Magazine article Artforum International

21st Century Cinema: Death and Resurrection in the Desert of the (New) Real

Magazine article Artforum International

21st Century Cinema: Death and Resurrection in the Desert of the (New) Real

Article excerpt

  "I predict that all movies will be animated or
    computer-generated within 15 years."

--Bruce Goldstein, "Flashback: The Year in Movies," Village Voice,
Dec. 28, 1999

  "It is in the nature of analogical worlds to provoke a yearning
  for the past. ... The digital will wants to change the world."

-- D. N. Rodowick, The Virtual Life of Film (2007)


Can we speak of a twenty-first-century cinema? If so, on what basis?

Writing in the aftermath of World War II, French film theorist Andre Bazin characterized cinema making as an essentially irrational enterprise--namely, the obsessive quest for that complete representation of reality he termed "total cinema." This mystical guiding myth was, in Bazin's view, a factor of cinema's ontology--the medium's "integral realism," based on the camera's objective gaze and the chemical reaction by which light left an authentic trace on photographic emulsion. Thanks to the impartial, indexical relationship between the photograph and the photographed, motion pictures offered an image "unburdened" by artistic interpretation. (1)

According to the myth of Total Cinema, each and every new technological development--synchronous sound, color, 3-D, Smell-O-Vision--served to take the medium nearer to its imagined essence. "Cinema has not yet been invented! " (2) When true cinema was achieved, the medium itself would disappear--just like the state under true communism. Bazin believed this could happen by the year 2000. In fact, something else occurred: The development of digital imagery broke the indexical bond between photography and the world.

The divorce was initially experienced as a crisis in photography. Thanks to Photoshop, among other means of digital manipulation, the photographic became a subset of the graphic. For motion pictures, the crisis was even more existential: Bazin had imagined cinema as the objective "recreation of the world in its own image." (3) But digital image-making precludes the necessity of having the world, or an actually existing subject, before the camera--let alone the need for a camera. The history of motion pictures was now the history of animation.

Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park (1993) and George Lucas's Phantom Menace (1999), two Hollywood blockbusters combining photographic and computer-generated imagery--actual people interacting on-screen with nonexistent creatures--offered early clues to the new direction. (Both movies also engaged in a particular strategy of naturalization by inscribing CGI into prehistory, whether that of the earth or that of the Star Wars saga.) So, in another way, did Douglas Gordon's 1993 video installation 24 Hour Psycho--in which, wrenched from its natural context and re-presented as a re- (or, perhaps, de-) animated, digital image of itself, the old-fashioned analog motion picture became an object of contemplation.



Combining live action with frame-by-frame digital manipulation, The Matrix (1999), written and directed by the Wachowski brothers, presented an even more complicated hybrid. No previous animated film had so naturalistically represented the physical world. In addition to reconciling, if not entirely vaulting, the "uncanny valley," the discomfiting gap between photographed humans and computer-generated humanoids, The Matrix provided an irresistible ruling metaphor--we live in simulation, a computer-generated illusion concealing the terrifying Desert of the Real--that was heightened by the approach of a new millennium. Thus, in the universe of The Matrix, Bazin's dream arrived in the form of a nightmarish virtual existence: Total Cinema as total dissociation from reality. (4)


If the motion pictures of the twenty-first century were subjected to psychoanalysis, their symptoms might reveal two types of anxiety--one objective, the other neurotic. …

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