Introduction: Digital Secrets, Digital Lies

By William Brown

Here cinema lies. For even if analogue cinema (or what is left of it) benefits from the supposedly indexical relationship that the photographic image has with reality, cinema never presented to us an entirely truthful version of reality, but rather a warped version of reality, in short, a lie. What is more, it is a lie that cinema ever showed us here, since the analogue cinematic image is always an image taken in the past and re-presented to us at the moment of projection; cinema has always shown us a there and a then as opposed to a here and a now.

That said, even if what cinema shows us is both a lie and not here, the lie that is the experience of cinema itself can only take place here; I cannot experience cinema without being in the process of watching a film. In this way, cinema may be a lie, but it also is a lie that in its very here-ness presents to us a truth, since the experience of cinema is real – and thus we must be able to account for that.

In the digital age, that cinema is a lie is only further intensified. For now what we see are images composed of code, and not necessarily the direct inscription of light on a polyester film stock. And yet, the age of new media has seen an immanentisation of cinema, by which I mean framed moving images and sounds, such that cinema is in some senses ‘everywhere’, by which I mean the ubiquity of screens in the urban centres of the global north and other spaces. If cinema has reached pandemic proportions, then the truth is that the lie of cinema, the cinematic experience, does indeed dominate our here and now. If it is true that thus we are surrounded almost uniquely by lies, then how are we to account for the contemporary, screen-saturated world?

The immanentisation of cinema is in some senses the dissipation of cinema, such that cinema no longer exists. If cinema no longer exists, then one way to account for this might be to replace cinema with the plural term ‘new media’, the novelty of which lies not so much in the invention of something new (arguably claims to newness are precisely lies in a universe that only ever consists of rearrangements of pre-existing phenomena), but in the intensification of the multiplication of screens on numerous fronts (in all places, both fixed and mobile).

However, another way to account for this – possibly a secret way – is to suggest that cinema is in some senses the lifeblood of new media, and that if one penetrates into new media, then one finds that cinema is secreted. That is, cinema has like Genghis Khan reproduced itself over and over, often by force, such that its blood now flows through nearly all media. To be clear (to try to pre-empt some obvious criticisms, even though by definition this introductory thought-experiment is almost certainly riddled with conceptual shortcomings): cinema itself did not come into being ex nihilo; like Genghis Khan, cinema also had precursors that did not inevitably (teleologically) lead towards cinema. But, once cinema did come into existence, it has multiplied endlessly. And in the age of supposedly new media, the ubiquity of cinema is perhaps the most open secret going.

The essays and POV pieces in this issue of Frames testify to the secret of cinema, informing us about the secretions of cinema in the age of new media. Sarah Atkinson and Helen Kennedy’s essay about contemporary exhibition company Secret Cinema sets the ball rolling most clearly. Their essay explores the role that various media played in the creation and reception of the company’s 2014 summer blockbuster release of Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985), suggesting that the company repeatedly failed to cater for the different types of audience attending the event(s), confusing hipster fans of the concept with more regular fans of the film. However, their essay also suggests that cinema is itself the secret at the centre of this new media enterprise. For if audiences flock in droves to Secret Cinema events (paying handsomely to do so), then in part we might read this as the persistence of the cinema experience, that originary lie, in an era when the ubiquity of lies has intensified to the point of disorientation (as experienced literally by many trying to attend the first – cancelled – Back to the Future event). As the film itself plays upon nostalgia for a more ‘simple’ 1950s past, so does the event play upon nostalgia for a more ‘simple’ lie.

Jennifer O’Meara, meanwhile, explains how the highly successful podcast Serial (Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder, 2014) itself used various techniques, including other, audiovisual media beyond simply the radiographic, in order to become like a movie for radio. That is, when one scratches the surface of even the podcast, what bleeds through is not radio, but cinema – suggesting that cinema has even infiltrated radio, a contemporaneous medium. What is more, the success of Serial also testifies to the power of cinema to expose secrets and lies, to get to the murky reality of an irrational propensity for violence and a questionable grasp of the truth underlying much, if not all, of humanity.

With regard to the POV section, Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin discuss in detail – and with examples – their own audiovisual and critical practice, exemplifying in the process how the digital file that cinema has become secretes cinema as film critics, scholars and fans (or, better, hybrids of all three) come not only to watch films in the contemporary era, but also to make films about those films – or audiovisual essays. Perhaps it is not by accident that they eventually are drawn to the work of David Cronenberg, whose films are themselves replete with secretions and lies, as media multiply all in the name of cinema!

And perhaps it is not by accident that Cronenberg also features as an important forebear of the contemporary digital horror that Connor McMorran considers in his piece. McMorran suggests firstly that a film like The Hive (David Yarovesky, 2015) allegorises the internet, in that the film tells the story of a disease that ‘connects’ its sufferers, thereby diminishing individuality and creating a hive mind. The disease is induced by exposure to a black ooze (secreted from where?), while the shared experience of the hive mind not only is redolent of the internet, but perhaps also of the collective experience of cinema – cinema as body snatcher. In other words, cinema is the internet’s secret progenitor, as made clear by the subsequent set of films that McMorran considers, and which stage the multiple windows of the computer screen as fitting under the umbrella of, precisely, the singular cinema screen.

What is in particular interesting is how in The Hive, the collective is deemed as a threat to an individuality held sacred under neoliberal capitalism, while films like Unfriended (Levan Gabriadze, 2014) visualise individuality as isolation via the ‘split’ screen, and how precisely collective resistance to capital is immobilised. That is, the immanentisation of cinema is the making-ubiquitous of neoliberal capital – the shared belief that the individual is indeed sacred and isolated in its sacredness from the rest of humanity and the world, which subsequently are posed as a threat; all contact is perceived as contamination. And so, the age of new media is also the age that has neoliberal capital as well as cinema as its lifeblood. Neoliberal capital not just as cinema, but as a cinema so immanent that it is perceived as natural.

A final ‘and yet’. And yet, this cinema as paradoxical neoliberal-isolation-as-pandemic (the ubiquity of cinema as a system of control) cannot help but secrete another cinema, in which the collective is not pitched simply as hysterical paranoia regarding the (very real) perils of fascism or communism – depending on which -ism you want to read into the myth of the body snatchers – but rather in which the collective and realising not our isolation from but our connection to others, including others within ourselves, is resistance to and perhaps even liberation from neoliberal capital.

This is the theme of William Brown’s essay comparing the recent Steve Jobs (Danny Boyle, 2015), a film about the co-founder of Apple, to Tangerine (Sean Baker, 2015), a film about transsexual sex workers in Los Angeles, and which was shot using one of Apple’s best-known inventions, the iPhone. If Steve Jobs in some senses charts the rise to capitalist icon of its title character (dressing the story up as being about a man who learns to accept his daughter), Tangerine uses the capitalist tool par excellence that is the iPhone (think humans not engaging with each as they walk around, but preferring instead to engage with the screen that is their phone) in order to create a queer community of different races and nationalities in a flipside Los Angeles of poverty and struggle. Set on Christmas Eve, Tangerine in some senses plays as a queer remake of It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946) – version 2015 – since both in their own ways stage the collective as precisely resistance to neoliberal capital. But where in the aftermath of World War Two this is pitched as an imminent threat, in the contemporary world this is simply the status quo. And where in Capra’s film Hollywood can still get away with – just about – cinema as resistance, in 2015 cinema has been immanentised such that iPhone films like Tangerine are perhaps better considered non-cinema in order for us better to understand that it is precisely an immanent and naturalised cinema as capital that is problematic. It is the secret, other cinema that is required, one that cinema as neoliberal capital (purveying lies regarding our isolation) cannot help but secrete into the world (and which is so secret that it is a non-cinema, a kind of anti- or dark matter to cinema’s matter, a less-visible-because-dark energy to cinema’s energy, as the negative was the dark cinema to the positive cinema in the analogue era?).

As we are on the cusp of the release of another Star Wars film in the form of The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, 2015), perhaps it is not cinema, but in fact this non-cinema, the collective power of all owners of the iPhone and other devices with moving image and sound functionality to forge new and unlikely audiovisual communities in the shadow of the commercial cinema of isolating-business-as-usual, that constitutes the real new hope.


Notes on Contributor

William Brown is author of Supercinema: Film-Philosophy for the Digital Age (Berghahn 2013) and a zero-budget filmmaker, whose films include En Attendant Godard (2009), Selfie (2014) and The New Hope (2015).


Filmography (and other media)

Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985)

The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, 2015)

The Hive (David Yarovesky, 2015)

It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946)

Serial (Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder, 2014)

Steve Jobs (Danny Boyle, 2015)

Tangerine (Sean Baker, 2015)

Unfriended (Levan Gabriadze, 2014)