I am headed to Montreal tomorrow for the annual Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference. This year, I am lucky to be on the provocatively entitled panel “Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire” with Brian Jacobson (St Andrews) and Jocelyn Szczepaniak-Gillece (UW Milwaukee). We will each be discussing the intersection between fire and film history, and Mary Ann Doane has kindly agreed to respond to our papers.
My own contribution to the panel, “Let it Burn: Film Historiography in Ashes and Flames,” tries to reframe the flammability of film as an intrinsic property of moving image artifacts (rather than a threat to their survival). I trace the figure of fire as it emerges in ancient philosophy and circulates in philosophies of history in the modern era.
For the first time in a long time, I will be giving a paper without any images or clips. I am excluding examples in part because the paper is not motivated by any one film or kind of film—and I am hoping to make a more inclusive metahistorical claim.
However, I began drafting the project by returning to fires in early cinema—from Georges Méliès’s La Danse du feu (1899) to Mary Jane’s Mishap (G. A. Smith, 1903)—and considering how these works represent fire and register the flammability of film. In Méliès (as for Nietzsche), fire is Dionysian revelry and dance; it is a generative, creative figure that coincides with the female body; and it is also a site of visual play, of appearances and disappearances. In Smith’s comic Mishap, an explosive fire tears the female body into pieces, but also reanimates it as a cinematic specter. Indeed, fire in early cinema always seems to teeter between processes of annihilation and animation, the indexical and the iconic.
[Sketch for Third Degree (Paul Sharits, 1982)]
The paper is also influenced by the work of structural filmmakers like Paul Sharits—whose interest in the materiality of film returned him at several points to film fires and burns—as well as more recent experiments in digital video by artists like Thorsten Fleisch [see the link above and here].
I had the opportunity to see Sharits’s Third Degree installation at the Greene Naftali gallery a couple of years ago. The installation consists of three film loops, projected side by side. On the first loop, we see an image of a match being lit and waved in a woman’s face. The image occasionally gets stuck and begins to burn (in the film, not in the actual screening), as if from the heat of the projector’s bulb. On the second loop, we see what Sharits describes as a “film within a film,” a recording of the film from the first loop. This image, too, gets burned numerous times. Finally, on the third loop, a “film within a film within a film…same treatment.” The image on the third loop is larger than the others and now barely recognizable.
Crucially, Third Degree does not simply ask us to see film in all of its material fragility and contingency–and to mourn the losses indexed by scratches, stutters, and burns. It instead presents the dissolution of film as a process, one that both destroys and reassembles (and one that mimics the preservative process of making copies of copies of copies…). The final loop or “third degree” preserves the trace of its previous iterations–including the image of the match, the woman’s face, and the burns that gather on the surface of the actual film–but it also radically departs from these origins and offers something to the living present. Indeed, in projecting these films in the gallery, Sharits invites spectators to circulate between the images and the projectors; to see their own shadows mix with all the others; and to consider the role we always, necessarily play in reanimating film history.