What is the Archaeology of Cinema?
The Cinematographic Gaze
We use the term cinematographic gaze in a similar way to John Urry’s use of the term ‘tourist gaze’. We understand the latter to mean the way in which tourist experiences are configured to conform to existing stereotypical expectations. We suggest that the film-maker acts in the same way, seeking to construct a representation of reality which matches stereotypical expectations about place, time, culture, and character. To be ‘authentic’, ‘realistic’, ‘convincing’, the virtual reality created by film-makers must conform, more or less, to audience expectations. We call this the cinematographic gaze – that which is seen when viewing a constructed ‘virtual’ reality formed of locations/sets, situations, and dramas recorded on camera, edited into a movie, and then consumed in a picture palace. The term movie is a good one, in that it conveys the essential form of a continuous sequence of moving images, and likewise the term picture palace, because it is expressive of the way in which the audience is conveyed from a mundane everyday existence to another world – a virtual reality – filled with colour, drama, and spectacle. A feature of the cinematographic gaze, and the virtual reality it sees, is extreme temporality: nothing is permanent – the modified landscapes, the studio sets, and the experience of the movie in the picture palace, all are fleeting moments.
I think you can work much better on sets, because you can make a concentrated bazaar, which is more of a bazaar than a real bazaar. It’s the difference between a painting and a photograph. You can make the painting much better.
A Passage to India (1984)
The Cinema Aura
Walter Benjamin spoke of the aura around an original work of art that has to be viewed in situ. He related this to the origins of art in the production of sacred cult objects, which are venerated because the representation of the divine – the statue, the icon, the holy relic – is conflated with the deity itself. Benjamin argues that in ‘the age of mechanical reproduction’ – the modern age – the aura is dissolved in mass reproduction: when anyone can access a work of art anywhere, anytime, that is, when works of art become commonplace objects, they cease to have aura. He cites film as the most extreme example (he was writing in 1936).
This lack of aura might be thought to arise, not only from the fact that almost any inhabitant of a modern city can access film whenever they choose, but also from the extreme temporality of film discussed above. A further aspect of this arises here. Whereas the static work of art – whether original or reproduction – leaves time for contemplation, the moving work of art, the movie, does not. No sooner has one scene completed than the next begins, leaving no time for thought. The viewer is not only a passive spectator; she is a passive thinker, able to receive and store information, but lacking the time to reflect upon or critique it.
This, though, is incomplete. The work of art – the movie – may lack aura, but this seems to transfer to the original of the representation. Movie stars become celebrities, movie locations become tourist attractions, and movie studios become iconic ‘dream factories’. All are touched, it seems, with the aura of the original. This, though, is far from straightforward, since the original in question is not the work of art itself – which is the actual movie, of which there can be no true ‘original’, all versions of which are ‘reproductions’. Aura instead emanates from the original of the representation that is then transformed into a work of work
'The aura around an original work of art'
Image 1 is Gustave Doré's 1872 engraving of St. Paul's Cathedral and the slums, from ''London, A Pilgrimage''. Image 2 is a scene from David Lean's 1948 film, Oliver Twist which draws on Doré's original representation. Image 3 is a scene from Carol Reed's 1968 film, Oliver which in turn reproduces the mood of Lean's earlier film.
Mass Production, Commodification, and Reification
The cinema is a mass-production industry of the modern era, involving vast investments of capital in plant, labour, and cutting-edge technologies, a prodigious output of new products, and a global market of hundreds of millions of consumers. It is an extreme example of commodification – the appropriation of the products of human labour as commodities to be sold for profit – and therefore of reification – where control over humanity’s collective labour and cultural creativity is lost to the blind operations of market-driven capital accumulation.