By M.L. Bream
Cinema is, and has been, undergoing an undeniable shift in recent decades with the advent and propagation of digital technology. Indeed, this shift is considerable, with changes visible from the production of films to their exhibition. Yet, are these changes necessarily either positive or negative ones? According to film scholar Dudley Andrew, they are the latter, as he outlines in his prologue “The Target of Film Theory,” and throughout the rest of his book, What Cinema Is!
While Andrew presents his position on what he believes cinema to be with conviction, it does not hold up under critical scrutiny. Attempting to provide a definitive, contemporary answer to the question of what cinema is (as his book’s title suggests), Andrew argues that at the centre of the medium is the “aim to discover, to encounter, to confront, and to reveal” (xvii i)—undoubtedly, this is true—but that digital cinematic technologies are unable to achieve these aims as film does. This argument is an oversimplification and romanticization of cinema’s once-dominant mode of creation. The merits of celluloid film are crucial to the history of cinema and important to remember, yet this does not need to pose digital production as the enemy, as Andrew does in this text.
In his antagonistic positioning of films made with film versus those made with digital technology (here also referred to as “films,” as this term remains today despite their change in physical material), Andrew makes claims that are reductionist and simply untrue, and as a result, denies digital creations the same artistic respect as their filmic predecessors.
To begin, Andrew asserts, “cinema is not, or has not always been, a primarily special effects medium” (xvii i). This is just not the case—what about the work of early French filmmaker Georges Méliès, famous for his sleight of hand and the special effects in his films like A Trip to the Moon (1902), that still captivate as much now as they did then? Or what of “magic lanterns,” a primitive form of image projection and seventeenth-century precursor to cinema whose very name highlights the illusory nature the medium has had since its origins?
Alongside Andrew’s inaccurate assessment of the history of special effects in cinema is his notion that those films that employ them are somehow lesser. Treating films with digital or special effects as some sort of deception, Andrew states, “[t]he films some of us most care about—and consider central to the enterprise of cinema in toto—have a mission quite other than lying or agitating” (xvii i). Rather, according to Andrew, the films that he cares about—particularly and almost exclusively those made in France between 1938-1968 (xxvi)—offer a sense of discovery and revelation that “digitalized audiovisual culture” does not (xvii i). Even when filmmakers like Nanook of the North’s Robert Flaherty “manipulated their materials for effect,” Andrew is quick to qualify, “they did so in a more or less visible contest wherein recorded images and sounds put up a certain resistance, creating an expressive and significant friction” (xvii i).
In other words, it is only the select type and period of films that Andrew prefers that he believes can stimulate intellectual thought through the use of special effects. As Andrew privileges primarily post-World War I realist films, this woefully snubs any and all others. What Andrew’s sweeping write-off neglects are films like King Kong, whose both 1933 original (directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack) and 2005 redux (directed by Peter Jackson) do not fit inside his rigid categorization, yet attain in their own right the “expressive and significant resistance” he refers to.
While it is unreasonable to deny the fact that Cooper’s and Schoedsack’s Kong and Jackman’s Kong do play on the spectator’s desire for spectacle, both films still achieve something beyond their visual manipulations—they serve as metaphors that sympathize
with those that are othered, most saliently in this instance by race, as Kong represents the black to Ann Darrow’s white, but can extend further to anyone or thing marginalized in society. To this end, the effects used in the two iterations of Kong aid in getting a significant point across; one that should not be overlooked due to its method of transmission.
This is but one example of how Andrew’s hostility towards digital technologies and artificiality altogether—he concludes that “real cinema has a relation to the real” (xxv), entirely excluding abstract films that possess no visible ties to reality yet are worthwhile nonetheless—is not productive and hurts the future of cinema more than helps it. If all oncoming advancements and changes to the filmic medium are met with Andrew’s same overly sentimental attachment to the modes of the past, new answers to questions of the cinema’s capabilities are thwarted before they can even be asked. Indeed, what is needed is not a static, restrictive definition of “what cinema is,” as Andrew unsuccessfully attempts to provide, but what the cinema can and will be.
Andrew, Dudley. “Prologue: The Target of Film Theory.” What Cinema Is! Chichester, West Sussex, U.K: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. xiii-xxvii. Print.