Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Photo

The image I use for the blog header above was taken in the mostly-abandoned hallways of a Madison, WI, mall in the summer of 2011. Its a variation on a photo I took about two years earlier but lost (the so-called archiving technologies of the digital lend itself to the perpetual present instead of the past). So, when I returned to my hometown, I made a point to revisit this site and grab more photos.

But why? The metaphor itself is fairly obvious--an abandoned movie theatre (not uncommon these days in the rush to digital projection) visualizes the end of film in the age of digital cinema. When I finally finish and publish Haunted Nerves (at least two years away), my only condition will be that some variation on this image must be used prominently for the book's cover.

Certainly, the image is powerful for other reasons as well--namely, the transparent relationship between film, its exhibition, and a larger culture of consumption which the "mall theatre" evokes. This image reflects movies' essential status as another random commodity produced for mass consumption. Tied into that too is the idea of the American mall as a particular form, and moment, in the history of late capitalism.

The power, though, is in the image's emptiness, I think. The eerie presence of absence here--both the closed cinema and the half-empty mall around it--draws out the metaphor of film after film, and of a hollow, self-sustaining consumer culture, into sharper focus. Part of this is the postmodern emphasis on space over time, that physical structures literalize the perpetual present of media consumer culture today.

And, of course, I'm dancing around the key issue with this photo--nostalgia. What haunts me about this image is not the empty poster frames, the passed era of a certain form of theatrical exhibition (the multiplex), or the dying mall--its the bricks around them. Its probably too much to liken it back to Barthes' notion of the punctum--but its certainly not what people would probably first notice, particularly as the masthead for a film blog.

Wonder around older malls and, occasionally, you'll see a big patch of brick in the corners, or on the ground, or (in the above case), down nondescript back hallways. During the 1990s, most US malls undertook a massive facelift--the dark yellowish-brown mise-en-scene of brick and wood was covered over by the whiteness of bright ceilings, clean, flat walls and lighter tile floors. In the photo above, we see both generations of the mall coexisting--the old brick surrounded by the illumination of its 90s remodeling. For me, the stylistic choice of bricks connote 80s "pastness"--although not quite a pastiche per se, since its a remnant of the past and not an attempt at recreating the past today (perhaps, "retro" malls will be the next trend--aka, brand new malls that meticulously attempt to recreate the look of indoor malls from the late 1960s and 1970s?).

Anyway, I remember this mall quite vividly from my youth. I've written elsewhere that--as a typical child of postmodern America--my strongest memories of childhood were of multiplexes and shopping malls. Tied into that is the notion that postmodernism is to me less a theoretical concern than a historical and cultural one. And of course this also implies that my personal childhood memories are nothing particularly unique, but rather typical of a certain socio-economic section of an American generation. This mall has a lot of memories for me, and I remember very powerfully a moment many years ago when I was eighteen and returned to it for the first time in a decade or so only to discover that it had been completely remade over.

I don't claim to remember watching any particular movie as a kid at this specific multiplex. But, I'm sure at some point I did, and probably more than once, since spending time at this mall was such a big part of my childhood. I do remember that by the mid-1990s it had been converted to an "arts" cinema--as many such old mall theatres did in any attempt to find a new niche in the wake of competition from newer multiplexes. As recently as 2008 it was still open--which I recall being stunned by (perhaps it closed and then reopened at some point in between)--but by November of the following year it was more or less just as it looked when I took the picture. But what it was showing in the 1980s--couldn't say.

So, the image evokes for me not simply a useful metaphor of "cinema after film," or of jamais vu (the feeling of newness in the presence of familiarity--or, "is digital cinema really different than film?"). Rather, it locates precisely, if also somewhat idiosyncratically, the co-existence of nostalgia, postmodernism and digital cinema within the timeframe of American culture during the last thirty years. This is the foundation for Haunted Nerves: nostalgia as an ambivalent site both for personal critical engagement with culture and for a larger cultural condition; postmodernism as the economic and aesthetic dominant of the time; and digital cinema--the histories of digital cinema--as the specific object of study--"film" as both present and absent.

I've been thinking a lot this summer about how Haunted Nerves feels like the book I was "born" to write--not that it will be the "best" thing I ever write, but that it will ultimately be the most (resolutely implicit) autobiographical book I ever write.


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