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The Cinema Effect
Sean Cubitt
Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2004.
£25.95, 456 pages, ISBN 0-262-03312-7

Hajer Ben Gouider Trabelsi
Université de Montréal, Canada


In his Cinema Effect, Sean Cubitt takes his reader on a fascinating odyssey, and provides us with an insightful analysis of the development of cinema from its beginnings with the Lumière brothers to the cinematic productions of our "digital era" [3]. As we read the book, we get the impression that we are smoothly guided by the hand from one phase of cinematic history to another. The smoothness of the reader's journey can be accounted for by the brilliant parallels the writer draws between the different parts of the book, as well as by the constant traces we have of Part One in Part Two and Part Three. In this survey, I intend to emphasize the importance of the role the helpful structure of the book plays in making it more accessible to the reader. I also intend to foreground the major differences between the normative cinematic mode and the post-cinematic one.

One of the most striking aspects of the book is its structural one. In fact, it is conceived in such a way as to enable the reader to start with whatever part of the book without having to read the preceding one/s. The same is true for the different subparts within each major part of the book. This is made possible thanks to the fact that Cubitt constantly inserts in any of the parts or subparts of his book concise summaries of concepts he deems crucial to the understanding of the part or subpart in question. For instance, a reader who happens to be interested only in the subpart about the vector, which happens to be the last subpart of the first major part of the book, will not have to read the whole first chapter, as s/ he will be told about the major characteristics of the pixel and the cut, in the introductory paragraph to that subpart. Other relevant features of the pixel and the cut punctuate pages 80, 85, 91, 92 of this subpart. Thus, the reader is not compelled to read the book in a linear way, nor is s/he compelled to read it in its entirety, if s/he is interested in a particular phase of the history of cinema. The movement of the reader through the book is also made easier thanks to the tables summarizing the characteristics of the films the writer discusses in each of the first two parts.

Though the table of contents tells us that the book falls into three parts, I see it rather as consisting of two major parts. The first part is made up of the first two parts of the book, while the second corresponds to the part entitled "Post Cinema." Indeed, in the second part, Cubitt makes use both of the notions of pixel, cut and vector, which he develops in his "Pioneer Cinema," and of the different modes of normative cinema (1) in his insightful analysis of films produced in the "digital era" (2). Through his examination of these films, relying mainly on "database narratives" [236], Cubitt unveils a major shift witnessed in the realm of filmmaking.

This shift was occasioned by the fact that society and the real world no longer play a crucial role in shaping the world of Neobaroque or digital films. This is exactly what Cubitt underlines, when he says that "[I]t is no longer the case that films some way respond to, refract, express, or debate reality or society. Mass entertainment has abandoned the task of making sense of the world, severing the cords that bound the two together" [245]. Indeed, films like The Matrix are radically different from such a total film as Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky, or such a realist film as La Règle du Jeu (Both films are discussed in the second part of the book), in the sense that the former reflects the political exigencies that led to its production, and the latter is "concerned to make cinema the asymptote of reality" [149]. This lack of interest "Post Cinema" shows in society, history and reality stems from its unwillingness to grapple with ideology, though even this escapist attitude is an ideological decision, as Cubitt puts it. This cinematic trend can only produce ahistorical, escapist films "miniaturized infinities bracketed off the world" [247], that respond perfectly well to the audience's need "for wholeness" [247].

So far, I have been dealing with the different modes of cinematic production and their implication in ideology, politics, society, and history. This interaction between cinema and these various arenas is, among other things, what has led to the cinematic modes of production discussed in the second and third parts of the book. Here, another aspect of history of cinema Cubitt deals with comes to the fore, namely the beginnings of cinema with the Lumière brothers. The first part of the book entitled "Pioneer Cinema" provides an inspiring discussion of them. What is interesting about this early phase of cinema is the clear enthrallment with movement. There was basically no concern with narrative. Furthermore, with such a pioneer film as the Lumière Brothers' Sortie des Usines, we can safely say that we are in the realm of the pixel which "engages" the viewer "by an undifferentiated union with the visual" [91]. It is this cinematic medium that made social groups like women working in the above-mentioned factory visible and democratized the figure of the flâneur, by opening up this category to those women.

The films produced during this early phase of film-making are marked by a certain lack of interest in hierarchies. What mattered was the filming as such. This pre-lapsarian state of cinema would soon come to an end. The subsequent phase in the history of film-making, as depicted by Cubitt, is one characterized by the primacy of the cut. This cut which the writer compares to the realm of the Lacanian Symbolic, and qualifies his statement saying "where Lacan emphasizes the loss of integral wholeness in this splitting, however, the theory of the cut emphasizes the unification of dispersed, atomic sensation" [67]. The cut goes hand in hand with the increasing importance of order and narrative. The third concept developed by Cubitt, in the first part of the book, is the vector. He basically defines it, by comparing it to a similar phenomenon in linguistics, in the following terms, "[l]inguists speak of grammar as the syntagmatic axis and imagine it as a horizontal line, rather like this line of print. The paradigmatic axis is correspondingly the vertical axis, like the reels on a slot machine, allowing us to select which word to put into the slots created by the syntax" [76].

This concept is shown at work, for instance, in Cohl's film entitled Fantasmagorie. However, when one reads Cubitt's entire book, one has the impression that the writer is applying the principle of the vector in his explanation of the history of cinema, with all its concepts. In this sense, the syntagmatic axis coincides with the figurative axis of cinematic concepts, and the paradigmatic axis coincides with the various disciplines the writer resorts to in his explanation of the aforementioned cinematic concepts. Among these, disciplines, one may refer to physics, mathematics, psychoanalysis, philosophy, and physics, to name but a few.

I have tried to spot the strategies the writer uses to make the reader's odyssey through the sea of cinematic history smoother. I have also attempted to point out the difference between the normative cinematic mode and the post-cinematic one, underscoring the lack of interest the latter shows in history, society and politics, in its attempt to respond to certain needs of the audience.

(1).This is dealt with in the part entitled "Normative Cinema." The normative cinematic modes Cubitt examines are total film, realist film, and classical film.
(2).Here, we have to except neoclassical films.


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