The Moving Image of Cinema

What might it mean for us to view ROAD MOVIE—Road to Singapore a work of “expanded cinema”? As Tsukasa Ikegami points out in the previous essay, it is easy to think of this installation by the SHIMURAbros as one working within the so-called expanded field of cinema.1 The term itself would suggest a cinema that has gone beyond the typical settings of a self-contained cinematheque. Expanded cinema constitutes, therefore, an immersive experience that aims to draw attention to its own situatedness in the larger scheme of things. It is a site-specific cinema whose diegesis thus includes the actual environment it finds itself embedded in; it is a cinema that can no longer be viewed in sheer isolation from its time and place. But more commonly perhaps, expanded cinema has come to define a particular form of cinema that utilises an expanded inventory of equipment and techniques. In other words, it is a cinema that is also increasingly intermedial. Such as it is, artists using their own backs as screens for their work fall easily within the category of expanded cinema; and even large-scale projections on the facade of a shopping mall could similarly be cited as possible examples. Expanded cinema, as Gene Youngblood frames it, entails an “expanded consciousness” of not what cinema is, but what cinema might become

However useful the term might be, insofar as it allows us to move over the tricky business of defining cinema too rigidly, I remain skeptical of applying the term too quickly to ROAD MOVIE. Namely, there is an implicit tendency in the discourse of expanded cinema to press the pause button on cinema’s history, so as to fast-forward over to the potential future(s) of cinema. To claim that cinema has now expanded from its previously- defined borders, we would first be required, after all, to fix an image of cinema’s past, and then to go on to reject it with some pleasure. Rather, what is much more exciting— and I would think, productive—is the notion of an expanding cinema: a cinema that is perpetually on the move; a cinema whose image is always flickering; a cinema whose past we would, therefore, constantly struggle with.

Indeed, I see ROAD MOVIE as a work which invites its spectator to take the long(er) view, to excavate the forgotten ruins of cinema’s history, and to recognise the incompleteness which haunts our understanding of just such a history. In this respect, the experience of ROAD MOVIE is much closer to that of “media archaeology”3 than that of the expanded cinema. The faint shadows falling on the crates of archaeological sherds are, in many ways then, metaphors for the fragments and lost traces of cinema’s history screened out by the discipline of Film History.

Film History, or, the Line of Best Fit

In what is now a standard issue in classes on Film History, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s Film History: An Introduction charts the beginnings of cinema somewhere in the 1880s.4 While this influential account acknowledges that precursors to cinema existed well before the late 19th century, typically in the form of optical toys such as the praxinoscope and magic lantern, it nonetheless takes as its point of reference to be the invention of celluloid film. To that end, what is implicitly reproduced in Bordwell and Thompson’s narrative is the assumption that “images started moving only when celluloid film became available”, as well as the “false impression that all preceding visual forms had been static”.5 And even though pre-19th century optical toys had been accommodated in this influential account, they were mobilised only to the point of allowing scholars like Bordwell and Thompson to suggest that the nature of cinema had always been one of entertainment. The upshot of all this is the problematic idea that Hollywood narrative cinema thus represented the perfection of cinema: the moving image par excellence.

Although this premise of Film History is not entirely mistaken, the main problem with it was that it encouraged a thinking of cinema’s development as a linear progression. In short, Film History is quite simply Hollywood narrative cinema telling its own story in the form of an academic bildungsroman. Fortunately, it has become increasingly important to think of cinema’s history as an accumulation of thoughts and inventions which, regardless whether they had been produced with this end in mind, slowly paved the way for cinema’s becoming. Taking a media-archaeological approach then, might we not conceive of cinema’s history as a series of possible thoughts and inventions that may not have contributed directly or intentionally to the development of cinema? The effect of such a genealogical model, as articulated and popularised by Foucault’s writings, is the expansion of the existing accounts which tended to position cinema as an almost-exclusively European product, when in fact significant contributions prior to the 19th century have been made outside of Europe itself. The issue, in other words, lies in the conception of boundaries and of the foreclosures produced whenever a reductive narrative is framed up as such.

Encountering ROAD MOVIE within the space of the Sherd Library, however, opens up possible readings of cinema’s expanding history. Paying attention to the space which frames the installation, we would, for instance, see fragments of Chinese porcelain found within the region of Southeast Asia. While most of these fragments have been unearthed from excavation sites, some of these have been “rescued” from the remains of shipwrecks. Yet, all these point nonetheless to the trade and circulation of Chinese porcelain and to the crossing of borders (both physical and symbolic) between the Chinese and the peoples of Southeast Asia, thus cracking the image of a hermetically- sealed China. Perhaps something similar happens with the image of cinema as well. Shifting the emphasis from light to shadow, ROAD MOVIE seems to destabilise cinema’s place within the European discourse of Enlightenment which largely equated light and reason to truth and transparency.6 In contrast, ROAD MOVIE acknowledges the possible contributions that the shadow theatre might have had as a non-European predecessor of narrative cinema. As a “particularly prevalent form of visual storytelling in Asian cultures from ancient times”,7 the shadow theatre not only foreshadows the emergence of cinema as we know it today, it also exposes the Eurocentric frames within which cinema’s history has been read by film scholars. For if narrative cinema has been positioned as a the telos of the moving image, why haven’t we considered the contributions that shadow theatres might have had on, say, the dominant mode of filmmaking today?

Continuing on this line of query, there is also a sense in which ROAD MOVIE beckons for its spectator to take a different slant towards the history of perspective, as articulated through the deliberate positioning of the screen at an angle from the spectator. In other words, ROAD MOVIE invites for us to a certain way of seeing, a kind of looking askance at the history of perspective, particularly as it is articulated in not just Film History but also in the general accounts of Art History. Even though it is commendable that some of these accounts have traced the beginnings of cinema through to the inventions of linear perspective and the camera obscura, they are also often betrayed by a Eurocentrism which sees perspective solely as a European invention. Yet, the principle of the camera obscura has been known to others like the Arab scientist Alhazen back in the eleventh century, and even before him the ancient Chinese philosopher Mozi.8 While it is no doubt true that it was only in early modern Europe that perspective became a ubiquitous and indispensable tool for the organisation of an entire society, it would certainly be disingenuous to claim perspective as an exclusively European technology. This is not to say that ROAD MOVIE necessarily calls for a global history of cinema; but at the very least it seems to draw our attention, again, to the inadequate imaginations of Film History. ROAD MOVIE is, effectively, a critical rear-view mirror on the state of cinema’s history thus far.

Sound and Fury

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges facing cinema today is the very misnomer of “moving images”—or to be more precise, the mistake of equating cinema with that of the moving image. For the term “moving images” places an undeserved emphasis on the image, resulting in an overexposure at the expense of sound’s role and impact in the history of cinema. This visual bias, or “ocular-centricity”, is most problematically reproduced in the idea of the “silent cinema”.9 Strictly speaking, silent films were never really silent: “what so-called silent cinema lacked was not sound, but merely synchronised speech”.10 In fact, silent cinema had its own musical accompaniment, most commonly in the form of a live orchestra. And there was hardly any attempt to standardise the aural aspects of the cinematic experience, such that every sitting of the same film led potentially to a different encounter. Wouldn’t this then suggest that sound played a much more important role than image since it had the capacity to radically alter the very experience of the film?

Increasingly too, there have been attempts to rescue the important role which sound technologies played in the course of cinema’s history.11 A commonly cited example among these accounts would be the fact that Thomas Edison, a figure venerated by film historians, invented his kinetograph only intending for it to be a profitable accompaniment to his phonographs, thus never really wanting to contribute directly to the development of cinema. Having said that, the larger import of such works has been to highlight the manner in which the availability of certain sound technologies had influenced the kind of images produced in their particular time. In fact, it was the famed film critic Andre Bazin himself who famously began his observation of cinema’s evolution in the mid 20th century on the basis of improved sound technology.12 Yet, film scholars have often read Bazin’s essay merely for what it says about a transition from an image-dominated cinema driven by a montage aesthetics to a realist cinema presenting the deeper ambiguities of our world. What is constantly sidelined in these discussions is the much more significant point that sound technology has had a critical effect on the type of cinema produced.

And these echoes abound in ROAD MOVIE. Here, sound clearly takes precedence over the images unfolding on the screen. The two different “soundtrack” to the film (one, alyrical and haunting piece, the other an abstracted dialogue) do not merely support the visual elements of the installation, but also radically alters our experience with it. This could, of course, be read as an attempt to recreate the heterogeneity of early cinema as championed by the recent works of some scholars.13 But I would also think that such a heterogeneous experience with the work is only possible if the spectator had taken an active role in moving across the different viewing (or is it listening?) positions offered up by the work itself. So instead of a passive consumer glued to his seat for the entire running of the film, and in a cinematheque deliberately darkened so as to minimise movement from the spectator, ROAD MOVIE calls for a much needed mobility from the spectator, rewarding him/her with a plurality of possible ROAD MOVIE-s.

Mind the Gaps

In his “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, Walter Benjamin notes famously that the problem of writing history is that one “cannot do without the notion of a present which is not a transition”.14 Paraphrasing Benjamin, it might be said that history requires, therefore, an effort to turn the moving image of the past into an intelligible freeze-frame. But a freeze-frame is not a portrait; and there is nonetheless a discernible sense of movement beneath the veneer of stillness. It is perhaps as troubling as the utterance of “now”: the moment is always threatening to move beyond us by the time we are done with it, and we are caught always trying to capture this moving image. Yet, it is also these inevitable gaps which ensure that our histories are always in a perpetual state of (re)writing.


1 Tsukasa Ikegami, “Film History According to SHIMURAbros”, in ROAD MOVIE—Road to Singapore (Singapore: NUS Museum, 2013), p. 6-8. 2 Gene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema (New York: P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1970), p. 41.3 Though the term does not designate a consolidated academic discipline, media archaeology refers to a group of loosely-related works characterised by an incredulity and discontentment towards the canonised histories of media cultures. Broadly speaking, these counter-accounts prefer instead to construct alternative histories with a supporting cast of marginalised players. For a good overview, see Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka, “Introduction”, in Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications and Implications, ed. Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), p. 1-21. 4 David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film History: An Introduction, 3rd edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010). 5 Erkki Huhtamo, “Natural Magic: A Short Cultural History of Moving Images”, in The Routledge Companion to Film History, ed. William Guynn (London: Routledge, 2011), p. 6. 6 Scott McQuire, The Media City: Media, Architecture and Urban Space (London: Sage, 2008), p. 9. Here, McQuire uses the terms “technological images” and “photographic representations”. Ostensibly, these refer to photographic images of course; but I would think that McQuire’s argument applies to the cinematic arts just as well. 7 Huhtamo, p. 10. 8 For a succinct summary of Alhazen’s contribution to the development of optics, see Nicholas Mirzoeff, An Introduction to Visual Culture, 2nd edition (London: Routledge, 2009), chapter 1. For more on Mozi and scientific contributions from the Chinese, see Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, volume 4 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962). 9 Jay Beck, “The Evolution of Sound in Cinema”, in The Routledge Companion to Film History (London: Routledge, 2011), p. 64. 10 Roy Armes, On Video (London: Routledge, 1988), p. 10. 11 For example, see Don Crafton, The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926-1931 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999) or the edited volume of Jay Beck and Tony Grajeda, Lowering the Boom: Critical Studies in Film Sound (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008). 12 André Bazin, “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema”, in Film Theory and Criticism, 3rd edition, ed. Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 124- 138. 13 For example, see Tom Gunning, “The Cinema of Attraction: Early Film, Its Spectator, and the Avant-Garde”, in Film and Theory: An Anthology, ed. Robert Stam and Toby Miller (London: Blackwell, 2000), p. 229-235. 14 Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968), p. 264.

*Excerpt from Road to Singapore - a solo exhibition catalogue published by the National University of Singapore