Cloverfield (2008) is the film one must have seen in order to take stock of where we are, today, in 2010, once again faced with the same questions. Realism, André Bazin, and “The Evolution of a Cinema of Exploration,” the special beauty of films destroyed, lost, regained, forever incomplete—Kon-Tiki and the others…the delicate balance between the danger being filmed and the danger of filming, etc. All these things that Serge Daney summed up in a murderous formula: “to film, [is] often to not assist a person in danger.”
Old news, one could say: the relationship between the one who films and the one being filmed, between the image and its logistical, physical, and moral limits. Certainly. But we have come to understand how digital itself is old news—old news of a new kind, that upsets these premises. Films found by the wayside, during or after the crash. Farewell poems to what once was. Cinema, through and through: documentary, direct, archival. Incredible and yet believed.
“Documenting…documenting” is Hud’s credo, the young boy summoned at the last minute to shoot his partying friends in mini-DV, and who finds himself filming the arrival of a Godzilla about to wipe out New York. Hud is innocent, naïve, and well-intentioned; he’s unlike the traditional image of a sniggering amateur videomaker, for whom the viewfinder is a keyhole, or a lorgnette. Good guy: this is the new identity for a cinema made with a subjective camera. Hud films continuously, he wants to see it all. His eyes are bigger than the beast, and yet his appetite has nothing to do with surveillance, voyeurism, or manipulation. Voyeurism is no longer the problem—not the same one, in any case—now that there is not one but thousands of cameras.
To film is no longer to not assist a person in danger, not now that the camera is so light that we can film with one hand and assist with the other. Technological modifications are also ethical ones. Manipulation is no longer in the eye of the seer (or voyeur): it stems from the ballet of monsters and soldiers, of pulverized apartment buildings and dust orchestrated by producer J.J. Abrams and director Matt Reeves. The eye that threatens us is henceforth the eye of the cyclone, that of catastrophe itself, towards which we are headed. The eye of the world, as it were. An unforgettable image: the decapitation of the Statue of Liberty, whose head is sent rolling between buildings only to stop at our feet, its eye, enormous and amorphous, fixed on us.
A cinema headed to its own demise is the only kind of cinema. We’ve not forgotten the words Marguerite Duras pronounced over 30 years ago (she also said what we all know: that the world headed toward its own destruction is the only policy). These would accompany us during the ‘00s, more so than in previous times. Cloverfield rhymes with a cinema of September 11, but also with The Dark Knight (2008) and even with Still Life (2006) or West of the Tracks (2003): in America, like in Asia, the monuments of the decade were ruins. Its events took place outdoors, under the sky. Terror and disasters, smoke and debris: such is how the tyranny of the real has progressively replaced the litany of the fake.
So it is, here we are. The grand documentary rhetoric of the digital, its empires crumbling before our eyes and for our eyes only, its films buried in extremis, then found in a field years later; all of this has us tripping in loss, full frame. Better: it is loss that attends the cinema. That reverses it, and reveals it. The apocalypse is now, and now, and now again. It has taken place, it continues to occur, and repeats itself. Films might thus be our last recourse. All that is, all that remains. The last of the real. The final memory. Gathering in advance the traces of disasters that don’t exist, but will perhaps one day—the end of New York, for example—it might just be that in the end: to ensure the possibility of a past. Now there’s a program for the future.
Emmanuel Burdeau is the former editor in chief of Cahiers du Cinéma, and currently contributes to Le Magazine Littéraire, Trafic and Vacarme. He is also editor of a series of books at Éditions Capricci that focuses on translations of American authors.
Translated by Andréa Picard.