Friday, October 05, 2007

the idea of cinema

Cinema’s central paradox is that film is both the most realistic of media and the most fantastic. On the one hand, the moving image possesses unrivalled documentary capabilities: it records a vision of reality more accurately and more objectively than any other medium; its inscription is both machinic and indexical, constituting what is by now an immense historical archive of the past hundred years or so, ensuring that this past cinematographic century is by far the most documented, and the most realistically documented, of all the centuries of human civilization. On the other hand, film is also the perfect vehicle through which we can act out or inhabit other-worldly fantasies: special effects and now computer generated imagery mean that not even the sky is the limit; the cinema can and does take us out into space or beyond the realms of human exploration; it gives us monsters and wonders; it transports both far into the future and back to the past, re-imagining history and even pre-history for a counter-factual glance at what might have been. Film is both firmly anchored in the real and set loose in fantasy. This is its great power, but also its great danger: the cinema can bring the real fantastically close, as well as bring fantasy close to reality. In this paper I explore how the genre of the “snuff film” promises to suture this cinematic paradox, reconciling reality with fantasy, and also how it fails to make good on that promise. Snuff, I claim, is the absent center at the heart of cinematic production. Snuff is literally a utopian genre: a non-place in which all differences would be reconciled. But I show also that this utopia has a very material location, in a Latin American setting that constitutes the essential supplement for the very idea of cinema.

the history of an idea

The dichotomy between realism and fantasy, and the hopes and anxieties to which it gives rise, have structured the cinematic medium from its very outset. Consider cinema’s double birth with the Lumière brothers and Georges Méliès. The former incarnated film’s documentary ambitions, with shorts such as Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory or Baby’s Meal. What could be more mundane or more fully rooted in everyday life? The Lumières advanced the notion of film as a work of mechanical reproduction, that enables its viewers to relive a reality that already exists, to step into someone else’s well-worn shoes. Méliès, by contrast, showed the possibilities of film as a canvas for increasingly extravagant and spectacular production and innovation. He both took us on A Trip to the Moon and gave us a peek into The House of Devil. What could be more exciting or more of a distraction from everyday drudgery? And ever since, in the decades of film history that have intervened from the era of the Lumières and Méliès to the present, narrative and spectacle, a cinema vérité and a cinema of attractions, have been in constant tension and competition. Today to some extent this same tension spreads across the entire audiovisual spectrum: to entice us to the big screen, mainstream cinema gives us ever more convincing special effects, while Reality TV or the blurry video provided by camera phones or CCTV suggest that no area of ordinary life goes unrecorded. At the same time, even in this ever wider division of cinematic labor, spectacular fantasy shows that it cannot quite do without prosaic narrative, however bare-boned: in The Lord of the Rings, for instance, legions of Orcs and Elves are summoned on screen by the need to find a lost piece of jewelry. And equally, the panopticon of mundane surveillance throws up images that play into our deepest fears and fantasies: the shopping-center security camera shot of James Bulger’s child killers, for example, quickly became engrained in Great Britain’s anxious imagination.

For there is also always a slippage between the two poles of the cinematic antithesis pitting reality against fantasy, and this has also haunted film history and reception. Ever since the Lumières screened Arrival of a Train at a Station, causing so the story goes its audience to run out of building in panic, it has been obvious that film can seem so over-poweringly real that it overpowers the real itself. Cinema’s power resides in the fact that it can decisively impress in us the truth of what it represents. But this same power deceitfully leads us to take the image of reality for reality itself, to mistake a moving picture for a train. Hence cinema’s stupendous reality effect is also its great danger: it threatens to conjure up a world of simulations in which we can no longer distinguish reality from representation, in which we doubt even ourselves as we are no longer ever truly able to believe our own eyes. Cinema makes believers of us all, but by the same token it also makes us cynics. We are too used to being duped. Accustomed as we are to the way in which cinema can pull the wool over our eyes, we endlessly see wool even where there is none. Hence the attraction of conspiracy theories, even or perhaps especially around some of the most well-documented of events. September 11, 2001, for instance: we have all seen the footage of the planes hitting the twin towers and their subsequent collapse; many millions saw them fall live and in real time on television. But still the rumor spreads, fostered often by close analysis of the video record itself, that this was just the most spectacular of special effects. Cinema has bred a generation of eagle-eyed critics, who ironically base their suspicion of the stories it weaves on the tell-tale discrepancies they claim to see in its visual narrative.

More... (.pdf document)

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