Youth is often associated with progress and progressiveness. Such impression is often confirmed by imagery of history and news: the main participants of the 1960s counterculture were pictured as bell-bottom-wearing, pot-smoking, rock-n’-roll singing long-haired anti-authoritarian young hippies who engaged in sit ins and teach ins; more recent occupy movement also has a distinct air of a student movement; the 1919 event that brought China from culture classicism to the vernacular modern is officially called May Fourth Youth Movement. The cult of youth has only drastically exacerbated since the beginning of the new millennium when youth met YouTube: their ubiquity has since become overwhelming.
But such impression might be mistaken. Let’s leave the domain of humanity for the domain of arts that is floating just a bit above the all living things. Let’s take a look at two arts – one could be older than language and the other didn’t’ appear until the 20th century: music and cinema – through the lens of two authors living almost a century apart: the French author Romain Rolland and the Francophile author Susan Sontag.
Careful reading of Sontag’s A Century of Cinema (1995) one detects a curious sense of death. This piece, indeed, is the obituary for one of the youngest art. One is tempted to call this elegy for a premature death, but one would be wrong. Susan Sontag nailed the truth of this death with her very first sentence: “Cinema’s 100 years seem to have the shape of a life cycle: an inevitable birth, the steady accumulation of glories and the onset in the last decade of an ignominious, irreversible decline.” The word “inevitable” is really the key: there is nothing premature for cinema’s death. Cinema is old.
But how so? Missing here from Sontag’s (abridged) essay is technical analysis of film as a total art: it is a Frankenstein or a cyborg of an art that is the assemblage and re-assemblage of other others, from literature, theatre, plastic arts to music (especially music I would say as music can be called “motion sound” just as film is “motion picture”). Cinema is a youth made of old flesh and bones.
Sontag wasn’t able to overcome cinema’s death and the perception of cinema died as youth because she couldn’t intellectually transcend her own death: my reading of the film suggests that this is not only an obit of cinema but also an obit of herself. I would call it “auto-obituary”. This is partially evidenced by Nancy Kate’s excellent documentary Regarding Susan Sontag.
Is there a secular belief in resurrection? Isn’t art a religion for the secular for many? It’s curious that Susan Sontag couldn’t rise above herself as Romain Rolland (seemingly) able to do in the last turn of the century when he sketched the immortal life of spirit as seen in the transformative power and in the transforming of arts throughout centuries in his essay The Place of Music in General History (1908). To make a point, I paraphrased Rolland in The Place of Cinema in General History.
If there is any failure on Sontag’s part, it is a failure of negotiation between art and life. As her dearest form of art, film, is formally too close to life – unlike music with its strict formalism. Such failure of negotiation, I would suggest, is a necessary part of modern life. It is not a failure after all. Susan Sontag is not very far from cultural Marxism of the Frankfurt School where Adorno and Horkheimer declared the death of “culture” – curiously because of the appearance of film as a total art and as a totalitarian art. Their obit of culture, Dialectic of the Enlightenment is in fact a birth notice announcing the birth of a new culture which is now often called “postmodern”. Susan Sontag’s obit of cinema is also a birth notice of a new art.