In 1984, Paul Virilio published War and Cinema. Today, there is no reason to use the conjunction, since we live in a state of cinema war. All the advances made in audio-visual technologies are advances in intensities, at times beyond sound and vision. Think LIDAR and Kinect devices that do not record images but light and distance or movement, respectively. Or think ultralow frequencies that cannot be heard by the human ear but are felt by human bodies, causing anxiety and fear without a visible source.
In my book Drone Age Cinema: Action Film and Sensory Assault, I investigate the genre where cinema war is most prevalent: the contemporary action film. Through close readings of recent films — including the Batman trilogy, Mad Max: Fury Road and Sucker Punch — I show how the contemporary action genre projects power through an assault on the senses. These films, and others like them, employ a wide array of spectacular sonic and visual effects all aimed squarely at overpowering the viewers’ sensorium. Such sensory assault is both exhilarating and exhausting, but remains the predominant spectacular pleasure these films provide.
I term this sensory assault droning, a process of producing a nonconscious, corporeal reaction in viewers. A nonconscious drone state is what makes action films feel so overwhelming, because their formal properties all burrow below our conscious perception. The intensities and projections of power that action films generate in its audience are part of a feedforward process that works as a pharmakon in an atmosphere and culture of fear.
Our contemporary culture is suffused with fear; it is the background and environment through which we live. This state of fear is relentless, suffocating, and exhausting. Action cinema offers a reprieve from a bodily state of fear through the films’ incessant emphasis on bodily mastery, power at a distance, and forceful movements. Action cinema’s pharmakon is, as the pharmakon always is, both remedy and poison, at the same time. The more we fear, the more we want the reprieve that action films provide. But this reprieve comes at a price: action films prime our perceptions to see everything as a target, war as the only solution.
This is the state of cinema war: when there is no longer a functional distinction between action films and our senses. Our entire aisthesis — preconscious perception — renders us part of a process that we do not fully control. Action cinema participates in the production of a culture of fear by offering us a reprieve, but that reprieve depends on a pharmacological inflection of our senses as part of a larger sensorium. That is when cinema enters the drone age.
Drone Age Cinema contributes to current scholarship on action cinema, visual effects, the cultural power of technologies, and our post-cinematic media ecology. Embedded in a debate regarding film-philosophy, the book develops a vocabulary of affect, sensation, and experience for the close study of film that goes further than current Deleuzian voices and instead draws heavily on Alfred North Whitehead’s process philosophy.
Words by Steen Ledet Christiansen
Drone Age Cinema is available to order here: http://www.ibtauris.com/droneagecinema