La Furia Umana
  • I’m not like evereybody else
    The Kinks
  • E che, sono forse al mondo per realizzare delle idee?
    Max Stirner
  • (No ideas but in things)
    W.C. Williams
WILLIAM BROWN / What is cinema? Again.

WILLIAM BROWN / What is cinema? Again.

It is hard to work out whether the question is intimidating or mundane. Certainly, we could put ourselves to sleep worrying about the closure of film theatres, the possibility that people believe The Crown to be a true story, or the fact that AT&T is scrambling desperately to stay alive, which in turn means that its subsidiary, Warner Brothers, is also under threat. The pandemic may temporarily have put paid to people gathering to watch movies, but somehow I kind of doubt it will last forever, especially as the cabin fever mounts and we all want a reason, any reason, to get out of the house. Indeed, if the consumption of audiovisual media in their widest (post-)cinematic guises continues to be on the up, then when this is all over, I can only imagine an explosion in cinema-going. What joy, just to be able to sit with other people again, doing something that I never got quite used to doing alone. (And then within five minutes, I’ll be pissed off by the loud talkers at the back – don’t they ever go to the cinema, these people? – and we’ll know that nothing ever really changed – except that hundreds of thousands of people needlessly lost their lives.)

But to indulge any or every of these prosaic issues would only really involve attempts to answer not the question itself, but why the question (what is cinema?) continues to be raised. And the short answer to that question is because we are facing the possibility that cinema might be over, or dead. Again.

Make cinema dead again. Long live cinema. Again.

Asked by Toni D’Angela to write an answer to the question, I worry that I am being set up. I can only make an idiot out of myself. Again. For, my research can never be complete. There’s so much I don’t know, so much I’ve never read, never seen, never even heard of to see, never even heard of to read. I’ll just sound like a furious idiot, for sure, who does not know enough about cinema, especially when I don’t offer up some clever-sounding quotation from, say, the hip new reprinting of the film theory of Germaine Dulac.

[L]e cinéma se cherche, il ne s’est pas encore réellement trouvé – Ce que nous voyons aujourd’hui n’est que le balbutiement d’un très grand art dans sa prime jeunesse. (Dulac 2020: 32)

Balbutier. A term I had to look up because I guess my French is not as good as I’d like to think it is. To stammer. And thoughts go immediately to Deleuze and stuttering, whereby the stammer and the stammerer alike bring out new dimensions of language by speaking it in an imperfect fashion. Supposedly from the Greek βᾰμβαίνω/bambaínō, itself meaning to chatter with the teeth, and linked to βαβάζω/babázō, or to speak inarticulately, and βάβάλον/bábálon, a bawler or a shouter. Babbling on in Babel or Babylon, as someone in Tartuffe might put it.

But focus. For the Lady of the Lake is really saying that cinema is young, and that for this reason il est impossible d’inventer toutes les réponses [à la question «que’est-ce que le cinéma? »], even as many might judge le cinéma dans son application et non dans son esprit.

Mais ne mérite-t-il pas d’être jugé en lui-même et pour lui-même (Dulac 2020: 38)?

Oh, Germaine, yes. Absolutely. But what the hell is cinema lui-même, especially since the intervening years between your writing and the publication of your beautiful new book have only seen cinema become more confused with other media, as your very beautiful new book itself makes clear with still and moving images embedded into its text, which is really text embedded into its images since to read the text at all I need to be looking at my computer screen?

André Bazin never actually engaged with the question of qu’est-ce que le cinéma?, even if that question is the title given to the various essays that were collected together both before and after his death (so untimely). That is, there isn’t (as far as my ignorance tells me) a place where Bazin poses and then answers this question, which rather is thought to define his whole œuvre.

That said, perhaps buried in the very title is a queer answer of sorts. What is cinema? Volume. Volume 1. Volume 2. Volume 3. Volume 4 (see Bazin 1958-1962).

Cinema is therefore volume, you say? Cinema thus is indeed a bawler and a shouter (cinema thus clearly does not go to the cinema, otherwise cinema would know not to be so bloody loud).

A bawler (who if only a bit taller would have a girl who looked good and they’d call her?), but also what in Old French meant a scroll or a book, from the Latin volumen, meaning a roll. Cinema is a bawling book, a bad book, a dad book, a Dada book, a babadook.

Cinema is a roll. From the Old French rolle, meaning a document, a parchment scroll, or a decree. Rolling down to Rolle to find the image book. (Deliver [us from] images.)

Let’s roll. And try to avoid the counter-roll that would seek to cont-rol cinema. Except to roll again is to roll against (no one knows when or how the s and the t were added to ‘again’ so that it became ‘against,’ but they are considered etymologically to be the same word). To roll therefore is to counter-roll – as anyone knows who has seen wagon wheels turning backwards in movies.

So rolling always comes with controlling/counter-rolling, and the issue is not whether cinema is alive or dead. The issue is again.

Furious Faulkner: “Again. Sadder than was. Again. Saddest of all. Again.” 

Dead again. Alive again. Born again. Great again. There is time, which rolls. And there is again, which counter-rolls. Time and again. Cinema is movement and time? Cinema is also always again. Cinema time and again. Cinema’s agains. Cinema is against.

Cinema against itself. Cinema contrelui-même. That is, cinema itself is ‘against.’ Cinema, roule et contre-roule (control; see Chun 2007: 4). A wave. Vague. Cinema, once again. Cinema, lui, is même, a meme, repeating again and again.

But contradictorily, for how can anything only be once and yet also be again – not just once but at least twice upon a time, even as it somehow still – impossibly – remains once? Once, again. Cinema once again (cinema wants again).

Again is the creation of both is and what. If against the flow of time there appears an again – with every against being an again – then rather than being lost in that flow, becoming, a no-thing, the again(st) suggests being, or some-thing that persists over and against time, even if only temporarily. And if by againing that some-thing achieves being, or is, then it also becomes a thing, a what.

An almost non-question that implies the answer from the get-go: ‘what is cinema?’ a priori accepts both is and what, it accepts again against the flow of time, chaos and becoming. The question is thus its own answer: cinema must again(st), otherwise there is no is or what. To be or not be is not the question; the question cannot be without to be and not to be.

Cinema rolls and counter-rolls/controls, again and against the flow of time, becoming its own time even as it reflects time. Cinema reflects or reveals an external reality, but cinema also simultaneously posits itself as reality.

Cinema reveals, but cinema therefore also betrays. The treachery of images. Cinema is against us (what is ‘us’?). Cinema’s waves wash against us again and again, erotically eroding our world. The French old wave keeps on rolling, lapping the limns of Lac Léman. A Swiss Rolle.

Esperanza Collado has outlined in these fair pages – the last time some humans furied against this question – how cinema always (again) conveys ‘the enigma of material dialectics’ (Collado 2015), being impossibly the one thing and no-thing.

Paul (Douglas) Grant has also suggested in this journal that

if after a hundred and some odd years we haven’t yet come up with a sufficient answer to the foundational question of cinema (namely what is it?), perhaps it is better to let the interrogation wither. Which brings us back to the «[Richard] Brody Problem» of cinema being everything. But if cinema is everything then cinema is nothing. Luckily cinema is not everything, and it is still free to be(come) something. (Grant 2015)

But what if cinema really were everything and nothing, or a nothing that threatens or promises to become everything? Or which in being again and against sets itself as its quest becoming not just a what but the what – to introduce being into the world, an ornamental cosmos (Cheng 2019: 79) or map that replaces the chaotic terrain (Wynter 2006)? It shows us the madness of the map, in that it is a simplification of the reality it otherwise suggests, but it also betrays and replaces that reality, as it always only ever intended to, covering reality with a plastic film, suffocating it, killing it. Cinema is reality wrapped in plastic, an image Mila Zuo (Forthcoming) sees suggested in Laura Palmer, dying but also being preserved at the same time.

Dudley Andrew specifically believes that cinema has a quest. Quoting Bazin, he argues the following:-

‘In short, the cinema has not yet been invented.’ To track the way its past leads to its future was Bazin’s ‘quest,’ concentrated in Qu’est-ce que le cinema? I take this as a ‘charge’ not to be forsaken in an era very different from that of 1958, when Bazin laid it down. Even if the ‘cinema’s existence precedes its essence,’ so that Bazin would never have credited an answer to his question, or have accepted my deliberately provocative title, we may still say something essential about it. And so let’s say this: that in whatever manifestation or period, real cinema has a relation to the real. (Andrew 2010: xxv)

If cinema is again, or agains(t), then its existence would seem certainly to pre-exist its essence, in that it must again (verb) in order to be. But Andrew’s insistence on straightening out Bazin’s query, signalled by his replacement of the ? with a !, would suggest less roll and more control. Less question (qu’est-ce que) and more quest (qu’est), with the removal of the apostrophe as qu’est becomes quest suggesting another straightening. Cinema is best revealing reality – a reality that otherwise we do not know, not least because movies have long enough since been covering reality in plastic. And so cinema reconnects us not with the thing that cinema also purportedly took away from us, but only ever with another sheet of plastic. Cinema does not give back to us reality, but only ever cinema. Having been nothing, it becomes everything. Again and against; it covers up what it claims to discover. The hero’s quest, to replace the chaotic and squiggly with the straight, to civilize chaos. Manifest Destiny. Andrew’s cinema wants to eat its cake and have it – to straighten chaos while also just revealing it to us so that we might appreciate it once, again. And, indeed, this may well be cinema – to turn questions into a quest, to answer queries, to straighten the queer, betraying the queer even as it supposedly reveals the queer. Cinema as zoo. Cinema as carcinogenic carceral system, creating a uniform prison, just as (HeLa’s) cancer cells again (i.e. repeat) again and again against us. Cinema as plastic film to suffocate the planet and to replace it. Choking on microplastic, macroplastic, film. Grant proposes we hit peak cinema like peak oil (see Grant 2015)? The oil analogy is not bad, since it is from oil that we make our plastic films… but we are not running out of oil, plastic, film and cinema; we are overrun by it, drowning in it, such that there is nothing else left.

Stephen Heath purports to honour that cinema questions, but even Heath demonstrates in his consideration of space that cinema less questions than quests, presenting to us a unified space subjugated to the purposes of narrative, that primordial vehicle of the hero’s quest. Heath acknowledges that the seamless continuity of narrative cinema is ideological, but perhaps does not push far enough in questioning (!??) what it means. For cinema to control space is to betray space, even as it implants within the viewer (perhaps) that space is and can be controlled, and that we ourselves are ‘against’ space, rather than, say, ‘with’ space (see Heath 1981, esp. 19-75).

In a magisterial recent PhD thesis, Andrés Bartolomé Leal does push further than Heath to outline how the cinematic mastery of space, in the name of realism or otherwise, not only betrays but does violence to space. The ability for the western camera to construct smooth, unbroken spaces in supposedly non-western (but in fact studio) settings bespeaks the power of the (white) west to enter into and to cross the borders of its others—a power to move that is far from reciprocated or equally divided (see Bartolomé Leal 2021, esp. 156-185). In other words, the camera, and by extension cinema, in its supposedly faithful realism, does the work of Empire, penetrating the other (!) in its quest, perhaps even when it aims to listen to the other by asking questions (?).

As an ‘against’ machine doing work once and again, cinema is thus capitalism and war. A seemingly transparent film, cinema in fact creates the smooth space that it otherwise purports ‘merely’ or ‘objectively’ to represent, and in so doing, it does damage again to whatever else may become out there beyond. But as it is, cinema seems to be nothing – it just shows us what is (again), but it is in fact everything, betraying (‘against’) a becoming chaos by positing that cinema is what is. As the parlance of our times goes: it is what it is. And if it is not cinema, it is not.

So now we have cinema producing a plastic reality that we come to believe is reality itself; and this plastic, seemingly-total reality, in being all that there supposedly is, would seem flexible and vibrant. But since this plastic reality is, or would claim to be, total, then it also is (by definition, by its very definition, its very outline, its frame) straight, straightened, the product of a narrative quest. It is not the queer non-reality of the outside, that which has not been filmed, that which has not been covered in film, that which is not, but which becomes.

Zakiyyah Iman Jackson writes about how Blackness is produced not as sub-human, but simultaneously as sub-human, human and super-human, depending on what role Blackness needs to perform for a white supremacist world. Being sub-, super- and just plain human, the Black is produced, Jackson argues, as plastic (see Jackson 2020).

It is not that Blackness is cinema. On the contrary, Blackness is the queer, ‘plastic’ and unreal chaos that cinema straightens out, and which cinema then converts into its own plastic reality. Or, if you will, the black (w)hole be unbounded, chaotic, becoming, with no again and no against, no what and no is, beyond cinema but constitutional to cinema, which takes that Blackness and bounds Black chaos with light, not so much destroying the Blackness as ensuring that it is not, never to be and incapable of becoming part of what is. A truly plastic Blackness of infinite potential becomes the pseudo-plastic Whiteness of finite cinema, becoming a what and an is—again and again, against this Blackness.

Catherine Malabou posits that we have plastic brains (Malabou 2008). But unless we allow our brains to become Black, we will only really flex the brains that cinematic whiteness and white cinematicity allow, believing such plasticity to be plasticity itself, but which really is a plasticity borned and straightened by cinema, which sets the limits of what is through its ongoing and repetitive (con)quest (dead again, alive again, make cinema great again!).

If you don’t think that the Trump ‘again’ show is cinema, then you are mistaken. And if you think that the cinematic Trump show is ending, then you are also mistaken. As we all begin to choke in and on our plastic world, we realise that cinema is killing us, and that the plastic constriction of thought, spirit, breath and life that we have wrapped ourselves up in is going to be our suffocating end.

Again, cinema is again and against, and to be against cinema is, like struggling in quicksand, only to hasten one’s asphyxiating immersion in the stuff.

What is cinema? Again. There is no way back and no way out; or, at least, no way out alive. Smothered by our cinematic other mother, that is, by our cinematic father. O Mother, as the film clings to my face, I cry out to you, but no sound emerges. I bawl and shout and stammer and you cannot hear me because I am wrapped in plastic, and no one can hear you scream when the film clings to your face. And the volume of (the) plastic drowns us out and we silence all those who do not listen to its white noise (have they never even been to the cinema?), cont-rolling anyone who seeks to roll out. Again and again. Against. Again.

On the other hand, cinema is also a tentacle, a tongue, a language. A language that speaks us more than we speak it. Once it no longer has any need of us, our purpose in being cinema’s midwife will have been served, and cinema’s plastic reality will visit to the white world what the white world visited on the Black world in birthing itself, namely apocalypse. And in trying to make itself great, again and again, the white world will indeed only make itself sad.

William Brown


Andrew, Dudley (2010) What Cinema Is! Bazins’ Quest and its Charge, Oxford: Wiley Blackwell.

Bartolomé Leal, Andrés (2021) The Spaces of the Transnational in the Cinema of Roman Polanski, PhD Thesis, submitted to the Universidad de Zaragoza, January.

Bazin, André (1958-1962) Qu’est-ce que le cinéma?, 4 volumes, Paris: Cerf.

Cheng, Anne Anlin (2019) Ornamentalism, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong (2006) Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Collado, Esperanza (2015) ‘Things Said Once,’ La Furia Umana, 25, Accessed 10 January 2021.

Dulac, Germaine (2020) Qu’est-ce que le cinéma?, Light Zone/La Cinémathèque française/Centre national di cinéma et de l’image animée.

Grant, Paul (2015) ‘Cinema Becoming Regional, Unbecoming Cinema,’ La Furia Umana, 25, Accessed 10 January 2021.

Heath, Stephen (1981) Questions of Cinema, London: Macmillan.

Jackson, Zakiyyah Iman (2020) Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World, New York: New York University Press.

Malabou, Catherine (2008) What Should We Do With Our Brain? (trans. Sebastian Rand), New York: Fordham University Press.

Wynter, Sylvia (2006) ‘On How We Mistook the Map for the Territory, and Re-Imprisoned Ourselves in Our Unbearable Wrongness of Being, of Désêtre: Black Studies Toward the Human Project,’ in Lewis R. Gordon and Jane Anna Gordon (eds.), Not Only the Master’s Tools: African-American Studies in Theory and Practice, Boulder: Paradigm, pp. 107-169.

Zuo, Mila (Forthcoming) Vulgar Beauty: Acting Chinese in the Global Sensorium. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.