Search for flickers of meaning

The Cinema Effect
July 2, 2004

Sean Cubitt, professor of screen and media studies at the University of Waikato in New Zealand, has written a book that, in reflecting on what it is that cinema does, rather than what cinema is, offers a unique interpretation of film history, drawing on disciplines as varied as mathematics, history, computer science, sociology and film studies.

Seeking to reconcile the psychoanalytical wing of film theory that considered the play of cinema and subjectivity, the tradition of Christian Metz and Laura Mulvey, with the phenomenological wing that treats relations between images, following Gilles Deleuze, Cubitt looks across cinema's first century from the perspective of the digital era in search of nothing less than explanations of the effects of images and sounds as they flicker across the screen.

The chapter on "Pioneer cinema" offers a rich examination of cinema's early history amid the social, political and philosophical context of late modernity. "The ensemble of economics, technology, and the anarchic modes of Lyons syndicalism, Parisian bohemianism... combine to form the apparatus of cinema." Cubitt introduces Indian director Dundiraj "Dadasaheb" Phalke, scarcely acknowledged in the West, who, though influenced by "trick film" pioneer Georges Meli s yet countered the dialectics of modernity with fables of religious mythology.

"Normative cinema" takes up Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky , an example of "total film" in which the audience is passive before a mythos with totalising ideological implications. Cubitt contrasts the Eisenstein of Stalinist projects such as Nevsky with the Eisenstein of the 1920s, whose montage experiments demanded an intellectually engaged spectator.

As with the classical Hollywood of, say, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, total cinema is ahistorical, a message abstracted from the realm of experience to bolster the ideology of the day.

By contrast, Renoir's The Rules of the Game confronts the spectator with an orchestration of space and time that encourages a more heterogeneous reading of human interactions. The Hollywood studio picture of the Depression years - Cubitt draws on RKO's output - becomes an alluring set of surfaces into which reality never intervenes.

In "Postcinema", Cubitt misses the cinema's critical reflection on experience. Yet he feels digital simulation can play the role once played by art and philosophy, despite the divorce of traditional meaning-bearing signs from the experience represented. In what was perhaps the final instance of old-style textual critique, Sam Peckinpah's post-classical western autopsy in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid anticipates the multiculturalism of contemporary America.

Of contemporary cinema, Cubitt reiterates the simultaneously superficial and layered appeals of mainstream Hollywood. Hollywood can comfort or it can provoke.

Yet always there is the attempt to challenge the spectacle from within.

Spectacle may be spectacular, but we must believe that there is truth here too. Hence, the search for the real behind The Matrix , while in Contact (1997) Ellie Arroway eventually fetches up on a beach where she meets her dead father. If Renoir invited us to arbitrate, now we are invited in as collaborators. And no matter how digitised the world, love, home and nature are still at the end of the rainbow.

Cubitt clearly relishes computer-generated imagery, placing faith in its regenerative powers. But how far are Hollywood's digital redemptions from the totalising zeal of Nevsky defeating the Teutonic knights for Stalin? Ultimately, digital cinema's abstraction from the real has epistemological and ethical implications that Cubitt does not get to grips with. It would have been interesting to look at the history of how counter-cinemas shape experience. Still, teachers and students from across the humanities and beyond will derive much from this provocative and strenuously researched book.

Richard Armstrong is an associate tutor affiliated to the British Film Institute.

The Cinema Effect

Author - Sean Cubitt
Publisher - MIT Press
Pages - 456
Price - £25.95
ISBN - 0 262 03312 7

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