PRINT May 1990


The Deadman

A DEAD MAN LIES NAKED, sprawled across a bed. From somewhere there’s the oppressive drone of a buzzing fly; a nearly naked woman flees the scene. Peggy Ahwesh’s and Keith Sanborn’s take on Georges Bataille’s story “The Deadman” begins like art-house pulp, an adults-only Kiss Me Deadly, but it quickly becomes something less comfortable. This is not warmed-over noir, it’s sex—raw, erotic, pornographic, maybe even feminist. So strong you can smell it.

During the ’70s, feminist intellectuals here and abroad—Laura Mulvey wrote the landmark “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in 1973—established a new framework for making and thinking about experimental film, one predicated on psychoanalytic theories of sexual difference. By the mid ’80s, though, the sexual-political imperative of feminist film theory had too often calcified into a sort of scholastic orthodoxy. To paraphrase Arthur Kroker, it was all text and no sex, and in some cautious corners female sexuality was banished altogether, a new celluloid Other. It wasn’t puritanism that took the female body out of circulation; it was a genuine feminist rethinking of the terms of representation. Yet, when we weren’t looking, conservative politics asserted a powerful claim on the discourse of the female body. The problem since then has been how to reintroduce a sexualized female body into film—on our terms. This issue is taken up in a number of the more significant experimental films of the last few years, in particular those by Su Friedrich, Saul Levine, Abigail Child, Lewis Klahr, and Ahwesh herself. Here, though, sex still hovers at the margins of the representable. Female sexuality has had to sneak back into the avant-garde discreetly, even demurely (a contradiction in terms). But unlike Friedrich’s Damned If You Don’t, 1987, Child’s Mayhem, 1987, or Klahr’s In the Month of Crickets, 1988, The Deadman, 1989, is hardly circumspect in these matters; there’s not a jot of the demure in Bataille, and none in Ahwesh’s and Sanborn’s film.

Ironically, the Reaganite policy on sexuality, especially in the wake of the 1986 Meese Commission on Pornography, galvanized the very groups that were targeted for silence. A ground swell of impatience demands new theories, new strategies, new ways of looking. Today, not only are increasing numbers of women writing, watching, and studying porn (a “virtual academic cottage industry,” grouses the antiporn organizer Catharine MacKinnon), but some, like Femme, a company founded by female sex workers, are producing alternatives. It’s in this climate that The Deadman arrives, shot through with a newfound urgency as Jesse Helms and his epigones try to ban “transgressive” images. The Deadman doesn’t explicitly engage and critique theory—“We wanted to make a film about sex that had sex in it,” says Ahwesh—but theory circles around it, much like the dead man’s buzzing fly.

Less well known than his infamous Story of the Eye, 1928, Bataille’s “The Dead-man” is the loosest of narratives, little more than an episodic catalogue of secretion and excretion. The near-naked woman, Marie, leaves the corpse of her lover Edward behind at the house, goes to a bar, pisses on a hunchbacked dwarf, fucks, vomits, then returns to the house, finally to die. Despite the story’s scatology there’s an almost curious formal elegance to the 16-mm. film, with its shimmering black-and-white photography, mannered performances, and silent-screen-style inter-titles bordered with skulls. The Deadman can be described—much as women have historically been defined—by everything that’s “missing” from it: the film doesn’t make a fetish of the shiny erect penis, of ejaculation, penetration, or genital close-ups (in porn-industry argot, “meat shots”). Instead of these familiar tropes there are moments that hint at a different, alternate libidinal economy.

Unlike the classical Hollywood movie (though like porn), The Deadman doesn’t use sound as a mimetic anchor vouching for the putative truth of the image. Instead, dialogue is split from those who speak. Their words bounce from intertitles to voice-over to sync and barely sync sound, and each of these decenterings serves to chip away at our familiar sense of the coherence of subjectivity. It’s crucial that as Marie climaxes, The Deadman cuts away from her writhing body to an intertitle announcing “Marie comes,” which is accompanied by the sound of her orgasmic cry. The shift from the visual to the aural and the written word is categorically not an instance of authorial modesty but a recognition of the literal unrepresentability of female pleasure—the impossibility of seeing “proof” of it. (Male pleasure, on the other hand, made visual by the ejaculation of semen, is a standard image in conventional porn—so necessary to include, in fact, that it is called the “money shot.”) Thus The Deadman alludes to another, perhaps nonspecular economy of pleasure. (Sade believed it is “sensations communicated by the organ of the hearing which are the more gratifying.”)

When the film cuts away from Marie’s orgasm it is blind—not indifferent—to her desire. Cultural notions of sexual difference are predicated in part on a bias that favors vision, since it’s through the visible that we see (recognize) difference. In contrast, Bataille’s work is suffused by his obsession with eyes and blindness (his father was sightless), which he briefly refers to in an autobiographical aside to Story of the Eye. In that novel Bataille’s heroine, Simone, takes the plucked-out eye of a priest and inserts it into her vulva, a moment that, however briefly, disrupts the authority of phallic sight. Oedipus tore out his own eyes, Bataille puts them back—with difference. And his antivision and feminist revision work in tandem here to search out alternate paradigms of sexuality and knowledge. When Marie jumps up onto a barroom table, spreads her labia apart with her fingers, and says to a man sitting near her, “Look how pretty I am,” what’s at stake in this showdown between gazes (the camera’s and the woman’s) is nothing less than the power of representation. In a direct assault on Freud, woman’s “nothing to be seen” is transformed into a field of pleasures—clitoris, lips, vagina, anus.

Hollywood cinema works hard to fulfill its narrative contract. With rare exception, women are bound in a web of passivity, positioned as the object to which, and the space through which, active male subjectivity progresses. In contrast, it’s Marie’s desire that drives The Deadman forward, her image that fills the screen. Neither wholly object nor wholly subject, she embodies both the locations that narrative insists must function along gender lines. When the fluid, hand-held camera does hold her in frame, its embrace is empathic, polite. Occasionally hesitant, it wavers, looks away, never aggresses. This isn’t the hypersubjective camera of Stan Brakhage (the camera as I/eye), the camera that frames and fixes its object with a phallic imperative. If anything, the framing is intersubjective, acknowledging the objects of its gaze, refusing to make a fetish of the body by dismembering it with close-ups.

For Bataille, “death implies the continuity of being,” but in sex the structures of life are not overturned as they are in death, merely “jolted.” And Bataille’s reflections on the oceanic aspect of sex, particularly in Eroticism, 1957, seem to speak to certain feminist strategies to recover the pre-Oedipal world of maternal plenitude and nondifferentiation. Marie’s trip to the bar is an erotic pilgrimage through the dissolution of what Bataille calls the “discontinuous self.” There’s a Larry Clark-like orgy at the bar, a bloodless sacrificial rite in which Marie sets herself naked in the middle of the barroom floor, is set upon by others, carried onto a bar stool (altar), and fondled and sucked to climax. In self-sacrifice she transports herself, and those with her, from the mundane into the realm of the sacred, her orgasms rehearsals for her final death.

Edward’s death remains an unsolved mystery, though we can guess he was fucked to death by Marie. His room, with his corpse laid out on the bed and the droning flies, is simply the first ritual site. After the film’s New York premiere at the Collective for Living Cinema, Sanborn told an audience, “Of course, the dead man is also Bataille.” The Deadman is a murder mystery but the victim isn’t Edward, nor is it Bataille. My guess is that it’s Oedipus—another murder mystery, another suspect, another blind man. Contemporary pornography and contemporary feminist film theory staked out their respective territories around the same time (Deep Throat, 1972; the Camera Obscura Collective, 1973). Is it too far-fetched to think that there’s more to this confluence than meets the eye? Kill off Oedipus and is it possible to imagine a disintegration of neatly compartmentalized gender positions? Although both experimental and commercial filmmakers might blanch at the phrase, preferring the more ephemeral “erotica,” feminist pornography no longer seems a contradiction in terms, or, yet worse, a betrayal. Rather, in the light of attacks on safe-sex comics and artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, and Femme founding member Annie Sprinkle, never before has the alliance between feminism and pornography seemed more necessary.

Manohla Dargis lives in New York and writes regularly on film.