Does Cinema Still Exist

Proclaiming the death of cinema has become a popular pastime. Jean-Luc Godard has been announcing the death of cinema for over 40 years. So he was bound to be right eventually.

Perhaps the time has arrived. Several years ago, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg warned of the end of Hollywood. OK, they were mostly focused on the current Hollywood business model and its possible implosion. Last Spring, Quentin Tarantino produced a stir at Cannes with his death of cinema pronouncement. However, he was mostly complaining about digital projection while having a nostalgic fit on behalf of old-fashioned celluloid. To be honest, Tarantino sounded as if he still used a rotary phone and an old Philco TV set.

Now, with his recent lecture at Pietrasanta in northern Italy, British filmmaker Peter Greenaway gives a much more detailed and provocative argument for the end of cinema. In some ways, Greenaway’s remarks are closer to the Lucas/Spielberg perspective. But he goes much further. It isn’t just the business model that is broken. It’s everything.

Specifically, Greenaway is focused on the greater aesthetic changes taking place due to the digital revolution. The traditional movie theater is fading from its importance. The concept of the screen is changing as the standard movie model is replaced by multiple types of “screens,” from laptops to smart phones. The entire model of production and distribution is evolving into the emerging digital form. The entire process of consuming content and the means of viewing that content are rapidly being transformed, and the traditional concept of cinema is incapable of adapting to these changes. Sure, the old school system has worked (more or less) for over a hundred years, but the very foundation of the Hollywood model is eroding.

With these changes, Greenaway sees the end of what he calls the Four Tyrannies:

• The Tyranny of the Text
• The Tyranny of the Frame
• The Tyranny of the Actor
• The Tyranny of the Camera

I must admit that at this point, Greenaway starts to sound a wee bit like a Jacobin lecturing in the rubble of the Bastille. However, he is hitting on four of the biggest problems in the structure of the commercial cinema.

The Text: Film is a visual art form, but for most of its history, it has been bound to the text. In most forms of traditional cinema, the screenplay is considered an absolute in production. Many movies are adaptations of books or plays. Lots of films have way too much dialogue. To an overwhelming degree, movies are trapped into expository narrative structures, and the filmmakers forget that they are supposed to be a visual form.

Admittedly, this is a tad ironic coming from Greenaway, since many of his own movies (like The Falls and A Zed and Two Noughts) have been, at least partially, based upon extended word plays. But he is also correct. The visual nature of cinema has often been sidelined by its narrative function, reducing film to something vaguely resembling Classics Illustrated Comics. For Greenaway, the evolution of digital image making is potentially breaking away from this text-dominated structure.

The Frame: Yes, the movie frame is an artifact that does not represent the actual way we perceive in nature. At this point I should mention (again) that I am basing this on the reports of Greenaway’s lecture in the W(a/o)ndering Film piece. I wasn’t there and the reports become vague on this point. So yes, the movie frame is artificial. So too are all of the new frames being generated by the digital revolution. These new frames do not do away with the artificiality of the classic movie frame, but they nevertheless represent major changes in the concept of frame. I am not exactly sure where Greenaway is going with this one. I suspect he is looking toward the development of holographic and virtual reality systems.

The Actor: “Cinema does not exist to be a playground for Johnny Depp.” I am half guessing that Greenaway must have paid full price for The Lone Ranger. In many respects, I see the issue of the Actor as being related to the Text – after all, the Text is what the Actor performs. Personally, I don’t have a bone to pick with Johnny Depp (whose career at the moment desperately needs better Text).

The Camera: “A boring mechanical instrument with no intelligence. An image manufacturing process based on mimeses.” Some filmmakers (for example, the Italian Neo-Realists) praise the camera for the very same reasons that Greenaway attacks it. So opinion on this issue seems to be divided. Granted, the seemingly impassive manner in which the camera records reality imposes certain restrictions on the artistic process. Ironically, this has been the very foundation for certain forms of artistic expression (for example, the entire career of Roberto Rossellini).

Just as Greenaway appears to be seeking a type of cinema totally freed from the Frame, he is also looking for freedom from mechanical reproduction. The only thing I can think of that would truly fulfill this proposal would be a form of virtual reality system using computer-generated processes for the creation of images: a complete, beginning-to-end digital process that bypasses any and all forms of camera and living performer and is directly transmitted to the audience by either worn apparatus (headgear and/or eyeglasses) or some form of direct transmission into the brain’s neural pathways.

OK, from what I understand that isn’t exactly what Greenaway is planning for his own films. But that is where he is going, whether he realizes that or not. That is also an important element in current research and development and likely will become feasible very soon.

Which is why I strongly recommend checking out the numerous reports on Greenaway’s presentation. It is about the future. The very immediate future.

Copyright © Dennis Toth 2014 All Rights Reserved