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nge l Q ui nt an a

The F il mma ker a s Fla ne ur. Wa lter Be n ja mi n and Co nte mp ora ry F il m


The first thing I want to do is to rethink the films being made today in terms of
Walter Benjamin. The first approach I came up with was to take a look at what
there is of the cinema in Walter Benjamins work. If we turn to The Work of Art in
the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, we find a text in which Benjamin continually
relates photography and film as two means of reproducing reality that are
changing the context of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It
would be a case, then, of seeing how this essay and the unfinished The Arcades
Project think film as one of the many emergent phenomena which transformed
reality in the nineteenth century. If, regrettably, Benjamin does not address this
issue directly in The Arcades Project, he does so in The Work of Art in the Age of
Mechanical Reproduction, where film is seen as one of a series of phenomena
which changed not only the ways in which we perceive the world but also the
forms of sensibility as such, and the birth of the cinema coincides with a moment
at which culture begins to undergo a process of profound transformation. To
return to The Arcades Project, we could talk about the ways in which the
nineteenth-century arcades and panoramas the latter the equivalent of the
cinemas in present-day shopping complexes affected the process of
transformation of reality. However, I shall try to do so on the specific basis of
those writings in which Benjamin makes most reference to film.
I would like to look at how, on the basis of The Work of Art in the Age of
Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamins way is of value in thinking the
cinema today. The first issue is that in 1936, when Benjamin wrote The Work of
Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, film was not part and much less
the centre of a predominantly visual culture, as it is today. There was no
television, there was no Internet, there were no mobile phones with screens, etc.
Film today no longer has what could be considered its former centrality within
visual culture. I believe this is crucial. Nor did it have that centrality in the 60s and
70s, when its position was already marginal. To paraphrase Victor Erice: within a
few years film will probably occupy the same place in the audio-visual sphere as
poetry does in literature. That is to say, a residual place. At the same time we
must recognize that the trades and crafts of the cinema have changed. And they
have all changed. People who had learned a trade an editor, even a director or
an actor found that it had changed, as incontrovertibly as the support had
changed. And here the move from analogue to digital has brought about a more
far-reaching change than we thought. A few years ago there was talk of the death
of the cinema: I prefer to talk not of death but of transformation. We have moved
on to something else, and that something else is a change of support. In other
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words, the director of photography is no longer exclusively concerned with
camera lighting but has a hand in production; the editor no longer works with
reels of film on a Moviola, because a computer does all of that, and, increasingly,
the projectionist handles not celluloid but a digital disk. I am saying all this to
show that there are a number of changes that make it necessary to rethink film,
and in this Walter Benjamin gives us some leads.
There has been a shift which needs to be considered. For some time now there
has been talk of audio-visual pollution, in reference to the fact that we are
constantly surrounded by images (from the platform in the subway to the TV in
the kitchen and the dining room and other rooms in our homes); what is new is
that, in addition, we can construct the images. These days everyone carries a
camera. Whereas not long ago only a few people had one, now we all do, whether
it be an actual camera or a mobile phone, on sale for a couple of hundred euros in
all kinds of outlets. Related to all this is another issue which I feel is important,
which is that we are increasingly putting these images onto our computers.
Images are now on the computer, and what is more and more important is that
the images are not only images: they are associated with the concept of the data
bank. In other words, the computer stores all of the images and we can use them
to do whatever we want.
Just recently there has been a lot of talk about something called Web 2.0, which is
a step on the way from the first websites, where the discourse was determined by
the medium, to an Internet in which the user is constantly intervening and
manipulating the computer. This has resulted in a change in the level of the
image, but it has also raised another issue that I personally find disturbing: it has
thrown into crisis the role of the professional vis--vis the amateur. This had
never happened before. Now, if you look at Martin Scorseses advertisement for
Freixenet cava, which cost 50 million euros, on YouTube, you find it right next to
images by complete amateurs, in the very same place. This adds a new difficulty
to finding the boundary between the amateur and the professional, to knowing
where each one begins and ends. And this is changing more and more our
relationship with images and, above all, throwing into crisis the way we think
them.
There is another issue when it comes to defining this space of mutation of film
an issue that is clearly paradoxical. If you look at the first books on digital culture
you see there was a kind of utopia, a kind of return to the utopia of Frankenstein,
who said that the time would come when images would have advanced so far that
we would have characters in four dimensions. In a sense, there is a kind of desire
here to realize with non-realistic supports the dream that the image will replace


our everyday reality and thus enable us to create false realities. The cinema has
experienced a little of this, but curiously this utopia has been shattered. And it
has been shattered because the discourses in which this utopia was grounded
have been shown to be mistaken.
If this is by and large the reflection on the panorama of contemporary cinema,
then the big question is: what does Walter Benjamins work reveal to us about all
of this. To what extent can The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical
Reproduction and The Arcades Project offer a way forward for thinking about the
contemporary situation? In light of this, I was thinking about the first images I
wanted to show you. These are from a film made in 1953: Journey to Italy, by
Roberto Rossellini, and they make me think of how Walter Benjamin looked into
his past in order to understand his present. Actually, the excerpt I want to show
you is very well known: this is the scene at Pompeii, among the excavations,
where Ingrid Bergman is on the point of separating from her husband, George
Sanders. In Naples, the archaeologist in charge of the ruins of Pompeii invites
them to visit the site. There they see the bodies of a man and woman who were
killed by the eruption of Vesuvius and are still kissing nineteen hundred years
later. We ought to watch the whole film, but for now what I am interested in is a
Benjaminian reflection on these two bodies burned by the lava which consumed
them but created a kind of void. Ingrid Bergman, who is captivated, gets into the
space between the two bodies. But first lets look at the scene and then Ill try to
relate it to Walter Benjamin.
(Viewing of a sequence from the Rossellini film Journey to Italy)
This is a well-known sequence of images, but what has it got to do with Walter
Benjamin? I think that basically what Rossellini was doing with these images was
contrasting two models. One would be a marble statue, with which the artist has
tried to represent the world, and the other would be the statue that reflects some
facet of reality, something that has happened. Rossellini seeks to establish a
parallel between this mould and the relationship between and film. In other
words, in contrast to the arts of representation, with photography we have the
arts of reproduction. What do I mean by this? If in a photograph we have the
impression of something that happened in front of the camera, in a film we have
the impression of fragments of time that have taken place in front of us. Both
photography and film are arts which represent nothing in the world but owe their
being to the impression of something real that actually happened. In photography
and in analogue film that reality was registered on the negative. We can make
prints, but the impression was made on the negative.


When Walter Benjamin wrote The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical
Reproduction he was not concerned with reproduction in the sense of the
photographic impression or with the difference between representation and
reproduction, but in the sense of making copies. And at the same time he was
talking above another very important factor, which is aura. What Benjamin was
saying is that photography and film have ushered in a crisis of the aura: in other
words, that the spectator has lost that once direct relationship with the work of
art. We are not dealing directly, here and now, with the artwork but with
reproduced images, and it is these that throw into crisis what we might call the
original value, the immediate appearance or presence that is the aura the fact
of being in front of something that is real. And art has this idea of aura. So what is
it that is thrown into crisis? Photography allows us to make so many copies of a
picture that we no longer know where the original is. And the cinema? Where is
the original Metropolis? Where is the original Citizen Kane? Where is the original
Journey to Italy? In other words, the copy ends up supplanting the idea of the
work itself. But even so, there is something and Rossellini reminds us of this
which is the idea that, although based on the idea of the copy, photography
and film are the repository of some idea of truth. To put it another way, something
that happened in front of the camera.
What is the situation today? Today, the idea of the original no longer makes sense.
Today we take a photo with a digital camera and the camera transforms it into
pixels. What are pixels? Little units of information that we can take and
manipulate. Its true that when we take a photograph, something has happened,
there is a truth. But this truth can be manipulated automatically. In what way do
we manipulate it? Today, 80% of the films made rely on a whole series of postproduction processes. Is the editing done as the footage is being shot? So where
does that leave us? We are facing a crisis far deeper than the one Walter Benjamin
talked about, the crisis of aura: in this new crisis the image has lost its condition
as a register of real events and entered into a process that could be called
hybridization. Why hybridization? Because in some degree the digital image is an
image we can manipulate: we can paint with pixels, we can intervene in pixels. We
are much closer to painting, much closer to the arts of representation. At the
same time it is also true that if I take a photograph, something has happened. So
it seems to me that what Walter Benjamin does in The Work of Art in the Age of
Mechanical Reproduction is open up a path that leads to a reflection on the
present and on what is happening today with this thing we call the digital image.
Lets leave Rossellini and turn to Orson Welles. What we are going to see below is
an excerpt from Orson Welless last film, F for Fake, which tells the story of an art
forger. This art forger lived in Ibiza and Orson Welles was fascinated by him,


because this gentleman could paint a Modigliani as well as Modigliani and sell it
to a museum without anyone suspecting that it wasnt a Modigliani. And he could
do the same thing with a Matisse or with any other painter so much so that this
character would probably be the postmodern artist par excellence, the artist who
copies and fakes, who throws the idea of the original into absolute crisis and
turns the artwork into a series of forgeries of itself. Lets have a look at the
sequence.
(Viewing of a sequence from the Orson Welles film F for Fake)
This character ended up committing suicide in Ibiza because the pressure of
being wanted by the police was too much for him. Orson Welles believed that the
great artist is a forger. Remember Orson Welles started his own career with a big
lie. His War of the Worlds began with a hoax, a phoney emergency announcement
that aliens had invaded the United States, and a lot of people believed it. In fact,
Welles regarded himself a forger and called into question a certain idea of reality.
When he made F for Fake, in 1973, he was already thinking in terms of a crisis in
the contemporary world, a crisis of the concept of truth. So if we were talking
earlier about how to decide who is a professional and who is an amateur, back in
1973 Welles was already starting to engage with something along those lines.
There is a passage in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
where Walter Benjamin considers the dissemination of works of art in mass
culture. Of course, he knows that the reproduction of an artwork doesnt have the
aura of the original, but he also thinks it is very important how mass culture can,
by means of the copy, engage with works of art. Like Andr Malraux and his
imaginary museum, Benjamin is thinking here of how, by means of copies and
reproductions, people can visit (and get to know) a museum without having to
travel. We are now at a juncture if I may introduce another important topic at
this point where cultures ability to disseminate itself has taken an extreme
form. For instance, if we read a book, we look for it online. If we want to see a film,
we can go onto YouTube and stream it down via a system of piracy. Benjamin
envisaged the Bibliothque Nationale in Paris as a kind of great Kafkaesque
container in which all human knowledge was stored. And the fact is that a
significant portion of the books in this library are now on the Internet. So we can
enter a kind of non-space and establish a kind of relationship similar to the one
Benjamin described.
I think we have now put all of the issues on the table: piracy, copyright, access to
information and above all the fact that we are in a situation of real ambiguity
which is probably an indication that something is changing. And this thing that is


changing could be said to be our direct relationship with the forms of knowledge.
In other words, at the present moment it is much easier to get hold of all the
means of knowledge (we have them within reach) but at the same time this leads
to a situation of irregularity in the legal sense that constantly places us in crisis. I
think that something very like this was beginning to take shape in Walter
Benjamins thought. In view of this, and perhaps now more than ever before, I
believe we are in a situation that calls for reflection on the basis of Benjamin.
The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction opens with a quote from
Paul Valrys essay The Conquest of Ubiquity: The establishment of the fine arts
and their division into various categories go back to a time very different from the
present and to men whose power over things and circumstances was insignificant
in comparison with our own. But the amazing growth of our resources in the
adaptability and precision they have attained, the ideas and habits they are
creating, make it certain that profound changes are impending in the ancient
industry of the beautiful. Benjamin quotes Valry in relation to the way the
cinema is changing the form of reception and is winning over the masses. He
gives a very curious example, in the emergence of Dada in the nineteen twenties
at the same time as Charlie Chaplin. Dada has ended up in the museum, while
Chaplin is alive and filling cinemas. This relationship between Chaplin and
Dadaism has probably changed. Theres an observation of Godards which I like
very much, where he wonders why people talk describe a film by Chaplin as lovely
whereas no one would call a novel by Flaubert lovely. What does that mean?
Probably that the cinema which Benjamin regarded as something that had just
burst on the scene belongs, in todays audio-visual world, somewhere in
prehistory. But it is true nonetheless that the cinema and photography have
changed our relationship to the arts. And it is also true, though a great deal has
already been said about this, that painting as a form of representation changed
radically under the influence of photography. But to come back to the present, I
would say that the relationship between the cinema and the arts is in a rather
curious situation. Once upon a time, avant-garde art and film lived in two very
different worlds: one was in the art galleries and the other was in the cinemas.
The cinemas today have become the realm of the spectacle and people who want
to see a film no longer go there. Film sought refuge in the art galleries and
filmmakers are the new artists, often creating works for galleries. Victor Erice, for
example, is a current example: one of his recent works was shown in the CCCB in
Barcelona. Jean-Luc Godard put on an exhibition in his latest work, though in his
case it didnt work. We could come up with a lot of names that are found in both
places. And it is true that cinemas have become places of spectacle, it is also true
that contemporary art has incorporated some of the characteristic forms of
representation of film.

We are going to look at an excerpt from Godards Histoire(s) du cinma. Godard


made six episodes for television without the thing being either a TV series or a
movie. In fact, it has ended up being a kind of film-object. In any case, it was not
made to be seen in cinemas, and the cinemas were not interested in it. It has a
format of four chapters divided into a number of sections in which Godard
reflects on the relationship between the history of the cinema and the history of
the twentieth century. What have they given one another? We shall see, then,
what is left of the cinema in the twentieth century, and I would like to establish
here a fourth relationship with Walter Benjamin. Ultimately, in Histoire(s) du
cinma, Godard is the creative artist who comes closest to what Benjamin was
doing in creating The Arcades Project. Why? The Arcades Project is based on the
fragment, and the fragment of the relationships between fragments can lead to a
series of multiple meanings. For Benjamin, every work in the field of history must
start with the search for origins. Benjamin considered that the culture of the
nineteenth century had created a series of phenomena that help us understand
the twentieth century as a whole. What he did was to put together a discourse on
the basis of fragmentation, composed of various materials in the form of a
collage. And Godard was doing something rather similar to Walter Benjamin in the
Bibliothque Nationale, being a bricoleur. What is a bricoleur? Someone who
sorts through bits and pieces, debris, rubbish and signs of something that was
part of an earlier civilization or can help us understand it.
(Viewing of a sequence from the Godard film Histoire(s) du cinma)
As we have seen, Godard creates images on the basis of associations, he recovers
old images and carries out various processes of assemblage in an approach very
similar to what Benjamin called the dialectical image. This is the equivalent, then,
of what Walter Benjamin did in The Arcades Project: a type of creation in which
the artist recycles earlier work and materials of all kinds. One of the fashionable
terms in cinema today is found footage, which means old film which is to create
something new. Archive footage, home movies, images that have no intrinsic
artistic quality but are capable, when combined, of revealing something of what is
happening today.
By way of conclusion I want to return to the question of how and where we situate
film in todays changing world, regarded in terms of the legacy Benjamin left us. I
would say that the cinema forms part of or constitutes a kind of other in the realm
of the audio-visual, and that in a society which has lost its referents, that has
gone from observing the world to accepting prefabricated images, film as a
medium is probably still capable of accomplishing a kind of centring of the world.
In the midst of the flow of information based on smallness and the space-time
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relationship, film allows us to reflect events. Probably the path film has to find is
one that will provide an image of the cinema itself and, when the image of the
world has been lost, will enable this image of the world to free itself from any kind
of stereotype. In The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,
Benjamin makes a clear distinction between the photographer and the filmmaker.
He compares the photographer to a shaman, who looks at the patient and tries to
understand him from a distance, trying to cure him from a distance. In contrast,
the filmmaker is like a surgeon, penetrating reality in the attempt to heal it and
understand it. And here we should keep Benjamins words very much in mind,
understanding the filmmaker as a surgeon who penetrates the complex reality of
the world today in order to understand it. Thank you very much.

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