The title of Laura Mulvey's elegiac book appropriates Jean-Luc Godard's famous definition of film as "truth 24 times a second". Even as it revitalises the past, the cinema, Mulvey recounts, is always rushing toward disappearance, its images fleeting and ill-fated.
To be sure, mainstream cinema seeks to disavow this fatality through narratives that promise more than evanescence. The fiction film animates and mythologises the everyday world as if to imply that mere facticity can be transcended: stillness becomes motion, figures from the past are given a new present, a new presence. Nonetheless, the stories always end; the film always has to run out of the projector. There is a mortality in cinema - of the subjects it renders, of its own material support (the celluloid that is being replaced by virtual images of the electronic realm) and of the art form itself, which can seem old-fashioned in the speed-up, information overload age of new digital media.
At the very least, however, it might be possible to delay both the inexorable flow of images and cinema's own flow into obsolescence. Even as digital technologies supplant film, film gains new life in new ways of seeing. For example, Mulvey notes, DVDs allow viewers to slow a film's unfolding to create visual experiences that may focus playfully on special details, particularly resonant sights, submerged rhythms of bodily movement and so on. These new technologies encourage what Mulvey terms the "possessive spectator" who hones in fetishistically on personalised visual pleasures (for example, freeze-frames of a beloved star). But they also enable the "pensive spectator" who slows the film so as to reason and reflect, whether on cinema's own nature or on questions of the social world that lies beyond filmic images. Thus, in a wonderful close analysis, Mulvey slowly parses the opening of Douglas Sirk's 1950s racial melodrama Imitation of Life to read how it choreographs a complex world of racial interactions redolent of the social history of the times.
Mulvey, who is herself an experimental film-maker, treats various cinematic avant-gardes - such as Soviet revolutionary Dziga Vertov's kino-eye efforts in the 1920s - as a tradition of modernist investigation into questions of duration, rhythm, narrativity and closure. New technologies such as DVD democratise this avant-garde impulse by permitting everyday spectators to view films anew and with creative freedom.
At the same time, Mulvey argues that within cinema's history, certain key works seemingly from within the realm of narrative fiction actually pushed up against narrativity to offer temporal experimentation rather than straightforward storytelling. Mulvey provides extended readings of three such works: Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho , Roberto Rossellini's Viaggio in Italia ( Journey to Italy ) and Abbas Kiarostami's Koker trilogy. Each, in its own way, uses slowness and stasis to take reflexive distance from mainstream story form. For instance, Psycho stops its first narrative movement dead (pun intended) and shifts from forward-moving road movie (Marion Crane's car speeding her towards her destiny) to one concerned with obsessive and more circular investigation of home as uncanny space (in the literal Freudian sense of the heimlich that becomes unheimlich ).
Film is a nostalgic art that invites reflection on lost pasts. But that very invitation confirms cinema's pertinence to modernity. In our frenetic sound-bite society, cinematic examinations of duration, whether in films themselves or imported into them by the slowness and stasis that digital technologies offer, allow the art form to mediate our world in ways that can help us meditate on it in these pressing political times. Despite the melancholy in cinema's encounters with a fleeting past, the prospects opened up by filmic slowness are, for Mulvey, productive of optimism.
Dana Polan is professor in the department of cinema studies, New York University.
Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image
Author - Laura Mulvey
Publisher - Reaktion
Pages - 216
Price - £14.95
ISBN - 1861892632