History’s Skin: Bazin and Archival Film

Film as the “Skin of History”: André Bazin and the Specter of the Archive and Death in Nicole Védrès’s Paris 1900 (1947)

by Paula Amad

The essay begins:

About two thirds of the way through Nicole Védrès’s Paris 1900 (1947), a feature-length documentary that combines fragments of nonfiction and fiction footage with a view to delivering a new, cinematic type of history, an old newsreel sequence violently interrupts the otherwise sedate, audiovisual chronicle of the Belle Epoque. The six-shot sequence begins with a full shot of a man, whom the voice-over commentator labels a “modern Icarus,” outfitted in a winged parachute-type suit, making a slow full circle for the cameraman, followed by a distant tilt shot that moves up the length of the Eiffel Tower. In the third and longer shot, the birdman, in the company of two other men, spreads the now unfurled, winglike sections of his outfit (fig. 1) and readies himself for what feels like an interminable fifteen seconds on the balcony edge of the tower’s first tier before finally, after a moment’s hesitation, jumping. We then cut to a distant shot aimed at the first level of the tower and tilt down as the second camera follows the birdman’s descent, his flying suit trailing ineffectually before a small puff of dust is released from the Champ de Mars as his body hits the ground. The sequence ends with a close shot of hands measuring the “six-inch” deep impact of the fallen Icarus, followed by a brief final shot of his corpse being carried away.

The birdman footage appears after a long audiovisual roll call of now celebrated turn-of-the-century figures from the fields of politics (Léon Blum, Charles Maurras), theater (Sarah Bernhardt), opera (Nellie Melba, Victor Caruso), art (Auguste Rodin, Pierre Renoir, Claude Monet), and literature (Willy, Colette, André Gide, Paul Valéry, Jean Cocteau). Yet like so much of Paris 1900’s footage, the birdman’s image appears to carry minimal historical import except as macabre evidence of the era’s aviation mania, elsewhere more playfully or soberly documented with footage of a couple performing an aerial dance and Charles Blériot’s record-breaking 1909 Channel crossing. Conscious of the seemingly trivial remains of history then preserved in film archives, Védrès admitted that “scarcely one percent [of the footage she found] referred to important events.” In light of the minor status of the birdman event historically, we might read the fragment as simply more of the dead skin of film sloughed off by the incessantly updated screens of twentieth-century news media, a phenomenon described by André Bazin, arguably the preeminent film critic and theorist of the past century. Or the fragment might be read as the “accidental accumulation” of tabloid-like evidence that Sir Arthur Elton, a key producer-director in the British documentary film movement, feared the newsreels of the early twentieth century bequeathed to later historians. Or, to take an earlier example, it might be read as the “anecdotal” history of the everyday that Bolesław Matuszewski, a Polish newsreel cameraman, claimed the cinema was destined to archive. To be sure, the birdman sequence shifts the tone of the film from a lighthearted nostalgic skip through the Belle Epoque to a bleak forewarning of the abyss of the Great War into which Europe would soon plunge (the commentator clearly provides the 1912 date of the footage). Yet the fragment still retains an uneasy relation to any straightforward attempt to mobilize archival film as historical evidence. Although it feels significant, it’s hard to say what the image of the birdman’s fall at last means. What might this disturbing early example of a subject dying (to be) on film have to do with film’s, and more specifically the archival compilation film’s, peculiar temporal and ethical registers? Continue reading …

In this essay, Paula Amad asks why the notoriously antimontage film theorist André Bazin championed Nicole Védrès’s Paris 1900 (1947), a kaleidoscopic film de montage compiled from scraps of archival film, including footage of a death recorded live. How did archival films and death on film together mediate for Bazin the fatal coupling of “total war” and “total History,” and why were archival films seen by others to raise urgent questions of historical philosophy? She explores here the intensified historical consciousness that developed around archival films and the representability of death after the Second World War. Reinserting documentary as the missing key to Bazin’s so-called realist film theory, she argues that Bazin found in Paris 1900 a new archive-inflected and essayistic model of film’s historicity whose full potential continues to be realized in the explosion of archival filmmaking today.

PAULA AMAD is an Associate Professor in the Department of Cinematic Arts at the University of Iowa. She is currently at work on a book dealing with the history of aerial vision from the perspective of motion pictures shot from above.

Anime and Cosmic Subjectivity

A Blue Cat on the Galactic Railroad: Anime and Cosmic Subjectivity

by Paul Roquet

Representations 128

“Looking up at the stars,” begins Roquet, “does not demand much in the way of movement: the muscles in the back of the neck contract, the head lifts. But in this simple turn from the interpersonal realm of the Earth’s surface to the expansive spread of the night sky, subjectivity undergoes a quietly radical transformation. Social identity falls away as the human body gazes into the light and darkness of its own distant past. To turn to the stars is to locate the material substrate of the self within the vast expanse of the cosmos.RoquetOnlineFig1

“In the 1985 adaptation of Miyazawa Kenji’s classic Japanese children’s tale Night on the Galactic Railroad by anime studio Group TAC, this turn to look up at the Milky Way comes to serve as an alternate horizon of self-discovery for a young boy who feels ostracized at school and has difficulty making friends. The film experiments with the emergent anime aesthetics of limited animation, sound, and character design, reworking these styles for a larger cultural turn away from social identities toward what I will call cosmic subjectivity, a form of self-understanding drawn not through social frames, but by reflecting the self against the backdrop of the larger galaxy.”

In the 1980s, Japanese animation shifted its focus away from the social self and toward cosmic subjectivity, the framing of intensely personal emotions within the larger impersonal expanse of the universe. Roquet’s essay examines Night on the Galactic Railroad as a signal moment in this shift, as it emphasizes the interpenetration of the microcosmic and macrocosmic through a range of experiments with “limited” animation, sound design, and character design that would in turn influence the imaginary worlds of later anime.

PAUL ROQUET is an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in the Humanities at Stanford University. He is currently finishing a book on ambient media, therapy culture, and the aesthetics of atmosphere in neoliberal Japan.

Korea’s IMF Crisis Cinema

Neoliberal Forms: CGI, Algorithm, and Hegemony in Korea’s IMF Cinema

by Joseph Jonghyun Jeon

“For anthropologists Edward LiPuma and Benjamin Lee, a compensatory virtue of the 2008 global credit crisis was the extent to which it made visible the otherwise unseen flows of contemporary finance, specifically the rapid emergence of derivatives trading. Trading in derivatives, once a much smaller-scale mechanism for hedging in a production-based economy, was by the early 2000s a primary mode of accumulation in a global environment thoroughly committed to circulatory capital. In 2004 LiPuma and Lee had expressed frustration: ‘How does one know about, or demonstrate against, an unlisted, virtual, offshore corporation that operates in an unregulated electronic space using a secret proprietary trading strategy to buy and sell arcane financial instruments?’ But by 2012, the fog apparently had lifted, the crisis having ‘laid bare the underlying and underappreciated foundations of the financial field.’ An important part of curing the ills of contemporary finance, it seems, perhaps more fundamental than its enormous scale and power, is seeing them at all. At stake is the invisibility of digital apparatuses that constitute networked transactional spaces, calculate financial instruments using complex differential equations, and even enumerate capital itself, which are so central to this modality of circulation that it becomes difficult to separate medium from message.” (Continue reading…)JeonFig.5

In this essay Joseph Jeon examines the co-implications of CGI filmmaking, US hegemony, and neoliberal financialization as manifested in Korea’s “IMF crisis cinema.” These films are populated by what he terms neoliberal forms that epitomize the effort in this cinema to reflect on the innate proximity of popular filmmaking to finance, and specifically on the proximity between its own material apparatus and the economic apparatus that the IMF crisis inserted into the center of Korean public discourse.

This essay is from Representations‘ current special issue Financialization and the Culture IndustryThe introduction to the issue by C. D. Blanton, Colleen Lye, and Kent Puckett, is available online free of charge.

The Cinema of Apprehension

The Security Aesthetic in Bollywood’s High-Rise Horror

by Bishnupriya Ghosh

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In this new essay Bishnupriya Ghosh theorizes a constellation of “high-rise horror” films from contemporary Bollywood as a cinema of apprehension. Ghosh elaborates an emergent “techno-aesthetic of security” that plunges spectators into an immersive experience of horror, orienting them to the violence of acute dispossession (of lands and livelihoods) catalyzed by current speculative financial globalization.

BISHNUPRIYA GHOSH teaches postcolonial theory, literature, and global media studies in the English Department of the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is currently working on two monographs on speculative knowledge and globalization: The Unhomely Sense: Spectral Cinemas of Globalization and The Virus Touch: Living with Epidemics.

This essay is from Representations‘ current special issue Financialization and the Culture IndustryThe introduction to the issue by C. D. Blanton, Colleen Lye, and Kent Puckett, is available online free of charge.

Jeffrey Knapp,“’Throw That Junk!’ The Art of the Movie in Citizen Kane”

“But if Kane’s indiscriminate mixture of ‘the junk as well as the art’
lowers objets to the level of the mass-produced, it has the opposite effect
on the dime-store goods in his collection: it raises them to the level of the
objet. ‘Throw that junk,’ the sardonic butler commands, gesturing toward
the pile of trash with Rosebud in it, but the joke is on him: he could have
made a thousand dollars from that sled, if he had managed to differentiate
it from the hodgepodge around him. The sled was never junk to
Kane, of course, or rather, it was never merely junk: in the furnace of his imagination, where priceless art could substitute for bric-a-brac, a sled could
also substitute for priceless art.”

From Issue #122 (available here)

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D. A. Miller, “Hitchcock’s Understyle: A Too-Close View of Rope”

“The story of the perfect crime, I said earlier, is the story of the perfect crime’s failure; let me now add that, normally, that failure doesn’t affect the story’s form. On the contrary, it is precisely the crime’s failure that allows the story form to display the superiority of its own contrivance. The character whose mandate is to make a mistake is caught in a duel with the author whose equally mandated prescience is always exploiting the mistake
to successful narrative effect. In this structurally unequal contest, the protagonist’s not quite-perfect crime proves the foil for the author’s infallible perfect-crime story.”

From Issue #121 (available here)

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