Frontiers

Is Cinema Dead? Define Dead. And While You’re at It, Define Cinema.

Scholars, critics, and industry professionals gather at a Penn conference to discuss new crossroads for cinema and cinema studies.
May 2013

Meta Mazaj, senior lecturer in Cinema Studies at the School of Arts and Sciences, acknowledges that the film community as a whole tends perhaps more than a little toward anxious self-reflection. “Over the past few years, we have had an obsessive discourse about the death of cinema, which is by no means new … it seems to recur every few years,” she notes.

This obsession was the subject of a day-long conference at Penn that Mazaj organized with the help of cinema studies colleagues Nicola Gentili, associate director of the program, and Associate Professor of English and Cinema Studies Peter Decherney. Titled “The End of Cinema and the Future of Cinema Studies,” the Dick Wolf Penn Cinema Studies Conference drew a capacity crowd of nearly 200, including scholars, students, and members of the Philadelphia cinema community.

As Mazaj observes in a video introduction to the conference, “the same technological transformations that announced the death of cinema … can also be seen as rebirth, because they were accompanied by an unprecedented vitality and richness and vigor in cinema.” These themes of technological transformation, death, and rebirth were explored through a series of panel discussions, each moderated by Penn faculty including Karen Beckman, Eliot and Roslyn Jaffe Professor of History of Art and Cinema Studies, and Timothy Corrigan, Professor of English and Cinema Studies, as well as Decherney. 

According to Mazaj, the conference aimed to create productive dialogue among critics, scholars, and industry professionals—groups that are each passionate about cinema but often work in separate circles. Speakers included a number of leading film scholars, along with renowned film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, and Geoff Gilmore, chief creative officer of Tribeca Enterprises and for 19 years the director of the Sundance Film Festival.

One of the main themes panelists considered was the lingering attachment to a definition of cinema that centers on traditional film technology, and theatrical viewing on a large screen. Rutgers University’s John Belton shared with the audience a clip of David Lynch’s impassioned defense of traditional theater experience (Warning: Contains some explicit language): “If you’re playing the movie on a telephone, you will never, in a trillion years, experience the film.” Geoff Gilmore argued that auteurs no longer represent the zenith of production and that the film culture of today, offering a broad range of aesthetics and types of storytelling, has opened up a broader lens on what is worthy of showcasing.  His views resonated with sentiments expressed earlier in the day by Rosenbaum, who emphasized that regardless of how cinema is defined, audiences today are engaging in more ways with more types of works—and by that measure, cinephilia has never been stronger.

Other highlights of the program included a talk by Francesca Coppa, a professor at Muhlenberg College and this year’s Wolf Visiting Professor of Television Studies at Penn, who explored the phenomenon of filmic mashups and fanvids—an “alien presence” in the cinema culture, but a vibrant one. Arising along with new technologies, this genre has provided a path for expression to women, who have traditionally had limited access within the film industry. Mazaj noted that the keynote talk, by Yale professor Francesco Casetti, helped to unify the diverse threads of the day’s discussions, offering a larger conceptual framework for understanding the current state of the expansion of cinema and cinema studies.

Olivia Rutigliano, C’14, was among the audience members in attendance for the full day. A cinema studies and English double major, Rutigliano said that “each speaker had tons of interesting and relevant concerns and solutions to the ‘problem’ posed in the title of the conference. It was also great that students were encouraged to attend … The problem of the rise of certain aspects of the medium at the cost of the decline of others is a huge concern for future filmmakers and critics, and even spectators. We’re going to inherit this issue, if we haven’t already.”

The conference, which was made possible thanks to the generosity of Dick Wolf, C'69, is the first of what will be an annual series, each of which will address a different theme. Complete audio and video of the conference will soon be available on the cinema studies program’s website, along with abstracts of the presentations.