A disclosure is in order. The author of The Lumière Galaxy – Italian-born, Connecticut-based film studies professor Francesco Casetti – teaches in my department, and has been a key mentor figure over the years, one under whom I have learnt and with whom I have taught, so this relationship will innately colour the review that follows. Furthermore, I am penning this article at Francesco’s own behest: with the book hot off the printing presses, he insisted that I air my feelings about it. The reason for his doing so, I suspect, is that on the many occasions in which we have conversed about the cinema, about its present fortunes, its metamorphoses and its novelties, we have often had diametrically opposed attitudes towards these phenomena. Whereas Francesco celebrates the rise of new media practices, revelling in the latest YouTube mash-up or digital reworking of a classic, or extolling the possibilities opened up by the advent of smartphones, tablets, laptops and various other gadgets, I tend to be much more sceptical about such tendencies, if not downright hostile. Conversely, those works I hold up as paragons of contemporary cinema – whether they represent the last breaths of the old guard of film aesthetics, such as Hard to be a God (2014) or The Turin Horse (2011), or the flowering of new, but still resolutely cinematic, visual practices, think Leviathan (2012) or Story of My Death (2013) – are for the most part no longer the focus of my elder’s attentions. Indeed, I am regularly given a good-natured chiding for my stubborn attachment to a certain classical mode of spectatorship – watching films in continuity, in a darkened movie-theatre and even, although this particularly possibility is rapidly vanishing, on celluloid – which is seen as little more than a nostalgic yearning for a technologically and socially outmoded past.
Our respective outlooks, then, are palpably at odds with one another, and no doubt when he proposed that I review The Lumière Galaxy, which sets out his views on the status of contemporary cinema in comprehensive fashion, Francesco believed he was paving the way for a forthright, if amicable, polemic between the two of us. This expectation – from both sides – has made it all the more surprising, then, that upon reading his book I found myself agreeing with so much of what Francesco has to say. Whence this unanticipated concord? I can see at least two factors aiding its occurrence. The first is that, for the most part, Casetti (I feel I should switch, at this point, to referring to him by the more formal surname, as from now I am dealing with a writer rather than a friend) by and large refrains from making any overly evaluative remarks on the phenomena he painstakingly elucidates in his book. Whether he welcomes or abhors the practices he highlights can certainly be discerned by the alert reader, but in general this is only as a result of inference or insinuation, and not by way of declarative stances of praise or denunciation. The Lumière Galaxy is largely a descriptive work; it provides a diagnosis of the times, but does not suggest a cure, or even whether what is taking place warrants remedying in the first place. To borrow from Aristotelian terminology, it offers the “what has been” (not to mention the “what is”, and even, perhaps, the “what will be”) rather than the “what should be”, and on this level the evidence Casetti presents in favour of his argument is for the most part inarguable, even if its socio-political or aesthetic value remains hotly contested.
Secondly, and more importantly, Casetti studiously seeks to avoid the hysterical discourse – from both sides of the debate – that has gripped the field of film studies in the last couple of decades. This is a period in which the singularity of “the cinematic”, conceived of as an artistic artefact as well as a mode of viewing, seems to have been irretrievably lost. Two extreme positions have issued from this bout of digital-inspired existential anxiety. The first, purist, outlook has it that the cinema can only be understood as the classical apparatus that hegemonically ruled over the production and dissemination of moving images for much of the 20th century (roughly speaking, between about 1910, with the spread of single-purpose movie-theatres, and 1980, when the VCR became widely available). This machine consisted of a linear narrative work, generally 90-120 minutes in duration, projected on film to a paying audience seated in orderly fashion in a darkened room. Now that all of these aspects of classical film viewing have been subject to dispersal, disruption and outright disappearance, there is only one conclusion: the cinema, as we know it and loved it, is dead, to be replaced by an amorphous, aesthetically impoverished audiovisual culture that mirrors the barbarity of neo-capitalist consumerism. This was, in essence, the line Susan Sontag espoused in a famous essay from 1996 (1), but it has also, to varying degrees, been the perspective of figures such as D.N. Rodowick, Paolo Cherchi Usai and Wheeler Winston Dixon in recent years.
The other viewpoint would refuse the privileged nature of film viewing and insist that “the cinema” has always been a multiple, heterogeneous entity that itself is only one sector of a diverse range of moving image cultures, of which the present plethora of new modes of vision merely represents a recent manifestation of a historically grounded phenomenon. Here the cinema was at best a brief interregnum, wedged between the magic lantern and the kinetoscope before it, and the Iphone (2) and the jumbotron after it. “New media” is, in fact, not only a return to the promiscuous image platforms of the 19th century, but the interactivity and formal diversity it promises is a veritable liberation compared to the oppressive nature of the conventional movie-theatre, and will doubtless lead to new and innovative art forms unshackled from the earlier limitations on the moving image. This, roughly speaking, is Lev Manovich’s spiel, and it can also be found among any number of neo-Benjaminians, as well as, to an extent, some historians of early cinema, including Tom Gunning and Miriam Hansen.
Les extrèmes se touchent, as the saying goes, and both of these attitudes share a common ground, namely, the Septembrist notion that, with the rise of certain new technologies, the world has changed forever. (3) The value of Casetti’s work is that he eschews such a millenio-catastrophist argument, instead opting for a nuanced and carefully argued consideration of the changes in our relationship with the moving image. In danger and deep distress, therefore, the middle way which Casetti has the cinema taking does not spell death, but rather metamorphosis and re-birth, all while a recognisable identity remains. Adopting an anti-essentialist standpoint, he locates this “ipse-identity” of the cinema (opposed, in Ricoeur’s terms, to its “idem-identity”) not in the object itself – whether the strip of celluloid, evidently primed for obsolescence, or the hitherto-dominant format of the feature film – but in a putative cinematic experience, one that lives on in spite of all the radically altered conditions of image-making and viewing. The cinema, then, is a sort of Ship of Theseus, retaining a continuous identity even when all of its original component parts have been changed for new ones. As Casetti puts is:
Cinema is thus confronted with changes to itself. Sometimes it risks giving in to these and transforms its own nature; in other instances it attempts to resist, in order to remain itself. Most often, however, it weaves together these changes with a tradition, memory, and set of habits, and incorporates them. As a consequence, it unfolds an identity based not on the simple repetition of the same but on the acceptance of variations and differences. (pp. 7-8)
Basing an affirmation of the continued existence of the cinema on experience, however, invites an immediate objection. Surely what is most lost in the transition away from traditional film-viewing is the perceptual experience of watching the film? If I play Murnau’s Faust on a laptop screen in an airport departure lounge, I still, in some sense, have access to the original work: the narrative told is the same, I can still be witness to the same sequence of images which have, certain peripheral attributes aside (magnitude, luminosity, the “feel” of the celluloid, the flicker effect), the same visual properties. On an intellectual level, I can still be made aware of many of the director’s aesthetic choices (montage, mise en scène, performance, dramatic structure), even when viewing the work in the most adverse conditions. On an experiential level, however, the film will unavoidably lose a significant degree of what Marshall McLuhan (a key reference point for Casetti (4)) would call its “heat”. In other words, I can still watch the same film, but I may no longer be able to see it, at least not with the same perceptual plenitude that its original spectators could. This sentiment has perhaps most pithily been expressed by David Lynch, who declares in a spoof Iphone commercial, “Now, if you are playing the movie on a telephone, you will never in a trillion years experience the film. You’ll think you have experienced it, but you’ll be cheated.” Casetti is aware of the paradox, and does not withhold from quoting Lynch (pp. 7, 219); his response is to contend that the experiential continuity he professes should be understood in an expansive sense, able to incorporate a broadening of cinema’s horizons, a re-purposing of its social utility, and a re-articulation of the relationship between work and viewer.
The cinema, in this view, is in a constant state of self-adjustment, testing its boundaries and adapting itself to its new conditions. Such an adjustment is conceived by Casetti as taking place in seven different forms, each of which is associated with a key word that forms the basis for the book’s seven chapters, namely: relocation, relic/icon, assemblage, expansion, hypertopia, display and performance. It is worth outlining his argument as it relates to each of these sections.
Relocation is perhaps the most obvious phenomenon with which film theorists, and cinephiles more generally, must contend. For much of its history, the cinema was publicly consumed in precisely one social space – the movie-theatre. A barrier was thus erected between the world and images of the world. To pass from one to the other, the hopeful spectator had to take decisive steps: he had to travel to the nearest cinema at a specified time, pay for a ticket, and then cross the threshold into a dark room in which the images would be projected. We are all familiar with the sense of liminality, of prospective transgression, that overcomes us in that brief interlude between the dimming of the theatre lights and the beginning of the projection. It is the borderland between one world – our flesh-and-blood reality – and another: the kingdom of shadows. Now, of course, this barrier has been dismantled. Whether it is the giant digital billboards that dominate the commercial centres of our major cities, the video art works strewn across our art galleries, the smartphone screens which we obsessively look at in our idle moments, the computer monitors on which a good number of us spend our days working, or the plasma screens in front of which we unwind with our favourite TV programs, images of the world have invaded and fused with the world. Although it goes unmentioned by Casetti, I can’t help but think the key turning-point here was the moment in the late 1940s when TVs started to appear in department store windows. Suddenly, even those individuals who had no desire to purchase a set for home viewing were confronted with moving images irrespective of any act of will, and these images existed in the same space as the rest of the world. From this point on, the history of the image has been that of its march towards omnipresence.
Casetti, of course, refuses to see this as a fall from a prior Edenic state: instead, even when the cinematic image is relocated, there is still the possibility of an “experience of cinema-beyond-cinema” which is prone to triggering a “back-to-the-cinema experience”. Watching a film on a tablet, in the “white cube” of a gallery, or on a seatback screen in an aeroplane may tend to engender a distracted mode of viewing – but this is not a given. We are capable of erecting what Casetti calls an “existential bubble” around ourselves which, however fragile and temporary it may be, however easy it is to be snapped out of it by the bustle of the everyday world around us, nonetheless allows us to adopt the kind of immersive, concentrated viewing associated with the cinema.
This postulation leads Casetti to his second section (dubbed relics/icons) which centres on a bifurcation – or, to use a term with more ecclesiastical overtones, a “schism” – in the present-day cinematic experience. Traditionally, the cinema consisted of an object (the film) and a viewing method (sitting in a cinema) that were indissoluble. Now, however, we are presented with the possibility of one without the other: either we can have the what without the how (we can watch Rome Open City on an Ipad while riding a train (5); Casetti dubs this the filmic), or we can have the how without the what (we can visit a cinema in order to watch an opera performance, a football match or a high-end TV production; viz. the cinematographic). In a theoretical masterstroke, this Entzweiung is linked to the 8th-century Byzantine theological dispute between the relative value of the relic and the icon, but it also permits Casetti to offer a fresh interrogation of the 1970s-vintage concept of the “apparatus”, preferring to this term the more recent coinage “assemblage”. The cinema is undeniably, for the author, a dispositive in the Foucauldian sense (6), but this could be understood in one of two ways: either as an apparatus, a relatively fixed structure conforming in all ways to the classical model posited by theorists such as Jean-Louis Baudry and Christian Metz, or, more profitably, as a Deleuzian assemblage (agencement in the French), which would be “coherent and solid without being inflexible,” and whose component parts can be “repeatedly re-formed under the pressures of circumstance.” (p. 81) Polemicising against Bellour’s rigid definition of the cinema as “what takes place in the darkened theatre,” Casetti asserts that the cinema, as an assemblage, is a “dynamic reality that is always on the point of going beyond its borders and yet is also always ready to reaffirm its basic characteristics.” (p. 88)
The upshots of this theoretical recasting of the definition of the cinema are outlined in the succeeding chapters of the book. For a start, the cinema undergoes an expansion that is quite different to that envisaged by Gene Youngblood four decades ago. To return to McLuhan’s distinction between hot and cold media, it both ratchets up the sensorial temperature – through Imax screens, 3D projection, CGI spectacle, etc. – and absorbs cooler media into its assemblage, most notably, through the use of “poor images” (to use Steyerl’s term) in films such as Redacted (2007) by Brian de Palma, Zero Dark Thirty (2012) by Katherine Bigelow, or the work of Harun Farocki. The moving image also becomes a hypertopia: as opposed to the heterotopic nature of the cinematographic image (in a different place to the rest of the world), it now dominates the world, occupying a place above and beyond it, from which we can seek no refuge. Our very notions of space, location and scale are redefined by the screens that inexorably surround us. As Erkki Huhtamo puts it, we are confronted with a process of “Gulliverisation”: our fellow humans, confined to screens, either assume gigantic proportions or are reduced to Lilliputian ignominy.
At the same time, the screen itself undergoes a striking metamorphosis. The metaphors which have conventionally been used to describe it – window, frame, mirror – now seem obsolete, inadequate to describe its newly tactile, interactive properties and its rapidly proliferating multiplicity. These call for new analogies: the monitor (with its overtones of Benthamian surveillance), the bulletin board and the scrapbook are all proffered, but in the end Casetti opts for the display. Unlike the old cinema screens, the display “shows, but only in the sense that it places at our disposition or makes accessible. It exhibits, but does not uncover; it offers but does not commit. […] The display simply ‘makes present’ images. It places them in front of us, in case we may want to make use of them.” (p. 168) Casetti even muses that the display can do without the screen altogether, a scenario in which “images will remain virtualities, in the air, or take on the character of memories that can no longer be obtained. […] A giant archive with no end, the universe of images will fold in upon itself.” (p. 178) I’m sure Silicon Valley engineers are working on it right now.
The interactivity of screens results in – or is the result of, it is hard to tell – an interactivity of the subjects engaging with screens, which Casetti dubs “performance”. We no longer attend a film; rather, we perform in tandem with it. Our activity is no longer merely scopic in nature, but involves “sensory doing”. Cinematic competence – the knowledge of film’s history and its artistic zeniths – is no longer pertinent, all that is needed is “media competence”. We send text messages and tweets during the screening, we flip around with the chapters of our favourite film on a DVD player, we make mash-ups of different works and post them on YouTube. Recognise yourself in this picture? I don’t – but then I am also aware that I am far from a typical spectator. Intriguingly, however, Casetti concludes this chapter, and the body of his text, with a discussion of the phenomenon of re-relocation, a “return to the motherland” which involves recovering the lost experience of the movie-theatre, either actually, by continuing to patronise these institutions (for all the talk of apocalypse, cinema attendance, Casetti reminds us, has in fact been steadily increasing since it hit a nadir in the 1980s (7)), or by virtually recreating the communal experience of film-watching through online forums and other Ersatz communities.
Throughout all of these discussions, the term I could not help but think of was dialectics. The vicissitudes of audiovisual production and consumption charted by Casetti point above all to a dialectical becoming of the cinema, an Aufhebung in which its core identity persists in spite of all the transformations it undergoes, and notwithstanding the “post-cinematic” age in which we live. It was gratifying, then, that Casetti adopts the term in the conclusion to The Lumière Galaxy. Academic vogues being what they are, Benjamin is the explicit point of reference rather than Hegel, but the broader idea of a “dialectics underlying identity” (p. 213) avowedly animates the book. Lampedusa’s immortal line from Il Gattopardo – “everything must change so that everything can remain the same” – may as well be a motto for contemporary cinema, especially in light of the changes wrought by the digital “revolution”. (8)
This dialectical “identity of identity and non-identity”, to use Hegel’s formulation, is in the case of the cinema no better exemplified than in a social trend that comes under repeated analysis by Casetti: the rise of the “home theatre”. Among those happy few film-buffs who have thrived under the last couple decades of neo-liberal globalisation, the home theatre takes on obscene proportions: underground bunkers are decked out with mammoth TV screens, immersive sound systems, reclining La-Z-Boy armchairs and, for the most crassly opulent customers, decors fitted out with the motifs of famous movie-theatres from the picture palace era. A hideous simulacrum of the “real” of cinema-going, but one which then has a curious recoil effect on actual cinemas, which thenceforth proceed to adapt themselves to the norms of home-theatre viewing. I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when attending a matinee screening at The Pavilion, a neighbourhood theatre in Park Slope that is one of a precious few surviving 1920s movie-houses in the US. From the outside, The Pavilion was a bit worse for wear, but still recognisably bore architectural vestiges of its interwar origins. Its interior, however, had been gutted out and replaced with a multiplex. I was placed in Theatre 9, which had a total capacity of 30 seats. The screen was tiny, barely bigger than one of the larger plasma-screen models for home viewing; by contrast, the seats were enormous. Essentially, I had paid nine dollars to sit in a very comfortable armchair for a couple of hours, with the film projection being offered as a bonus. But the film itself was American Sniper. A more classically cinematic work can hardly be imagined, and yet Eastwood’s film has been a stunning success at the box office. For all the metamorphoses it is subjected to, for all the dialectical reversals it undergoes, the cinema remains the cinema. It is still, as Casetti concludes, “an object to be discovered.” (p. 214)
Francesco Casetti, The Lumière Galaxy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).
- See Susan Sontag, “The Decay of Cinema”, New York Times, February 25, 1996.
- For all its corporate omnipotence, Apple will never be able to make me capitalise the second letter of a proper noun rather than the first.
- I am using the term “Septembrist” to refer to the ubiquitous ideological utterance that, in the wake of the September 11 attacks, “the world had changed forever”. The banality of the sentiment, of course, did not prevent its attempted realisation by the warmongering elements of the US ruling class.
- The book’s title is a conscious echo of McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy, and while broad analogies between the underlying arguments of the two works can be drawn, Casetti nonetheless refuses the determinism of McLuhan’s claim that “media shape our experience” (p. 16).
- The experience of watching a film on a train is regularly evoked by Casetti. What he does not mention – at least in this book – is that when we do so we inevitably become confronted with two competing “films”: the one playing on our artificial screen, and the one visible through our train window. Invariably, at least in my personal experience, the latter “screen object” is immeasurably more visually engrossing than the former.
- In discussing the dispositive, the apparatus and the assemblage, Casetti wades into a translation quagmire caused by the fact that the French term dispositif has often been translated into English as apparatus, even when the original authors are precisely distinguishing it from the appareil. His option of adopting the term dispositive to retain the distinction is therefore a reasonably sage one.
- If nothing else, traditional film-going will at least be kept alive by the general desire to go out on a Saturday night. At the very least, cinemas offer a comparatively cheap way to escape the monotony of one’s home and be entertained for a couple of hours.
- Less charitably, the deeply paradoxical ideology of the transition from celluloid to digital cinema can be encapsulated in the nonsensical slogan of the Criterion cinema chain, which operates a small multiplex in New Haven: “Movie going the way it used to be – only better!”