Crash: Cinema and the Politics of Speed and Stasis

Crash: Cinema and the Politics of Speed and Stasis

by Karen Redrobe Beckman

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Artists, writers, and filmmakers from Andy Warhol and J. G. Ballard to Alejandro González Iñárritu and Ousmane Sembène have repeatedly used representations of immobilized and crashed cars to wrestle with the conundrums of modernity. In Crash, Karen Beckman argues that representations of the crash parallel the encounter of film with other media, and that these collisions between media offer useful ways to think about alterity, politics, and desire. Examining the significance of automobile collisions in film genres including the “cinema of attractions,” slapstick comedies, and industrial-safety movies, Beckman reveals how the car crash gives visual form to fantasies and anxieties regarding speed and stasis, risk and safety, immunity and contamination, and impermeability and penetration. Her reflections on the crash as the traumatic, uncertain moment of inertia that comes in the wake of speed and confidence challenge the tendency in cinema studies to privilege movement above film’s other qualities. Ultimately, Beckman suggests that film studies is a hybrid field that cannot apprehend its object of study without acknowledging the ways that cinema’s technology binds it to capitalism’s industrial systems and other media, technologies, and disciplines.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822392767
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 08/03/2010
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 318
File size: 14 MB
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About the Author

Karen Redrobe (formerly Beckman) is the Elliot and Roslyn Jaffe Professor of Film Studies in the Department of the History of Art, and Director of the Program in Cinema Studies, at the University of Pennsylvania. She is author of Vanishing Women: Magic, Film, and Feminism and coeditor, with Jean Ma, of Still Moving: Between Cinema and Photography, both also published by Duke University Press.

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Cinema and the Politics of Speed and Stasis
By Karen Beckman

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2010 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4726-2

Chapter One


Spectatorship, Mobility, and Collision in Early Cinema

Today the most real, the mercantile gaze into the heart of things is the advertisement. It abolishes the space where contemplation moved and all but hits us between the eyes with things as a car, growing to gigantic proportions, careens at us out of a film screen. And just as the film does not present furniture and façades in completed forms for critical inspection, their insistent, jerky nearness alone being sensational, the genuine advertisement hurtles things at us with the tempo of a good film. Thereby "matter-of-factness" is finally dispatched, and in face of the huge images across the walls of houses, where toothpaste and cosmetics lie handy for giants, sentimentality is restored to health and liberated in American style, just as people whom nothing moves or touches any longer are taught to cry again by films.-WALTER BENJAMIN, "ONE-WAY STREET" (1928)

For Walter Benjamin, the cinematic car careening toward the audience "out of a film screen" becomes a privileged figure illustrating not only mass culture's destruction of contemplative space, but also its ushering in of an intensified physical experience of "jerky nearness," of virtual collisions with the material world that catalyze affective awakenings. As reflection becomes impossible in the face of these hurtling images, their sensational proximity and speed break through the defenses of those who had forgotten how to cry, allowing them to be moved and touched anew. Though the merits of this sentiment continue to be debated in discussions of the ideology of popular cinema, for Benjamin it is mass culture's ability to arouse this sense of "insistent, jerky nearness" to the material world shown within the film, rather than any fateful absorption into that world, that displaces critical distance and vanishes a "matter-of-fact" approach to the world. And it is in this notion of cinema as a world close-at-hand but stuttering, just beyond our grasp, that Benjamin locates the radical possibilities of film. Though the specter of capitalism's gargantuan face and the destructive threat of the oncoming motorcar caution against a naïve and uncritical embrace of Benjamin's utopian vision of modern media, this passage nevertheless invites us to discover-through the figure of the cinematic car zooming straight at us-a mode of thinking about the world that grows out of, and has an affective openness to, the physical intensities of the virtual world of film. While the futurists celebrate the crash for its ecstatic potential and the regenerative orgasmic energy that arises in the wake of its destruction, Benjamin here suggests that feeling and the capacity to be moved emerge not through an actual collision, but through the sensation of nearness that the illusion of a vehicle about to collide with the apparatus of cinema is able to heighten. The paradigm of spectatorship as a virtual collision is not new to cinema; it can be found in descriptions of earlier projection technologies. Dionysius Lardner, for example, writing in 1859 of the common practice of gradually moving the magic lantern away from the screen in order to increase the size of the projected image, describes how "it sometimes appears as if the object would approach so as to come into actual collision with the spectator." Yet perhaps because cinema combined these sensations of sudden changes in distance and proximity, enabled by projection, with repeated images of actual technological collisions, the popular as well as the philosophical conceptualization of cinema is increasingly aligned with the experience of being run over by a car, as in this 1907 advertisement for Liebig's Real Meat Extract, a product which implicitly promised to fortify and restore its consumers after their daily encounters with the physical challenges of the modern world (figure 1).

Benjamin is not alone in linking cinema's utopian potential to its ability to elicit in spectators a kind of affective awakening in response to the speed and thrills represented on and experienced in film. Writing in 1926, only two years prior to Benjamin's publication of "One-Way Street," Virgina Woolf sees as the medium's promise in its ability to bring the true velocity of thought and emotion before our eyes in a way that writing never could. In the face of cinematic images, she suggests, the brain sees that "it is time to wake up." But for Woolf, too, the surprise, the affective and intellectual potential of cinema does not lie in any real threat that the objects on-screen will break through and hit us; and Woolf quite explicitly notes, "The horse will not knock us down. The King will not grasp our hands. The wave will not wet our feet." Rather, she envisions a yet-to-be-realized cinema that maintains a nearness that never resolves itself into the "present" of the audience, one made up of pictures that are "real with a different reality from that which we perceive in daily life." "Then," she claims, "as smoke pours from Vesuvius, we should be able to see thought in its wildness, in its beauty, in its oddity, pouring from men with their elbows on a table; from women with their little handbags slipping to the floor. We should see these emotions mingling together and affecting each other." Though Woolf thought cinema had yet to find its form, she saw intimations of its potential less in cinema itself than "in the chaos of the streets, perhaps, when some momentary assembly of color, sound, movement suggests that here is a scene waiting a new art to be transfixed."

For contemporary film theorists, the questions raised by Benjamin and Woolf regarding the role of critical distance and affective proximity; the relationships among thinking, seeing, and feeling; the intellectual possibilities of sensational and affective experiences provoked by both new media and the street; cinema's destabilization of the relationship between inside and outside, self and other; and the screen's effect on the relationship between spectator and world-all these burn with renewed intensity, not least because of the pressure put on these issues by the transition from analog to digital forms of image making, which leaves us having to deal with new uncertainties before we have had time to resolve the old ones. As David Rodowick argues in his important book The Virtual Life of Film (2007), "What characterizes the medium is our awareness that it occupies a continuous state of self-transformation and invention that runs ahead of our perception and ideas." And now, as then, the virtual collision of the automobile-with the audience, camera, screen, pedestrians, lampposts, and other equally reckless objects-provides a compelling and recurrent cinematic figure through which to think our changing phenomenological experience of moving images.

Three early British examples of these "car-crash films" serve as sites for exploring the aesthetic, philosophical, and ideological limits of cinema, for testing, representing, and shaping the emerging space of the frame, the experience of the screen surface, the relationship between moving objects and the camera, and the axis between spectators and the moving image. I begin in the early years of cinema, not in order to provide a comprehensive and chronological account of the cinematic car crash, but to foreground those moments in film history when car crashes become particularly prominent-namely, the 1900s, the 1920s, the 1960s, the 1970s, and the present-and to explore how our experience of these virtual collisions is shaped by the culturally and historically specific roles that technology, cinema, and disaster occupy in the collective imagination. Nevertheless, as I open with a period in which the medium's codes and practices had not yet been standardized, I explore how early experimental uses of film technology emerged in relation to the equally new technology of the automobile. While the relationship between a later, more linear and codified narrative cinema and the automobile's promise of speed and freedom-as-movement has been widely discussed within the generic context of the Road Movie, less attention has been paid to the cinematic fantasies, social visions, and experimental aesthetics that have emerged in conjunction with the early automobile as a malfunctioning technology, one that fails to start, stalls, crashes, explodes, and falls apart. While this aspect of the automobile is most visible in cinema's early period, when both technologies, cinema and the automobile, were at early stages of development, this early self-reflexive preoccupation of the camera with the car as accident-prone, as a machine of risk, surprise, and potential disaster, persists throughout the history of the medium, even as both technologies become more stable. The early trope of the crashing car thus persistently functions as a vehicle for testing and at times transcending the perceived limitations of cinema.

The films How It Feels to Be Run Over (Cecil Hepworth, 1900, 50 feet), Explosion of a Motor Car (Cecil Hepworth, 1900, 97 feet), and The (?) Motorist (Walter R. Booth, 1906, 181 feet) yoke the erratic, crashing, mutilated, and immobilized cars to explorations of the formal possibilities of the medium, including the space of the frame, and the use of camera movement, written text, and editing. Simultaneously, these formal experiments become sites for the articulation of social fantasies and anxieties regarding modern public and private space, personal mobility and paralysis, changing gender roles and familial structures, and social circulation and contagion.

How it Feels to Be run Over (1900)

The title of Cecil Hepworth's film, How It Feels to Be Run Over, immediately emphasizes cinema less as a medium of vision than as a feeling machine. The short opens with a view of an empty, receding country road, a strikingly pastoral contrast to the popular short films depicting busy urban street scenes and the infiltration of modernity into public life that began to emerge around 1900, and a scenario chosen deliberately by Hepworth for its "essentially English character and for the peculiar beauty of the countryside of this land." As if to emphasize the incursion of modernity into the English countryside, the film begins with a horse and cart appearing at the most distant visible point of the road, driven by a single male passenger toward the off-screen camera, a forward movement that highlights the image's depth of field and draws attention to the camera's invisible presence. Later, as an automobile approaches the camera, the behavior of its passengers, who wave directly into the camera, underscores this presence, making explicit that we are watching a game of "chicken" between the twin technologies of motion: car and camera, at a moment when the camera's ability to move relied largely on a parasitic relationship with transportation technologies. Unlike the car, the horse veers gently away from the camera; as it exits the lower-right-hand corner of the frame, the motorcar appears in the distance, followed by a young man on a bicycle (a second modern vehicle often excluded from synopses of the film). The car contains a male driver, a female passenger in the front seat, and a male passenger standing behind the other two, and together, they form a pyramidal structure evocative of a circus act, making the status of the drive as performance quite explicit. As the car heads directly for the camera, the bicycle retraces the alternative path taken by the cart and exits (almost unnoticed) off to the right. Meanwhile, the men in the car gesticulate wildly at the camera while the woman wags her finger at it, but we rapidly lose perspective on their actions as the car's body and the woman's skirt gradually fill the frame until the screen is fully overwhelmed by the car, at which point the image of the car becomes a black screen. This black screen-car body is immediately followed by one of the earliest known, and extremely dramatic uses, of intertitles. A series of single, white, hand- drawn words and punctuation marks appear, each starring in its own frame, possibly painted or scratched directly onto the celluloid-car surface: "??/!!/!/Oh!/Mother/will/be/ pleased" (see figures 2-6).


Though Hepworth's film has been compared with contemporaneous railway films, including one reading that has seen it as a possible ironic commentary on the supposed terror felt by the first audiences of Auguste and Louis Lumière's L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat (1895), the differences between the railway film and the automobile film remain undertheorized. As Jeffrey Ruoff noted, "While much work has been done linking the development of the train to new modes of vision associated with film (Kirby 1997), comparatively little has appeared on the relations between the automobile and the cinema, despite the historical coincidence of their development." 16 Though it is certainly tempting simply to fold the cinematic automobile accident into Wolfgang Schivelbusch's and Lynne Kirby's excellent work on the railway accident, panoramic vision, traumatic neuroses, and early cinema, it is necessary to suspend this ready- made reading in order to explore the extent to which early car accident films may tell a different, if related story. If many of the railway films Kirby discusses showcase the spectacle of train transportation and its accidents, the enigmatic and animated text that closes How It Feels to Be Run Over marks a place where the promise of a direct visual experience of the accident ultimately seems to destroy the possibility of cinematic vision, but in doing so gives way to the incorporation into cinema of another medium: writing. Noël Burch counts Hepworth's film as one in a "series of battering rams beating on the 'invisible barrier' that maintains the spectator in a state of externality," all early efforts to interpellate the early film spectator into the space of the diegesis, making How It Feels to Be Run Over, for Burch, "a remarkable 'epistemological' résumé of the formative phase of the IMR [Institutional Mode of Representation]." Yet this is only one way of reading a film that also draws attention to the fixity of the camera through its comparison with moving vehicles; introduces movement not as a simple opposite of stasis, but as a range of velocities; experiments with the gap between spectator and image; and equates the destruction of the image in the form of the collision and the resulting black screen with the medium's expansion via cryptic on-screen writing.

Though Hepworth's car films obviously share common interests with turn-of-the-century railway films and local films depicting other forms of mechanized transportation in urban life, one need only look at films like M&K 186: Jamaica Street, Glasgow (1901) or M&K 183: Ride on the Tramcar through Belfast (1901) to note the motorcar's absence from the streets of British cities at this time, and to understand that its presence in British cinema at this moment signifies in quite different ways from that of the railway, which had occupied the British imagination since the early nineteenth century (figures 7-8). Although cinema's visualization of the subjective experience of train travel may have contributed to new modes of representation deriving from a newly available mode of "panoramic perception," as Jonathan Crary, Schivelbusch, Gunning, and Kirby, among others, have argued, it is important to note that, unlike the car and cinema, the railway was not new but was, rather, as Burch states, "entering its golden age," about to be displaced. While the train becomes a vehicle to create expansive and often breathtaking illusions of movement through space for early filmmakers, the use of the motorcar is often more fantastical, comic, puzzling, and disaster-ridden, suggesting that the full range of its technological possibilities-like those of cinema-had yet to be discovered. And the accident becomes a prime testing ground.

Spectators may or may not have been overwhelmed by the approaching train featured in the Lumières' 1895 film, L'arrivée d'un train, but formally speaking, this train film and Hepworth's How It Feels to Be Run Over are very different. In both films the effect of screen depth is created by receding, converging lines. In the former the train itself visually traces the left-hand line, while the waiting passengers on the platform form the right-hand line. The camera is located in the middle of the two lines and is turned leftward to catch the train as it passes. By contrast, in How It Feels to Be Run Over the converging lines are traced by the two edges of a country road, and the camera faces the oncoming car directly. While in Hepworth's film the car approaches the camera, in L'arrivée d'un train the train does not move directly toward the camera, but rather passes it at an oblique angle.


Excerpted from CRASH by Karen Beckman Copyright © 2010 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

1. "Jerky Nearness": Spectatorship, Mobility, and Collision in Early Cinema 25

2. Car Wreckers and Home Lovers: The Automobile in Silent Slapstick 55

3. Doing Death Over: Industrial-Safety Films, Accidental-Motion Studies, and the Involuntary Crash Test Dummy 105

4. Disaster Time, the Kennedy Assassination, and Andy Warhol's Since (1966/2002) 137

5. Film Falls Apart: Crash, Semen, and Pop 161

6. Crash Aesthetics: Amores perros and the Dream of Cinematic Mobility 179

7. The Afterlife of Weekend: Or, The University Found on a Scrapheap 205

Notes 235

Bibliography 275

Index 289

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