Sean Cubitt (2004) The Cinema Effect

Cambridge and London: The MIT Press. ISBN 0262033127.

Cinema as Effect

Rob Leventhal

Using Marx’s fundamental insight into the production and construction of commodity fetishism, and taking as his point of departure that film is uniquely capable of revealing the inner workings of the commodity ‘since it was, for the last century, the most popular, as it is still the most strategic medium’ (3), Sean Cubitt continues his inquiries into the mediations of media with a book that is at once lucid (if at times difficult), encyclopedic in scope, and rich in historical and theoretical insights. Drawing on a wide range of theoretical writings from Hegel and Marx to Benjamin, Heidegger, Levinas, Panofsky, Bazin, Debord, Beaudrillard, Metz, Deleuze, and Nancy, and exploring the terrain of cinematic production as well as providing stimulating readings of exemplary films within the cinematic categories he develops, Cubitt’s book cuts across disciplinary lines and problematizes important areas of cinematic theory. If I were to attempt to bring this book to a concise statement of a thesis or an argument, it would be this: cinema itself has always already been a cinematic effect, an evolving technique of mediation and a construction of various forms or types of film that in turn produce certain possible forms of visualization and audiencing. Cubitt’s historical survey then moves from the emergence of film in the late 19th century to the most recent ‘cosmopolitan’ film in order to exemplify this technological media genealogy. In the process, significant shifts in the medium are identified and analyzed.

Cubitt’s theoretical framework employs C.S. Peirce’s distinction between firstness (unmediated irradiation of the sensory surfaces without differentiation), secondness (cognitive identification), and thirdness (reflexive differentiation or recognition), extending the triangulation of sensation, cognition, and comprehension to the cinematic techniques of pixel, cut, and vector. He also aligns these with the Lacanian categories of the real, the imaginary, and the symbolic, and claims a certain isomorphism between Peirce’s categories and the psychoanalytic distinctions of Lacan. The summary of the first section on p. 97 provides the theoretical matrix in terms of which the rest of the book analyzes filmic production, cinematic form, reception and consumption. 

Iteration of TimeObjection of SpaceProduction of Meaning

The book is then divided into three sections: Part I deals with ‘Pioneer Cinema,’ Part II with what Cubitt calls ‘Normative Cinema,’ and Part III entitled ‘Post Cinema.’ Cubitt’s typology of film then identifies specific film-genres under each of these rubrics: under ‘Pioneer Cinema,’ we have temporal, magical, and graphical film; under ‘Normative Cinema,’ total, realist, and classical film; and under ‘Post Cinema,’ neoclassical, neobaroque, technological, oneiric, revisionary, and cosmopolitan film.

The birth of the cinematograph traced in ‘Pioneer Cinema’ registers the ‘aesthetics of astonishment’ which had the ‘event’ rather than ‘narrative’ as its moving principle. In fact, as Cubitt documents, the cinematograph itself made its debut at the end of a lecture on the progress being made in other fields of photography (22). Cinema moved away from things and objects to the movement of things and objects, dispersing time and making new modes of perception possible. Sortie des usines (1894-95) serves as the example of filmic production that resists narrativization and instead stages the anarchy, the instability, and the dispersal of film itself. Pioneer cinema, specifically that of the Lumières, is fundamentally ‘monstratory,’ it is described as ‘events of showing’ whose aim is not primarily to narrate a story (although this may be a secondary spin-off), but rather to demonstrate fleeting cinematic subjectivity, the ‘feminization and democratization of drift’ (39-40).

‘The Cut’ is exemplified in the ‘magical’ cinema of Méliès’ Voyage à travers l’impossible, the Lumières’ L’Arroseur arose, and the films of Dadasaheb Phalke. From the cinematic ‘event’ to the accomplishment of a cinematic ‘object,’ the cut of the magical film transforms the public location into ‘an object for privatized viewing’ (47), turns sensation (firstness, the real) into perception and representation (secondness, the imaginary), and introduces identity, hierarchy, and structure. Méliès’ is a cinema beyond the technological spectacle that shifts from physiology to cognition and stages a democratization of the commodity. Both inaugurate a cinema of tableaux and the technology of the cut; a cinema not so much of succession as a cinema of different layers, of different co-present realms, one historical and one mythical (66).

The ‘Graphical Film’ introduces thirdness or the vector into the equation. Emile Cohl’s Fantasmagorie (1908) disrespects both the plane and the edge by constantly redrawing, and thus mobilizing the vector that ‘draws itself.’ As a form of automatic or self-generating sketching, this form is never complete: ‘The vector is eschatological; its future is open, governed only by hope’ (85). The vector is the animated line constantly reconstructing itself, and perpetually remaking the relation between subject and object. If the photograph belongs to the ‘regime of the cut,’ the vector socializes film and assumes the task of signification. As Cubitt writes: ‘The vector synthesizes the multiple times of transformation into a trajectory that engages the delight we take in thinking the ambiguities and ambivalences with which it flavors the rough parceling of the world of the cut’ (92). Here, according to Cubitt, cinema becomes ‘social’ and symbolic, but instead of the negative and pessimistic entrance into the symbolic world as in Lacan, we have a resolutely communicative and open-ended, hopeful dis-closure that enacts the resolution of commodities back into relations and relatedness, mediations and interpretations.

Part II, ‘Normative Cinema’ begins with Eisenstein and the attempt to install a cinema that provides ‘answers’ to the questions of social order. The cinema of Eisenstein thus signals the triumph of society in the form of the state. In ‘the dictatorship of the effect,’ total (and totalizing) cinema deploys maximal control over the cinematic effect; from Glance’s Napoleon to Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, the films belonging to this media genre aim at a reduction of experience to a singular ideological and psychological totality. Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky seeks to evoke precise and pre-determined emotions and meanings in the audience. The fear of talking film and dialogue, shared by both Eisenstein and Chaplin, was precisely that it introduced the possibility of an independence of meaning, a polysemous dialogue that would threaten the univocal nature of the total film. Thus Eisenstein’s drive to ‘reduce visual and sound perceptions to a common denominator’ (106). Totalizing cinema mythologizes and controls meaning; hence also both the lure and the destructive power of total cinema. This type of film secures the affective field in the construction of an unambivalent and universal, totalizing truth, creating and shoring up a normative structure that seeks to impose a world-view and a politics. One could have extended the analysis of the total cinema of unified affective response that presents a singular world-view and seeks to impose this through the use of nostalgia and sentiment to Disney and Miramax.

The introduction of sound in the chapter on realist film focuses on Renoir’s La Regle de jeu. Realism according to Cubitt is a ‘special effect,’ one that produces not merely multiple events, but ‘the event as multiple’ (133). Realism’s differentiating gaze renders the world as multiple, and Renoir’s realism is, according to Cubitt, ‘not so much a rapturous surrender to the light as it is an analytical gaze, and so a cinema of the cut’ (131). La Regle du jeu ‘consciously embodies the idea of cinema as apparatus [Â…] as a machine that incorporates both the technological conditions of production and the psychic connections and positionings that it enables or determines’ (144). On this reading, Renoir’s film does not coerce or enforce a unified subject position, but rather ‘enables a multiplicity of subjectivities’ (146).

Cubitt’s analysis of classical film in the next chapter takes him to RKO. King Kong stages the ‘commodity sublime in the form of visualized desire’ (176), the first dramatic syntheses of electronic and photomechanical technologies in cinema. The normative cinema of the 20s provided us with the ‘script,’ a template into which a variety of contents could be poured. If the ‘total’ film aimed at pure image and idea, with the image as its vehicle and the state as its object; and if ‘realist’ cinema depicted a multiple world, the world of society; ‘classical’ cinema for Cubitt is the mass-medium that ‘speaks’ to the audience as a distinct ‘individual,’ it is a spectacle for and of culture, and prizes the entertainment of the script as a repetitive template for the emplotment of different ‘stories.’

Part III on Post Cinema examines both nostalgic and barbaric elegies in the cinema of Sam Pekinpah, the steady-cam of the neobaroque film (Purple Rain, Desperado, and Snake Eyes), the digitization of film, and the eclipse of representation in film. The Neobaroque is undialectical and eschews time; it kills off history in the spectacle of the spectacular. We are witness here to the ‘elaboration of spectacle,’ according to Cubitt. Against Baudrillard and leaning more toward Debord, Cubitt argues that it is not the world itself that has become simulation, but rather that cinema events have become spectacle. With the emergence of 2 and 3D CGI, as well as analytical editing (pervasive in James Cameron’s The Abyss), the digital employs the invisibility of the interval to recreate what Crary calls ‘distraction,’ Charney ‘drift,’ and Miller the ‘automatic self’ (255). Against Sobchack, Cubitt urges that enhanced reality does not conform to the ‘description of simulation’ (258). Digital effects and techniques tend to communicate rather than represent, and to that extent they are utopian or dystopian, they deal with aspirations or hopes, projections and fear. The discovery of incommunicability, an invention of the 18th century, is here seen as reaching a specific articulation in the awe of the spectacle from Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove to Titanic and Independence Day. Cubitt writes: ‘The sublime has achieved its goal of transfiguration to such an extent that the act of transfiguration itself is overwhelmed in the perfection of the integrated spectacle’ (264). Digital cinema therefore completes the world-building project of the Neo-Baroque, and, insofar as it is still dependent on real elements, produces the illusion of a Peircean ‘firstness’ which is in fact utterly mediated and effect driven. Digital film, according to Cubitt, ‘proposes a mode of communication, in which the central purpose is to create subjects for the object of communication, subjects that exist only to be subsumed into the object, and thus to achieve a plentitude in which no further communication is desired or necessary’ (270).

In the final section, Cubitt analyzes a series of films intent upon the denaturing of cinema, films that call to us with displays of post-cinematic technique, embodying at once a demand for unmediated experience, the fantasy of a healed and unified human nature, and foregrounding the mediating function of cinematic technology. Oneiric film simultaneously invites and refuses interpretation; revisonary films such as AkiraHonneamise1942: A Love Story, Vincent Ward’s The NavigatorDelicatessen, and Tsui Hark’s Once upon a Time in China present a fantastic world of becoming, an ahistorical world of the future. They do not revise history so much as revision it, as Cubitt states. In them, history, nationhood, community, society and culture are a special effect. They concur in a new envisioning of the relation between past and present, often projected into a future anterior.

‘Cosmopolitan Film,’ Cubitt’s final chapter, addresses films that try to win a global audience, democratize elitism, and construct an audience that is itself a commodified, privileged mediation. The cosmopolitan is at home everywhere (and nowhere), but no one is ‘allowed into his home.’ The cosmopolitan cinematic object is no longer a world, an idea, or any ideational or semiotic referent, but rather the audience itself, an imaginary that inhabits and traverses all possible worlds and cultures. Cosmopolitan film’s aim is to make sensation ‘an end in itself’ (358), ‘to confront us with death, finality, the sublime, the abject, the incommensurable, and the timeless, and to simulate simulation so entirely that we are no longer desire, no longer act, no longer inhabit the temporal world’ (358). In this medium, individuality is but a node constructed in the ‘traffic of communication’ (359).

In the conclusion, ‘Outré: Mediation and Media Formation,’ Cubitt argues that Deleuze’s ‘time-image,’ which Deleuze renders the essential element of cinema, is merely another ‘effect’ or ‘technique.’ For Cubitt, no ‘technique’ is essentially avant-garde, because any technique can be appropriated as a mere ‘effect’ and thus commodified. Cinema’s failure for Cubitt is its susceptibility to become a mere commodity, and the challenge for cinema in the 21st century, he says, ‘is the struggle for not yet finite, not yet infinite, ecological, human, and technological community’ (365). After Cubitt’s careful and quite critical appraisal of cinema as effect and the cinema effect, its inherent commodification and the appropriation of the cinematic effect as fetish, it is difficult to make the jump with him to this rather hopeful if not utopian vision, and it is questionable whether cinema continues to possess the critical capability Cubitt attributes to it. If Cubitt is correct that the history of the cinematic effect and cinema as effect allow themselves to be understood as technological innovations motivated by and in synch with forces of normativity, social control, audiencing, and consumerist production and reception, the possibility of such an ecological, human and technological community appears out of step with the analysis he has so rigorously presented. The Matrix may be a highly reflective film that shows on the screen what it undertakes as artifact, actually performing and demonstrating the cinematic effects it deploys as its mechanism as cinema, but this ‘cosmopolitan’ film succeeds less as a project of intercultural dialogue and ‘communication,’ an unmasking or critique of cinema as effect than it is precisely the ultimate fetishization of the cinematic effect and the construction of the cult audience that projectively identifies with the cinematic effect and thus in the process becomes itself a commodified fetish-effect of the film. I think that Cubitt is correct that in the era of digital monadology, ‘socialization and conflicts of interpretation can be side-stepped in favor of being here now inside the confines of any one film’s microscopic infinity’ (269), but I would argue that films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Matrix neither communicate nor induce communication, but continue the cinematic effect and engender a consumerist and commodity-festishistic mode of reception that Cubitt so lucidly traces in this study.

Cubitt’s book offers a highly intelligent framework for the study of the genealogy of the cinema effect and cinema as effect. The individual analyses are provocative and insightful, and Cubitt succeeds in anchoring his theoretical matrix in the materiality of film history. His book at times requires one to stop and pause because of the difficulty of the theoretical distinctions he seeks to make, but a careful reading of the book is rewarding not least because, rather than simply an argument about the emergence and development of the cinematic apparatus, it uses various critical and theoretical languages to create a new typology of film, to show how specific cinematic genres do what they do, and how the cinematic effect has influenced these historical inventions. This book invites readers to further his analyses and extend the typology such that one could, for example, seek to understand the intersection between ‘total’ and ‘technological’ film, or the relation between the ‘revisionary’ and the ‘neobaroque.’ Cubitt has articulated some very powerful media genres readers will find useful and compelling. It is a decisive contribution and should be read by anyone involved with film, cultural, or media studies.Rob Leventhal gained his Ph.D. in German Studies from Stanford in 1982. He taught at Washington University (1982-1986) and the University of Virginia (1986-1995), and currently teaches at The College of William and Mary, US. He is the author of The Disciplines of Interpretation: Lessing, Herder, Schlegel and Hermeneutics in Germany, 1750-1800 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1994) and Reading after Foucault: Institutions, Disciplines, and Technologies of the Self in German
Literature, 1750-1830 (Detroit: Wayne State, 1994). He has also written on Kant, Vico, Heidegger, Thomas Bernhard, Kafka and, most recently, Wim Wenders. He can be reached at: