The Cinema Effect

Sean Cubitt,
The Cinema Effect.
Cambridge, Massachusetts:The MIT Press. 2004
ISBN: 0 262 03312 7
464 pp
Au$69.00 (hb)
(Review copy supplied by MIT Press)

Sean Cubitt’s book The Cinema Effect is hard work. Reading it involved an intense level of concentration that was akin to climbing Mt.Everest blindfolded (or so I’d imagine). My perceptions shifted from admiration, to agreement, to sheer frustration. In the end, however, it is well worth the climb. It wouldn’t be an understatement to say that this is a haunting book in that sections of it stay with the reader for days, weeks and, indeed, months after the initial reading. Ideas in the book kept playing themselves out in my mind. Like the famous Soviet strategy of agit-prop, this book forced its content beyond the boundaries of its pages and into my social space. Cubitt sets himself no mean task: beginning with the premise that an analysis of film also entails an understanding of the evolution of commodity form, he explains that he wants “to know what the cinema does”.

Placing himself firmly within the traditions of Western Marxism and psychoanalytic semiotics (and try as he might, he cannot resist the ‘lingo’), he nevertheless takes large leaps beyond these traditions, forging new and exciting territories in the process. No review or summary of this book could really do it justice: it needs to be experienced to be truly understood. In this review, like Cubitt, I will try to tease the reader into embracing the ride that is The Cinema Effect: my primary focus will be the first part of the book, for it is here that Cubitt lays the foundations for what follows.

Cubitt embraces a brave task in questioning Bordwell’s attempts to “establish as normative the practices of the North American film Industry” (5), while removing from history film styles that are either independent of this tradition or, indeed, those that resist the norms from within the Hollywood studio structure. It is in the analysis of examples of the non-normative practices that Cubitt’s work shines. He takes the reader on a series of exciting and intellectually stimulating journeys that sometimes intersect and, at other times, follow their own distinct paths. “The historian” he explains “must be alert to difference as much as to similarity… the materialist historian has also the ethical duty to watch out for contradiction and alternatives” (5). And this ethical duty he performs with great skill and with an evident passion for the issues and films he chooses to analyze.

The first part of the book begins with early cinema. He understands the “terms pixel, cut, and vector” as strategies and explanations that outline “a retrospective historiography of images in motion from the standpoint of the digital eras written for a digital audience” (3). In early film he finds the rudimentary formations of the cinema that follows. The pixel encapsulates the cinema’s “first and most special of all effects”: the depiction of motion, and in the second chapter “Temporal film: the pixel” he takes us back to the first public projections of Louis and Auguste Lumière’s films in 1895. Invoking the writings of Tom Gunning, Anne Friedberg, and Wolfgang Schivelbusch, he discusses the significance that these films have, not only as special effects that display “The dynamism of the cinematograph as event rather than narrative” (15), but as emblematic of an emerging consumer and urban culture. It is in the detailed analysis of the Lumière film Workers leaving the factory (France, 1895)(which depicts laborers – especially women – leaving the Lumière factory) that Cubitt opens a doorway that leads to a fresh way of perceiving the significance of this film. “Why”, he asks, “would the first film ever made picture workers leaving a factory?”

This film depicts a moment in history that witnessed many changes. Beyond its role as an object that embodied technological advancement – the cinematograph’s ability to create movement with photographic realism – it also marks a cultural shift: “the modernization of urban experience” (16). In conjunction with the world expositions, vaudeville halls, pleasure gardens, and train journeys, the cinema became representative of a new urban leisure culture that rewrote class hierarchies and introduced the concept of the ‘masses’. Like the Impressionist paintings popular during the period, the cinema manipulated light into patterns that suggested the vibrancy and movement of a dynamically changing everyday life. In this, Cubitt suggests, we discover “an homage to life as animation” (28).

Turning to the films of George Méliès in chapter 3 (“Magical film: the cut”), he continues by exploring the properties of the “cut”. In Trip to the Moon (France, 1902), for example, the emphasis on movement and time (the pixel) found in Workers leaving the factory, is expanded through the focus on space: objects are distinguished from their movement (42). Through the magic of special effects and an early example of stop motion, Méliès represents movement in “layers stacked in front of or behind each other” so that the fascination is one with the recognition of objects and their movement in space: this mode of cinema he calls the cut (43). While Méliès’s films are examples of what Gunning calls a “cinema of attractions”, interestingly, Cubitt introduces the example of the director Phalke whose Hindu epics offer a contemporary alternative to Gunning’s attempted normalization of early cinema as a cinema that favours spectacle over narrative. Phalke’s effects, on the other hand, are firmly integrated into narratives that are concerned with “anticolonial formations” (58-62). As is the case with the Lumière examples, he goes beyond the formal properties of the cinema in order to frame Méliès within the context of life in modern Europe. The ‘cut’ as mode of analysis extends into culture and is evident in the phenomenon of consumer culture, the shopping arcade and department store, and the concentration/immersion of the consumer/flaneuse. Here, we find the spectacle of consumerism that fetishizes its objects and relies of the fragmented gazes of its consumers.

And so, in Chapter 4 (Graphic Film: the Vector), we move on to the “vector”. Primarily focusing on the animated classics of Emile Cohl, he argues that the serial logic of these animations (whereby the metamorphic nature of films like Fantasmagorie (France, 1908) reveal meaning in the process of construction) carry with them a “digital destiny”. In their animated sequences, these films shift from representing “objects and world to the mobile relationships between them”: the “vector temporalizes space” (71-2). While the chapter is brimming over with wonderful analytical insights and a loving attention to film details, it is also indicative of the frustrating aspects of Cubitt’s work. At times, he strays from the more original insights he has to offer, to a reliance on the authority provided by the legitimizing properties of theory. In his conclusion to this chapter, for example, Cubitt sums up by stating that the pixel corresponds to philosopher Charles Peirce’s “firstness” (a rudimentary stage of meaning construction) and the Lacanian Real, the cut to Peirce’s secondness and the Lacanian Imaginary, and the vector to Peirce’s “thirdness” and the Lacanian Symbolic (90). In addition to suggesting a quasi-evolutionary logic, Cubitt searches unnecessarily to discover hidden structures that underlie film history past and present, which is ironic given his justifiable critique of the normative analyses of the cinema encapsulated by film historians like David Bordwell. Furthermore, these forays into theoretical justification tend to detract from the lyrical quality that otherwise permeates Cubitt’s writing style.

Thankfully, these are momentary lapses in what is otherwise a creatively formulated book. The first four chapters lay the premise of the book, and this is developed further in the parts that follow. Part 2 deals with sound and normative cinema, and cleverly looks for ruptures: norms that are turned on their head. Chapter 5 (Total film: music), turns primarily to the coming of sound, the thorny issue of realism, and Eisenstein’s concerns with the impact of synchronized sound – especially in relation to the power of montage: “To use sound in this way will destroy the culture of montage” (105). Emblematic of the vector, Eisenstein’s films were rooted in (political) meaning production – a strategy that would be undermined by the realist (narrative) possibilities inherent in synched sound. Chapter 6 (Realist film: sound) further explores the realist aesthetic and, via the writings of Andre Bazin, Cubitt takes issue with the idea that Jean Renoir was the “master of realism” (131). In the analysis of Rules of the Game (France, 1939) Cubitt looks at Renoir’s film through a new lens: rather than understanding Renoir as the master of deep focus cinematography and flowing camera movements that were, for Bazin, emblematic of his realism, Cubitt sees persistent ruptures that are typical of the cut. “Space”, he states, “is discontinuous in Renoir’s film” (132). Sound in this film creates multiple focal points in the narrative events, which can further lead to multiple interpretations: no single gaze dominates. Again it is in the actual analysis of the film that the text comes alive and the reader is taken along diverging stories such as that dealing with the history of perspective theory and the integral role it played in informing early film theory.

One of the most playful chapters is the seventh (Classical film: dialogue, sound, image and effects at RKO). Through the production rationale of RKO, Cubitt aims to reveal that this studio was anything but a norm operating within the Hollywood system. In addition to its diverse (rather than standardized and specialized) genre output, films like the Astaire-Rogers classic Flying Down to Rio (USA, 1933) reveal that, far from being ‘classical’ and ‘realist’ in the Bordwell sense, they, in fact, challenge the classical norms. While succumbing to synching rules and insisting on a style that remains focused on narrative clarity and character development, in many scenes (especially those dealing with the more grandiose song and dance numbers), Flying Down to Rio also turns those rules upside down. Discussing one of the musical numbers that involves planes and lots of sky, Cubitt explains how “the back projection… goes into overdrive, racing through a montage of landscapes as the (soon to be ex-) lovers croon…”. He continues: “It is unlikely that the film is deliberately poorly made, or that the RKO crews were incapable of a more exacting verisimilitude… The film rejoices in its artifice” and celebrates RKO’s own contribution to new sound and imaging technology (166).

The latter part of the book continues to follow the logic of the first part while we move on to the contemporary era with focuses on the neoclassical, the neobaroque, the oneiric, technology and special effects, the global and ethnicity. Like the experience within a Wunderkammer, reading each chapter (and sections within chapters) is like opening a cabinet in the chaotic realm of the Wunderkammer’s object-filled world. Each drawer in each cabinet can unveil all sorts of surprises – some may delight us, others may repel, but all in all, the experience is one that shouldn’t be missed.

Angela Ndalianis
Melbourne University, Australia.

Created on: Friday, 3 December 2004 | Last Updated: 3-Dec-04

About the Author

Angela Ndalianis

About the Author

Angela Ndalianis

Angela Ndalianis is Research Professor in Media and Entertainment Studies in the Department of Media and Communication at Swinburne University of Technology. Her research focuses on film and entertainment media. Her publications include Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment (2004), Science Fiction Experiences (2010), The Horror Sensorium: Media and the Senses (2012) and the edited books The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero (2009) and Neo-baroques: From Latin America to the Hollywood Blockbuster (2016).View all posts by Angela Ndalianis →