The author and film critic Bert Rebhandl on cinema as centenary installation
Oh Darkness, oh Please Protect
In September 2017, I was standing in front of a movie theater in Toronto, waiting for the last film that I wanted to see at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Admittance was delayed, and soon the start of the movie would be half an hour late. Finally someone walked out of the theater and announced that Woman Walks Ahead, a Western with Jessica Chastain, could not be shown this afternoon. There were problems with the so-called DCP (digital cinema package). Then the cinema director said something that particularly caught my attention: “The guys are working on it from California.”
Rarely have I experienced in a more clear and concrete way how strongly cinema has changed through the digitalization of its technological guise. The incident in Toronto is analogous to a circumstance that used to count among the repertoire of festival problems: “The print didn’t arrive on time.” The transition from distribution to diffusion, and from materiality to virtuality, made possible by digitalization, was especially evident in the tangible chance of even cutting one’s finger on a celluloid strip when touching it in a clumsy way.
When digitalization in the form of the Internet (and I am using this term here in the most general sense as an opportunity for global data networking under almost real-time conditions) passed from the realm of specialists into mass culture in the mid-1990s, had an ironic effect on cinema. It was, incidentally, in parallel to the celebrations and reflections of “100 years of cinema” in the year 1995 that the prognoses also increased about an “end” to cinema (as media format, as “dispositif”) already being foreseeable—or at least a change provoking a pause of waiting to see what, after that, could even be still called cinema.
But even if the end of cinema were actually imminent, it would still be necessary to determine what is to remain of it. The model of transferring holdings in business and even the process of inheritance within a family under private law offer insightful analogies. When a company changes hands, there is always a certain outlook being transferred at the same time: in the worst-case scenario only a state of bankruptcy remains; in other cases, more substance is maintained (this term, so central to occidental ontology, is very telling); in the ideal case there is a flourishing company with potential for expansion. The financial figures do not really provide information about which products led to the result. When it comes to private inheritance, a differentiation is frequently made between liquid and immobile assets, with question of substance and ephemerality arising here as well.
Cinema also had something in common with a major technological aspect from the nineteenth century, the rail industry: it was essentially based on a single infrastructure. What transportation policy still struggles to resolve (division of network and enterprise, right?) has long since been answered for cinema thanks to the global data network, for there we find, in principle, an equality of content (net neutrality). But even now it is predictable that (both state and global-economic) monopolistic tendencies in the Internet context might someday also apply to the character of the central “product” of cinema: the films for which cinema united a recording technique with a projection method. A social space for moving images—that would be one of the briefest specifications of what cinema is. Within a breathtakingly short period the material status of moving images was so resolutely converted to digital recording techniques that film as material and carrier medium has become a medium for connoisseurs—similar to vinyl in the field of audio media. The social space of cinema, in turn, is currently being redefined, so that it is reasonable to say that “cinema” is presently undergoing an overall transformation, with the issue being not a mere matter of adaptation, but also of substance. Quite simply, the question is whether, in the near future, the term “cinema” will even still correspond to something that is not classified as a relic.
Here, constellations keep reappearing that already existed in the very early days of cinema, and we seem to be heading in the same direction again today: the new devices (mobile phones, tablets, and even laptops and desktop computers) clearly correspond to the peep boxes that were replaced in the late nineteenth century by cinematographers and by cinema itself. At the time, the Lumière brothers seemed to have enjoyed a historic victory over the American all-round inventor Thomas Edison, yet today we are starting to realize that them too, merely initiated a single chapter in the long media history of humanity. Edison’s model anticipated an individualized audience, while the solution sought by the Lumière brothers created a collective audience and allowed cinema to become the epitome of a mass medium.
As such, it passed through a history in which different realizations of the cinematic concept are discernible. One of the most powerful is the classicism model by André Bazin, a French critic and theorist who, in the 1940s and 1950s, looked back on American cinema from his perspective of a Catholicism-permeated phenomenology. Bazin set the date of 1937 as the year that Hollywood had reached its zenith of classicism. In this case, Bazin had the usual criteria of occidental aesthetics in mind, but with his remark made en passant he was suggesting that this idea of a harmonious integration of perceiving and limiting reality (framed within a field of visibility—en champ) had to do with another integration that cinema transferred, modeled after a factory, into a perfectly fine-tuned chain of production and analysis. Hollywood anno 1937 (or, in a broader sense, in its “golden” era, which is said to have lasted into the late 1950s) was an assembly line enterprise, which owned the stores where the goods were being sold at the very same time.
The crux of the matter for the classicism model: it is based on correlations in various categories. The classical adaequatio of form and content (adopted from traditional ontology with its binary logics of potentiality and action, as well as matter and form) related here both to the analogue recording medium and its translation into a largely standardized form of narrative film as well as its analysis in a daily series of showings almost all over the country—showings that were visited as if in a theater, and where the title of the current feature (an outstanding example from the year 1937 is The Awful Truth by Leo McCarey) was more of a guarantee for the standard to be expected than for an individual sensation. Classical Hollywood associated the logics of commodity culture (similarity among products, reliability of brand names) with the logics of repertoire production as known from the contexts of theater and opera. The new films formed a continuous repertoire, even if they in fact soon disappeared again. All this served to perpetuate production cycles (careers of stars, blossoming genres).
From today’s perspective, this classicism model is so clearly contoured mostly because it was representational to an extreme degree—on all operative levels it equated to the fictional world of something physical. The fictional world of the narrative itself was highly real, was illuminated with heavy equipment, and was, in any case, augmented by a few special effects, which arouse interest still today simply because they are analogue (for example, matte painting, and “illusionistic” painting techniques that play with the different depths in the visual field of camera optics).
Found here are the fundaments for diverse retro-interests that were later to make precisely the representational facet of cinema the subject of delight. One might almost say that, from today’s perspective, it is exactly this theatrical aspect of cinema that receives increased symbolic attention. This pertains, for example, to all forms of costumes which today count among the most important artifacts in all film museums that, rather than focusing on exhibiting (that is, on showing) films, basically present cinema in the very representationalism which has successively lost meaning for film history itself. To the degree that the filmic image no longer had to be an analogue “imprint” of a fiction previously produced in real life, the realities of cinema gained value as memorabilia.
Correspondingly, this also applies to the spaces themselves in which films are screened. Although today’s emphasis is placed primarily on technical equipment, which not least ensures an acoustic experience, the cinematic spaces of the “representational” era were, in a sense, dressed up. The curtain was particularly important, for it elevated movie palaces to the level of theater and opera halls. As compared to present-day functional auditoriums, the movie palaces of the 1920s were likewise functional premises, however this was more of a social function—it served to localize the medium in the new societies, especially urban ones, spawned by the twentieth century.
An especially interesting trail as to where cinema now “remains” leads from Bazin’s classicism model to the altered equivalents for which Susan Sontag coined the term “camp.” In classical Hollywood cinema (or in classical Japanese studio cinema, associated especially with the directors Mikio Naruse and Kenji Mizoguchi), the fictional world was ultimately always built around a concept of individuality: there was a correlation between public and stars that certainly remained in place even across historical intervals (sixteenth-century Japan, the Western in America). The early days of pop culture threw this model into crisis, for now new forms of dissidence and deviance started emerging. Camp reflects an attempt to give these revaluations a conceptual framework.
In transgressive films like those of Jack Smith or Kenneth Anger, cinema itself takes on the characters of a fetish in all its mediality and with its symbolic system (first and foremost the star aura, of course), while in what at first glance are deemed “bad” films something of the Bazinian adaequatio is preserved in principle. The famous example of saucers, which in some science-fiction films had to represent extraterrestrial spacecraft, pays reference to a representationalism that is serious and funny at once—and that, especially in view of the limitless imagination of “science fiction” which became possible later, were playfully given a critical proportionality. The makeshift technology used in so many films, especially those of the 1950s, which today are considered cult films, was later reconfigured in film aficionado mode.
However, this reenactment through homages with variably pronounced ironic gestures prove, on the whole, to be more of a substantiation of a dispositive tie between medium and audience, which in its analogue expansions constitutes a significant part of what cinema was during the twentieth century. Against this backdrop, two objects in the exhibition The Remains of Cinema at Künstlerhaus Graz may be highlighted as especially important: the leather jacket of Kurt Kren and Jörg Buttgereit’s film Schramm (1993).
For the Austrian avant-garde filmmaker Kurt Kren, the leather jacket that he usually wore was more than just a comfortable item of clothing. It was also a symbol that distinguished him as a representative of a certain generation, and as a crossover artist between the two worlds of experimental and traditional culture, which after 1945 had also combined to create an American-influenced West in terms of everyday culture. With such a leather jacket, whose most famous wearers in terms of cultural history were Marlon Brando and James Dean (or John Wayne, of course, in the context of Westerns), Kurt Kren identified himself as someone who may have been making experimental films, but who was also referencing the greater (traditional) system of cinema, which, in terms of his own habitus, he cited as popular mythology. While Peter Kubelka, for example, who also exhibited his film Arnulf Rainer (1960) as object (that is, as celluloid strip), evoked in his aspect the functional logic of high modernism (which simultaneously neutralized the individual, and then again emphasized scope of originality all the more), Kren with his leather jacket kept this implied priesthood of high culture at bay and remained clearly within the realm of cinema.
The brain from the horror-film homage Schramm by Jörg Buttgereit, finally, references what is perhaps the most important aspect of representationalism in cinema: as a constellation or installation, it connects the body with the imaginary and thus also with the logics of the controlling entity of the imaginary. The brain is the organ that already considers the body itself to be an installation, which in many ways, with its connection between interior space and the world, correlates with the installation and constellation of cinema. For the “remains” of cinema, one might conclude, from the specimen that Buttgereit lays next to the face (the picture of personality), that a—if not the most important—trajectory of cinema cultivates precisely this relationship, spanning the greatest possible representational constellation of “psychophysical” subjectivity to arrive at the greatest possible abstraction conceivable in the future (de-substantiation). The head covered by a data helmet would then be the symbol of an exposure of the brain concealed underneath—detached from all sensory impression and, although protected by the skeleton, de facto exposed—that we really can imagine being “next to” the face—on which, then, “guys from California” can work.
The view of a brain resting exposed in the open is offensive in a way similar to a view of genitals. For ages there has been a huge industry formed around the elimination of the latter taboo. But for the former, the taboo of the brain, the corresponding pornography is lacking. Jörg Buttgereit, with his lovingly crafted major organ, has illustrated in particular how reliant on protection the neurological center of the human body really is. And perhaps someday we will come to understand this centenary installation of cinema—which moved people to create bodily collectives with different dreams of visual events on screens—as a great protective guard for the most fragile human organ. And thus for humans themselves.
Translated by Dawn Michelle d’Atri
Johann Lurf , Twelve Tales Told, 2014
film still, Courtesy the artist