n 1995 the cinema celebrated its 100th birthday. Critics, theorists, historians and even the public at large suddenly focused their attention on the current ‘state of the cinema’. Centenaries bestow a symbolic significance on the centenarian: transitions, upheavals, mutations become visible and debatable. Suddenly, the cinema seemed to age. Furthermore, in the opinion of professional archivists and conservationists, celluloid had proved to be an essentially short-lived material, with chemical decay an inherent part of its physical make-up. According to Paolo Cherchi Usai: ‘Moving image preservation will be redefined as the science of gradual loss and the art of coping with the consequences, very much like a physician who has accepted the inevitability of death even while he fights for the patient’s life.’1
Aged 100, the cinema had also been inevitably affected by the natural mortality of the human figures whose existences it unnaturally preserved. More and more has cinema come to be a memorial to those who personified its modernity, its glamour, its triumph as both a popular form and an art form. The institutions of its maturity had, some time before the centenary, grown old as its stars, directors and production systems retired, died and declined. Chris Petit comments in his video Negative Space
(1999): ‘The cinema is becoming increasingly about what is past. It becomes a mausoleum as much as a palace of dreams.’ As time passes, these ghosts crowd around the cinema as it its own life lies in question and the years around the centenary saw the death of the last great Hollywood stars. In 2004 Marlon Brando followed in the wake of Katherine Hepburn, who followed in the wake of Gregory Peck. To see the star on the screen in the retrospectives that follow his or her death is also to see the cinema’s uncertain relation to life and death. Just as the cinema animates its still frames, so it brings back to life, in perfect fossil form, anyone it has ever recorded, from great star to fleeting extra.
Elegiac reflections on the cinema’s ageing found substance in a more immediate, material and objective change as mechanical and chemical technology gave way, gradually, to the electronic and, more dramatically, to the digital. The year 1997 saw the first marketing of film on digital format.2
The resonance of ageing, and of death, associated with the cinema’s centenary coincided with the arrival of a technology that created a divide between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ media. However significant the development of video had been for film, the fact that all forms of information and communication can now be translated into binary coding with a single system signals more precisely the end of an era. The specificity of cinema, the relation between its material base and its poetics, dissolves while other relations, intertextual and cross-media, begin to emerge. Furthermore, the digital, as an abstract information system, made a break with analogue imagery, finally sweeping away the relation with reality, which had, by and large, dominated the photographic tradition. The sense of the end of cinema was thus complicated aesthetically by a crisis of the photographic sign as index. Although a photograph may have other properties, the physical link between an object caught by a lens and the image left by rays of light on film is the material basis for its privileged relation to reality.
The technological drive towards photography and film had always been animated by the aspiration to preserve the fleeting instability of reality and the passing of time in a fixed image. The problem would always be how to hold on to images made by the concentration of light, how to inscribe their reality indexically and mechanically. Human imagination has always been enthralled by the magical aspect of this kind of mechanical reproduction. Cinema and photography belong to the long tradition of ‘natural magic’, as the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher called his experiments with the camera obscura in the mid-seventeenth century. Kircher had mastered the optics necessary to concentrate rays of light, to project images from the world outside onto a screen inside a darkened room and reverse the inverted image with mirrors. He could show moving images of whatever happened outside, the landscape, sometimes casual passers-by, sometimes staged, complex set pieces. Needless to say, the images could not be fixed or preserved and the camera obscura’s cumbersome technology could not be realized as a medium with actual market potential. In quite another tradition, the magic lantern, with its man-made illusions, captured the early entertainment market and was the main site for the research and development from which the cinema finally emerged. It was the chemical fixing of the optically focused image that enabled the invention of the photograph and ‘natural magic’ swept back into visual culture. Ultimately the legacy of the camera obscura was realized in the cinema, but its images, like photography, unlike the camera obscura, could appear only as the result of a delay, a detour into the chemical process of development and printing. Furthermore, unlike the camera obscura’s actual presentation of reality, of real movement and of the passing of real time, the cinema created an illusion of movement, as a series of stills appear animated at the correct number of frames per second.
Whatever their limitations, photographic machines register the image inscribed by light on photosensitive paper, leaving the trace of whatever comes in front of the lens, whether the most lavishly constructed of sets or the most natural of landscapes. While the photographic machine may reflect and inflect the image as human imagination constructs or desires, it still remains indifferent, a recording mechanism detached from the human eye. In the 1990s digital technology brought back the human element and man-made illusions. The story of mechanical, photographic, reproduction of reality came to an end. The conversion of recorded information into a numerical system broke the material connection between object and image that had defined the earlier history. No longer derived from the chemical reaction between light and photosensitive material, these images lost their ‘natural magic’ and the painterly character of the illusions of the magic lantern, the tradition of human ingenuity, returned to visual culture. Lev Manovich describes this return:
The manual construction of images in digital cinema represents a return to nineteenth century pre-cinematic practices, when images were hand-painted and hand-animated. At the turn of the twentieth century, the cinema was to delegate these techniques to animation and define itself as a recording medium. As cinema enters the digital age, these techniques are again becoming commonplace in the film making process. Consequently, cinema can no longer be distinguished from animation. It is no longer an indexical media technology but, rather, a sub-genre of painting.3
This revolution in image culture and technology might well seem to put the seal of closure on the more amorphous sense of an end signalled by the cinema’s centenary. As Lev Manovich puts it, ‘Cinema is the art of the index; it is an attempt to make art out of a footprint.’4
However lacking in artistic aspiration the footprint may be, as an indexical sign it marks an actual moment in time as well as the shadowy presence of an event as potentially significant, for instance, as Friday’s arrival on Crusoe’s island.
The artist Jeff Wall has brought the ‘manual’ back into his photographic work, while, in a number of his pictures, also incorporating the aesthetic and emotional resonance of the index. In A Sudden Gust of Wind (After Hokusai) (1993), his re-creation of a Hokusai print, he combines a tribute to artists’ longstanding pre-photographic aspiration to capture a precise moment in time with a technique drawn from the more ‘painterly’ potential of the digital. In both pictures, the wind has suddenly caught four passers-by on a little bridge. One turns to watch his hat blow sky high alongside an ‘arabesque’ of floating papers torn from the hands of another. In terms of photographic history, the scene depicts the kind of decisive moment at which a photographer’s eye and a fleeting second of movement are brought together as, for instance, in Cartier-Bresson’s famous photograph of a man caught by the camera as he is reflected in mid-jump over a puddle. At first glance A Sudden Gust of Wind possesses this quality that the Hokusai original aspired to. But on further consideration the photograph seems to go, in a strange way, beyond the instant it represents. It seems to be too visually complex, and too theatrical in its gestures.
Rather than catching a decisive moment, A Sudden Gust of Wind pays tribute to the aesthetic concept of the indexically caught instant through a detour into non-indexical technology. The scene is staged, as though in a tableau, and its details further perfected through digital enhancement. Although this combination of camera and computer is common enough both in contemporary media in general and in Wall’s work in particular, the picture dramatizes the dialogue between the two. Through the very introduction of staging and manipulation, a celebration of photography’s unique inscription of time is turned into a reflection on photographic time, especially its apotheosis as frozen movement. As Wall brings simulation to the aesthetic of reality, he gives the picture a theoretical dimension reflecting a transitional moment in which both technologies coexist, in which the aesthetic of the digital still thinks with the idea of the index. At the same time, with this citation of Hokusai, Wall reaches back to a ‘painterly’, nineteenth-century, depiction of the ‘decisive moment’.
The threat of extinction, of course, draws new attention to the index and its present pathos retrospectively affects the vast body of film and photographic material that has accumulated over the last century and a half. Now, as old films that were conceived and shot on celluloid are re-released in constantly increasing numbers on DVD, the two media, the old and the new, converge. The new technology offers an opportunity to look back to the ‘before’, to the ‘then’ of the indexical image, in the changing light of the ‘after’, the ‘now’. The aesthetics of the past meet the aesthetics of the present, bringing, almost incidentally, new life to the cinema and its history. But this new life (movies reissued and restored, new modes of consumption) also transforms the ways in which old films are consumed. Once upon a time, most people could only watch a movie in the cinema where it was projected at the correct pace for the illusion of movement and according to a given narrative sequence. Now, cinema’s stillness, a projected film’s best-kept secret, can be easily revealed at the simple touch of a button, carrying with it not only the suggestion of the still frame, but also of the stillness of photography. On one side, that of pre-cinema, stands the photograph. The image is still, but, like film, it is indexical. On the other side, that of post-cinema, stands the digital, unlike the cinema in its material composition but able to carry the mechanical, celluloid-based moving image into a multi-media future. But the post-cinematic medium has conjured up the pre-cinematic. Like the central panel of a triptych that has blurred at the edges, the cinema reaches both forwards and backwards. But at point of convergence between the old and the new, the easily accessible freeze frame brings the presence of death back to the ageing cinema. The still, inanimate, image is drained of movement, the commonly accepted sign of life.
Throughout the history of cinema, the stilled image has been contained within the creative preserve of the film-maker, always accessible on the editing table and always transferable into a freeze frame on the screen. It was video, arriving in the late 1970s and gaining ground during the 1980s, that first extended the power to manipulate the existing speed of cinema. Although the instability of the electronic image undercut the exhilaration that these experiments brought with them, the accumulated experience of the last video-dominated decades can be carried into the digital age. But the present context has further heightened the significance of this new interactive spectatorship. A dialectical relationship between the old and new media can be summoned into existence, creating an aesthetic of delay. In the first instance, the image itself is frozen or subjected to repetition or return. But as the new stillness is enhanced by the weight that the cinema’s past has acquired with passing time, its significance goes beyond the image itself towards the problem of time, its passing, and how it is represented or preserved. At a time when new technologies seem to hurry ideas and their representations at full tilt towards the future, to stop and to reflect on the cinema and its history also offers the opportunity to think about how time might be understood within wider, contested, patterns of history and mythology. Out of this pause, a delayed cinema gains a political dimension, potentially able to challenge patterns of time that are neatly ordered around the end of an era, its ‘before’ and its ‘after’. The delayed cinema gains further significance as outside events hasten the disappearance of the past and strengthen the political appropriation of time.
Five years after the cinema’s centenary, another date intervened. The millennium generated a flurry of speculation about temporal markers of a more historical and general kind. Other divisions between past and future, the nature of an era and its end eclipsed the story of the cinema’s demise. Because of the arbitrary, purely mythological significance of the date, the year 2000 always seemed inadequate to sustain the hype that surrounded it. But in other ways the millennium concentrated into itself a widely perceived sense of change that had built up over the previous two decades, for instance the impact of the end of communism, the advance of globalization, the shift in communication technologies, the decline of industry in the developed world. From this perspective, a resonance of change, of breaks with the past, could be associated with the year 2000. The mythology, that is, happened to coincide with a period of accelerated political and economic upheaval and crisis. As Angela Carter had observed with characteristic wit some twenty years earlier, ‘The fin is coming a little early this siècle.’ It only took a subsequent gestation period of a year and nine months for apocalypse to catch up with the millennium. With the events of September 2001 in New York and Washington, DC, the indistinct sense of foreboding that belonged to the year 2000 found an emblematic embodiment. Politicians, journalists and cultural commentators of all kinds argued that the world had been irrevocably changed. The threads of continuity woven through twentieth-century history and modernity that had been loosened over its last decades by theories of postmodernism and ‘the end of history’ seemed definitively cut. The twentieth century receded even more rapidly into the past, out of synchrony with the newly configured present. This linear concept of time attempts to divest itself of past residues, overtly wiping clean the slate of history even as earlier eras struggle to survive.
The question of how history acquires pattern and shape has political significance and the rush of new technology towards the future, its indifference to the past, may fall into step with the new conservatism. In this context, the cinema, rather than simply reaching the end of its era, can come to embody a new compulsion to look backwards, to pause and make a gesture to delay the combined forces of politics, economics and technology. The cinema’s recent slide backward into history can, indeed, enable this backward look at the twentieth century. In opposition to a simple determinism inherent in the image of a void between the ‘before’ and the ‘after’ of an era that had suddenly ended, the cinema provides material for holding onto and reflecting on the last century’s achievements as well as learning from its catastrophes. To turn to the past through the detour of cinema has a political purpose. Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinéma (1998), his extraordinary reflection on the cinema’s own history, entwined with its recording of the history of the twentieth century, is emblematic of such a move. He produced Histoire(s) during the transitional period of the 1980s and ‘90s, working with different technologies and aesthetics, reflecting on cinema as an art and as popular culture, as politics and as industry. But, most particularly, Godard draws attention to the stretch of celluloid imagery across the twentieth century, its presence as an inscription of history, even through its silences, distortions, repressions. The history of the Histoire(s) does not produce cinema as history pure and simple, but as raw material that can be the site of reflection and contestation.
Antoine de Becque sees Godard’s work as a fitting end to a twentieth century that, he argues, began with The Train Entering the Station (Lumière Brothers 1895). ‘If you haven’t seen Histoire(s), you’ve missed the century’s exit’, and he continues:
this is the ultimate lesson to be learnt from Histoire(s):
the imaginary museum is also an embodied museum, i.e., the cinema has made flesh the history of the century. It could also take ideas, references, works, concepts so as to enable the century to think. It is an embodied body and a corpus: for the century, cinema has been and is still a tangible surface revealing history and the knowledge of where to seek its great representations.5
But de Becque’s pattern of the century could be reformulated, placing Histoire(s) rather as a new beginning, prefiguring ways in which cinema will increasingly become a source of collective memory of the twentieth century for those who missed living through it.
Eric Hobsbawm describes the point at which personal memory disappears into history as the ‘twilight zone’.6
On celluloid, personal and collective memories are prolonged and preserved, extending and expanding the ‘twilight zone’, merging individual memory with recorded history. The passing of time affects the cinema, and the presence of the past, even in a fiction film, may suddenly distract the spectator fr...