-century theatre is provocative and would have almost certainly benefited from a more patient treatment. I remain intrigued by the possibility that the expansion of the cinema of attractions into narrative forms and beyond owes as much to architectural development as to other factors elsewhere theorized by Gunning, Gaudreault, Musser, et al. Pedullà’s relatively uncritical borrowing of Bordwell’s ideas regarding contemporary cinema and intensified continuity deserves closer scrutiny; there are certainly alternative models that do not assume as fatalistic a perspective as is present here. Gunning’s recent work, for example, has focused on pre-cinematic moving-image traditions that explicitly involved the play between hand and eye – a play inaugurated by handheld devices like the thaumatrope. If, as Pedullà (and, elsewhere, Laura Mulvey) claim(s), the remote control marks a radical shift in spectatorial dynamics, and if today those dynamics have returned us in some senses to a handheld regime, then there exists the possibility that new media systems open doors even as they may close some. Rather than insisting, as Pedullà does, upon an attenuation of affective involvement, might it not be more productive to ask what (other) sorts of affective involvement might thus be disclosed?
Finally, Pedullà repeatedly displays a tendency to allude to claims or assertions without specific citations. In Chapter 2 (“Toward the Dark Cube”), he remarks that “according to historians, the first buildings constructed as regular venues for projections date back to 1906-07.” (p. 35) Later in the same chapter, he quotes “modernist architects and intellectuals” concerning their derision of extravagant movie theatres without specifying any sources. Equally problematic is his tendency to generalise, as when he remarks, after asserting that it is the intensity of contemporary films that makes them especially conducive to consumption at home, that “there is no reason to contest this interpretation.” (p. 36) If there were no reason to contest interpretations, most academics would be out of a job. In the final chapter (“Low-Impact Catharsis”), Pedullà suggests that Brechtian strategies of distanciation and resistance are no longer very relevant in our time “for the simple reason that today there is less to resist.” (p. 37) Critics of neoliberalism might well turn apoplectic. These kinds of casual asides, often without any reasonable justification, present real problems.
Despite these concerns, In Broad Daylight is essential reading for anyone working today on the histories of cinematic spectatorship, early moving-image culture, or contemporary media technologies (to choose only three possible areas of relevance). Rare is the book that can provoke so much productive thought in so few pages, and it is Pedullà’s distinct achievement that he manages this while sustaining the vast scope of his inquiry. He has made some very interesting claims that, one hopes, others will take up and pursue in other directions. He has also provided us with a deeply historically-grounded foundation from which to launch inquiries into the ongoing transformations of cinematic spectatorship. While it is not certain that we are, or indeed may ever be, in an era “after” cinema (have we yet answered the question of what cinema is?), Pedullà’s book shows us that there is always something old to be found in something new.
Gabriele Pedullà, In Broad Daylight: Movies and Spectators After the Cinema. (Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2012)
1. Alison Griffiths’ study of the history of immersive spectatorship attends briefly to this. Cf. Alison Griffiths, Shivers Down Your Spine Cinema, Museums, and the Immersive View (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).
2. Erkki Huhtamo, “Elements of Screenology: Toward an Archaeology of the Screen,” ICONICS: International Studies of the Modern Image 7:31-82.
3. Giuliana Bruno Surface: Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality, and Media (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2014).