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.