“A detachment that may give rise to passion and compassion for the Other”

I recently read this excellent article by Matthew Croombs, and found the following passage particularly thought-provoking:

Consider, for example, the conclusion of Stephen Heath’s “Narrative Space” on Oshima’s Death by Hanging (1968), in which Heath focuses on the series of eye-line matches between the film’s protagonist “R”—excited in his own right—and a cat in the corner of the frame sitting before a brick wall (Heath, 1976: 109-112).  Heath brilliantly draws our attention to the conclusion of this exchange, in which we are suddenly thrust into the “impossible space” occupied by the wall and forced to look at the cat in the face—if an animal can be said to have a face (Derrida, 2008).  I think it is clear from this example that Heath, for all of his claims about the discursive nature of the image, was highly attentive to what was before the camera, and even to the so-called indexical qualities of the image.

This example also calls on the reader to engage some of the same questions that preoccupy contemporary film philosophy about our metaphysical isolation from the natural world, or, to use Stanley Cavell’s terms, about “our skeptical terror about the independent existence of other minds”—a terror that is, in a certain sense, about our failure to be god, to be “No One in Particular with a View from Nowhere” (Cavell, in Wolfe, 2003: 45).  Yet if the film provokes a spectatorial encounter with “skeptical terror,” this terror is not reducible to the fact that it gives us an indexical image of the cat’s past existence in time.  It is through textual operations, and textual assistance, that the spectator is provoked to consider her place and the place of an Other who may know her in ways she cannot know herself.  To feel one’s knowledge come to an end is to experience a kind of detachment, but a detachment that may give rise to passion and compassion for the Other who cannot be known.  It is towards such questions of detachment and the usefulness of 1970s film theory to the theory of the present that this article concludes.

This is a clever and compelling case made for the idea that an approach to film informed by semiotics does not preclude a complementary phenomenological or affect-based reading.


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