You Can See It All

Chris Fujiwara

The dominant myth of cinema today has two sides. One side, which lingers from the 20th-century model of film exhibition, is the notion of cinema as a series of film events that occur according to the release schedules of distributors. These events still seem to rely on and refer to a sense of the now, of the singular moment within which it will be possible and necessary to see a film. Not to see a film during the window of its scheduled appearance on theatrical screens is to risk not being able to see it at all “on the big screen.” Not only the size of the screen, but also the technology of projection, the superiority of image resolutions and sound systems, and other factors (including the adherence to an invariable pre-scheduled time of screening) constitute what still remains of a cinematic experience that is designed to take place within the framework of the now.

The other aspect of the contemporary myth of cinema is built on a different and increasingly alluring version of time: the idea that cinematic time is a stockpile, a reserve; that time is virtual, that any time can be brought into play at any moment. The cinema is not a singular spectacular event but a vast external hard drive for storing memories that have not been originally experienced. This repository is infinite and constantly expanding, and the expectation we are encouraged to have of it is that it contains, in potential at least, every film that has ever been made (and that has been preserved).

Film archivists and preservationists know that this expectation is quite false, that to preserve a film in a state where it can still be viewed is a resource-intensive task and that choices are constantly made as to which films may be preserved and accessed (and these choices are informed not just by the evaluations of historians but also by market forces). But neither the reality of these choices nor the risk of the disappearance of films interferes with the prestige of the myth that the cinema is an endless well of collective memory, into which we may dip at will, and the necessary comfort of the thought that eventually, had we world enough and time, we could see it all.

The recent Thai film 36 (directed by Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit) uses the cinema as a metaphor for the possibility that the existence of digital storage has destroyed the capacity for original experience. Of course, to confront this possibility is to be reminded that cinema itself has also been thought of in terms of the destruction of experience, and that what is left of the originally experienced moment and of real life, once they have been registered on film, is only a simulacrum, a shadow. (Billy Wilder’s Fedora uses the mythical figure of the aging film star to expose the vampiric need of cinema to feed on life.)

It may be suspected that the two sides of the contemporary myth of cinema, though they seem to contradict each other, are really the same: that cinema is now and always has been both the singular event and its endless repetition, both a contracted window of time that opens only once and an indefinitely expanded and dispersed time that always lies ready to be activated.

But perhaps it is too easy, too magical an answer to the problem merely to proclaim that “both are the same.” In what sense would the two sides be the same? Certainly film has always offered nothing else but the possibility of an infinite repetition of singular moments. But it is necessary to return again to the position of the spectator, a position that is becoming increasingly unstable.

The consciousness that one can always still watch a film keeps the unwatched film in a state of virtual possession where it is equivalent to all the other films that one “can” watch. This virtuality is a form of the disappearance of cinema.

What is it finally to watch a film? We have admitted that it is possible to be a cinema spectator under conditions that are remote from the classical definition of cinema: in one’s living room, on a subway train, in a shopping mall. These are all non-cinematic spaces where, by what looks like common consent, cinema has become possible. The cinema is now ubiquitous and spreads itself over all spaces.

Are we also prepared to admit that the cinema has become timeless and that it spreads itself over all times? Just as the cinema formerly demanded a designated and reserved space, the cinema theatre, but now no longer requires this, we can say that the cinema formerly demanded a designated time, the time of projection, but that now this too is no longer required.

Just as the contemporary version of cinematic space is a borderless anywhere, contemporary cinematic time is dispersed and indefinitely delayed. But this also means that both space and time are in danger of becoming privatized, that public space is in danger of disappearing, of becoming fragmented into an infinity of private spaces, and as for public time – whatever that might be – a time of decision, perhaps, like a vote, or, better, the time before the decision, when the choices can be weighed and discussed – public time too is becoming split off into separate times that hold themselves apart and never engage with one another.

The idea of a public space and a public time is not without importance for cinema. In the classical era of cinema (let’s pretend for a moment that such a thing existed and can be discussed without ambiguity), films depended on the sense of a cultural moment, of things converging and happening at the same time for a multiplicity of spectators, who themselves could be thought of as cultural participants and makers of culture, writing history to come. Even today, any film that attempts to tell a story using the theme, or the metaphor, of the courtroom trial, inevitably summons at least the appearance of a cultural moment. The recent Korean hit The Attorney is a perfect example. The film seems to bring together the audience as a community that has gone through a historical experience and is now given the opportunity, offered by the film, to pass a verdict on this experience. All this takes place in a ritual manner: the conclusions are known in advance by both the filmmakers and the audience, and no verdict is possible other than the correct one pointed out by the film, which ends up, together with the protagonist, on the right side of history and democracy.

The success of the film indicates that there is still a nostalgia for a form of cinema as a collective experience of history that takes place in a public space and public time. But this public space and time now have to enter cinema as part of a fictional narrative; they have ceased to be part of the conditions of cinema.

Which leads to another question: could it be that the cinema is now largely experienced as a nostalgic and magical form in which the communal and collective cohesion that has disappeared from society can be imaginatively recovered? This is certainly a possibility, and it would not be dispelled, but rather secured, by the fragmentation of public space alluded to earlier.

But again the problem can be turned around, because the cinema does not revolve around the spectator; nor is it something merely imaginary; rather, it is anchored on bodies. Bodies in movement remain the major embodiment of cinema, even today, when all possible definitions of cinema and all uses for cinema appear to have been exhausted, and when we seem to have passed beyond the realization of Louis Lumière’s pronouncement (inscribed as a slogan in a screening room in Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt) that “the cinema is an invention without a future.”

It is not surprising, then, that the major articulation of what is called, in some parts of the English-speaking world, “arthouse cinema” or “cultural cinema” is not in the form of a jubilatory recovery of a lost whole, but offers, instead, an exploration of fragments, in which the function of the central figure is to fail to unify. A good example of this kind of anti-nostalgic, anti-communal cinema can be found in one of the most remarkable recent Korean films, Han Gong-ju by Lee Sujin. In this film, the title character shies away from being recognised and applauded for her great musical ability, perhaps because of her intuitive fear of anything that has to do with a group. All groups in this film are shown to be negative and hostile, or at best impotent, and the film implies that any manifestation of a collective will is to be deeply mistrusted. Even the ability to narrate the story in a strictly linear manner becomes problematic, as the director shuffles scenes occurring at various times. We are left with a solitary body in movement: the heroine, apotheosized as a form swimming underwater with miraculous strength and grace.

To take another example almost at random, Tsai Ming-liang’s Journey to the West, which was unveiled at the Berlinale in February, is the latest in the director’s series of films built around the figure of a Buddhist monk (Lee Kang-sheng) who walks slowly through various public spaces. This figure serves not to activate the public-ness of these spaces, but to expose their real fragmentation and alienation by raising the question of time. “Is it forbidden to walk slowly?” Tsai has asked. In Journey to the West, the monk, continuing his solitary trajectory in Marseille, is ignored or briefly wondered at by a number of bystanders, though he acquires a follower (French actor Denis Lavant) who imitates his pace. In recent interviews, Tsai has expressed his intention to abandon theatrical cinema and make films for museums and galleries. Thus Journey to the West, even as it exposes the decay of public space, can be seen as a step toward the relocation of the communal function of cinema within the space of the museum.

* The Korean translation of this essay is included in Magazine F (No.13) published on May 1st in 2014.