This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
I cried to Captain Kirk to save me, but he could not hear. I sought the Little Tramp as my companion, but Grumpy Cat hid him from view.
Cinema is gone—everyone agrees. And yet cinema also abides, if only so that Jean-Luc Godard can go on delivering valedictions to what it used to be. Like the history of which it’s a part, the moving image has not finished its work, nor is it likely to anytime soon. I think it’s just gotten a little too much into itself.
It’s a disconcerting situation, given that cinema used to be so expansive, with movies surfing over the world on the waves of modernity’s Big Bang. That primordial explosion, which Eric Hobsbawm called the “dual revolution,” sent industrial capitalism and political liberalism bursting together across the globe from their point of origin in Western Europe, burning down, building up again and transforming whatever stood in their path. About a century into the process, in a rented room in Paris, the unstoppable conflagration flickered across a public screen for the first time.
The dual revolution’s new medium was a relatively modest technical innovation—one “without a future,” as Louis Lumière thought—tinkered into existence at the end of the nineteenth century’s more impressive breakthroughs, such as the railroads, photography and electric light. Cinema was also a latecomer among the social and cultural innovations of the dual revolution: new forms of spectatorship and consumption that ranged, as Miriam Hansen has written, “from world expositions and department stores to the more sinister attractions of melodrama, phantasmagoria, wax museums and morgues.” To this roster I would add panoramic paintings, including one of particular interest for a magazine founded in 1865: Paul Philippoteaux’s cyclorama The Battle of Gettysburg, whose encompassing hyper-realism first astonished the public in 1883.
Many types of spectacle were available to a world in transformation; but it was film, especially, that the tremors of the nineteenth century carried along as they rippled into the twentieth, turning a mere novelty into modernity’s most all-consuming mode of expression. Soon, everything had to be filmed: from scenes along the Nile to Shackleton’s expedition to Antarctica, from a staged version of the coronation of King George V to the actual Passaic textile strike. So rapidly did movie cameras spread across the globe, in such an unceasing project of documenting and fabricating, that André Bazin famously likened cinema to the art of mummification, observing that both answered an urgent psychological need to arrest and preserve transient reality.
I remain loyal to Bazin and will come back to him shortly. For the moment, though, I will ask you to think of early cinema’s best-known images, which present a picture not of formaldehyde-laced anxiety but unbounded dynamism. The train chugs into La Ciotat station. The space capsule pokes the moon in its eye. The Little Tramp stands on deck with his fellow immigrants, staring at the Statue of Liberty. And so the images continued throughout the twentieth century, from the stagecoach rolling across the valley to the spaceship flying to Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite. Film, for most of its life, has projected the feelings of a society that believed it was going somewhere.
This bustling, outward-looking aspect of the moving image was more than a matter of appearances. Film became pre-eminent in the twentieth century not only by giving mass audiences what they wanted to see but by adopting—and sometimes helping to originate—the new society’s industrial and financial developments. By the early 1920s, commercial cinema had become the first art form organized on the principles of the assembly line and the cartel. By the late 1940s, American studios were becoming pioneers in outsourcing production around the world and shifting business operations across borders, moving capital according to the needs of trade agreements and currency fluctuations. Cinema even found new opportunities for expansion when its main corporate rival, radio, underwent the vast reorganization required for television. The TV stations had airtime to fill. Movies rushed in to fill the void.
* * *
Then the shock waves of the dual revolution stopped moving outward. It’s hard to fix a date for the turning point. You might choose 1973 and the OPEC oil embargo, or 1975 and the end of the Vietnam War. I tend to think that the expansive dynamism continued beyond the fall of the Berlin Wall, as capital burst the final barriers and flooded into the former Soviet bloc. The money by then was already pouring into China; it had been doing so since the early 1980s. In the 1990s, it flowed more easily than ever throughout the rest of the globe as well, bringing with it a triumphant neoliberal ideology.
At which point—too late—Wile E. Coyote saw the boulder he’d loaded into his giant Acme slingshot rocketing to the limit of the elastic and sproinging back, straight at his head.
In Wile E.’s honor, we might title the recent history of the world and its moving images “the Great Rebound.” Two centuries of ceaseless outward movement have given way to collapse and recession and retrenchment, punctuated by moments of false prosperity. People multiply without having any place new to grow into, until the face of the earth is covered by the swarming of economic migrants and political refugees. Personal debt mounts; jobs, natural resources, ice caps and coastlines shrink. Our great cities, which once were bubbling cauldrons of artistic and social invention, have congealed into sparsely populated clusters of superluxury housing—storehouses for the wealth of absentee billionaires—serviced by a reserve army of the dispirited. The very language of progress has atrophied. The best-publicized adversaries of neoliberalism no longer speak of marching into the glorious socialist future; instead, they spiral backward, seeking to recover the purity of a vanished and largely imaginary caliphate.
As the world turns in on itself, the noisy, dirty, propulsive innovations that it once found fascinating have been replaced by germ-free technologies useful for control and surveillance: genetic and digital engineering. The former directs our thoughts toward the interior of the body, where life might be managed cell by cell; the latter, toward the continual monitoring of one another’s activity. The selfie and the spy-satellite photo are the close-up and the panoramic shot of the globe’s real-time movie.
As for the movies that label themselves as entertainments, I can think of three visual tropes in particular that characterize the present era: the wormhole in space that proves to be a conduit into one’s own mind; the digital gibberish that scrolls down a computer screen, showing us all that we can know of the world; and the violent act that is abruptly arrested in midair, permitting us to enjoy a 360-degree view of its superfluity. These emblems of stasis and self-enclosure were first brought together (to the best of my knowledge, and horror) in The Matrix. By now, I must have seen them all another thousand times.
We have left behind the era when Annette Michelson, writing about 2001: A Space Odyssey, could propose that cinema in its essence is a kinesthetic voyage. Today, even if a movie is projected in 3-D and is set aboard the starship Enterprise, the picture rarely draws you into a journey (just the opposite—the images pop out at you, pinning you to your seat), and Captain Kirk goes nowhere except into his own past. That’s the experience as it plays out in theaters. Outside the theaters, where most people now do their viewing, kinesthesia has become utterly impossible, since the screen is no bigger than your hand, or sits in the corner of the living room where you’ve spent eight hours binge-watching House of Cards.
Many observers describe this shift in the culture of moving images as an inevitable result of technological change, which has made it convenient and economical for producers and distributors to convert from a photographic to a digital format. Maybe so; but I think this deterministic analysis probably turns the story on its head. It certainly doesn’t relate technique to content and preference—or attempt to explain, for example, why the eternally plucky Little Tramp has almost disappeared from sight, whereas hundreds of thousands of videos of a miserable-looking cat are posted on YouTube. It seems to me that we have hurried to embrace digital images in their most common forms not because they’re all that’s made available to us, but because we want to stare into our hands and sit inside all night. Is it any wonder? As we live through the Great Rebound, we retreat within, and the moving image comes with us.
* * *
Like all sweeping historical narratives, the one I’ve just sketched out takes account of everything except what’s really interesting—the details. Still, there might be some truth to it, including the escape clause: our present situation is not mandated by technology or anything else. We retain some freedom to choose our future. The question, as always, is what to choose.
I want to be cautious in proposing an answer. The most obvious wish to express in The Nation might be for the industry to welcome a rising proportion of women, queers and people from backgrounds other than European. This would certainly be a tremendous change for the better—but not, perhaps, a radical departure. The trend toward workplace diversity in the moving image, though far from complete and far too late in coming, has been ongoing, more a rolling aftershock of the dual revolution than the eruption of a new phase in history.
I also don’t want to overstate the potential benefits of my choice for cinema’s future. If I should sound as though the culture of moving images can have a solid effect on the world, rather than a wavering influence, I would fall into the peculiar form of exaggeration that substitutes artworks, and arguments about them, for political and social action. Encountered most often in universities and the art-gallery network, this swell-headed insularism seems to me to be another evidence of the collapse of our sense of possibilities, rather than an effective way to open the horizon again.
Finally, I need to acknowledge that the future of the moving image, radical or otherwise, is now being decided by a bunch of 10-year-olds. My ideas won’t greatly affect what they like.
All that said, I offer my prescription anyway, in the conviction that my taste, and yours, can be important. Our tastes give us something that we really care about to discuss with one another. They even help keep alive the old belief—articulated at the height of the dual revolution and still valid today—that we are not the objects of history but its subjects, who deserve a voice. What you and I want for the future of the moving image will make a difference in the world, however uncertain in magnitude—and so I will say that I continue to base my preference on Bazin, and on his excitement about cinema as the approximate realization of a desire.
In our anxiety about death, Bazin thought, we are always trying to grasp at life: its surface appearance, its movement and texture, its abundance. The goal is unattainable, but that doesn’t matter. What counts is that we want to reach out. For this purpose, he wrote, film is especially useful, because its images are traces of the light that has bounced off objects. Film gives us the reassurance of being in physical contact with the world we see on the screen, at however great a remove of space and time.
The transition to digital imagery has severed that contact, but it can’t do away with the desire. Only we can stifle that. If we want a radical future for the moving image, then, and for our world, the first thing we might do is to pick up our heads, turn our eyes outward again (however adverse the circumstances) and trust our urge to hold on to life.
We have held on to death more than enough. Visit that precursor of The Birth of a Nation, the Gettysburg Cyclorama, and you will see how a spectacle from the era of pre-cinema once satisfied the public appetite for funerary monuments. Countless movies, TV shows and video games today continue to cater to that appetite. Think of the raids and battles that are endlessly revisualized as if through a repetition compulsion, the defunct pop stars whose triumphs and demise are dismally “celebrated” over and over, the genocides that are mindlessly re-enacted as plot devices for adventure stories (set in the past or an alternative present, or on the future planet Mongo), the shooter games in which the only real action is to die and go back to the start. Using methods that may be more or less grandiose, with or without zombies in the story arc, a an ongoing line of image-makers has preserved and glorified only the things that are already dead. They’ve never even tried to touch the heart of life as it’s beating.
In a radical future, though, the moving image will capture without mummifying. This is not a prophecy; it’s an observation, drawn from the different possible futures that have already begun. When I started writing about films for The Nation—it was, by chance, around the time when the Great Rebound was making itself felt—I discovered that the people who made me most hopeful were working on, and smudging, the border between fiction and documentary. Chantal Akerman, Su Friedrich, Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Gianni Amelio—to throw out just a handful of names—have made the last two decades of the twentieth century an exciting time to think about the moving image. Did these filmmakers achieve anything beyond a negligible market share? No. Would it be possible, in a cynical mood, to say that I’d bet on the wrong people, because nothing they did back then is now being felt? Of course. The one thing that cynicism is always good for is denial.
And yet the existence of an appetite for life—a large and widely shared appetite—became obvious in 2014, when Richard Linklater came out with Boyhood. Here was a new version of the impossible project, realized more vividly and popularly than ever: a record of the awkward, unpredictable, beautiful maturation of one person’s life, presented within fictional circumstances, but with the actual time of unfolding made as miraculously manifest as if a sweet puff of breath had come off the screen. Audiences were enthralled. Bazin might have wept with joy.
I won’t call on others to copy what Linklater did in Boyhood, because nobody really can. (Besides, imitation is precisely what we don’t need.) I will simply observe that Boyhood shows that a more outgoing, convivial, exploratory and humane future is with us now, and more than a few people want it.
Whether we pursue that desire is up to us. I say let’s boldly go where no one has gone before.