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by Victoria Grace Walden

Embodiment and actuality sites of a traumatic past

I am standing in the Podgórze district of Kraków, Poland. In 1941, this region, which was designed to house 3,000 residents, was transformed into a Jewish Ghetto which imprisoned 15,000 Polish Jews. Two segments of the Ghetto wall remind today’s visitors of this district’s traumatic past. One of these segments overlooks a children’s playground. How do I relate to the tragic past of this site as I stand here?

Phenomenologists from Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Vivian Sobchack to Jenny Chamarette, all consider subjectivity to arise from the space in-between the different bodies of experience. The space in-between suggests that meaning arises from the intertwining of the different bodies, rather than belonging to one particular subject. Usually phenomenology focuses on the embodied (sometimes human) subject and their relationship with objects or other people. However, at this particular site, I feel like an intruder -a tourist- observing an interaction between two inanimate objects which seem to be communicating with each other. Here, I begin to realise the significance of the space in-between. In front of me stands a grey wall, its three-foot panels designed to represent Jewish gravestones. These are fragments of the remaining Ghetto wall. I reach out to touch this wall, but I feel uncomfortable doing so. It’s darkness, size and shape seems to cast a shadow over the space where I stand. I am saddened by the past that once inhabited the other side of this wall.

However, in front of this wall I see children’s play equipment. It is brightly coloured and on springs – there is a vibrancy and vitality to its presence. The equipment reminds me of being young and the joy and freedom of the imagination of play. 


What is most striking for me, though, is the space in-between these two objects. Both the wall and the equipment conjure strong, but contrasting emotions. The space between them expresses an absence and a distance. It is here that I fix my gaze – are people that come here to enjoy the present use of this site aware of its tragic past? Could the inhabitants once trapped behind this wall ever have imagined a time when vitality and freedom might return to this site? This space in-between signifies the distance between then and now, and the absence of those who were once imprisoned here and yet who, in the majority, never returned.

My attention, or my intentionality, is drawn to the absence- the space in-between the two objects and I feel an uncanny relationship to the different temporal dimensions I encounter here – it is neither the past nor the present which becomes the subject of my attention. Rather, it is the space in-between these different eras – for a moment, I feel as if I am embodied in an ahistoric moment – one where my intentionality is drawn to the relationality between temporal dimensions, rather than directed towards any one time. Is it possible to consider experiences as moments outside history? I am now historicising my experience at the site by recording it for the future in this blog.  It is now part of my history. Perhaps, it is not that the experience is ahistoric, but rather that this site has drawn my attention to the fact meaning can arises from spatial and temporal relationships. It is here, that I realise turning to the embodied moment allows me to identify embodiment not only as an experience of the now, but as a relationship with different temporal dimensions.


Film Studies, Affect and Ethics

Victoria Grace Walden

In-keeping with Mona’s recent ’10 things I know about…’ blogs, I have accepted the challenge of attempting to summarise my own research in such a way. Here are 10 thoughts about affect and film scribed without reference to notes or quotation:

  1. Film phenomenologists such as Vivian Sobchack consider ‘affect’ to be the corporeal relationship between spectator and film;
  2. Laura Marks focuses specifically on the notion of haptic visuality (and briefly haptic aurality) considering the ability of the camera to ‘graze’ rather than gaze over surfaces, textures and spaces –to bring us closer to things which provoke sensuous memories of touch or movement;
  3. Psychologist Tomkin considers ‘affect’ to refer to intensity changes rooted inside the body;
  4. While, phenomenologists consider affect in relation to bodily reactions, it has often been used as an umbrella term of emotions, feelings and mood;
  5. Cognitive film theory, in its thinking about emotions, might be considered to identify ‘affect’ as related to character- or narrative-identification. Such thinking reinforces Christian Metz’s notions that the cinema screen is an illusionary, post-Lacanian mirror where we identify with a fantastical Other;
  6. This approach would suggest we respond to the diegesis as ‘that world over there’ –a hermeneutically closed space;
  7. If we are positioned outside the space of meaning-making during the film experience, it could be suggested that it is the film, not us, that is the ethical subject because the audience is considered a passive consumer of the film’s message. In this sense, Catherine Wheatley suggests that Hollywood-style narrative films encourage the spectator to only consider ethical questions after the film has finished and such questions tend to relate to the final consequences of narrative actions;
  8. However, sometimes films are playful with style, montage and reflexive in such ways that they slip between emotionally and critically engaging the spectator, and in doing so, turn the spectator’s attention towards their own body as well as the film’s. Thus, according to Wheatley, such films encourage spectators to confront their position as a participant during the experience. These films might be considered to be ‘morally consequent’ (to use Wheatley’s term);
  9. Ergo we might consider affect and ethics as intertwining concepts: when we watch a film we are an ethically inscribed body; we are embodied in the film experience as an ethical being. Ethics is after all, always inscribed in the actions we perform in our life;
  10. By turning our attention to the film experience rather than the film text we are turning towards a study of the ethical relationship between film and spectator.

Victoria Grace Walden

Embodiment, digital technology and site visits

New twentieth century technologies of representation and narration… have increasingly collapsed the temporal distance between present, past, and future that structured our previously conceived notion of the temporal dimensions of what we call history (as the latter is differentiated from experience). That is, event and its representation, immediacy and its mediation, have moved increasingly towards simultaneity.

(Sobchack, 1996:4-5)

Having had the pleasure of being involved in one of the Holocaust Education Trust’s recent Lessons from Auschwitz projects, this quote made me think about how the project’s young participants engage with memory and history during their visit to the Nazi concentration-death camp.

The project involves 16-18 year old students from the UK attending an orientation seminar in London, a day trip to Oświęcim and Auschwitz-Birkenau, followed by a second reflective seminar in London. The students then return to their school and translate their experience into some form of educational or commemorative outcome.

As part of the orientation seminar, students are encouraged to discuss a quote from Janina Struk’s Photographing the Holocaust (2003). Struck suggests that “a camera puts a distance between the person taking the photographs and an otherwise distressing experience.”

In On Photography, Susan Sontag states, “Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture” (quotes take from the Holocaust Education Trust handout).

Both of these stances are critical of taking photographs and suggest they diminish our experience of place, offering instead a safe barrier between us and the traumatic aura of the site we encounter. Previously I have agreed with this position. When I first started taking photographs of atrocity sites for my research, I felt awkward -as if I was intruding on someone else’s history; as if I was being disrespectful.

However, the students I spoke to were rather vehement about the importance of taking photographs. One said “it proves you were there”, another “they are memories”. Does taking photographs or video footage augment or diminish our embodied experience?

Auschwitz gates

To return to the Sobchack quote, modern technology has the capability to collapse the temporal dimensions of history. It can diminish the sense of a narrative where the past is behind us, the present is what is being experienced and the future something yet to come. The individual frames of photograph or film can bring to our attention the significance of the experienced event and raise questions about the notion of history as ‘story’. Each click of the camera or press of the record button signifies an embodied moment or event detached from a wider narrative – a moment of action dictated by the body and one where choices are made by the photographer. What is it from this moment that they wish to capture? What, in the perceptual horizon in front of them, is their intentionality drawn to? What are they specifically conscious of at this moment? How does their choice of framing and positioning emphasise their corporeal experience of the site? Sobchack reminds us that consciousness is always consciousness of something and the camera can often be a tool that augments our experience of a place by allowing us to capture the specific objects of our intentionality at any given moment and return to it repeatedly. Sometimes, upon re-viewing the image we can see shapes or objects we didn’t notice with the naked eye.

The action of the click collapses the temporal dimensions of time because it highlights its subjective nature. Time is not necessarily experienced as a mythical, objective narrative that joins individual moments together. Instead, here the photographer has a relationship with the past, present and future simultaneously. This is not to say they live the time we refer to as the past, the now and a futuristic moment at once, but rather that in the moment when they click the button on their camera they instantly collapse their embodied relationship with these three temporal dimensions. That is to say, their pressing of the button identifies that they are making a conscious choice not only to look at the traces of the past in front of them, but to reflect on this past in the present moment, by taking an image that will continue to commemorate both this present and the past being reflected on, in the future.

The representation and remembering of history thus becomes an event which will eventually be sutured into the participant’s story of the Holocaust (for it is in our nature as human beings to make stories of everything even if we do not experience life as such). In the embodied action of the click of the camera they say: “Here I was, looking at the traces of what happened here. I ask you to also see. Look and remember.”

But there is always the problem of iconoclasm. At an site such as Auschwitz, which has come to stand as a symbol of the Holocaust and a symbol of evil in the public consciousness, do we take photographs of things which affect us personally or take photographs of those objects which we recognise as iconic?  Are we in danger of repeating the same images and reducing the Holocaust to a set of trope photographs which could be misinterpreted as the sum of the entire event?


Sobchack, Vivian (1996) The Persistence of History: Cinema, Television and the Modern Event, London, UK: Routledge.

Sontag, Susan (1979) On Photography, London, UK & New York, USA: Penguin.

Struck, Janina (2004) Photographing the Holocaust: Interpretations of the Evidence, London, UK & New York, USA: I.B. Tauris.

An overview of upcoming conferences and other research events which may be of interest to those researching embodiment and affect. 

by Victoria Grace Walden

 1) Being non/human discussion group in London, UK

An inter-disciplinary discussion group for postgraduate students and early career researchers. Possible topics could include, but are not limited to:

• The human as a distinct entity

• The posthuman

• The animal / ‘animot’

• Nature and Ecomaterialism

• ‘Thing Theory’, ‘Object Oriented Ontology’ – what does it mean to be an ‘object’ or ‘thing’?

• Metamorphoses, hybrids, monsters

• The nonhuman as an incorporeal being

• Automata, simulations, technology

 The initial call for papers has now passed, but for more information contact:             


2) Trauma: Theory and Practice Conference, Prague, Czech Republic

Saturday 22nd March – Tuesday 25th March 2014

Themes include:

  • Public and Political Trauma
  • Personal and Individual Trauma
  • Diagnosing and Treating Trauma
  • Theorising Trauma
  • Representing Trauma

 300 word abstracts due by Friday 11th October 2013

Full draft papers due by Friday 17th January 2014

 For more information visit:


 3) 2014 Humanities Symposium, Affect and Inquiry at University of Iowa, USA

March 27th– 29th 2014

Call for papers about topics including:

  • The roles of technology and science in shaping the sensory dimension of inquiry
  • The affects of production, interaction, experience, and spectatorship in film, art and literature
  • Historiography, performance, sport, photography, psychology, sociology, and medicine
  • Anti-racist, queer, feminist, socio-economic, and postcolonial critiques of reason
  • Engage scholarship in local communities; engaged and experimental pedagogies
  • Interdisciplinary collaboration across methods, personalities and fields
  • Critiques of affect studies and the challenges of studying “precognition”

 Abstracts should be submitted to by September 15th 2013

For more information visit:


4) Society for Phenomenology and Media, Furtwangen and Freiburg, Germany

March 12th– 15th 2014

Call for Papers which are organised around a specific media, for example: film, the Internet, mobile communication, medieval manuscripts, print media, stage drama, television, visual art, dance etc.

The Society for Phenomenology and Media encourages interdisciplinary approaches and theoretical diversity. Papers need not be limited to phenomenological approaches. Past papers have come from diverse theoretical perspectives, including critical theory, cultural studies, hermeneutics, Marxism, New Historicism, post-colonial theory, pragmatism, semiotics, speech-act theory, and others.

 Abstracts should be submitted by October 20th 2013

Papers accepted and presented are published in Glimpse, the annual publication of SPM.

For more information visit:!info


Highlights and thoughts regarding embodiment, affect, film and media from this year’s conference

by Victoria Grace Walden

Conference director Phillip Drummond hospitably accommodated more than 150 speakers, including key note presenters professors Laura Mulvey and Toby Miller alongside Dr. Cathy Ross, Jeremy Black and film and television writer Joe Ahearne at this year’s Film and Media conference. Below I share just some of the highlights which refer to issues of affect and embodiment.

Dr. Cathy Ross’s (Museum of London) opening keynote on Thursday explored how the city museum incorporates new technology into its museum spaces. She discussed the museum’s augmented reality phone app which allows users to see “this spot in history” at certain places in the capital. Then explained how digital imagery and film were used in a variety of exhibitions, discussing the mixed reactions of visitors in some areas such as the slavery gallery and the Blitz.

Dr. Ross touched on how our perception and desires of museum spaces are changing. Visitors expect interaction and emotional experiences in museums and the more traditional “knowledge” online. This made me reflect: what is knowledge? Do we always have to consider it as a cognitive asset? Can becoming submerged in interactive experiences that provoke emotions and sensations not offer a corporeal form of “knowledge”? Are we moving into an age which we might define by this “new knowledge”?

Also, how do/ can we engage with affect and the historical in museum spaces though media? What are the limitations? What are the ethical implications? Are there any topics where the digital and moving image could be deemed inappropriate?

I’ll be focusing on some of these issues in a future blog after visiting some of London’s museum sites this summer.

Mason Kamana Allred (University of California Berkeley, USA)  spoke at the “Spectacles of History 1” panel about Ernst Lubitsch’s Madam Dubarry (1919) questioning whether cinema could offer a new form of history to traditional, epistemological and scientific representations of the past. He linked the work of Frank Ankersmit on sublime historical experience to the phenomenological ideas of Vivian Sobchack in order to explore a prelinguistic, subjective history that perhaps can be felt at the cinema.

Three other papers which particularly grabbed my attention and jointly encouraged me to think about my relationship with the screen were Dr Douglas Keesey’s (California Polytechnic State University, USA)  discussion of the illusion of choice and morality regarding death in the Final Destination franchise; Elena Wooley’s (King’s College, London)  paper on disaster movies and the use of surrogates) for suffering in films of the genre in order to translate terror into entertainment (such as spectacularly collapsing buildings rather than close-ups of human victims); and Dr Sian Mitchell’s (SAE, Australia) exploration of her experience of a delayed (or continuous) affect after watching Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia (2010).

These three papers raised questions about how I relate to bodies on screen. In the Final Destination films I discover, like the characters, I cannot cheat death. As such, the diegeses of the films extend beyond the frame as my understanding of real life is affected by the actions on screen. In films such as 2012 (Emmerich, 2009), I see only the protagonists up-close therefore connecting with the survivors. I never see the human extent of the catastrophe, yet the entire world seems to collapse around me. I leave the auditorium with an ecstatic sense of immortality – I have cheated death, I have survived the end of the world. In contrast, as the credits close on Melancholia I feel I have been cheated of death. As the beautiful closing light sucks the colour from the film and Wagner’s music crescendos neither reach their conclusion before the fade to black. The audio-visual image seems transcendental, but never allows me to fully submerge in its glory. As Dr Alex Ling (University of West Sydney, Australia) noted that’s because Von Trier is continuously reminding us that his films are only movies. This is Otherness, this is fantasy, this is not my experience to claim.

film and media conference film studies phillip drummond toby miller

 Phillip Drummond and Toby Miller at the closing key note

Image: Victoria Grace Walden



By Daniel Eaves

Possible explanations for the psychological phenomenon of covert action simulation

When you observe another person’s action, it elicits an action simulation process in your brain, without involving overt movement. This action simulation is automatic, and can also bias the shape of your subsequent movements towards those that you have just seen… but why does this happen? There are at least three proposals, the third of which raises a particularly interesting question for the embodied approach:

  • Action simulation certainly guides us when intentionally imitating each other; and also underlies unconscious or unintended copying in social settings (Heyes, 2010).
  • Maybe it also allows us to understand other people’s actions from ‘the inside’. By grounding incoming perceptual information in the language of my own body schema, I would first understand how and why I would perform the action myself, and then speculate why you might do this too (Rizzolati & Sinigaglia, 2010). This embodied approach is nice; it links low-level sensorimotor and higher-order social processes in the brain. However, this proposal still needs more empirical support (see Prinz, 2006).
  • Finally, action prediction might be the key objective (Körding & Wolport, 2004). For example, expert basketball players predicted shot success better than novice players and expert observers (commentators and pundits), after seeing only the early stages of a basketball free-throw (Aglioti et al., 2008). Clearly prediction is useful for interacting (and surviving!) in everyday life, but it got me thinking… athletes face so many action possibilities in sport. If they are better at simulating, then why are they not more likely to be biased and/or fall for fake or dummy actions? Perhaps being better at simulating possible future actions, means you are also better at selecting between multiple action choices. If so, then how many actions can we ‘embody’ at one time?

Aglioti, S.M., Cesari, P. Romani, M. & Urgesi, C. (2008). Action anticipation and motor resonance in elite basketball players. Nature Neuroscience, 11, 1109-1116.

Heyes C. M. (2011). Automatic imitation. Psychological Bulletin 137, 463-483.

Körding K.P., Wolpert D.M. (2004). Bayesian integration in sensorimotor learning. Nature, 427:244-247.

Rizzolatti, G. & Sinigaglia, C. (2010). The functional role of the parieto-frontal mirror circuit: interpretations and misinterpretations. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 11, 264-274.

Prinz, W. (2006). What re-enactment earns us. Cortex, 42 (4), 515-517.

By Victoria Grace Walden

Phenomenology, documentary and film experience (looking at two Holocaust documentaries)

There are few writers I find as fascinating as Vivian Sobchack. She continuously rethinks approaches to film studies by returning to the experience of the spectator. She is dissatisfied with the singularity approaches to film spectatorship. Instead she improves on Lacanian psychoanalysis by positioning herself and her theories firmly in the realm of the Real. Sobchack considers spectatorship as pluralist – not only accounting for the many different spectators, but the many different positions one individual can take during the same film.

In Toward a Phenomenology of Nonfictional Film Experience, Sobchack gives non-Francophone individuals like me a rare opportunity to critique Jean-Pierre Meunier’s Les Structures de l’experience filmique: L’Identification filmique (1969). As Sobchack explains, Meunier identified three modes of film experience: the “home movie” (or “film-souvenir”), the “documentary” and the “fiction film”. Meunier places these modes in a hierarchy:

  • Fiction films encourage us mostly to fix our attention on the symbolic image and less on the world outside the frame.
  • Documentary positions us as learners where we compromise between our knowledge of the general subject and our partial lack of it.
  • Home-movies recall our memories of the existential subjects on screen and our experience of them in the lived world.

fiction documentary home movie

However, Sobchack develops Meunier’s theory by claiming that we are capable of switching between these different modes during the same film regardless of its genre. So we can begin to understand our experience of a film as a negotiation between the three modes, like this:

fiction documentary home movie Sobchack

I call upon two films from my own area of expertise here as examples:

Errol Morris’ The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr (1999)

Morris’ documentary details the extraordinary story of a small-town American man who went from fixing electric chairs to defending David Irving by providing “scientific evidence” that the gas chambers at Auschwitz were never used for extermination.

Morris’ film is as much noir as it is documentary. In the opening sequence chiaroscuro lighting, a wash of blue colour and a birdcage are used to symbolise the anti-hero status of Fred Leutchter. This is very much a sequence which positions me as experiencing the fictional.

Morris has noted that at an initial screening of the film several audience members started to consider Leuchter’s argument as truth. Wanting to avoid being tarred as a Holocaust denier, Morris subsequently re-edited his film adding a voiceover of a Holocaust historian. This addition makes me overtly aware of the documentary’s construction therefore I begin to question the film’s objectivity. It is a voice which does not belong to the story of Fred A. Leuchter. Its appearance seems contrived (suddenly being introduced halfway through the narrative). As my awareness to the film’s construction is heightened, I begin to pay more attention to the images as symbolic; as images I need to interrupt and analyse critically rather than images which teach me something about the world I live in. When the film has finished, I feel as if I am conflicted and confused about the “character” Fred A. Leuchter rather than feeling I have learnt something about Holocaust denial. Perhaps this is because my knowledge of the topic is relatively extensive? I am not dissatisfied with the experience though. It has been an intriguing character study, much as I expect Morris intended it to be.

Yael Hersonski’s A Film Unfinished (2010)

Hersonski attempts to layer voices in a similar vein to Morris. In her film, which shows footage shot by Nazi-commissioned filmmakers of the Warsaw Ghetto, she interrupts the archive footage with freeze frames, voiceovers and images of survivors watching the film in an auditorium. The freeze frames usually highlight the gaze of one of the inhabitants of the Ghetto. These images seem to talk directly to me like nothing I have ever experienced in archive footage. The effect turns the archival or documentary image into a construction, what we might consider to be a fictionalised image. I am forced, unnaturally to linger my gaze for an uncomfortable amount of time on the faces (and particularly the gaze toward me) of these human figures. This is not an experience I can relate to my lived world or my general understanding of the Holocaust – people were not frozen in time as living beings who could gaze at others, they were dehumanized and murdered. I remember the Holocaust as an absence while these images give the deceased victims a long-lasting presence, but an uncanny, still one.

Also, by including the sequences of survivors watching the film, Hersonski positions me in the auditorium with them which seems to imply that I must watch the film from their point-of-view. However, this is problematic because the survivors’ experience of the footage is reminiscent of Meunier’s “home-movie” or “film-souvenir”. The survivors recall recognising people in these images which fragment a past belonging to them. It seems this technique was used to encourage the spectator to empathise with the survivors, however, for me it had a disturbingly opposite effect. I do not cry when I see a survivor cry, in fact I dry up – I am unable to cry. I feel as if I am intruding on their experience of a memory – a “home-movie” which I was not part of.

With such experiences of documentaries, can we ever really call a film “non-fiction”?

Vivian Sobchack (1999) Toward a Phenomenology of Non-Fictional Film Experience in Collecting Visible Evidence (1999), ed. Michael Renov and Jane Gaines, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999, 241-254.

By Victoria Grace Walden

An exploration of our sense of embodiment in memorial spaces and how this relates to remembering the past.

In my MA thesis I outlined seven modes of Holocaust commemoration. One of these modes I called the “affective mode” which I defined as: “memorials designed to engage the spectator with a sensuous response to the Holocaust; memorials that provoke affect” (Walden, 2011).

One of the memorials I explored was the Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europäs, Berlin (The Memorial for the Murdered Jews in Europe).


I have visited this memorial on several occasions and every time it strikes me that it is impossible to make sense of this space cognitively. If one tries to analyse the geometric pattern of the memorial or the uneven shapes of the large blocks one is left perplexed than before attempting analysis. Walking through the confusing arena is a reflective but chaotic and uncomfortable experience.  The memorial’s designer Peter Eisenman says:

I watched people walk into it for the first time and it is amazing how these heads disappear… like going under water. Primo Levi talks about a similar idea in his book about Auschwitz. He writes that the prisoners were no longer alive but they weren’t dead either. Rather seemed to descend into a personal hell. … I wanted people to have a feeling of being in the present and an experience that they have never had before. And one that was different and slightly unsettling. The world is too full of information and here is a place without information.   


Eisenman’s memorial is a truly haptic experience as we walk in between the blocks there is no set path, we can zigzag, we can turn back on ourselves or we can attempt to walk in a straight line – whatever logic we try to bring to our route it is disturbed by the unevenness of the space. We become consciously aware of our bodies’ placement in space and begin to adapt to the confusing nature of the memorial by turning corners and back on ourselves sporadically creating a maze-like experience by the choices our body makes. In one moment we can see clearly over the top of a block, the next a block towers over us with a looming shadow. This is a space without logic and order. A space that provokes us to remember –through the body- that the Holocaust was a chaotic, nonsensical experience; one that we can never attempt to apply reason and rationale too and one we can certainly never recreate in museum spaces or memorial. But yet, memorials can embody a sense of remembrance – a sense of the space our bodies occupy in the present (in this chaotic memorial surrounded by the busy city streets of modern Berlin) and the striking difference between this present and the bodies of the past (those absent from the memorial – victims are not pictured – and also absent from our world).

Cognitive theorists in film studies, Carl Plantinga for example, tend to focus on narrative, characters and genre in order to understand how audiences emotionally engage with texts. But what about when there are no bodies? Or bodies are abstracted? Many museums and memorials follow historical narratives or represent victims through text (name and date of death) or photos. These re-presentations petrify the victims much like the popular Victorian book of the dead. They have an element of stillness about them – as if time has stopped. Affective Holocaust memorials recognise that time has not stopped, that society has progressed and thus we must remember in order for such atrocities to never happen again. They do this by taking their spectators / participants / visitors out of their comfortable surroundings and momentarily embodying them in the space in-between – the space between past and present. Phenomenologists believe it is from inbetween (spectator and text) that meaning emerges. I would argue that the text of affective Holocaust memorials is the past – the Holocaust – and the space created becomes a portal not into the past but into the inbetweenness.

denkel 3

denkel 4

Denkel 2

(Photos copyright Victoria Grace Walden, 2005, 2011, 2011 and 2005)


by Victoria Grace Walden 

Speculations on a cinema of moments.

Tom Gunning (1995), in his paper An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)Credulous Spectator, defines the cinema that preceded classical narrative films “the cinema of attractions”. He describes it thus:

The aesthetic of attraction addresses the audience directly, sometimes… exaggerating this confrontation in an experience of assault. Rather than being an involvement with narrative action or empathy with character psychology, the cinema of attractions solicits a highly conscious awareness of the film image engaging the viewer’s curiosity. The spectator does not get lost in a fictional world and its drama, but remains aware of the act of looking, the excitement of curiosity and its fulfilment.

 (Gunning in Williams (ed) 1995: 121)

Gunning’s cinema of attraction is an attack on the senses; a cinema of moments which engages the spectator with the fundamental essence of cinema: the look. He is aware that the cinema of attractions did not completely disappear with the advent of classical narrative cinema. When you watch many films from the classical, new and contemporary eras of Hollywood there are evidently sequences which could be classified under a cinema of moments. These moments are perhaps not “attacks” on the senses, but certainly sensual moments which encourage the spectator to comprehend the cinematic image through the body. These images highlight what Laura U. Marks (2000) calls “haptic visuality” – images which provoke sensations of touch and movement. I argue, it is not just the “act of looking” which audiences are aware of in these moments, but the act of sensing, through all the senses: through the body. These “moments” are asides from the narrative. Through foregrounding the body they encourage the spectator to consider how the body is socialised within the film’s context: issues of gender, power and emotion become the focus rather than narrative storytelling. They could be considered corporeal monologues or asides.

Let me share three brief examples:

The Great Dictator (1940)

Ballet sequence: Slapstick is a genre conventionally characterised by “moments”: comical set pieces. In Charlie Chaplin’s commentary on Nazi Germany, the ballet sequence is a typical example of the cinema of moments. Chaplin signifies his aside by stating “leave me. I want to be alone.” This is followed by a majestic ballet routine in which he bounces a balloon which represents the globe. The dance illuminates the absurdity of man as all-powerful. In the moment in which he holds the whole world in his hand, Chaplin’s dictator loses his power. As he spins the balloon, lies on the desk, flicks the balloon with his buttocks and gazes at it romantically, his gestures feminize the body. He is beautified – an image of performance and theatre; a subject of the gaze, quite contrary to the strong Aryan worker concept of masculinity. The disappearance of the balloon emphasises his bodily gestures and signifies the end of the aside.

It Happened One Night (1934)

Hitchhiking: When Ellie Andrews and Peter are walking down a deserted road, she dictates the start of the aside when she decides to “go sit right down, over here” on a roadside fence. Peter’s carrot munching is reminiscent of Bugs Bunny’s iconic image establishing him as rough and perhaps animalistic. The gag that ensures focuses on gestures. Peter illustrates a variety of hand gestures, each more confident and stronger (and more absurd) than the one before. The certainty of his final gesture mimics the patriarchal mythology of the strong handshake and the importance for a man to perform his dominance through gesture. As Peter fails to hail a car his gestures become less controlled, more frantic and finally plain rude.

In contrast, Ellie’s first attempt is successful. Rather than bothering with firm hand gestures, she simply raises her skirt to expose her thigh. Interestingly, this sequence does not portray the female as object for the male gaze (as Laura Mulvey notes in many films of the time (1975)), rather the female controls it. Ellie gains power over Peter, the driver and the spectator by telling all of us when and where to look at her body. This is a fabulous sequence illustrating how performance of the body emphasises gender difference.

Taxi Driver (1976)

You talkin’ to me: In this scene, most famous for its dialogue, the concentration of medium and medium close-up shots of Travis emphasise it is a sequence about the body. Again, it is established as a narrative aside: Travis is alone in his apartment. Travis begins by pacing and crossing his arms, the latter motion is an attempt to establish a defensive position. Then he begins to flick his gun out rhythmically. As he does so, the gun and the body’s movements become one – a symbol of his body at its prime: his body as war machine. He later turns his back slightly to the spectator signifying he is gaining control over the fictitious conversation. Travis establishes himself as choreographer of the scenario – when he turns away, he stops talking and the interaction ends. After a pause of motionless, Travis turns once more towards the camera flicking the knife with ease and thus establishing his violent intentions. He is a threat. He dominates. He is restoring patriarchal power to his body and to his country. The sequence illustrates the crisis of masculinity imposed by the Vietnam War and Travis’ attempt to restore order.

These are just quick thoughts on a notion and not completely theorised as yet, but to think about a cinema of moments we must think through the body. Haptic moments are not confined to the avant-garde, the most mainstream narrative stories are interrupted by such moments which help us to reflect on the body and its social role.