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Jean Louis Schefer’s Ordinary Man of Cinema

Tod Browning, Freaks, 1932, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 64 minutes. Production still.

The Ordinary Man of Cinema, by Jean Louis Schefer, translated by Max Cavitch, Paul Grant, and Noura Wedell. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2016. 224 pages.

CINEMA IS THE SOLE EXPERIENCE where time is given to me as a perception.” This statement, cited by Gilles Deleuze in the second chapter of Cinema 2: The Time-Image (1985), seems to clarify and crystallize the thesis of his book: Cinema does not just represent time but can allow us to perceive a direct presentation of time—in Proust’s words, “a little bit of time in a pure state.”

The films that have watched our childhood.” In an essay written shortly before his death in 1992 in which he was attempting to come to terms with having devoted his life to cinema, the critic Serge Daney quoted this phrase, saying he knew of “few expressions more beautiful.” This, for Daney, got to the heart of how the movies marked him and his generation. Cinema was more than a pastime or a shared pleasure or even a professional calling; it became “a secret code of an impossible self-knowledge.”

Both of the citations above have the same origin: L’homme ordinaire du cinéma, a book by Jean Louis Schefer, copublished by Cahiers du Cinéma/Gallimard in France in 1980 and available now for the first time in a complete English translation.

I first encountered Schefer through Deleuze and Daney, and these phrases have stayed with me even as they have remained somehow elusive. What allows us to say that time exists in a pure state in film and nowhere else? And beyond producing a suggestive turn of phrase, what precisely does it mean to be less the viewer of a film than the object of its gaze?

The “ordinary” reader of this uncategorizable book, looking for an answer to these questions, may find herself frustrated. But Schefer’s refusal to answer such questions directly is intrinsic to his impossible project, which is to communicate the part of the experience of cinema that is incommunicable. Schefer wants to convey “that particular experience of time, of movement, and of images” that “always seems to tie an immediate private pact with an unexpressed part of ourselves: that part given over to silence and relative aphasia . . . permeable to effects of meaning without ever being able to be born into meaning through our language.” The Ordinary Man of Cinema is an extended meditation on trying to grasp the spectator not as a conscious receiver decoding messages but as this obscure, inexpressible part of ourselves.

Schefer dismisses any attempts to liken cinema to reality or human perception. Nor does he see it as representation or fantasy, and narrative for him is relatively unimportant. Cinema, to his thinking, is better understood as an experience of time that replaces the world and produces effects of memory. Evoking Marshall McLuhan’s take on media, Schefer describes cinema as an “extension” or “amputation” of ourselves. This extension is an alien body, a “paradoxical addition of a being to our being” that usurps our memory like a virus devouring us from the inside. At the cinema, we have no ownership over our experience, we are unmoored and decentered, “suspended between a giant body and the object of its gaze.”

Schefer quotes an enigmatic section from Kafka’s diaries:

A segment has been cut out of the back of his head. The sun, and the whole world with it, peep in. It makes him nervous, it distracts him from his work, and moreover it irritates him that he should be the one to be disbarred from the spectacle.

For Schefer, this touches on the peculiar confusion of subject and object that is the experience of cinema. The spectacle we are confronted with produces in us the inchoate feeling that we are denied perception of ourselves. The film is only nominally in front of us, available for our gaze, but cinema is addressed to an “interior history,” an “invisible chamber,” “an unexpressed part of ourselves” to which our consciousness does not have direct access. This is why he focuses so often on horror films and burlesque comedy, what film theorist Linda Williams called “body genres,” films that make a body do things; however, unlike Williams, Schefer is concerned not with the effects on our physical bodies, but with the affects produced by our internal bodies.

As Daney understood, the germ of Schefer’s book is what we might properly call cinephilia. This is not cinephilia as it normally understood, an elitist practice cultivated by auteurists. Nor does it refer to some more populist idea of fandom. Schefer’s object is a more elemental lure of moving images that is most acute in childhood and adolescence. Not a love of cinema so much as desire for it, a desire deeply tinged with anxiety. For Schefer, this is a central theme: The attraction to cinema is inextricable from fear. This experience, both ordinary and yet felt to be deeply personal, is rooted in those first isolated experiences in the dark that persist insofar as cinema returns us so-called adults to that primal scene of childhood yearning, terror, and, yes, pleasure, but a pleasure never far from unease and guilt.

Certain conditions need to be in place. The cinephilic experience with which Schefer is concerned requires the scale of the large screen, projection emerging from behind our head, and the peculiar mix of public and private that defines the ritual of sitting in the dark as a member of an audience in a movie theater—an experience that has little in common with today’s user binge-watching a TV series on a laptop.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Schefer was part of the emerging generation of intellectuals who published in Tel Quel and Communications, the vanguard French journals associated with semiology and structuralism. As Cahiers du Cinéma abandoned its auteurist legacy and sought to incorporate the latest developments in high theory, Schefer’s first book, Scénographie d’un tableau (1969)— a structuralist account of painting—became a frequent reference point, leading the journal’s book imprint to commission the author to write a theory of film. But the result, The Ordinary Man of Cinema, was not, Schefer insisted, a work of theory. Disavowing any expertise—“the cinema,” he says in the book’s first sentence, “is not my profession”—he offered instead what might be seen as a meditation on the impossibility of a theory of cinematic signification. As Schefer argued, the primary effects of cinema evade signification because cinema is composed of affects, not signs.

If the book isn’t a work of criticism or film theory, what, then, is it exactly? Deleuze calls it a “great poem.” Georges Didi-Huberman calls it a “metapsychology.” Schefer’s claim that he has no qualifications to write on cinema may be less a confession than a proposition about the subjectivity of the spectator; the film spectator, he seems to suggest, is essentially “ordinary,” an anonymous amateur, not only a nonexpert but a nonentity, not only without qualifications but (and here Schefer alludes to Robert Musil) “without qualities.” Schefer repeatedly rehearses new definitions of the spectator as the undefined object of the film. A spectator is “a site of resonance for image effects.” Or: “Spectators are simply this: custodians of a doubt concerning meaning.” Schefer, like any spectator, is the ordinary man without qualities, and yet the book is also something of an autobiography. The author’s own childhood, in occupied France during World War II, returns periodically, as if it has always been just out of frame (“air-raid shelters at night . . . kneeling prayers in a darkened room with bombs going off”).

While The Ordinary Man of Cinema calls for its own companion film series—Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), Jean Renoir’s La chienne (1931), Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953), Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), Luis Buñuel’s Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955), a program of Laurel and Hardy shorts—it would not be at odds with the book’s spirit to treat the images Schefer describes as imagined films that constitute his fantasy life. In the most playful section, “The Gods,” stills from unnamed films culled from the Cahiers du Cinéma archives are offered as keys to some unexplained mystery. Oliver Hardy, standing next to Stan Laurel and two women, holds up an enormous pair of women’s underwear in what Schefer calls “one of the most obscene photographs I know.” An image from Freaks of a character Schefer dubs “The Sausage”—an armless, legless bald man swaddled in a tubelike sweater and smoking a cigarette in front of a small pedestal—“inspires in us the idea of the public writer.” This section of the book reads a bit like a cracked inversion of his mentor Roland Barthes’s Mythologies (1957): Rather than restoring mass-cultural objects to their historical conditions, it treats idiosyncratic visions as if they were eternal products of nature.

Schefer’s insights flicker in and out. Flashes of illumination are followed by pages that read like an obscure prose poem—suggestive, but enigmatic and sometimes unyielding. A strange and often beautiful book, The Ordinary Man of Cinema has little to say about the beauty of film itself. Rather, the word that keeps resurfacing is sublime. For Schefer, film does not inspire aesthetic contemplation but instead directs us toward the limits of the thinkable.

Film theory in the 1970s tended to posit the spectator as an effect of the film work, a subjectivity interpellated by the cinematic apparatus. Focusing in 1980 on the affective dimension of the spectator’s experience, Schefer can be seen to anticipate the return to phenomenology and the renewed emphasis on affect and on the long-neglected embodied spectator in English-language film studies since the 1990s.

But that superficial link aside, this haunting, unnerving book without author footnotes resembles little to have come out of American academia. And it would be a mistake to see The Ordinary Man of Cinema as a turn away from questions of the social or political and toward individual experience. Indeed, for Schefer, the experience of cinema as intimate and personal, touching on some hidden aspect of our inner selves, is an illusion. “Cinema,” he says, “acts on every social being as if on a solitary being.” Schefer’s idea of cinema evokes the world of Kafka’s writings: What seems most acutely connected to our sense of our private self, to our greatest pleasure and deepest shame, is rooted in the experience of ourselves as anonymous, generic, ordinary.

Nico Baumbach is an Assistant Professor of film studies at Columbia University in New York. His book Cinema/Politics/Philosophy: Rancière, Badiou, Agamben and Film Theory Today is forthcoming from Columbia University Press.

Cover: Allora & Calzadilla, Puerto Rican Light (Cueva Vientos), 2015, solar-powered batteries and charger, plywood crate, Dan Flavin’s Puerto Rican light (to Jeanie Blake) 2, 1965. Installation view, El Convento Natural Protected Area, Puerto Rico, 2015–17. Photo: Allora & Calzadilla.
Cover: Allora & Calzadilla, Puerto Rican Light (Cueva Vientos), 2015, solar-powered batteries and charger, plywood crate, Dan Flavin’s Puerto Rican light (to Jeanie Blake) 2, 1965. Installation view, El Convento Natural Protected Area, Puerto Rico, 2015–17. Photo: Allora & Calzadilla.
May 2017
VOL. 55, NO. 9
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