As someone who, owing to both finances and priorities, has seen only a small fraction of the dozens of recent blockbusters that Evan Calder Williams calls on in his new book Shard Cinema, I nonetheless instantly recognized the sort of image he describes in its opening pages as the point of departure for the wide-ranging inquiry that follows: “the slow-motion shatter, drift, spray, and spread through the air of broken glass, ice, cement, plastic, wood, and metal, of crystalline drops of water and glowing sparks and specks of dust and snow and sand, all given ample screen time to go nowhere in particular.” Anyone who has seen a single one of these films—the products of cinema’s Bays and Snyders, among many others with less heavily branded names—will, I imagine, have a sense for these moments of portentous calm amidst overwhelming and often inscrutable action. What is unique about Williams’s work with these ubiquitous images is his concern for, as he describes it, “how we watch and how what we watch can’t be untangled from what it feels furthest from.” Which is to say that he isn’t concerned with them as an opportunity for moralizing—the approach generally preferred by both left and liberal critics—but rather as sites where vast networks of circulation condense and offer themselves, perhaps unwittingly, for intervention. This is a theory of images arrived at through precise formal investigation, through close attention to the “strange seams” of what he calls the “composite image” and an openness to everything that they tie together.
One might be inclined to say that what feels furthest from the image of an army of robots eating Paris is the smooth silence of a lonely night and an absent lover. This is precisely where Williams opens his inquiry, with a chapter devoted to his own lived history of glassy surfaces as it leads toward the screens that we, at least in certain parts of the world, cannot now escape: “I fell in love from afar, finger-skating sexts to London on a Foxconned slab.” Williams follows this gestural relationship to the world—one in which we “touch, rub, tap, worry, flick, and stroke glass at least once an hour”—back to an unexpected point in its history, to the industrial workers of the 19th century whose gestures likewise were shaped by machines, their “fingers forced to quickly figure out what the mind doesn’t yet know it knows.” These workers in turn become the audiences of the earliest cinema, viewers who, in one of Williams’s key insights, are understood to be fascinated by moving images not because of a naïve confusion regarding the real or a consumerist demand for the novel, but rather because it doubled their own entanglement with the mechanical, with the “circuits and cranks and paths that constitute not just everyday life but many of its most crushing and oppressive forms.”
As the factory formalizes an image of work, so too does film, and in both cases there is a “complication of, and a subsequent refusal to flee from, the limits of gaining clear critical distance.” Put another way, the knowledge the body gains through its engagement with the mechanical both affords and demands new forms of what, borrowing from Romano Alquati, the militant sociologist whose work provides much of the ground for Williams’s own, we might call “non-collaboration.” This is the prospect Williams tracks in two long chapters, one devoted to each end of cinema history to date, which form the heart of his book: Violent Motion, an excruciatingly close reading of the “atrocious” early Edison short, The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (Alfred Clark, 1895), and Shard Cinema, which dilates the global networks described above to pull loose the threads that such images are constantly making available to those who know where, and how, to look.
Part of what makes Shard Cinema such an exciting book is that this group is, in Williams’s thinking, coterminous with the set of all possible viewers, since, as he puts it, “our watching is always denser, sharper, and stranger than we give it credit for.” One sees this in his handling of the early cinema audiences, and one sees it as well in the bifurcated view he takes on Mary, Queen of Scots. It is, perhaps, plain enough to note the primitive sophistication with which it knots together its form and content—the fall of the axe timed to the cut in the film which allows mannequin to replace actor—in such a way that the two can be seen as they are, i.e., as inextricable, even indistinguishable. But Williams, taking advantage of contemporary technology, reads beyond this, looping the film (which runs just over ten seconds) and, one imagines, slowing its progression, until a critical detail emerges: the faint smiles which appear on the faces of a few of the extras, a detail which Williams reads as evidence of the crucial interval in its production, the moment of the cut. Put simply, as anyone knows, laughter is a regular response to artificial stillness, and so despite all efforts to render its image of death as swift and clean, the time of its production finds its way into the image.
As the faces of these nameless extras engaged in a sort of sabotage (though one which, as Williams notes, was hardly complete: the film terrified the inmates of Sing Sing when it was shown as a cautionary tale), so the composite image cannot help but point to everything that it intends to mask. Such images, though products of massive amounts of capital, are as primitive as examples of this mode as Edison’s film was of its own. What they tend “[to look] like more than anything is the experience of working within the software that makes the images themselves, where any asset can be clicked and dragged and rotated, with endless flexibility.” Every image blossoms into countless tiny screens, each one pointing silently toward the wide variety of labor frozen in it as the whole doubles our experience of having too much to see and not nearly enough time, even as these moments work so hard to convince us that they’ve given us all the time in the world. And so we find ourselves somewhere between the walls at Lascaux and an understanding of abstraction as representing nothing so much as capital itself. Shard Cinema offers a way of thinking through this position toward, to reiterate, not a fantasy of critical distance or a clean separation from this plan of circulation, but rather the ways in which we already possess more than sufficient knowledge to articulate the struggle “to refuse to let the present become naturalized.”