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Death and the Moving Image

Death and the Moving Image: Ideology, Iconography and I

Michele Aaron
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Death and the Moving Image
    Book Description:

    Examines the representation of death and dying in mainstream cinema Death and the Moving Image provides the first in-depth study of the representation of death and dying in mainstream Western cinema from its earliest to its latest renditions. It explores the impact of gender, race, nation and narration upon death's dramatics on-screen and isolates how mainstream cinema works to bestow value upon certain lives, and specific socio-cultural identities, in a hierarchical and partisan way. Dedicated to the popular, to the political and ethical implications of mass culture's themes and imperatives, this book takes mainstream cinema to task for its mortal economies: for its adoration and absolution of some characters and expendability of others. It also ultimately disinters the capacity for film, and film criticism, to engage with life and vulnerability differently.Aimed at the burgeoning field of death studies and explosion of interest in trauma and ethics within film studies, this book charts important new territory for the discipline whilst arguing for the centrality of this subject to the socio-political significance of cinema.Key FeaturesExamines the formal, psychological and political exchange between cinema and death. Accessible 'before, during, after' structure, of death's presence as narrative promise, physical event and spectatorial reaction. Comparative and interdisciplinary approach to film (draws on critical race, political theory and mise-en-scène analysis and case studies from beyond Western and fiction film). 'Through a series of sophisticated and highly nuanced readings of a wide range of films, Michele Aaron exposes the mortal economies on which cinema depends. This important book will cause readers to think again about the ethical and political stakes of the filmic treatment of death in mainstream cinema and beyond.'Sarah Cooper, King's College London'This compelling and exhaustive study will be a must read for scholars working at the intersection of visual culture and studies of death. Michele Aaron moves through several genres of film and spans the production of films from the 1940s into the 21st century. Specifically, she argues that there is a pervasive aesthetic of self-risk in cinema, a death-drive that secures our several understandings of how contemporary culture masks its own political ends. Moving beyond the psychoanalytic, Aaron ultimately and convincingly demonstrates that it is the ethical in cinema that continues to be denied its proper place, even in the midst of its centrality in the genre. This is bold and welcomed new work.'Sharon P. Holland, Duke University

    eISBN: 978-0-7486-3047-9
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. vii-vii)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. viii-x)
  5. INTRODUCTION: Everywhere and Nowhere
    (pp. 1-14)

    Death is everywhere and now here in contemporary Western culture. Corpses litter Hollywood film; vulnerability or violence propels most mainstream fictions; the recently recovered or slowly dying make bookshelves groan. But the pain or smell of death, the banality of physical, or undignified, decline, the dull ache of mourning, are rarely seen. Cemeteries move further from the city, approach obsolescence as well as capacity, and hospitals hold dying at bay and far from the public eye. Yet our film and television screens are steeped in death’s dramatics: in spectacles of glorious sacrifice or bloody retribution, in the ecstasy of agony,...


    • CHAPTER 1 Self-endangerment and the Subject of Film
      (pp. 17-39)

      Legend has it that, when the first moving images were shown to the public in Paris in 1895, the Lumière brothers’Train Pulling into a Stationhad the small audience running for their lives. Though this is a telling tale of the remarkable potential of the new technology – especially its capacity to harness perspective and illusion in the service of the sensational – more interesting, for our purposes, is how, almost immediately, ‘cinema going’ meant a brush with danger.¹ Of course, it is rarely the case that cinema is truly dangerous, that it actually involves risk or causes death, though its...

    • CHAPTER 2 Cinema and Suicide
      (pp. 40-68)

      Death is everywhere in film but suicide is not. As the last chapter showed, the most successful and exportable genre, action cinema, thrives on the self-endangerment of its predominantly male protagonists. While a certain recklessness appends the portraiture of some of Western cinema’s best-loved heroes, fromThe Great Escape(John Sturges, 1963) toLethal Weapon(Richard Donner, 1987) to Jason Bourne (2002, 2004, 2007) – confirming non-conformity, celebrating the maverick and with it both masculinity and Americanness – once recklessness serves this purpose, it must be dispensed with, it must come under control. Self-risk for its own sake, or for unclear, ignoble...

    • CHAPTER 3 Sacrifice and Spectatorship in Context
      (pp. 69-96)

      A certain ‘timelessness’ has characterised the representation of selfendangerment thus far. In the first chapter, the eternal struggle between the burdens of the self and the demands of society was waged within the action film and its glorification of heroism, of duty and, especially, of the American way. In the second, the enduring structures of phallocentrism and imperialism were revealed beneath some of the most noteworthy films about suicide. But the flirtation with death is, itself, a timeless theme: the thrill of survival, the allure of the flame, is an age-old conceit. For Freud this flirtation formed the cornerstone of...


    • CHAPTER 4 The Cinematic Language of Dying
      (pp. 99-126)

      Where the Lumière brothers’Train Pulling into a Stationopened the first part of the book, this one begins with reference to another early film, indeed, that which appears to be cinema’s first snuff film: Thomas Edison’sElectrocuting an Elephantof 1903. Topsy, an unruly resident of Coney Island’s Lunar Park, was to be put down for bad behaviour. Edison, keen to display the dangers of his competitor’s rival alternating current (AC), stepped in to test said current on the elephant. A shackled Topsy is connected up, the switch is pulled and, in a matter of seconds, the hulking figure...

    • CHAPTER 5 Grammar Lessons: Dying and Difference
      (pp. 127-154)

      In the broadest terms, how a character dies in mainstream film – by whose hand or what logic, whether as murderer or victim, with a good or bad death – is influenced, if not determined, by the gender, sexuality or race of this character, to name the usual suspects on the list of personal specifications. From gunshot or on a hospital trolley, at speed or prolonged, with dignity or decrepitude, cinematic dying is shaped by the ‘social’ make-up of the woman or man in question. By social I mean those recognisable visual, physical or cultural markers that distinguish one person from another....

    • CHAPTER 6 Watching Others Die: Spectatorship, Vulnerability and the Ethics of Being Moved
      (pp. 155-178)

      I launched this second section of the book with the notion, adapted from Elaine Scarry’s work, that dying was both inexpressible and unshareable. The framework which this afforded allowed us to review the problem of representing dying within mainstream film culture where it was expressed, albeit distortedly. In the last two chapters I have shown that there is a cinematic language of dying. It is rich and multifaceted but heavily censored nevertheless. It suppresses, still, the banality and brutality of bodily decline to promote the sociocultural and positivist fantasies of late capitalist culture. Such normative fantasies, which cohere in the...


    • CHAPTER 7 At Last: Towards a Cinema of No Return
      (pp. 181-198)

      The alluring, even jolting, spectacles so central to early film’s ‘cinema of attractions’ and its developing trade in verisimilitudinous and vicarious experience occasionally provided a glimpse of what happened after death.¹ Where the train only approached in the Lumière brothers’ classic sequence which inaugurated Part I, and Topsy merely tumbled for Edison’s camera at the start of Part II, in this concluding chapter Cecil Hepworth’s trick filmHow it Feels to be Run Overof 1900 takes us further. A fixed camera in the middle of a rural road records the approach and passing of a horse and cart. A...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 199-222)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 223-244)
  11. Filmography
    (pp. 245-250)
  12. Index
    (pp. 251-262)