In 1999, on the eve of the massively hyped release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, J. Hoberman, at the time the lead film critic at the Village Voice, used the occasion to ponder George Lucas's enormous influence on the movies. Hoberman's reflections were fraught with unease: Rather than carrying on cinema's function—perhaps even its duty—of preserving a photographic relationship to real events and performances, Lucas had initiated cinema's move into the digital realm, where any image could be endlessly manipulated or even invented from whole cloth. "Infinitely malleable, digital imaging does not share photography's indexical relationship to the real—it doesn't produce a document … but rather a fiction," Hoberman wrote. "Will this mastery over the photographic record inspire a new historicism or inspire a continually 'improved' past?"
The not-so-distant future to which Menace pointed—cinema's ostensible transformation from a medium possessing the capacity to record history to one claiming the technological ability to remake it—is now upon us. This is the main subject of Hoberman's latest book, Film After Film: (Or, What Happened to 21st Century Cinema?), a hybrid of original reflections and reprinted Voice reviews looking back on the movies of the 2000s, their relationship to (largely American) culture and politics, and their ongoing transformations via digital technologies. Elegiac and anxious, critical and poetic, Film After Film surveys the current seismic shifts in movies and considers their effect on the cinematic imagination.
The first section, "A Post-Photographic Cinema," focuses on the "existential crisis" brought on by the ascendance of digital cameras, projectors, and computers, which Hoberman worries have precluded "the necessity of having the world, or even a really existing subject, before the camera." The impact of a wholly animated cinema can be seen in the highly manipulated worlds of The Matrix and its increasingly digital-effects-dependent brethren, movies Hoberman frequently views as cold, thought- and history-eradicating spectacles so vital in buttressing the new, twenty-first-century Hollywood order. Opposing them are what Hoberman deems "The New Realness" of minimalist movements like Dogme 95, long-take experimental films like Russian Ark and Ten, and self-reflexive meditations such as The Social Network and Wall-E. These bearers of the dying cinematic light employ digital technology to explore uncharted cinematic territory or else gauge the social and psychological fallout of increasingly computerized entertainment.
Hoberman reads the evolution of cinema from photography to the digital age through André Bazin's essay "The Myth of Total Cinema," which traces the aim of moving-image technologies back to an age-old impulse to re-create the world with flawless verisimilitude. As interpreted by Hoberman, Bazin's thesis rests on romantic notions of photography as a medium capable of objectively capturing the real via chemical processes directly dependent on the physical presence of an existing subject and the light reflecting off of it. According to Hoberman, the post-photographic basis of digital cinema—in which information comes in the form of ones and zeros that can either be rendered from images taken from external reality or else programmed from scratch—apparently ignores any need to "record" or "capture" the actual world.
It's a provocative argument that Hoberman at times overstates. Cinematic objectivity has always been undermined—not only by the subjective decisions of the artist, but also by the cinema's inherent potential for photographic (animation, scratched emulsion, etc.) or any other kind of alteration. In other words, cinema has been undergoing an existential crisis since the day it was invented. Though digital and computer technologies do powerfully facilitate image manipulation, they also participate in a long tradition that spans the transformation of subjects from two-dimensional, black-and-white beings to endlessly mutable avatars. It's thus hard to agree with Hoberman's argument that "whether as a source of visual data or as a delivery system, computer-generated imagery has introduced a radical impurity into the motion picture apparatus." Cinema possesses no Garden of Eden—the apple was first eaten by Edison and the Lumières.
The second section of Film After Film charts the cinematic responses that followed September 11, the Afghan and Iraq wars, and the re-election of the 43rd President, among other reverberating disasters of the aughts. Hoberman deftly examines the relationship between social cataclysms and their Hollywood reimaginings, observing that the fantasies of the latter are often mistaken for the realities of the former. Writing about the 2002 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Colateral Damage (which had its original release date delayed by 9/11), Hoberman is eerily prescient:
Colateral damage is something that Americans have inflicted far more than they have suffered, but in this case, the phrase is synonymous with windfall profits. Just as George Bush's questionable presidency was consecrated by the War on Terror, so Schwarzenegger's flagging career should be revived. Perhaps the Fireman would again decide to run for governor of California. All together now: "Heads up. Let's . . . do . . . it!"
Hoberman has merged film reviews with cultural criticism before, most notably in The Dream Life, his cultural-political history of the '60s and '70s. Yet, despite the incisiveness and bite of his reflections, the second section of Film After Film often lacks the nightmarish feel of plunging into the American collective unconscious that made The Dream Life so uniquely evocative. The awkward shifts between the past and present tense also undermine the depiction of an era made all the more frenetic and confusing by still not having ended.
The third section of the book, "Notes Toward a Syllabus," reprints classic Hoberman reviews of In Praise of Love, Goodbye, Dragon Inn, The World, Inland Empire, and Carlos, among others, suggesting a classroom survey of the landmark films and themes of the aughts. Here the prose shines without qualification, and the selections remind us that Hoberman's tenure at the Voice was, simply put, one of the greatest ever by an American film critic, influencing as it did an entire generation of writers, this one included. While I'm still not convinced Day Night Day Night and Southland Tales merit serious discussion, Hoberman convincingly champions under-the-radar masterpieces like Ken Jacobs's Razzle Dazzle: The Lost World by imparting a sense of its significance in terms of the transition from film to digital cinema: "In a sense, Razzle Dazzle is a continuous loop. The amusement park merges with the film machine; these long-vanished children are riding the celluloid ribbon through the projector. Despite its defined ending, the piece projects an eternal Now as the artist ponders the infinite possibilities that photography … afford to reconstitute the moment—a digital example of film after film." While the first two sections of Film After Film might have been consolidated and expanded to produce a more thoroughly developed argument, "Notes" showcases, without retouching, the writer at his best.
Michael Joshua Rowin writes about cinema for Reverse Shot, the L Magazine, and various other publications.