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Cinema and criticism

By Bruno Torri, President SNCCI, Italian Film Critics’ Union

As simple as it may seem, it is not easy to say what cinema actually is. It is a very composite and complex phenomenon, subject to many definitions, as well as to many interpretations

. An approach that is not only or exactly exhaustive, but rather sort of progressive towards the essence of the phenomenon of cinematography, it may initially be useful to refer to traditional cinema, to what today is called the “cinema-cinema”. That is to say, the film projected on a large screen in a dark room to several spectators.

Bearing in mind this original model of “cinema cinema”, we can begin to investigate it and to hypothesize some of the many definitions that could be appropriate. But we mustn’t forget that for the last several years the vision of a film takes place also in many other ways, and that the individual consumption (on television, on the internet, etc.) has quantitatively passed the collective one.

The first definition of “cinema cinema,” which is the most common, the most widely shared not only by the cinema audience, may be this: cinema is a hobby, an entertainment, a diversion. To express this in less approximate sociological terms, we could say that cinema is “a way of occupying leisure time” (Edgar Morin). This definition of course mainly concerns cinema the way it is habitually experienced and regarded by most people.

Another possible definition is this: cinema is a performance. Like the previous one, this definition is also trivially correct and widely shared. Cinema is often classified as a “branch of performance art”,  just as Theatre and Opera, from which it differs not only because of it’s greater popularity, but because it is a “reproduced performance” and not a “live performance”.

Cinema is also a mass medium, ie, a means of mass communication,  just like television, radio and newspapers. As a means of mass communication, cinema is a part of and also   feeds the mass culture and mass society (within which we are all immersed).

Another definition qualifies cinema as a technique, or rather, as a set of technical devices. Cinema was in fact born as a technical and scientific invention right from it’s inception.

The history of cinema includes the history of the subsequent modifications, or innovations, or the technical development of cinema itself: the sound and colour, the widescreen, the latest technologies that enable the most sophisticated “special effects”, up to the digital: all technical inventions that have made a change to cinema itself, ie its production methods, its modes of expression, and even its ways of enjoyment.

Cinema can also be defined as an art: an art that makes use of technical supports. As art (when it is art) cinema can be placed beside the other arts. It becomes part of the “system of the arts”. While expressing its own marked specificity and its own accentuated distinctive features, cinema, however, shows several similarities with other arts, particularly with theater (also cinema is in its own way an art of representation), with literature (also cinema is in its way an art of the narrative), and with painting (cinema is in its way also a visual art).

Furthermore you can define cinema as a social institution. In fact, film covers the field of economics and of politics (many countries, including Italy, have a special film law). It is primarily aimed at a general audience and potentially at the entire community of citizens; an audience that, through some sort of collective ritual, is called to get in touch with cinema in specially constructed public places (cinemas) at a cost (the ticket price).

In addition to these synthetically listed definitions, various others are possible, but especially two of them may be very important and clarifying. Substantially they include also the other definitions mentioned above. These two definitions are: cinema is an industry and cinema is a language.

Before giving these two definitions any thought, it is necessary to make some clarifications: a terminological and also conceptual clarification of the very notion of definition. We must always remember that a definition, contrary to what that same term may suggest, should not be taken as a definitive and exclusive formula, or as an unquestionable truth that is valid once and for all. A definition, so that it can be heuristically fruitful, should instead be conceived and used to open a dialogue and not to close it, and to hypothesize a line of research; therefore it must always be problematized and questioned, continuously verified by  checking with the object that is being defined. At the very moment in which the definition makes a statement (for example, that cinema is a language), it also exerts a denial. As it includes it simultaneously leaves out everything that does not fall under that same definition. It is therefore each time required to ascertain, among other things, if what you leave out also belongs, and how and in what measure, it defines the object.

Another specification that needs to be mentioned, however, is in itself inherent in the phenomenon of cinema. Cinema, as we have seen, can be defined in multiple ways, and all of these ways are at least partially correct because they don’t exclude but integrate one another: they are all relevant and complementary (we’ll see that they are also, so to speak, interacting).

 All this confirms what was already mentioned, namely that cinema is a complex and composite phenomenon; and that, however, it all presents itself as one, or in other terms, that it manifests a global and (substantially) unitary arrangement.

Cinema as Industry
Cinema is therefore simultaneously an industry and a language (as well as entertainment, fun, a show, etc.). This is so self-evident that it does not to require explanations. We should rather question ourselves what kind of an industry and what kind of a language cinema may be – and you will immediately see that it is a very unique industry and a very special language. We can begin to distinctly take note of these peculiarities when briefly analyzing cinema as an industry.

Cinema produces goods, just like all other industries The individual commodity that cinema or the film industry produce, is a film. The film can thus be seen and studied as an industrial product, just like a commercial good. As such it has some aspects that are common to all other goods, while other aspects are typical and peculiar of the film, the film-good, and thus distinguish it from other goods.

Let’s look at those points that the film has in common with other goods.

1) The film-good is the product of an industrial activity for the market. Where there is industry, there is always a market, and the film industry is no exception. Like other commodities, the film is made and manufactured to be consumed and to be sold on the film market (in the past for a long time this market consisted only in theaters, but now it also includes other areas such as television, DVD, internet, etc. – where film is presented.)

2) The film-good is the final result of particular human work. The work that is expressed in the film activity is of three types: manual (e.g. the different tasks carried out by workers on the set), technical (e.g. that of the cinematographer or editor) and intellectual-creative (e.g. that of the director or of the sciptwriters).

3) Also the film-good requires capital investment for its manufacturing (industrial capital and financial capital); a capital that normally seeks remuneration on the market. So the film-good can be considered a final result, the conclusion of a process of material and economic transformation. A process that on the one hand through work and on the other complementary side through investment of capital, transforms raw material (the starting materials) into the finished product: virgin film and the original idea are transformed into a  finished film, into the film-good that is ready to enter the market.

4) Finally, and always in analogy with other goods, the film-good has an exchange value (the price of the cinema ticket) and a utility value (the particular satisfaction that a vision of a movie can produce).
In these very synthetically summarized four points, everything can be found that unites the film-goods with other goods and with other industrial products circulating on the market. But the film-good also features other special aspects that make it different, in whole or in part, from other goods. For this reason they are of increased importance as they serve to frame and to better distinguish film and cinema. And also these distinctive aspects can be summarized in four points, which are more important because they are more specific and more inherent to the movie phenomenon.

1) Unlike almost all other commercial goods, which are usually produced in series, every movie is a prototype. This feature can be more or less marked (it is very distinguished in the so-called “art films”, and less so in the “genre films” or “remakes”), but it is always and necessarily present. It is precisely the constitution as a prototype that gives the film-good also its specific economic and commercial nature and its ability to present itself on the market in a different way from all the other films, that is, from all the other prototypes.

In this respect, a movie is similar to a book or a painting: they are all “cultural heritage”, and are all unique products, different from utilitarian goods, such as an automobile, and from the “discretionary’ goods, such as a perfume; precisely because, unlike films, almost all the other “normal” goods such as cars and perfumes that are bought for utilitarian or discretionary purposes, are manufactured in series.

2) Unlike most other commodities, film usually requires a collective consumption. It requires a consumption that determines a kind of social ritual (the leaving of the house to go to the movies and watch a film, along with other people, other spectators, in a public place). This fact is enough to make us understand the correlations and the interactions that exist between cinema viewed as an industry and cinema regarded as a social institution. Hence this industry and this social institution belong to the so-called “public sphere”. Under the aspect of collective consumption, the film industry and therefore the film-good work as typical components of mass society. One of the distinctive features of mass society are, in fact, mass consumption and mass culture (cinema has always been and continues to be, a coefficient and a support of mass culture although now on a smaller scale).

3) Unlike the others, the film-good can cause a more or less severe gap between consumption and satisfaction, because only after you have paid the ticket and viewed (consumed) a film (a prototype) you are able of measuring the satisfaction. Only then will you know whether you liked it or not, or even if it turned out to be unpleasant. And in this regard it can be noted that for film viewers the choice of films to watch, no matter how focused and aware it may be, will always involve a rate of randomness. The parameter of judgement, the rating of enjoyment, varies from spectator to spectator, as each has its own “waiting code” and its own taste (a taste for cinema that can be more or less cultivated).

4) Unlike most other goods, film always contains a strong ideological and cultural component. Adorno defined cinema with an implicit negative sense as “the medium of the cultural industry” (today we owe this record to television), and not surprisingly, other scholars have talked about cinema as an “industry of consciousness “ and about movies as “spiritual goods.”

Many other observations could be made on the film industry and on film intended as a commercial good, leading to further considerations. As proper market research has confirmed above all in the United States, it could be stated and underlined  that the film industry is a very unusual and risky industry. It is also worth noting that today the it is increasingly integrated into the audiovisual system, much more than in the past. Its commercial and economic components are increasingly subject to those of other audiovisual media.  This further emphasizes the composite and complex nature of the phenomenon of cinema. However, the specificity of film remains important and crucial, both in cinema as an industry, as in cinema as language. This will soon be clear.