SPECIAL ISSUE 20 | Spring 2013
The Geopolitics of Cinema and the Study of Film
Edited by Tim Bergfelder, Vinzenz Hediger, Francesco Pitassio
In the last few years, one of the key topics in film studies has been world cinema and what Fredric Jameson in 1995 proposed to call “the geopolitical aesthetic” of cinema. World cinema has variously been described as a cinema that evolves on an elevated plane comparable to that of “world literature”, Goethe’s term for literary works with an appeal that transcend the boundaries of the language and culture of their origin, or as a hybrid form of cinema that combines a variety of cultural codes rather than reflect or express one particular national culture.
At stake in discussions of world cinema and the “geopolitical aesthetic” is nothing less than the epistemology that has long sustained, and in fact helped establish, film studies as an academic discipline. Only against the backdrop of an idea of film as an art closely tied to concepts of the nation and national culture, or of an understanding of cinema as a set of films by major auteurs from important nations, does an aesthetic that transcends national boundaries even become an issue. This is the epistemology of cinema that has long informed academic discourse and the institutional practices of film studies. Film scholars tend to study and extol specific national cinematographies, and their institutional affiliations and even their careers are organized accordingly. Film archives tend to host and preserve national cinematic patrimonies. But as the debate about world cinema seems to indicate, this epistemology no longer appears to be sufficient to provide a comprehensive working definition of the object of film studies. What is more, over the last few years “cinema” has come to include previously neglected or unknown traditions, from Bollywood cinema to the informal networks of moving image production and distribution in Africa and Asia, aptly termed “subcinema” by Australian scholar Ramon Lobato, to marginal films such as science, educational and industrial films. If Alexander Horwath is right to claim that we live in a post-cinematographic condition where film has left the cinema and has become ubiquitous in a process of “relocation” (Casetti), it is also true that we have lived for some time now in a world where a geopolitical framework calls into question and supersedes an older discursive and institutional politics of cinema.
So how does film studies account for the “relocation” of cinema not just in spatial, but in geographic and geopolitcal terms? What are the implications and possible consequences of these challenges for the institutional frameworks of film studies and the theoretical frameworks and paradigms that help build, and continue to inform, the discipline?
In recent years, film scholars have started to address these questions by redefining a disciplinary tradition that attributes a central role to the study of classical film, understood as both the (inter)national aesthetic-economic complex known as Hollywood cinema and its various counter-formations (nouvelles vagues, national cinemas, early cinema). Instead, a series of new lines of research emerged in various ares. These include:
— A renewed focus on the cinematic apparatus – The relocation of film experience (Casetti) pushed researchers to inquire into the nature of film experience, and thus question long-standing assumptions about the structure and effects of the cinematic apparatus. Increasingly, scholarly attention has shifted to alternative forms of film viewing, possibly not dominant within the cultural context of film studies, but no less relevant, from public screens to film displays on portable digital devices. Moreover, the debate about the changing shape of the cinematic apparatus has been reframed in significant ways through contributions stemming from academic traditions outside the Western/Eurocentric context.
— An increased focus on the channels of distribution – mostly a consequence of technological innovation and the “digital turn”, the shift in film distribution and consumption away from the cinema theater as the main paradigm of film culture occurred at a different pace in different geographical areas. The new paradigms call into question a series of well-established concepts that constitute some of the cornerstones of film studies as a discipline, such as “text”, “author”, but also “copyright” and require further inquiry into geographically and culturally specific varieties and variations of the new film experience.
— A critical evaluation of the concept of national cinema – The idea of national cinema has been called into question both as a current imaginary formation and a regulative concept in concrete practice, from film production to festival programming (Elsaesser). Shifting the attention away from a framework of analysis related to (Western) national state entities to different geographical and cultural contexts and traditions, recent contributions (Bergfelder, Shohat-Stam, D’urovičová-Newman, Hjort-Mackenzie, Marciniak-Imre-O’Healy, Pisters-Staat) have proposed various strategies to supplement and/or supplant the concept of national cinema. However, propositions such as the concept of “transnational cinema” continue to refer, albeit in oblique or dialectical fashion, to an underlying order of the nation state and national culture and point to a continuinig need for debate.
— A renewed attention to technology – Following the lead of André Bazin, film scholars including Stanley Cavell, Philip Rosen, David Rodowick and others have long identified the indexical nature of the photographic image as the cornerstone of film’s specificity as a medium, a technology and an art form. As the recent shift to digital image production has put the concept of indexicality and of the image as a physical trace of the object in crisis, approaches to defining the specificity of film on the basis of technology have acquired a new urgency. But to what extent are approaches focusing on film as a technology rooted in a specific cultural tradition? How do they play out in different film studies contexts? And what is the role assigned to technology, both on a phenomenological and an epistemological level, in different geopolitical contexts?
The special issue of Cinéma & Cie devoted to The Geopolitics of Cinema and the Study of Film takes the current epistemological crisis of film studies as a point of departure and an opportunity to revise and reframe some of the discipline’s conceptual tools and objects of inquiry. We welcome contributions that inquire into various strands and traditions of the study of film, particularly from a non-European point of view, discuss methodological issues and institutional and cultural aspects of academic research on moving image culture. Taking stock of recent work on the history of film studies (Polan, Grieveson-Wasson), this special issue calls for papers that describe the ways in which concepts and narratives related to various geopolitical contexts have affected academic policies, informed approaches to writing film history, to film festival programming, national or international funding programs, distribution strategies, film archiving and preservation work.