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The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses

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Memories that evoke the physical awareness of touch, smell, and bodily presence can be vital links to home for people living in diaspora from their culture of origin. How can filmmakers working between cultures use cinema, a visual medium, to transmit that physical sense of place and culture? In The Skin of the Film Laura U. Marks offers an answer, building on the theories of Gilles Deleuze and others to explain how and why intercultural cinema represents embodied experience in ...

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The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses

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Overview

Memories that evoke the physical awareness of touch, smell, and bodily presence can be vital links to home for people living in diaspora from their culture of origin. How can filmmakers working between cultures use cinema, a visual medium, to transmit that physical sense of place and culture? In The Skin of the Film Laura U. Marks offers an answer, building on the theories of Gilles Deleuze and others to explain how and why intercultural cinema represents embodied experience in a postcolonial, transnational world.

Much of intercultural cinema, Marks argues, has its origin in silence, in the gaps left by recorded history. Filmmakers seeking to represent their native cultures have had to develop new forms of cinematic expression. Marks offers a theory of “haptic visuality”—a visuality that functions like the sense of touch by triggering physical memories of smell, touch, and taste—to explain the newfound ways in which intercultural cinema engages the viewer bodily to convey cultural experience and memory. Using close to two hundred examples of intercultural film and video, she shows how the image allows viewers to experience cinema as a physical and multisensory embodiment of culture, not just as a visual representation of experience. Finally, this book offers a guide to many hard-to-find works of independent film and video made by Third World diasporic filmmakers now living in the United States, Great Britain, and Canada.

The Skin of the Film draws on phenomenology, postcolonial and feminist theory, anthropology, and cognitive science. It will be essential reading for those interested in film theory, experimental cinema, the experience of diaspora, and the role of the sensuous in culture.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“The promise of Laura Marks’s The Skin of Film is the promise of thinking and living between critical discourses, experiences and cultures: the willingness to explore an embodied response capable of meeting the ‘hybrid microcultures’ of global modernity; the power to transform the memory of images, things, and the senses into ‘sensuous geographies’ of touch, smell and rhythm that inhabit and drift into a world increasingly divided between the policed frontier and the ‘placeless’ metropolis; and finally, the capacity to dwell in the critical interstice that allows thought to articulate itself on the edge of the unthought. - Tollof Nelson, CiNéMAS

“[A] fascinating exploration of the ways that diasporic filmmakers have excavated, rediscovered, and reignited cultural memories through appeals to multisensorial forms of recollection that challenge the Western cinematic reliance on visual imagery . . . . [H]ighly informative and will introduce the reader to many intercultural works that have previously gone unnoticed. Marks’s clear exuberance for her work and passion for the films she discusses also shine through. Highly recommended.” - Avi Santo, The Velvet Light Trap

"[A]n important document and substantial treatment of many sometimes ephemeral works of intercultural cinema. . . . Marks draws on a rich and somewhat dazzling array of theoretical sources and disciplinary fields. . . . The Skin of the Film also offers a very rich and extensive archive of intercultural cinematic productions of the eighties and nineties. . . . She manages to cover a vast range of work in an elegant, often moving writing style with curatorial detail. . . . [A]n extremely stimulating and original book. It signals a promising and very welcome move in film theory. . . . It has much to contribute to the emerging literature on affect in political and cultural studies. . . . Like the sound of dripping water or an itch that you don’t feel until you scratch, once your attention is drawn to The Skin of the Film, it becomes impossible to ignore it." - Tamara Vukov, Topia: A Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies

"[A] rich and rewarding read. . . . The Skin of the Film is quite unique. Offering important contributions to the redefinition of aesthetic scholarship, the author simultaneously conducts close readings of filmic works which are not well known, and presents nuanced readings of their significance, within an original theoretical framework."
- Melanie Swalwell, Film-Philosophy

“A marvelous interweaving of theory and historiography. This is a book that can interest film theorists, film historians, students of performance art, and scholars of postcoloniality and interculturalism. Marks explains—with rich detail—a whole range of recent cultural productions in film and video and makes those works come to life. The Skin of the Film suggests important ways to extend film theory.”—Dana Polan, University of Southern California

“Marks’s nuanced reading of a large number of films and videos is based on her deep engagement with the politics of place and displacement that drives the films. This book is a delightful read.”—Hamid Naficy, Rice University

“This is a terrific book! Not only does it have a significant argument to make, but it also works with a variety of little-known film/video examples in such a way as to give the reader both a vivid sense of them and a desire to go out and get hold of them.”—Vivian Sobchack, University of California at Los Angeles

Melanie Swalwell
"[A] rich and rewarding read. . . . The Skin of the Film is quite unique. Offering important contributions to the redefinition of aesthetic scholarship, the author simultaneously conducts close readings of filmic works which are not well known, and presents nuanced readings of their significance, within an original theoretical framework."
Tamara Vukov
"[A]n important document and substantial treatment of many sometimes ephemeral works of intercultural cinema. . . . Marks draws on a rich and somewhat dazzling array of theoretical sources and disciplinary fields. . . . The Skin of the Film also offers a very rich and extensive archive of intercultural cinematic productions of the eighties and nineties. . . . She manages to cover a vast range of work in an elegant, often moving writing style with curatorial detail. . . . [A]n extremely stimulating and original book. It signals a promising and very welcome move in film theory. . . . It has much to contribute to the emerging literature on affect in political and cultural studies. . . . Like the sound of dripping water or an itch that you don’t feel until you scratch, once your attention is drawn to The Skin of the Film, it becomes impossible to ignore it."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822323914
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 1/28/2000
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 1,081,380
  • Product dimensions: 6.13 (w) x 9.22 (h) x 0.94 (d)

Meet the Author

Laura U. Marks is an independent critic and curator, as well as Assistant Professor of Film Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.

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Read an Excerpt

The Skin of the Film

Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses
By LAURA U. MARKS

DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS

Copyright © 2000 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-2358-7


Chapter One

The memory of images

Intercultural cinema by definition operates at the intersections of two or more cultural regimes of knowledge. These films and videos must deal with the issue of where meaningful knowledge is located, in the awareness that it is between cultures and so can never be fully verified in the terms of one regime or the other. Yet the relationships between cultures are also mediated by power, so that the dominant regime-in the following examples, some configuration of the historical Euro-American hegemony-sets the terms of what counts as knowledge. Other knowledges cannot be expressed in its terms. They may evade expression because of censorship; because memory is inaccessible; or because to give expression to those memories is to invite madness. They may become subsumed to the dominant regime and forced to speak its language: this is the tokenism of multicultural cinema. In the face of these erasures, intercultural cinema turns to a variety of sources to come up with new conditions of knowledge: written history, sometimes; the audiovisual archive; collective and personal memory; fiction; and the very lack of images or memories, itself a meaningful record of what can beexpressed. Cultural knowledges are lost, found, and created anew in the temporal movement of history and in the spatial movement between places. In this chapter I dwell on archaeological models of cultural memory, while in the next chapter spatial acts of travel and physical contact will predominate.

Intercultural cinema moves backward and forward in time, inventing histories and memories in order to posit an alternative to the overwhelming erasures, silences, and lies of official histories. There are many examples of film/videomakers who have begun by confronting the lack of histories of their own communities that result from public and personal amnesia. These artists must first dismantle the official record of their communities, and then search for ways to reconstitute their history, often through fiction, myth, or ritual. I can mention only a few of the best-known of this large body of archaeological works: it includes much of the work of Black Audio Film Collective, such as John Akomfrah's Handsworth Songs (1986), Testament (1988), and Seven Songs for Malcolm X (1993), and Reece Auguiste's Mysteries of July (1991) and Twilight City (1989); Maureen Blackwood and Isaac Julien's The Passion of Remembrance (1986), Julien's Looking for Langston (1989), and other works by Sankofa; Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust (1992); Janice Tanaka's Memories from the Department of Amnesia (1990) and Who's Gonna Pay for These Donuts Anyway? (1992); Cheryl Dunyé's The Watermelon Woman (1996); Elia Suleiman's Homage by Assassination (1992) and Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996); Elia Suleiman and Jayce Salloum's Muqaddimah Li-Nihayat Jidal (Introduction to the end of an argument) Speaking for oneself ... speaking for others (1990); Jayce Salloum and Walid Ra'ad's Talaeen a Junuub (Up From the South) (1993); Richard Fung's The Way to My Father's Village (1988) and My Mother's Place (1990); Yun-ah Hong's Memory/all echo (1990) and Through the Milky Way (1992); Alanis Obomsawin's Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993), and Victor Masayesva's Ritual Clowns (1988), Siskyavi: The Place of Chasms (1991), and Imagining Indians (1994). This chapter focuses on a number of archaeological works, paying special attention to Rea Tajiri's History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige (1991), Raoul Peck's Lumumba: The Death of a Prophet (1992), Marlon Fuentes's Bontoc Eulogy (1995), Atom Egoyan's Calendar (1993), and John Akomfrah/Black Audio's Who Needs a Heart? (1992).

As in many intercultural films and videos, the acts of excavation performed by these works is primarily deconstructive, for it is necessary to dismantle the colonial histories that frame minority stories before those stories can be told in their own terms. Yet once this deconstruction has been accomplished, no simple truth is uncovered. There is a moment of suspension that occurs in these works after the official discourse has been (if only momentarily) dismantled and before the emerging discourse finds its voice. This is a moment of silence, an act of mourning for the terrible fact that the histories that are lost are lost for good. Yet this moment is also enormously suggestive and productive. It is where these works begin to call upon other forms of cultural knowledge: it is where the knowledges embedded in fetish-like objects, bodily memory, and the memory of the senses, which this book explores, are found. This process of discovery is like scavenging in a tide pool for the small, speaking objects that are briefly revealed there before the water rushes in again. In what follows I will note how the works in question point to these moments where new kinds of knowledge may emerge, knowledges to which I return in the following chapters.

I find the cinematographic philosophy of Gilles Deleuze most useful to explore how intercultural cinema performs a multiphased activity of excavation, falsification, and fabulation, or the making up of myths. I shall dwell on Deleuze's use of concepts from Bergson and Foucault; however, the ideas of Peirce, Nietzsche, Leibniz, and others are as thickly woven through Deleuze's cinema books. One of the most appealing aspects of Deleuze's two books on cinema is their open-ended quality. At first glance at these texts' astonishingly broad range of cinematic material and plethora of new terms, one could almost imagine Deleuze saying, like Walt Whitman, "You say I contradict myself; Very well, I contradict myself-I contain multitudes." In fact (like Whitman's), their open-endedness is part of the internal coherence of Deleuze's philosophy. These writings on cinema may be brought productively to works of which he was not aware or that did not exist at the time of his writing. His cinematographic philosophy is always open to transformation, to producing new concepts. As Dudley Andrew has written, "Deleuze does not read images; he sees with images, using them as a source for what can yet be thought, not as a record of what has already been thought" (1997, xi). I intend to make his theories think by bringing them into contact with new images. Intercultural cinema draws out the political implications of Deleuze's theory of cinema. To demonstrate this I want to emphasize the alliance between dominant narrative form and official history, to draw out the political potential of mythmaking and of ritual, and to stress the collective nature of memory and perception. If we trace Deleuze's understanding of perception back to its origin in Bergson, the disjunctions within the kinds of information offered by a film can evoke other sorts of memory that slip from both official history and the audiovisual record: namely, memories encoded in senses other than the auditory and the visual. My discussion is drawn from Walter Benjamin's critique of Bergson, theorists of hybrid and minority cinema such as Teshome Gabriel and Hamid Naficy, and most importantly, the films and videos themselves.

One of Deleuze's important basic distinctions is that between movement-image cinema, in which frame follows frame causally, according to the necessities of action, and time-image cinema, which frees time from causality. Simply, in the movement-image, Arnold grabbing the gun is followed by Arnold shooting the bad guy; in the time-image, Arnold grabbing the gun might be followed by Arnold going into a reverie, or perhaps a step-printed reprise of the gun-grabbing shot. Deleuze attributes the rise of time-image cinema to postwar European directors such as Rossellini, Antonioni, and Godard. His very derivation of the categories of movement-image and time-image implies that the new cinema became possible in an intercultural space. In order to emphasize the revolutionary potential of the new time-image cinema, Deleuze places great importance upon the "any-spaces-whatever" that came to proliferate after the Second World War:

The fact is that, in Europe, the post-war period has greatly increased the situations which we no longer know how to react to, in spaces which we no longer knew how to describe. These were "any-spaces-whatever", deserted but inhabited, disused warehouses, waste ground, cities in the course of demolition or reconstruction. And in these any-spaces-whatever a new race of characters was stirring, kind of mutant: they saw rather than acted, they were seers. (Deleuze 1989, xi)

I would argue that these any-spaces-whatever are not simply the disjunctive spaces of postmodernism, but also the disruptive spaces of postcolonialism, where non-Western cultures erupt into Western metropolises, and repressed cultural memories return to destabilize national histories. In this case the "new race ... kind of mutant" to which Deleuze refers (in terms that suddenly take on a rather xenophobic cast) describes the very real conditions of migration, diaspora, and hybridity that characterize the new populations of Europe and North America, especially in the periods following wars. The end of the modern period is characterized not only by industrial ruins but also by the dismantling of colonial power, whose ruins are perpetuated in the lives of the people it displaced. These people are "seers" in the metropolitan West, aware of violent histories to 28TheSkinoftheFilm which its dominant population is blind. They possess what Fatimah Tobing Rony (1996) calls a third eye, which allows them to perceive the dominant culture from both inside and outside.

Let me note here that Deleuze considered any-spaces-whatever to constitute images that arouse an emotional or visceral response, that is, affection-images. Yet, whereas it is conventional for these emotional responses to be immediately followed by action (Arnold feels anger and reaches for his gun), in any-spaces-whatever no action is possible. Instead, emotion or feeling opens us to the experience of time (Arnold slips into a reverie). This disengagement of affective response from action will become important later in this chapter, and in this book as a whole, as I examine how the body may be involved in the inauguration of time-image cinema.

Cinema as Archaeology

Intercultural cinema is in a position to sort through the rubble created by cultural dislocation and read significance in what official history overlooks. In what follows I use a geological/archaeological metaphor for these historical searchings, so it is useful to carry a mental diagram, a cross section of sedimented layers that, at their deepest, harden into granite, but whose surface is volatile and vulnerable to wind, water, and other, more violent, forces.

Deleuze's cinema theory draws from the simple principle, which he elaborated with Félix Guattari, that discourses are not only restrictive but enabling. While they limit what can be said, they also provide the only language in which to say it. In order to find expression, emerging thoughts and things must speak in the terms of the discourses that are established, though at the same time they break away from them. Political (indeed any) change must be effected in a sort of dance between sedimented, historical discourses and lines of flight, between containment and breaking free. This is the act of archaeology: combining elements from different strata in order to resist the order that would be imposed by working on one stratum alone (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 503), knowing that the result will be contradictory and partial. For intercultural cinema, this translates to the need to work critically within dominant discourses, both cinematic and more broadly cultural, while simultaneously developing the powerful emergent lines of flight that will open them to the outside.

In Foucauldian terms, intercultural cinema works at the edge of an unthought, slowly building a language in which to think it. What can already be thought and said threatens to stifle the potential emerging new thoughts. The already sayable against which intercultural cinema struggles is not only official history but often also identity politics, with their tendency toward categorization. Some of the works I will discuss confront the limits of thought, for example by showing what stories cannot be told through either official histories or individual remembrance. Others begin to work at the limits of what can be thought, by referring to the memories of objects, the body, and the senses. Many do both these things.

In intercultural cinema, the choice is usually to hold the image open to those possibilities of expression that are both threatening and enabling. The moments of thinness, suspension, and waiting in these films are not encounters with a dreadful void but with a full and fertile emptiness. The sorts of new thoughts enabled by "the unsummonable of Welles, the inexplicable of Robbe-Grillet, the undecidable of Resnais" (Deleuze 1989, 182) are generated as well by the unevocable images of Peck, the undecidable images of Suleiman, the inexplicable images of Tajiri. Deleuze compares the "powerlessness at the heart of thought" to a mummy (166): the thought that cannot yet be expressed appears paralyzed, petrified. Hence the quality of stillness that characterizes many of these works. The petrified object regains life only in the process of developing a thought that can think it, a language in which it can be spoken.

Intercultural cinema is not sanguine about finding the truth of a historical event so much as making history reveal what it was not able to say. Any truth is lost in the event's discursive representation, in the layers of words and things that build up over it. In the famous line from Handsworth Songs, "There are no stories in the riots, only ghosts of stories." Yet it is only by being inscribed in this way that an event can be said to occur at all. A film can recreate, not the true historical event, but at least another version of it, by searching into the discursive layers in which it was found. "If we want to grasp an event we must not show it," Deleuze writes, "we must not pass along the event, but plunge into it, go through all the geological layers that are its internal history (and not simply a more or less distant past)" (1989, 254-55). Many intercultural works rely on idiosyncratic, personal narratives, because these provide a slim thread back into the strata of history.

Following Foucault, Deleuze argues that experience cannot be represented directly and in its entirety, but only approached partially by the orders of the discursive and the visible, or the sayable and the seeable. These orders cannot be reduced one to the other. They are two incommensurable forms of truth that confront each other at a given historical moment. "'What we see never lies in what we say', and vice versa" (Deleuze 1988b, 64; quoting Foucault). A given discourse must be broken open to find its implicit statements, which cannot be conceived of in the terms of the discourse. Similarly, things must be broken open to find the visibilities implicit in them: "Visibilities are not forms of objects, nor even forms that would show up under light, but rather forms of luminosity which are created by the light itself and allow a thing to exist only as a flash, sparkle, or shimmer" (Deleuze 1988b, 52). Discourse and the visible, then, do not embrace the world, but only encapsulate what can be known at a given time. The seeable and the sayable approach each other asymptotically, showing each other to be false even as they require each other to be true. Cinema, because it is an audiovisual medium, is the privileged record of the disjunctive quality of "truth" in a given historical formation. Reading Foucault literally, Deleuze understands the cinematic image to correspond to the notion of the visible, the layer of things in which one can read about a particular stratum or historical formation. Cinema is able to hear (though it rarely does) what is just beyond discourse and see the flash at the edge of known things. Image and sound tracks usually corroborate each other, but they can also be used to undermine each other, to show the limit of what each is able to represent. In the image is revealed "the deserted layers of our time which bury our own phantoms" (Deleuze 1989, 244). What Deleuze's optical image does is "finally SEE" what has not been encoded in discourse, and finally hear it as well. Deleuze calls the visual and sound images that butt into each other but cannot be reconciled in a single discourse "incompossible" images (a term from Leibniz), and such images abound in intercultural film and video.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from The Skin of the Film by LAURA U. MARKS Copyright © 2000 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of illustrations
Preface
Acknowledgments
Introduction 1
1 The Memory of Images 24
2 The Memory of Things 77
3 The Memory of Touch 127
4 The Memory of the Senses 194
Conclusion: The Portable Sensorium 243
Notes 249
Bibliography 259
Filmography/Videography 275
Index 285
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