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Watching Film I. (In the confessional)                      





What is the difference between film and other cultural activities we pursue in our leisure time? 


Even in public, in the full glare of collective consumption, we sit alone in the dark. As if in the confessional (watching the story we should have been telling).


 Watching the story we would have told…


Confessional (I). Siting in the confessional of the cinema watching our secrets unfold. In truth not a very active pastime (although combining a minimum of movement with maximum mental stimulation). On the odd occasion we may even become internally active -mentally active- rather than just (passively) stimulated by our experience of film. However this (normative) emphasis on the active is to mistake the role of cinema, indeed to treat it as a compulsory intellectual exercise is to wilfully misrecognise its function in social life: post labour we just want to relax, or be titillated… just a bit… or just a bit too much. Passive, then… definitively - as compared to active leisure pursuits (from chess to hang-gliding, from computer games to football) but with the proviso that a wealth of previous experience (from the nuances of transgression to the accumulations of plot variation) is ‘passively’ being brought into play. With the coming of video, then DVD, film is the favoured mode of travel for the couch potato. So we sit and we watch; confessing our desires. The difference as compared to other watching activities? The second hand nature of the events in view. ‘Second hand’ in the sense of representation, but also in the sense of having already happened (again, not live, as it were, or if, temporally-speaking, ‘live’, a live representation of actual events, then mediated by transmission – for which we will nevertheless pay more, much more, rather than be subjected to a temporal deferral of whatever length). Or even of not having happened at all. Fictional. Or partly, as all fictions must partake of some elements of reality in order to appear, as if… ‘real’ (just as all ‘passive’ viewing involves an interaction with previous experience). Of a certain length (even short stories are made into full-length films, as are epics reduced to them…). Of course why should one move oneself only to watch something that never happened and was anyway available in some other similarly processed package, squeezed into a convenient length and so easily consumable at home?


Leaving aside the argument that all fictional reality (even that arrangement of the real we like to call experiment) is real (matter in motion in space in time). Only it is a question of what kind of reality… represented or performed? Dreams are real, it is only their reference that is not; but no one makes that mistake. Even if they manifestly deal with our everyday humbugs, our problems of life, the problems experienced by our all-to-real waking lives.


Or is it that reframed reality is more intense than the reality it leaves behind (that is the illusion)? Just as the performative is more real than mere mimesis, performing more potent than mere copying, as the bald depiction of reality is given ritual force. Frame within frame, frame reframed, showering added significance (that is what powers the illusion). In this way illusion may be more real that the real, gathering a significance beyond the simple unfolding of existence .


Cinema too is like a dream, a performance, a form of ritual.


So many stories reframed, reformed and retold (no history, outside of its literary rendering, was ever like this…).



Confessional (II). So it is others’ stories that are told, that we watch, sometimes as an extension of our memory, of our participation in the world, our recognition of other’s lives, events witnessed (good word), sometimes with an eye to our own pleasures, with voyeurism (bad word…?). Or more often (and less morally clear-cut) some mixture of the two. Vicarious pleasures (safe through distance). Vicarious sympathies (safe from commitment through distance). But when these stories are of others that are not others (that do not exist outside of the imagination, be it cerebral, celluloid, or virtual) then the other that is no other is the self.



Confessional (III). Cinema: something is told here about ourselves…


Watching film (in whatever format): the most popular of mass cultural activities? Cinema as (the epitome ((the zenith)) of) popular culture? Definitive (only popular music is more popular). Now film has entered the home - and become fully individualised moreover, ‘mobile’ even (PC, Mobile) as was music before it, driven by the mass market for popular music. Paradoxically (a social means of consumption becomes popular by maximising its asocial aspects). Yes. Other fads rise to the surface; ‘soaps’, then the ‘reality’ formula - but all are (so far) transient, are intuitively felt to be secondary, as compared to the history and survival value of the film.


The basic unit of visual narrative; the novel of the Visual (the poem ranges from the haiku of the image to the lyric of the advert). The film is the long story form of our time (every culture has one, and this one is in the process of becoming globalised). Longer, if so desired (usually) means a sequel; or other parts, a sequence.


Film as (high) art (culture)? ‘Art house’. Neither Hollywood nor pulp cinema (as it was). Where to go if you want more from genre than genre. Or more than genre itself. And now World Cinema (both in its art cinema and in its box office smashes) is following in the steps of World Music. Building upon previous standards. Tackling issues. Or just trying something new. (And the margins become the centre as the world is pulled inside out).


Film as a new cultural form? (Although now into its second century, it must nevertheless count as a new art form in species time). Almost buried by new technology, but revived (after the slump of the 80s, itself the nadir of the long recession caused by the spread, convenience and quality of TV in the postwar period) by yet more technological advances. New technologies applied to the storage and reproduction of visual information. Video, CD, DVD, the download, etc. Film in the home. Film on the phone. Mobile film. Access is a quantitative issue (as with most technological advance in the media and communications industry); wider and increased usage contributes to the quality of life.


Film as cultural anthropologic object. Expensive (demanding of socially available labour power - even if the cost of production is constantly cheapened by technological advances). As cultural object, as cultural construct, film is yet another means of the expression of memory and fantasy, of ideals and pleasures (and normative on both counts, but always playing with transgression to attract viewers). Cathedral consecrated to the pleasure of the viewer; lighthouse and power station of the moving image. Demanding of our time. Time set aside for the further engorgement of our visual sense; time to make film and time to consume film. Film as event. Prestigious (creating the ‘spin-off- of communication as value). A star-making cultural vortex. Attraction itself transformed into light. Lodestone of capital. Whirlpool of signs. A magnet for our need of recognition, the force that draws us to others, and would draw them to us  - as we would like to believe (a mirror for our imaginations, the mirror of human nature). Apogee and visible face of the otherwise invisible gods of circulation (desire and capital revealed obliquely in the magic of the moving image). Peak of the mountain of celebrity. Exchange junction of value in all its major forms.  Unifying lives; mediating communication. Intense communication. Genealogy: A tale told as gathered around the fire; the magic of flickering light and the comforting presence of a story well-told have remained constant.


Do societies have favourite stories, key narratives? Narratives combining education (closet, covert) and entertainment (out, overt). An uneasy alliance between conformity, quiet normativity, and its attention-seeking twin, transgression (also a mode of conformation).  Is film ours (home for our key narrative, our favourite stories)? Providing content and message as well as means or medium. The film is undoutably our key narrative form; a form always found together with its carefully tailored content. A frame with its own demanding logics. An orgy of generic meaning, superseding both the book and the telling, in a genre that shows as it tells, amuses as it conditions (as it reminds, sets models…). Superseding the reading and hearing and speaking of sacred texts, the meta-texts of our belief systems, our religious classics? For the majority, is it now the medium of the image, as in the medieval period, that has become (again) the custodian of all that light and shadow may represent? And all that lies beyond (light and shadow)? All (low and high) culture now carries the inversion of such messages (an inversion which is also its continuity in a changed world) even as it carries a complex of low/high messages (and those of the ‘middle’ too - and why not the their many subdivisions, in a world increasingly sensitive to fine gradations of ‘caste’, of ‘art’ as caste conferring, as cultural capital). Something for everyone. As the ‘always already’ challenged point of view of a community; not of one half of an abstract (and secretly normative) binary. In such a world, not only a variety of destinations, but also of multiple, polyvalent messages (or their appropriations) are now the norm. Sensitivity is driven by hierarchical placement and the game of recognition (in a web of community identifications real or imaginary). From the so-called ‘lowest common denominator’ (a fact of popular culture, but one shared by sophisticates, their transgressive badge of difference). To the appropriation of the sex and violence (and not least their combination) of popular genres (or even of life, or our hungry imaginations) by art-house film and its a-typical audience (also, or therefore, the transgressive point of entry into the mass market).


Copies from all sources, mixed pleasures, matched and mis-matched ideals: rare is the artwork, the cultural object privileged by our leisure time consumption, that does not mix both or all levels, regardless of audience, regardless of author (and so of final authority, policeman of interpretation). So it is perhaps only at the very ‘bottom’ and at the very ‘top’, just two of many sources of ripples in the pond, that these (or any) ideal-types still exist…


Film comes from, takes, uses, transmits, is sustained by, indeed only survives… insofar as it utilises key narratives. Two types of theme predominate, the themes of the society in question, and those of societies in general. The particular crises, everyday problems, insoluble contradictions, or other sources of agon that threaten the progress of the social whole and the peace of the individual alike from the sociology of the period and from anthropology, the reproduction plot and its variants, boy meets girl ad the problem of the continuation of society as a generational crisis (a recurring renewable crisis of sex yoked to the social). If the former is topical, the later is perennial, and is perennially found joined to the adventure narrative, where some form of threat, problem, or quest is to be resolved… along with the (generational) rite of passage. If supernatural, then we have the ‘Gothic’ flavour, which both conceals, but also often highlights, the generational rite of passage at its core. Often all three elements are combined. All narratives use these elements… rare- and often unwatched – is the experimental film that does not make some use of these themes. Therefore film as usually the simplest formula, simple repetition plus film-specific entertainment (fx, illusionism, etc). As such, copying (producing variations on a theme, or on a genre formula) and continuity (most especially in cases of transgression, which edges forward a risk at a time) rather than transforming is the cinematic norm.


This received use of anthropological constants suggests that most cinema is aimed at youth: or its extension (its memory or its fantasy, whether of lasting beauty or permanent virility) in the older consumer… Whence a certain (paradoxical) tendency to juvenility in a genre dealing with an (upward) rite of passage…



Demanding time. Time spent (watching film); time put aside, time sacrificed - not invested elsewhere… A gift (with the accounting for time, of expenditure of the gift of time, in terms of our identity… our investment in ourselves, our choice to spend time on ourselves). A choice for leisure… placed above other activities; in the home, contending with other activities, and with other distractions on screen, other choices of viewing (but all identity propositions with the following meaning: ‘I am the kind of person who watches this’…(and not something else…)).  A choice made for the consecration of an entire evening, or of part of an evening-out (together with food, drinks, company, the kind of thing ‘we’ do…). A choice for communicating, the means of socialising; of mixing, of achieving networks and recognition; of cultural status (film is cultural capital). All in time and with the further investment of stored time (money). A double investment (of time past and present). A double sacrifice (of the other possibilities alive in the present and of the other commodities we might have purchased with the money so consecrated – money, the stored time of the past). And like all investment: for a future (bought and paid for). A self bearing that experience. The experience of a period of activity that is ones own. Definitive. Only one. When given a choice, when left alone, our gravitation. Our centre. Or (as we might like to believe) our self.


The solipsism of the cinematic experience mirrors the self that it supports, one that is, however much we and the experience of cinema, the viewing of the reproduced image, may try to forget it, constructed out of social interaction.


As if in the confessional…




Copyright 2006, Peter Nesteruk.