[-empyre-] July on empyre: Screens

Christian McCrea saccharinmetric at gmail.com
Fri Jul 6 01:52:37 EST 2012

Ian + others,

I think screen materiality studies have produced some great work over
the last decade; I look forward to seeing the discussion evolve.

I want to offer a reference that hasn't made it out into the world
very often and which grounds all of my thoughts on screen materiality.
I absolutely adore it, and I endorse it here shamelessly. It's an
extraordinary 1896 essay reprinted by the editors of Sight and Sound
in 1982, and largely unknown but described in the issue as the ‘first
piece of British film criticism’ and certainly amongst the first
pieces that could lay claim to that honour anywhere in the world. The
author, O. Winter, expounds on his first experience with the
cinematograph, as well as a demonstration of that other great
fin-de-siècle invention, the X-ray machine.

Winter’s essay compares the two at their root; the capability to
produce images that compose reality for their audience. The essay is
pretty sagacious, describing the potential for the moving image to
tend towards the violent and sexual as a completely natural mode of
viewership, while ascribing a pre-medical understanding of the X-ray
as a deeply personal machine, that can cut ‘right to the core of
person’s being.’
Winter’s thesis about the cinematograph – and watching the infamous
Lumière film, Train Pulling Into A Station (1895), no less - is one of
discombobulated distraction, generating a very different picture to
that of shocked viewers stumbling out of the theatre scared to death.
Rather, Winter notices a deep curiosity and dissatisfaction with the
act of viewership, and one he is absolutely explicit to determine is
not about the poor representative quality:

"In the moving image thrown upon the screen, the crowd is severally
and unconsiously choosing or rejecting the objects of sight. But we
find the task impossible. The grey photograph unfolds at an equal pace
and with a sad deliberation. We cannot follow the shadows in their
enthusiasm of recognition; the scene is forced to trickle upon our
nerves with an equal effect; it is neither so quick nor so changeful
as life. From the point of view of display, the spectacle fails,
because its personages lack the one quality of entertainment:
self-conciousness.  (Winter, 1896/1982)"

The images being ‘neither so quick nor so changeful as life’ are
interesting, given how cinema would develop technologically and
culturally. Describing an apparatus he saw as funereal and deliberate,
he instead lauded the potential of the X-ray, which had the
self-conciousness that the cinematograph lacked. The crowd ‘severally
and unconsciously choosing or rejecting the objects of sight’,
however, is a recognition given how over a century of cinema culture
and technical mastery has shown up the same central problems. Images
which unfurl with equal effect are for the crowd, are deigned to be
‘cinematic’ in nature; not real, not deliberate, not self-conscious.

I like to think about this weird distinction over and over again,
especially when thinking about the borderlands of cinema and other
screens. What cinema always lacked, under this concept, was self
consciousness.  This yawning lack, through the advent of sound,
colour, editing, techniques of time and space, montage, animation,
computer generated imagery – everything that has been assembled on top
of those early sad and deliberate images – was that simple fact that
ANY sequential footage of a past event is a procession. It cannot be
'lifelike'. The X-ray offered the far more humane element, the
opportunity to break down topics and people into component pairs, and
presumably that made it a potential heir to the higher arts. X-ray as
entertainment, cinema as medical marvel. I'm sure I don't need to
point out the cute elision here between X-rays and other technologies
such as game engines.

And because like any historian, he knew that focussing too much on the
material would destroy the thesis, he offered this:

"He who insists on a minute and conscientious vision, is forthwith
hampered by his own material, and is almost forced to see
discordantly."  (Winter, 1896/1982)

Reference is - Winter, O. (1896/1982, Autumn). "Ain't It Lifelike!"
Sight and Sound , pp. 294-296.

I'm also hoping to see some reference to the excellently lunatic
manifesto The Death of Cinema by Paolo Cherchi Usai, as among many
other fragments, offers a very lucid speculative materialist take on
the screen.

-Christian McCrea

On 5 July 2012 06:44, Ian Bogost <ian.bogost at lcc.gatech.edu> wrote:
> On Jul 4, 2012, at 8:24 AM, Brian Holmes wrote:
> Our mobile
> screens do not offer us anonymity, they relay and record our movements
> (via GPS); they can capture and convey our images as much as they can
> record images. Or they can create another type of image (data, or
> information about us).
> It seems to me that the passage reveals the need for some more circumspect
> way of conceiving these things. After all, screens _as such_ neither track
> us, nor relay information about us, nor even capture our images. Networked
> and programmed interactive devices do that, usually in combination with
> databases and operators. Kriss, you get at that further on: "These
> interactive screens / machines respond to our voices, our touch, our
> gestures, but they are at the same time programmed."
> Thanks for saying this, Brian. I had similar questions but you summarized
> well. What is it we are talking about when we talk about screens? Is there
> such a thing as "the screen"? What do we gain when we look at specific kinds
> of screens and understand screens separately
> Just to throw one example out that I was just discussing with someone
> yesterday: the cathode-ray tube is nearing the end of new production.
> Innumerable CRTs will still exist for some time, but they will be impossible
> or very costly to produce new. The CRT may seem undesirable and outmoded,
> but it also has very specific properties that make its picture appear in a
> particular fashion—a manner that invisibly imbued several media, most
> obviously television, video games, and video art, for fifty years. Matters
> of preservation and experience of these works, from Electronic Superhighway
> to Dallas to Pac-Man, are bound up with the life and death of the CRT.
> Ian
> _______________________________________________
> empyre forum
> empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au
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