What Cinema Is!
Article Type:
Book review
Books (Book reviews)
Glenn, Lauren N.
Pub Date:
Name: Post Script Publisher: Post Script, Inc. Audience: General; Trade Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Business; Business, international Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Post Script, Inc. ISSN: 0277-9897
Date: Fall, 2010 Source Volume: 30 Source Issue: 1
NamedWork: What Cinema Is! (Nonfiction work)
Reviewee: Andrews, Dudley

Accession Number:
Full Text:
What Cinema Is! by Dudley Andrews. Oxford,, UK: Blackwell, 2010. 145 pages. Paperback, $26.95, cloth, $84.95.

In What Cinema Is!, Dudley Andrew presents a detailed historiography of film theory while offering perhaps the most insightful and comprehensive review of Andre Bazin's on the cinema. Bazin, a prolific critic and major force in post-World War II film studies, fell out of favor with academics during the 1970s, a time in which Bazin's theories were thought by some to be anachronistic. Andrew, however, reminds us that we have much to learn from Bazin's theories, arguing that Bazin's aesthetic extends beyond the ever-changing body of film criticism and academic issues that arise with each new phase in cinema's history.

Andrew initiated his extended project on film's historiography in the mid 1970s with The Major Film Theories and has published several books now considered staples among film scholars. His biography on Bazin, Andre Bazin (1977; updated, 1990), outlines both the life and cultural involvement of this prolific critic and traces the development of Bazin's now famous theories on cinema. In What Cinema Is!, Andrew expounds his own well-developed theories, building from the foundations established by Bazin. His title is a play on the four volume selected collection of Bazin's work, Qu'est-ce que le cinema? (originally published in French from 1958-1962), but while Bazin was reluctant to establish a definitive definition of the cinema, Andrew is much more assertive concerning his own notion of what constitutes cinema both today and in the past. Much akin to Bazin's notion of cinema, Andrew views filmmaking practices as continuously evolving, and he draws on many of Bazin's theoretical positions to define new phases of cinematic discovery. As Bazin's foremost expositor, Andrew attends to the complexities of the French theorist's theoretical positions, bringing Bazin into conversation with such diverse theorists as Serge Daney, Gilles Deleuz, Tom Gunning, and Stephen Heath. Andrew's conceptual architecture links some of the most significant debates in film theory, providing an arching framework that illuminates the trajectory of film theory's controversial history. Andrew identifies Bazin's quest as an objective to track the way cinema's past leads to its future, taking this objective as his own charge in writing about film in the twenty-first century.

Andrew breaches the divide between Bazin's open-ended question, "What is cinema?," and the ominous proclamations in recent film scholarship asserting the imminent death of film studies. On the contrary, film studies remains alive, evolving to explore new issues as the cinema itself evolves. The most recent change in film discourse involves the "mutation" known as new media, which has put cinema's regency into question. Andrew is less concerned with the digital than with the discourse surrounding its impact on the cinema, which he believes wrongly predict that digital media will surpass cinematic representation. Such discourses often overlook the element of interpretation involved with spectatorship. Bazin's legacy teaches us that cinema is about self-discovery. For both Bazin and Andrew, cinema is a living historical document both enshrouded in specific moments of history and part of an evolving body of art that answers our human quest for meaning and progress through the "aesthetic of discovery." Andrew traces this aesthetic of discovery to the axiom established by Bazin and developed by the Cahiers du Cinema writers of the 1950s. The axiom, explains Andrew, claims that cinema has a unique rapport with material reality but that reality is not what is represented. Ultimately, while the cinema points to the world beyond, it is shaped by the filmmaker's perception, design, and formatting. Yet, it remains up to the spectator/critic to derive meaning from the images captured, arranged, and projected. Digital effects do not alter cinema's inherent nature; for, as Andrew points out, technology has merely shifted the emphasis from shooting to post-production. The danger, Andrew believes, lies in distraction by new media discourse, which endangers the taste for encounters of discovery once championed by the Cahiers writers.

Andrew's notion of cinema does not rise or fall with technological advancements. As he explains, "A cinema of discovery and revelation can employ any sort of camera," and true cinema begins with shooting film (60). He differentiates between composing (filming actors in real space wherein the construction occurs simultaneously with shooting) and compositing (adding real actors to virtual spaces wherein composing occurs on the editing table or computer monitor). His main objections are when CGI effects are used to control and alter reality, as he sets out to prove in his criticism of Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amelie Poulain (2001), or when the digital divorces the camera from its physical referent completely, as demonstrated in Beowulf(2007), believing such effects to be an infringement on the viewer much the same way Bazin believed montage to be. Andrew's distinction between composing and compositing resonates with Bazin's famous statement in "The Evolution of the Language of Cinema," when he proposed to distinguish between filmmakers who put their "faith in the image and those who put their faith in reality." For Bazin, faith in the image connotes symbolic representation, while faith in reality refers to the image as photographic referent to nature. Similarly, for Andrew virtual space (compositing) indicates a largely symbolic relationship while composing creates a relationship between the image and real space. For both Bazin and Andrew, when a filmmaker focuses on symbolic representation over realism, the film travels outside the bounds of the cinema. Andrew believes, however, that movies produced according to the time-honored templates remain the norm. Thus, his aesthetic "owes nothing to the digital," while it can benefit from the speed and convenience of technological advancements. The revolution in cinema instead manifests itself in how audiences experience movies, in the realm of the image projected.

One of the most interesting arguments put forth by Andrew likens the screen to a threshold, a wardrobe-like apparatus through which the spectator passes from one space to another in a journey from the viewing world to a Namia beyond the screen. Andrew agrees with Bazin's notion of cinema as a unique recording medium which captures the material reality of the world, only part of which can be registered within the frame. For Andrew, the Narnia beyond the threshold is not purely imaginary nor is it a reflection of the real world. Rather, it is a place wherein heterogeneous spaces communicate with one another, where the images filtered by the filmmaker's design meet the imagination of the spectator. The threshold is opened when the viewer can imagine a volume deeper than the image projected. Andrew points to some of the same techniques championed by Bazin decades earlier, namely the use of off-screen space by Jean Renoir and deep focus by Orson Welles. Perhaps most significantly, this book extends Bazin's contributions to film theory to include films produced after Bazin's death. Andrew expands Bazin's analysis by examining modernist and postmodernist cinema, which each likewise disrupt the narrative architecture of the frame. For Andrew, the screen is a porous space through which the spectator passes not merely to encounter the picture, but to engage with the images in a world deepened volumetrically. Films that attempt to control and "white-wash" both subject matter and image prohibit the spectator's interaction with what lies beyond. The best films, instead, create a space wherein, "The best filmmakers meet the best critics at the threshold of the screen, where images take charge but only so as to lead beyond themselves" (94).

For Andrew, the cinema remains unique in its ability to register the material world itself while the best films maintain a friction between reality and projected dreams and illusions. This tension was birthed during and just after World War II. Thus, for Andrew, the standard cannon of classic films (and Bazin's seminal articles) must not be dismissed but should remain as a standard by which to compare contemporary films. In the same way the screen acts as a threshold apparatus, What Cinema Is! teaches us to cross the threshold of academic theory to see cinema for what it can be: a journey through the past to beyond the institutional framework of contemporary perceptions.
Gale Copyright:
Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.