“How to review a film?,” I am often being asked. “Well,” I start reluctantly, “always think of the fact that the person who is going to interact with your review might not have seen the film…” — then adding, “whether or not this person will actually see it at some point, does not concern you, yet you need to make sure your review’s recipient takes part in the conversation the film is shaping.”
How to review a book about cinema, though? And especially a book that only a handful of people would be able to read by the time this text is out? Not that I wouldn’t recommend William Brown’s Non-Cinema: Global Digital Film-making and the Multitude (Bloomsbury Academic, July 2018) to anybody who cares about digital media and cultural politics, but a couple of weeks after its publishing, the e-version costs £88.13, whereas a hardcover copy comes at the price of £91.80. That’s the way it is in scholarly publishing, you would say (probably), secretly sighing for the high-end lifestyle some of you might imagine film academics are enjoying. Nevertheless, this is not the conversation I would like to have about Brown’s work.
At the time when (English-language) Film Twitter is constantly engaging in “discussions” around canonical titles and unorthodox approaches to criticism, and divisions seem to stem from demographic factors such as race, gender, age, education level, etc, one factor is always grinning in our face — so close, we tend to ignore it. This factor is money. Or maybe I should use the word “capitalism,” given that the first sentence in Brown’s book reads as follows: “For Jonathan Beller, cinema is co-extensive with capital.” I am old enough to remember times when the ghost of Karl Marx was often being summoned as part of a non-language that was the very tissue of mass media on that side of Europe where I come from.
Still, with a Mark Fisher-ian lightness, Brown adopts the thesis that digital technology, particularly in the domain of audiovisual production, is the essence of Capitalism 2.0, and this red thread guides him through a very complex oeuvre that is his expedition to faraway lands. On his quest to define his subject (interestingly enough, Brown’s previous book is titled Supercinema: Film-Philosophy for the Digital Age), he revises corresponding takes on non-cinema as the area beyond the Spectacle — Glauber Rocha’s aesthetics of hunger, Jean-François Lyotard’s acinema, even Mikhail Bakhtin and his theory of carnivalization — and also spins an elaborate map of terminology along the way.
Armed with this political optics and propelled by the impulse to re-discover territories usually reserved for guilty festival pleasures, Brown traces the chart of digital filmmaking in a variety of countries: as a non-profit practice, as an attempt to rend visible the invisible, as a desire to disrupt traditional production and distribution methods. Some of these national labels (China, Iran, the Philippines) are well explored, while others (Afghanistan, Nollywood, Francophone Africa) are reserved for true connoisseurs. The States, for example, are represented by Giuseppe Andrews, named by Vice “the eccentric trailer park auteur.” The grand finale, with two chapters on mobile filmmaking and 3D cinema, is reserved for Jean-Luc Godard.
In another decade, I would be commissioned to write a feature or two on the rise of these national (non)cinemas, often branded as waves. In that part of Europe, as previously mentioned, my remuneration for such a piece would be more or less the current price of Brown’s book. Thus, the cultural journalist in me jubilates — every single chapter in his text is a true manifestation of the politics of care at their academic best. No matter if Brown theorizes on the books spotted on Jafar Panahi’s home shelf in such an overmunched work like This Is Not a Film, or on some randomly discovered DVD of Afghan action flicks, his gaze is knowledgeable and respectful. The film critic in me is getting anxious — how come this attentiveness strikes such an impression on me? It could be the effect of all those “ignorance is a virtue” arguments (insert the face-with-rolling-eyes emoji).
There is something more that adds to the pleasure of reading Non-Cinema, and namely the fact that similarly to his essay films, Brown is in a constant dialogue with himself, thus also engaging the readers to be active participants in this journey, encouraging them to stay critical to every idea being brought to the table while he serves the most delicious bites of concepts to intellectuals you can imagine, from Franz Kafka to Giorgio Agamben, with several detours through quantum mechanics (I won’t lie, it is a feel-good experience). Nevertheless, with Brown’s erudite urge to shape his ideology based on dichotomies (cinema/non-cinema, light/darkness, singularity/multitude, etc.), the book falls into the old Cartesian trap of dualism, albeit the signs of self-aware gnoseological irony.
In this regard, I will take the liberty to express one sole commentary, or better yet — a recommendation of Non-Cinema and its rational stance. As the chapter on Iranian cinema claims, “Shi’a women should be veiled at all times in Iranian cinema, since the cinema screen is deemed to be a public space (meaning that many Iranian films are unrealistic as women wear their chador in domestic settings, something that would not necessarily happen in real life).” Reading this paragraph coincided with the real-life case of an Iranian girl being detained by local authorities due to the fact that she posted Instagram videos of her dancing, “without wearing the obligatory Islamic headscarf.” This spurs the question: if we consider films shot with mobile phones to be “cinema,” due to the fact that they are still being shown on big screens, or somehow find their way in the DVD/VOD milieu, why not think about the display of our mobile phones in terms of “cinema” and “spectacle”? Isn’t the touchscreen the most capitalist space, and isn’t social media the most “kinocentric” environment we even get to live in? Pardon my dialectical monism.
All in all, while on stand by for Brown’s next book, I would suggest prompting your library or film school to order Non-Cinema, so you can have this conversation on your own, also as a deeply political act: “Access to literacy and the stranglehold of cinema-capital would seem to make non-cinema the preserve of the privileged bourgeoisie. Nonetheless, using the work of Latin American literary theorist Ángel Rama, I shall go against La vida útil’s approach to film literacy and propose that non-cinema can indeed be ‘read’ by anyone and that it radically democratizes cinema.”
Yoana Pavlova (@RoamingWords) is a Bulgarian writer, media researcher and programmer, currently based in Paris. She is the founding editor of Festivalists.com, with bylines for Fandor’s Keyframe, The Calvert Journal, East European Film Bulletin, AltCine, as well as a contributor to the following books: Cinemas of Paris (2016, St Andrews Film Studies), Eastern Promises (2014, Festival Internacional de Cine de Donostia – San Sebastián), The Bulgarian Nouvelle Vague (2012, Edno). Yoana is also a mentor at the IFFR Trainee Project for Young Film Critics and Sarajevo Talent Press.