The Little Magic Machine

From the beginning, cinema has been a peculiarly controversial object: it has been deeply loved by many, who saw in the reality on the screen the fulfilment of their desires, but it has also been hated by many, who were scared by the intensity of the represented world, and by the social effects that such representations could trigger. One of the roots of this controversial attitude is precisely cinema’s technical nature. This will be the subject of my lecture in the congress “The Impact of Technological Innovations on the Theory and Historiography of Cinema,” held at the University of Montreal on 1-6 November 2011. The lecture, entitled The Little Magic Machine. Technology and Iconophobia in Early Film Theories, will retrace the presence in early film theories of an “iconophobic” attitude towards cinema as a “mechanical eye” or as “mechanical art,” as opposed by a more positive appreciation of cinema as a “witness” (even if a “creative” witness). Among the iconophobes, we meet for example Pirandello (who calls cinema a “little magic machine” and claims that a mechanical copy steals life from reality); among the iconophiles we may list Epstein and its idea that the camera provides a gaze “without hesitation or scruples.” Both sides are highlighted in the debate between Paul Souday and Emile Wuillermoz in the mid ‘10s. A late reconsideration of the mechanical nature of cinema is provided during the ‘20s by ideological and anthropological discourses. A re-reading of the book by Eugenio Giovannetti, Il cinema e le arti meccaniche (a complex anticipation of some Benjamin’s issues) will drive the lecture to its end.

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