One of the Young Turks of semiotic film theory in the 1970s, counting Umberto Eco and Christian Metz among his mentors, Francesco Casetti established himself as a major figure in the field of film studies in Italy, and his synoptic overview of the discipline’s theoretical lineage, Theories of Cinema, 1945-1990, is still a crucial reference work. Since 2010, he has been the Thomas E. Donnelley Professor of Humanities and Film & Media Studies at Yale University. In recent years, his research interests have taken him away from the semiotic tradition, and towards a critical evaluation of contemporary trends in media technologies, as seen in his latest monograph The Lumière Galaxy: Seven Key Words for the Cinema to Come. He is currently working on the iconophobic tradition in western culture and its relation to anxieties aroused by technological changes in contemporary media, and recently co-edited the anthology Early Film Theories in Italy 1896-1922.
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DF: I’d like to talk about the state of the field, but also the way that the state of the field reflects the state of the world. Do you think that a lot of the anxiety around our object of study in the last 10-20 years is a reflection of a deeper political uncertainty?
FC: There is a great deal of rhetoric around the idea that digital revolution implies the death of cinema and ultimately the death of film studies. When I look at what is happening in our field, my feeling is that the field is expanding. There is always a new object available. So, the risk is not that our object is getting lost. The risk, on the contrary, is that the different objects in the field are becoming more and more insular. It is increasingly difficult to conceive cinema in its entirety and film studies as an all-embracing approach: the dialogue between the different branches often appears impossible. I think this situation reflects a twofold aspect. On the one hand, it echoes the tendency of the contemporary world not towards globalisation, but towards fragmentation and isolation. On the other hand, it echoes the triumph of neoliberal ideology, in which you are said to be able to choose the commodities and lifestyles you want. Let’s be frank: our field, today, is a great marketplace in which everybody can find the department store that better fits his or her alleged needs; what is scarce, is the willingness to cope with a comprehensive approach – to challenge, through a transversal look, the intricate network that keeps together our landscape in its different aspects. It’s post-theory… I am not complaining. I am just underlining the distance from the years of my intellectual formation in Paris and Italy, in which the desire to find a rigorous approach to film language was paired with the dream (naïve, but not stupid as Bordwell and Carrol have depicted it) to keep language and social, economic, and psychological processes together.
DF: How do you respond to this situation?
FC: I try to retain a holistic vision of the problems concerning us. I am presently working on two projects. One is an exploration of the fear of cinema in the first three decades of the 20th century. We often have a tendency to think that cinema was a good object. No, in reality, it was not. It became a good object through a number of practices, but its emergence raised a lot of anxieties: I am thinking of the claim that film freely spreads the evil, that the fascination it exerts creates a sort of collective hypnosis, that its perfect reproduction of the world can replace reality, and so on. Well, I try at the same time to reconstruct a sort of archeology of the modern political fears, and to investigate the way contemporary media re-articulate the fears of cinema, paying the price to sanctify what once was an object to be afraid of. In a word: why media and mediation are fearsome, but can become holy? How this duality underpins the current political processes? The second project I am working on can be summarised, ironically, in the following way: for a long time, we have thought that cinema is a visual art; in reality, it is an environmental medium. Indeed, I am trying to explore the connections between space and film. There are at least three spaces at stake. Firstly, the space in which film is performed, the film theatre, as a peculiar and historical installation. Secondly, the imaginary space in which the spectator feels immersed while watching a movie. Thirdly, there is the social and cultural space that makes the arrangement of the two previous spaces possible, and even necessary.
So, there are the spaces of attendance, diegetic spaces, and social spaces. These spaces have always been seen as connected, but in fact they are secluded. What provides a connection? A good tip comes from Rancière’s notion of the distribution of the sensible: Rancière suggests that every medium defines a space of circulation of what can captured by senses, and in this way articulates the social spaces in which common feelings and meanings are shared. I am trying to apply this idea to the cinema (which at the beginning was often identified as a democratic art), but also in general to the media, and to the screen as a media device: the screen is precisely what localises a look and makes a space visible. So, two issues, fear and space, and a holistic approach. I am not the only one who does this, there are other scholars that I admire that do the same. Let me just add one personal note: after many years in Europe, I am very happy now about working in the USA; but academic work, here, puts a great deal of emphasis on the “professionalism” of the researcher in working on one specific topic, while in Europe the stress is often put on the researcher’s capacity to provide wide and encompassing viewpoints. Sometimes I am a little homesick for this capacity of Europeans to have a transversal look at the field.
DF: One important keyword you mentioned there was the idea of the cinema as a democratic art, an idea prevalent in the 1910s and 1920s, but do you think it can still play a role today in opening up democratic spaces, or being a counter-weight to anti-democratic forces right now? Is there something special about the cinema that allows it to do that?
FC: At the time, the cinema as a democratic art was opposed to the theatre. In the theatre you always had the royal box, a privileged place for viewing the play, and in the cinema, everyone is in the royal box. So the first idea of cinema as a democratic art, very close to Rancière, was equal access for everybody. With the Soviet revolution, cinema became democratic also – and especially – due to its content. But at the beginning it was more about providing an equal look for everybody. Now, apparently, the democratic medium is the internet, when it works in a wiki-style logic. The internet is democratic because it provides access for everybody, and because everybody can contribute with his or her content. Common access and common content. Unfortunately, we have recently seen (and I am not referring only to the American presidential campaign, we have the same thing in Europe) that the internet is not necessarily democratic, it can be used as an anti-democratic tool (e.g. “fake news”). This changes some basic values that film as medium helped to stabilise. Think about the notion of responsibility: if we take for granted the right of access and freedom of expression, what are the consequences of being linked to a webpage, of appending a message, of adding a like? What duties must balance the right of access and the freedom of expression? I say: the internet changes values that film established; but in a certain way, we can also say that the change was already impending in film…
DF: The idea that the cinema is the archaeological foundation of the internet is something that I both like and hate. Is it because of the role of the screen? Is it the first time, historically, that you have a human relationship with the screen?
FC: This is a delicate point. Let me say something about what you call “archaeological foundation”. Today there is a great frenzy of archaeology. Everybody’s doing it, and I like that. Yet, it is often an archaeology based on the idea that we can detect a precise ancestry of a medium, and that we can follow the evolution of this medium along a timeline independent of the object. I find this kind of archaeology completely incorrect. Media do not have ancestors in the proper sense: they emerge from the fabric of history, according to certain circumstances – which means they respond not to causality but contingency and conjuncture. Ancestry is an imagination that we can draw after a medium has emerged. Pre-cinema is something that we create because of the emergence of cinema. And there is no independent timeline: every medium follows or creates its own time, which we can recognise, once again, only retrospectively. An “effective” archeology (I am referring to Foucault who, quoting Nietzsche, speaks of “effective” history…) can develop only if it accepts these two premises – and accepts the past as a reconstruction which moves from the present and is already affected by its future – an anterior future, in Barthes’ nice expression. Of course, I am not saying that archaeologists “invent” facts; I am just saying that an archaeology is a picture that bears the full responsibility of his or her author. In this framework we can say that film is an ancestor of internet; we can build such an archaeology. Simply, this is not neither an objective nor an innocent move. If I do that, for example, I privilege one question over others, and I follow one thread over others.
DF: Yes, but what is the question, then?
FC: In this case, the question is to focus on the ways of sharing and making accessible knowledge to potential customers.
DF: Once you add in the element of the customer, then don’t you have a contradiction with knowledge and sharing?
FC: No, because the capitalistic form of sharing knowledge is the circulation of commodities in the market. And you can not conceive of cinema outside of the capitalistic market.
DF: I’m not so sure. Historically speaking, yes.
FC: Of course, in the history that I try to reconstruct. Then again, you can have ways of using cinema that contradict this fact, and that claim another archaeology. For example, I have no doubt that there is a second archaeology tied with cinema, and tied with screen practices, that is deeply connected with rituals aimed at creating a community, and consequently with all the political, civil and religious practices that mark modernity, as opposed to mediaeval rituals. So, cinema belongs on the one hand to the capitalistic market of knowledge, and on the other hand to the process of constituting a community through rituals.
DF: I wonder if this is what gets lost in the passage from cinema to the internet. You have the loss of an audience. Our relationship with the screen when on the internet is an individual one. We have a loss of shared experience. You no longer have a thousand people in the same room watching the same screen.
FC: It is a passage from a real communal presence to virtual presence, the passage from an actual community to the mystical body in the Christian religion. The mystical body is the virtual co-presence of the believers, and therefore a community in a different form. Let me also say that every archaeology implies the idea not only of a recollection of objects and events, but also of a refusal. A good archaeologist is the one who puts aside objects that he or she does not consider pertinent, and who creates disconnections and not only connections. Take again the screen practices. In the framework of my project on space, media and screens, I am working on the almost simultaneous emergence of the Panorama and the Phantasmagoria, in 1796 in Edinburgh and 1797 in Paris respectively. Within two years, we have the coalescence of a number of technologies into two new media that seemingly surfaced from the same background. Yet the two media split this common ground. The Panorama staged an appropriation of the world and a celebration of history. It moved within a culture of Empire, where what mattered was a territory (which had been in some way conquered and protected), in which a circulation of commodities and extraction of resources is possible. The Phantasmagoria went beyond such a territory. It put spectators into contact with the kingdom of the dead, it unfolded uncanny aspects of the surrounding reality, and it aroused curiosity and fear. It did not simply move within a culture of magic: it also tested spectators’ emotional reactions. In this sense it dealt with an interior world and with a spiritual reality, as well as our capacity to cope with them both. In a way, the Panorama spoke of a geographical expansion while the Phantasmagoria spoke of a transcendental network. The former was a political machine, the latter a psychoanalytical one. As the two media emerged, two different histories began.
DF: By the same token, does that imply that the division we all talk about in the cinema between Lumière and Méliès, between documentary and fiction, is already programmed far in advance of the invention of the cinema, in these different media?
FC: I am very happy you touch on this. In my generation, the Lumière-Méliès story was initially very convincing, and then it was entirely repudiated. Godard helped us to repudiate it when he said that Lumière was fantasy and Méliès was documentary. He was right in a certain sense: the uncanniness of the real world, on the one hand, and the documentation of tricks on the other hand. I have to say that I take this more and more seriously. Not, primarily, because of the mainstream binary between Hollywood effects films and the obsession with “true stories”. The entirety of Hollywood film production is split into two very clearly. But more importantly because we are in an age in which actual events and narratives of events converge and merge in unexpected ways. In this vein, it might be important to go back and see how cinema articulated the Lumière-Méliès poles, and how the contemporary media, and especially social media, re-articulate cinema’s articulation.
DF: In contemporary media it’s easy to see where the Méliès heritage is, in CGI blockbusters and the like, but it’s harder to see where Lumière’s legacy is. You talk about the trope of “based on a true story”, but this is a little banal. Where is there a site for what we could call an encounter with the real? Where is this taking place, not just in cinema, but in contemporary media more broadly?
FC: Maybe outside the visual. If you look at media and space, you discover that the concept of truth is tied not merely with visibility but with the creation of intimacy, to which you can have access. This is why today a tweet that expresses the “immediate feelings” that generally one must conceal looks more “true” than a piece of evidence displayed in plain sight. The truth is the effect of a “confession” more than a “discovery”. Anyway, we should keep in mind that the primacy of vision is quite a recent phenomenon. The Middle Ages had no trust in vision. Touch and smell were just as important for gaining a connection with the object. As Bruno Latour has noted, in the modern world vision becomes important because visual notations become reliable, comparable, stable, collectable, etc.
DF: You can record a sound.
FC: Yes, but it is more difficult to store and compare.
DF: What you can’t do with sound is analyse it. With an image in the cinema you can break it down into individual stills, but this is impossible with sound.
FC: That is a good point. You can’t isolate a moment in sound.
DF: This idea of the real taking place outside of the visible, it sounds like the idea that the Cahiers du cinéma critics had of the hors-champ.
FC: I am not sure: with the hors-champ, we are still in the domain of the visual; the hors-champ is the hidden or the dark side of the visible world. Today, the way in which we feel space around us is not necessarily visual, it’s something else. All new media are visual in the sense that they have a screen or a display in which you can read data, but it is no longer the visuality of the visual data that matters. Take GPS: what matters is the performance of the driver, not the splendor of the world. But we can also see the opposite: GoPro, for instance, embodies the need to put online something that you are doing, and make that visible. So the non-visual is increasingly important, but the resistance of the visual and visuality is also absolutely important.
DF: We could say that the boundary line between the world of images and the “real” world has evaporated. So everything is being filmed, and the resulting images are also what the world is made out of now. The world is now a feedback loop of images.
FC: Absolutely. It is a trend that has been highlighted, but not only by Baudrillard. A book like Into the Universe of Technical Images by Vilém Flusser offers a captivating explanation of the way in which the technical image, conceived by photography and cinema for capturing reality, ends up becoming a mass of data that we have to reconstruct. There is a parallel argument in Kracauer’s “On Photography,” dated 1927: photography is aimed at capturing reality, but in a world totally disclosed by photography, both images and objects regress to a sort of degree zero, and become stripped of their meaning. At that point, we are free to re-organise the universe according a new set of relations. Flusser says almost the same thing: when we have just a mass of data, it is time to make bold hypotheses about reality. Flusser’s and Kracauer’s texts on photography have not been used too often to interpret what is happening now in the cinema, but their approach is more interesting than Baudrillard’s.
DF: In your book The Lumière Galaxy, I was struck when you started talking about the display in contrast to the screen. The display originates in the screen, but it is becoming untethered from the screen. It’s no longer dependent on the screen for its existence.
FC: The difference between the screen and the display, in the end, is based on the fact that the screen was the place where captured reality appeared again. The display, by contrast, is the place where the flow of data stops for a moment in a certain kind of formation, offering some interpretation of the world. If the screen is connected with the logic of revelation – as Malcom Turvey would say – the display is connected with the logic of circulation and. Today, circulation is crucial: how do things move from one point to another? Where do they halt their trajectories for a while? How they become accessible, and under what conditions? Charles Acland has done excellent work on the topic; and outside film and media studies, the work of David Joselit (Feedback, After Art) is a reference for me. With circulation, space comes to the fore: the “where” becomes as important as the “what”. This is why I have tried to analyse the “relocation” of cinema out of film theatre, at home, on our computer, while traveling, and its “re-relocation,” again in the film theatre, but with different modalities than in the past.
This is why I am now trying to analyse the screen: the screen is not only the space where images are hosted, but is also something that takes place in a space, and where circulating images find space. The screen is what localises a look, and makes visible the threefold space – attendance, diegesis, society – in which it is located. In this framework, it is interesting to read early film theories. There is a sort of hidden film theory that reconnects the screen to the early meanings of the word, and instead of assuming the screen as a mere support of images, unfolds its relation with the environment: the screen is seen as a shelter, as a divide, as a filter, as a camouflage. So, the screen today is under a double pressure: on one side, it lies between two regimes of visuality (revelation as opposed to circulation), and on the other side, it lies between visuality and environmentality. I find that if we think in this way we can see how cinema today – I want to finish on an optimistic note – is still a very contradictory medium, one that is able to contain in itself elements that are deeply at stake in the entire field of media.
DF: From its very birth, the cinema has always been a contradictory medium. It is a force field for oppositional currents.
FC: I would put it like this: for a long time, the cinema reclaimed its specificity, and this claim was due to the fact that not only did the cinema not have a specificity, but that it was precisely a great medium because it did not have a specificity. So, the desire to have a specificity was hiding the fear of an absence of specificity which was the only specific specificity of film. This denial was extremely interesting because it regarded the very fact that cinema is a flexible, free, and uncontainable medium. A potential oppositional medium. In any case, a bad social object. I like the idea that the cinema is not a good object. The great movies are about bad boys and bad girls. Good guys are boring. Cinema was not boring because it was not a good object. If it were a good object it would have been terribly boring.
DF: It seems like this is the case with any new medium or any new art form.
FC: Yes, but if you take GPS it’s not that contradictory. From the beginning, the cinema was a great potential medium because it was much more complex. We used to think of the cinema as the tip of an iceberg, but now it’s clear that it was itself an iceberg.
DF: So the cinema was what introduced, for the first time, the collapse of specificity.
FC: Yes. And as a scholar I am extremely interested in all the moments in which past scholars did not see what was in plain sight, like this absence of specificity. They were on the wrong track for a lot of reasons, and we see now that they were blind. And yet, their blindness is a great lesson of humility for us now, too. We do not see all the implications of the cinema today. That’s a good thing.
DF: I think both of us reject the idea that there’s no more room for the classical cinematic experience. There’s still a role for people going to the movies, going into that dark room, watching a linear, continuous, narrative film.
FC: Absolutely, yes.
DF: In fact, it’s almost as if there’s more of a need to have that kind of experience, because it’s now so rare to experience those conditions. What I think has changed is that where once the cinema was seen as an object of distraction, now it’s an object of concentration. It’s the place where we have the possibility for the most concentrated experiences possible in the modern world.
FC: No doubt about that. And this is the reason why watching a movie in the film theatre has eventually become that religious experience that was heralded by theorists like Ricciotto Canudo, theorists that Walter Benjamin so deeply despised. We should not look for the similarities between eras, but the re-articulation of the same question, even its reversal. Contemplation, distraction, immersion are three answers to the same question, and what matters is their cracks and turnarounds. I repeat, this must be the logic underpinning an “effective” archaeology.
DF: You do this in your book, for instance, when you nuance such sharp distinctions by talking about the viewer’s ability to create an “existential bubble” in which they can virtually re-create a cinematic experience, even when they are not actually in the cinema.
FC: There are what I would call “strategies of repair” through which old experiences like the film theatre attendance can be recovered. But in the non-theatrical experiences, today, there is also a lot of experimentation. Cinema today is an obsolete medium which raises nostalgia, but also a totally new medium that requires experimentation. This is why I still love it.
Interviewed by Daniel Fairfax