Why Do You Need So Many Cinemas?

“Evolution of Dance” by Judson Laipply (2006) (still).

In my last post on this topic, I argued that cinema can be redefined as “the cinematic arts,” which would include not only movies and short films, but also music videos, commercials, TV programs, experimental film and video, installation art, video games, Flash animations, animated gifs, and even “nonelectrical” forms of moving images, such as flipbooks and camera obscuras. This redefinition raises a few questions:

  1. Why should we do this? What would this expansive reconsideration get us?
  2. Can it be done? Can the same critical apparatus that we use to describe and analyze feature films be successfully applied to, say, animated gifs? Or camera obscuras?
  3. What would the be the common currency of cinema?

After the jump, I’ll try answering each of these questions.

1. The Why

For starters, it gets us a tremendous amount of overlooked art. Consider year-end top ten movie lists. So many of those lists are ten times the same film, depressingly similar, year-in, year-out:

Onion AV Club:
15. The Kids Are All Right
14. Shutter Island
13. Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World
12. Dogtooth
11. Greenberg
10. True Grit
9. A Prophet
8. Carlos
7. Mother
6. Toy Story 3
5. Exit Through the Gift Shop
4. Inception
3. Black Swan
2. The Social Network
1. Winter’s Bone

Roger Ebert:
10. The Ghost Writer
9. The Kids Are All Right
8. The American
7. The Secret in Their Eyes
6. Inception
5. Winter’s Bone
4. I Am Love
3. Black Swan
2. The King’s Speech
1. The Social Network

Lisa Schwarzbaum (Entertainment Weekly):
10. 127 Hours
9. Another Year
8. A Prophet
7. The Ghost Writer
6. Animal Kingdom
5. Last Train Home
4. Toy Story 3
3. Winter’s Bone
2. The Kids Are All Right
1. The Social Network

35 slots, 24 films. And the more top ten lists you read, the more they converge toward the same films: Black Swan, Carlos, Inception, The Ghost Writer, The Kids Are All Right, A Prophet, The Social Network, Winter’s Bone.

To some extent, that’s to be expected—it’s hardly surprising that critics would rally around certain films. (And I think highly of some of the films on so many of those lists.) But at the same time, I have to wonder how large the pool these critics start with is; my guess is “not very large.” For example, how many critics considered Mike Stoklasa’s Star Wars critiques worthy of consideration? Or Kanye West’s Runaway? I’d wager…none of them. (Also: how come there aren’t any documentaries on those lists? Are documentaries once again no longer popular? And let’s also ignore the near-total absence of international films—perhaps 2011 will be the year that Western critics discover Indian cinema?)

Being a contrarian at heart, I favor more eclecticism, and the narrowness of much year-end listing distresses me. It demonstrably reduces cinema’s potential: the movies are capable of much more than those annual lists demonstrate.

Furthermore, such limiting often results in the exclusion of artists who aren’t working in the pre-approved, feature-length, English-language, theatrically-distributed form. Michael Leong alludes to this myopia in this comment:

I was very recently thinking how the feature-length film should not be understood as an adequate synechdoche for “film” or what you’re calling “cinema.” I was thinking about the oft-discussed dearth of female directors while, at the same time, there’s a very strong tradition of video art by women.

When one defines all of cinema as a certain thing, it’s easy to conclude that, say, Federico Fellini’s is the greatest film ever made. Or The Godfather Part II. Or Citizen Kane. You just start by defining great cinema as those kinds of films: narrative feature-length dramas! Nothing else need apply. (It takes a lot of money to shoot and theatrically distribute a feature-length film. But great cinema, and the concept of what constitutes cinema, shouldn’t be entirely reduced to a matter of who has money.)

Now, I certainly don’t want to argue that and The Godfather Part II and Citizen Kane are not great films; I instead want to argue that they aren’t the only great films. And I don’t want to get bogged down in arguments over which types of cinema are best; I’d really rather not rank them. Rather, I’m arguing for a broader scope: we would benefit if more attention were paid to those forms of cinema that routinely get overlooked, or that aren’t taken as seriously as features. Because, despite being neglected, those forms are well worth critical consideration.

Let’s look at one of the movies I linked to in my original post, AKJAK’s YouTube short “Vader Sessions” (2006):

What can we say, critically, about this film?

1. It is extremely well edited, which alone should merit attention.

2. It functions as kind of formal analysis, by extracting all of the Darth Vader footage in the original Star Wars. (For one thing, we now know that he appears in less than ten minutes of that 121-minute-long film.)

3. It participates in an established artistic tradition: it’s a modern-day détournement, related to Situationist International films like René Viénet’s Can Dialectics Break Bricks? (1973):

4. Although it may initially seem to be nothing more than entertainment, “Vader Sessions” possesses real political content. The humor here (as in Can Dialectics) arises from the contrast between the original footage and the added dialogue. AKJAK’s substitutions call direct attention to fact that James Earl Jones, though most famous for voicing Darth Vader, has played numerous racially charged characters (in films such as The Great White Hope, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings, Soul Man, Coming to America, and Field of Dreams). AKJAK’s editing, furthermore, demonstrates the way that such blackness was effaced from the lily-white world of Star Wars (George Lucas being the universe’s biggest square). Recall that Lucas was criticized for the lack of ethnic diversity in his space opera, similar to how he was later criticized, in his prequel trilogy, for his reliance on racist stereotypes. “Vader Sessions,” then, can be read as a very funny, but also very serious racial critique of Star Wars, and perhaps contemporary science-fiction in general. (It’s worth noting that AKJAK took his name from the post-Blaxploitation film Action Jackson.)

Along these same lines: the funniest moment in the film, for me, is when Vader is tuning his TIE Fighter’s “radio” (a brilliant gesture). He passes from Public Enemy’s “Welcome to the Terrordome” to Pearl Jam’s “Alive” to Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.” On the one hand, this is simply transcendent, the way any great art is transcendent—it’s an absurd leap that also makes an immediate kind of sense (and effaces the original: I’ll never view that scene in quite the same way). And yet, at the same time, it continues AKJAK’s racial critique: the racial polemic of Public Enemy is supplanted (briefly) by the blues rock of Pearl Jam, and then permanently by the pseudo-blue-eyed soul of Billy Joel, a musician who’s built his entire career on watering down soul, R&B, and gospel tropes:

Vader responds to “Piano Man” (a song about reduced career ambitions) by starting to sing “Deep River”—which is then replaced by Billy Joel’s “My Life” (a particularly ironic choice). …This is brilliant, artistic filmmaking, and I would be happy to include “Vader Sessions” on any list of the top films of the 2000s.

At this point, many critics would no doubt be quick to argue that their top ten lists include only feature-length films. But that is precisely my point. As I wrote in my original post:

When most people say “the movies,” they mean “feature-length films.” These have existed since the early 1910s, and can be considered cinema’s most successful form—they’re the stereotype of motion pictures.

A serious problem arises when features become synonymous with “cinema.” And it’s a shame when a film like “Vader Sessions” doesn’t merit serious critical consideration due to the fact that it’s a short collage piece that premiered at YouTube.

The music scene is instructive in this regard: for over fifty years, albums have been the most common means of distributing music. And artists have turned the album into a unique artistic form in its own right: The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), Parliament’s Mothership Connection (1976), Laurie Anderson’s Big Science (1982), Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet (1989), Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville (1994). Even today, after the supposed death of the album, musicians are still releasing great, artistically unified records: The Streets’ A Grand Don’t Come for Free (2004), of Montreal’s Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? (2007), Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010).

However, despite that economic and artistic tradition, it would be wrong to mistake the record album for all of music, or to consider it music’s ultimate form. Thinking that way about features reveals a similar confusion. My redefinition of the cinematic arts would lead to a more encompassing, more inclusive canon. It would also do away with the wrongheaded notion that “proto-cinematic” art objects like flipbooks and magic lanterns and camera obscuras were some now-obsolete stepping stones in an imagined evolutionary progression toward Shrek. They are very much so forms of cinema, and can still be made today.

Anyone who’s troubled by this formulation—who thinks it “lets too much stuff in,” makes cinema too messy—would still be able to specify the form of cinema they’re discussing: features, shorts, non-electrical works. There’s no reason someone couldn’t still make a list of “top ten features,” then make a list of “top ten flipbooks,” or “top ten animated gifs.” There might be great value in doing that—just as it might be useful to bunch different forms together.

Another potential objection: would cinema critics be able to work this inclusively? Would a feature-film critic like Roger Ebert really be able to evaluate video games and YouTube shorts and camera obscuras, alongside theatrical releases?

Perhaps not. But the expert on the novel need not be an expert on autobiographies, or poetry collections; critics specialize. Indeed, a scholar of 18th-century French novels might know next to nothing about 20th-century British novels. However, that expert scholar would probably not try to argue that autobiographies and poetry collections are not forms of literature.

That said, the question remains: is there enough similarity between a flipbook and a feature-length motion picture to warrant this redefinition? Is there enough shared critical language to consider them both cinema?

2. The How

Unsurprisingly, I would argue yes. Indeed, comparing these seemingly disparate forms of moving images might prove extremely instructive.

Another recent work of cinema that I consider great—it would make my “Best of the 2000s” list (which I wouldn’t limit to simply ten works)—is Neil Cicierega’s 2001 Flash “animutation” Hyakugojyuuichi!:

(I’m again linking to the YouTube version, and not the original .swf version, because I want to embed it here.)

This was a pioneering work, one of the first widely viewed Flash animations. I know that when I saw it, I’d never seen anything quite like it before (nor had my friends); since then, it has become widely emulated. How might we describe it, cinematically?

1. Cicierega makes strong use of rhythmic editing, alternating shot lengths for comic effect, and pacing the appearance of shots and image elements to the pacing of the music; this is similar to rhythmic editing seen in features, music videos, commercials, animation….

2. There’s a certain abstractness to the piece, in that it’s not narrative. This, too, can be critically and historically accounted for; consider Len Lye’s abstract shorts:

…or Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart (1936), which similarly sets appropriated images to music:

3. Cicierega also manipulates found images in a way unique to Flash, but not unheard of in other forms of animation—Terry Gilliam’s cartoons, with their detachable mouths and elongated feet, come readily to mind:

One might also draw a comparison with Frank Mouris’s 1973 Oscar-winning short “Frank Film,” which—viewed in hindsight—might even be considered a proto-Flash animation (it’s probably, for better or worse, how many animators would choose to make that short today):

4. Some might object that Cicierega’s animation “doesn’t mean anything,” but that’s hardly a requirement for cinema. What does a Len Lye film mean? Or Gilliam’s charmingly grotesque cartoons? Critics like David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson have established that there’s value in abstract, lyrical cinema:

Normally, we use our ability to recognize shapes and colors in practical ways, as when we drive and have to interpret traffic signs and lights quickly. But, in watching an abstract film, we don’t need to use the shapes, colors, or repetitions that we see and hear for practical purposes. Consequently, we can notice them more fully and see relationships that we would seldom bother to look for during the practical activities of everyday life. In a film, these abstract qualities become interesting for their own sake.

This impractical interest has led some critics and viewers to think of abstract films as frivolous. Critics may call them “art for art’s sake,” since all they seem to do is present us with a series of interesting patterns. Yet in doing so, such films often make us more aware of such patterns, and we may be able to better notice them in the everyday world as well. No one who has watched [Richard Serra's] Railroad Turnbridge can see bridges in quite the same way afterward. In talking about abstract films, we might amend the phrase to “art for life’s sake”—for such films enhance our lives as much as do the films of other formal types. (Film Art, Eighth Edition, pages 357–8)

(And, of course, in addition to being a well made abstract movie, Cicierega’s animutation is also an excellent absurdist parody of pop culture. Ridiculing what’s popular simply because it’s popular is a very healthy American tradition.)

Similar analytical arguments might be made on behalf of various animated gifs and commercials. And we can easily find other cinematic qualities in other forms: flipbooks resemble photographed animation. Camera obscuras resemble ambient films, such as those made by Brian Eno:

Indeed, I think it would be difficult to discuss such works without invoking the language of cinema. To some extent, then, the redefinition that I’m arguing for—and the need to adapt existing critical language to these other, sometimes newer forms—strikes me as inevitable. As I argued in my last post, the internet is rapidly becoming a distribution venue for a wide variety of moving images, whether they’re theatrical features, TV programs, commercials, music videos, YouTube videos, video games, Flash animations, animated gifs… As this convergence continues, and as forms like Flash and YouTube rise even more in popularity, it will become increasingly difficult for anyone to argue that cinema consists only of short films and theatrical features. (To ignore YouTube at this point, frankly, seems more than a little out of touch).

In fact, this crossing over—this commingling of cinematic forms—is already happening. Here, for instance, is a list of the “Top 10 YouTube Videos of All Time”, dated 2 January 2011:

  1. Justin Bieber – “Baby ft. Ludacris”; 424,988,898 views
  2. Lady Gaga – “Bad Romance”; 326,832,779 views
  3. Shakira – “Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)”; 270,074,683 views
  4. “Charlie bit my finger – again !”; 265,287,915 views
  5. Eminem – “Love The Way You Lie ft. Rihanna”; 251,180,977 views
  6. Justin Bieber – “One Time”; 204,617,511 views
  7. Miley Cyrus – “Party In The U.S.A. – Official Music Video”; 183,604,889 views
  8. Eminem – “Not Afraid”; 177,431,525 views
  9. “Evolution of Dance”; 160,425,230 views
  10. Pitbull – “I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)”; 158,334,771 views

Eight of these videos are music videos. (YouTube has clearly supplanted television as the means for distributing that form.) But two of the videos—”Charlie bit my finger – again !” and “Evolution of Dance”—are viral YouTube videos, videotaped snippets that, once posted, went on to prove unexpectedly popular. These crude, amateur productions sit fairly comfortably alongside slick music industry promos—I know that their inclusion doesn’t cause me much cognititive dissonance. (When I’m hanging out with my friends, like most people our age, we often watch a mixture of music videos and viral videos at YouTube.)

Additionally, both of those videos are remarkably similar to works of late 19th-century cinema. “Evolution of Dance” strongly recalls Thomas Edison’s fascination with filming impressive physical feats:

“Charlie,” on the other hand, resembles a Lumière Brothers short:

Both “Charlie” and “Repas de bébé” consist of a single shot that’s roughly around the same length, and derive much of their fascination from the simple activity of watching babies be babies. (I’ve found that my students’ familiarity with YouTube makes it easy to interest them in 19th-century cinema—they at once understand much of the concept and form of those early shorts.)

Besides being inevitable, the expansive redefinition of cinema opens up wide realms for critics, artists, and audiences to explore. For example, the videos by Mike Stoklasa, AKJAK, and Neil Cicierga are all responding to Star Wars, which is arguably currently the most popular and influential movie in the United States. A very large part of the culture—perhaps an inordinate amount—is busy reacting to it on a very regular basis. And yet there is no indication of that in any of the top ten film lists above. How do we account for a criticism that doesn’t account for the culture?

Film criticism will also need to account for those artists who are making cinema besides shorts and features. David Lynch, for instance, has made not only Blue Velvet and Mulholland Dr., but also videos, commercials, TV programs, and Flash animations. (Well, he gets it.) It will be interesting to see how critics respond to his increasingly diverse filmography—will they focus only on his feature-length films? Or will they select everything but his commercials and Flash animations? Maybe just not his Flash pieces? …Well, why not those?

Meanwhile, other artists are already responding to the ubiquity of online videos, and the way they’re replacing so much radio and broadcast television. The Weezer music video “Pork and Beans” (2009) depends entirely on the viewer’s ability to recognize the numerous viral YouTube videos referenced:

A case can clearly be made for YouTube, then. But the rise of online video sites may have other, surprising consequences. For instance, critics and artists and audiences may decide that, as so much of our lives migrate to the internet, nonelectrical cinematic forms like flipbooks and magic lanterns and camera obscuras are more interesting now than ever, precisely because they can’t be experienced online. (Shadow puppetry seems to be growing increasingly popular here in Chicago.) If so, critics of those forms will require a language that’s capable of discussing and analyzing the unique and original ways in which their images move.

3. The What (Toward a Definition of Cinema)

Ultimately, I would argue for a definition of cinema inspired by Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. McCloud (following the late Will Eisner) defines comics as “sequential art” (9). This definition is simple, yet powerful and inclusive (without being too inclusive); the brilliance of McCloud’s book consists of the large amount of usefulness he’s able to extract from that formulation.

And so, thinking along the same lines:

Cinema is moving images.

Let’s see what that simple definition gets us.

  1. Moving: cinema is a temporal form (whereas comics are a spatial form). A movie must have a duration of some type, even if it’s a fraction of a second. There need not be any minimum or maximum length.
  2. Images: cinema is a representational form, made up of photographs, drawings, paintings, reflections, refractions, perhaps even shadows. (Shadow puppetry might exist on the boundary between cinema and theater.) Works of cinema may also combine these different types of representation (as many films already do).

Note that particular media need not be specified. Cameras, for instance, while one of cinema’s most commonly used tools, are not a requirement for producing moving images. Many filmmakers have made cameraless films: Joseph Cornell assembled Rose Hobart from a 16mm print of East of Eden (1933), then projected it at 16 frames-per-second through a pane of blue glass, accompanied by random Samba 45s. Stan Brakhage famously scratched and painted and otherwise directly manipulated film emulsion. And, although we weren’t in the same league as Cornell and Brakhage—far from it!—in the late 1990s, a friend and I made a series of videos by plugging a sine wave generator directly into a VCR, mixing the signal with a graphic equalizer; we were able to get the VCR to pick up some of the generated and manipulated signals, which we then recorded to tape.

4. The End (Of Our Means)

Returning to my music business analogy: the death (read: current decline in dominance) of the long-playing record signals not the end of music, but a particular business model. This transition opens as many doors as it opens: it used to be difficult to record and distribute a piece of music that was longer than an LP, then a CD, could accommodate; mp3s remove that obstacle.

Film critics have spilled a great deal of ink over the past decade discussing “the death of cinema.” Many, if not most, seem to agree that, just as in the music industry, it’s a particular business model (theatrical distribution) whose days are numbered, not the art of cinema itself. However, a lot of the critical discussion still revolves around the question of how feature films will continue onward and upward, despite challenges like digital video, digital distribution and projection, rising ticket prices, unruly theatrical audiences, home theater systems, 3D gimmickry, and CD and online piracy.

This debate, while extremely important, also misses a lot of what cinema is. (It also often overlooks the fact that the history of features is one of constant change, from the development of the classical Hollywood style, to invention of sound film, to the challenges posed by television, to the widespread adoption of color, to the switch to widescreen formats, to the invention of theatrical surround sound, to the beginnings of home distribution, and much more—feature-length movies are not, and have never been, a stable, single thing.)

A redefinition of cinema that puts less emphasis on the feature-length film will result in the realization that cinema, far from being dead, is doing fine, healthy and more diverse than ever before. The challenge is not to mistake the record for the music.

[Special thanks to my special friend Elf for his insights on this subject.]

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12 thoughts on “Why Do You Need So Many Cinemas?

  1. Pingback: How Many Cinemas Are There? « BIG OTHER

  2. this is really fascinating:

    “(I’ve found that my students’ familiarity with YouTube makes it easy to interest them in 19th-century cinema—they at once understand much of the concept and form of those early shorts.)”

  3. Some cool explorations here, A D. I taught a class called Cinefiction which looked at using film techniques and applying them to writing, which involved thinking a lot about what makes something a distinctively film technique (but not so distinctive that it didn’t have some sort of verbal or literary analogue that could work…).

    I really like that Bordwell quote: “In talking about abstract films, we might amend the phrase to ‘art for life’s sake’—for such films enhance our lives as much as do the films of other formal types.” It really turns on its head the notion that experimental art is self-indulgent, several atmospheric levels above the lived reality of more representational art. I wonder if this could be applied to experimental literature as well…or if this notion has already arisen in the numerous discussions of experimentalism that have already taken place here and hereabouts.

    I wonder if it’s pushing an analogy too far to wonder whether the motion that comprises half of your definition is related to the ceaseless reinvention that you also discuss–that an art that puts motion front and center will be ever-moving in its development, reveling in instability on various levels. Or if that’s just the universe I’m talking about.

    Can you say something more about the shadow theater scene in Chicago? It’s a subject I’m particularly intrigued by. In your analysis, shadow theater becomes maybe the oldest cinema by Secretariat-like margins.

    • Hi Tim,

      Thanks for the comment! I do think that cinema—each form—has its own devices and grammars, unique from other artforms. But there is also some overlap, and I, too, have found it useful to try applying ideas from one medium to another. For instance, I learned a lot about literary narrative construction from reading Bordwell’s Narration in the Fiction Film. And I’ve seen criticism that suggests that 20th-century fiction has been heavily influenced by motion pictures, privileging literary equivalents of cross-cutting, fade-outs, and other devices; I imagine there’s truth to that.

      I think Bordwell and Thompson’s defense of abstract art derives ultimately from Viktor Shklovsky’s defense of all art in Theory of Prose—first chapter, the essay “Art as Device.” But I also tend to see Shklovsky everywhere… It’s a similar argument, though. I touched upon something like it here:
      “Art’s Morality”

      And these two posts might interest you as well:
      “Art as Experience”
      “What Is Experimental Art?”

      I was just at a reading that had shadow puppetry, and I’ve seen a few other shows here and there. And there are some local troupes, and I know some shadow puppeteers are working in other cities (I’ve seen one of them perform). I’ll try to scrounge some names. In general, this resurgence (if it is a resurgence, and I think it is) seems to me to be related to a general Gen X/Y twee/hipster fascination with “old-timey” artforms—directly related to the current renaissance in crafting, and interest in instruments like the singing saw. Part of which, I’d argue, is a neo-romantic impulse away from the dominance of the machine.

      Shadow puppetry is old, but camera obscuras are pretty old, too. It would be fun to write a longue durée history of cinema that stretches back to antiquity…

      Cheers,
      Adam

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