André Gaudreault and Philippe Marion’s The End of Cinema?: A Medium in Crisis in the Digital Age demonstrates that cinema has still not reached its end. At times their confidence gives way to feistiness, but the authors shrewdly determine that the so-called digital revolution is not the final death blow to a proud and prominent art form. It is true that shifts in production, distribution and exhibition have ignited valid discussions on the very nature of cinema: “Is it cinema if it is shot on video and not film? Can one only experience cinema while watching a projected film in a movie theatre? Is it cinema if a camera is no longer needed to photograph human actors?” The End of Cinema? is provocative reading for those who are on either side of the argument, but the authors maintain that cinema has always been evolving and our own understanding of it must adapt as well. As suitably noted by Philippe Dubois, one of the many theorists whose ideas are referenced in The End of Cinema?, “Cinema is not in the process of regressing, or disappearing, or being consigned to oblivion. Rather, with the increasingly boundless diversity of its forms and practices, it is more alive than ever, more-multifaceted, more abundant, more omnipresent than it has ever been.” (p. 2)
Gaudreault and Marion argue that many “film purists” have been reluctant and even resistant to accept digital technology. As a former student, I witnessed these attitudes during the “crisis”, when celluloid film began to give way to digital video. In the late 1990s and early 2000s I had several teachers who refused to acknowledge that digital video could be equal to film as an artistic and even narrative medium. In fact, one of my professors insisted that “if you shoot on video, then you are not a filmmaker.” Through his eyes video was not a narrative medium, although it could be used for installation and abstract “time-based art”. A handful of my classmates agreed, believing that celluloid filmmaking called for much more patience, personal involvement and mastery of craft than video production ever could. They bemoaned the “coldness” of video and scornfully referred to the “impersonal nature” and “relative ease” that nonlinear editing software afforded. I myself readily surrendered to the digital revolution, finding that digital filmmaking (however oxymoronic that sounded) indeed took as much thought and effort as traditional filmmaking did. Yet despite not having shot on celluloid film in well over ten years, I still proudly call myself a filmmaker. Colleagues and festival programmers have yet to call me an imposter!
Appropriately enough, Gaudreault and Marion note that cinema is first and foremost experiencing an “identity crisis […] affecting anyone who uses films and the various players in the industry.” (p. 10) As a lecturer, I attended emergency department meetings where the fate of 16mm film classes were decided upon. The faculty also discussed ways in which to rename the film program in order to “avoid appearing to confine themselves to cinema alone,” as Gaudreault and Marion put it. (p. 10). Now as a professor, I currently teach a course called “Intro to Film” but all of the movies are DVDs that are played on my laptop computer, which is connected to a video projector. (Not one of my students has expressed a desire to see a print of Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 film Bicycle Thieves, but I’m sure that most of them would have the same reaction to it even if I did manage to find a film projector.) Sometimes, I show films that were actually shot on digital video, like Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008.) I’ll even show clips on YouTube. Despite David Lynch’s assertion that “If you’re playing the movie on a telephone, you will never in a trillion years experience the film…” (p. 21) I will have the students look up clips on their cell phones. I often use Peter Greenaway’s much detested “remote control zapper” (p. 23) to pause, fast-forward, or rewind scenes for my students. Although Greenaway famously declared that the remote control destroyed “a linear cinema watched by a passive viewer” (p. 23), it is doubtful that cinema was ever a passive experience to begin with. (Gaudreault and Marion even point out that Greenway cannot accurately pinpoint the exact time and date in which this “death” occurred.) However, when a few students erroneously describe “the earliest videos by Thomas Edison” in their response papers, I patiently cross out the word “video” and write “film” in its place. I politely remind them that these two words are not in fact interchangeable since they represent two completely different mediums. Oddly enough, as I encounter this error again and again I find myself to be more amused than frustrated. The word film, like cinema itself, “is no longer anything like what it used to be!” (p. 12)
Although cinema no longer has same the monopoly it once had on moving images (p. 52) and a variety of other types of moving images are created and viewed ubiquitously, movies are still being made. Professionals and amateurs alike take full advantage of what digital technology has to offer in terms of affordability, accessibility, malleability and speediness. “Films” are now mostly shot on digital video, and can be streamed, uploaded, and downloaded as well as projected. Yet movies – whether screened at a theatre or streamed online from the comfort of one’s own home – are still an incredibly popular pastime, a lucrative industry, and a recognised field of scholarship, despite what academic programs are now calling themselves. Yet notable scholars such as Raymond Bellour still doubt whether these experiences can rightfully be described as cinema:
A film projected in a movie theatre in the dark for the fixed duration of a screening that is to varying degrees collective has become and remains the condition of a unique experience of perception and memory. It defines its viewer. Every other viewing situation alters this experience to varying degrees. And this thing alone merits being called “cinema”. (cited in Gaudreault/Marion, p. 21)1
Indeed, cinema has departed from the classical 20th century model where viewers gather in a theatre to watch a movie projected onscreen. Yet as Gaudreault and Marion discuss, the theatre screen has been losing its hegemony since television became popular in the 1950s. In fact, competition from television is partly responsible for the Hollywood Renaissance that began in the late 1960s! As well as the onslaught of television, and most recently computer and cell phone screens, movie-theatres are no longer limited to projecting films. Theatres are also being used to project live events and performances such as plays, operas and ballets. For many doomsayers, the cinematic experience is fundamental to the theatrical experience. As noted by the authors, Raymond Bellour direly predicts that, “One thing alone is certain: cinema will live as long as there are films being made to be projected or shown in a movie-theatre. The day its apparatus disappears […] will be the day cinema truly dies. This will be a death much more real than its mythical and oft-announced death.” (p. 21)
If the day does come when movie-theatres are no longer viable (and many of us will find that to be a very sad day) it will be the end of theatrical distribution, but cinema itself will live on. For cinema to truly die, not only would it fail to adapt to changing technologies but we ourselves would fail to appreciate and utilise these changes. Gaudreault and Marion note that cinema has always “negotiate(d) with the other media around it” (p. 123), beginning with proto-cinematic devices and magic lantern shows and now with the Internet and digital devices. Furthermore, new modes of cinema are “born” from previous ones. Yet with each major technological breakthrough many prominent historians, theorists and filmmakers have seen it as a “death” of some inherent and crucial element of cinema. It may be the “death” of a former way of understanding and appreciating the medium, but as the authors point out, these disruptions have merely been stages in cinema’s vibrant evolution. For instance the introduction of sound in the late 1920s had a tremendous impact on the film industry, arguably more so than the digital revolution has today. Many believed that synchronised dialogue especially would reduce its status as an art form that was distinct from theatre and literature. However, the immediate success of “talking pictures” proved that cinema was not suffering but thriving: “So much did the public love […] sound film that the best-made silent film could not compete at the box office with the worst, most clumsily crafted ‘talkie’.”2 Cinema was primarily a visual medium for the first three decades of its existence, but the image has not exclusively dominated film since 1929. Instead, sound has brought about new capacities for storytelling as well as means of conveying emotion, intellect, verisimilitude and creativity. The silent era, especially as it existed before 1929 will never return, but cinema continues to live on.
Gaudreault and Marion discuss many other theories regarding cinema’s place in the digital age. Yet whether they are deliberating on the indexical nature of the image or the debate between “expanded” and “fragmented” cinema, they insist that cinema is still inventing itself. (p. 158) The authors aptly question the “revolutionary” status of digital technology. They note that “digital cinema restricts itself to imitating the results achieved for ages by celluloid cinema.” (p. 4.) Even today, movies adhere to basic principles of editing, cinematography, sound design and narrative structure that were established in the twentieth century. These fundamentals are still taught in many film schools, no matter what types of cameras and editing software the students are using, and where and how the film will be screened. Hollywood blockbusters rely considerably on spectacle and illusion in a similar way that George Méliès’s marvellous “trick films” did in the early 1900s, even though they have gone from analogue to mostly digital effects. It is true that digital technology has made certain formerly impossible feats possible, such as the ninety-six minute take in Russian Ark (Alexander Sokurov, 2002.) With traditional analogue filmmaking a single long take was limited to the length of the film reel: approximately ten minutes. However, although Birdman (Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu, 2014) appeared to be shot in one continuous take, it used digital effects to fuse separate shots together. To a similar effect, Alfred Hitchcock used camera movement and strategic editing to create the illusion of a single take decades earlier in Rope (1948.) The movies that have boldly explored the technical, aesthetic and narrative capabilities of digital video have yet to become firmly rooted in film practice and culture. For example, Time Code (Mike Figgis, 2000) consisted of four extreme long takes, each from a different character’s vantage point and lasting the entire length of the film. Rather than using parallel editing to weave these stories together, they each played simultaneously on four separate quadrants. Despite taking full advantage of the “revolutionary” qualities of digital video, Time Code was a commercial disappointment. There have been several films since Timecode that creatively employed techniques unique to the digital medium, but they have not radically modified basic practices of storytelling that are generally used in both mainstream and independent narrative filmmaking.
As Gaudreault and Marion suggest, we may actually be experiencing “a return to porosity, to a hodgepodge, to a hybridity, to cross-fertilization…” (p. 123), which also characterised the earliest days of cinema in the 1890s and early 1900s. Yet the authors demonstrate that cinema has never been a fixed medium, nor has it been defined solely by its technology or means of viewership. Perhaps cinema will evolve to a point where it is unrecognisable to us in terms of narrative and formal construction, at least as we understand it in the early 21st century. Perhaps it will converge entirely with other media; film festivals are even including “episodic” and “virtual reality” categories. Whatever the effect that digital technology may eventually have on cinema, movies will continue to be made – and watched – long after the last roll of celluloid film has been produced. In The End of Cinema? A Medium in Crisis in the Digital Age the authors encourage us to embrace the medium’s dynamic nature, so that we may continue to create, understand, and enjoy cinema for years to come.
André Gaudreault and Philippe Marion, The End of Cinema?: A Medium in Crisis in the Digital Age (Film and Culture Series) (New York, NY: Columbia University Press. 2015).