Film-Philosophy

International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 9 No. 31, May 2005

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mark Bould

 

if This Retrofuturistic Flu Goes On . . .:

On _Future Cinema: The Cinematic Imaginary after Film_

 

 

_Future Cinema: The Cinematic Imaginary after Film_

Edited by Jeffrey Shaw and Peter Weibel

Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003

ISBN 0-262-69286-4

636 pp.

 

_Future Cinema_ is the catalogue of the ZKM/Institute for Visual Media's 'Future Cinema' exhibition, but it is not the kind of catalogue you would want to carry around with you. It is a monumental slab of a book: eight inches wide, eleven inches high, and one and five- eighths of an inch thick. Its lavishly illustrated 636 pages of mostly double-columned text contain 30 pages of front-matter, 30 pages of end-matter, and 120 pieces by various academics, writers, artists, and practitioners, not all of which are original to the exhibition or this collection. It is not so much exhaustive as exhausting. It puts the 'volume' back into volume. It fundamentally defies review.

 

But here goes.

 

There are several very obvious routes through this immense wealth of material. Two can be found in Jeffrey Shaw's 'Introduction', which explicates the organisational structure of the book (enabling one to jump to whichever of the thirteen sections one might find most interesting) and provides a map (which is almost a timeline) through the key idea-complexes of the sections. The first four sections -- 'The Cinematic Imaginary', 'Screenings', 'Theaters', and 'Codes' -- group together 'theoretical statements that set the stage for an understanding of the variegated experiments embodied in the artworks themselves' (21) and which 'create an appreciation of the radical impact that the increasing shift to digital techniques of production and orientation is having on the nature of the cinematic experience' (22). 'Remapping' shows works which treat cinema as a repository of materials to be found and reused in order to 'generate various forms of critical reflection upon the nature of the cinematic experience' (22). 'Transcriptive', 'Recombinatory', and 'Navigable' works are all concerned with transforming narrative: the non-theatrical exhibition spaces allow a multiplicity of screens and layers and media; interactivity allows multiple narrative branchings and multiple recombinations of databased audio-visual material; navigability allows the reader/viewer multiple roles and multiple routes. 'Interpolated' works conjoin, or perhaps rejoin, 'conditions that are carefully separated in traditional cinema' (like fact/fiction, virtual/real), while 'Immersive' works question the drive 'to conjure representational equivalence with the real' (24). 'Calculated' looks at works whose images are generated from software. 'Networked' explores the impact of the internet, 'together with related low- and high-bandwidth telecommunication technologies . . . on the cinematic imaginary' (25). And 'Screenless' fantasises about or, in Shaw's oddly archaic (in this context) formulation, 'looks at' various 'technical and theoretical strategies of completely new forms of image-generation and image-reception systems' (25).

 

Third and fourth routes can be constructed from the contents page. One could look for interesting titles, of which there are many, or familiar names. I confess to beginning with the latter (including Andre Bazin, Raymond Bellour, Blast Theory, Luis Bunuel, Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, Guy Debord, Timothy Druckrey, N. Katherine Hayles, Edwin Heathcote, Isaac Julien, Frederick Kiesler, Marsha Kinder, Norman M. Klein, Lev Manovich, Chris Marker, MIT Media Lab, Michele Pierson, Vivian Sobchack, Paul Virilio, Brian Winston, Gene Youngblood, and Christian Ziegler) and used them as a springboard to adjacent pieces.

 

But as Chris Marker notes in _Sans Soleil_, 'We do not remember, we rewrite memory, much as history is rewritten' (quoted on page 328), and in fact I actually began by leafing through the book -- it is physically much too big to flick through -- and looking at the pictures. And if I was not writing a review, this would have been my route through the book: taking my time, letting images slide past or catch my eye, enjoying them for themselves or turning to the associated text, as the mood took me. Ultimately, that is the kind of book this is; but the more concentrated reading demanded of the conscientious reviewer revealed things that might otherwise have slipped by. While sampling or zapping tactics do not of necessity preclude critical reflection, sometimes the overwhelming and totalitarian spectacle *is* preferable to the contemplative. Bunuel makes a similar point when he praises Hollywood for developing 'with unique mastery a modern art that corresponds very well to the temperament' of the cinema audience, which is 'the least congenial [audience] of all. Waiting in line puts them in a bad mood; you'll never see in them the enthusiasm of a bullfight aficionado. At heart, it's a false audience that relates to no one, only to images. If these images are mundane, they put them to sleep; if they're nice they distract them. The Americans, who have understood this perfectly, give priority to action' (74). But in addition to bemoaning the atomisation of the cinema audience, Bunuel also complains that: 'The glut of information has also brought about a serious deterioration in human consciousness today. If the pope dies, if a chief of state is assassinated, television is there. What good does it do one to be present everywhere? Today man can never be alone with himself, as he could in the Middle Ages' (75). In this tension between the mediated extension of presence and the mediated curtailment of intersubjectivity, Bunuel's self-confessed pessimism becomes apocalyptic: the extracts from his essay are replete with images of nuclear war, terrorism, absolute anguish, and total confusion.

 

Bunuel's science-fictional imagery is an appropriate place to start a more detailed criticism of this volume. Arguably cinema and science fiction were born in the same year (1895 saw the publication of H. G. Wells's _The Time Machine: An Invention_, as well as the Lumieres' first public demonstration of their Cinematographe). Their histories are profoundly interwoven, beginning, perhaps, with Wells's and Robert Paul's proposal for a complex projection device *cum* exhibition space with which and in which to simulate a fantastic journey through time similar to that depicted in Wells's novel. As various innovations (Hale's Tours, widescreen ratios, 3-D, IMAX, studio tours/theme-park rides) demonstrate, cinema has spent the last century catching up with that moment in 1895. Moreover, First Cinema's concern with technological, rather than artistic innovation has increasingly turned to a spectacularised and juvenilised sci-fi to showcase its accomplishments. Samples from sci-fi's parallel history (including references to _Frankenstein_, Wells, Georges Melies, Philip K. Dick, _Back to the Future_, etc.) run through _Future Cinema_, but more importantly so does the apocalyptic sensibility inherent to the peculiarly dialectical sense of the present moment central to sci-fi. The triumph of twentieth-century sci-fi lies in the extrapolative formula 'If this goes on . . .'; its tragedy is that it spent so much time thinking that it was about the *goes on* rather than the *this*. As twentieth-century sci-fi banged and whimpered to an end, Istvan Csicsery Ronay Jr reimagined 'If this goes on . . .' as a 'retrofuturistic flu . . . the collapse of the future on the present'. [1] _Future Cinema_ occupies this sci-fi time: its title suggests it is about the future, but really it is about the now, or more accurately a recent past created -- in part, at least -- by possible futures. For example, writing about cognitive processes 'now intuitively performed by video-game-educated kids', Philippe Codognet suggests that the 'ability to develop cognition by action is indeed gradually replacing the more classical humanist tradition of learning by books and letters . . .' (465). Codognet's closing ellipsis suggests that this trend might go on, while his interpretation of the significance of this perceived phenomenon is constructed from a postulated future. It is presumably intended to send a shiver down our spines, to scare and thrill us.

 

And this is appropriate. Sci-fi time, like the apocalyptic imagination more generally, is as much concerned with beginnings and (re)birth, as it is with ends and death. This is evident in Perry Hoberman's discussion of his 1985 installation _Dead Space/Living Rooms_, which reworked footage of four low-budget Hollywood movies (_Mad Love_, _The Walking Dead_, _D. O. A._, and _The 4-D Man_): 'Each of these films . . . involves characters that are neither alive nor dead . . . my method was to stop a film in motion, kill it. Photograph stills from the stopped/murdered film. Project these slides. Then reanimate them, projecting a series of them very rapidly in sequence, bringing them back to life' (230). [2] Timothy Druckrey suggests of Hoberman's installation that 'the relationships between memory, reception, and behaviour form the core of a transition from experiential environments to dynamic systems, installation to interaction' (230). The moment, then, is always apocalyptic, a simultaneous beginning and end: a this (which has gone before) going on; the future collapsing on the present. And so the UFA cinema in Erich Mendelson's 1928 photograph (129) looks like a streamlined train or ocean liner constantly in the moment of arriving and departing, while the cinema in Astana's 2000 photograph (130) resembles a just-landed origami spaceship or some strange emerging moth. (The London IMAX cinema, photographed by Bryan Avery (131), looks, as always, like an absurd glass gasometer, a relic of a lost past in which industrial design embraced Paul Scheerbart's glass architecture, a stubby greenhouse lingam awaiting a Spielbergian mothership.) These buildings are frozen moments, insertions -- 'Films were first shown in existing buildings' (128) -- in continua that are also part of those continua. Likewise _Future Cinema_. Again, it is not about the future of cinema so much as it is a monument to the very recent past of cinema, a snapshot of a particular conjuncture into which the future has collapsed and out of which various futures might grow (if this goes on). This sense of the present moment as (always already) a cusp is best evinced by Raymond Bellour, N. Katherine Hayles, and Vivian Sobchack.

 

Writing about Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster's _Ipanema Theory_, a 'very long documentary about the urban environment . . . accompanied by invasive music improvised in a sound booth by two new-genre DJs' that 'would be equally suitable for an open-air night-time showing', Bellour identifies 'a fascinating indecisiveness that indicates the degree to which things are slipping out of control' (59), a potential-filled moment that has not yet been narrativised into history. Hayles explicitly compares electronic poetry, in which 'Hybrid works are popping up everywhere', with early cinema 'before conventions had solidified and [when] disparate traditions were drawn upon to explore the nature of the new medium' (316). Elsewhere, Druckrey quotes Philip K. Dick's 'The Android and the Human', an essay in which Dick writes, in a similar vein, that 'the world of the future, to me, is not a place, but an event. A construct, not by one author in the form of words written to make up a novel or story that other persons sit in front of, outside of, and read -- but a construct in which there is no author and no readers but a great many characters in search of a plot' (234).

 

Sobchack, like Hayles, begins to suspect what the plot might be, and only slightly prematurely mourns the passing, or rather the transformation, of QuickTime movies, 'strange collections, moving collages and juxtapositions of image-objects' which prompt 'the kind of temporal nostalgia and spatial intensity I feel not at the movies but before American artist Joseph Cornell's mysterious boxed relics' (66):

 

'Both QT movies and Cornell boxes preserve *under glass* fragments of a *read-only* memory that is, paradoxically, *random access*: that is dynamic, contingent, associative. Both also refuse mundane space-time, drawing us into enclosed and nested poetic worlds far more miniature, layered, and vertically deep than we usually find in the cinema. Both also salvage the flotsam and jetsam of daily life and redeem it as used material whose re-collected and re-member [*sic*] presence echoes with traces of an individual yet collective past . . . Strangely static and consequently moving, full of gaps, gasps, starts and repetitions, QT movies intensify our corporeal sense of the molecular labor of human becoming -- evoking not the seamlessly-lived animations of real-time and live-action movies, but, rather, the half-life of certain time-worn kinetic objects: wooden puppets with chipped paint, forsaken dolls with missing limbs, Muybridge-like figures in old flip books hovering with bravado and uncertainty between photography and cinema, images of nineteenth-century strong men hand-cranked into imperfect action by old Kinetoscopes relegated to the dark corners of amusement arcades' (66).

 

These artisanal interrogations of memory, time, scale, and animation were (always already) long gone, doomed (by being called *movies*) to become 'real movies': 'It was just a matter of time, compression, memory, and bandwidth' (66). [3] This is their plot, their history, already past, consumed into what George Lucas suggests will be (or is) 'the time of *immaculate reality*' (60).

 

Druckrey describes this 'immaculate reality' (with troubling enthusiasm) as 'a reality stripped of the mystery of everything but its perfection, a reality that has passed from metaphysical to theological, a shift from a reality that recorded or narrated the intricacies of the world to a reality that renders the intricacies of possible worlds' (60) -- one can only assume he has not actually endured either of Lucas's recent movies. Fortunately, _Future Cinema_ does contain reminders that such fruity totalitarianisms rarely come to pass, even if they never quite go away: consider Bazin's suggestion that CinemaScope would strip away 'everything extrinsic to the quintessential meaning of the image' (87) or Frederick Kiesler's cinema architecture in which 'the interior lines of the theater must focalize to the screen compelling unbroken attention on the spectator . . . Black darkness must rule when the screen play is on' (133). And the familiar, but nonetheless idiotic claim that: 'Whoever controls representation, controls all' (485) is more than countered by Stefan Themerson's 'In Praise of Slovenliness 2', which undermines 'total cinema' by celebrating a history of camera operators and other technicians who realised 'the hidden potentialities of the cine-camera' (44) through serendipitious laziness, carelessness, and just not giving enough of a fuck to do things 'properly'. Michele Pierson also challenges conventional cinema history by outlining the 'brief' existence of an American culture 'in which cinematic experiment was given popular support', a support which was 'not predicated on a rejection of Hollywood, but on the cultivation of an appreciation of the multiple possibilities of cinematic expression' (169). Many of the artists whose work is discussed in _Future Cinema_ are similarly concerned, in Lynn Hershman Leeson's words, with 'going beyond the screen, using new technologies to enliven and empower viewers, to create an experience that uses moving images to defy conventional structure' (220).

 

One of the conventional structures repeatedly questioned is that of history. In the first two parts of Jill Scott's three-part interactive series -- _Machinedreams_ (1991) and _Paradise Tossed_(1993) -- the viewer 'was able to construct a collage of sounds and images from 1900, 1930, 1960, 1990', becoming 'time travellers [and] making interesting associations as well as learning about history in a new way' (280). In the third part, _Frontiers of Utopia_ (1995), the viewer was presented with 'the politics of the ideal society from the points of view of eight different female characters from these same time zones', [4] creating 'a rich tapestry of ideas, attitudes, locations and historical perspectives' (280). To reiterate Chris Marker, 'We do not remember, we rewrite memory, much as history is rewritten' (328), and Scott's work is an invitation to reimagine and rewrite history, to collapse the past's future back into the past so as to utilise the past as a fresh resource for its future. As Jim Campbell writes, 'If the new element to film was time, then I think that the new element to interactivity is the present. And it is the program that connects the present to the past' (254). Similarly, Ross Gibson advocates the development of a 'new art of TIME', which 'will take the form of some phenomenological routine that will offer each participant a compelling, fully conscious experience of perceptive intensification followed by alteration. People will partake of this new art in order to *be* differently in themselves, to be in time while also having time in them' (571-2). Michael Naimark makes a similar case for the utility of immersive media, arguing that:

 

'this sense of wholeness, of consciousness of place, can be conveyed in a very fast and highly impressionistic way with such emerging interactive media. Not by simulating reality -- a trap perpetuated by the believers in the objective and ultimately a losing battle. But by abstracting reality -- creating experiences otherwise impossible in the real world. And that these experiences, when done artfully, will make you appreciate really being there even more' (481).

 

Maurice Benayoun, writing on the interactive art installation _World Skin_, also makes a case for less-than-perfect simulations: 'Some things cannot be shared. Among them are the pain and the image of our remembrance. The worlds to be explored here can bring these things closer to us -- but always simply as metaphors, never as a simulacrum' (577). [5]

 

The future cinema that _Future Cinema_ postulates will not come to pass -- this is the lesson of history -- but something like some of it might; and so, as time passes, this already out-of-date (how could it be otherwise?) volume about the recent past's cutting edge will become even more fascinating. While we point and laugh at just how wrong it turned out to be, the unexpected ways in which it turned out to be very nearly right will haunt us. [6] Some of these divergences will stem from things of which _Future Cinema_ seems to take little account. For instance, it contains no sustained engagement with the audio developments made possible by the digital. Consider this passage from Kodwo Eshun's _More Brilliant Than The Sun_ (which belongs on the same shelf as _Future Cinema_):

 

'The producer follows the trail blazed by the error, breeds it into a new sonic lifeform. Acid amplifies these constraints as much as possible. Jungle accepts the rigidly quantizing function of the Cubase virtual studio. It doesn't revolt against the digital grid; it optimizes it into new possibilities. Your record collection now becomes an ongoing memorybank in which every historical sound exists as a potential break in the present tense. Chronology collapses into mixology, the time of the mix where the location of a bass note in space time gives way to spacetime dislocation.' [7]

 

And, as with Eshun's work, _Future Cinema_ lacks any sense of the political economy of the new media it explores, and so the same shelf would also benefit from holding books by Steve Shaviro or Mike Wayne or Manuel Castells. [8] The necessity of such redress becomes increasingly obvious in Caspar Stracke's essay on neurocinema and Peter Weibel's essay on quantum cinema, which provides _Future Cinema_'s closing words: 'These intelligent image systems will be a next step toward liberating humanity from the natural prison of space and time' (601). This is nothing more than cyberpunk's twenty-year old -- tired old -- dream of cyberspatial disembodiment, the same old zipless fuck of a supposedly immaterialised postmodern capital.

 

University of the West of England

Bristol, England

 

 

Notes

 

1. Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr, 'Futuristic Flu, or, The Revenge of the Future', in George Slusser and Tom Shippey, eds, _Fiction 2000: Cyberpunk and the Future of Narrative_ (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1992), p. 44. Although it resulted in a profoundly different project, the 'if this goes on . . .' formulation, central to mid-century US sci-fi, resonates with the decision of the Sankofa collective to name themselves after 'the mythical African bird signifying *the act of looking into the past to prepare for the future*' -- Chris Darke, 'Beauty and Struggle: The Work of Isaac Julien', International Film Festival Rotterdam <http://www.filmfestivalrotterdam.com/en/article/339332.html>.

 

2. Hoberman's words recall Isaac Julien's contention that 'cinema is dead and it's up to artists to resurrect it' -- Julien, 'In Two Worlds', _Sight and Sound_, July 1999, p. 12. This particular installation should be considered alongside Garrett Stewart's _Between Film and Screen: Modernism's Photo Synthesis_ (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999).

 

3. Cornell Boxes, of course, play a central role in William Gibson's 1986 cyberpunk sci-fi novel, _Count Zero_.

 

4. In Eugene Byrne's 1999 sci-fi novel _ThiGMOO_, such digitally created characters lead a successful global socialist revolution.

 

5. Such immersive installations, designed to reconnect the immersee with the historical and material, play an important role in _The Powerhouse_, a 1997 young adult sci-fi-horror novel by Gwyneth Jones writing as Ann Halam.

 

6. This is one of the joys and terrors of even the most debased sci-fi: watch the 1930 sci-fi-musical-comedy _Just Imagine_, set fifty years in the future; laugh at the ultramodern apartment that still has a murphy bed; despair of the perpetuated misogyny.

 

7. Kodwo Eshun, _More Brilliant Than The Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction_ (London: Quartet, 1998), p. 20.

 

8. See Steve Shaviro, _Connected, or What It Means to Live in the Network Society_ (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003); Mike Wayne, _Marxism and Media Studies: Key Concepts and Contemporary Trends_ (London: Pluto, 2003); and Manuel Castells, _The Rise of the Network Society_ (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), _The Power of Identity_ (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), and _End of a Millennium_ (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000).

 

Filmography

 

_Back to the Future_ (Robert Zemeckis, 1985)

_D. O. A._ (Rudolph Mate, 1950)

_The 4-D Man_ (Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr., 1959)

_Just Imagine_ (David Butler, 1930)

_Mad Love_ (Karl Freund, 1935)

_Sans Soleil_ (Chris Marker, 1983)

_The Walking Dead_ (Michael Curtiz, 1936)

 

 

Copyright Film-Philosophy 2005

 

 

Mark Bould, 'if This Retrofuturistic Flu Goes On . . .: On _Future Cinema: The Cinematic Imaginary after Film_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 31, May 2005 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol9-2005/n31bould>.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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