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January 8, 2004

The Cinema Effect

I picked up Sean Cubitt's The Cinema Effect (MIT Press, 2004) at the recent MLA book exhibit in San Diego. The book looks to be a promising consideration of cinematic temporality from the perspective of the digital, and I'll likely be returning to it from time to time.

Cubitt starts with the assertion that he is interested in understanding "what cinema does. [...] Cinema does something, and what it does matters" (1). He then situates his project as reconciling psychoanalytic semiotic (Metz, Mulvey) and "phenomenological"* (Deleuze, Sobchack) film theory through a consideration of the object. This appraoch guides his decision "to anchor the discussion in the material of the film, and to shape the whole as a retrospective historiography of images in motion from the standpoint of the digital era, written for a digital audience" (3).

Cubitt traces the development of cinematic time in part to "the specificities of time in the age of capital and globalization," acknowledging the increasingly mechanized measurement of time produced by industrial capitalism and teh development of railroads and communications technologies that required a homogeneous, standard time (a concern that very much informs my own work) (6). This claim has, in a sense, become a standard observation about early cinema, but other than asserting that the digital leads to the exponential acceleration of time and contraction of space (a claim that seems rather overstated), I'm not sure I've encountered a convincing claim about how the digital changes things, so I'll be interested to see where Cubitt takes this line of thought in later chapters.

So far, I have been most intrigued by some of his claims about narrative, in part because of the selfish reason that they might clarify some ideas I'm developing in my own research (time-travel films often have heavily overdetermined narrative structures). Cubitt notes that some of the early Lumière Brothers' earliest films (especially Sortie des usines Lumière, which features a single, static shot showing a group of female workers leaving the Lumières' factory) can be understood as "events of showing" rather than as narratives (38). Cubitt observes that "cinematic events" can be managed into narratives, but that narratives is not a necessary quality of film. Instead, in classical and post-classical cinema, "narration sets itself the task of constructing a temporal system that can contain that drifting mobility" (40). In itself, I'm not sure this claim is entirely new (I think Tom Gunning's claims about the "cinema of attractions" are somewhat similar), but it does provide an important starting point for thinking about the nature of cinema.

I'm currently reserving judgement on what I perceive to be a strange move by Cubitt in this book. Using the langauge of the "digital" he reserves the term, "pixel" to describe cinematic frames passing in time, essentailly "the cinematic present" (33). Cubitt is reinscribing "pixel" from a spatial to a temporal category in order to assert the need--produced by our existence in the digital age--to think about the humanities "mathematically." From my perspective, such a move risks abandoning the material distinctions between the digital and the properly filmic (light passing through a celluloid strip divided into frames), but I want to give time to think through this conceptual shift.

As I move towards writing the foundational chapter of my book, I'll attempt to sort through some of Cubitt's ideas in greater detail, and my sense is that I'll be placing Cubitt's work up against Mary Ann Doane's 2002 book, The Emergence of Cinematic Time, which I read over the summer.


* I don't think that Deleuze's approach to cinema can accurately be described as "phenomenological." Nevertheless, Deleuze is concerned with relations between images, which is what I believe Cubitt is suggesting when he implies that Deleuze is intereested in "sensation."

Posted by chuck at January 8, 2004 10:36 PM

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» The Cinema Effect from >> mind the __ GAP* ?
film-philosophy published a recent review of Sean Cubitt's The Cinema Effect which made me czurious enough to look for further reviews. I just post a few excerpts from different sources as I haven't read the book yet, but think it sounds very promising... [Read More]

Tracked on May 22, 2005 8:46 AM


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