3. The Post-Colonial

Epic (2002)

How little of any of this you actually selected. A spectator can avoid certain movies, but not The Movies. You have been part of a captive audience all your life. Love it or leave it. But even if “they” permitted you to leave, there is no place to go. They own the airports. They own the telephones. They have seen to it that the pictures are everywhere…. You are nudged toward the conclusion that the movies have been provided for your benefit. The invisible producers — “They,” the Atomic Rulers of the World — love you, all of you: your rods and cones, your pulse and neurons, every hyper-receptive inch of you. The way they explore your nervous system is an act of tenderness. They want you to be pleased. It would be terrible to think otherwise….

–Geoffrey O’Brien, in The Phantom Empire

Our parents and grandparents sat in the dark and gazed at screens onto which light was projected through transparent celluloid attached by sprockets to a wheel revolving at a speed calculated to generate the illusion of movement. The insight they derived from that mechanical experience — “Life is like a movie, a movie is like life” — was, of course, one proposed by cinema itself. Still, it took. There was, it seemed to many, something to the idea. Cinema subsequently became a powerful analog adopted by the twentieth-century mind to explain the experience of Being Alive, Now. Cinema’s components — spectacle, narrative, star — transferred to the whole of the mainstream culture and came to organize it. Motion pictures colonized the mind of the industrialized world.

Of course, the idea of cinema, its analogic capacities, competed against the medium’s socioeconomic reality; with all its “stars,” cinema was still an earthly form. Film historian David Thomson argues that by 1947 the real significance of cinema — as a business art that understood and met its sociocultural contract with the mass audience — had ended. The Paramount case of ’47, and the subsequent court ruling that forced the studios to divest themselves of theaters, broke the studios’ vertical control of the industry, and thereby altered the economics of movie-making. Around the same time, viewing habits changed, with the introduction of television. A competing medium whose frank commercial angle limited its analog potential for intellectuals but conquered most industrialized societies anyway, television further diminished cinema’s status. That story is well known and need not be told here.

No analog is forever compelling or forever true. Analogs succeed one another in their usefulness to us. Thomson argues that “the movies,” as a specific historical phenomenon, functioned as a useful and necessary device for getting people accustomed to modernism. The audience saw others of their kind on screen in conditions that combined verisimilitude — the look of life — with a dreamlike quality and a scale that transcended reality’s limitations, which experience corresponded with the news recently delivered by Freud of the complex unseen inner life and by Einstein of the complex outer life. That work was finite, though, only a phase in our development. Like earlier forms — before the movies, the novel had claimed the title of Most Compelling; before the novel, it had been…what?: lyric poetry? religious paintings? — the cinema analog too was destined to be superseded by another. As Hollywood became more and more about the money that films could generate and less and less about cinema’s social contract with the audience — as movies became, in other words, more a product created in something akin to bad faith — the importance of cinema as a cultural and psychological force declined. Even while there remained isolated, important films, the audience felt increasingly free to treat the movie phase of modernism as having a start and a finish.

But was the end of cinema’s analog value due to a “failure” or to a spectacular success? As O’Brien describes it, “…they strove to turn their lives into moving pictures, their wars into moving pictures, their governments into moving pictures… The captive audience (no one talked much about their enthusiasm any more) had moved ever closer toward perceiving the world as an immense nickelodeon, an enclosed area delimited by walls of screens — movie screens, television screens, computer screens — on which the action never stops…” In other words, cinema’s analogic power came to an end because its work was done. Moving pictures had succeeded in colonizing the mind of the world. They’d changed the way people thought about their experience external to movies. The virus had infected the world’s imagination. But: heaps of videocassettes in a videotheque? So many images? So many images that, actually, the images themselves had come not to matter, despite the fact that they’d been created in the language of the dominant analog of the time? Really, could anyone ask for better evidence of a post-colonial phase? More, supporting evidence: the recycling of story lines, the recycling of imagery. Question: Why does any movie today have a car chase in it? Answer: Because movies have car chases. Self-cannibalization is a sign of decay, of bankruptcy. “The only game,” as O’Brien put it, “was to guess in what sequence the ingredients would emerge this time….”

A technology that had succeeded in molding our perception of life is superseded by another technology: that’s an old story, a regular event in history. And when the superseded analog happens to have been a dominant mass entertainment medium, like film? What then? If the phrase “like a movie” no longer describes life quite so truly as once it seemed to, what is life now “like” instead? — a computer file? the World Wide Web? a cellphone? an Ipod?

Probably it isn’t like any of those things. We may not have discovered the right analog for our current consciousness yet, the one that corresponds to this age. Of course, another, fresher and more disorienting possibility is that the very idea of a grand mediumistic metaphor for life, performing in the way that movies had performed, is passé, dated — “modernist.” We might have entered a “post-analog” condition. We can’t rule that out. Ought we to look upon this potential post-analog state as an “absence” or is it better understood as an opportunity to move on to another phase of being human? And if are moving on, what is to be the fate of all those ideas that attached during the long period of cinema’s dominance: scenario, acting, “star,” relation of camera to event, etc? Are they left dangling, just so much unfinished business? Understand that I’m not concerned about their fate within the movie industry so much as I am all those manifestations of cinema-influenced concepts, external to the film industry, that went into organizing our experience of the mainstream culture. Where do all those filmocentric ideas GO? What becomes of them? What are we to do with them NOW?

Epic (2002)

“Post-colonial” doesn’t mean that the system which colonized us has disappeared. The British were out of the Sudan by 1956, but traces of their presence exist to this day. Similarly, the cinema model is still hugely present as an organizing force — penetrated deep into the infrastructure of reality, the infrastructure of consciousness, how it is that we recognize ourselves and the world…. A system was set up, and the system continues, even as it is perceived to be something whose authentic life is from another era. The cinema analog is implanted in the collective memory which it had itself done so much to construct. History has become fused with the footage of history. All of us know that. Even so, technological change — the digital thing — has delivered the collective memory into a period of vulnerability, of instability.

So far as this essay is concerned we’re only interested in what opportunities this development might afford the independent imagination. The pleasure that we take from the video clips that appear on, say, YouTube — often they are fragments; often they lack any narrative other than that of crude sequencing; they range from highly professional to being entirely without virtuosity of any sort, even without skill, poorly lit, bad audio — demonstrates that everything which cinema in its colonizing phase had FORCED US TO DEAL WITH (star, genre, story arc, narrative payoff, craftsmanship, what have you) can be jettisoned or abandoned and the resulting window of synthetic time successfully deliver the entertainment vibe nevertheless. Fragments, it turns out, are enough, now. Already exposed to more than a sufficient amount of Footage to understand what Footage is all about, we are adept at sensing what a fragment indicates of the sensibility of the maker and how the medium is being positioned by him… Just why this should be the case is vastly less important than the blunt fact that it is the case — which development indicates, I don’t feel that I’m going out on a limb in arguing, a genuine evolutionary moment in our recognition of what the human experience of Being Entertained feels like and ought to feel like. That evolution may or may not be a momentous development. To people who have it in mind to entertain or to be entertained, though, it is certainly necessary information

Set aside any ideas about valuation. Do we really need to have the discussion about whether Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries aspires to tell us more about the human condition than some throwaway minute-long YouTube clip featuring (to arbitrarily choose one example) your wedding party performing the dance from Michael Jackson’s Thriller video? Of course we don’t. Valuation isn’t the point. The point is something very different. The point is the surprise, the very pleasant surprise, that an inane two-minute YouTube clip of your wedding party’s Thriller dance does satisfy some raw condition of entertainment.

That it manages to do so without also making us feel like idiots while we’re watching a wedding party’s Thriller dance is, though, due to features external to the clip itself. It is due in part to your vast backlog of experience watching Footage, and in part to the sophistication of the platform that presents the clip. After all, when you watch one of those video clips you’re not just watching the clip, you’re also making contact with the platform — in this case, YouTube — just as, when you listen to the radio, you’re not just hearing music but making contact with Radio.

Epic (2002)