The cinema is in crisis, and it has been since 1895. This is only partly a joke. Louis Lumière mythically remarked that the cinema was “an invention without a future” soon after the first public screenings of the cinématographe, and predictions of its imminent demise have regularly circulated since then. They reached a crescendo in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, when a swirling mass of multiple phenomena – the centenary of the cinema, the end of the millennium, the post-Cold War pronouncements about the “end of history”, the sweeping conversion from celluloid to digital image production – came together to generate a fervent discourse on the impending “death of cinema”. These debates have since largely died down, confronted with the incontrovertible fact of the cinema’s continued existence. But it takes little to revive the fears of cinematic extinction: a minor downturn in ticket sales, the threat of a new technological innovation, or even just a spate of particularly underwhelming commercial releases. Disaster perennially looms.
Is this any surprise? Crisis, Marx tells us, is constitutive of capitalism: it is necessary for the system to regenerate itself, to provisionally overcome its structural contradictions, only to lay the ground for new crises to come. This also applies to the cinema, the only art form that was invented and nurtured by the industrial bourgeoisie. Rather than suffering from crisis, it thrives on it. It draws on these periodic upheavals in order to renew itself – economically, technologically and even aesthetically. By extension, the same could be said of the academic discipline of cinema studies. As a consolidated scholarly field, film studies has a much shorter history than that of the cinema, having only truly taken shape in the 1960s and 1970s – although, as Dana Polan reminds us in Scenes of Instruction, the teaching of cinema in higher education settings has a far older and more diverse lineage, stretching back to the early 20th century. Throughout much of this time, the field has matched the convulsive nature of its object. The birth moment of film studies coincided with what Dudley Andrew has called the “Prague Spring of academia”, when more traditional academic methods and practices came under assault from waves of critical theory emanating from Europe. At the same time, the university systems of most Western countries embarked on a major demographic transformation, opening themselves up to mass student bases for the first time.
Although there have been some notable institutional exceptions, film studies predominantly emerged out of literature departments, first as individual course offerings, then as independent programs. As a result, it reproduced and displaced many of the tempestuous academic discords of the era, incited by trends in Marxism, psychoanalysis, structuralism, deconstruction and a panoply of other theoretical prisms. A querulous tone, we might say, has remained at the core of the field. Now, however, it is characterised less by theoretical disputation, and more by what Raymond Bellour has dubbed “la querelle des dispositifs”. The quarrel of the dispositifs now brewing in film studies centres not so much on an engagement with the content of cinema as it does on the nature of the various technologies, devices, formats, codes and social agreements which allow this engagement to take place.
Most notably, the very nature of cinema studies as an autonomous discipline is placed into question, just as the cinema itself increasingly appears to be submerged in a much vaster landscape of audiovisual media. Who can seriously contest this state of affairs? Few indeed are the programs that have retained the unescorted appellation “film studies” or “cinema studies”, with most preferring to incorporate various permutations of the terms “screen”, “visual”, “media” or “moving image” in their names. Having consolidated itself into a coherent discipline only recently, film studies finds itself in a process of dissolution. No sooner had it entered the house of academia through the front door of literature, the cinema is being ejected through the back window of media. And all within the space of a few decades – a timespan no longer than that of a single professorial career.
Indeed, it is hard to overlook the generational nature of the proclamations surfacing about the “death of film studies”, a faint but persistent echo of the “death of cinema” chatter that, it must be said, has largely come from academics who themselves are passing into retirement. A projection of their own mortality, perhaps? Or a reflection of their protectiveness towards a field of study that they would rather see perish than pass into the hands of others? Such a judgement would, no doubt, be unfair to individuals who have diligently dedicated their lives to the well-being of the discipline. But it is also striking that the prophesies of doom have, for the most part, not been shared by younger generations of scholars, who overwhelmingly retain an underlying optimism about cinema and its study. On a global level, more people are watching films (and watching them in cinemas) than at any time since World War II. Statistics are hard to come by, but it is also highly probable that more people, around the world, are studying cinema than ever before.
This is not, of course, to overlook the sweeping metamorphoses to moving image culture in recent years, nor to claim that we should stand in imperturbable indifference to these transformative forces. It is not to deny that the field, as is the case with the humanities more generally, faces tremendous institutional challenges in the period to come, particularly in a political climate where brazen manifestations of anti-intellectual populism are in the ascendancy. And yet, at the risk of rehabilitating Hegelian schemas, we should insist that institutional questions are in fact a secondary factor to the health of cinema studies. What gets lost in many of the agonised discussions over the future state of the field is the fact that ideas are the primary factor in its prospective development. When it comes down to it, it is the perspicacity of the theories we nurture, the validity of the concepts we adopt, and the versatility of the responses we have to contemporary events that will determine the fate of cinema studies.
With this view, Senses of Cinema has turned to six key representatives in the field of film studies, drawn from a range of different nations, career-stages and theoretical viewpoints. In this dossier, we are proud to publish interviews with Jacques Aumont from France, Francesco Casetti from Italy, Dana Polan from the United States, Vinzenz Hediger from Switzerland, Angela Ndalianis from Australia and Weihong Bao from China. They can be found in the following links: