A Century of Cinema

Source: Susan Sontag, extract from ‘A Century of Cinema’ in Where the Stress Falls (London: Penguin, 2009), pp. 118-119 (originally published in a German translation in Frankfurter Rundschau, 30 December 1995)

Text: As many have noted, the start of moviemaking a hundred years ago was, conveniently, a double start. In that first year, 1895, two kinds of films were made, proposing two modes of what cinema could be: cinema as the transcription of real, unstaged life (the Lumière brothers) and cinema as invention, artifice, illusion, fantasy (Méliès). But this was never a true opposition. For those first audiences watching the Lumière brothers’ The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, the camera’s transmission of a banal sight was a fantastic experience. Cinema began in wonder, the wonder that reality can be transcribed with such magical immediacy. All of cinema is an attempt to perpetuate and to reinvent that sense of wonder.

Everything begins with that moment, one hundred years ago, when the train pulled into the station. People took movies into themselves, just as the public cried out with excitement, actually ducked, as the train seemed to move toward them. Until the advent of television emptied the movie theatres, it was from a weekly visit to the cinema that you learned (or tried to learn) how to strut, to smoke, to kiss, to fight, to grieve. Movies gave you tips about how to be attractive, such as … it looks good to wear a raincoat even when it isn’t raining. But whatever you took home from the movies was only a part of the larger experience of losing yourself in faces, in lives that were not yours – which is the more inclusive form of desire embodied in the movie experience. The strongest experience was simply to surrender to, to be transported by, what was on the screen. You wanted to be kidnapped by the movie.

The prerequisite of being kidnapped was to be overwhelmed by the physical presence of the image. And the conditions of “going to the movies” secured that experience. To see a great film only on television isn’t to have really seen that film. (This is equally true of those made for TV, like Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz and the two Heimat films of Edgar Reitz.) It’s not only the difference of dimensions: the superiority of the larger-than-you image in the theatre to the little image on the box at home. The conditions of paying attention in a domestic space are radically disrespectful of film. Since film no longer has a standard size, home screens can be as big as living room or bedroom walls. But you are still in a living room or a bedroom, alone or with familiars. To be kidnapped, you have to be in a movie theatre, seated in the dark among anonymous strangers.

No amount of mourning will revive the vanished rituals – erotic, ruminative – of the darkened theatre. The reduction of cinema to assaultive images, and the unprincipled manipulation of images (faster and faster cutting) to be more attention-grabbing, have produced a disincarnated, lightweight cinema that doesn’t demand anyone’s full attention. Images now appear in any size and on a variety of surfaces: on a screen in a theatre, on home screens as small as the palm of your hand or as big as a wall, on disco walls and mega-screens hanging above sports arenas and the outsides of tall public buildings. The sheer ubiquity of moving images has steadily undermined the standards people once had both for cinema as art at its most serious and for cinema as popular entertainment.

Comments: Susan Sontag (1933-2004) was an American writer and critic. This is an extract from an essay written to mark the generally recognised centenary of cinema in 1995, and is reproduced in a collection of her essays. When it was first published in English, in the New York Times in 1996, the essay was entitled ‘The Decay of Cinema’.

This entry was posted in 1990s, Essays, USA and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A Century of Cinema

  1. Beth Corzo-Duchardt says:

    Sontag’s statements about domesticity vs. anonymity remind me of Roland Barthes’ Leaving the Movie Theater”

  2. Well remembered. Definitely a connection, and in both cases I think driven as much by nostalgia for the cinemagoing experience with which they were familiar, as opposed to those alien new kinds of screen experience. In both cases what aims to be a universal view is really quite a personal one, determined by the time in which it was composed.

  3. Pingback: So Said Susan Sontag In 1995 « Movie City News

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *