Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The cinematic condition

One of the great projects of criticism and of inquiries into media aesthetics is the philosophical inclination to try to answer the question of what a medium is. But I resist this tendency simply because in defining something, we lose that which we are defining. It becomes just another filled space in a field of language and identification, serving little purpose and holding little meaning outside of that. Having said that, I accept that these practices are inevitable and I engage in them as much as anyone else. Film theorists, for example, are plagued by the question "What is Cinema?" It's a seemingly simple question commonly used as a spring board for philosophical reflection and debate. Yet the problem of thinking this way about media and communication may not be in the discourse to come from asking the question, but in the question itself.

Over at Elusive Lucidity, Zach Campbell asks another question. Instead of focusing on what cinema is, he asks what is cinema for. In other words, what are social, aesthetic, cultural, economic conditions under which images are produced and consumed? I would add that we maybe shouldn't study the act of consumption or production, but of the position of the producer, consumer, and any other individual within this scheme. He problematizes very efficiently the notion of thinking in terms of essences and definitions. For example, he lists off all that cinema is, can be, and in some cases isn't:

"To what all can we equate the cinema? For starters: lost causes, mirror images, failures, dream-food, a drug, a certain form of reality, lèse majesté, toadying, bullying, pleading, pornography, a captured sequence of sounds/images that may give a reasonably identical experience to the viewer over multiple viewings, a substitute for action, a displacement of life, a patriarchal funhouse, today's Grand Guignol, faith, celluloid, maybe pixels, beginnings and ends, a two-lane blacktop."

I do recommend visiting Zach's site to read his reflections, which are far more compact and (dare I say) lucid than my own.


Liz said...

Ted, I've long been an admirer of your blog, and this is my first comment here.

To me, mediums are nouns attached to physical objects--film, paint on canvas, Photoshop and tablet, bronze, clay, etc. It's the most basic observation one can make about an art piece.

The meaning is derived from cause, and effect--the purpose of the individual pieces and artistic movements as intended by the artists, and the effect it has on viewers/society. In this context, we would be asking, "why cinema" and "what has cinema become," rather than "what is cinema". Isn't that what we ultimately strive to ask in studying art in its various forms?

Ted Pigeon said...

Liz: First off, thanks for commenting. Please feel free to do more of it!

I would file the "What Has Cinema Become?" question under Zach's "What is Cinema For?" question, because it concerns the conditions for cinema's being, the position of filmmakers and viewers within social, economic, technological and culture spheres. I see these social formations as constantly colliding with one another, entering into each other and interwoven. When we're asking about the artistic and / or technological, social (etc.) growth of cinema, we are essentially inquiring as to the production of cinema, i.e. examining how cinema is given meaning.

With the "Why Cinema?" question we are treading more philosophical waters, which is fine. It actually bring in the question of media that you addressed, which is really tricky. In my view, media are not necessarily restricted to news or art, and they don't break down to genres or types. Media represent anything that mediates essentially, and field through which information is packaged and distributed. So while you could say film is its own medium, it represents the convergence of countless mediating technologies and social meaning-making devices, all of which with their own designed functions and sets of implications.

But, again, I like to frame these inquiries through the questions of the conditions (i.e. social, cultural, political, economic, technological) under which films are made and made to possess certain meaning, and communicate certain ideas. To ask "Why" runs a risk of ignoring some of these concepts, and how they interrelate via ideology.

Liz said...

Hi Ted--thanks for responding.

You're right, media can be anything that mediates, but I narrowed down the scope to art when discussing it in a cinematic context. After all, this blog's name is "The Cinematic Art." :)

Yes, it is essentially the same thing, to ask "what is it for?" and to ask "why?". I guess what I attempted to do is to make a distinction between the artist and the viewer, because it involves two separate collections of conditions under which the question of "why" would be answered. Yes, some of the elements of these conditions would be interwoven at one point of another, but I think the core values would be different because the purpose of the action involving the medium would be different--one is to create and the other is to watch and to interpret.

The conditions and meaning of an art piece for the artist is more specific, and easier to pin down and explain (whether the decision was conscious or unconscious). But what happens to an film after it's been watched by millions of people would be entirely different, and the meaning becomes a lot more amorphic.

I sometimes see critics attach interpretations of the viewers to the artist's purpose in creating a piece (such as: critic-"That death of the puppy was symbolic of the lost innocence in today's youth." artist-"No, I just wanted to make people sad."). I just think it's important to make that distinction, and to do due diligence by asking both why it was created and what it has become while examining it from a social, economical, technological, and cultural standpoint.

I guess in my first post, instead of "why cinema?", I meant to have asked, "why was cinema made?"