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New Left Review 39, May-June 2006


Tony Wood on Laura Mulvey, Death 24x a Second. How has the digital era changed the cinematic viewing experience—and the spectator? Freeze-frame fetishism and narrative disruption from Lumière to Kiarostami, via Hitchcock and Rossellini.

TONY WOOD

CELLULOID AND PLASMA

A new period in the history of cinema opened at the end of the 20th century. The arrival of television from the 1950s and then video from the 1980s had drastically altered both film-going habits and the viewing experience—dispersing much of a film’s audience across millions of sitting-rooms, and allowing it to be interrupted by advertising breaks and pause buttons. But the advent of digital technologies in the 1990s brought a transformation in the very material basis of film, initiating a shift from celluloid to grids of phototransistors, numerically encoding their share of light. The image itself moved from chemical registration of reality to electronic analogue—breaking the camera’s privileged link to the material world. This roughly coincided with the centenary of cinema in 1995, which by itself might have prompted a wave of retrospection on the history of the medium, but which was now accompanied by a sense that a definitive boundary had been breached. No longer recording physical presences—even in order to reconfigure them as fiction—cinema was entering an endless realm of simulacra. Its anniversary seemed to mark a death of sorts, and film’s history began to be regarded as a vast repository for the traces of a vanished past. As Laura Mulvey puts it in her new book, ‘the cinema is inhabited increasingly by spectres’.

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