What cinema does

Hamish Ford

Sean Cubitt, The Cinema Effect, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2004 ISBN 0 262 03312 7

It’s been some time since a tome came our way which combines diverse theoretical paradigms to forge a fresh analysis of film history and the place of cinema in contemporary culture. Sean Cubitt’s The Cinema Effect doesn’t ask ‘what is cinema?’, but rather what does cinema do, or what is its effect? The analysis concentrates on a handful of films and employs a combination of semiotics, Marxist theory, ontological philosophy, and ambivalent applications of phenomenological and psychoanalytic writings.

A section on ‘Pioneer Cinema’ starts the book, with a rich analysis of cinema’s social, political and philosophical effect in its formative years. Predictably, Lumiére and Méliès feature, but Cubitt adds another rarely covered early figure, the Indian pioneer and Méliès imitator DG Dundiraj ‘Dadasaheb’ Phalke. Cinema is regarded here as embodying the dialectics of modernity from the start, as played out in Europe’s secularised public sphere at the end of the 19th century and in what the writer calls the “counter-modernity” of Phalke’s anti-colonial fables employing religious mythology.

The next section, ‘Normative Cinema’, addresses films of the 1930s. Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938) is treated as “an apogee of rhetorical filmmaking”, exemplifying what Cubitt calls “total film” in which the audience is forced to passively consume a mythology. This is contrasted with the active viewer demanded by Eisenstein’s dialectically-informed work of the 1920s. Cubitt argues that like classical Hollywood, total cinema seeks to remove itself from history, allowing Nevsky to be set in a past entirely constructed to feed the ideology of the present.

In contrast Rules of the Game (1939) is celebrated for confronting the viewer with “the autonomy of the signifier”, as Renoir’s detached camera style brings us “face to face with the film as other.” The film’s poetic realism encourages us to rain upon the world “a forgiveness tinged with the tragic realisation that it is necessary to love this world because it is the only one.”

While both realist and total cinema aim for symbolic depth, Cubitt sees classical Hollywood as constructing a “brilliant but depth-less surface.” With Hollywood we simply don’t want reality: to see Astaire “mount” Rogers in one of their classic RKO musicals would be unthinkable.

The third section, ‘Postcinema’, comprises half the book and focuses on contemporary films. Thirty years are ommitted from Cubitt’s account of cinema’s important moments, leaving out Italian neorealism and post-war European modernism, ignoring the work of such filmmakers as Antonioni, Resnais, Godard, Fellini, Bergman and Fassbinder. While he makes no claim to present an exhaustive history of cinema, this particular blank spot is familiar. So many established academics continue a reactionary rebellion against the heavy diet of demanding European cinema they were force-fed in their undergraduate years.

Cubitt argues that post-war modernism’s primary thematic of negativity is anachronistic from a 21st century perspective. He summarises Adorno’s argument—that after the Holocaust a clearly dysfunctional and ethically debased modernity needs to be negated by art and philosophy—as unnecessary today because simulation plays the same function. Though lamenting the loss of cinema’s ability to critically reflect upon society, Cubitt seriously over-invests in the possibilities of critique offered by simulation. Simulacra’s divorce of words and symbols from meaning and reality is exactly the kind of phenomenon Adorno argued needed to be negated and overcome. In the context of Cubitt’s argument, the correct assertion that no technique is inherently “progressive or subversive” implies both an inevitable surrender to the hegemonic aesthetics of spectacle and a glib dismissal of any critical potential in modernist textuality.

The closest Cubitt gets to acknowledging the potential of texts to act as critiques is in the familiar discussion of classicism’s autopsy in Sam Peckinpah’s “postclassical” Westerns. He posits Peckinpah’s corrective West as Hispanic, European and Indian, or the myth of origin rewritten as “a legend of cultural mixing, not racial purity.” This attempt at gleaning critique from the text quickly runs out of steam, and he ends up admitting The Wild Bunch often continues to blindly affirm what it is usually claimed to subvert.

The remaining chapters address contemporary cinema in a sophisticated way, based on a familiar postmodern tenet that is both egalitarian and elitist. Cubitt says big-budget Hollywood enacts a distinct doubling: as unsullied entertainment for those who “succumb” to the spectacle and something else for those who are able to “appreciate” its layered reflexivity. This doubling is heavily paradoxical, as he points out, with the hero often seeking to puncture what the viewer has actually come to see: the computer database, the virtual reality matrix, the spectacle itself. While realism aims to engage us as “arbiters”, Cubitt claims the “Hollywood neobaroque” of The Matrix (1999), Dark City (1998), and The Thirteenth Floor (1999) “recruits us as collaborators.” A “mistiness” of doubt shrouds everything in these films, except for a naïve investment in the basic forces of eternal love, home, nature and truth.

Cubitt notes that in rendering these dystopic worlds, the image becomes dematerialised, turning into an opaque curtain hiding a truth we cannot see but in which we are asked to invest. The hero lives on faith that there is a purer reality beyond the grimy visible world. But as Cubitt points out, even the image of this ‘reality’ is ultimately questionable: when we finally reach the perfect beach at the end of The Thirteenth Floor “we meet it not as actuality but as depiction”, gazing out at a clearly CGI-conjured image that serves as a dreamscape for the protagonist.

Despite his quite convincing political critique of globalised cinema, Sean Cubitt is determined to ultimately assert contemporary film as a positive event. A “commodity cinema” can possibly “regenerate” its audience he argues, concluding: “this possibility…is the utopian in film that has always made it so fascinating.” Cinema might not be fully manifesting its hopeful role, but Cubitt suggests it at least offers a starting point.

For all its robust theoretical discussion, The Cinema Effect ends on a naïve hopefulness in cinema’s empowering potential. This amounts to a wishful metaphysics of becoming that is not necessarily any less idealist or problematic than the ontological discourses Cubitt wishes to transcend. His impressive and rich response to cinema’s theoretical challenge deals with crucial questions we must continue to ask, just as his argument plays out familiar historical blind spots and prescriptive philosophical understandings of this still elusive artform.

RealTime issue #60 April-May 2004 pg. 18

© Hamish Ford; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2004