While television studies might (rightly) be suspicious of invocations of “the cinematic” to describe recent aesthetic developments in television, I would like to propose that we think about the term conceptually, outside of hierarchies of high-low and the politics of taste cultures. The cinematic—conceived of as a force within the audiovisual field—then comes to index aesthetic events, events that find expression in all manner of moving images in the vastly expanded mediascape of today.
In order to begin to specify more clearly what this force entails, we could take cues from recent work on the Frankfurt School’s engagement with cinema. As Miriam Hansen has shown, especially for Walter Benjamin the promise of the cinema—or, in my revision, of cinematic expression—is that it has the potential to re-orchestrate the relation of the human sensorium to the objects and world in which we find ourselves, in order to allow us to imagine more liberatory ways to engage with those objects and that world. In my new book on Breaking Bad, I argue that while narrative operates in extensive ways that often reinforce the logic of common sense, the cinematic creates intensive threholds in the image that work directly upon the bodies, objects, and spaces in the frame, often pushing us outside the logic of the narrative.
We can take the magnet episode of Breaking Bad as allegorical of this whole process. Here, Walt, Jesse, and Mike—needing to erase the hard drive of Gus Fring, filled with incriminating surveillance footage now in the police evidence vault—have rigged up a giant magnet from various items in an auto graveyard. As Walt increases the level of intensity of the magnetic field, the objects in the evidence vault begin to be thrown into unexpected combinations: the lamps defy gravity by hanging at an angle away from the vertical, the tricycle moves of its own accord, the metal shelving cascades like a row of dominoes, until finally all the evidence is plastered against the wall in a kind of surrealist collage.
At the allegorical level, we could say that the cinematic here has reconfigured the very archive that produces stable judgments of truth, value, guilt or innocence. We can then begin to understand the arbitrariness of these judgments, of these archives, which have historically been tied to acts of official violence and oppression.
Finally, the cinematic operates on the world in an immanent way. We aren’t given the key to understanding what the reconfigured archive might mean. But—whether literally or figuratively—we’ve likely all at one point or another felt belated anxiety over improperly-disposed-of hard drives: and this cuts across the usual left/right political divide. The scene thus opens up to an as-yet-unthought politics to come.