In 1948 Alexandre Astruc, a filmmaker and theorist, suggested the notion of caméra-stylo (camera pen) in his essay, “The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: La Caméra-Stylo,” which appears in the book, The French New Wave: Critical Landmarks (Edited by Ginette Vincendeau and Peter Graham, British Film Institute, 2009). This essay has become a classic among students and scholars of cinema. He imagines that cinema will eventually break free of the demands of classical narrative and images and will become a flexible means of writing with the same expressive power, complexity, and subtly, of written language. Astruc also envisions a distribution system with “projectors for everyone,” anticipating video stores, NetFlix, and YouTube.
Today, writing with a camera has yet to achieve the expressiveness Astruc envisioned, but we’re well on our way. Astruc would have loved MTV (at least back when they actually showed lots of music videos, I fondly remember watching MTV during its first three years, I thought I was witnessing the cinematic avant-garde going mainstream), he’d love the many ways we’re currently challenging mainstream film practice. Astruc writes the future of cinema will revolve around the director as auteur, which was an important idea behind the French New Wave. Fast forwarding to the present, personal documentaries–for example, Sink or Swim (Su Friedrich, 1990), Tarnation (Jonathan Caouette, 2003), and Sherman’s March (Ross McElwee, 1986)–demonstrate how cinema might very well have surpassed the novel as the dominant narrative form of a new generation.
Astruc’s idea of film as a language independent of literature provides a theoretical and historical tie-in to what is happening today, as cinema is becoming more personal, a form of visual writing, perhaps (dare I say) even eclipsing the novel (probably not), as our current generation seems to be returning to a new form of visual orality (ref. Walter Ong), and possibly, eventually, abandoning (perhaps too strong a word) the written word. I shudder as I write this, for I love to read and value the written word, there are reasons this blog post is in the form of words, not a visual essay, I strive for a balance between written/verbal and visual communication, for they represent two modes of knowing, each with unique strengths and weaknesses (is a topic best covered in a book or a movie?), however, I observe with anxiety the decline in reading, and I wonder if it’s inevitable, as our modes of communication become more visual, perhaps it is evolution and not decline I’m not sure, but Astruc’s essay helps to assuage my anxiety. For better or worse, we are rapidly moving into an age of visuality, as anyone who has spent time on YouTube or Vimeo will confirm.
Photo from The New Wave (Edited by Peter Graham, Doubleday & Company, 1968, p. 17).
Minor edits to the text were made on August 31, 2013 and November 25, 2015.