PRINT February 2013


Gabriele Pedullà’s In Broad Daylight

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Castro Theater, 1992, gelatin silver print, 16 5/8 x 21 3/8". From the series “Theaters,” 1976–2001.

In Broad Daylight: Movies and Spectators After the Cinema, by Gabriele Pedullà, translated by Patricia Gaborik. London: Verso, 2012. 192 pages.

GABRIELE PEDULLÀ’S charming and highly readable if ultimately frustrating little book In Broad Daylight tackles a crucial subject—and one that demands more attention: the recent transformation of film spectatorship and of the places where we watch movies. Indeed, at this point, even to say places is to invoke old-fashioned habits: Situations or platforms may be more evocative of contemporary trends in moving-image viewing. Perdullà’s book traces the rise of the movie theater as we know it, only to anatomize its demise with the onset of the electronic and then digital channeling of images.

If the book’s title is a bit ambiguous, its subtitle provides clarity: Movies and Spectators After the Cinema. The point to be debated, of course, is “after.” No one can dispute that something is ending; the question remains, however, whether there was a moment when “the cinema” unambiguously existed, at least in a coherent, definable form. Pedullà is subtle enough to recognize this problem, and he has read enough about the early decades of the motion picture to realize that the movie theater as enshrined in cineaste memory was a creature of fairly short duration. Nevertheless, he argues that, from roughly 1915 on, the ways movies were made—their styles of narration, their stars, and their images—depended on the attention-focusing nature of the movie theater’s darkened auditorium and on the communal blend of privacy and publicness it engendered. As these conditions disappear, he claims, the movies will—indeed already are—morphing into something new and strange.

Much insight is gathered within the pages of In Broad Daylight. But the danger of a historiography of “after the cinema” comes from assuming that change appears as crisis and shock, ending things, rather than merely participating in the course of history. Cinema from its origins has been based on the showbiz logic of innovation; movies’ dependence on technology only renders this more acute and more visible. While certain critical paradigms stress the coherence of stylistic norms and modes of film production (which undoubtedly exist), even the Bordwell-Thompson-Staiger model of the “Classical Hollywood Cinema”—which makes ambitious claims for the persistence of an established, surprisingly stable American style of filmmaking—admits novelty to be an essential motor for the movie industry. Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, to cite only a very recent example, introduces high-frame-rate projection not so much to fulfill theorist André Bazin’s claim that cinema pursues an asymptotic ideal of perceptual realism as to offer a New! Improved! attraction to a public drawn to the theater by curiosity as much as by a desire for the illusion of increased verisimilitude. Change and transformation have always been the driving force behind moving-image media, from their most basic illusions to their marketing strategies. A pure, immutable cinema is a figment of viewer nostalgia.

Pedullà, to his credit, recognizes the diversity of the cinema experience and rejects certain of the dominant myths of spectator experience—such as the belief generated by the apparatus theorists of the ’70s (e.g., Jean-Louis Baudry) that cinema spectators were suckered by the film image into either believing in it as a reality or succumbing to it as a dreamlike illusion. But the image Pedullà fashions of “the dark cube” (an infelicitous play on critic Brian O’Doherty’s term for the modern art gallery, or “white cube”) of the movie theater itself acquires a mythical status in the story he tells. The dark cube, which he admits emerged gradually in the early twentieth century, carves out a radically separate space for the cinema by means of half a dozen well-defined traits: the “strict separation of the auditorium” from the world outside; “(almost) total darkness”; “spectator immobility and silence”; a “larger than life” screen; and communal viewing “among strangers.” All these aspects of the dark cube, whose origins Pedullà traces back to the Renaissance “prose” theater, foster an attentive mode of spectatorship and allow a complementary form of film style centered on narrative absorption.

Unlike many media historians, Pedullà acknowledges the adversarial relation this form of spectatorship waged with the more diffused and distracted forms of film viewing that characterized the variety format of the early cinema of attractions (in which the audience’s attention is commanded less by the drama transpiring within the image than by the image itself). Since he locates the essential challenge to absorptive spectatorship in the rise of television and its ability to represent images in a domestic environment and to allow viewers to switch channels, the reign of the dark cube lasts for little more than a generation, a bit more than three decades. (At one point he gives its period as 1915 to 1975, but 1975 is very late for the rise of television, and 1915 a bit early for the emergence of the classical spectator as he describes him.) Pedullà provides the dark cube with a long and distinguished pedigree, posing the movie theater as the heir to and fulfillment of the ideals of the Italian playhouse as proclaimed in the sixteenth century. This “Vitruvian” tradition conceived of the auditorium as a means of “disciplining the gaze,” subjecting it resolutely to the drama on the stage. This centuries-old project, Pedullà claims, found its nemesis not in the variety forms of early cinema, with its competing attractions and distractions, but in television, for TV allows—even encourages—the “spectator’s extreme volatility,” granting the viewer the freedom not only to let her attention wander from the screen but, wireless remote in hand, to change the program instantly and effortlessly.

Thus the new spectator bred by television watches the screen with impatience, finger on the button. Pedullà sees the style of the Hollywood blockbuster—characterized by rapid editing; closer, more intense framing; and a script that careens from one spectacular scene to another, with little logical connection—as a desperate attempt “to hold the public’s attention, and thus forestall the dreaded zapping.” The multiplication of film-viewing platforms—from laptops to iPads to smartphones­—has transformed the ways in which we watch films and only exacerbated the vagaries of spectator will. Freed from the spectatorial regime of the dark cube—no longer forced into silence and immobility—we are freed as well of the narrative’s grip, and our empathy for the drama is, consequentially, diminished. Here, Pedullà relies on Stanley Cavell’s argument that it is precisely the unbridgeable distance between viewer and drama, auditorium and stage, that creates the dialectics of tragedy, as the very impossibility of intervention is what gives rise to the heightened empathy of the spectator. In both the prose theater and the cinema, an architecture of destiny constructs an emotional drama before our eyes but out of our reach. The techno-nemesis of this tragic mode of viewing, Pedullà suggests, isn’t so much channel zapping as the video player’s ability to stop, rewind, and review, which destroys destiny’s irrevocable progress as inscribed in the mechanics of cinema, stamped with the “impersonality of the fate-machine.”

While little of In Broad Daylight’s presentation is revolutionary, the book is well observed and gives a concise sense of what may be at stake in the current technological transformations of film viewing. Thankfully, Pedullà does not engage in a jeremiad for a cinéma perdu. Although he, like Cavell, places a high value on the empathy and catharsis made possible by the disciplined gaze of the dark cube, he does not entirely foreclose the possibility of productive new forms of viewing emerging from new platforms. However, too often his assumption is that intense spectatorship depends on the cube and its sheltering darkness and that other modes of viewing necessarily deliver more superficial sensations. Laura Mulvey’s recent discussion of the “pensive spectator,” finger poised not on the TV’s remote but on the video player’s pause button, submits, to the contrary, that profound involvement may not depend on being in thrall to the uninterrupted advance of the destiny machine of cinema. One also wonders about new regimes of physical and visual involvement that handheld devices may inaugurate. The dream of Walter Benjamin—to get culture off our backs and into our hands—may be fulfilled with the tactile access to the world of cinema that new media opens.

The greatest weakness of the book, though, lies in its construal of lineage and legacy, its presupposition and insistence that cinema emerged from a single tradition. While Pedullà acknowledges the variety of modes of early cinema, the account he offers of the triumph of the dark cube (a victory to his mind consolidated by the advent of sound) belies the persistence of the variety format within the film program as presented in the movie theater into the 1960s—a program that typically included not only the dramatic feature film but also animated cartoons, color travelogues, newsreels, and, at least in the movie palace, a variety of live acts, and did more to encourage the cinema’s “cult of distraction,” as Siegfried Kracauer called it, than to impose a rigorous technology for regulating the spectatorial gaze.

And if the ascendant regime of uninterrupted showings within an increasingly specialized film auditorium permitted the development of the dramatic feature by temporarily silencing and largely immobilizing the spectator and focusing her attention for the duration of an extended narrative, the architecture of the movie house also facilitated the flow in and out of the dark cube of an audience that explored the recesses of the theater for a variety of purposes. In short, the universal, disciplined gaze of the film spectator and the dark cube that purportedly incubated it remain ideal constructions rather than historical reconstructions and correspond more to a nostalgic, idealized memory of the cinematheque or art cinema of the ’60s than to the commercial movie house. If this model of spectatorship was quite possibly dominant at times, it was by no means ever exclusive. And the Italian playhouse, inarguably one of cinema’s forebears and undeniably crucial in its development, was possibly secondary in influence to the vaudeville theater with its ornate design, its variety format and continuous performances, and its emphasis on attractions and novelty. Finally, for all his emphasis on the place of exhibition, Pedullà primarily approaches the cinema site itself as an invisible machine for the staging of empathetic dramas, ignoring aspects of movie-theater design that stressed its environmental role, preparing the viewer not just for an absorptive aesthetic experience but for entry into a dreamworld where color and sound emanated from the structure itself (typified by the “atmospheric theaters” of the 1920s and ’30s with their light shows, architectural prosceniums copied from Greek or Mayan temples, and ceilings set with twinkling stars awash in projected clouds). For the movie-palace audience swept from marquee to auditorium, passing through lobbies and corridors and mounting stairways modeled on the Paris Opera, the “show began on the sidewalk.” The architecture of the cinema ushered the viewer into a complex environment, not simply a darkened cube.

Pedullà’s claims notwithstanding, the alleged decline of the theatrical movie experience doesn’t necessarily mean we have entered an era “after the cinema.” Cinema has always embraced a plethora of modes of viewing, even if certain ones became commercially dominant. It is time film history was used to remind us of neglected possibilities rather than serving to construct a “true” lineage. In cinema, change is nothing new. It may in fact be the only constant aspect in our engagement with the moving image.

Tom Gunning is the Edwin A. and Betty L. Bergman Distinguished Service professor in the departments of art history and cinema and media studies at the University of Chicago.