PRINT December 2009


“I predict that all movies will be animated or computer-generated within 15 years.”
—Bruce Goldstein, “Flashback: The Year in Movies,” Village Voice, Dec. 28, 1999

“It is in the nature of analogical worlds to provoke a yearning for the past. . . . The digital will wants to change the world.”
—D. N. Rodowick, The Virtual Life of Film (2007)


Can we speak of a twenty-first-century cinema? If so, on what basis?

Writing in the aftermath of World War II, French film theorist André Bazin characterized cinema making as an essentially irrational enterprise—namely, the obsessive quest for that complete representation of reality he termed “total cinema.” This mystical guiding myth was, in Bazin’s view, a factor of cinema’s ontology—the medium’s “integral realism,” based on the camera’s objective gaze and the chemical reaction by which light left an authentic trace on photographic emulsion. Thanks to the impartial, indexical relationship between the photograph and the photographed, motion pictures offered an image “unburdened” by artistic interpretation.1

According to the myth of Total Cinema, each and every new technological development—synchronous sound, color, 3-D, Smell-O-Vision—served to take the medium nearer to its imagined essence. “Cinema has not yet been invented!”2 When true cinema was achieved, the medium itself would disappear—just like the state under true communism. Bazin believed this could happen by the year 2000. In fact, something else occurred: The development of digital imagery broke the indexical bond between photography and the world.

The divorce was initially experienced as a crisis in photography. Thanks to Photoshop, among other means of digital manipulation, the photographic became a subset of the graphic. For motion pictures, the crisis was even more existential: Bazin had imagined cinema as the objective “recreation of the world in its own image.”3 But digital imagemaking precludes the necessity of having the world, or an actually existing subject, before the camera—let alone the need for a camera. The history of motion pictures was now the history of animation.

Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) and George Lucas’s Phantom Menace (1999), two Hollywood blockbusters combining photographic and computer- generated imagery—actual people interacting on-screen with nonexistent creatures—offered early clues to the new direction. (Both movies also engaged in a particular strategy of naturalization by inscribing CGI into prehistory, whether that of the earth or that of the Star Wars saga.) So, in another way, did Douglas Gordon’s 1993 video installation 24 Hour Psycho—in which, wrenched from its natural context and re-presented as a re- (or, perhaps, de-) animated, digital image of itself, the old-fashioned analog motion picture became an object of contemplation.

Combining live action with frame-by-frame digital manipulation, The Matrix (1999), written and directed by the Wachowski brothers, presented an even more complicated hybrid. No previous animated film had so naturalistically represented the physical world. In addition to reconciling, if not entirely vaulting, the “uncanny valley,” the discomfiting gap between photographed humans and computer-generated humanoids, The Matrix provided an irresistible ruling metaphor—we live in simulation, a computer-generated illusion concealing the terrifying Desert of the Real—that was heightened by the approach of a new millennium. Thus, in the universe of The Matrix, Bazin’s dream arrived in the form of a nightmarish virtual existence: Total Cinema as total dissociation from reality.4


If the motion pictures of the twenty-first century were subjected to psychoanalysis, their symptoms might reveal two types of anxiety—one objective, the other neurotic. Objective anxiety is a factor of what film theorist D. N. Rodowick terms the “digital will”—the sense that CGI technology inherently strives to remake the world while motion pictures, as we knew them, are in some sense obsolete, having surrendered their privileged relation to the real.

Objective anxiety underscored the neo-Neorealist antics of the Dogma 95 group—most importantly, Lars von Trier’s Idiots (1998), with its emphasis on authentic transgressive behavior. The key work begotten of this form of anxiety, however, is Jean-Luc Godard’s magisterial Éloge de l’amour (In Praise of Love, 2001), which, shot two-thirds on black-and-white 35-mm stock and the rest on luridly synthesized digital video, openly mourns the loss of photographic cinema (as well as memory and history and European culture, and perhaps life itself). Other notable cinematic eulogies include Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003), a lament for vanished popular cinema in a specifically Taiwanese context, and several avant-garde films: Pat O’Neill’s Decay of Fiction, Bill Morrison’s Decasia, and Ernie Gehr’s Cotton Candy (all released in 2002). Spectrally populating the abandoned Ambassador Hotel, an old-time moviestar hangout and frequent movie location, with transparent costumed actors, O’Neill’s work evokes a haunted film set; Decasia and Cotton Candy are even more overtly preservationist. Rather than a moldering hotel, Morrison documents decomposing 35-mm nitrate footage, while Gehr records the ancient, essentially precinematic toys in San Francisco’s Musée Mécanique, notably the sort of hand-cranked photographic flip books once known as Mutoscopes.

We are watching change. That Cotton Candy and, albeit to a lesser degree, Decasia were themselves digitally produced infuses their pragmatism with a measure of rueful, guilty digital ambivalence. The abandonment of the old medium is similarly acknowledged in Richard Linklater’s computer animation Waking Life (2001). Shot and edited as an ordinary motion picture and then algorithmically transformed frame by frame into animation, the film proposes a new sort of indexicality. (Linklater even devotes a sequence to playfully dramatizing the Bazinian notion of motion pictures as intrinsic to a specific time-space.) At the same moment, however, several distinguished film artists created digital works that, in their use of real time and duration, made the motion-picture medium even more itself: for example, Abbas Kiarostami’s “undirected” Warholian tracking film Ten and Alexander Sokurov’s ninety-six-minute, single-take Russian Ark, both of which premiered at the 2002 Cannes film festival. And yet the certainty of watching absolute, unmediated continuity is gone. (For Rodowick, digital is by definition montage.) Sokurov even hinted at this by digitally sweetening a small segment of Russian Ark.5

Ten and Russian Ark are most radically Bazinian in their performative aspect—that is, in the orchestration of the camera and profilmic event. In both cases, the directors have made something happen in life: As cinematic as they appear, these motion pictures may be considered a form of canned theater. Elsewhere, the loss of indexicality has promoted a new, compensatory “real-ness,” emphasizing film as an object. Éloge de l’amour, which begins in medias res and ends with a prolonged flashback, can be understood as a continuous loop—and hence a film installation. Goodbye, Dragon Inn, a sort of superimposed double feature, also suggests an installation, perhaps one designed to be projected in the haunted, since-demolished Taipei theater in which the movie is set. Both Decay of Fiction and Michael Snow’s 2002 *Corpus Callosum—which, like Decay of Fiction, is a twenty-first-century Méliès trick film to Kiarostami’s and Sokurov’s digital Lumière-style actualités—were exhibited, at least in part, as gallery installations. So, too, Guy Maddin’s confessional narrative Cowards Bend the Knee (2003), which was initially shown as a modern-day Mutoscope.

Such gratuitous anachronism is something nuttier than mere nostalgia. Artisanal puppet animations like Trey Parker’s Team America: World Police (2004) and particularly Henry Selick’s 3-D Coraline (2009), with its perverse, although not absolute, refusal of CGI, are further instances of the New Realness; related, albeit disparate, examples include Maddin’s deliberately primitive silent feature Brand upon the Brain! (2006), Neil Young’s Super 8 protest opera Greendale (2003), and Ken Jacobs’s Razzle Dazzle: The Lost World (2006–2007), his digital reworking of a 1903 Edison actualité.

From a philosophical point of view, the most paradoxical exercise in New Realness is von Trier’s 2003 Dogville. At once abstract and concrete, shot vérité-style on digital video but filled with close-ups and jump cuts, and explicitly set in a realm of self-righteous shared delusion identified as small-town America, Dogville plays out on an open, schematic set and could be said to document the scaffold on which a narrative might be constructed or to present a blueprint for a motion picture given form by the mind’s eye. (The town’s main drag is nostalgically named Elm Street, though, the narrator notes, it is a thoroughfare on which “no elm tree had ever cast its shadow.”)6

Essentially a three-hour buildup to the end-credit montage, which mixes WPA photos of rural poverty with Danish photographer Jacob Holdt’s more contemporary depictions of African-American abjection, Dogville saves catharsis for its final moments: The town’s hitherto unseen dog turns “real,” and so does von Trier’s “America.” What had been presented before the credits was simply a play—Dogmaville—as well as a visual representation. Realness is ruptured by a greater realness—namely, a montage of photographic evidence, wrenching images of human misery, set to a disco beat. It’s a nasty prank, but who could possibly laugh at these indexical images of naked distress? Or turn one’s back, as we must do in leaving the theater? Are we ignoring reality and returning to Dogville? Or is it vice versa?


Objective anxiety became manifest in the late 1990s, at the height of the dotcom bubble and the panicky anticipation of the Y2K “bug,” a period Rodowick calls “the summer of digital paranoia,” when The Matrix and its ilk suggested that “all that was chemical and photographic [was] disappearing into the electronic and digital.”7

Neurotic—better, hysterical—anxiety can be even more precisely dated. Seeing Éloge de l’amour at the Toronto International Film Festival, where I found myself unwillingly stuck on the afternoon of September 12, 2001, I felt little sympathy for either Godard’s anti-Americanism or his sense of loss. His film had been trumped by the events of the previous day. For many, and not just in Hollywood, 9/11 was the ultimate movie experience—spectacular destruction, predicated on fantastic conspiracy and watched, more or less simultaneously, by an audience of billions. Did the history-changing shock of 9/11 plunge the nascent twenty-first century into an alternate universe—or reveal a new reality?8

The catastrophe was anticipated not only by the blockbuster disaster films of the ’90s but also by the global melodramas of which Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown (2000) is perhaps the most successful example. (Post-9/11 instances of this we-are-the-world middlebrow mode—in which a geographically dispersed ensemble is mystically conjoined—include Alejandro González Iñárritu's 21 Grams [2003] and Babel [2006], Barbara Albert’s Free Radicals [2003] and Falling [2006], and Paul Haggis’s Oscar-winning Crash [2004].) Reality had changed. Thus, during the course of an on-set press conference, Steven Spielberg would describe his fanciful War of the Worlds (2005), the first Hollywood movie to allegorize 9/11, as an exercise in realism, even insisting on a key concept of the New Realness: “The whole thing is very experiential.”

Spielberg promised reporters that War of the Worlds would be “as ultrarealistic as I’ve ever attempted to make a movie, in terms of its documentary style.” Moreover, he assured them, War of the Worlds was not simply entertainment, as opposed to such fantasies of interplanetary warfare as Independence Day (1996) and Starship Troopers (1997): “We take it much more seriously than that.” While suitably fanciful in its representation of cosmic jihad, War of the Worlds was exceedingly effective in staging the initial Martian attack on an actual New Jersey working-class city just across New York Bay from Lower Manhattan.

But although the destruction in Spielberg’s film references 9/11 in every instance, the most brutal New Realness is manifested in Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ (2004)—a movie seemingly opposed to all entertainment values and which, in fact, aspired to be far more than a movie. The Passion of the Christ is not a narrative but an icon—an object through which to meditate on the spectacle of a man beaten, stomped, and tortured to death. Gibson’s Jesus Christ has less in common with any previous movie protagonist than with the greenish-purplish, pustulent, putrefying subject of Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece. The crux of the movie is the experience of a crucifixion. The near continuous violence and gore is meant to be excruciating for the viewer: In the eleven-minute chastisement sequence, for instance, Jesus is lacerated, first with rods and then with studded whips, until his back resembles a side of beef.

Using numerous overhead shots, Gibson suggests a fallen world and projects an essentially medieval worldview. (The Crucifixion only emerged as a subject for artists with the passing of the first millennium; Passion plays didn’t exist before the twelfth century.) As detailed by art historian Mitchell B. Merback in his 1999 study The Thief, the Cross, and the Wheel, medieval Christian devotion required immersing oneself in the Passion’s “grisly details,” while other, more corporeal devotional practices of the day strove to re-create the experience of a tortured, pain-racked body. (Merback finds analogies in medieval Europe’s contemporaneous fascination with martyrdom, flagellation, extravagant forms of punishment, and public executions.) Gibson’s atavistic Christian art goes for shock rather than sublimity—employing extreme, even gross, horror-movie tropes, as well as blatant digital effects, such as those abounding in the chastisement sequence, when the Roman scourge tears the flesh from Christ’s body, and in the final shot of 3-D stigmata.9

From a sociological point of view, The Passion is the key event in American movies after 9/11, not only because of its subject matter, and its attitude toward that subject matter, but also because of the manner in which it was promoted and exhibited. Gibson courted negative publicity—he cast himself as a victim by provoking the presumably Jewish media to “crucify” his outsider film—even as he mobilized a mass audience. To some degree, his viewers were the same constituency that Karl Rove was then targeting in the 2004 US presidential campaign. The Passion appealed as much to evangelical Protestants as to traditional Catholics—perhaps even more. Evangelicals, after all, had little that was comparable to Catholicism’s thousand years of religious pageantry.

However gruesome, The Passion was taken by many as a gift from God. Evangelical leader James Dobson was not alone in welcoming this redemption of a debased popular culture: “In any other context, I could not in good conscience recommend a movie containing this degree of violent content. However, in this case, the violence is intended not to titillate or entertain, but to emphasize the reality of the unspeakable suffering that our Savior endured on our behalf.” From the silent era on, movies had drawn power from their affinity to religious ritual; The Passion inverted the equation. Functioning as a cult film, it transformed moviegoing from a possibly sinful activity into a source of collective identity and a communal rite. Entire congregations rented theaters in order to share the experience.

As The Passion’s sanctified violence and horror impressed a devout audience with its realness, so Gibson’s extreme filmmaking intrigued secular artists. Not everyone was as honest as Quentin Tarantino, who, asked by John Powers in a 2004 interview whether he’d seen Gibson’s Passion, replied that he “loved it. . . . I think it actually is one of the most brilliant visual storytelling movies I’ve seen since the talkies. . . . It has the power of a silent movie. . . . It is pretty violent, I must say. At a certain point, it was like a Takashi Miike film. It got so fucked up it was funny. . . . I was into the seriousness of the story, of course, but in the crucifixion scene, when they turned the cross over, you had to laugh.” Tarantino would subsequently lend his imprimatur to exploitation director Eli Roth, author of the quasi-pornographic torture-based horror films Cabin Fever (2002) and Hostel (2005), low-budget productions with stylistic affinities to the New Realness, employing Roth to contribute a trailer to his compilation film Grindhouse and producing Hostel: Part II (both 2007).10

Gibson’s blockbuster stimulated other filmmakers—but not simply because of its mayhem. Movies as varied as Gus Van Sant’s crypto–Kurt Cobain ode Last Days (2005), Cristi Puiu’s black comedy The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005), Julia Loktev’s structural suspense film Day Night Day Night (2006), Paul Greengrass’s 9/11 docudrama United 93 (2006), Julian Schnabel’s medical case history The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), Steve McQueen’s prison story Hunger (2008), and Brillante Mendoza’s truecrime Kinatay (2009) are all examples of post-Passion anti-entertainment, aspiring to a visceral realness, and “experiential” in their emphasis on real-time duration. (It’s worth noting that three of these were made by gallery artists, who might be expected to have a more developed sense of cinema as an object to be installed, and that Hostel, advertised as “a place where all your darkest, sickest fantasies are possible, where you can experience anything you desire,” strives for the environmental.)

Noting their overdetermined endings, film critic Nathan Lee bracketed several such movies with The Passion of the Christ as “death trips.”11 No less crucial is their interest in constructing an ordeal—both on the screen and for the audience. Last Days was immediately recognized as analogous to Gibson’s project. Washington Post reviewer Ann Hornaday called it the grunge generation’s Passion of the Christ, predicting (erroneously) that it might prove “as powerful a communal and spiritual experience.” Van Sant’s suicidal rock star is only the most obvious martyr. Others (in the films cited above) include an alcoholic nonentity who dies on a hospital gurney, a would-be suicide bomber, the passengers and crew of a hijacked plane, a French fashion writer sentenced to a living death, an Irish revolutionary who embarks on a fatal hunger strike, and a Filipino hooker. In every case, their passion is presented as an object of contemplation.

If United 93, which more or less demands that its audience live through a doomed flight from take-off to crash, is the most therapeutic of these movies, Kinatay (whose title means “slaughter” in Tagalog) is the most radical. The movie is crudely shot from the perspective of a twenty-year-old police trainee who, moonlighting for extra money, finds himself trapped (on behalf of the spectator) in a hellish world in which, over the course of a forty-five-minute, more-or-less real-time sequence, a young prostitute is abducted, beaten, tortured, raped, murdered, and matter-of-factly dismembered. Like The Passion, Kinatay draws on the lowest horror-movie tropes in its grimly experiential representation of human suffering and depraved indifference.


The New Realness has found popular expression not only in so-called torture porn but also in the revival of the zombie film. The problematic distinction between dead and undead can, among other things, allegorize the ambiguous relation between analog and digital imagemaking.

At a higher level of aspiration are self-reflexive attempts to represent the New Social Reality (existential terror, cyberglobalism, viral images) in genre terms: Mamoru Oshii’s anime Innocence (2004); the parody action flick Team America: World Police; Michael Haneke’s art thriller Caché (2005); Alfonso Cuarón’s science fiction Children of Men (2006); and, admirably indifferent to audience expectations, Richard Kelly’s sci-fi/SNL mash-up Southland Tales (2007). Other examples include George Romero’s horror films Land of the Dead (2005) and Diary of the Dead (2007); nouveau Godzilla movies such as Bong Joon-ho’s The Host (2006) and Matt Reeves’s Cloverfield (2008), notable for integrating the two poles of digital imagemaking, CGI and cell-phone videography; Antonio Campos’s Haneke-influenced youth film Afterschool (2008); Brian De Palma’s antiwar Redacted (2007); Errol Morris’s investigative documentary Standard Operating Procedure (2008); and two revisionist versions of the globalist melodrama, Jia Zhangke’s theme-park-set The World (2004) and Joe Swanberg’s humorously scaled-down exercise in social networking LOL (2006).

Close to psychodrama, LOL stars its three main creators and was largely improvised. According to a DVD extra, the movie was “born out of ideas batted back and forth via computer, cell phone, etc., and then filmed in the same manner that people use webcams or their cell phones”—which is another way of describing its narrative. The opening shot is of a computer screen with a moving cursor clicking on a file. Someone has posted his girlfriend’s private striptease online. Her dance is crosscut with close-ups of a dozen or more transfixed spectators, each occupying his own personal space and staring dumbfounded at his own personal screen. (This may be compared to the cyberauction early in Hostel: Part II, where would-be killers bid on fresh, unsuspecting victims.)

At the opposite end of the production scale from Swanberg’s comedy of ill manners is Pixar’s even more alienated, mega-million-dollar, state-of-the-art CGI spectacular WALL-E (2008), directed by Andrew Stanton. An unaccountably optimistic vision of human extinction, WALL-E achieves a measure of uncanny empathy, projecting as its protagonist a solitary robot trash compactor single-mindedly organizing the endless detritus of an abandoned, implicitly analog world.

The spectacle of this devoted ding-bot fashioning a Grand Canyon provides a breathtaking sense of eternity. For much of WALL-E, its endearing hero—part Sisyphus, part third-world scavenger—is the earth’s last vestige of humanity. Utterly superfluous, the descendants of the planet’s former inhabitants drift through space in a giant robot-controlled shopping mall known as the Axiom, too bloated to do more than slurp down Happy Meals and watch TV.

Is this universally acclaimed motion picture part of the problem or part of the solution? WALL-E satirizes the technology it deploys, bemoans yet celebrates the death of analog imagemaking, and consigns old-fashioned movies to the trash heap even while worshipping their fragments. Although Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is ruthlessly parodied throughout, a Hollywood film that began shooting the very month of 2001’s release is WALL-E’s privileged artifact. An ancient VHS tape of Hello, Dolly! (once the epitome of retrograde moviemaking), seen solely in terms of a back-lot musical number, serves to instruct the eponymous robot on the nature of the human and ultimately stands as a synechdoche for the cultural heritage of the pre-apocalyptic earth.12

At once avant and pop, horrendously bleak and cheerfully cute, WALL-E is the quintessential twenty-first-century motion picture. Celebrating (or embalming) an obsolete technology, it’s the 2001 of 2008—a postphotographic film set in a posthuman universe. The movie’s single human actor is the designated special effect. A clip of cheerful prancing on a long-lost Hollywood soundstage signifies the Desert of the Real, as glimpsed from within the Matrix of Total Cinema.

J. Hoberman is the senior film critic for the Village Voice and the author of ten books, including The Magic Hour: Film at Fin De Siécle (Temple University Press, 2003), recently translated into French.


1. André Bazin, “The Myth of Total Cinema” (1946), in What Is Cinema?, vol. 1, trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 17–40; 21.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. The Matrix further distinguished itself from traditional movies in its adapting computer gaming as a basis for narrative. The game Enter the Matrix, released in 2003, cost $20 million to create, the most expensive video game up until that time. David Cronenberg’s film eXistenZ (1999), released six weeks before The Matrix, played with the same idea, as did Japanese animator Mamoru Oshii’s “live-action” film Avalon (2001).

5. Midway through the movie, Sokurov’s camera blunders briefly into a secret room associated with World War II. The interior was reworked in postproduction to change the quality of the light and create the perspective afforded by a wide-angle lens. A parallel, if more drastic, instance may be found in Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 sciencefiction film Children of Men. Although cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki insisted on shooting the movie’s climactic seven-and-a-half-minute tracking shot—of Clive Owen cradling a newborn baby in a mad dash from a nightmare prison camp through an urban free-fire zone—in a single take, other apparent instances of virtuoso choreographed continuous motion were actually series of short shots digitally combined.

6. As blatantly filmed theater, Dogville plays with the Dogma 95 program—namely, the imposition of documentary techniques on fictional dramas. Dogma’s less tendentious analogues and fellow travelers include the Dardenne brothers—particularly in their films Rosetta (1999), The Son (2002), and The Child (2005)—as well as so-called Mumblecore filmmakers like Andrew Bujalski and Joe Swanberg, who work with microbudgets and nonactors, often on DV, and Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, whose Blair Witch Project (1999), a hugely successful American indie, cleverly proposed itself as the evidence of an unmade documentary.

7. D. N. Rodowick, The Virtual Life of Film (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 3, 27.

8. Slavoj Žižek seems to have been the first to connect The Matrix and 9/11: “The shattering impact of the bombings can be accounted for only against the background of the borderline which today separates the digitalized First World from the Third World’s ‘desert of the real’ ” (Welcome to the Desert of the Real [New York: Wooster Press, 2001], 20).

9. Writing in Film Quarterly, Stephen Prince has pointed out that these digital effects would seem to contradict the film’s vaunted basis in realism: “Among its other significant attributes, The Passion of the Christ gives us perhaps the first really striking demonstration of digital wizardry used to create images that viewers deem truthful and authentic” (“Beholding Blood Sacrifice in The Passion: How Real Is Movie Violence?,” Film Quarterly 59, no. 4 [Summer 2006]: 11–22; 14).

10. Roth has repeatedly cast himself as a historically determined filmmaker, maintaining that he is making entertainments for the children of 9/11; he claims to have drawn inspiration from terrorist videos such as the one showing the decapitation of journalist Daniel Pearl, and he has even gone so far as to favorably compare his imaginary brand of torture with the actual torture approved by former vice president Dick Cheney.

If Hostel, Hostel: Part II, and such other examples of so-called torture porn as Saw (2004) and its sequels arise from the same fear and desire for vengeance that inspired the torture of prisoners at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, so, in some respects, does their sacred analogue—which shows Roman soldiers running amok and all but torturing Christ to death. While Day Night Day Night, Hunger, and, to a lesser degree, United 93 allow the audience to identify with terrorists—as do several aesthetically more naive movies such as Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now (2005)—this should not be confused with a filmmaker like Roth’s identification. His highbrow equivalent is Michael Haneke, a serious guy out to destroy the matrix of bourgeois complacency, overtly punishing the audience in his two versions of Funny Games (1997 and 2007) and an audience surrogate in Caché.

11. Nathan Lee, “Fatalistic Tendency,” in Film Comment, 44, no. 6 (November/December 2008): 20–23.

12. The movie includes one other example of analog cinema—the holographic image of Buy n Large Corporation’s long-dead CEO (Fred Willard), whose prerecorded instructions are periodically delivered to the Axiom’s captain.