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Gregory Zinman reviews Cinemachines

Garrett StewartCinemachines: An Essay on Media and Method. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020. 201 pp.

Review by Gregory Zinman

7 October 2020

Garrett Stewart’s incisive new book argues that looking closely at cinema’s literal smoke and mirrors results in a deeper engagement with the cinema as a technology of illusion, one that provides a means of connecting media theory to inquiries into cinematic narrative.

In many ways a continuation and expansion of his earlier book, Framed Time: Toward a Postfilmic Cinema (2007), Cinemachines offers an analysis of the ways that the cinematic apparatus continues to make itself seen, and how those moments of self-revelation result in more complex readings of the ways onscreen characters, themes, and stories are informed by eruptions of the usually barely perceptible layers of the moving image’s technicity. Stewart’s subject situates Cinemachines alongside other books about the changing nature of the moving image as it shifts technologies and techniques from the analog to digital realm, including D. N. Rodowick’s The Virtual Life of Cinema (2007), Jihoon Kim’s Between Film, Video, and the Digital (2016), James Hodge’s recent Sensations of History (2019), and Shane Denson’s forthcoming Discorrelated Images. Stewart, however, is less interested in new media concepts and related interrogations of the nonhuman, alterity, and material difference than in rereading early German film writing, as well as the writing of Jean Epstein, Christian Metz, Stanley Cavell, and Gilles Delueze in order to both historicize apparatus theory and update it for the digital age. The book assumes a familiarity with those earlier authors’ work (not to mention Stewart’s own), and will primarily appeal to film and media scholars already steeped in theoretical questions of the postfilmic.

Stewart is not simply interested in cataloging the tricks—Epstein’s truquage, Metz’s trucage—pulled off by the apparatus: the attenuation and speeding up of time, superimpositions, lap dissolves and the like, but rather, moments in which “the technology of a given film declares itself” (p. 3) so that the veil of cinematic illusion is drawn back in a manner that calls attention to its own machinations. These instances of the cinemachine announcing itself are not mere aesthetically self-reflexive flourishes, but rather opportunities for understanding the relationship between the medial and the narrative, affect and perception.

The examples in Cinemachines run the gamut from familiar to obscure, but always focus on how visual effects emerge in ways that prompt reflection on historical changes in the apparatus. Stewart’s case studies cover an impressive historical span, and include a discussion of mechanization in relation to Bergsonian temporality in the early film comedy of Chaplin and Keaton as well as the “pixel disclosures” in recent science fiction offerings. In his analysis, Stewart continually illustrates how characters are shaped by, or made inseparable from, the machines around them, whether it’s Chaplin getting caught in the grind of gears in City Lights or Scarlett Johansson’s Lucy, where the manifestation of her character’s heightened brain capacity arrives onscreen as a pixelated riot so that the character, narrative, and technical substrate of the image all converge at a single moment of mutual reinforcement.

Puns, portmanteaux, and parenthetical asides abound in Stewart’s writing, though his prose is at his sharpest when he takes on the reflective surfaces, portals, frames, and digital dust peppering a number of recent and under-scrutinized films, including Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2016), Lucy (dir. Luc Besson, 2014), Blade Runner 2049 (dir. Villeneuve, 2017), Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (dir. Ang Lee, 2016), Terminator Genysis (dir. Alan Taylor, 2015), and Transformers: Age of Extinction (dir. Michael Bay, 2014). Stewart argues that these films use these devices and objects in ways that cause attentive viewers to rethink both the nature of the cinematic image in relation to the world while reinforcing an awareness of the various enframements—the theater, the laptop screen, the phone—through which we glimpse both those images and the world.

It is in these more recent appearances of the cinemachine that Stewart telescopes out from the onscreen deliquescence of cinematic illusion—“the splay of pixels”—to “a lurking unease about our vast and unstable electronic infrastructure,” a sense, both real and imagined, of our collective “digital instability” (p. 121). And while Stewart believes that “there is no getting past the apparatus” in terms of understanding how cinema materially and narratively functions, later in the book he also acknowledges another anxiety: that as visual effects technology (“CGI illusionism,” in his words) is further refined, it will be more difficult to discern these markers of its making. He admits to surprise when, reaching the credits of a film, he sees so many names of people responsible for digital effects where he detected none.

If there is an underexamined topic in Stewart’s rigorous rumination on the apparatus, it is this effacement of labor, which occurs throughout the book—the “apparatus” as it seemingly operates here, is only glancingly manipulated by humans. Characters depicted on screen are granted far more attention than those people living behind and under it. Cinematic illusion is only made possible through the efforts of digital artists whose work is literally undervalued and certainly underappreciated. Writing on digital displays of violence, Stewart describes “Destruction in CGI” as “mostly a game of digital bits and pixels, added subtracted, morphed” (p. 107). Meanwhile, VFX studios have found themselves in unfair fights for decades, having been financially squeezed and even destroyed by studios’ ruthlessly competitive bidding schemes and restrictive NDAs, while their employees tend to be overworked, underpaid, and are now being strongarmed into returning to work during a global pandemic. If we want to learn how the cinemachine understands its own history, we cannot forget that that history is made up of not only grain and pixels, but people, too.