Back in October, I wrote a blog post entitled ‘Thoughts on Cinema and Death: Part One’. I expected to return to the topic in my subsequent post; however, that was not the case. Finally, I revisit this theme – a mere three months later! I have no idea as to where the time has gone. But I do think that the PhD path never turns out quite as one may expect. And no matter how well or how much you plan things, there are always interruptions, distractions, and unexpected twists in the road that end up leading you down a different route. The last few months have seen me alter my working methods dramatically (see my previous post ‘On Working Methods’), and this has entailed a shift in focus. Throughout my PhD, I’ve tended to work on one particular topic/chapter at a time, concentrating on the reading, watching, and thinking associated with that aspect of the thesis before moving on to the next section. In the last few months, I’ve begun to move between and across the three chapters as I tie up the loose ends of research I have to complete for each chapter. This is at once a deliberate move to keep my interest alive, as well as part and parcel of approaching the final stages of the project. The reason I return to my work on cinema and death now is because I have to submit words shortly to one of my supervisors, and so I’ve chosen to rework that particular section of my thesis.
In my last post on cinema and death, I offered a very broad overview of the history of death in theoretical meditations on the medium of photography and cinema, summarising the stances of Walter Benjamin, André Bazin, and Roland Barthes. I then briefly described the conceptualisation of early cinema as both a storage vessel that protected against death, and as a medium that had the ability to capture the moment of death; this line of argumentation has been extensively explored by film scholar Mary Ann Doane, in her book The Emergence of Cinematic Time. In this post, I reflect on the status of cinema as a spectral medium, utilising Jacques Derrida’s conceptualisation of the spectre as a framework. This is still something I’m working through in my thesis so I appreciate any comments, feedback, ideas, and suggestions.
My research on the significance of death in the context of film theory has revealed an interesting trend. From a chronological perspective, there are two key moments in which death emerges as a theoretical concern: the first is in the late 1970s, evidenced by Barthes and Susan Sontag; and the second is at the turn of the millennium, exemplified by the work of Doane, but also D. N. Rodowick and Laura Mulvey. Of these two moments, the latter is of the most importance for me, given that the films I analyse in my chapter on the immigrant – of which this section on cinema and death is a part – were all produced in the last ten to fifteen years. Death thus emerges as a theoretical concern in connection with technological change: the late 1970s brought the shift to video and the inauguration of a new generation of special effects, while the 2000s bore witness to the widespread employment of digital filmmaking. In each case, these changes specifically concern the materiality of the medium, a topic which is further emphasised by contemporary digital culture and its increasing immateriality.
The question of (im)materiality in relation to cinema invites, for me at least, a reading through the lens of spectrality. I’ve already detailed my struggles with Jacques Derrida (read my post entitled ‘Digesting Derrida’ here). However, in reworking my ideas on cinema and death, I’ve begun to see his usefulness in terms of cinema, spectrality, and the immigrant. To summarise, the concepts of spectrality and hauntology constitute the framework of Derrida’s seminal text Spectres of Marx. In the book’s preface, Derrida outlines four key aspects of his analysis: presence, justice and the other, and time. With regards presence, Derrida details the curious status of the spectre that is at once both present and absent. In this way, the spectre defies the framework of ontology, and exposes its limitations. Because of this problematic, Derrida coins the term ‘hauntology’ as a means of discussing the extraordinary existence of the spectre. The spectre’s paradoxical state of being chimes with the medium of film – if we reach back beyond the digital culture of our contemporary age – insofar as what it produced were not actual, material bodies, but were rather, images, projections, shadows of human figures on screen. The shift from film to digital does not, however, alter the medium’s spectral quality. If anything, it increases the spectrality of the cinematic image, given that images are no longer dependent on an indexical trace, but rather can be created digitally from a string of numbers. Further enhancing the spectral aspect of the cinematic image is its potential for repetition and reiteration. The distribution, circulation, and screening of films are even more widespread nowadays due to the global networks within which films are produced. To relate it to the films I analyse, the immigrant character may die but he or she is immortalised through the film image, and can be brought back to life through rescreening the film. In this way, the cinematic medium underscores Derrida’s conceptualisation of the spectre as ‘A question of repetition: a specter [sic] is always a revenant. One cannot control its comings and goings because it begins by coming back’ (Spectres of Marx, p.11).
Returning to Derrida’s conceptualisation of the spectre, and to the themes of justice and the other, he remarks that his meditation on ‘ghosts, inheritance, and generations of ghosts’ is in other words a means of speaking about ‘certain others who are not present, nor presently living, either to us, in us, or outside us’ and that this is conducted ‘in the name of justice’ (Spectres of Marx, xviii). The idea of the spectre who returns because of unfinished business has become a common trope in popular culture – examples include The Others, El Orfanato, or The Sixth Sense. However, Derrida’s linking of justice and the other is of particular significance for my work on the immigrant, given that the majority films I consider are by Spanish, rather than migrant, filmmakers. They thus do not just speak of the immigrant, but inevitably speak for the immigrant. I am still thinking through what this means in the context of cinema as medium. Does the alignment of immigrant with spectre in contemporary Spanish immigration cinema evidence a call for justice? Does this line of argumentation risk falling into the trap, so beautifully outlined by Sara Ahmed in her book Strange Encounters, of universalisation and/or romanticisation of the immigrant other?
Finally, Derrida’s text centres on the question of time, circling around the idea, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, of the time being ‘out of joint’. For Derrida, the spectre’s relationship to time is epitomised by this idea: ‘Furtive and untimely, the apparition of the specter [sic] does not belong to that time, it does not give time’ (Spectres of Marx, xix). Again, I’m still thinking through the significance of this both for the immigrant, and for the medium of cinema. However, I have noticed that this idea is indeed dealt with in one of the films I work on: Biutiful. The film begins and ends with an encounter between protagonist Uxbal and his dead father, who fled Franco’s Spain and went into exile in Mexico only to die two weeks later of pneumonia. In this encounter between father and son the time is most certainly out of joint, given that the father is in his twenties and the son in his fifties. In addition, it is spectral, insofar as both characters are dead.
To conclude, and as I said above, I’m very much still working through these ideas concerning the link between cinema and death, and in terms of cinema as a spectral medium. Derrida’s conceptualisations of spectrality and hauntology should prove useful as a means of interpreting this link with respect to the representation of death in Spanish immigration films. Any comments, questions, feedback welcome!
 DERRIDA, J., 2006. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. New York; Oxon: Routledge Classics.