Jeffrey Geiger and Karin Littau (eds.): Cinematicity in Media History.

Jeffrey Geiger and Karin Littau (eds.): Cinematicity in Media History.

Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015, ISBN 978-1474402774, 244 p.

Author
Andrew Behrendt
Keywords
media history; film studies; technology; cinematography; aesthetics; visual studies; comparative media

Let the appearance of jargon in this book’s title deter no one: Cinematicity in Media History is an inviting, interdisciplinary collection of essays on the question of what it has meant to interact with moving images in the modern era. The volume mounts a welcome opposition to the teleological pitfalls of what W. Russell Neuman has termed the “heroic” and “systemic” models of media history, whereby valiant geniuses produce revolutionary inventions and each new media format/device is destined to give way to the next and disappear dutifully into obsolescence (Neuman 2010: 6–11). The essays in Cinematicity strike a collective blow against this: not only from a technological point of view, in showing that media forms and their presentation devices enjoy longer lives than often given credit, but more profoundly from an aesthetic one, demonstrating that existing media both shape and share with emergent forms the very ways viewers perceive moving images. This is a media history of concurrent, parallel stories, of intersections and influences.

Jeffrey Geiger and Karin Littau define the all-important term “cinematicity” as “the close affinity to, and distance from, the photochemical realm of filmmaking and film exhibition that so many art forms, forms of entertainment, media, and cultural expressions appear to manifest” (Geiger and Littau, 2015: 3). In other words, it “relates to the qualities and traces of cinematic creation and perception: a mode of mind, method, or experience that will surely endure beyond the life or death of celluloid” (ibid). Within this framework, Geiger and Littau propose that cinematicity shows two distinct “tendencies”. The first comprises those “cinematic properties that are unique to cinema itself,” such as cinematography and projection in a darkened theatre. But it is the second tendency that is the true subject of the book: “the sense of cinema as dynamic, interconnected, and interrelated not only with those media it closely resembles, but with a broad range of art forms and expressive modes”, including those before the “official” invention of cinema in 1895 and beyond the “photochemical era of celluloid film” (ibid.: 8).

Indeed, the first set of essays, centred on the themes of transformations and ephemerality in “cinematicity before cinema”, reaches into the past well before that legendary date. Joss Marsh reveals the impact of the magic lantern show on Charles Dickens’s prose, and Kristian Moen examines contemporary reactions to the use of special-effects lighting in nineteenth-century France. The two scholars show how, in their respective subjects, the power of light to create a sense of visual animation inspired literary metaphors of change: in Dickens, the writing of a “new secular scripture,” whereby “visual transformation produces spiritual conversion” (ibid.: 27); in the French theatrical féeries (dazzling fantasy-plays) and fountain spectacles, a “metonymy” for the birth of an “extraordinary new visual world” powered by electricity (ibid.: 40). Ian Christie’s chapter introduces readers to the Praxinoscope, Kinetoscope, and the Filoscope, three late-nineteenth-century motion-picture devices, persuasively asserting that celluloid film neither vanquished its coevals immediately, nor had a monopoly on claims to cinematicity. As the title of Christie’s essay enjoins, these first chapters “take seriously” the popularity and influence of “intermediate and ephemeral” forms of cinematicity – and should convince readers to do likewise.

The second bloc of chapters tests the boundaries of cinematicity by searching for the effects of early cinema on other art forms in the turn of the twentieth century, with a special emphasis on quasi-autobiographical literature. Littau’s piece on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wall-Paper (1892) nicely bridges the first and second parts of the book. It interrogates how the cinematograph and its predecessors left their mark on the consumption of other media, illustrating how “reading during this period was repeatedly represented, or addressed, through the lens of visual technologies” (ibid.: 67). In a similar vein, Keith B. Williams explains how James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914-15) emulates early motion picture photography in bestowing on its narrator, Stephen Hero, a cinematic gaze translated into literary description. Rounding out the trio are Nico Baumbach’s reflections on the fascination with “incidental details” expressed by some of cinema’s first observers (ibid.: 107). In their enthusiastic responses to the way that film captured the actions of nature, Baumbach locates a subtle, but crucial moment of transition to a new idea of art.

Part Three features three strikingly different explorations of cinematicity in the 1930s-1940s heyday of sound film. In a brief but welcome detour from the Anglo/Francophone world, Anke Hennig examines the poetics of Mikhail Bleiman’s film scripts of the 1930s as an example of how Soviet screenwriters sought to make their works a distinctly “cinematic” form of storytelling, independent of literary narrativity. Jeffrey Geiger’s essay on aerial views, particularly in American government propaganda documentaries in the 1930s and 1940s, should be earmarked for attention by scholars of the culture of empire. Geiger uncovers the coevolution of American imperialism and the capability to photograph the Earth from ever-higher altitudes – and, consequently, brings to light relationships between cinematicity and political power. Tom Gunning, whose influence (most of all his work on the “cinema of attractions”) can be felt throughout this volume, contributes an elegant, engrossing analysis of late Film Noir, demonstrating how the cinematicity of the city has been shaped historically by a dynamic combination of technological and social factors.

The final cluster probes the impact of digital media on contemporary cinematicity. It is commendable, in particular, for the way in which it holds true to the volume’s aversion to approaching media history as a series of radical breaks between past and present. Leon Gurevitch’s entry surveys the development of computer-generated (CG) imaging in film and gaming from the 1960s through the present day, arguing that CG’s emergence represented a “mediated negotiation with, and expansion of” – not a departure from – the cinematicities associated with chemical photography (ibid.: 175). In her sympathetic meditation on watching movies on a smartphone screen, Martine Beugnet posits that the experience is neither a degradation, nor even a true abandonment, of traditional theatrical exhibition. It is, in Beugnet’s poignant account, “an immersion in a miniature universe whose gate opens in the palm of one’s hand” (ibid.: 206). Finally, Lev Manovich closes the volume with a report on the software visualisation of the frame-by-frame content of light and movement in the films of Soviet director Dziga Vertov. This reversal of Vertov’s famous “Kino-eye” concept, as Manovich styles it, not only adds a new dimension to the formal analysis of Vertov’s work; it also shows off the digital tools that make possible a rigorously quantitative discussion of cinematicity.

The editors and contributors of Cinematicity in Media History deserve praise for bringing forth an edited volume that has the most to offer when it is read in toto, and not simply considered a buffet line of individual essays. Scholars from different fields will, of course, discover more to interest them in particular chapters than in others. But whether one is a specialist in Film/Media Studies, literature, modern cultural history, or the history of media technology, one will find that the themes invite rather than discourage trans-disciplinary participation, and, just as crucially, that the writing is compact and accessible across areas of concentration. Even more than this, however, it is the volume’s chronological arc that truly binds everything together. We follow the trace of what it has meant to see “cinematically” from the magic lantern to the iPhone, without ever falling into the trap of determinism – all the while being reminded that older ways of seeing do not surrender easily to the new.

Yet this anti-determinism itself raises a set of historiographical questions that the book does not address. Even if a compelling case can be made that 1895 is not Year Zero for the Common Era of seeing cinematically, what, then, is the rough threshold date for the beginning of modern cinematicity? Is it with the magic lantern in the eighteenth century? Might we find it earlier than that, perhaps in a non-European culture? Is it possible, even preferable, to imagine a complete timeline that de-thrones photochemical film as the privileged vehicle of cinematicity? If so, what are its phases? If not, is there something specific about “traditional” cinema that prevents such a dramatic recasting of the historical narrative? Greater engagement with these lines of inquiry would have put a more satisfying seal on the volume. Ultimately, though, one hopes that this task will fall to the scholars Cinematicity in Media History inspires to follow the promising paths it has broken.

Andrew Behrendt

University of Pittsburgh, Center for Russian and East European Studies

Aeb72@pitt.edu

Bibliography

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. 1999. “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” In The Yellow Wall-Paper, Herland, and Selected Writings, edited by Denise D. Knight, 166–82. London.

Joyce, James. 2000. The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Edited by Jeri Johnson. Oxford.

Neuman, W. Russell, ed. 2010. Media, Technology, and Society. Theories of Media Evolution. Ann Arbor.

Suggested Citation

Behrendt, Andrew. 2017. Review: “Jeffrey Geiger and Karin Littau (eds.): Cinematicity in Media History.” Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 4. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2017.0004.33

URL: http://www.apparatusjournal.net/

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