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A definition of cinema?

September 5, 2009

What is a functional definition of cinema?

This may seem, on the surface, a easy endeavor but even within common usage of the term (let alone academic and scholarly discourses) there is great variation.

It is arguable that the word ‘cinema’ is most commonly used to refer to a physical place and location; the venue where films are shown – the ‘cinema theatre’. The ramifications for the use of Cinema as a locative noun position and frame other uses of the word into particular contexts both technical and cultural. By defining Cinema specifically as a place where films are shown then any broader application of the word is potentially consigned also to that specific location. Hence a definition of ‘cinema’ may be popularly accepted as ‘movies shown in a cinema’ – and this might be an easy enabler of common discussion, employing broadly accepted terms – but it is none the less highly problematic as it ties moving image works to a particular mode of viewing (and indeed a particular technical apparatus). When, in real terms, the proportion of ‘movies’ viewed by the populous in a cinema-theatre is but a tiny fraction of the total ‘movies’ they will view via other mechanisms (namely TV in the home or on-line) then the definition of cinema as a ‘place where movies are seen’ is a dysfunctional and an inaccurate descriptor. Similarly, in defining cinema by the apparatus of its delivery we also constrain it to particular forms of technology connected to that delivery. Hence, despite five decades of video technology, the term cinema still has a popular association with celluloid and projected 35mm film; a further small distinction used to separate a definition of cinema from other screen-based media such as TV.

To this we can add still other other variations of definition; in particular cultural constructs around cinema. Tied with the idea of cinema as a ‘place’ is the notion that cinema, as a term, has particular cultural connotations. That ‘going to the cinema’ is not just an act of visiting a particular venue but involves a deeper consciousness of occasion and spectacle. The implications for movie works viewed under the umbrella of such cultural constructs is to invest them with certain expectations which are beyond the content of the film itself. This gives rise to a common understanding of Cinema as an experience; a manner of experiencing a moving image beyond the movie itself. Popcorn, dark theatre, loud sound, big-screen, communal environment, Saturday night date and so on, are the hall-marks of a ‘cinema experience’ and a popular cultural association of the word ‘cinema’.

The third major association of the word ‘cinema’ is with a perceived notion of ‘quality’ and aesthetic. This perception gives rise to the common usage of the word ‘Cinematic’. In theory cinematic is simply an adjective derived from cinema; a means of describing something that is ‘of the cinema’ or connected to the cinema. But in more popular usage and understanding ‘cinematic’ is used to describe a particular quality of the work that lends itself to spectacle, scale and traits of the cinema theatre (ie large-screen, big sound, public crowd) as well as connotations of the works ability to generate immersion in the cinema experience. Here we may see a similar pattern to that established by the French New Wave critics in the 1950′s and 60′s who, whilst coining the term Mise en Scene desired to identify Mise en Scene as not a mode or paradigm for making a film but rather a particular quality that a film may or may not be in possession of. With this idea of ‘the cinematic’ as a discreet ‘quality’ we have a circumstance where a work of ‘cinema’ may play in a cinema-theatre but be judged as being a film that is not ‘cinematic’.

Certainly there are numerous other permutations but all three of these key variations on how the term ‘cinema’ may be interpreted, used and exploited are flawed. Whilst all three may find themselves accepted as given in common discourse they do not present a viable means of comprehension or of definition for cinema studies. Such definitions based on cultural constructs and specific technologies have no scope to evolve. It is possible, even easy, to imagine a future where the cinema-theatre has vanished (much as the Drive-In of old) and projected celluloid film has been totally replaced by digital technologies. In such a scenario the currently common defining elements of cinema as a ‘place’, a ‘cultural construct’ and a ‘means’ would be rendered defunct. Yet there would, no doubt, still be movies, still be ‘cinema’, just not as a location or a particular apparatus.

So, what this drives us to consider is what might be a viable and functional definition of ‘cinema’ that can account not only for current and past contexts, but which is not so tied to contemporary means and modes that it has no future functionality as cinema evolves? When considered in this manner the possibilities for a definition of cinema contract significantly to a distilled essence. Cinema is ‘the art of the moving image’. This acutely simple definition takes the two particular traits that are irrefutable for all cinema, both past and present, without tying it to any particular apparatus, institution or cultural context. Cinema is an Art because it is something wrought and constructed by a person (or group of people) that has no specific practical function; only to explore, engage, inform, entertain and edify. Likewise, cinema is a ‘moving image’ because this simple phrase alone sets cinema apart from its parents – theatre, photography and architecture. Whilst the means by which we watch cinema and the technology by which we display it may change and vary enormously, the fact that the image is moving will not.

Any other, broader or more specific definition of cinema just seems useless and un-helpful.

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One comment

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