SCMS response

Here is my response to the SCMS panel this afternoon on “primordigital cinema,” with talks by Jonathan Freedman, Richard Grusin, and Selmin Kara. Grusin’s paper is available at

All three of these papers point to ways in which the new is never entirely new, but always involves a return to – and what Grusin calls a remediation of – the old. Technological transformation calls forth what Grusin in his paper calls atavism. Digital technologies have at this point entirely displaced the older technological bases of the cinema; this has led both to new forms and new sorts of content, but also to the surprising revival of older forms, contents, and techniques. Sometimes these revivals and remediations involve a nostalgic hearkening back to what has been displaced or lost; but at other times, we may see them as necessary or unavoidable consequences of the very process of social and technological change. All three of these papers consider, and shed interesting light upon, such mixed cases.

I think that Marshall McLuhan still provides us with the best framework for understanding such transformations. So I will use McLuhan’s schema in order to consider what we have learned from these three papers. McLuhan identified four tendencies, or what he called “laws of media”: four ways in which a new medium, technology artifact relates to its environment. This environment consists, in fact, of the older media, technologies, and artifacts that are in process of being displaced by the new. McLuhan describes the four tendencies as follows; each one provides a series of questions that we may ask:

  • ENHANCEMENT: “What does the artefact enhance or intensify or make possible or accelerate?”
  • OBSOLESCENCE: “What is pushed aside crobsolesced by the new ‘organ’?”
  • RETRIEVAL: “What recurrence or retrieval of earlier actions and services is brought into play simultaneously by the new form? What older, previously obsolesced ground is brought back and inheres in the new form?”
  • REVERSAL: “When pushed to the limits of its potential, the new form will end to reverse what had been its original characteristics. What is the reversal potential of the new form?”

All of these films suggest a progressive movement of enhancement and forced obsolesence of previous modes, and an atavistic retrieval of such modes and reversal back into them, all at once.

Jonathan Freedman untangles the ambiguities of digital cinema in his discussion of INGLORIOUS BASTERDS and HUGO. Quentin Tarantino uses computer-generated imagery precisely in order to celebrate the power of per-computerized, analog movie technology. The power of the old, analog cinematic image is celebrated in BASTERDS in “the shot of Shoshona’s disembodied face projected, ghostlike after her death onto the flame-engulfed theater”; this spectral image proclaims revenge even as the movie theater bursts into flame due to the combustibility of celluloid; so Tarantino both celebrates the power of celluloid, and portrays its destruction. Similarly, in HUGO, Martin Scorsese recreates George Melies’ lost or ruined films by means of 3D digital rendering. In both cases, new media technologies ironically allow the films’ directors to RETRIEVE certain of the lost powers of an older cinema. Digital film ENHANCES the powers of spectacle that already belonged to an older cinema; more specifically, it RETRIEVES the “cinema of attractions” that was made obsolete by conventional (classical) narrative (as well as certain old technologies, e.g. the hand-cranked projector –cf. Tony Scott’s use of hand-cranked cameras).

What is OBSOLESCED in this process, however, is a certain measure of naturalism or realism, or representational accuracy. This erasure of actuality, as a result of the new cinema’s ability to impose its own imagined events without impediment, potentially even reaches the dimension of historical falsification – this is the reason for Freedman’s worry about how BASTERDS achieves its fantasy of revenge against, and defeat of, the Nazis at the price of repressing the actual horrors of the Holocaust. He is less concerned with Scorsese’s mystification of early film history, because this doesn’t have the same ethical weight as Holocaust revisionism. But it still participates in what Freedman calls “the effacement of the signs of history by means of the perfections of digital technology.”

I am sensitive to Freedman’s point here, even if I am not as worried by the ethical and political consequences of this sort of “revisionism” and historical oblivion as he is. This is because I think that our new digital powers to alter historical images at will does not just mean a falsification of memory. But rather this transformation is one part of a whole new articulation of both (collective) historicity and (individual) memory: one that is no longer based in the sense of deep time, or of the density of Bergsonian duration, as was the case for much of the 20th century. David Rodowick deplores what he sees as the loss of duration in digital cinema, just as Fredric Jameson, more generally, criticizes the ways in which the spatialization enforced by postmodernity leads to a loss of history, since now all past moments are equally available for appropriation, outside of sequence, in a sort of eternal present, and with their import reduced to the status of commodified cliches. But it seems to me – and Jameson in certain moods would probably even agree – that this needs to be seen as an ambiguous situation rather than as a decline of formerly available powers. It is the terrain on which, for both good and ill, our political and cultural interventions need to operate.

In this regard, I would contrast INGLORIOUS BASTERDS with another Jewish revenge fantasy – one of its evident sources – that imagines Hitler killed prematurely, so that not only are the Nazis defeated, but the worst horrors of the Holocaust are, as it were, retrospectively averted in advance. I refer, of course, to Jerry Lewis’s 1970 film WHICH WAY TO THE FRONT?, which has no compunctions about transforming the traumas of the War into kitsche. In this film, Lewis’ character impersonates a German General and thereby manages to kill Hitler during the Allied invasion of Italy – hence well before D-Day. Despite its much earlier date than Tarantino’s film, and consequent much less technologically advanced use of (analog) special effects, Lewis’ film already takes for granted the “postmodern” image of history deplored by Jameson. But Lewis’ historical revisionism operates according to far different codes than that of Tarantino (comedy instead of war/macho cliches), to better and more progressive effect. I would even claim that Lewis’ film, despite its temporal priority, can be seen as the tendential REVERSAL of Tarantino’s digital reworking of history. (As perhaps THE ERRAND BOY is in relation to Scorsese’s nostalgic re-creation of early cinema).

Richard Grusin’s talk convincingly rereads Lars von Trier’s MELANCHOLIA as a kind of mourning for the death of cinema. Grusin refers specifically to the death of an atavistic cinema of attractions, and suggests that the film refuses the audiovisual practices of contemporary “fast” cinema. I am not sure I agree entirely with this, since the first half of the film involves a Dogme95-style nervous handheld camera. (Does photographic cinema equate with the primitive cinema of attractions?).

But in any case, the apocalypse figured in the film is also, or perhaps even primarily, a self-reflexive technological one. Grusin thereby reworks my own reading of MELANCHOLIA, by pointing to aspects of the film that I overlooked. Von Trier, in effect, uses digital technologies – especially in the film’s Overture and in its imaging of the planet Melancholia coming towards and finally obliterating the Earth – in order to OBSOLESCE the myths of progressivism that were central to 20th century filmic narrative. He mourns the death of cinema by proleptically welcoming this death and finding it a source of comfort, and an opportunity to act humanely – as it is for Justine within the film. In this way, the film remediates, or RETRIEVES, a kind of archaic pictorialism that is found in images reaching back to the very birth of cinema (of a cinema largely of attractions) – and beyond this as well, to various pre- and anti-modernist visual sources. The affective “pull” of cinema is ENHANCED at the very moment of its disappearance – which is dramatized in the film by the way the end of the film, or of any film, is synchronized with the end of cinema itself. The end of the story is synchronized with the vanishing of the cinematic image.

In place of Grusin’s reference to the Lumiere Bros’ “Arrival of the Train,” and to the final shot of “The Great Train Robbery,” I would rather recall Godard’s WEEKEND, whose final title reads, instead of the usual FIN, rather FIN DU CINEMA. In 1968, Godard felt that he had exhausted the possibilities of cinema, both formally and politically. Recall that Godard also said that a film must have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order.

Despite the militant Maoism to which Godard aspired at the time, I think that one can find a despair here that von Trier RETRIEVES in a depressive (instead of angrily nihilistic) mode. In this case, the REVERSAL is a kind of (implicitly endless) living-on of the very scene of catastrophic obliteration. By aestheticizing the disaster in this lyrical way, i.e. by using his digital special-effects technology to give us delicate double-moonlight and double-shadow effects, in contast to the FX apocalypse porn of so many other films, von Trier manages to find a sort of comfort in this final destruction precisely by lingering over it at the culminating or liminal point of its advent. And this means a kind of REVERSAL of the very apocalyptic culmination that he is mourning and deploring: which is precisely the way that the new digital technologies incorporate the atavistic.

Selmin Kara’s account of THE TREE OF LIFE, BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, and (to a lesser extent) NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT, directly links these films’ technological innovations – and especially the FX sequences of extinct life forms in the first two of these films – to the metaphysical questions that they raise. These films both involve the sort of ways that, as Lev Manovich has recently argued (in contrast to his earlier position) the digital enhances – rather than negates or substitutes for – the analog realism of traditional cinematography.

If these FX inserts are jarring to some audiences, because the compromise the otherwise-maintained sense of naturalism in the films’ depictions of families and their losses, Kara shows that these technological ENHANCEMENTS also work to disturb, and indeed to OBSOLESCE, the humanistic pieties that the films might otherwise seem concerned to maintain. They combine human an nonhuman temporalities. Both films RETRIEVE the sense of what Quentin Meillassoux calls “ancestrality,” or the primordial insistence of that which is irreducible to the human, since we cannot apprehend it even as a past presence; it is rather something that never was and never could have been present, never had the possibility of being “given” to an apprehending consciousness, since it absolutely precedes the existence of any such consciousness.

The crucial ambiguity of these films has to do with the way that this absolute antecedence is nonetheless “given” to us in a certain sense, through the “perceptual realism” of the computer-generated imagery, and through what Kara calls both films’ palpable “nostalgia for a proto-digital sense of naturalism.” I myself have no problems with speaking of speculative realism, despite the fact that the term has been criticized and rejected by the original participants.

Formally, TREE OF LIFE remediates, or works as a sort of remake of, Tarkovsky’s MIRROR. And the CGI sequence of creation and the dinosaurs seems to emulate Kubrick’s 2001. But, despite the atavistic reversion to the creation or origin of the universe, Malick’s film has a much lessened sense of thick temporality than Tarkovsky’s does. The scrambling of scenes via disjunctive editing has a thinness compared to Tarkovksy’s time traveling. It also entirely lacks the cynicism (if that is the word) with which Kubrick treats Arthur C. Clarke’s vision of cosmic evolution – despite the fact that Malick refers to Darwinian evolution as well as to Christian creationism. Unlike Kara, I don’t really see a “thanatological” alternative to Christian eschatology here. I don’t necessarily mean to imply that these are artistic failings; it has to do rather with the changes in our very conceptualization of temporality that I have already mentioned.

I think, actually, that this is more ambiguous than Kara says, since to my eyes the CGI doesn’t entirely succeed in its pseudo-naturalism, but retains a certain “uncanny valley” feeling to it. In this way, I think, the films in question (and Malick’s in particular) raise the question of the nonhuman that has become so urgent in contemporary speculative realism, and engage in salutary speculation – but also that they RETRIEVE, or retreat back to, the sort of existential sense of finitude that is precisely what Meillassoux and Brassier reject – Brassier in particular criticizes the adequacy of Nietzsche’s and Heidegger’s stances towards death. Malick’s film seems to me to recuperate the nonhuman temporality of cosmic origins into human terms. The question that for me still remains unanswered is to what sort of REVERSAL the tendencies of these at once forward-looking and atavistic films might lead.