Screens (1)

Here’s a video I put together with images of a hundred screens on which I’ve watched films since I started this project. It is a lo-fi, three-minute clip made up of still images, live and found sound.

(There are, in fact, just over a hundred screens in this cut – but there are also a couple of screens on which I didn’t actually watch a film, so it cancels out). I am in the process of putting all these screenings into the map, so in due course you will be able to see basic information about all of these. For now, the video intends to be playful rather than informative. I made it using only open-source software (GIMP, Blender and Audacity), in a couple of days, on my parents’ computer. Hopefully later I will be able to make a longer, more argument-driven video-essay.

When I started this project I thought about how I would document my scattered, relatively informal fieldwork. Apart from reading a lot about field notes, and accumulating guilt for never writing them up on time, I also pondered audio-visual documentation. I read Tricia Wang’s article on ‘live ethnography‘, where she discussed her multiple forms of data collection on the field. I am not connected enough to do this ‘live’ (that is, I don’t use a smartphone, yet), but I recognise her desire to “ease myself into a fieldsite through the very act of documenting and sharing my documentation”. I also found that, at the very least, a picture would have a date stamp and jog my memory when my notes scribbled in the dark were too confusing.

I attend and document public events, where photography is allowed. But even when this is the assumption, I decided I would avoid taking pictures where individuals are recognisable. In most cases, it would not be practicable to request permission from everybody present, and obtaining permission from an event gatekeeper would not discount the fact that some people might prefer not to be on display. Taking pictures of the space, perhaps with the back of people’s heads, was sufficient for my purpose. Most events have their own photographers or Facebook albums, which usually do a better job of capturing audience reactions than I could. I focused instead on the less photogenic things, such as the projector, the blackout curtains, and – as above – the screens. I have also experimented with sound recordings, as heard in the first half of the video. While I find the stereo ambient recordings very evocative and useful to recreate a situation, I am not that sure about sharing them. The stereo recorder is a stealthy piece of kit, and it is more likely to capture conversations without the subjects – or myself – noticing. It may be that I restrict its use to situations in which I am able to obtain informed consent directly, although it would be a shame to give up the vivid atmosphere of ‘crowd effects’.

In the video I mix live sound with archive sound from three sources. Movieman is a documentary about James Nairn, a pioneer film exhibitor and filmmaker, in which he talks about some of the first venues at which he worked in the 1920s, including the Savoy Cinema in Edinburgh. From British Pathé News I got some notes on the tripling of the ABC cinema (also in Edinburgh) in 1969. And I used a 1936 Hitchcock film, Sabotage, which opens with a scene of a power cut at a movie theatre (and the complaint: “If I wanted to sit in the dark, I could do it at home – free of charge”).

These archive sounds are meant to work in counterpoint to the images, by evoking the heyday of theatrical exhibition. James Nairn’s recollection of a cinema which was a converted shooting gallery is a reminder that the permanent, purpose-build cinema didn’t appear out of nothing, but through adaptations and appropriations. The hype about the ‘three screens under one roof’ at Edinburgh’s ABC points to another moment of change in commercial exhibition. My first cut of this video had used the soundtracks from various cinema demolition videos, playing with the idea of this explosion of screens rising from the ashes of the old. But the sounds were not only unpleasant and incomprehensible; their intended meaning perhaps played too much into a narrative of decline that ignores the constant reinvention of public film exhibition since it began.

I was editing this video at the same time as I put together an abstract for the Alphaville conference, which uses #CinemaIsDead as its provocation. As the call for papers makes clear, for every critic that laments cinema’s abandonment of their particular definition of the word, there is someone creating a new definition that makes sense to them, now – or retracing a historical path-less-travelled.

In their introduction to The State of Post-Cinema, Malte Hagener, Vinzenz Hediger and Alena Strohmaier tackle this discourse of crisis, situating it in relation to “cinema” as an art form distinguished by its indexical relationship to reality, and “cinema” as a dispositive. In the current situation, they argue, we need to find ways to understand and talk about cinema without remaining bound by that “specific, contingent configuration known as “cinema”” (2016: 4). If that sounds ambiguous, the chapters in the book demonstrate the concreteness of the discussion: from pirate networks to livecast opera to Jafar Panahi’s This is not a Film (2011), moving images keep being created, circulated, and viewed with little concern for ontological definitions and theoretical boundaries. But if the idea of “cinema” seems infinitely malleable, “a cinema” seems much easier to describe.

I’ve also been reading Gabriele Pedullà’s 2012 book In Broad Daylight, which argues that the movie theatre in the twentieth century was “a steely modernist device”, a technology that enforced forms of audience behaviour to encourage concentration on the film. Taking a leaf out of art historians’ examination of the gallery as aesthetic device (the ‘white cube’), Pedullà describes the assumed classical auditorium as a ‘dark cube’ which imposes a certain ‘viewing style’ (p. 25-27). It is this viewing style that seems to have lost its primacy. But if it was, as Pedullà argues with unwarranted certainty, an imposition from above, a disciplining of the public to submit to the wishes of filmmakers, then the dethroning of this viewing style is a moment of possibility, like that of early cinema before its theatricalisation became dominant. And by dethroning I don’t mean disappearance, but rather a recognition of the movie theatre’s contingent relationship to film experience.

Of the hundred screenings in my video, only a few took place in fully darkened, soundproofed spaces. But that doesn’t mean that the expectations associated with the ‘dark cube’ automatically fall away outwith the purpose-built cinema. The screen is in front (even if it’s just a wall). The audience is watching. Around those basic facts, these images show all sorts of negotiations, using and subverting the ever-shifting definitions of cinema.