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Reviewed by:
  • The Cinema Effect
  • Yvonne Spielmann
The Cinema Effect by Sean Cubitt. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, U.S.A., 2004. 464 pp., illus. Trade. ISBN: 0-262-03312-7.

Another Cubitt. After the publication of two volumes on video that discuss aspects of medium and culture (Timeshift [1991] and Videography [1993]), Cubitt's critical preoccupation with the phenomena of flow, change and instability also drives the discussion of digital media and networked communication with regard to the organization of knowledge, power and spatial relations on a global scale in the monograph Digital Aesthetics (1998). There, he identifies cartography as the paradigm of realism in contrast to perspective as the paradigm of special effect (perspectival vision is synthetic) that is essentially spatial because it organizes in space. (Cubitt coins the term "spatial effect.") And finally—after publishing the comprehensive survey of simulation theories (Simulation and Social Theory [2001])—the masterpiece (so far) is out: A book about The Cinema Effect that takes in previous reflections on the instability and flow in the emergence of media, instead of identifying interruption and defining normative patterns.

Departing from still commonly held theoretical positions according to which cinema is roughly divided—that is, realism (starting with the brothers Lumière) and magic (starting with the stop-trick by Georges Méliès)—Cubitt is interested in the magic flow of effects that constitute cinema on the whole: as a visual effect of motion on the temporal raster of the "pixel;" as an effect that through the differentiation of the "cut" constructs objects in spatial and temporal relations; and as a special effect that is grounded in animation and connotes meaning, transformation and metamorphosis through the "vector," which marks the transition from the "being" of the object (cut) to becoming "synthetic." The book's argument lucidly develops from the beginning of the medium, where Cubitt describes three positions, namely Lumière, Méliès and [End Page 73] Cohl, that together contribute to the formation of the cinema effect.

The first, the "pixel," describes the moment of movement as the first "magic" effect of cinema. This moment in the history of cinema, as the author stresses, "documents" not "life" (la vie) but "liveliness" (le vif ) and is shared by the social activity of the modern flaneur (around 1895) and is also paralleled in the new concept of life that is divided up into work and leisure time. Thus, in understanding cinema as magic, special effect is, first of all, exemplified in the work of the brothers Lumière, who serve as the main authority behind Cubitt's statement that cinema does not represent time but originates it. As the thorough (and for the non-expert easy to follow) discussion of theories on early cinema convincingly concludes, the Lumières' cinema is mistakenly categorized as "documentary," as it shows the magical transformation from life to liveliness: therein lies the magic, the speciality of cinema.

The second category that Cubitt introduces in order to liberate cinema from the dogma of realism and narrative is the "cut," which develops with the interruption of movement through Méliès's invention of stop-trick. In line with the previous argument that a cinematic event relates to the real but (with regard to its material condition) consists of discrete and fragmented elements, Cubitt's secondary discussion of the cinema as the universe of the "synthetic" discloses how Méliès's technique of stop-motion distinguishes objects from their movement. Méliès thereby constitutes the possibility of a cinematic third dimension: cinema as a spatial effect. Logically, what follows in the third section, the "vector," is another argument for the synthetic characteristics of cinema that Cubitt identifies in the early animation films of Emile Cohl (around 1908). Clearly, here film is not narrative, not the illusion of continuous flow, but fragmentation.

All of this, pixel, cut and vector, points to the cinematic way to spatialize looking. Here, Cubitt relates to Jacques Aumont's theories of painting, photography and film where Aumont anchors the invention of cinema in the "mobilization of gaze." As Cubitt concludes,

At some point in the near future when historians recognize that the photochemical cinema is...


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