In Dying in Full Detail Jennifer Malkowski explores digital media's impact on one of documentary film's greatest taboos: the recording of death. Despite technological advances that allow for the easy creation and distribution of death footage, digital media often fail to live up to their promise to reveal the world in greater fidelity. Malkowski analyzes a wide range of death footage, from feature films about the terminally ill (Dying, Silverlake Life, Sick), to surreptitiously recorded suicides (The Bridge), to #BlackLivesMatter YouTube videos and their precursors. Contextualizing these recordings in the long history of attempts to capture the moment of death in American culture, Malkowski shows how digital media are unable to deliver death "in full detail," as its metaphysical truth remains beyond representation. Digital technology's capacity to record death does, however, provide the opportunity to politicize individual deaths through their representation. Exploring the relationships among technology, temporality, and the ethical and aesthetic debates about capturing death on video, Malkowski illuminates the key roles documentary death has played in twenty-first-century visual culture.
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About the Author
Jennifer Malkowski is Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies at Smith College.
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Dying in Full Detail
Mortality and Digital Documentary
By Jennifer Malkowski
Duke University PressCopyright © 2017 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
CAPTURING THE "MOMENT"
PHOTOGRAPHY, FILM, AND DEATH'S ELUSIVE DURATION
Death is the unique moment par excellence.
ANDRÉ BAZIN, "Death Every Afternoon"
On-screen, a young actress snorts cocaine in a bathroom stall, then vomits and drops to the floor; she convulses violently, flopping around on the dirty tile until her body stills. An elderly man wheeling his recycling bin to the curb stops and grips his chest; a few seconds later he falls on his lawn, motionless. A rollerblading dog walker reaches exhilarating speed down a sloped suburban street but collides with a car at the bottom; after hurtling over the cracked windshield, her body lies frozen on the pavement as the dogs bark. Each sequence ends in a slow washout as the screen gradually brightens to pure white, with black letters that provide a tombstone's report: Rebecca Leah Milford, 1980–2001; Benjamin Srisai, 1935–2002; Pilar Sandoval, 1970–2005. These death scenes open three episodes of Alan Ball's Six Feet Under (2001–5), a celebrated HBO drama about a family that runs a Los Angeles funeral home. Each episode begins with a "death of the week": a mininarrative that lasts between thirty seconds and five minutes, ends in a death, and later links up with the main narrative (usually when the deceased becomes a customer at the funeral home). While the tone and the way in which people die vary with each opening segment, an unwavering but compassionate fascination with the moment of death — that inscrutable point when a living being becomes a corpse — unites the many opening death scenes of the series. Benjamin Srisai's fifty-second story epitomizes this focus. It contains no dialogue, no other characters, and only one discernible audiovisual or narrative attraction: a sustained close-up on his face as he dies, first expressing simple pain and then a wide-eyed mixture of shock and wonder. Six Feet Under's impressive accumulation of scores of these moments over its five-year run seeks to provide viewers with an answer to a powerful question, one that brushes up against the curiosity to know how death will feel: What is it like to watch a life end?
Part of this book's premise is that fiction film and television have long been the main resources for Americans asking the preceding question because individuals' access to unmediated dying declined so dramatically in the twentieth century. Considering the remarkable distortions and exclusions enacted by most representations of death in the entertainment industry — which rare productions like Six Feet Under sometimes attempt to correct — the documentary mode seems a better candidate than fiction for providing enlightening, mediated views of the end of life. However, the pre-video/digital history of documentary photography and film contains few images of death itself. Documentarians rarely succeeded at making that sight visible, proving more capable of showing the before and after — the living person and the corpse. The images that did manage to poise themselves between these states often became icons, achieving that status precisely because they seem to make visible the alluring "moment" of death that is so elusive in the history of photography and film.
This chapter's examination of said history reveals that documenting violent death was less a "road not taken" by indexical media, and more a route attempted with equipment unfit to traverse it. Indeed, within this history a sort of multigenerational quest emerged as image-makers sought to freeze the "moment" of (violent) death in a photograph or contain it within a strip of film. What Six Feet Under stages with ease over and over again in twenty-first-century fiction is a moment filmmakers and photographers struggled mightily to document in the nineteenth century and most of the twentieth century — struggling not just because the contingencies of reality made this sight more slippery than in fiction but because of technological limitations. Cameras remained cumbersome and complicated for much of this history, and celluloid film stock was expensive. This quest to make actual death visible through documentary media was indeed a technological one, progressing alongside developments in production and distribution equipment. It was a series of attempts — usually on a battlefield, where death was most predictably found — to get the right kind of camera into the hands of a skilled operator lucky enough to find himself in death's vicinity, followed by efforts to bring the resulting image before the eyes of a wide public. Alongside its technological component, the quest was also characterized by ongoing battles with government censorship and the propriety of distributors and exhibitors. And it did not yield a fully linear progression toward the most graphic spectacles; lynching photographs from the late nineteenth century, for example, are far more explicit than battle images from World War II. Accounting for these nuances, the history of documentary efforts to capture the "moment" of death remains most revealing in its failure — or, rather, its scant and partial successes. These expose the limitations of indexical media's capacity to record this fully embodied event — despite their reputation in new media theory as technologies of embodiment and materiality, in contrast to the digital.
Photographic and filmic documentary's true "road not taken" in this history is its potential to depict natural death. While its scattered views of violent death were more realistic and often more political than those of fiction film, the documentary form raised no parallel challenge to fiction in relation to natural death. Documentary's initial use in the mid-nineteenth century to help people contemplate and mourn death (through the postmortem images analyzed later in this chapter) almost wholly disappeared from the public eye for most of the twentieth. In chapter 2, I will return to recordings of natural death and their resurgence in the era of video, but I introduce it here because its imagined archive of absent and hidden images must haunt any discussion of these depictions of violent death. For all that documentary displays of lethal violence promised to reveal about death, they also helped to conceal their newly shameful counterpart of natural death, supporting its broad displacement from public life and discourse in the twentieth century.
The crucial challenge that natural death poses to the very concept of the "moment" of death is another reason to keep it firmly in mind during this journey through violent death's documentation. The Six Feet Under scenes hint at this challenge on a stylistic level: whether the death depicted is sudden or gradual, violent or natural, it is always followed by a slow transition to a pure white screen. In its notable protraction, this type of transition underscores death's necessarily durational rather than instantaneous character, even if that duration is difficult to recognize. The perception of life's end as an instantaneous event — one that could be isolated and made visible in a documentary photograph or a frame of film footage — can only be upheld when death arrives via acute violence rather than withering disease. For in the latter case, how can cameras make that one moment evident? Viewing a barely moving person about to die and a motionless corpse, one does not sense much visible or audible contrast. Anxiety about this blurred line between alive and dead manifested in nineteenth-century fears of premature burial and took a new direction in the twentieth century through medical debates about defining death, spurred by the rise of organ donation. Such uncertainties about death's timing cast doubt on the existence of a "moment" of death available for documentation by all these eager image-makers, and they highlight a subtle psychological function of this photographic and filmic quest. Graphic documentation of violent moments of death served as a comforting fiction for a viewing public that would — increasingly, as the nineteenth century and the hypermedicalized twentieth century progressed — be vastly more likely to experience long, painful processes of dying.
What follows will track the camera's pursuit of these "moments" of death in documentary images that circulated in the United States from the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839 through the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. My aim will be not to cover every recording or partial recording of death from that period but to focus on the images that strongly registered in U.S. visual culture. In framing this pursuit, I borrow Linda Williams's usage of three temporal modes in "Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess." Williams identifies three "body genres" that ask spectators' bodies to mimic on-screen sensations: melodrama solicits tears from the audience, pornography solicits orgasms, and horror solicits shudders. She ties each genre to a fantasy and a temporal structure drawn from psychoanalytic theory by Jean Laplanche and J. B. Pontalis. Melodrama investigates the fantasy of the self's origins and the quest to return to them — most symbolically, to the mother's body; the genre's pathos stems from these quests being " 'too late!' ... always tinged with the melancholy of loss." Pornography works through the origins of desire and the fantasy of seduction, creating a "utopian fantasy of perfect temporal coincidence: a subject and object (or seducer and seduced) who meet one another 'on time!' and 'now!' in shared moments of mutual pleasure." Horror tackles the origins of sexual difference and the fantasy of castration, featuring a monster that strikes "too early!" when the characters are not prepared, like the knowledge of sexual difference that one is never ready first to confront. Like Williams, I analyze works that target "the spectacle of the body caught in the grip of intense sensation or emotion" and that owe their maligned status partly to that bodily spectacle.
The ways we talk about death align readily with these temporal modes: it generally feels to loved ones like it arrives "too early" (especially violent death), "on time" for a lucky few, or occasionally "too late" for those who most want to spare the dying from pain. In my use of these modes, though, the desired synchronicity is between actual death — with all its contingencies — and the camera that records it. When the shutter snaps or the film rolls "on time," the camera can seem to make visible the exact transition point between alive and dead. I argue that achieving this scenario was a long-standing goal for documentary image-makers and a widespread desire of audiences in the predigital period, but one that usually proved to be a "fantasy of perfect temporal coincidence" (my emphasis). In documentary death's history, the image-maker's actions almost always occur "too late," or death asserts its duration and refuses to become visible in the form of an alluring "moment." Only in the 1960s, at the intersection of great technological development and plentiful violence, did the American public begin to see "on time" encounters between documentary cameras and death.
Keeping "Company with Death": Corpse Photography and the Temporality of "Too Late"
Connecting the "too late" to melodrama, Williams sees in it the inevitably frustrated desire to return to one's origins, to the body of the mother. In melodrama, "Origins are already lost, the encounters always take place too late, on death beds or over coffins." Like melodrama's coffins, corpses in documentary photography suggest the same temporal mode: death and the camera meet too late for the former's display. Underscoring the finality of death, the corpse is an all-too-material reminder of the "too late" — of our failure to stop a violent death, our tardiness with medical help or intervention in the violence that caused it. The corpse lies there, seemingly outside of time in its utter stillness and imperceptibly slow decay, stubbornly remaining a body that has ceased to embody an individual being. The corpse photograph, then, makes a kind of accusation to its creator and viewer: too late to stop a death, they are also too late to display or witness that death. "The decisive moment," in photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson's terms, clearly has passed, unaccompanied by the camera shutter's snap. Such a photograph can drive home the moral failure of preventing death and also the questionable desire it prompts for some: to see more, to see the lost object of death itself.
Of course, photography and film, in a very broad sense, have a lost object at their core: the past, which they attempt to preserve. Through these attempts, photography in particular develops a special relationship with death, in both its ontology and its history. Roland Barthes slowly draws out the ontological aspect in Camera Lucida, through observations that each photograph "produces Death while trying to preserve life" and creates an "anterior future" — a moment in the past when the death that will befall (or has already befallen) the subject casts a pall over the photo's present. Susan Sontag distills these ideas beautifully, writing, "Photographs state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading toward their own destruction, and this link between photography and death haunts all photographs." And André Bazin hints at the special relationship with his insight that the photograph "embalms time." People yearn to preserve the present — as, instant by instant, it becomes the past — because it feels so vibrant and alive, but the photograph turns that life into death. It freezes time and deprives it of animating motion. Thus, photographs that make death their direct subject, rather than their subtext, provide some cathartic acknowledgment of this tragic transformation — a factor that may contribute to the popularity of death photography. As Sontag puts it, "Ever since cameras were invented in 1839, photography has kept company with death."
In the nineteenth century it kept company with corpses, as demonstrated by three major sets of images: postmortem photographs used in mourning practices, views of dead soldiers lying unburied on Civil War battlefields, and photographs that celebrate lynchings by displaying mutilated African American corpses. Then, as photo and film cameras coexisted in the twentieth century, the Holocaust brought a concentrated and high-profile resurgence in the practice of documenting corpses. Whether captured through photography or film, corpse images tend to frustrate viewers' attempts to identify with the victims portrayed, creating emotional distance. As Vivian Sobchack writes, "Our sympathy for the subject who once was is undermined by our alienation from the object that is"— a reminder of one reason that corpse images feel "too late" and that seeing life in the act of being extinguished may feel, uncomfortably, more satisfying.
Postmortem Mourning Photographs
As the camera's first sustained look at corpses, postmortem mourning photographs are also the only major cluster of images to document natural death during indexical media's long period of dominance, offering a rare glimpse of death in familial, domestic space. These images feature recently deceased corpses, handsomely dressed and usually posed as if asleep. They rest on beds or — especially with dead infants or children — in the arms of grieving loved ones. Professionally produced in studios or through house calls, these images emerged at the start of the camera's history and remained common late into the nineteenth century.
Their popularity grew from a number of factors — technology prominent among them. The invention of the daguerreotype brought personal portraiture to the American middle class, no longer the product of expensive hours of posing and painting. Considering the technological limitations that constrained early photographers, corpses actually made ideal portrait subjects. While the living could find the total bodily stillness required of them during prolonged exposure times difficult to maintain, the dead would not mar a sharp image with movement. They presented an opposite challenge, as photographers labored to position their stiff bodies in the convention of "the last sleep": a reclining pose with the "lifelike" appearance of gentle slumber rather than death. Thus, photographs that depict the living and dead together shepherd them in divergent directions, each in the service of a pleasing picture: the corpse is arranged as if alive, while the living subject must discipline their body to imitate death's stillness. These sitters underwent a rather literal version of the metaphorical experience Barthes describes as a "micro-version of death": the photographic subject's feeling that he is transformed into an object for the picture, just as a dying subject is transformed into the object of a corpse. Unsurprisingly, the resulting expressions on the faces of these living sitters — even in portraits disconnected from corpses and mourning — tended to be rather grim.
Excerpted from Dying in Full Detail by Jennifer Malkowski. Copyright © 2017 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents
Acknowledgments ix Introduction 1 1. Capturing the "Moment": Photography, Film, and Death's Elusive Duration 23 2. The Art of Dying, On Video: Deathbed Documentaries 67 3. " A Negative Pleasure": Suicide's Digital Sublimity 109 4. Streaming Death: The Politics of Dying on YouTube 155 Conclusion. The Nearest Cameras Can Go 201 Notes 207 Bibliography 231 Index 241
What People are Saying About This
"In our current media moment, where to record and distribute images of anything—including death—is becoming increasingly mundane, Jennifer Malkowski carefully draws out the complex and changing relations between aesthetics and ethics, and as importantly, aesthetics and action. Exploring what the digital reveals about death and how death reveals the digital, Malkowski makes an exciting contribution to film and documentary studies."
"Jennifer Malkowski's innovative and engaging book covers a crucial and yet still understudied topic in film and documentary studies, showing how death complicates the usual approaches to the study of digital video. Bringing together a number of productive contradictions and intersections around death, time, and movement, Malkowski plumbs and develops the history of documenting death in American culture, making this book valuable to students and scholars across a range of disciplines."