Violation: Representations in Literature and Culture
An Interdisciplinary Conference Sponsored by the McGill University English Department.
February 20-22, 2015.
Thompson House, McGill University. 3650 Rue McTavish, Montréal.
SESSION C – Saturday 10-11:30AM*
II. Cinematic Liminality
Troy Bordun, Trent University
A Slow Dream, “As if” it were Real: Carlos Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux
Yan Tang, University of Victoria
Violating the Cinematic Surface: The Specters of Socialism in Chinese Urban Generation’s Films
Robyn Clarke, McGill University
Environmental Precarity in Take Shelter and Beasts of the Southern Wild: Political Ecology and the Precariat
A Slow Dream, “As if” it were Real: Carlos Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux
In this paper I argue that Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux (2012) presents altered states of embodiment “as if” they were everyday experiences, first, for the fictional characters, and second, for spectators’ affective experience of the film’s reality. Reygadas offers us a difficult narrative film that is any combination of characters’ dreams, fantasies, and hallucinations. Narrative films usually treat altered states as mental rather than physical experiences, reinforcing Cartesian views of experience. Unlike narrative works that clearly mark a separation between the “real world” of the diegesis and a subjective reality unique to a character, Post Tenebras Lux refuses to do so. By not announcing which sequences are dreams, concepts, and fantasies, and through an aesthetics that aims to elicit bodily responses in viewers rather than character identification/empathy, such as depth of field, the “hyperbolic long take” (de Luca 2014), and a camera lens shaved flat so that the edges of the frame are blurred, the director constructed a film that allows spectators to feel “as if” in an altered state themselves. This aligns the film with Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s one-world hypothesis (Lingis 1996). For the phenomenologist, embodiment is a continuous flow of experience, thus dreams and fantasy are parts of being-in-the-world, not cordoned off states of mind. Media theorist and phenomenologist Vivian Sobchack (2004 & 2014) helps to reinforce these claims. She argues that films can touch us bodily, thus when we utter statements such as “the film felt ‘as if’ real,” we really mean that the film made contact with our corporeality. I conclude that Reygadas’s aesthetics turns viewers back on themselves to sense, and reflect upon, experiences otherwise unacknowledged as essential components of embodiment.
Keywords: Carlos Reygadas, phenomenological film theory, altered states, Maurice Merleau-Ponty
Jennifer M. Barker, The Tactile Eye, Touch and the Cinematic Experience (Berkeley, Los Angeles, & London: University of California Press, 2009).
Tiago de Luca, Realism of the Senses in World Cinema: The Experience of Physical Reality (London & New York: I.B. Tauris, 2014).
Alphonso Lingis, The Imperative (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996).
Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2000).
Sheldon Penn, ‘The Time-Image in Carlos Reygadas’ Stellet Licht: A Cinema of Immanence’, Bulletin of Spanish Studies, 90:7 , 1159-81).
Vivian Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).
3:30-5:15 PM –– Session Three: Insatiable Appetites (WHC 208)
Moderator: Name TBD, Title TBD, Yale University
Marco Bohr (Loughborough University): “Tampopo: Food, Hedonism and Decadence in Japan’s Bubble Economy”
Michael Turcios (University of Southern California): “The Appetite to Consume ‘Otherness’ in the French Colonial Cinema of Claire Denis”
Fareed Ben-Youssef (University of California, Berkeley): “‘Attendez la Crème!’: Food and Cultural Trauma in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained”
Troy Bordun (Trent University): “Porn in the Art Gallery: Aesthetics and Sensory Disciplining”
Porn in the Art Gallery: Aesthetics and Sensory Disciplining
I contend that before precise acts are represented onscreen, porn aesthetics presupposes a user who wants to control but not necessarily master the materials under his gaze. Porn users actively engage with images and video and simultaneously require an abandonment of that activity to experience visual and bodily pleasure (Paasonen 2011; 2013). If we presume the “pornification” of modern culture (Paasonen, Nikunen and Saarenmaa 2007), which includes at the very least a general familiarity with the phenomenon of pornography, contemporary spectators are ready for a gallery of porn, more so than spectators from earlier decades. Curatorship of an exhibition of pornography should therefore provide active and passive modes of interactivity for its participants, i.e., contain materials that command physical grabbing and perceptual touching to thereby cultivate some degree of sexual abandon.
In late August, 2014, I curated a small exhibition entitled Stags, Sexploitation, and Hard Core: Moving Image Pornography up to 1972 at an artist-run center in Peterborough, ON. I think the unusual setting for pornography offers me a chance to consider the genre’s aesthetics, as claimed above, and spectators’ relationship to disciplining spaces. For the exhibition I decided upon a number of films to play simultaneously throughout the gallery and designed panels composed of stills, promotional materials, and text. The purpose of the exhibition was to bring a small portion of pornography’s history to the public. Additionally, on the introductory panel, I suggested that pornography aims at eliciting bodily sensations from its spectators. I wrote that arousal, laughter, shock, surprise, and awkwardness were as valuable responses as critical (dis)interest. Through observation of visitors and reading anonymous surveys about their experiences, I discovered that the organization and architecture of the gallery maintained a critical distance between spectators and materials, as in a conventional gallery (Williams 1995; Dennis 2009), despite my efforts to produce the opposite effect.
“Eye Candy: Consuming Moving Images at the Cinema and Beyond”
All events are at the Whitney Humanities Center (WHC), 53 Wall Street. All events are free and open to the public.
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 13
4:30-5:30 PM –– Registration (WHC 208)
5:30-6:30 PM –– Keynote Address (WHC Main Auditorium)
Nicholas Mirzoeff, Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication, New York University: “The Cops and the Commons: Life, Love and Value After Ferguson”
6:30-7:30 PM –– Reception (WHC 108)
7:30-8:45 PM –– Special Screening: Daisies (1966, 35mm print, 74 min.) (WHC Main Auditorium): Introduction by Ila Tyagi
Screening generously co-sponsored by the Yale Film Study Center, the Department of Slavic Languages & Literatures, and the Department of Art History.
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 14
9:00-10:00 AM –– Late Registration and Light Breakfast (WHC 208)
10:00-10:05 AM –– Opening Remarks (WHC 208)
Swagato Chakravorty and Regina Karl
10:05-11:45 AM –– Session One: Auteurs and their…
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Paper Presentation: November 16th, Cine-Excess VII: European Erotic Cinema: Identity, Desire and Disgust, Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham, U.K.
Paper Presentation: December 4th, Symons Seminar Series, Trent University, Peterborough, ON
Pornographic genre codes are appropriated by Breillat and twisted to produce a particular message, meaning, or truth: the shame of feminine sexuality under patriarchy. In this paper I argue she must be pornographic, and explicit, if some element of truth in obscenity is to be recovered. I situate Breillat within a style of cinematic pornography, recuperating the term from otherwise hostile definitions.
I first consider how her pornography is unlike the erotic. Sexual encounters within her films are ripe with dissatisfaction, distaste, and misery and therefore far from the classical definition of viewing erotic art as a composed spectator’s aesthetic appreciation. Secondly, I articulate the difference between Breillat’s films and a pornography designed to titillate a specifically male viewer. True, Breillat falls in with pornography defined by Williams (1991) as a body genre, producing intense sensations in the spectator; pornography, in some manner, should move the viewer, often to a state of arousal or if shared in a theatre amongst friends, in bursts of nervous laughter. Breillat greatly separates herself from hard core in her efforts to move spectators. The sensation Breillat is able to produce in spectators is a cinematic displeasure of both narrative and images. According to Brinkema (2006), Grønstad (2006), and Horeck and Kendall (2011), among others, Breillat transmits her message with this method of provocation by engaging the spectator’s senses, therefore calling the viewer to ethically and immediately respond to the work. She accomplishes this cinematic brilliance – treading a line which is pornographic yet not erotic and causing a sensation in the viewer which is not arousal – by frustrating habituated viewing, challenging the common film-experience of identifying with characters, or symbolically recognizing the genre.
Research in progress presentation, Cultural Studies, Trent University, November 7, 2012
In a New Extreme film, a category first defined in 2004 to note a tendency in recent French film, the lead character or characters are in the midst of a crisis often brought on by forces outside of their own which then lead to indifferent, ambiguous, or downright unpleasurable sex or sexual interactions, performed unsimulated or portrayed as such. Most films end, or nearing the end of the narrative have, at first glance, an unexpected scene of violence that is not gratuitous or spectacular, shot in real-time, and without or with minimal cutting. Dialogue is sparse, natural lighting often preferred, the images have a documentary quality, the actors are usually nonprofessional and do not have a Hollywood aesthetic. Some of these films, in a very simplistic reading, could perhaps be described as dark, depressing, presenting the arbitrary suffering associated with an individual human existence. Directors associated with New Extremism are mostly French, but include others, most famously Lars Von Trier. According to Tanya Horeck and Tina Kendall, Hollywood productions have been incorporating elements of New Extremism into their features recently, e.g., in David Fincher’s The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo (2011).
A New Extreme film like Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh-Thi’s Baise Moi (2000), in its depiction of real sex and the shots which make up those scenes, along with its stylized violence, demands an investigation from the field of film ethics. To give a sense of the narrative, one critic describes the film as “basically Thelma and Louise get laid.” A quick example of possible ethical theorizing of the film: the sexual tension between the two lead female characters does not, like porn genre films for a male audience, result in show all same-sex sex scenes. According to Lisa Downing this refusal to show all undermines the supposed film-viewing experience of a male gaze at the passive female body as argued by Laura Mulvey. By not depicting the heterosexist pornography one expects – i.e., the two female characters to have sex with each other because the possibility exists within the diegesis (they have real promiscuous sex with men, so why not each other, we might ask) – infuses the images of their mutual attraction with a subversive power, resisting a normative viewing experience. This subversion complicates the relationship between film, screen, and viewer, because we are forced to think about how the images and narrative functioned in past feature-length films and subsequently our own expectations and ethics of spectatorship.
What complicates if not challenges ethical theorization of Baise Moi, and others like it engaging real sexual acts and pretend violence, are possible claims to truth. Downing poses the problem: “how can we take seriously the critique of normative codes of sex and gender, and the suggestion of alternative ways of apprehending the sexually explicit spectacle, in a film that simultaneously appears to take the ‘reality’ of sex itself so seriously while evidently playing at violence?” The answer, I think, is in a study of how realist aesthetics come into play in New Extreme films. It would be important, I think, to ask how a film can be realist in Bazin’s sense, what we mean by the term, and if that category need apply in all cases for theorization of film and ethics, which is to say not the ethics of filmmaking but methods of filmmaking that foster a courage in viewers to face the anxiety of change in regards to a specific ethical or political issue. Before we can determine just how a particular film demands courage from us as viewers we must look at what makes the film valuable as a work; once this is accomplished ethical theory can happen. Yet the assessment of form in terms of its power to evoke some notion of realism is uninteresting insofar as it merely represents or mimics a viewer’s perception of reality. Images not only make a correlation between mind, senses, and reality, but can turn spectators on to a kind of thinking about film form as an invitation to perceive everyday experience without normative coordinates. This is, according to Downing, Baise Moi’s merit. To watch these films, or experience them viscerally as Horeck and Kendall and others write, you must not bring in a prior understanding; little will be gained if our expectations of feature-length films precede the viewing of them.
Bazin’s film theory is useful here, his warning in “Marginal Notes on Eroticism in the Cinema” (1957) encouraging a tension in my work, also noted by Downing in her essay. Equivocating images of sexuality (defined as “ontological pornography”) with real instances of death, Bazin declares both are spectacles. “If you can show me on the screen a man and woman whose dress and position are such that at least the beginnings of sexual consummation undoubtedly accompanied the action, then I would have the right to demand, in a crime film, that you really kill the victim – or at least wound him pretty badly.” There should be neither explicit sex nor death Bazin argues; he prefers a “simple story… which never touches the level of reality”, and thus never reaching a “documentary quality.”
Much of Bazin’s claim, real sex = real death – and he notes that this claim is not worked out in full – begins with the actor/performer and his or her “actual sexual emotion[s]”. A concern for actual sexual emotions demands a theorizing of the limit of the real, i.e., how far would a spectator be willing to go in a narrative film. If the physical and emotive aspects of a sexual scene border on real, existing in reality outside filming (for instance, an actor’s arousal exists whether the camera is on and off), having a spectator leap up from his seat and be affected by the action is a possibility. It is worthwhile to hypothesize for Bazin audience responses to real, or bordering on real, bodily expressions and emotions. If for instance, a woman strips in a theater production, Bazin claims she would arouse “the jealousy of the entire male [sic] audience.” In a film however, there is participation and identification, and thus the man who possesses the woman onscreen “gratifies me by proxy” (Bazin 2005, 173-4), reminding us here of Mulvey’s writing on misrecognition by male spectators. This psychological intrigue would then grant and idealize the pornographic. However, the psychological (in terms of a identifying with characters or narrative satisfying a lack) is not the reason why cinema has a high place in art for Bazin; its capacity to provoke imagination is what matters. In Bazin’s thinking on cinema, near the end of his life, the presence of the imaginary serves to justify censorship of the nude (female) body, i.e., not by law but film aesthetics. Ontological pornography is thus the perversion of realist aesthetics, a perversion which neglects the abundance of creative and imaginative potential of film on the part of those involved in production, as well as for the individual’s viewing experience. It is not what can be precisely filmed that is of concern – i.e., its indexical quality – but rather real events and the actual emotions of actors which lead to complicated distinctions between acting and real life. Bazinian realism engages spectator’s active imagination, making connections between narrative, acts and shots, via film style and techniques of director and crew.
Patrice Chéreau’s film Intimacy, released in 2001, provides a possible thread to join the imaginary and explicit sexuality. (The issue of violence I will return to.) Jay, a thirtysomething lonely bartender whose wife and sons has left him, participates in weekly sex with Claire. Claire, a thirtysomething who has a husband and child of her own, without specifying why or seeming to enjoy it, consistently appears to their sexual encounters on time. The film begins with a few of their sexual numbers at Jay’s home, and we quickly realize that their relationship is solely physical, and the two perhaps do not know a thing about each other. Following one of these Wednesday visits, Jay secretly pursues Claire to a pub and underground theater space where she in fact performs as a stage actor. Here Jay meets Claire’s husband and son, befriends them, and interacts with Claire as if the two had not previously met. This moment in the narrative marks a caesura for Jay, as the rest of the film documents the breaking down of his fantasy of anonymous sex and its impact on his emotional well-being – he wishes to know Claire, because he has growing feelings, but her real life encroaches on their make-believe one. Eventually the two lovers, and Claire’s husband Andy, all try to reconcile the affair or make it work without irreparably damaging their lives.
Many aspects of the film stand out, such as the rather plain casting of the actors involved (as I said above, not cast for their Hollywood aesthetic), the natural lighting, and the use of real spaces in London. Of greatest interest are the performances of Mark Rylance and Kerry Fox, whom in two scenes perform two real sexual acts. The more notable for Linda Williams is the first, the second being fellatio. In the first, after the characters have stripped, Jay lies on his back with his erect penis visible in the center of the frame, which Claire grasps, and strokes. This is an act which we do not often see in a feature film and Williams is shocked by the intimate gesture for it overturns the standard depiction of woman’s sexuality as unfamiliar “with the movements of sex.”
Though she strokes the erect penis, she does not offer the kind of reverential penis worship that so commonly occurs in hard-core pornography and which is usually designed to showcase the penis’s outward extension from the male body in phallic display. Rather, we feel that she feels both the fleshy vulnerability of the organ as well as its pulsing hardness. Most important, the gesture makes us believe in the reciprocity of one touched body part to another.
With this real gesture we get a sense of authenticity when the couple begins to thrust and pant in an embrace. The camera does not cut to extreme close-ups of penetration and does not need to in this case. “We believe,” writes Williams, “that this couple is connected, whether they really are or not.”
The real gesture of Fox’s hand lingering over Rylance’s penis fools film scholar Tanya Krzywinska. She writes that in this first scene “the spectator is left in little doubt that penetration has occurred” and the film does make use of “real sex” in a different way than pornography. The point here is that a single gesture ushered in an experience of the real, while the actual performance, according to interviews of Fox and boyfriend Alexander Linklater, did not include penetration. Nevertheless, critics have declared its realist tendencies. Jon Lewis, for instance, cites a review by Guardian critic AC Grayling to note the degree of cinematic realism accomplished in the film. Thus Williams approaches the title not just as a description of the sexual entanglement of the characters involved, but between the screen and spectator as well: we witness a real intimacy that the actors are asked to perform, and this performance is “among the rare moments on film when what we are watching and investing and believing in is real.”
Combining the techniques used by a director and performances of the actors, as well as one scholar’s reflection on the film, I have hopefully hinted at a method of reconciling Bazinian aesthetics and filmed sexual acts. This was to show, following Williams’ critique of Bazin in Screening Sex (2008), that the imagination does not lose its proclivity when “confronted… with a penis, a vagina, or a blow job, or with many of the ways of performing – not just acting or simulating – sex.” Rather than just posit the always active role of the imagination while experiencing a film, I tried to stress the importance of specific techniques that enhance the imaginative process, in this case, Rylance and Fox’s performance, an essential element in what I want to elaborate upon: realist aesthetics. In the talents of director, crew, and performers, the requirement to show the sexual act in close up and in detail falls away when realism is creatively evoked by the artists involved in the production. “Neither tastefully erotic nor insistently hard-core… [Intimacy] make[s] us realize how impoverished are the gestures and emotions of most cinematic sex acts.” This is perhaps why many of the New Extreme films, even the ones that have real sexual intercourse, do not feel the need to document it in fact – what Williams called in Hard Core (1989), maximum visibility and the frenzy of the visible. The assumption of “real” sex is already there in the viewing experience and our imagination is stimulated in a way altogether different from merely showing us the act of penetration.
My own reflections on Intimacy do not yet touch on the pretend violence that other New Extreme films portray. Perhaps one example can shed light on this issue and again hint at an answer to Downing and Bazin’s problem by theorizing two extreme limits of performance. Sadomasochism in film is perhaps the most challenging to both ethics and cinematic realism because in practice it is both real in the sense of effecting a body, and illusory, through performing particular prearranged roles. Any sadomasochistic scene encounters this duality, most powerfully Catherine Breillat’s Romance (1999). Emma Wilson notes the scene of Marie’s (Caroline Ducey) untying after having been bound and gagged to the point of physical anguish. It becomes troublesome because this untying is staged to be sure but also appears as the untying of actress Ducey: her tears and anguish seem “genuine”, observes Wilson, and this is the pushing of performance to its limit which renders the experience of it haptic. “Breillat manages to convince her audience that, as in various scenes of intercourse, and in the scene where Marie masturbates, we are witnessing ‘real’, unstaged physical responses and reactions. This lack of mediation is shocking for the viewer… and promotes the film’s immediacy, its tactile presence.” A tension is revealed in what is visible onscreen, again between the pretend and real, i.e., the feigned yet real violence of sadomasochism and the actual emotions or physical response of tears.
Tears are a staple of film, as far back as Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). The close-ups of Maria Falconetti are no less affective than those of Ducey after her bound and gagged performance. Likewise we can suggest the feigned or actual orgasm of the performers in many New Extreme films is a realist aesthetic similar to an actor’s tears, i.e., as immersion into a character and scene. In the films I am focusing on for the most part, unlike Williams’ attempt to turn porn into a genre in its own right, orgasms are portrayed less in visible ejaculations than by bodily spasms and groans, and thus male or female, orgasms are equally invisible or in Bazin’s terms equally real in the body of the actors. Such is true of Ducey’s masturbation scene in Romance. It is not as Williams hypothesizes in her text on pornography, that we are witnessing a frenzy of the visible here; this act provokes a heightened sense of realism by treading a line between imagination, screening masturbation, and its climax. Ducey’s performance is not filmed in a close-up of the genitals but beginning from her toes the camera proceeds upwards to her thighs, her hand between her crossed legs and without seeing the genitals, to her upper body and finally on her anguished face at the climax. (I say anguished because the film’s narrative centers on Marie’s sexual problems with husband Paul.) Whether “actually” masturbating or not, treading between real and imaginary provides a more authentic viewing experience. Spectators are active in engagement with characters and the then live performance. Rylance, Fox, and Ducey do not merely act. Performance is an opening up of one’s body to the challenges of physical and emotional of a situation, i.e., actual onscreen sex whether one desires the other or not: “The physical motions and the accompanying emotions”, whether orgasm or tears, are performed and experienced by viewers as “more real than just acting.”
How is it possible then that these films address ethical issues, particularly with reference to forms of violence and sexual violence? What does a real sex act add to the pretend world in a film? In the climactic violence of Breillat’s Fat Girl, Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible, Larry Clark’s Ken Park, Bruno Dumont’s The Life of Jesus and Twentynine Palms, Carlos Reygadas’ Battle in Heaven, Von Trier’s Antichrist, to name a few, the murders that conclude the narrative and the real or real-looking sex occurring prior to that end serve a purpose beyond the immediately affective, although it certainly is experienced in this way and I agree with theorists on that point. But we must state firstly: The realist aesthetic of these films is astoundingly affective in order to bring the shock of onscreen violence back into the viewing experience. Sex is exhibited as a normal part of the narrative when we contrast sexual images with the brutality of the murders for instance. Chéreau’s Intimacy “surprises” and “shocks” despite lacking a violent climax if we watch this film in a body of work under the heading of New Extremism. Extreme cinema’s propensity towards actual sexual emotions alongside pretend acts of violence suggests that via the imagination of the spectator the pretend is felt as real within the diegesis and the film experience, and with this assumption it is possible to overcome the problem of taking seriously the explicit critiques of graphic violence in these films (although they are in fact unreal and illusory). In this brief attempt to satisfy Bazin and Downing’s provocative claims, realist aesthetics implicate the spectator in ethical modes of viewing.
Some suggest extreme cinema uncovers humanism as false piety, while others suggest that despite their disturbing misanthropy, the explicitness of the images and narratives are in fact humanistic in their challenge “to the numbing complacencies and stock humanity of much mainstream cinema.” Grønstad’s claim is the more compelling no doubt and this is a line of argument that needs to be given sufficient attention and connected explicitly to the films. Developing a project on extreme realism then is simultaneous to develop a theory of ethics as Downing and Libby Saxton attempt in Film and Ethics (2009). The authors try to show, following Michelle Aaron’s lead in her book Spectatorship (2007), that the film viewing experience already engages ethical thinking. Whereas Downing and Saxton bring continental philosophy texts to film to produce a strand of ethical theory – from the writings of Levinas, Derrida, Lacan and Zizek, Mulvey, Foucault, and Badiou – I want to begin with a trend or movement in contemporary film that carries weight in the ethical field without as much recourse to 20th century philosophy. Sexuality, because of its diverse reception in cinema and its complex negotiations in everyday life, and the stark contrast of brutal violence as I have explained above, should prove to be the perfect points of reference to theorize cinematic realism and its connections to ethical theory. A rudimentary definition of New Extremism is fortunately reduced to those two traits in most scholarship – James Quandt’s article where he defines New Extremism is titled “Flesh and Blood.” New Extremism perhaps overdoes the ethical implication of viewers by its explicit sexuality and violence, and this is why I find it so compelling, both as an area of film studies and as an object to develop film ethics.
 Downing, Film and Ethics, 80-87.
 Ibid., 83.
 Bazin, What is Cinema? V. 2, 173. There is also a similar claim made by the U.S. Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography in 1986. Seeing sex is ‘in the flesh’ and thus audiences bear witness to any abuse or perversions therein (Williams, 1989, 185).
 Ibid., 174. Cf. Williams, Hard Core, 185-186.
 Cf. Williams, “Film Bodies”. Here she outlines the merit of a horror, melodrama, or pornographic picture is perhaps based on the degree to which one is scared, sad, or turned on.
 Williams, Screening Sex, 272-3.
 Ibid., 273.
 Krzywinska, Sex in the Cinema, 223-224.
 Lewis, “Real Sex”.
 Williams, Screening Sex, 273.
 Williams, Hard Core, 195.
 Wilson, “Deforming femininity”, 154.
 Williams, Hard Core. She spends a great deal of time making the case that the visible male ejaculations in 1970s pornography are the stand-ins for the invisible pleasures of the female.
 Williams, Screening Sex, 274-275.
 James Quandt, “More Moralism from that ‘wordy fuck’”, 213; Asbjørn Grønstad, “Abject desire”, 164.
Artspace, 378 Aylmer Street North
Wednesday, August 22nd – Friday, August 24th, 12:00pm-9:00pm
An installation of films playing simultaneously throughout the gallery:
Auguste and Louis Lumière’s First Films, France, 1895-1900
Dziga Vertov’s Kino-Eye, Soviet Union, 1924
Jonas Mekas’ Walden: Diaries, Notes and Sketches, U.S.A., 1969
Peter Greenaway’s The Falls, Wales, 1980
Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, France, 1983
Friday, August 24th :
6:30pm: Reception with food and drink;
7:30pm: Curators’ remarks;
8:00pm: Keynote speaker, Dr. Davide Panagia (Cultural Studies, Trent University), “Hume, Cinema, and the Politics of Discontinuity”;
8:30pm-9:15pm: Closing Discussion moderated by Dr. Ger Zielinski (Cultural Studies, Trent University)
Dziga Vertov was a productive figure in cinema under Lenin and the early years of Stalin. Born Denis Kaufman in 1896 – he later changed his name to Dziga, apparently mimicking the sound of the camera – and died in a sorry-state of inactivity in 1954 due to the cultural repression of the Soviet regime. His entry into moving-images was via the newsreel and he would immediately claim that this form was the pinnacle of the craft. Kinonedelia, or “film-week”, was the first big project he undertook shortly after the 1917 Revolution, lasting about a year. With the Tsar overthrown and the people holding positions in politics and culture, one of the new regime’s tasks was to document its progress. If socialism – and its efforts towards communism – was far superior than other political systems to that date, then the eye of the camera need only be turned to the facts of Soviet life. Vertov insisted on the movement of kinopravda, or film-truth, and quickly developed this movement over the course of filming in the early 1920s. Vertov began as one, and then went on to recruit Elisaveta Svilova as editor – also his wife – and his brother Mikhail Kaufman taking the role of cameraman. Together, calling themselves kinoks, or cinema-eye men, they developed a style based on both the facts of Soviet life and specific filming techniques which would catch what is invisible to human perception. This is the birth of kino-eye, or cinema-eye, “the documentary cinematic decoding of both the visible world and that which is invisible to the naked eye” (KE, 87). After the success of the newsreels shown across the State entitled Kinopravda, comprising 23 installments between 1922 and 1925, and his feature length productions Kino-Eye, Forward, Soviet!, A Sixth of the World and The Eleventh Year, by 1929 whenever a cameraman was seen documenting an event, the crowd could be heard murmuring, according to Vertov, “Kino-eye, kino-eye” (KE, 86).
The early work of Kinonedelia and Kinopravda prepared Vertov for his first feature in 1924, Kino-Eye, or Life Caught Unawares. That same year Sergei Eisenstein was making Strike, and the two young filmmakers could not have been more at odds. Both had communism in their hearts but their methods, at this point in time, could not be reconciled: a fiction of an extraordinary event, mostly scripted, acted, and emotionally charged on the one hand, and a preference for the unscripted, non-acted film which documents everyday life on the other. Vertov lashed out at the kind of art films Eisenstein would become known for and stressed the importance of his own work. “With the skillful organization of factual footage, we can create film-objects of high propagandistic pressure, without the annoying, suspect affectations of actors and without the romantic-detective fictions of various and sundry ‘inspired’ people” (KE, 48).
So what is it that makes Kino-Eye better suited to communist aims than an Eisenstein film? In a most remarkable passage of Marxism, Vertov describes the film as such:
[Kino-Eye] represents an assault on our reality by the cameras and prepares the theme of creative labor against a background of class contradictions and of everyday life. In disclosing the origins of objects and of bread [and in the film we see the entire process of manufacturing and delivering bread and meat, all the way to the hands of the people], the camera makes it possible for every worker to acquire, through evidence, the conviction that he, the worker, creates all these things himself, and that consequently they belong to him. (KE, 34)
Thus Vertov declares he is not an artist; he would much rather be called a shoemaker (KE, 36-37), a worker among other workers contributing to the goal of communism. “We renounce the convenience of the studio,” he insists, stressing the importance of laboring with others (KE, 39). This is his separation from the intellectual work of someone like Eisenstein; although the latter valued and worked in such a way that the film’s production is not the idea of a single genius, Vertov cannot, in a way that Eisenstein can be, called a director. Without the raw material of the workers and their efforts in building communism, a film could not be produced. We have something then, with Vertov, which we may wish to call the birth of documentary filmmaking.
Vertov was, despite a few decades between them, closer to techniques of the Lumière brothers in 1895 than his contemporaries, Soviet or American. While the Lumière brothers certainly staged events, did not always catch life unawares, many of their 50 second pieces are the facts of life. A horse and carriage parading through a flooded street, workers were exiting the factory, street scenes where a man stops to gaze in wonder at this whirling device, the feeding of an infant, streetcars, and the moving shots of city landscapes. These scenes of Lumière’s appear again with Vertov. Even a train is filmed but anew as we are shown one shot from below, the camera on the tracks, and thus (silently) roaring over our heads. Vertov’s cameraman Kaufman levels landscapes as would the Lumière’s: the young pioneers cross, horizontal to our vision, a bridge at a distance while the raging waters rush below and the sky glows above. [If you want to see the extent of the Lumière’s influence on Kaufman, Vertov’s Eleventh Year highlights this most I think.] However, unlike the Lumière films, Kaufman often follows the action with his camera, moving the device to get a better look at the object being filmed; and Svilova, the editor, will not let us pause on an image for longer than a few seconds, which is again unlike the stationary 50 second Lumière shorts. That being said, with both Vertov and Lumière, each of their films or newsreels provide viewers with a glimpse of a life, and death as Kino-Eye brings a funeral to us, that we have not seen before. At its inception this was the goal of cinema. The Lumière’s travelled, showcasing their short films just as the reels on Alexander Medvedev’s film-trains trekked across the Soviet Union.
Vertov’s cinema, he wrote, is a science: it must precisely project, transmit to a group of peasants for instance, the agricultural miracle that is the Fordson tractor or the benefit of electricity to a village. In Kino-Eye we see a whole animation about electricity and how it functions, a classroom in which one learns how a telephone operates, and how antennas and radio-waves transmit music. Further, the very fabric which holds the film together – i.e., following the young pioneers and their communist adventures – is to dictate to viewers that they too can join the pioneers and educate the people on collectivization. The newsreel consists then of beautiful images which are educational, i.e., towards the education of workers and the development of communism: “by establishing a clear visual link between subjects, we have significantly weakened the importance of intertitles; in doing so we have brought the movie screen closer to the uneducated viewers, which is particularly important at present” (KE, 38). Vertov’s productions are rooted in communist ideology, without which we would not have these images to look upon: the spectator must be moved and convinced of a greater social and political existence under the banner of Lenin.
In Sans Soleil we are told that on May 15th, 1945, American soldiers attacked a hill in Okinawa, perhaps thinking they were conquering Japanese soil. They got only halfway up the hill that day and withdrew the next morning. Once this regiment departed fighting continued for a month, the Japanese eventually losing ground. Chris Marker tells us this brief story to bring us to the present (1983) Okinawa society, a society which, after 27 years of American occupation, has all but lost their respective culture. The culture of Okinawa will disappear; “the break in history,” the narrator relates, “has been too violent.” We see the noro, a priestess who communicates with the gods of the sea, rain, earth, and fire. But the images of her and the brief frames of ritual are not precisely to document it. Marker does not follow the ceremony as would an anthropologist with meticulous detail. What is shown is the ephemeral quality of images and this part of Okinawa culture: a few lines of prayer, drinking tea, a close-up of the priestess. What we see is the fading of a particular way of life brought on by the pressing modern world. The ditch where, in 1945, 200 Okinawa girls held grenades to their chests rather than surrender to Americans, tourists have their photos taken and a souvenir stand sells grenade-shaped lighters. Where the noro communicates with the gods, nearby one can find gas stations and bowling alleys. Describes the man whose letters are being read to us: “When filming this ceremony I knew I was present at the end of something.” It is so often women, in films of both documentary and fiction, act as representations of love and loss (Howe, 315). Such is the case here in Sans Soleil and in Vertov’s Three Songs about Lenin where women are filmed unawares and sing about the departed Lenin. How then are we to understand Marker’s fictionalized film-essay, Vertov’s newsreels, and still grieve at the loss of this community? How are old memories related and new ones created by these films?
In Vertov’s Kino-Eye, in the images of Soviet life – how bread or meat begins in the field and reaches the supplicant’s hands – he too does not film like an anthropologist. Like Sans Soleil’s images and the narration which cites Levi-Strauss on Japanese culture, calling it the poignancy of things, Kino-Eye also has an affect on our emotions, feelings, and if Vertov was successful, can shake and uproot our ideology. But such images, in all the films we have gathered in this exhibition, are fleeting. Okinawa and the Soviet Union will be topics of history, but the images of them in Vertov and Marker are not documents but rather haunt our memories. While actively consuming these films we undergo the same memory-work as the narrator and man in Sans Soleil. She reads us letters of and we view the images shot by travelling filmmaker Sandor Krasna (or Marker himself), both of which are already distantly in the past: in one scene this man writes to her from his island of Sal of a recent time in the company of his prancing dogs on the beach. While on that beach he remembered a January in Tokyo, or to further complicate the memory-work, he remembered the images he filmed that month. He asserts, with shots of Japanese people praying at a temple: These images “have substituted themselves for my memory. They are my memory. I wonder how people remember things who don’t film, don’t photograph, don’t tape. How has mankind managed to remember?” The temporal layers in Sans Soleil are thick, most poignantly in this paragraph just mentioned: the January in Tokyo, the filmed images of Tokyo, the memory of the images while in the company of his dogs, the memory of that memory written down and sent to the woman, the woman’s first reading his letter, her relating this letter to us viewers, our memories of hearing her speak and seeing those images of the man’s island, playful dogs, Tokyo and ceremonies.
The title of this exhibition Tyler and I have put together could have been, as the woman speaks in Sans Soleil, something about the world of appearances, the memory of them, and their disappearance. She speaks on this “world of appearances,” naming them “fragile, fleeting, revocable, of trains that fly from planet to planet, of samurai fighting in an immutable past.” The world of appearances, contrary to what Vertov demands of cinema that it bear witness to the truth, the films exhibited here might fall under the theme of ‘the impermanence of things.’ The Soviet Union has disappeared and perhaps the last noro filmed by Marker. From the Lumière’s to Vertov and to Jonas Mekas, to Peter Greenaway and Marker, each projects in various ways fleeting images of a past, rather than a particular story or history that demands to be related in full. We have brief glimpses of years gone by, or in Marker’s case, a perpetual present in the form of letters and objects bristling with an impenetrable past; and also a future of science-fiction in the shots of Japan, mixed media, and philosophical musings. These filmed-images, like Krasna tells us in Sans Soleil, are now part of our memories.