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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