A Caméra-stylo for the Social Media Era?

by Cáit Murphy, Trinity College, Dublin

Film studies was in its infancy when the French critic and filmmaker Alexandre Astruc published two essays ‘The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: La Caméra-stylo’ (1948) in L’Écran français and later, ‘The Future of Cinema’ (1948) in La Nef. Astruc’s short but prescient essay on caméra-stylo (camera-pen) was one of the foundational texts for what would come to be known as ‘auteur theory’, which privileges the film director as a structuring source for textual analysis. According to Astruc, filmmakers should use the film camera as a writer uses a pen in their hand. Not just an industry, spectacle, or form of mass entertainment, film as art could be authored, and filmmakers could express their obsessions through the screen as a writer does. Auteur directors like Orson Welles and Robert Bresson could be true writers (despite collaborative film productions and industrial influences). While Astruc’s essay might be best known for focusing on a few individual auteurs, he also argues that filmmaking would become domestic and individualised for the masses. With the wider availability of 16mm film and television, ‘the day is not far off when everyone will possess a projector’. Both production and spectatorship would expand while becoming more personalised for the individual. His observant (and perhaps contradictory) point about future democratisation of the camera is prescient in today’s screen cultures, where auteurs and other smartphone users alike possess a handheld dual projector-camera and have access to the internet. Although he could not have predicted the development of digital technologies today, Astruc foresees that cinemas are no longer the only spaces where films are watched.

Astruc’s speculations, perhaps far-fetched in 1948, resonate with contemporary scholarly views on cinema. My PhD research is an example of how social media practices and aesthetics might be analysed through a film studies lens, seeing ‘cinema’ or, broadly, screen media as not a linear progression of one form replacing another, but more so an overlapping of techniques, theories, aesthetics, and technologies. The boundaries between digital media and film continue to be blurred, from the development of computer-generated imagery and the ‘digital turn’ in film production and exhibition in the 1990s, to contemporary online streaming services, social media, and smartphone filmmaking. Film studies has responded effectively to these changes by integrating digital media studies into film scholarship, university curriculums, academic conferences, and so on. Many third-level film studies courses in the UK and Ireland (some of which are broadly referred to as media or screen studies) include digital media or digital arts modules, placing film studies within digital humanities. My research is a result of and response to this ongoing cultural and scholarly shift. A primary part of my research considers the development of Astruc’s metaphor in the present-day, a subject that rings true for a number of contemporary filmmakers and scholars. For instance, in a film essay manifesto published in a tweet from March 2023, filmmaker Mark Cousins proposed that the digital made Astruc’s ‘dream come true’.

This current period of digital amalgamation is sometimes referred to as the post-cinematic, a term popularised in the 2010s. A potentially deceptive term, post-cinema does not necessarily mean the clear-cut cessation of cinema in favour of new media. According to Shane Denson and Julia Leyda in Post-Cinema: Theorizing 21st Century Film (2016), the post-cinematic refers broadly to ‘an ongoing, uneven, and indeterminate historical transition’ of overlap and juxtaposition of aesthetics, technologies, and form between film and new media (pp.2-6). In Unruly Media: YouTube, Music Video, and the New Digital Cinema (2013), Carol Vernallis describes the ‘swirl’ of cross-media forms in the internet age, where music videos, social media, cinema, and digital media converge and influence each other. In The End of Cinema? A Medium in Crisis in the Digital Age (2015), Philippe Marion and André Gaudreault outline the multiple ‘ends’ to cinema over the course of its lifespan from its own birth in the 1890s, to the coming of sound and television, to the digital turn. Cinema, as Astruc foresees, is not necessarily defined by its fixed position in a theatre. Indeed, this change is evidenced by our ability to watch a feature-length film on a smartphone and then watch a smartphone film on a cinema screen at a festival. Fast-forward to 2020, the ‘end’ of cinema may have felt prescient during the COVID-19 pandemic, when cinemas were globally shut down and film festivals were postponed. Film productions and cinema releases were delayed and studios turned towards streaming platforms such as Netflix and Hulu for exhibition instead of risky box office results. During lockdown periods, audiences only watched films on television screens, mobiles, and computer devices at home. Perhaps for the first time in film’s history, collective viewing in cinemas was paused on a global scale.

Perhaps paradoxically, cinema is dead and repeatedly ‘dying’ but screens are also pervasive. Like the rise of television in the mid-century, social media and smartphones have broadened spectatorship globally. Smartphones have also opened up the possibilities for production of audio-visual media. On the one hand, the film industry is responding to and pushing forward a digital shift in production, distribution, and exhibition. On the other hand, those who work outside of the industry, everyday users, video essayists, fans, amateurs, and citizen witnesses, are making use of social media and smartphones to express their points-of-view. Global events in recent years, including the War in Ukraine and protests and violence in Iran, the United States, and Occupied Palestine, have been witnessed by smartphone-wielding amateur filmmakers and shared on social platforms like Instagram with an immediacy that cinema-going cannot achieve. Unlike previous decades, where training with and access to more cumbersome filming equipment was difficult for populations in rural, politically oppressed, or war-torn territories, the small, versatile smartphone allows citizens to flexibly document their point-of-view, like a pen in one’s hand. As Astruc speculates in ‘The Future of Cinema’:

At the extreme, if the cost of filmmaking continues to drop, we can imagine a situation when all the studios will close, while streets and private apartments become the battleground for amateurs writing their confessions with a 16mm Paillard camera in their parents’ dining rooms.

Although the studios have not closed, this ‘cheap, freewheeling, off-the-cuff “film essay” that Astruc first envisaged’, as Adrian Martin puts it, is embodied in the digital era. On the wider availability of digital video recording devices film critic AO Scott for The New York Times (2000) refers to Astruc’s metaphor: ‘the camera has become less like a printing press and more like a pencil, something you can grab hold of when the mood strikes, and use to transform your impressions into art’. Astruc foresees the mobility of home movies, cinéma vérité, and of course smartphone filmmaking. Indeed, scholar Dean Keep (2018) has suggested the term ‘evocative documentary’ to describe the spontaneity and mobility of smartphone filmmaking. To take this point further, Martin Scorsese proposed in March 2023 that the image on an iPhone is ‘ the new cinema vérité’. Individualistic, intimate, close to the body, spontaneous, and containing production, distribution, and exhibition capabilities in one screen, the smartphone, the internet, and its social media platforms bypass the social and economic barriers of the film industry. As Liz Burke (2021) remarks in reference to Astruc, smartphones are unique in that they ‘live in your pocket or your handbag and that they are such a common item woven into the daily lives of so many people’ (p.193). Considering its democratisation, how might the handheld smartphone and its accompanying applications and platforms realise a caméra-stylo? The avant-garde, according to Astruc, is ‘when something new happens’. Not surrealist or Dadaist, the avant-garde for Astruc seemingly represents the future of cinema, whatever that may be. Could this be new media practices like the video essay or the desktop documentary (using computer device screen-capture to make a film)? Could this foreshadow Lev Manovich’s view in The Language of New Media (2002: p.306) that the avant-garde became materialised in the computer?

Astruc argues that cinema will remain a spectacle if it continues to be situated in the theatre. He speculates in ‘La Caméra-stylo’: ‘[Everyone] will go to the local bookstore and hire films written on any subject, of any form, from literary criticism and novels to mathematics, history, and general science. From that moment on, it will no longer be possible to speak of the cinema. There will be several cinemas just as today there are several literatures’. Astruc’s view seems to predict digital databases where audio-visual work on any subject can be found, like YouTube, Vimeo, social media platforms, and even algorithmically generated AI. More access to mobile cameras and synchronised sound certainly resulted in several ‘cinemas’ after 1948, indeed not limited to the film industry and filmmakers in the West, realised by Marxist anti-colonial Third Cinema documentary movements, in citizen activist filmmaking, audio-visual essays, and even travel vlogging. Lifting cinema from its fixed position in the theatre with a strict producer/spectator boundary gives rise to globally located cinemas in the nexus of social media platforms and its user-creators. What an expanded notion of caméra-stylo means for activists and witnesses with smartphones, is that acts of violence, oppression, and mishandling by government forces can be captured instantly and exhibited to global audiences, thus bringing impactful events ‘closer’ to the viewer. A voice can be ‘written’ through the screen, discarding the structural necessity of a film crew or studio. Thus, a new kind of ‘caméra-stylo’ is realised – one characterised by community, agency, authority, and a desire to document with what is at hand.

A vision of easy access to handheld, mobile cameras was shared by filmmakers Dziga Vertov, Jonas Mekas (Richard Bégin, 2016: p.109), and Agnès Varda (Liz Burke, 2021: p.191), each working in documentary and the avant-garde and the latter two adopting digital cameras and even social media as tools of expression by the end of their lives. Jean-Luc Godard, a pioneering film essayist, embraced painterly 3-D technology in Adieu au langage (2014) and smartphones as tools of expression by the end of his life in 2022. It’s not surprising that such important figures in film history adopted digital handheld cameras, given their personalised and often self-reflective approach to filmmaking. It is certainly significant that Astruc chooses the metaphor of the handheld ‘camera-pen’ and not the more modern mechanised ‘camera-typewriter’ to describe an expressive art form. Handwriting with a pen, as Vivian Sobchack in Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture(2004) notes, is highly personalised, embodied, and has more artistic flair in comparison to typing (p.114). For Astruc, the camera possesses as much personal inscription as a pen does. Not just for auteur filmmakers privileged at festivals and in film discourses, the caméra-stylo is and can be wielded by smartphone users. Whether or not this produces ‘art’ is of little concern for many of these smartphone users; instead, the ability to express a voice with the mobile screen. As Bégin notes of Mekas’s view: ‘whether or not this body is that of a “filmmaker” properly speaking matters little in the end, as long as what is recorded in images is the trace of an environment as it is seen, at the precise moment it provokes, agitates and stimulates’ (p. 109).

Jean-Luc Godard doing a masterclass on Instagram Live with University of Art and Design Lausanne @ecal_ch (April 2020).

Jean-Luc Godard doing a masterclass on Instagram Live with University of Art and Design Lausanne @ecal_ch (April 2020).

The study of the caméra-stylo today requires consideration from a film studies and digital humanities perspective. As I have already examined in an article for NECSUS, auteur filmmakers are extending their caméra-stylo on Instagram in the form of personalised, intimately tactile, everyday visual content as well as promotional materials. At the same time, social media users other than auteurs are producing significantly embodied, personal, or politically mobilising audio-visual works. Whether it is the audio-visual essay, desktop documentary, Instagram or TikTok page, a live video recorded by a political activist, or auteur feature film, the avant-garde future of cinema is seemingly situated in its convergence with new media.

About the Author

Cáit Murphy is a PhD student and teaching assistant based in the Film Department, Trinity College Dublin, under the supervision of Dr Jennifer O’Meara. Murphy received the Provost’s PhD Project Award in 2021 to pursue research on film and digital media. Her research focuses on documentary, avant-garde, and auteur aesthetics and practices on social media. She has published papers on Instagram, Claire Denis, and auteurism (2022); gender, sound, and genre in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2022); Claire Denis’ ‘accented style’ (2021); and Netflix’s studio practices (2020).