Cinema, Video Games, Art, Part II

Over the last few weeks, as I’ve been following the “video games as art” debate spearheaded by Roger Ebert, I’ve also been thinking through some of my own questions about the definition of cinema and how that definition might be changing thanks to digital media, and at the advice of a fellow media scholar, took a look at Dudley Andrew’s recent book, What Cinema Is! (Blackwell, 2010), which takes many of the core questions raised by Andre Bazin about definitions of cinema in the 1950s are repositions them to address how digital tools–whether cameras, editing equipment, or projectors–alter our understanding of cinema.  Andrew is one of the more astute voices in academic film theory today, and for the most part, he resists what he calls the “discourses of the digital,” instead seeking to “sketch a film aesthetic that owes nothing to the digital” (xiv), even while many of his questions are shaped by the new tools that inform audiovisual storytelling.

Andrew goes on to argue that the films he regards as most consistent with the project of cinema are those that seek “to discover, to encounter, to confront, and to reveal” (xviii).  Andrew adds that, in a culture of “audiovisual entertainment,” this aim of cinema is attenuated.  Andrew breaks down the structure of filmmaking into four moments of “cinematic transformation:” the camera, the editing table, the projector (or exhibition process), and the subject matter, with each of his four major chapters tracing each of these moments.  For Andrew, the culture of audiovisual entertainment augurs a move away from the possibilities of discovery or happy accidents–the insect caught the lens during a dramatic sequence in Jules et Jim–toward a greater emphasis on post-production (5), a claim that is certainly valid if we look at the mass of special effects spectacles that dominate suburban multiplexes (or even the carefully storyboarded films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie, one of Andrew’s key examples), but that may be less apt if we look at other modes of filmmaking.

His discussions of editing express similar concerns (digital editing produces not magic, but a calculated effect) before moving on to the chapters I found most compelling: his discussion of exhibition and content.  In his discussion of exhibition, Andrew first acknowledges that, in many ways, little has changed since the 1930s when it comes to production: actors still perform scenes on sets or on location in scripted films that fulfill marketable genre conventions, but that the brief theatrical run of most movies, combined with the emergence of home and mobile viewing environments, have contributed to a situation where “the consumer controls the experience” (68).  Andrew goes on to imply that this new situation helps contribute to the demise of the movie theater as an “alternative public sphere” (68), a position that seems to deny the pleasures and values of the online film cultures that I have grown to appreciate.  Andrew’s frustration seems to reach its deepest when he despairs that viewers might catch movies “on demand” or “via ‘Youtube'” (87, his scare quotes and spelling) and worries about the overlap between the present-ness of video gaming (which requires real-time decision making in his read) and the more “reflective” mode associated with film.  Although I would question whether video games are, by default, only in the present tense, the fact that a screen may be used for games does not imply that our consumption of films on a monitor will be tarnished.

That being said, Andrew’s arguments about the “subject matter” of cinema are utterly fascinating and worth reading, especially for scholars engaged with issues of adaptation.  Without going into to much detail, Andrew offers a detailed, and highly historicized account of Bazin’s arguments about the role of adaptations of novels, including his attempts to complicate concepts of “fidelity,” a loaded term in adaptation studies that refers to the degree to which a latter text is “faithful” to its original.  Without going into too much detail, Andrew reads Bazin as arguing that “genuine fidelity abandons obvious matching for creative respect” (140).  He goes on to map “adaptation” as a practice onto modes of evolution to make the case that cinema continues to evolve, whether because of, in spite of, or alongside of digital tools.  It’s a compelling argument, and I’m sure that I’m not doing it justice here.  But as I discussed in my post on Ebert and video games, Andrew’s questions point to the vibrancy of the debate about our current definitions of cinema in the age of media convergence.

While Andrew’s chapters focus on four crucial categories of “cinematic transformation,” the camera, the editing table, exhibition, and subject matter, I find myself wanting to complement Andrew’s structure with some reference to the blog-based cinephilia that is still in the process of emerging.  In looking at this culture of film criticism, it’s worth asking how (or whether) these digital dialogues alter the categories (or practices) of film criticism.  Some of these transformations of film criticism have been addressed in a series of blog posts by Girish Shambu, as well as in the most recent issue of Jump Cut.  In one post, Girish addresses the question of audio commentary tracks on DVDs (and now, in some cases, online), a relatively common form of movie consumption for cinephiles in the digital age.  Girish followed that up with a fascinating post tying Internet-based cinephilia to Gilles Deleuze’s concept of “mediators.”  Essentially, mediators allow us to get caught up in forces larger than ourselves; applied to Internet film criticism, film writers on Twitter, Facebook, and in the blogosphere “carry [us] from one idea to another, one film to another, one spark of curiosity to another.”  Girish goes on to say that he can experience a dozen “encounters” per day that might inspire him to add a film to his Netflix queue or to read up on another critic.  This seems similar to my own experience–and anecdotally, others have said the same thing–and Girish sees “the dizzying, accelerated frequency of our encounters” as opening up “rich possibilities whose only drawback is their super-plenitude.”  To be sure, not all blogs (or all film blogs, for that matter) have this kind of journey of open-ended discovery as their aim, but I think that blogs have the potential to sustain these encounters.

Girish’s comments seem to undercut some of the assumptions about digital media provoking fragmented selves who lack the ability for sustained attention (see Nicholas Carr, Maggie Jackson, and Mark Bauerlein, among others).  Instead of placing emphasis on a medium’s purported ability to undermine our concentration skills, Girish sees the blogosphere as potentially pointing “outward” to other media forms–books, essays, films–where we can focus our energies.  Thus, if Andrew is correct in his assessment that the mission of cinema is “to discover, to encounter, to confront, and to reveal” (xviii), then there are few places today better than the film blogosphere for sustaining those journeys of discovery, for providing us with the framework for making new connections.

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