FILM ON FIRE

I am headed to Montreal tomorrow for the annual Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference. This year, I am lucky to be on the provocatively entitled panel “Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire” with Brian Jacobson (St Andrews) and Jocelyn Szczepaniak-Gillece (UW Milwaukee). We will each be discussing the intersection between fire and film history, and Mary Ann Doane has kindly agreed to respond to our papers.

My own contribution to the panel, “Let it Burn: Film Historiography in Ashes and Flames,” tries to reframe the flammability of film as an intrinsic property of moving image artifacts (rather than a threat to their survival). I trace the figure of fire as it emerges in ancient philosophy and circulates in philosophies of history in the modern era.

For the first time in a long time, I will be giving a paper without any images or clips. I am excluding examples in part because the paper is not motivated by any one film or kind of film—and I am hoping to make a more inclusive metahistorical claim.

However, I began drafting the project by returning to fires in early cinema—from Georges Méliès’s La Danse du feu (1899) to Mary Jane’s Mishap (G. A. Smith, 1903)—and considering how these works represent fire and register the flammability of film. In Méliès (as for Nietzsche), fire is Dionysian revelry and dance; it is a generative, creative figure that coincides with the female body; and it is also a site of visual play, of appearances and disappearances. In Smith’s comic Mishap, an explosive fire tears the female body into pieces, but also reanimates it as a cinematic specter. Indeed, fire in early cinema always seems to teeter between processes of annihilation and animation, the indexical and the iconic.

schultz-figueroa-web1 [Sketch for Third Degree (Paul Sharits, 1982)]

The paper is also influenced by the work of structural filmmakers like Paul Sharits—whose interest in the materiality of film returned him at several points to film fires and burns—as well as more recent experiments in digital video by artists like Thorsten Fleisch [see the link above and here].

I had the opportunity to see Sharits’s Third Degree installation at the Greene Naftali gallery a couple of years ago. The installation consists of three film loops, projected side by side. On the first loop, we see an image of a match being lit and waved in a woman’s face. The image occasionally gets stuck and begins to burn (in the film, not in the actual screening), as if from the heat of the projector’s bulb. On the second loop, we see what Sharits describes as a “film within a film,” a recording of the film from the first loop. This image, too, gets burned numerous times. Finally, on the third loop, a “film within a film within a film…same treatment.” The image on the third loop is larger than the others and now barely recognizable.

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Crucially, Third Degree does not simply ask us to see film in all of its material fragility and contingency–and to mourn the losses indexed by scratches, stutters, and burns. It instead presents the dissolution of film as a process, one that both destroys and reassembles (and one that mimics the preservative process of making copies of copies of copies…). The final loop or “third degree” preserves the trace of its previous iterations–including the image of the match, the woman’s face, and the burns that gather on the surface of the actual film–but it also radically departs from these origins and offers something to the living present. Indeed, in projecting these films in the gallery, Sharits invites spectators to circulate between the images and the projectors; to see their own shadows mix with all the others; and to consider the role we always, necessarily play in reanimating film history.

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PHOTO FEVER

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A fascinating account of photographer Garry Winogrand from The Awl:

When he died, of gallbladder cancer in 1984, he left behind more than half a million exposures. Most of them were unedited. Most of them he had never even looked at. Winogrand had always been prolific—but this was something else: three hundred thousand pictures (at a minimum), barely sorted, unorganized, with no indication of why or when they were taken. By most counts their quality didn’t keep up with their quantity. Thousands were botched, “plagued with technical failures—optical, chemical, and physical flaws—in one hundred permutations.” The ones that weren’t tended to be either banal or badly composed, but there were so many of them it was hard to get a read on the whole.

The archive Winogrand left behind was an ocean—trackless, infinite, and unsurveyable—and few had the patience to enter into it. Contemplating its immensity, the curator Alex Sweetman imagined a photographic blob, oozing out of its drawers until it blocked traffic on the entire East Side. Leo Rubinfien, the curator of a new retrospective predicated on the idea that the late work wasn’t all bad, admits to a severe drop off in quality. And even John Szarkowski, Winogrand’s close friend and chief patron, while editing the late work for a posthumous exhibit, found himself feeling first impatient, then angry, and finally convinced that he was the butt of a cruel joke, “designed by the photographer to humiliate him.”

The whole thing is worth reading. I am left wondering: what’s the difference between Winogrand’s work–a seeming anomaly in the era of analog photography–and the “trackless, infinite, and unsurveyable” digital archives we are (almost) all in the process of constructing?

THE VOICE OF EARLY ETHNOGRAPHIC CINEMA

In The Writing of History, Michel de Certeau explores ethnographic writing across four centuries, beginning in the mid 1500s.  He finds in ethnology a field that exiles orality from Western culture and transforms speech into an exotic object.  In other words, ethnology maps the division between the West and the ethnographic subject onto the division between writing and speech.  The West writes; the non-West speaks.  De Certeau’s work here is startling insofar as it excavates such a deep history for the rift between ethnographic writing and speech.  This division is foundational.  It gives shape to ethnography’s binaristic taxonomies (here/there, us/them, etc).  It makes ethnographic writing and thinking possible, while privileging the position—the one who writes—which manufactures the distinction.  De Certeau argues,

 “On the one hand, writing accumulates, it keeps an inventory of secrets from the West, it loses nothing.  Writing is an archive.  On the other hand, writing declares, it goes to the end of the world, toward those destined to receive it—and without budging an inch, without having the center of its actions moved, without any change in it through its progress.”

Writing accumulates the past and declares in advance.  Here, de Certeau frames writing as an expression of force.  Those who write can accumulate and control archives.  And those who write determine what gets said about those who speak before they ever actually encounter them.  The division between writing and speech—along with its attendant associations with civility and primitivity, culture and nature—precedes any encounter with the unfamiliar.  Put another way: ethnographic writing produces the history of the expedition before any explorers ever set sail.

Although ethnography exerts tremendous force through writing, its seemingly monolithic powers are disturbed in its encounters with speech.  Here, ethnography and historiography part ways.  Ethnography must communicate something of the present, of living bodies and cultures, of its languages and sounds.  In Jean de Léry’s Histoire d’un voyage (1578), which de Certeau explores in his research, the sounds of language and the tenor of an unfamiliar voice trouble coherent narrative time.  De Certeau writes that “productive time is sewn back into the fabric, history is generated anew, after the break when ‘totally ravished’, fascinated by the other’s voice, the observer forgot himself.” Continue reading