Thoughts on Cinema and Death: Part One

Over the past few weeks, my PhD research has been focused on the convergence of cinema and death in Spanish immigration films. At the level of narrative, death is a prominent theme in my corpus of films – which includes Biutiful, Amador, Retorno a Hansala, and Ilegal. However, the significance of death extends beyond narrative, given its prominence in theoretical explorations of cinema, and of visual technologies more generally. Indeed, the spectre of death that haunts cinema does not originate with the medium of cinema, but rather is inherited from cinema’s representational predecessors, in particular photography.

Theoretical explorations of death and photography begin with three B’s: Benjamin, Bazin, and Barthes. In 1939, Walter Benjamin remarked, in his essay ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’, that ‘The camera gave the moment a posthumous shock’. In the mid-twentieth century, in his essay ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image, André Bazin posited photography and cinema as the latest incarnations of the plastic arts, whose aim is to embalm the dead. And in the 1970s, Roland Barthes conducted a slightly bizarre personal reading of the intersection of photography and death in his book Camera Lucida, firstly through his search for the essence of his dead mother, and secondly through the presence of death within the photographic structure, given that each image contains the potential for ‘the return of the dead’. While Bazin views photographic technologies as a means of preservation against death, Benjamin and Barthes tend towards the photographic image as a prediction of death-to-come.

Like photography, the medium of cinema has been haunted by death since its inception in the late nineteenth century. Early cinema is imbricated with death in two ways: firstly, initial reactions to film are characterised by the Bazinian view of this new technology as a medium capable of combating mortality due to its ability to preserve the image of those no longer present; and secondly, early cinema witnessed the emergence of death as subject matter in the subgenre of the execution film, examples of which are here and here. For more on this, see Mary Ann Doane‘s The Emergence of Cinematic Time.

My interest lies in cinema’s conceptualisation as a spectral medium, an idea which has gained further currency in the last decade with the transition to digital, and which has been explored in detail by D. N. Rodowick in his book The Virtual Life of Film. In my next post, I’ll write more about the connection between cinema and spectrality, and how it relates to my chapter.

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London / Luis Tosar / Mientras duermes

Last week, I had a short break from PhD work and went off on my travels to London.  While there I attended the Mientras duermes  screening at the London Spanish Film Festival, which was preceded by an interview with Luis Tosar.

***DISCLOSURE: As an avid fan of Tosar and his work, I cannot promise that this review will be impartial!***

Asked about why he decided to become an actor, Luis explained that an early inspiration was a school teacher of his who encouraged him to read and to perform in class.  He discussed his early work in Galicia, and his timidity when his career carried him beyond the territory of his home region.  He spoke of his continued commitment to Galician cinema, and of the work involved when promoting regional culture elsewhere in Spain.  When an audience member asked how far (in geographical terms) his work would be likely to take him, he responded honestly that he was not sure, but that he saw himself in Spain for the moment – he commented that given the current state of affairs there, many of his colleagues have left and those who can afford to stay, like him, should do so.

Erudite, endearing, and witty, Luis revealed an astute awareness of the political possibilities of film.  Discussing the impact of cine social in Spain, he commended the way in which the genre had succeeded in making contemporary issues visible.  For Luis, this is further underscored by today’s culture in which news items appear so quickly and immediately, only to disappear again within an instant, and without the opportunity for reflection.  Cinema, by contrast, provides both time and space for the treatment and contemplation of topical social matters.

Though not an example of the cine social genre, Mientras duermes does contend with a number of key issues pertinent to contemporary society both within and beyond Spain.  The central theme is trust and its violation, given that the film’s villain occupies a position of responsibility.  Tosar plays César, the caretaker of a modernist apartment block in Barcelona.  Desperately unhappy, César believes he has two options by which to improve his state of mind: take his own life, or make the residents of the apartment block in which he works as miserable as he is.  Calling into question the boundaries of inside and outside, of security and threat, the film is tense and claustrophobic – an example of this is the repeated high angle images of César in his cramped shower cubicle.  Moreover, the film’s subversive play extends into genre conventions, particularly with regard to typical patterns of identification.  By aligning the spectator with villain César rather than with his victims, the tension created provokes an uneasy and ambivalent reaction in the viewer.

I hesitate to say more about the film as it is due for UK release in January 2013 – definitely worth a watch!
(Thanks to Rebecca Naughten, whose Spanish Cinema blog alerted me to the festival and this event)