I recently made the distinction between "film" and "cinema" and observed why these terms are crucial to how we constitute, understand, and build upon the medium. David Bordwell brings these issues to light in the latest entry on his blog by mapping a cinema in relation to its influences. He points to the fact that cinema is a fusion of various media, technologies, and aesthetic traditions, which in turn provides a wide number of theoretical frameworks through which to engage it. Of particular interest to me in relation to my recent discussion of film versus cinema is Bordwell's mention of the photographic properties of cinema and how they have influenced our notions of what cinema is:
"The great film theorist André Bazin claimed that cinema’s photographic basis made it very different from the more traditional arts. By recording the world in all its immediacy, giving us slices of actual space and true duration, film puts us in a position to discover our link to primordial experience. Other arts rely on conventions, Bazin thought, but cinema goes beyond convention to reacquaint us with the concrete reality that surrounds us but that we seldom notice.
I think that Bazin’s idea lies behind our sense that long takes and a static camera are putting us in touch with reality and inviting us to notice details that we usually overlook in everyday life. (I try out this line of argument in relation to the tactility of Sátántangó here.) Moreover, you can argue that in treating cinema as a photographic art the filmmaker surrenders a degree of control over what we see and how we see it. Bazin made this claim about the Italian neorealists and Jean Renoir: creation becomes a matter of an existential collaboration between humans and the concrete world around us.
An example I used in my book Figures Traced in Light pertains to a moment in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Summer at Grandfather’s, when a tiny toy fan falls between railroad tracks as a locomotive roars past. The fan’s blades stop, then spin in the opposite direction as the train thunders over it. The blades reverse again when the train has gone. (This detail might not be visible on video.) Did Hou know how the fan would behave? Isn’t it just as likely he simply discovered it after the fact, making his shot a kind of experiment in the behavior of things? Conceived as a species of photography, cinema can yield visual discoveries that no other art can.
Interestingly, cinema didn’t have to be photographic. Many early experiments with moving images were made with strips of drawings, such as the Belgian Émile Reynaud’s Praxinoscope. You can argue that recording glimpses of the world photographically simply proved to be the easiest way to obtain a long string of slightly different images that could generate the illusion of movement. Some filmmakers, such as George Lucas, hold that filmmakers are no longer tied to photography, and that the digital revolution will allow cinema to finally realize itself as a painterly art."
This last paragraph is particularly resonant because it dares to suggest that perhaps cinema is not interchangeable with film. Perhaps we have been using the wrong terms to discuss cinema, in so doing shaping a very limited approach to what constitutes a moving image. Somewhere along the line, it seems as though with use of terms like film we have conditioned ourselves to understand cinema exclusively in terms of photographic. As Bordwell mentions, there is a myriad of narrative conventions, technologies, and media that have contributed to the birth of cinema. Why must our understanding of cinema be limited to what can be captured with a camera?
The emergence of digital technology directly calls into question what constitutes a produced moving image. Interestingly, we often refer to digital cinema as digital effects in movies, in which a digital component is added to the photographically captured image. The digital is often understand within a culturally cemented understanding of cinema as film in that digital technology is often understood in relation to photographically captured images. But what constitutes a pure photographed image? While a camera captures "actual" reality, that reality is represented on film differently than it may be perceived by the eye. While the camera is an obvious technological extension of phisiological components of the eye and the brain, as is all of cinema, but what can we account for as truly being "real." Digital images on film represent a component of cinema outside of "film," yet it is often comfortably situated amongst our ideology of cinema as film. Therefore, digital images are meant to "stand-in" for the real; they synthetically add elements to a composition that the camera did not capture, but they are still positioned as such. Shilo T. McLean elucidates these matters in the essential book, Digital Storytelling: The Narrative Power of Visual Effects in Film.
But I am particularly interested in an oft-forgotten (and arguably more important) aspect of the digital cinema: digital video. With digital video, you have a digital treatment of a medium that was dominated with a photgraphic understanding of the analog. Therefore, digital video has its roots in film, only it represents a different form of photographically capturing an image. Movement is captured, constructed, and presented differently, therefore relations of time are understood differently (since, according to Deleuze, space creates time, not the other way around) via new synaptic possibilities of presenting movement within a space as digital video enables. With digital video, then, we face a problematic issue of defining film or cinema and, more importantly, how those definitions greatly influence how we interpret the images it produces and understand the techologies through which such images are constructed. Of course, this is an oversimplified summation of concepts and analytical approaches that require far more in-depth examination. Nevertheless, this necesary overhaul of how we understand cinema begins with identifying the tensions within our current ideologies regarding the medium and recognizing the problem. We must first start by asking the question: what is cinema? Perhaps that is harder to answer than we think. And maybe we can't answer that question sufficiently because the tools with which we build our conceptions of cinema have constructed an ideology of cinema that ignores a great variety of other possibilities that would alter how we define the medium of cinema and how that medium grows.