Category Archives: Senses of Cinema, Functions of Film

On Space and Seeing: Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life

by Lois Barnett

Writing from a sociological perspective in 2004, Richard Leppert describes modern life as indexbeing ‘marked and defined by an obsession with ‘evidence’, visual culture and personal visibility’ (2004: 19). Although Leppert’s understanding devised in accordance with a more contemporary context only nine years ago, his observations are concurrent with thought emerging both earlier in the discourse of modernity and in its later academic discussion, highlighting the longevity of these qualities which persist into the present day. These three concepts – a thirst for recorded proof and ‘evidence’, an emphasis on the visual and the rise of individualistic sentiment within an emergent mass culture – are fundamental attributes of the role played by cinema in the formation of modernity. Leo Charney and Vanessa R. Schwarz describe ‘a developing mass audience,’ motivated by the desire to ‘freeze fleeting distractions and evanescent sensations’ via the visual methods facilitated by the ‘talismanic innovations…the telegraph and telephone, railroad and automobile, photograph and cinema’ (1995: 1-3).  Charney and Schwarz conclude that ‘modernity can be best understood as inherently cinematic’ (1995: 1-3).

… the cinema formed a crucible for ideas, techniques, and representational strategies already present in other places…a specific culture of the cinematic emerged from – yet also ran parallel to – other transformations associated with modernity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in such countries as France, Germany, England, Sweden and the United States. (Charney and Schwarz 1995: 1-3).

The concept of ‘an obsession with ‘evidence’’ is also prevalent in the work of German philosopher Edmund Husserl, who argues that:

With the beginning of modern times, religious belief was becoming more and more externalised as a lifeless convention; men of intellect were lifted by a new belief, their great belief in an autonomous philosophy and science. (Garcia-Gomez 2005: 225)

Husserl’s observation that religious beliefs were rapidly being replaced by a ‘new belief’ focused on an ‘autonomous philosophy and science’ describes a replacement of the Church as the source of reason and justification by a terrestrial and human-based form of ‘proven’ knowledge – at its most basic level, this simply depicts cinema as a locus for the invention of modern life due to its technological origins, not dissimilar to Charney and Schwartz’s assertion that cinema became the ‘talismanic innovation’ most symbolic of modern life itself (1995: 1-3).  However, the role of cinema as replacement for theistic power in the development of everyday life transcends its position as a symbol of scientific prowess in two ways: firstly, in its ability to visually capture the scientific ‘evidence’ described by Leppert, and secondly in its creation of a quasi-didactic public space for mass attendance.

The place of the cinema in documenting this ‘evidence’ must be ascertained. The constant thirst for ‘evidence’ itself, which in its very nature requires some kind of recording in accordance with the new thirst for ‘proof’ evoked by the emergent interest in new science described by Husserl, is enabled by the need to capture a ‘moment’ as envisioned by the philosophers of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth- century. Continue reading On Space and Seeing: Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life

Senses of Cinema, Functions of Film; What does film do?

by Laz Carter

1. Introduction

Film functions in several differing and seemingly contradictory ways. Writing critically about Film Studies as a discipline can leave one feeling fragmented, as in order to focus on a given topic in any depth one has to inevitably ignore vast swathes of data covering topics outside a delineated purview. One could write in detail about Hitchcock’s aesthetics, framing and visuality (Mulvey, 1975) and not draw any attention to sound. One could focus in on the director’s aural style (Weis, 1978) at the expense of discussing his imagery. Neither approach is empirically more robust, each has its own merits, objectives, and pitfalls. Yet taken as individual scholarly texts they provide an incomplete picture of Hitchcock’s oeuvre. By bringing the two perspectives together – along with the abundant alternative approaches that discuss this singular auteur – one can begin to construct a more complex jigsaw of the ‘Hitchcockian’ style.

This example hints at a wider issue within Film Studies of being aware of one’s own limitations in choosing one approach over another. Perhaps more so than any other discipline, Film Studies has a huge array of categories and sub-categories in which to specialise, going far beyond the visual/aural divide. Yet one has to remain aware that these topics are not isolated: a revelation in one critical field can have implications upon several others. For me, this is the joy of the discipline: one has to always be reading (and re-reading) the work of other academics discussing film through differing approaches, styles and linguistic techniques. A discussion of American film in terms of zoom lenses and intricate technical detail (Hall, 2012) might seem completely separate from a discussion of gender identity in film noir (Krutnik, 2002), though they might be debating the same film texts, generic conventions and historical zeitgeists.

Preamble aside, one hopes to have contextualised the fact that what film ‘does’ is inherently subjective. Yet one still has to pick an angle to approach the topic, and for me the most interesting aspect of film has always been the manner in which industrial factors have made an impact upon reception. What does this mean? Continue reading Senses of Cinema, Functions of Film; What does film do?

Film and Hyphology

by Seán Hudson

We think too fast, while on our way somewhere, while walking or in the midst of all sorts of business, even when thinking of the most serious things; we need little preparation, not even much silence: it is as if we carried around in our heads an unstoppable machine that keeps working even under the most unfavourable circumstances. Formerly, one could tell just by looking at a person that he wanted to think – it was probably a rare occurrence! – , that he now wanted to become wiser and was preparing himself for a thought: one would set one’s face as for prayer and stop walking; yes, one stood still for hours on the street once the thought ‘arrived’ – on one or two legs. (Nietzsche 2003: 33-34)

Things happen and we put them into boxes – I think that might be an accurate way of describing the general human relation with experience. It’s very practical, of course; we wouldn’t get far in life, that chaotic whirl of sensations, without organising it into categories, like the self, or race, or gender, etc. No one can deny that humans are expert labellers. But then, conversely, we’ve also developed ways of bypassing our filters: of abandoning our boxes and indulging in their contents. Film has the potential to be one of these tools, to short-circuit cognition in the wake of the primacy of affect.

What does that mean, exactly? I like to think that it’s connected to the peculiar experience I had the other day, sitting outside a café, disoriented, sleep-deprived, and hung-over. I looked up and saw two giant red circles, white within the diametre, each bisected by a thick, blue line. Continue reading Film and Hyphology

Visual pleasure and Crisis Cinema

by Jennifer Coates

Pretty predicatably, I’m kicking off our first round of contributions with a reference to Laura Mulvey’s seminal “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” – bear with me though, I promise I’m aiming at something more zeitgeisty!  (Full disclosure, I’m just back from the third annual London Media Conference on “The Pleasures of the Spectacle” and this post is a teeny bit cannibalised from my paper.)

The theme of this first round of posts is “Senses of Cinema, Functions of Film”.  We’ve asked our contributors to introduce themselves and their research backgrounds by answering the biggest question in film studies; what does film do?

Of course, different films do different things for each of us at different times, but as my own research background is in crisis cinema and as I spent last Tuesday weeping through Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45 (2013), I thought I’d take a stab at discussing why we watch what we watch when we’re in the middle of a recession and what we watch is by all accounts pretty depressing. Continue reading Visual pleasure and Crisis Cinema