For J. Hoberman, the cinema is dead - but its afterlife is fascinating

Jim Hoberman. (courtesy of the School of Visual Arts)
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Almost 70 years ago, the vastly influential film critic André Bazin predicted that cinema as he knew it would disappear by the year 2000.

On Tuesday night, professorial New York film critic Jim Hoberman took up that claim for a cozy college audience in a small theater at the School of Visual Arts, with thoughts from his recent widely-discussed book, Film After Film. One could go so far as to say that these days Hoberman’s a thinker akin to Bazin in his influence, through his frequent reviews, books, and as an occasional guest curator of film at the Museum of Modern Art. His controversial (and baffling) firing from the Village Voice last year—what many saw as a death sentence for that paper—elicited a scourge of public outrage from industry peers and readers alike. Tuesday’s host, S.V.A.’s Chair of the M.F.A. Art Criticism and Writing Program David Levi Strauss, was one such diehard.

“I now read movie reviews for pleasure and to find out what’s going on in the world,” he said, “and my favorite writer on movies is still Jim Hoberman. If you wanna know what happened in the Reagan years, or what an ‘Obama-inflected’ Hollywood cinema might look like, you have to read Hoberman on these subjects. For Hoberman, film criticism is a form of social commentary and social history.”

Hoberman opened with Bazin’s 1946 article “The Myth of Total Cinema,” which advanced some of Bazin's key tenets. Bazin claims that cinema strives to capture the real, bearing witness to the godly essence of the cosmos. “[E]ach and every new technological development—synchronous sound, full color, stereoscopic or 3D movies, Smell-o-Vision—served to stake cinema nearer to its imagined essence,” Hoberman said.

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“Namely, a perfect reproduction of the world in its own image. And once true cinema was achieved, the medium itself would disappear, just like the state under true communism."

A clip of Richard Linklater's Waking Life was screened in which two characters discuss Bazin’s ideas about reality, calling his reality the “holy moment.” Yet while Bazin predicted that film would move to become progressively more faithful to reality, the turn of the 21st century heralded CGI’s total reinvention of reality.

Hoberman terms our new digitally-affected pictures "cyborg cinema.” He’s defined this previously in a New York Review of Books essay titled “Trapped in the Total Cinema,” with examples like Tron, Jurassic Park, Andy Serkis's portrayal of Gollum in Lord of the Rings. The Matrix, in particular, created a dystopia which was “a kind of model for cyberspace.”

“Photography had been superseded, if not the desire to produce images that move,” Hoberman said, and added, a little forebodingly: “In this brave new world, Chaplin is perhaps a footnote to Mickey Mouse." If there’s no camera, is it still a film?

If so, it’s not the film of Bazin’s day.

“As a result [of CGI’s disconnect from reality],” Hoberman said, “the film medium had to acknowledge a grievous loss for perhaps a narcissistic wound. This is what I think people are talking about when they refer to the death of cinema. Some special something has disappeared."

He offered a guess as to what that means.

"My own idealistic formulation would be that cinema speaks through its creators in the same way that language speaks through poets. In other words, the medium itself is experiencing this anxiety, having lost its connection to the real, and it's looking for ways to reestablish it."

In Hoberman’s estimation, contemporary filmmakers have reestablished this connection in various ways. The neo-neo-realist Danish Dogme 95 movement spawned a generation of film-festival cinema which “purposely blurred the distinction between staged fiction and recorded reality.” The final clip of the evening was from Lars Von Trier's Dogville (2003) which, not to spoil it, juxtaposes the realness of actual documentary photography with an inescapably bare film set, to jarring effect.

The Passion of the Christ also produced what Hoberman called "post-Passion anti-entertainment,” or films “that aspire to a kind of visceral realness and are additionally experiential in their emphasis on real-time duration.”

Think Christian Marclay’s recent The Clock, the 24-hour film composed of thousands of film fragments showing the times of day.

"The Clock is a wonderful paradox,” Hoberman said. “People always say that they go to a movie to kill time or to escape. You cannot watch The Clock and be unaware of what time it is. You cannot be unaware of time passing."

On a more optimistic note, the true revelation came from Pixar’s Wall-E, when cinema resurfaces in the form of a VHS tape of Hello Dolly. We watched Wall-E return to his trailer after a long day of garbage-compacting, to watch the film’s love song, the character’s puppydog eyes locked on the image.

"Nothing in Wall-E is real; the toaster, not the Rubik’s Cube, not the little cockroach, certainly not Wall-E—except that film clip,” Hoberman said. “That's the only real aspect of the movie. It's the most extreme example of cyborg cinema that I know. It should be depressing, but it’s not."

From this, he concluded: "I think that it's safe to say that there will be film after film."