The Ordinary Man of Cinema
by Jean Louis Schefer; Max Cavitch, Noura Wedell and Paul Grant, Translators
The MIT Press, Semiotext(e) / Foreign Agents Series, Cambridge, MA, 2016
224 pp., 34 b&w illus. Trade, $17.95
Reviewed by Will Luers
The Creative Media & Digital Culture Program
Washington State University Vancouver
Jean Louis Schefer's The Ordinary Man of Cinema is a strange and challenging book. It is strange because the author examines, in minute detail, a very personal universe of going to the movies. It is challenging because the language tries to convey the ghostliness of cinema rather than any particular material expression or historical context. No discussion of "the apparatus", camera or editing techniques, directorial intentions or any formal exegesis of particular films. Fragments from genre films (mostly burlesque, horror and noir) are presented out of context and filtered by Schefer's idiosyncratic observations, associations, and memories. In its extreme subjectivity and phenomenological reduction, The Ordinary Man of Cinema awakens the reader's own secret history with the cinema.
This English translation of Schefer's influential 1980 work comes at a time when "the cinema" itself is a ghost in contemporary culture. Cinema is either undergoing a crisis, a redefinition, a slow death, a technological transformation, or even a rebirth depending on whom you consult. But one reads The Ordinary Man of Cinema now as if it were addressing the ordinary person of the internet age. What is the cumulative effect of all those screen images on our psyches and bodies? Can we even know? We take our seat with others in the theater. We settle into the bed with our laptop and earbuds. The cinema experience, then and now, is "shared", but it remains a "solitary, hidden, secretly individual." The collective expectation (of producers, theater owners, streaming services and their customers) is that the movie will successfully transport us into another world. But as Schefer points out, there is more to the story. A movie is made of details: gestures, textures, objects and shadows; and not all of these images are connected to the narrative or to any precise meaning. "I don't expect the hand resting on a table and sweating like a face to signify, but to pass, that is to say no longer be at hand." While we consciously attend to the plot, the most insignificant details work on us invisibly. Here is Schafer, in characteristically dense prose, on how some images, lacking clear narrative purpose, become unknowingly absorbed into the spectator:
"Something is linked to the mystery of meaning that we add to the image in our uncertainty of grasping its totality, as we doubt that such an addition would be anything other than an incomplete sampling of what pleas for signification it contains- being uncertain, moreover, that what we add isn't primarily something that we should call ourselves. Beyond the seduction of images, the film will thus keep the mystery complete (and will keep it like a part of ourselves): before any apprehension of new meaning we learn that signification is, here, a body."
Schafer avoids conventional explanations or terms because they are abstractions that mask a complex, murky, and contingent experience. His writing style is sometimes as dreamily opaque as the cinema he writes about, as if the writing were the commentary trying to catch up with the flicker of the author's ideas and associations. But then there are wonderfully clear passages that embrace our collective pleasure and pain at the cinema. A mummy is "the bearer of all the bandages of our lives, of our entire hospital life." Bursts of poetic montage startle the reader from the hypnotic prose: "…a hand rises, a rowboat sways on the waves, a rotating pane of glass shifts a landscape." Schefer sinks into his own confessed ignorance of film theory in order to explore the residue of cinema's "fund of affects," the un-named and unthought regions that remain when we leave the theater. The work in form and content is exhilarating and as relevant to today's media ecology as it was in 1980.