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Future Cinema: The Cinematic Imaginary after Film

Editor: Jeffrey Shaw, Peter Weibel
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003
Review Published: April 2005

 REVIEW 1: Bob Rehak

Weighing in at more than 600 pages, each of them thick and glossy, crammed with photographs, diagrams, and tiny, sans-serif type, Future Cinema makes -- as a sideline to its arguments about media convergence -- a pretty good case for the death of the book. While the job of writing this review forced me to tackle it linearly, the sheer density of information and number of approaches collected in Future Cinema had me wishing I could skip through chapters with the seven-league-boots of Adobe Acrobat’s interface. The essays, proposals, polemics, and theories gathered here cry out for bookmarks and hyperlinks, connectivity tools allowing readers/navigators to chart their own paths of interest within the filigreed forest of interrelations (and not incidentally hack that forest down to manageable size). The text, in short, might work more effectively as hypertext. With its silvery covers and phone-book dimensions, Future Cinema is less a publication than a technological artifact -- a tombstone, let us say, for Johannes Gutenberg.

But maybe that's the point. Originating in an exhibition that ran from November 2002 through March 2003 at the ZKM Media Museum in Karlsruhe, Germany, Future Cinema is a fat compendium that explores the exploding world of digitally-transformed cinema. This world, the editors enthusiastically note, is one in which the boundaries between text and hypertext, movie and game, theory and practice, are becoming increasingly blurred. While its introduction mentions the ideological critique of classical cinema (epitomized in the psychoanalytically-derived apparatus theory made popular in the 1970s), the bulk of Future Cinema is keen to celebrate, not criticize, transformations of subjectivity, environment, narrative, and time made possible by the artistic redeployment of representational technologies. In fact, it is precisely the artist-theorist's intervention that undermines the various hegemonies of Hollywood, rewriting formal codes of visualization and storytelling, and liberating the placid spectator trapped Matrix-style in the heart of a soulless, profiteering dream machine. In this sense, Future Cinema takes part in the technoutopian propaganda that ten years ago was all the rage in discussions of virtual reality (VR) and which now surrounds, in hipper and glitzier form, videogames, the internet, and "new media" overall. It's as though William Gibson's cyberspace cowboy mated with Howard Rheingold's VR homesteader to produce, in the words of editor Peter Weibel,
    a new class of experts, those individuals formerly called artists, [who] have developed technical competence enabling them to challenge a cinematic homogeneity supported by millions of dollars, and to rival and surpass Hollywood's innovative, narrative, and expressive achievements. This book offers evidence of a surprising fact: Even the technological and ideological apparatus of huge industries can be transformed by individuals. (16)
Future Cinema's mission, then, is to use the work of such individuals to deconstruct culturally, capitalistically, and technologically embedded conceptions of cinema, liberating the medium from those who would merely make it into -- and take it for -- entertainment "product." How does this work in practice? To begin with, Future Cinema the book seems committed, for better or worse, to the same serendipitous hybridity as Future Cinema the high-tech art installation. Just as museumgoers, wandering the flashing exhibits and hushed spaces, might find themselves enraptured by one display but not another, so readers of Future Cinema are likely to encounter much that enlightens, mingled with much that doesn't. As an academic, I most appreciated the essays on cinema's historical roots and probable future trajectory: reprints and excerpts of canonical texts by Vivian Sobchack, Andre Bazin, N. Katherine Hayles, Marsha Kinder, Brian Winston, and Raymond Bellour. Little in these writings was new to me, though reading them in the context of media (r)evolution was invigorating.

I struggled, however, with much of the rest of the content, which details multimedia installations such as Jon Jost's Trinity: An Altar Piece -- a sixty-minute, seven-screen setup resembling Stonehenge as it might be painted by Peter Max if he were an inhabitant of Flatland. The illustrations are handsome, but Jost's accompanying text doesn't do much to deepen my understanding of them:
    Trinity has no sound: the intention is that while the temporal aspect is to be sensed as music, the visual element is meant to be psychologically received in a manner related more to painting than to "media" or "cinema." I concluded that any sound would shift the viewer’s expectations into anticipations of a filmic kind, and distract from the essential painterly qualities of the imagery. The "sound" of this work is to be found in the use of time orchestrated through the movements and interplay between the screens. (211)
The bulk of Future Cinema is devoted to such shed-more-shadow-than-light explications, which fall somewhere between a director’s commentary on DVD and the pretentious rambling of art patrons trying to out-analyze each other at a gallery opening. It may be the case that artists, even those trained in critical theory, are not the best spokespersons for their own creations. (Of course, it may be that Future Cinema is designed to push the buttons of media academics and artists, for each group tends to contest the other’s ability to successfully critique the object they hold in common. It would be just as easy to find a section of impenetrable academic jargon and hold it up for bemused head-scratching.)

Future Cinema is divided into thirteen sections, numbered in descending order, like the countdown to a rocket launch. The first cluster -- The Cinematic Imaginary; Screenings; Theaters; and Codes -- lay out a general theoretical and historical model of cinema, building a backdrop for the mind-stretching perspectives to come. Admirably, the opening quartet rejects easy, narrow definitions of the filmic object or moviegoing experience, stressing instead the social and historical determinations that have always made cinema a result of its material conditions. This array of writings, which would make a fine addition to the reading list in a seminar on media history, finds the roots of cinematic experimentation in the human appetite for vision and the technologies -- from optical toys to industrial equipment -- that seek to satisfy that hunger. Of particular note is Richard Hamilton's "Glorious Technicolor, Breathtaking CinemaScope and Stereophonic Sound," which, paired with Bazin's "Will CinemaScope Save the Film Industry?" reminds us that no decade has been free of its own particular dream of "expanded cinema" -- a welcome antidote to the seductive "state of the art" aura with which we flatter ourselves that now, at the dawn of the new century, film will finally be released from its shackles.

The next three sections – Remapping; Transcriptive; and Recombinatory -- showcase works in the ZKM exhibition that rework film as physical object and narrative as causal flow. This is followed by a trio of topics in which the notion of cinema itself dissolves into a free-form riff on space, truth, and viewer assimilation: Navigable; Interpolated; and Immersive. Finally, the closing chapters (Calculated; Networked; and Screenless) turn away from images and spaces produced through photography and instead focus on "actors" and "environments" produced within the algorithmic forge of the microprocessor. At this point, the art installations recede into the background, clearing the way for a final round of speculative essays on artificial life (the generation of primitive self-replicating "life forms") and machinema (the generation of movies using videogame engines).

Overall, Future Cinema seems doomed both by format and content to dissatisfy its audiences -- forcing them into a pick-and-choose hunt for items of interest. In the process, much of the book's ample offerings will be discarded, even disdained. One comes away from Future Cinema impressed but unedified. Too many of the essays float freely, unmoored from a common language or overarching mission. More editorial context would help: interstitial essays, a less lofty and more practical introduction, even a simple summary to cap things off. Maybe that's asking too much of a book that purports to capture the vast, chaotic, creative flux of a medium in transition -- a medium, in fact, that has never not been in transition. As it is, Future Cinema adds up to little more than a beautifully designed coffee-table book, and that's a shame.

Bob Rehak:
Bob Rehak is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University, Bloomington. His work has appeared in The Video Game Theory Reader (Routledge, 2003) and the journal Information, Communication and Society (2003). He is currently writing a dissertation about special effects. Previously, he reviewed Masters of Doom and ScreenPlay for RCCS.  <zencat@indiana.edu>

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