– Spring/Summer 2002

Detail, Digression, Death: The Movies in Chris Petit's Film Negative Space

Laura Mulvey

Tags: Laura Mulvey

1. Passing Time

Manny Farber: It's good-bye to Nick Ray or whomever ... but you're into something else ... very dramatic. It doesn't bother me. I'll be dead in five years but I sort of feel sorry for the people coming after me.1

Around 1995, I began to think about the impact that new technologies were having on the cinema of the past. In the first instance this past cinema was, for me, 'the movies' - the assorted collection of films, the Hollywood studio system, particularly its final, post-war phase, Renoir, Rossellini and most of the Cahiers du Cinéma pantheon that had created the cinephile generation of the 1960s. For me 'the movies' are the films that taught me to love cinema. But that cinema, an emblem of modernity for more than half a century, had grown old already as its stars, directors and production systems retired, died and declined. Of course, cinema was subsequently re-vitalised by New Waves, Third Cinemas and avant-gardes, from Godard to Kiarostami, and it was not until the centenary, 1995, that the idea of 'the death of the cinema' arrived into popular consciousness. The centenary would, in itself, seem to be an arbitrary marker of the passing of time. But a more fundamental change, more immediate, more material and objective, had taken place with the impact of the electronic and digital on celluloid and the cinema's century-old mechanical technology. Change came gradually at first, as video became an increasingly important means of film distribution and consumption. Then the pace increased as digital technology broke into image production and began to overtake the electronic in the field of consumption. Furthermore,

  1. Chris Petit's film Negative Space (1999) is a meditation on the nature of film and art through the eyes of the critics Manny Farber and Dave Hickey. Petit has called his film after Farber's seminal book of film criticism of the same name; Manny Farber, Negative Space: Manny Farber on the Movies, New York: Da Capo Press, 1998; expanded edition of 1971 publication. All references in the text to Negative Space are to Chris Petit's film unless otherwise noted.

  2. Paolo Cherchi Usai, The Death of Cinema: History, Cultural Memory and the Digital Dark Age, London: British Film Institute, 2001, p.105

  3. we've forgotten why Joan Fontaine leans over the edge of the cliff and what it was that Joel MvCrea was going to do in Holland we don't remember why Montgomery Clift was maintaining eternal silence or why Janet Leigh stopped at the Bates motel or why Teresa Wright... ... but we remember a handbag but we remember a bus in the desert but we remember a glass of milk the sails of a windmill a hairbrush but... Jean-Luc Godard, Histoire(s) du Cinema (English translation by John Howe), ECM NewSeries, 1988-89

  4. W.G.Sebald, Austerlitz, London: Hamish Hamilton, 2001, p.345

  5. Ibid.

  6. D.N. Rodowick, Gilles Deleuze's Time Machine, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1997, p.13