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The Cinema Effect

Author: Sean Cubitt
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005
Review Published: February 2007

 REVIEW 1: Anxo Cereijo Roibás

In The Cinema Effect, Sean Cubitt is concerned about what the cinema does, about its effect. According to Cubitt, if the cinema fails to trigger any effect at all, it doesn't do anything, and therefore it has no reason to be. He argues that its mysterious ensemble of images, moving images, and images and sounds does something, something significant, and its first effect is to exist. Its existence is not easy and its effect has somehow direct or indirect links to reality. However, even riveting films fail to depict reality in a convincing way. As the author points out with the Titanic caase study, special effects contributed to accentuate this phenomenon. This is the problem of the object of cinema, and as the book concludes, "if beyond the dimensionless plenum of the commodity there is to be a cinema effect, it will arrive as an art of time, the struggle to construct what no one ever lost: the future" (365).

Following the guidelines of the French film theorist Jacques Aumon, Cubitt's analysis of cinema focuses of relationships between the cinema and its environment; he takes into consideration the changes that this relationship brings to light instead of looking at the filmic objects. As Cubitt notes: "Our task here is to take Aumon's suggestion, and to work at a moment prior to the constitution of either the model or the represented given" (5). This is an approach that goes beyond normative criticism. He is intrigued by the origin of the cinematic movement, by how a moving image that is constructed from a number of constituent images can be an image. As the author asserts, the moving image is the most ancient of the arts and, at the same time, the most modern. Cinematic movement brings the question of temporality, the question of when is the object of cinema, and when is the moving image. Since the prehistory dancers, sculptures and rock paintings aimed to enchant audiences with the effect of moving images. The cinema has industrialized the effect that moving images have on the audience. As Cubitt notes: "The magic of cinema, the cinema as special effect, arises from this intertwining of relations of movement, scale, distance, and repetition, from this ancient history of time. But there is also the modernity of cinema to consider, the specificities of time in the age of capital and globalization" (6). Modern automation, technological advances and mechanized measurement of time have determined the naissance of the cinema and fostered its gradual transformation into a commodity, in the way it increasingly became spectacle.

The Cinema Effect is a comprehensive, timely and accurate study of the so-called Seventh Art since Lumière's works in the XIX Century till the last releases at the beginning of the XX century. Cubitt explores from a socio-cultural point of view, the evolution of this media in different areas such as Europe, India, China, Japan, Russia, and the US, proving the reciprocal relationships between them. At the same time, he evidences the reciprocal influence between the cinema and its context -- that is, the socio-cultural, artistic, technological, economic, religious, political, and philosophical elements.

The book begins by looking at how the cinema started finding a place in the increasing leisure time of the French working class of the end of the nineteen century, which by then was evolving from an autonomous medium to commodity. During this temporal frame, Cubitt makes use of a number of representative film works to explain accurately the continuous mutation of the cinema. Its metamorphosis begins with the cinema of the pixel, a cinema that is characterized by the iteration of time and that seeks to represent. It is followed by a second mode of cinema that reproduces, starting with the introduction of the cut first (that introduces the objection of space) and, subsequently, the vector, focused on the production of meaning. And finally, there is a third mode that generates.

Thereafter, the book illustrates the normative cinema that is represented within the three main categories: total film, realist film, and classical film. It also shows how film has gained from the technological innovations in the first thirty years of the twentieth century developing into the sound cinemas of the 1930s. This period is also the beginning of total films in which both cinematic effects (including the use of music) and rhetoric join synergy to provide a clear and unique message to the audience. The complexity of adding sound to images goes beyond the technical problem of synchronization (that has been solved in 1929). It brings the difficulty of integrating the sound with the picture in an organic way. Here, Cubitt takes Eisenstein's point of view when associating the audiovisual problem to the problem of color in cinema. He notes: "the gradations of color ... could be recruited for a cinematic art that would be capable of totality. This faith in color as the resolution of the sound-image dialectic takes its strength and meaning from a long series of contemplations on the relations between sound and image" (114).

The author analyzes La regle du jeu in order to elucidate how sound introduced the problem or representation -- that is, the problem of realism. He also studies Hollywood's cinema industry and the evolution of the classical norm, the superficial, and the obvious cinema: "Never overestimating its audience, the classical film tells us everything three times at least (image, sound effect, dialogue). It is obvious also in the sense that it withholds nothing. With the end of the silent era, the secret voices of the stars were no longer locked in the inner eras of their fans: radio and synchronization brought them out of the realms of mystery" (164). More than any other element, scripts and clarity of dialogues become a crucial issue for the classical film because they enhanced the focus of the audience's attention on the stars. In a system designed to convert loans into product and product into profit, the superficial film is not produced to remain in the screen, but to be consumed and to make way for the next production. Classical cinema uses techniques to enhance the sense of fantasy, as it needs to be spectacular, and at the same time, advertise itself as spectacle to mass audiences.

Following this, Cubitt analyzes the so-called "post-cinema" of the post-war period and the cinema's evolution through our times. The neoclassical film gives way to the Hollywood baroque, where film becomes the medium of movement (while TV takes over its previous function of time-based medium). According to Cubitt, neobaroque films are not interested in representing change, but instead aim to uncover the truth -- the genuineness and authenticity of facts that have been veiled by history. The author elucidates the importance of this category and provides evidence of neobaroque elements that are present in classical (e.g. Citizen Kane) and contemporary (e.g. Matrix) films. With the development of digital technologies and an emerging special effects' industry that "promise to elevate fantasy worlds above the troublesome everyday world" (247), enhance beauty, and intensify emotions, mass entertainment and especially North American cinema starts to move towards the digital media, forgetting its traditional task of making sense of the world and instead represents it. As Cubitt notes: "Digital effects tend to communicate rather than represent, a shift in emphasis from the analog era of ideology. They not so much depict or falsify actuality but communicate aspiration" (260). It is the period of the technological film.

In the meantime, Europe, dominated by a neomysticism of New Age, is a fertile area for the generation of surrealist films (or what Cubitt denominates oneiric film): "Mystery, grotesque, eroticism, satire, ugliness, and dignity combine in rich, distracting disorientations of realism in the cinemas of Mendieta, Angelopoulos, Patwardhan, Kurostami, and hundred others" (290). Oneiric films want to react against the random seriality of factory production and spectacular consumption of the Hollywood machinery. Unlike oneiric films, revisionary films focus on culture and the deconstruction of the present and of identity: they aspire to communicate national identity and unity as shown in Cubitt's exploration of contemporary historical films in Japan, India and China.

Finally, Cubitt looks at multicultural and cross-cultural films, or cosmopolitan films, that aim to maximize their viewers, to win a global audience (audience in sociological terms, as people and citizens rather than statistics) and which, "in the process, have had to invent as a special effect an address to the audience that might constitute it as a global" (331). Here, Cubitt analyzes the concept of audience and viewers, and the incentives that bring them to watch a specific movie: "No audience comes to a film ignorant of cinema, or of the role in realizing it. The task of cinema is to deliver audiences to films, and the task of audiences is to constitute films as objects of consumption" (333).

Cubitt's analysis of cinema consists of a meticulous vivisection of each film and aims to identify all its elementary threads: technical and artistic value, content, commercial impact, political message, etc. However, Cubitt doesn’t analyses these elements apart, but rather takes into account their mutual relationship with the external context. In this way, he explains the cinema evolution in terms of adaptation to the changing environment. In doing this, the reader can sense, understand, and reflect how society has been shaping cinema and, at the same time, how cinema has been forming society.

For Sean Cubitt, communication is the fundamental activity of human beings and the cinema is a commodity that is the dominant medium of communication in our period. The Cinema Effect is to some extent an encyclopedia of the history of the cinema, looking at its societal, cultural, technological, political, and religious dynamics. At the same time, this book contains a very remarkable filmography that includes almost all of the most relevant and representative works of history of the cinema industry worldwide.

Anxo Cereijo Roibás:
Dr. Anxo Cereijo Roibás is Senior Lecturer at the University of Brighton, Visiting Professor at the National Institute of Design in India, and member of the Executive Committee of the British-HCI Group. He has been involved in research projects addressing the future of pervasive interactive multimedia systems with support of the Vodafone Group Foundation, the British Royal Academic of Engineering, and the BT IT Futures Research Centre.  <a.c.roibas@brighton.ac.uk>

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