Future Cinema & Trafic 50

By Chris Darke


Future Cinema: The Cinematic Imaginary After Film
Edited by Jeffrey Shaw and Peter Weibel 

Trafic 50, Eté 2004: Qu’est-ce que le cinéma?
By Raymond Bellour, René Belletto, André Bazin & Alain Bergala

Cinema has left the building… I have two autopsy reports on my desk: one from Germany and the other from France. The deceased’s name is ‘Cinema’. Having reached a ripe old age, which most put at around 100 years although others say it was still older, the deceased has received two exceptionally thorough reports, each running to over 600 pages.

However, despite definitive proof to the contrary in this country, both my European colleagues appear to believe that the deceased has not yet ‘left the building’, as we pathologists of moving pictures like to say. The title of the French report indicates that they have yet to come to terms, in France, with Cinema’s admittedly sad but long overdue demise. ‘What is Cinema?’ it asks.

Well, the answer is clear: ‘Dead’. As for the report of my German colleagues, working out of ZKM (Centre for Art and Media) in Karlsruhe, here, too, one finds the same sense of mourning playing itself out. They have chosen for their title, Future Cinema, in the vain hope that the more one keeps on invoking the deceased’s name, even when discussing all manner of video-installations and computer games, its spirit will return as if in some strange kind of séance. And while both imagine, somewhat sentimentally, that Cinema survives, there are major differences between the two reports.

To mark the 50th edition of the ‘revue de cinéma’, Trafic, the French have recruited an international roster of critics and film-makers – including Atom Egoyan, Abbas Kiarostami, Manoel de Oliveira, Jim Jarmusch and Gus Van Sant, among others – to answer the famous ontological riddle, ‘What is Cinema’, posed by André Bazin back in the 1950s. According to several of Trafic’s contributors, it’s an ‘impossible question’.

Interestingly, Bazin crops up in both reports, each of which reprint his 1953 essay ‘Will CinemaScope Save the Film Industry?’ a canonical evolutionary account of how, in the 1950s, ‘Hollywood understood that the defence against television had to be of a spectacular nature.’ Bazin goes on: ‘unlike the traditional arts, which can merely decline or suffer, film in principle is mortal. And it’s better to know from the start if one truly cares about its continued existence. I myself have underlined the danger to film’s survival only to reaffirm my faith in its future.’

One must turn to Trafic 50 to find the text, ‘Is Cinema Mortal?’, printed three months before his consideration of CinemaScope and in which he speculated: ‘Perhaps ‘cinema’ was only a stage in the vast evolution of the means of mechanical reproduction which have their origin in the 19th century with photography and the phonograph and of which television is the most recent example … it’s the second birth of cinema that makes it the spectacle that it has become today.’

Half a century later and one can justifiably ask what that ‘second birth’ delivered; Future Cinema provides a panoramic account. The Germans have produced a bulky silver beast of a book, a securely bound slab of 600-plus glossy pages, lavish with illustrations and dense of text; a compendium of prophecies, speculations and examples of ‘the Cinematic Imaginary after Film’. Future Cinema is the catalogue of the exhibition held at the Centre for Art and Media (ZKM) in Karlsruhe, Germany, between November 2002 and March 2003 but it aims to be far more than a mere catalogue; it wants to be a work of reference.

It sets out to cover almost every possible tributary of the moving image, both from the deceased’s pre-history when it was still in its embryonic form of magic lanterns and phenakistoscopes, right through to its digital afterlife in what Jeffrey Shaw, one of the show’s curators, calls ‘the consummate venture … the notion of a digitally extended cinema actually inhabited by its audience, who then become agents of, and protagonists in, its narrative development.’ Big Brother as the ‘consummate venture’ of the ‘cinematic imaginary after film’, anyone?

Future Cinema is available from ZKM & The MIT Press, 2003 priced $39.95

Trafic 50 is available from Editions P.O.L priced 30 Euros

Chris Darke writes extensively on all aspects of cinema. His latest book, a study of Alphaville, will be published early in 2005.