Suffering Cinema: New Media and the Challenge to Film’s Evolution

The word “cinema” functions as a signifier that fundamentally challenges any notions of objective significates. Not only does the meaning of the word shift contextually (e.g. lets go to the cinema, this is a great piece of cinema, etc.) but it also chimerically modulates its very ontology based on the subjectivity of the speaker. Cinema, which must be understood as a reference to a specific concatenation of elements, is an inherently unstable term and subject to the speaker’s understanding of the word which is itself subject to technological, sociopolitical, and ideological discourses. While cinema’s ontology is certainly always in flux, there is now, perhaps more than ever, an overstated interest in drawing clear distinctions between “pure” cinema and emerging media (videogames, web based content, etc.) or reformulations and manipulations of “traditional cinema” (interactive cinema, database narratives, etc.). For the purposes of this paper, the term “pure cinema” will be used to demarcate what is arguably a dominant vernacular use of the word, specifically a darkened theater space where spectators passively engage with a projected string of moving images generally accompanied by sound. By drawing on the works of Francesco Casetti and Jenna Ng in relation to non-traditional cinematic works like Sufferrosa (Marcinokowski, 2010) and Late Fragment (Cloran, Doron, Guez, 2007), I intend to challenge this reductivist view of cinema while simultaneously illustrating how the very theoretical works that intend to expand the meaning of “cinema” as a signifying term inherently reaffirm it’s artificially fixed ontology.


It is perhaps necessary to begin this brief study by grounding my vernacular understanding of “pure cinema” in contemporary experience. Although this short article cannot sufficiently address the construction of our collective understanding of the word, Ng’s and Cassetti’s works both illustrate the existing tendency to associate “cinema” with a particular space and mode of engagement. Ng begins her article, “Fingers, Futures, Fates: Viewing Interactive Cinema in Kinoautomat and Sufferrosa” by pointing to Bernardo Bertolucci’s film The Dreamers (2003) and the way in which “cinema” is essentially described within the film as a darkened space where “submissive absorption” is the central spectatorial tendency. In an arguably more complex yet similar example, Cassetti points to works like Hugo (Scorsese, 2011) which move beyond simply reifying particular modes of cinematic engagement as timeless, but furthermore suggest a teleological historical flow of cinematic characteristics that serve to legitimize contemporary understandings of cinema both textually and spectatorially. Hugo, for example, foregrounds historical cinematic figures like Georges Méliès effectively centering and reaffirming his fantasy productions as “the ‘heart’ of cinema” (Casetti 14) thus lending legitimacy to the contemporary fantastical work and, by proxy, the ways in which the work itself is positioned in relation to the spectator. In essence, both of these articles illustrate how our collective understanding of cinema is itself mediated by the cinema. The concatenation of darkened theater, passive spectators, and linear narrative flow becomes the legitimate and eternal mode of cinema, and cinema’s history of impermanence and flux is occluded by means of its own representation and our collective memory.

Interactive works like Sufferrosa and Late Fragment seem to fundamentally challenge this limited understanding of cinema by forcing the spectator to directly engage with, and manipulate, the text. Whether the viewser is navigating the database narrative in Sufferrosa which entails spatial and temporal manipulation of the diegesis in a non-linear fashion or choosing who’s story is more appealing at a particular point in time in Late Fragment, both films offer a mode of engagement seemingly at odds with the passive spectatorial experience. Furthermore, Sufferrosa and Late Fragment both complicate the collective cinematic experience, as controlling the narrative flow must ultimately be decided by a spectator through clicking. This can, admittedly, be a shared experience through a curatorial or group voting process but, regardless, the vastness of these works’ databases invites and even necessitates repeat viewings and rewards individual interaction as a means of accessing and better exploring the complex database narratives. Such individual viewings effectively problematize the collective cinematic space and, as such, these works relocate and refigure the cinematic experience. In “The Relocation of Cinema” Francesco Casetti suggests that the experiential mode implied by the word “cinema” often shifts beyond the media (film, projector, screen) associated with the cinematic medium. This process of relocation is quite different than remediation, as Casetti argues that this is not simply one medium representing another but rather a complete transference or shift of the concatenation of sensations associated with cinema beyond the “traditional” material cinematic space.

Of course, to put forth this idea of experiential relocation is simultaneously to posit a stable signification or ideal cinema to be relocated. Casetti attempts to resolve this paradox by pointing to the ways in which stable ideas of cinema must be understood in the context of the discursive relationship between past and present. Casetti rightly argues, “We attribute to the past the premises of the present, but we build the past (and we build it as premise) on the basis of the present” (14). In essence, our memories and collective understandings of cinema must be understood as themselves mutable and bound to contemporary ways of seeing. Therefore, the Platonic ideal or essence of cinema is an ever-changing construct that, contrary to Casetti’s assertion, is not subject to “relocation” as it is always already in a process of becoming and thus never achieves a genuinely stable essence to relocate. To argue otherwise is to ignore the myriad shifts from the mutoscope mutoscopeto nickelodeons to grand theaters and back again, from silence to sound, from orthochromatic to panchromatic to color, the myriad conflicting sociopolitical currents shaping content, and on and on ad infinitum. Technological shifts come into contact with spectatorial shifts and altogether new modes of cinematic engagement and experience result. In essence, the suggestion that cinema can be relocated falls victim to the very static ontology that Casetti is arguing against. Admittedly, Casetti himself is not implying a fixed understanding of cinema per se but in an effort to make sense of new and emerging media that are displacing cinema, he places too much emphasis on cohesive collective interpretations. We can, therefore, extend Casetti’s own understanding of past/presentness by additionally incorporating “future,” which is always already anticipated in the past/present dyad. In essence, we can conceive of cinema in relation to a Deleuzian time-crystal, past and present coexist and the multifaceted nature of future potentiality shapes any process of becoming into a smooth flow. The shift toward new modes of engagement and understandings of cinema are thus better understood as merely an evolution (which need not be positive) rather than a relocation, which implies a false moment of stasis.

Casetti’s article problematically foregrounds cinema’s inherent mutability while conversely reifying and generalizing the complex and shifting web of material and immaterial elements serving as “cinema’s” referent. While this approach at the very least suggests that cinema is an ever-changing concept, Jenna Ng attempts to extol the powers of new, parallel modes of “cinema” against a “pure” cinema by reductively asserting a uniform spectatorial phenomenology. In essence, interactive cinema, as it is understood by Ng, must be considered as a mode of cinema that runs alongside and challenges our normative understanding of cinema and thus exists in opposition to the more “passive” spectatorial engagement that contemporary understandings of the film experience entail. This contention, although certainly correct in some respects, dangerously assumes a uniform spectatorial experience that ignores unique “interaction” between audience and text. We can look at Ng’s three differences between interactive and “passive” cinema to better illustrate this point.

The first category Ng uses to support the differentiation between “pure” and interactive cinema is cinematic temporality. Specifically, Ng argues that pure cinema’s ontology is that of pastness. Once lived experience is frozen into disparate historical fragments strung together in an unchanging chain. According to this argument, a piece of pure cinema is static in the sense that the narrative structure cannot be interfered with by the spectator. This, of course, is opposed to the encouraged manipulation of the narrative discourse within interactive works like Sufferrosa and Late Fragment. What is lost in this argument, however, is precisely the ways in which a seemingly fixed cinematic text can itself be reinterpreted and in effect, reshaped by distinct bodies experiencing the text through a particular way of seeing. Indeed, the narrative discourse may remain objectively unchanged but particular moments, scenes, shots, etc. may be mentally omitted or elevated in ways that fundamentally reshape the experience and even the metaphorical “outcome” of the film. This, of course, applies to repeat viewings by the same spectator and should not be understood as difference between disparate bodies alone. My argument here is not to belittle the power resulting from the malleability of interactive works but rather to suggest a way of understanding these new modes of cinema as part and parcel of an evolving cinema rather than a challenge or threat to pure cinema.

For the sake of brevity, Ng’s final two differentiating factors, immersion and agency, can be combined into one argument as they essentially overlap. Ng suggests that a heightened sense of user agency within interactive cinema in which “the viewer becomes an active author of the text” (5) leads to an immersive experience beyond that offered by pure cinema. Specifically, Ng conceives of these differences in immersion as diegetic vs. situated—diegetic in this sense refers to passive narrative absorption while situated immersion approximates a video game experience where the diegetic world “extends” into the physical realm of the gamer (Ng 4). Ng clarifies, “By the situational immersion achieved in interactive cinema, the spectator relates to the film not simply as a text which exists behind the screen, but also as an extension of her physical space” (4). While this is indeed a fundamentally different mode of engagement than pure cinema, Ng’s account perhaps optimistically assumes a merger between diegetic and physical space based on interactivity yet does not account for the possibility of distanciation affected by the mediating apparatus. Navigating Sufferrosa, for example, necessitates an exploration of the diegetic space through moving and clicking the mouse. Even this simple act, however, reaffirms an embodied existence beyond the confines of the diegesis that fundamentally distracts from the diegetic world. In essence, arguing that situated immersion expands the diegetic world into the physical realm or vice versa must simultaneously account for the ways in which the physical distinct body is repositioned as impossibly external to the text, mediated by the intrusive apparatus made blatantly visible and tactile.

These arguments are not meant to reinforce the primacy of “pure” cinema but rather to illustrate that “cinema” as a signifier is constantly in flux. Attempting to draw distinctions between seemingly different iterations of cinema risks assuming a static ontology that, in actuality, is constantly evolving. Rather than position interactive works like Sufferrosa and Late Fragment as challenges to passive cinematic experiences, we should instead consider them as merely one facet of this multifaceted concept of “cinema” which encompasses material and immaterial aspects as varied as the spectators experiencing and engaging with it.

Works Cited

Casetti, Francesco. “The Relocation of Cinema.” European Journal of Media Studies. 2012.

Late Fragment. Dir. Cloran, Doron, Guez. 2007.

Ng, Jenna. “Fingers, Futures, Fates: Viewing Interactive Cinema in Kinoautomat and Sufferrosa.Screening the Past, Vol. 32, 2011.

Sufferrosa. Dir. Marcinokowski. 2010.

Image Credit

2 thoughts on “Suffering Cinema: New Media and the Challenge to Film’s Evolution

  1. Eric, I was showing your website to a former student who is on the job market as a great example of how to turn a blog into a portfolio (hope you don’t mind). I’m reminded of how great this particular work – do you mind if I repost it on the Interactive Media Archive so that the students this Fall can read it? I will of course include your name & web link.


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