Gravity: A New Cinematic Experience?
In 1996, Susan Sontag lamented the death of a certain kind of movie-going in her article “The Decay of Cinema.” For Sontag, the proliferation of home viewing technologies ruined the essence of “the darkened room”—the ultimate cinematic experience.
Cinema studies scholars since Sontag have similarly been engaged in debates about the state of cinephilia as a result of technological advancements, in particular the advent of digital media. This renewed scholarly interest has given rise to a number of significant anthologies, including Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin, Cinephilia: Movies, Love and Memory edited by Marijke de Valck and Malte Hagener, and Cinephilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction, a two volume series edited by Scott Balcerzak and Jason Sperb.
These anthologies, as well as Christian Keathley’s historical account of cinephiliac reception in Cinephilia and History, or The Wind in the Trees, have forcefully demonstrated cinephilia’s presence in the digital age. As Annette Michelson has noted, cinephilia has many forms for different historical periods, and it is important to recognize that there isn’t any such thing as “proper” cinephiliac behavior or the “essence” of cinephiliac reception. If we are to understand cinephilia as a love for the cinema—and I certainly think we should adhere to this comprehension—then we must remember that this love can be practiced in different ways by different cinephiles from different time periods, but that these differences do not create a cinephiliac hierarchy in which some forms of love are more intense or “true” than others.
This is not to suggest that there aren’t any differences in cinephiliac reception. Keathley is wise to acknowledge the ways technological advancements have altered cinephiliac behavior throughout cinema’s history. Moreover, Thomas Elsaesser distinguishes between two generations of cinephiles that he calls “cinephilia take one” and “cinephilia take two.” According to Elsaesser, “take one” represent the cinephiles of his generation like the Cahiers du Cinéma critics who spent their days in movie theaters watching films, in coffee chops talking about films, and expressed their ideas in print magazines and newspapers. It is appropriate to assume that Sontag mourns this form of cinephilia in her article.
Elsaesser describes “take two” cinephilia as “post-auteur, post-theory cinephilia that has embraced the new technologies, that flourishes on the internet and finds its jouisance in an often undisguised and unapologetic fetishism of the technical prowess of the digital.” It is mostly this form of cinephilia that the recent anthologies have embraced.
Of course we can debate whether or not there are only two generations of cinephilia, as Elsaesser seems to suggest. Sarah Keller, for instance, implies that Jean Epstein and other French theorist/filmmakers of the 1920s were among the first cinephiles to express an intense love for the cinema as well as for technology’s potential to enhance cinematic form in Jean Epstein: Critical Writings and New Translations. Elsaesser, on the other hand, begins the discussion with the Cahiers du Cinéma critics.
However, regardless of when cinephilia began, there does seem to be a general consensus that both cinema and cinephilia have shifted as a result of digital media, and this shift is precisely what Sontag opposes—the transition from theatrical viewing to home viewing; Barbara Klinger describes the phenomenon of home viewing well in Beyond the Multiplex: Cinema, New Technologies, and the Home.
This consensus is mostly true. Many cinephiles of the digital age discovered cinema via DVD and the internet, and contemporary cinephiliac behavior can be observed on blogs, forums, message boards, and websites such as this. However, the question remains: do cinephiles still find pleasure in the “darkened room,” and more significantly, do they need to?
Before I begin to discuss Gravity in an attempt to answer this question, I should perhaps note that I am among the contemporary cinephiles who embraces digital media but who also finds pleasure in that “darkened room” on a regular basis. Still, the majority of movies that I see in theaters I can just as well enjoy on DVD or on my computer, but it just so happens that I see them in theaters because I have the time to see them, I have access to the theaters in which the movies play, and I don’t particularly feel like waiting for the movie to be released to the internet months later.
This fact is what has caused certain scholars to oppose contemporary cinephiliac behavior. A part of the pleasure and magic of cinema is that once-and-a-lifetime theatrical experience that cannot really be captured after it is experienced. That is, before technology changed reception practices, cinephiles literally had to spend all day in the theater because that was the only way to see movies. Things have obviously changed, and now we can re-watch films at our leisure, re-wind them to certain scenes we love, and even re-purpose them via mash-up videos and YouTube homages. Over time, it seems that cinephiliac behavior has morphed from a desperate need to find and catch any film to an overwhelming instant access to nearly every film ever made.
And I’ll leave that discussion there because in many ways Gravity complicates it. We all know about the film—Alfonso Cuarón’s dream project, Sandra Bullock alone in space, 3D unlike any 3D we’ve seen, so on and so forth. A.O. Scott’s review in The New York Times explains the problem of writing about this film well, because there really aren’t any words to give the experience justice. It is a beautiful work of art with a strong central performance by Sandra Bullock, and the visual effects are, for lack of a better term, out of this world.
Moreover, I think Gravity complicates current debates about cinephilia because on the one hand it embraces the latest technologies but on the other hand it exists to reject contemporary reception practices. That is, it uses 3D and CGI to give the audience an experience unlike any they’ve had, but it is an experience that can only be had in the cinema.
It is easy to view Gravity as Hollywood’s attempt to achieve total market domination, and in certain ways, it is an artistic as well as an economic experiment. Cuarón certainly expands the cinematic form with his use of space and maybe even the narrative form with Bullock’s storyline, but Hollywood also pushes the limits of what it can do economically. By hiring two of the world’s biggest movie stars, giving one of our best filmmaker’s the money and the artistic freedom to create, and investing in new digital technologies, Hollywood proves that it can remain relevant in the digital age.
Most of what you will read about Gravity will discuss what Tom Gunning has called the aesthetics of astonishment, and this article is no different. I was quite amazed by the moving images projected upon the screen—and Gravity is the best 3D I’ve ever seen. Gravity is indeed a contemporary cinema of attractions, and it reminds us most of all that the spectacle is always more exciting than the story.
However, I was even more astonished by Hollywood’s ability to discover yet another way to render the theatrical experience unique. Even after internet streaming and on-demand, Hollywood has released a film that can only be enjoyed, appreciated, and “experienced” in a movie theater.
I want to tell you all to run out and see this film. I want to tell you to see it in 3-D. I want to tell you how amazing it is, how truly awesome the visual effects are, and how awe-inspiring Sandra Bullock’s commitment and dedication to the project is. I want to tell you all of these things, but I think you already know. I think you know that if you don’t see it now, in theaters and in 3-D, you will never see it the way it was meant to be seen, and you will forever miss out on one of the great cinematic experiences.
What do you think? Leave a comment.