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Discovering Cinema in the Digital Age: A Roundtable with Dudley Andrew

A discussion with the professor, scholar and author on the issues presently facing the cinema, film criticism, and academia.

It’s a confusing time to be a cinephile. Some mournfully toll the death knell of the medium, with the near-total cessation of celluloid projection a symbolic end-point. Others insist that the prospects for audio-visual expression have never been brighter. They point to a vast array of new platforms and settings: whether in gallery-based video installations, high-end television series, or global video-sharing websites such as YouTube. But what of the once-cherished act of seeing a feature film with an audience in a theater? Many think it will go the way of opera. Yet alongside the digital enormities of the multiplex, formally and thematically challenging work continues to be made and shown on the festival circuit and elsewhere. Spectators may be overwhelmed by the all-access buffet of content now open to them, but they also have unrivaled opportunities to immerse themselves in the 119-year history of the medium.

A similar state of flux and uncertainty marks the present state of thinking about and writing on the cinema. While the traditional newspaper film reviewer has become an endangered species, the Internet has allowed an unprecedented number of people to voice their opinions on films—for better and for worse. Academic discourse on film, meanwhile, appears to be in a perpetual crisis-mode: no sooner had film studies established itself as a legitimate independent discipline, breaking free of literature and art history departments, than it began a transition into the more vaporous entity known as media studies—again, for better and for worse.

To help us understand this shifting landscape, we turned to Dudley Andrew, one of the doyens of academic film studies in North America, and professor at Yale University. Best known for his ground-breaking work on the French film theorist André Bazin, Andrew has also developed his own formidable theories of the cinema. These found their most recent and emphatic expression in the manifesto-like book What Cinema Is!, published in 2009. Insisting on the continued relevance of a realist understanding of film in an era dominated by the digital, What Cinema Is! pleas for a responsive, revelatory “cinema of discovery”, and argues that filmmakers such as Jia Zhangke, Abbas Kiarostami and Cristian Mungiu belong to—and extend—a tradition that includes Jean Renoir, Roberto Rossellini and Kenji Mizoguchi.

What follows is intended to be less an interview, and more an open, roundtable-style discussion between the three of us, as we explore the issues presently facing the cinema, film criticism and academia.


JOSHUA SPERLING: A key concept in your recent book is the “cinema of discovery.” Can you explain what you mean by “cinema of discovery”—as opposed to “cinema of enticement”?

DUDLEY ANDREW: I would love to have other people add to what I was thinking. It’s not a hugely original idea: simply that the cinema is a quasi-art that aims itself at situations in the world from a specific point of view. And the interaction between this point of view, this technology, and the world can produce something unpredictable yet significant.

So, there is a technology that can gather and organize; a point of view (which can be a plural point of view) that filters or focuses; and a situation that is amorphous and otherwise undefined, but which comes into an unstable, momentary coordination in the event of the film. So you’ve got an image of something that you didn’t know was there before.

SPERLING: Does it have something to do with the accidental or the improvised?

ANDREW: It has to do with both those things. And when we talk about the accidental, it is not so different from what Jacques Aumont was saying about the difference between the étude and the ébauche. The ébauche is a design made quickly to serve as an outline for a larger oil painting.  It is disposable. The étude, on the other hand, is made for itself by a sketch artist just trying to sketch what was in front of him. And if he were honest to his perceptions, he would put in the flowers whose colors didn’t accord with the main flowers, or a rabbit that might have run across his field of vision. The instamatic camera resulted from what these sketch artists were doing. I have always been very interested in this and it seemed as if the whole world was interested in similar ideas for much of the twentieth century. 

DANIEL FAIRFAX: At times you suggest a privileged relationship between the cinema—and especially the “cinema of discovery”—on the one hand, and modernization on the other hand. Almost as if the two are dependent on each other.

Above: Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali

ANDREW: I think you’ve heard my lecture relaying Alain Bergala’s notion that the cinema has helped the 20th century come to terms with a couple of major issues, big-scale  phenomena. Perhaps the most central one is the transformation of societies from predominantly rural to progressively urbanized. When there are masses of people being dislocated or having their way of life changed, the cinema can be—and evidently was—a great way of helping people make that transition, or at least letting them recognize it.

The cinema of discovery is possible in places where that still occurs. In my view, this is the value of a director like Jia Zhangke. At a certain point in time he was able to catch this group of 200 million people who are living somewhere in between, people who don’t even have roots anymore in their homeland, who are not really welcomed in the city but are required to be there. It’s not just another sub-group, it’s the sub-group for him. And this is what Chinese modernity is about—that plus corruption. It is very unstable and Jia gives you the feeling of instability in a remarkable way. He’s got it down. It’s strange for somebody like me to be able to feel that, because I don’t live there, but I now believe I understand that feeling, in the same way that I understood Aparajito or Pather Panchali when I saw them in 1962 and I said to myself: “What’s going on in India?”

It may seem contradictory, but cinema’s modernity lay in showing people in poverty—and this was shocking. Social inequality and mobility were producing all types of novel situations that were fascinating, troubling and really fantastic to look at and listen to.

SPERLING: In contrast to that, part of the problem you have with films like Amélie or Life of Pi is the extent to which everything is micro-managed and pre-planned. You suggest it’s almost like animation.

ANDREW: In the cinema I have seldom been impressed with people’s abilities to create amazing images. I should test myself on that because Jan Hagens from the Yale Divinity School recently told me that I should look at the new restored version of Murnau’s Faust. He says it’s fabulous. And reading Éric Rohmer’s description of space in Faust, I suppose I am interested in directors who can control something to get a certain kind of look. But this is where it gets really complicated, and why I’ve always returned to Bazin. Because Bazin would say about Faust: Okay, the guy is controlling a certain notion of space, which comes out of his art history background, with set designers and lenses and so on. But he’s going to take Goethe and see what happens when you combine his magnum opus with all these other elements, and you’re going to get a discovery which will be different from just reading Goethe, or creating a painting inspired by Goethe. And that’s where the accidental does arise. It’s a recipe of sorts: you put things together, you try it out and you let it fly. Of course I’m concerned about editing, and I need to be. That is the next step to take. Because a lot of my friends—Steve Ungar writing on Chronique d’un été, for instance—have worked on that cinema-of-discovery, fly-on-the-wall approach. But the question arises: what about narrative? What happens when you get beyond just capturing things with the camera?

FAIRFAX: I wanted to ask about this. Because Jean-Louis Comolli comes up with a tentative claim that the frenetic editing of the culture industry and audiovisual products (advertisements, music clips, James Bond films) represents the perverse victory of the Soviet montage tradition. And the only way the great filmmakers of the present can resist this is through pushing the long-take aesthetic. It’s a seductive thesis in a way, and with the filmmakers you mention, who are undeniably interesting, I often ask myself: where is the montage? Or is the cinema of discovery purely about letting chance events take their course in front of the camera?

ANDREW: Well Jia Zhangke certainly uses juxtapositions. There’s no question about that. And in Thailand, Apichatpong Weerasethakul takes an urban story and a jungle story and turns them into part one and part two of Tropical Malady. This is a juxtaposition, although it is not at the level of scenes or shots. And there’s the return, in a lot of mainstream high-budget film, to the virtuoso long-take. Of course it’s different in this context than it once was. Even if our current students don’t notice them, there were four of five magisterial shots from Ugetsu monogatari that were part of why I loved that film. Was it just because they were difficult to do? Maybe. And yet today it’s either done on a computer with compositing, or with steadicams. As if you can put whatever you want on the screen. Whereas in the past, we were agog at how the filmmaker was able to get those shots.

Above: Jia Zhangke's Still Life

SPERLING: Your students have all seen Fincher’s tracking shots through keyholes.

ANDREW: That’s right. Or Hugo. I have perforce become interested in 3D, and the opening tracking shot of Hugo begins with a picture of the clock; and then the clock becomes the city of Paris; you can see the Gare Montparnasse; and it swoops down, comes into the station, goes up to the clock and the number 4 with the kid looking out of it. Seven minutes later the kid comes down and repeats the movement, but now he’s on the floor of the Gare. Scorsese goes through all of the editing problems that you have when you try to actually shoot a scene in a train station, with a moving camera and people in the way, and the station becomes less of an imaginary space. The film presents  two different visions of what space is. In a way Scorsese opposes 3D to 2D; he seems to be suggesting that the old toys are still better than the new ones. Because there is friction involved—and that is a big word for me. In friction there is energy, heat, light. It’s a metaphor but it’s one of my favorite metaphors, and I use it when I try to get my students to understand what is aesthetically at stake. If everything is so smooth you can just see whatever you want, the way you can dream it up, then there is no work done. There is literally no work unless there is friction. Take the friction of a Cocteau film, for instance. His special effects are extremely clumsy. But he loved wrestling with them in order to get something magical.

Above: Martin Scorsese's Hugo

FAIRFAX: He also only ever used special effects that were in some way anchored in the cinema, using reverse-footage, for example. There was always some way in which it was tangibly a cinematic effect. I wonder if there is still a place for that simple sense of wonder with digital effects. There is that famous Lacanian statement: “I know very well... but all the same...” That is: I know very well that this is just a film, but all the same it looks so real. The general idea is that with the digital you lose the “I know very well...” and you just have the “but all the same.” You are just bowled over by the spectacular effects and lose any inquisitorial faculties.

But in some ways I feel it is actually the opposite: you sit in front of a digital screen with no wonder, there’s just total cynicism, there’s never a point of friction for the spectator. This goes back to Bazin’s comments on Chaplin in the lion’s cage in The Circus. I recently showed my students that sequence, and even amongst these 18 or 19-year-old kids there was still a frisson of tension about the idea that Chaplin actually was there in the lion’s cage. None of them would have felt this for a single moment with The Life of Pi.

Above: Charlie Chaplin's The Circus

ANDREW: I don’t think that Ang Lee expected you to be afraid of that tiger.

FAIRFAX: No, but my point is that digital cinema is incapable of doing that to us. Perhaps the only way to achieve wonder is simply to enter into a contract with the filmmaker. They have to tell us that what they’re showing us isn’t CGI, that it’s the real thing, even though we can’t verify it. With the digital, we just have to go with it, we have to put our trust in the filmmaker.

Above: Ang Lee's Life of Pi

ANDREW: People like Thomas Elsaesser and Phil Rosen pretty much make that point. Things haven’t changed that much, there’s always been a contract.

FAIRFAX: Ever since Méliès.

ANDREW: Ever since Méliès. We still have it, there are always these social cues to let you know what kind of film you’re watching, and if somebody gets caught out, if someone is really cheating, you’re upset with them forever. But it is harder now.

FAIRFAX: In a sense, all the visual cues in the film are emptied out, and we just have to go with what the filmmaker says—to a certain extent. I still find CGI completely conspicuous, but we’ll probably be getting to that point.


SPERLING: I wanted to ask you about the role of criticism today, and where there could be space for the kind of criticism engaged in by the likes of Bazin or Serge Daney. On the one hand there is commercial journalism that is increasingly subsidiary to publicists and marketing campaigns. It can only talk about what is in the multiplex. On the other hand there is the academic sphere, which has an awkward relationship to the subjective, personal experience of art.  What the great critics had—Benjamin, Bazin, Daney, Berger—was an acuity combined with an openness, sometimes a generosity, that made the distinction between the personal and the universal moot. Unlike many contemporary commentators they weren’t self-centered or persona-driven. But they also allowed for the exaggerations of personal response that an academic register tends to suppress. Where would you look to find that kind of criticism today? And you better not simply say a blog!

ANDREW: Well, I predicted that the game was lost when USA Today was launched in the 1980s. It pretty quickly got rid of its film reviewer and instead published box office statistics. This is true democracy: we just decide to see what other people are seeing. That’s what we want to see, or that will tell us something about the kinds of films we want to see. And if you look, even in the New York Times Sunday book review (the book review, not the film review), they now have four or five pages listing bestsellers, because that is the sociological statistic. People are interested in trends and are afraid of critical voices, or they just find criticism irrelevant. Although my favorite part of that magazine is the letters page, where people complain about the previous week’s reviews. So some people are really paying attention. I love to read those debates over books. That’s a different sensibility, in that book review section. It’s one of the last such book sections in America, but some people really depend on it. People on this campus, for instance. And I am not beyond saying that I am probably at Yale because it collects people who are like-minded, and those book reviews are for us. I hope that good books are written, and I hope that people criticize them well, and that we read all of that together. And I hope we are, then, more influential than the people who don’t read any of that stuff. When they say this is elitist, possibly it’s true, but I’m not opposed to thinking that I’d rather deal with people who read and think and are ready to argue about things.

SPERLING: But then you will get the argument that the cinema is by nature a democratic art.

FAIRFAX: But is it? I think that’s the question. What is it now? It’s not a democratic art at all. Or, there is a democratic cinema, but it’s not art, and there’s an artistic cinema, but it’s not democratic. Unfortunately.

ANDREW: In fact it was television that saved filmmaking from having to be merely genre cinema.

FAIRFAX: Isn’t this the point that Fredric Jameson makes: that the cinema gained cultural reputation at precisely the moment that television came in, because it bumped it up a notch. Cinema was no longer at the bottom of the cultural pile.

ANDREW: And every studio did not have to produce 50 films a year. All of those cowboy movies fled to television. So when that happened, it allowed cinema to concentrate on something else, something more interesting with storytelling and image-making. Because that is how you would prevent audiences from defaulting to TV. That’s the high-road story, and it did have the effect of lifting cinema up to something that was considered an art form.

 Why not think of cinema as oil painting? There was something before oil painting—frescoes and various kinds of drawings and so on—and then oil painting came along and became the marketable medium for artists to make their names. But there was a lot going on in Rembrandt’s era that was not oil painting. There were people making furniture and sculpture. We don’t remember this as much. Now oil painting has had its day. But you can still study it.

SPERLING: I am a little troubled by the ease with which you can say that cinema is like oil painting, and that if I study film I’m going to be an art historian of the pipe-smoking, tweed-wearing variety. There is a sense that, not unlike if you have any interest in classical music, you’re so easily called a snob by mass culture that it’s almost reflexive to become one. But Sartre, for instance, loved the cinema for being a leveler of social categories. Zavattini believed film truth to be a homage to all mankind. And historically, the best films have often been about struggling people rather than about aristocrats.

ANDREW: That’s true, but I’m about to go downstairs to our videotheque and pick up a DVD of Dreyer’s Gertrud.

FAIRFAX: There are exceptions.

SPERLING:Especially in Scandinavian cinema. But think about early American cinema, Soviet montage, Italian neo-realism, and even the French new wave. Okay, the new wave was more about bohemian, classless young people. But where is the cinema flourishing today? In China, Turkey, Latin America, places with extreme social contrasts, undergoing massive changes. I’ve often thought of the best cinema as having a populist, democratic soul, much like Walt Whitman.

FAIRFAX: Or even now: what is the thematic obsession of European arthouse cinema at present? The excluded immigrant layers of European society. These are the subjects people like the Dardenne brothers are really focusing on.

Above: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's La promesse

SPERLING: This may apply also to film criticism. It seems that What Cinema Is! had a democratic purpose. It doesn’t seem to be written only for an academic readership. Instead, you are gesturing to a public that may or may not be there, a public you hope to call into being.

ANDREW: I think I was fairly explicit about this. Before it was too late, I wanted to state that while we were in a moment of so-called media convergence, there was one thing I did not want to converge anywhere. For as long as I was interested in it, the cinema had a through-line. It served a lot of functions, but the through-line was the friction that occurs in discovery. In this it does something that can’t be done in the other arts. It has to do with recording, with spontaneity and with surprise, with the filmmaker not being in complete control. In a way it’s less about auteurism than about situations people are lucky enough to be in.

For instance, take Rossellini, who was a mediocre filmmaker in a lot of ways: on a technical level, in the way he directed actors, and so on. But he intuited where the action was and he put his energy there at the right moment, and made the right decisions that had to do with editing and, on a broader level, with putting disparate elements together. Rossellini gives people a certain kind of shock that I don’t want to be lost. I don’t want it to be said that we’ve now incorporated the lessons of that style  into some new thing that will be part of a holographic, fully immersive cinema. With What Cinema Is! I wanted to say: “No, I think this is something that still persists.” I still believe it does exist.


FAIRFAX:The choice for all three of the words in the title of your book—and even the exclamation point—is meaningful and contentious right now: whether there is such a thing as the cinema, whether it can be related to the present, whether it can be talked about in the singular, these are all questions that are being debated. So you took a real interventionist stance.

I was recently at a conference hosted by Penn on the “death of cinema,” where you were one of the speakers, and what struck me—and this is something that I think is symptomatic of academia as a whole—was the completely fatalistic attitude to the future of cinema. There were only two exceptions at the conference: one was Jonathan Rosenbaum and the other was a woman in the audience who worked for the Philadelphia film festival. She asked a very simple but very provocative question: “How do you get people to watch good films?” Behind that question was a totally different mentality, one that believed it is still possible to change things, that everything is not yet a done deal. In academic film studies, are we falling into this trap of just accepting processes rather than trying to have an effect on them?

ANDREW: More than accepting! I really appreciate the impulse behind this interview. Most people at your stage are thinking of how to quickly get ahead by announcing themselves smart enough to realize that things have changed and to guess what the next change will be. And to do that they have to proclaim the death of this, and the death of that, and then try to come up with some new step. I really do think that film departments, and a lot of my peers, have hastened their own demise by wanting to be sophisticated enough to say: “Why do we want to talk about auteurs anymore?” Or: “Why do we care about film style? There are so many images out there, nobody has time to watch them closely, and that’s an elite pastime anyway.” Colleagues of mine even say that theories of media might as well substitute for film theory because film is no longer a privileged form. They are encouraging of a lack of attention to what is crucial—and specific—about cinema. That is a real danger.

FAIRFAX: This comes back to the question of whether Jia Zhangke will be seen by future generations the same way we see a Rembrandt or a Tolstoy: as representing the cultural imaginary of an era. But this isn’t just up to fate. As scholars and critics we can play a role. And your book reflects that. An activist mentality is often what is lacking in academia—a belief that we can change the cinema for the better, not just chart its downfall.

SPERLING: In a way, academics—just like filmmakers—need to experience a friction (and there’s that word again) between their own world within, which gives them the time they need to work, and external social reality. It’s important to pierce the veil that can exist between the university and the outside world. 

ANDREW: One of the main differences between Bazin’s era (the era of the cine-clubs) and our own era is the academy, which is an industry. I get paid a lot of money now, whereas he got nothing. I thought I was going to be a poet when I was younger. I was never particularly interested in making money; the university was just the place where I found the most interesting kinds of people who were drawn to writing. And then I got interested in movies...

But pretty soon you find yourself in decision-making situations where you are looking at people trying to get tenure, or trying to write for the right kinds of periodicals. You fall in line when pressed by whatever forces are out there that you can call capitalist (although I think this would happen under socialism as well): efficiency, regularity, quality control, all those things start to apply, and you start to want to obey an objective rule that somebody has set up. This is not something that Bazin faced in the free-form nature of showing movies in factories and schools.

SPERLING: Especially in the era of the digital, when the spectacles around us are becoming more and more grandiose and cheap at the same time, people are increasingly searching for meaning, for deeper layers. That is where I see a space for some of the most interesting work in the humanities to be done. And when you teach students, ideally you can introduce them to ideas and ways of seeing the world that a market-driven society totally ignores.

ANDREW: I’m about to read a new book on Romanian cinema, and what would really depress me is if I find that Cristian Mungiu has a cynical approach to his art films. He’s a guy who makes a lot of money doing advertising and MTV clips. He’s an accomplished person in the media industry and he saves the money he gets from his activities there so that he can make the films that he believes in. That is how he put it to us at the New York Film Festival, and I believed it. I would be upset if it turns out that, when he makes a film, he says to himself: “OK, this is the way I can get into Cannes.” Other people have said this: that to get into Cannes, Nuri Bilge Ceylan had to figure out this or that style. But there are always going to be people willing to say that everyone wants to be well-known, and there is no independent art, there’s only making it in the market, and there’s one kind of market or another.

Above: Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

SPERLING :I do think artists now need to be comfortable within a commercial system without fully succumbing to it. When I interview young directors I can sense they are used to speaking both languages. But a lot of them—Olivier Assayas comes to mind, but also an American like Jeff Nichols, who did Take Shelter and Mud—do really seem to have their heart in the right place. So there are people out there but they don’t have the same Godardian bravado.

ANDREW: Well it may be that the “two worlds” schema was an easy and apt model for my generation, in the Oedipal stage in which I grew up, needing to be against my father, against school, against the Vietnam War, and then against Hollywood. We lost all those battles, but we won something, because the education system became more interesting. There are a lot of things that students can receive so easily now;  perhaps they have lost that fighting edge. And for prospective artists it may be the case that some new Godard does not need to take such an oppositional stance. He can do the things he wants to do within the industry. There is not going to be a revolution; there is just going to be a more interesting life or a more dull life.

SPERLING: That reminds me of the widespread idea that generalized affluence leads to a numbed state, detrimental to art. I know the scene that is most important for you in Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is when the town’s electricity goes out and the young woman comes in with a candle. In a lot of new films you need to have the moment when you get rid of the cell phones so that people actually have to interact with their physical environment. To what extent does an anything-goes culture of affluence (and an increasingly digital affluence) actually numb us into a state where we expect gratification with the click of a mouse?

ANDREW:You know where I would go for an answer to do that? I would go back and see what happened with the Bloomsbury Group, where you had rich, smart people after World War I who were already pretty jaded. It is terrifying when you call this up, because you arrive at Virginia Woolf, and you recognize what she found around her when reading To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway. You see there is a numbness and a question of not knowing where to go next when you are in a position of privilege. This is where Fredric Jameson or somebody of his faith would say that you need a social revolution before you can have the kind of artistic spirit that you are looking for. Art can feel exuberant when the social structure is beleaguered and when artists are on the side of progress, as seemed to be the case during Bloomsbury.  But what about today?  Are our best filmmakers and novelists sensing the threats humanity is subject to? Or are they merely capitalizing on those threats? I want to watch films that confront, rather than help to smoothly produce our contemporary situation.  As always, rather than being stupefied by new technologies and new techniques, I want to sense friction—heat and light—when I see an ambitious new film. 

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