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Book: Francesco Casetti, Eye of the Century: Film, Experience, Modernity
Publisher: Columbia University Press, 2008
Translation by Erin Larkin with Jennifer Pranolo
Recovering a Balanced Turmoil
“The cinema is exactly this: an experience that vacillates between the possibility of an excitement beyond measure, and an adherence to measures that avoid all risk. It is the space between, in which the comings and goings serve to recover a balanced turmoil in order to arrive at what modern man needs: good emotion.”
~Francesco Casetti, from Eye of the Century
I now feel completely justified in having allowed O Lucky Man to pull me out of the morass of late-adolescent misery and Wings of Desire to restore my sense of the numinous after a long, bleak hiatus.
Eye of the Century is a difficult book, but the grind is often relieved by statements of such rare poetic charm that they effectively elucidate many of our emotional responses to film.
It is a book beside which to mentally revisit, with a more intimate understanding, all your favourite movies. After reading it you can’t help but watch movies with the question: What is this film telling me about Film Itself?
For example, King Kong is seen as an account of reality, the raw material of film, maddened by the technological world that, unlike the primitive world, aims to capture and subdue it.
This standoff between technology and reality is one of the basic conflicts that render film so important in the modern world.
To give an idea of the significance with which Casetti imbues the movie camera, film is presented as the medium required by modern society to function, in Marshal McLuhan’s words, as its “nervous system.”
More often, in the author’s words, it is a fulcrum, and even more often it is an eye, as the title states—an eye suffused with astounding discernment.
The movie camera lens is an eye that continually vacillates between opposites. Casetti frequently refers to that circularity between poles which he sees at the heart of film: just as we achieve objectivity we slide into the subjective; we begin to understand the part and are propelled into the whole; we achieve individuality as we begin to feel compelled to conform; and the observer becomes the observed, who then becomes the observer.
It is not in the poles that meaning is found but rather in the space between the poles and the movement through that space. It is this polar movement that makes of film a prime agent for negotiating change in the modern world.
Recalling the machine-as-master theme of The Matrix as well as the Terminator movies, Casetti reminds us of the typically modern fear that machines will take on wills of their own and force humans to work for them. Such a concept is a disguise for that anxiety we experience when we realize that the more mechanized our world becomes the more our wills become encumbered by the demands and restrictions of technology.
But Casetti points to film as a technological medium that in its depths is steered both by human concern and by the potential to be possessed by machines in the service of the arts to pull the arts away from class divisions and create a democracy of artistic pursuit.
The camera lens shocks us into seeing the reality from which we are constantly, for one reason or another, averting our eyes. It makes itself acceptable by pretending not to be offering something entirely new (which would make it unpalatable), but rather to show itself as a kind of regeneration, a rebirth of the old.
Casetti doesn’t neglect speculation on the future of film. Although he admits that the cinema may not continue to dominate culture as it did in the twentieth century, due to increased dependence on digital technologies, he insists that human beings will still need stories and that for this reason new media will probably not try to replace film but will choose to collaborate with it instead.
Eye of the Century manifests six of The Mindful Bard’s criteria for books well worth reading: 1) it is authentic, original, and delightful; 2) it makes me want to be a better artist; 3) it gives me tools which help me be a better artist; 4) it inspires an awareness of the sanctity of creation; 5) it stimulates my mind; 6) it poses and admirably responds to questions which have a direct bearing on my view of existence.