The Moving Image 3.1 (2003) 188-190
[Access article in PDF]
The Death of Cinema: History, Cultural Memory, and the Digital Dark Age. Paolo Cherchi Usai. British Film Institute, 2001
Paolo Cherchi Usai's The Death of Cinema: History, Cultural Memory, and the Digital Dark Age presents a challenge to any reader—including [End Page 188] this reviewer—who seeks to decipher a cohesive meaning or sustained argument throughout the book. To say the text is atypical is an understatement, especially in comparison to the average film history or guide for archivists and preservationists. As a whole, the text seems a cross between a utopian treatise, a nostalgic haiku, a morality tale, an anarchic flipbook, and the ravings of a frustrated "philosopher"/archivist. If we can glean anything from Cherchi Usai's provocative title and the ominous fiery explosion that serves as cover art, then perhaps we are well on our way to deciphering what falls between a compassionate preface by Martin Scorsese, the author's introduction, and the concluding sections of the book ("A Reader's Report to the Publisher" and the author's "Reply").
Cherchi Usai, senior curator of the Motion Picture Department at George Eastman House and director of the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation, is renowned for his work in the archive field and for his previously published work, Burning Passions: An Introduction to the Study of Silent Cinema (reprinted as Silent Cinema: An Introduction [London: BFI, 2000]). In his latest book, Cherchi Usai takes a more untraditional stance in warning the reader about the fleeting nature of time, but more specifically about a subtle, yet increasingly pervasive ideology surrounding the so-called digital revolution. Cherchi Usai poses a key question in his introduction that underlies the entire book: "Why is our culture so keen in accepting the questionable benefits of digital technology as the vehicle for a new sense of history?" This is, of course, a valid question, but one that Cherchi Usai does not directly answer. Instead of offering a cogent analysis of this flawed digital approach to history, Cherchi Usai willfully takes the reader on a long detour.
The core of the textual detour is a 108-page section called "The Death of Cinema," which is divided into fifty-two numbered segments. Cherchi Usai designates each segment by following a clear formal pattern. Each left-hand page consists of a roman numeral, a boldfaced and generally confrontational title or question (e.g., "Cinema is the art of moving image destruction," "Is film history monotonous?"), and a black-and-white photo (identified by source, date, and so on). On the right-hand pages, Cherchi Usai offers aphorisms of varying length (from one sentence to an entire page) and, in two cases, diagrams adapted from drawings by Stewart Brand and Brian Eno for a 1998 Web site of the Long Now Foundation (whose goal, according to its Web site, seeks to "promote 'slower/better' thinking and to foster creativity in the framework of the next 10,000 years"). Cherchi Usai uses this format in order to touch on a wide variety of topics, including the nature and problematic value of film history, the changing modes of moving image spectatorship, and the experiential power of moving images on the individual psyche.
It is up to the reader to sort through this Derridean exercise, to attempt to tie the often evocative imagery to the aphorism, and then to tie the individuated numerical segments to one another. Is the text meant to be read from I to LII? Or does Cherchi Usai dare permit the reader to metaphorically slide into the digital arena and read "interactively"? (I would suggest reading the "Reader's Report" first.)
Reading strategies and formal layout aside, Cherchi Usai's book does offer noteworthy points along the way, many of which can be gleaned in a straightforward frame from the last twenty pages of the book in "A Reader's Report to the Publisher" and "Reply." Even if you've never received a reader's report, it will be clear to...