Cinema as a form of composition

From Firenze University Press Journal: TECHNE

Michele Guerra, Dipartimento di Discipline Umanistiche, Sociali e delle Imprese Culturali, Università degli Studi di Parma

Technique and creativity

Having been called upon to provide a contribution to a publication dedicated to “Techne”, I feel it is fitting to start from the theme of technique, given that for too many years now, we have fruitlessly attempted to understand the inner workings of cinema whilst disregarding the element of technique. And this has posed a significant problem in our field of study, as it would be impossible to gain a true understanding of what cinema is without immersing ourselves in the technical and industrial culture of the 19th century. It was within this culture that a desire was born: to mould the imaginary through the new techniques of reproduction and transfiguration of reality through images. Studying the development of the so-called “pre-cinema” — i.e. the period up to the conventional birth of cinema on 28 December 1895 with the presentation of the Cinématographe Lumière — we discover that the technical history of cinema is not only almost more enthralling than its artistic and cultural history, but that it contains all the great theoretical, philosophical and scientific insights that we need to help us understand the social, economic and cultural impact that cinema had on the culture of the 20th century. At the 1900 Paris Exposition, when cinema had already existed in some form for a few years, when the first few short films of narrative fiction also already existed, the cinematograph was placed in the Pavilion of Technical Discoveries, to emphasise the fact that the first wonder, this element of unparalleled novelty and modernity, was still there, in technique, in this marvel of innovation and creativity.

I would like to express my idea through the words of Franco Moretti, who claims in one of his most recent works that it is only possible to understand form through the forces that pulsate through it and press on it from beneath, finally allowing the form itself to come to the surface and make itself visible and comprehensible to our senses. As such, the cinematic form — that which appears on the screen, that which is now so familiar to us, that which each of us has now internalised, that has even somehow become capable of configuring our way of thinking, imagining, dreaming — that form is underpinned by forces that allow it to eventually make its way onto the screen and become artistic and narrative substance. And those forces are the forces of technique, the forces of industry, the economic, political and social forces without which we could never hope to understand cinema. One of the issues that I always make a point of addressing in the first few lessons with my students is that if they think that the history of cinema is made up of films, directors, narrative plots to be understood, perhaps even retold in some way, then they are entirely on the wrong track; if, on the other hand, they understand that it is the story of an institution with economic, political and social drivers within it that can, in some way, allow us to come to the great creators, the great titles, but that without a firm grasp of those drivers, there is no point in even attempting to explore it, then they are on the right track.

As I see it, cinema in the twentieth century was a great democratic, interclassist laboratory such as no other art has ever been, and this occurred thanks to the fact that what underpinned it was an industrial reasoning: it had to respond to the capital invested in it, it had to make money, and as such, it had to reach the largest possible number of people, immersing it into a wholly unprecedented relational situation. The aim was to be as inclusive as possible, ultimately giving rise to the idea that cinema could not be autonomous, as other forms of art could be, but that it must instead be able to negotiate all the various forces acting upon it, pushing it in every direction. This concept of negotiation is one which has been explored in great detail by one of the greatest film theorists of our modern age, Francesco Casetti. In a 2005 book entitled “Eye of the Century”, which I consider to be a very important work, Casetti actually argues that cinema has proven itself to be the art form most capable of adhering to the complexity and fast pace of the short century, and that it is for this very reason that its golden age (in the broadest sense) can be contained within the span of just a hundred years. The fact that cinema was the true epistemological driving force of 20th-century modernity — a position now usurped by the Internet — is not, in my opinion, something that diminishes the strength of cinema, but rather an element of even greater interest. Casetti posits that cinema was the great negotiator of new cultural needs, of the need to look at art in a different way, of the willingness to adapt to technique and technology: indeed, the form of cinema has always changed according to the techniques and technologies that it has brought to the table or established a dialogue with on a number of occasions. Barry Salt, whose background is in physics, wrote an important book — publishing it at his own expense, as a mark of how difficult it is to work in certain fields — entitled “Film Style and Technology”, in which he calls upon us stop writing the history of cinema starting from the creators, from the spirit of the time, from the great cultural and historical questions, and instead to start afresh by following the techniques available over the course of its development. Throughout the history of cinema, the creation of certain films has been the result of a particular set of technical conditions: having a certain type of film, a certain type of camera, only being able to move in a certain way, needing a certain level of lighting, having an entire arsenal of equipment that was very difficult to move and handle; and as the equipment, medium and techniques changed and evolved over the years, so too did the type of cinema that we were able to make. This means framing the history of cinema and film theory in terms of the techniques that were available, and starting from there: of course, whilst Barry Salt’s somewhat provocative suggestion by no means cancels out the entire cultural, artistic and aesthetic discourse in cinema — which remains fundamental — it nonetheless raises an interesting point, as if we fail to consider the methods and techniques of production, we will probably never truly grasp what cinema is.

These considerations also help us to understand just how vast the “construction site” of cinema is — the sort of “factory” that lies behind the production of any given film. Erwin Panofsky wrote a single essay on cinema in the 1930s entitled “Style and Medium in the Motion Pictures” — a very intelligent piece, as one would expect from Panofsky — in which at a certain point, he compares the construction site of the cinema to those of Gothic cathedrals, which were also under an immense amount of pressure from different forces, namely religious ones, but also socio-political and economic forces which ultimately shaped — in the case of the Gothic cathedral and its development — an idea of the relationship between the earth and the otherworldly. The same could be said for cinema, because it also involves starting with something very earthly, very grounded, which is then capable of unleashing an idea of imaginary metamorphosis. Some scholars, such as Edgar Morin, will say that cinema is increasingly becoming the new supernatural, the world of contemporary gods, as religion gradually gives way to other forms of deification. Panofsky’s image is a very focused one: by making film production into a construction site, which to all intents and purposes it is, he leads us to understand that there are different forces at work, represented by a producer, a scriptwriter, a director, but also a workforce, the simple labourers, as is always the case in large construction sites, calling into question the idea of who the “creator” truly is. So much so that cinema, now more than ever before, is reconsidering the question of authorship, moving towards a “history of cinema without names” in an attempt to combat the “policy of the author” which, in the 1950s, especially in France, identified the director as the de facto author of the film. Today, we are still in that position, with the director still considered the author of the film, but that was not always so: back in the 1910s, in the United States, the author of the film was the scriptwriter, the person who wrote it (as is now the case for TV series, where they have once again taken pride of place as the showrunner, the creator, the true author of the series, and nobody remembers the names of the directors of the individual episodes); or at times, it can be the producer, as was the case for a long time when the Oscar for Best Picture, for example, was accepted by the producer in their capacity as the commissioner, as the “owner” of the work. As such, the theme of authorship is a very controversial one indeed, but one which helps us to understand the great meeting of minds that goes into the production of a film, starting with the technicians, of course, but also including the actors. Occasionally, a film is even attributed to the name of a star, almost as if to declare that that film is theirs, in that it is their body and their talent as an actor lending it a signature that provides far more of a draw to audiences than the name of the director does.

In light of this, the theme of authorship, which Panofsky raised in the 1930s through the example of the Gothic cathedral, which ultimately does not have a single creator, is one which uses the image of the construction site to also help us to better understand what kind of development a film production can go through and to what extent this affects its critical and historical reception; as such, grouping films together based on their director means doing something that, whilst certainly not incorrect in itself, precludes other avenues of interpretation and analysis which could have favoured or could still favour a different reading of the “cinematographic construction site”.


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