Anew 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’.
Death 24x a Second takes up both the challenge to critical thinking represented by new technological developments, and the impulse towards reflection on film’s past that they have occasioned. The title plays on a phrase from Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat, in which the question ‘what is cinema?’ is answered: ‘truth 24 times a second’. Mulvey’s focus is not on film’s capacity to capture reality, but on the relationship between movement and stasis that the medium embodies. The images floating on the screen draw life from the mechanized motion of a celluloid strip; but behind the illusion of movement lies a series of stillnesses, each frame comprising a frozen instant of action. Film, then, not only registers what is in front of the camera lens, but also fixes it in a lifeless reproduction—before re-animating it with a beam of light.
This shuttling between animate and inanimate is at the core of the thematics of death and the uncanny which take up the early part of the book, though the latter motifs recur throughout. Two other preoccupations form the basis for subsequent chapters. The relationship between movement and stasis in terms of both narrative flow and film form is examined through case studies of Hitchcock’s Psycho, Rossellini’s Journey to Italy and Kiarostami’s Koker trilogy, with briefer excursions on Powell and Pressburger, Douglas Sirk and Michael Snow. The book’s final chapters move to a discussion of the effects on the viewing experience of digital media and the diffusion of film through video and dvd formats. The implications of these shifts are perhaps the most thought-provoking element of Death 24x a Second, though Mulvey’s close readings are also exemplary in their lucidity and depth. But it is above all her engagement with cinema, both as art form and historical artefact, that makes the book a welcome contribution.
For Mulvey, the interweaving of motion and stillness is the central paradox of cinema. Video and dvd served only to amplify the possibilities for delay, the deathly stillness already present at film’s inception. She traces cinema’s dual origins in optical science and the arts of illusion, and notes the tension between reason and irrational belief that carried over into photography and, later, film—first received as both marvel of technological progress and means of visual deception, or even of ghostly communication, as in Gorky’s famous description of a Lumière film of 1896 as a trip to ‘the kingdom of shadows’. The same overlap between appearance and apparition leads Mulvey into a reading of Freud and Wilhelm Jentsch on the uncanny, notions of which also underpin her reflections on the indexical properties of film. Drawing on Bazin and Barthes, she sees the temporal confusion that is the essential quality of photographs as equivalent to an uncanny erosion of the distinction between imagination and reality. As records of a fleeting moment, photographs defy impermanence; but at the same time, for Barthes they always pointed to the future absence of their subjects—their poignancy stemming from their simultaneous preservation of the past and intimation of death. Barthes specifically excluded film from his considerations, because the imbrication of the image in the flow of narrative robbed it of the stillness necessary for its traumatic detail, its punctum, to emerge. But for Bazin, film too could evoke what Barthes termed the ‘vertigo of time defeated’; in his 1945 essay on ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, Bazin wrote that, with film, ‘for the first time the image of things is also the image of their durations, change mummified as it were.’
The advent of video and dvd made it possible for every viewer to stop the film, and for on-screen images to stand in for still photographs and regain, in Mulvey’s view, some of the uncanny power previously sacrificed to the needs of narrative. It has also facilitated the kind of close reading that Mulvey performs in the book’s middle section, in which she demonstrates that the intertwining of motion and stasis, animation and ossification, is repeated on the thematic and narrative levels. Linking the motion of plot to the Freudian concepts of death drive and pleasure principle, Mulvey suggests that a film’s terminus in death or ‘the erotic stasis of marriage’ can be seen as a ‘return of the repressed stillness on which cinema’s illusion of movement depends.’ In Psycho, however, the path to stasis is brought short by Marion’s death in the middle of the film, which sets the audience a new telos in the shape of the investigation. Mulvey notes the dense weaving of Freudian motifs in the film—notably the penultimate shot, in which Norman and Mother are conflated in a ghastly superimposition, precisely the combination of animate and inanimate to which both Jentsch and Freud referred.