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Dead and Alive: The Body as Cinematic Thing

Lesley Stern (University of California at San Diego)

In the cinema many were living and many kept on living, and many became dead, as Gertrude Stein might say. Some kept on living and some kept on being dead and some became things. Bodies proliferate in cinema. Living bodies to be sure, but also dead bodies, and transitional bodies, suspended between the being of a subject and objecthood. We tend to use the same word to designate both a living and a dead body. The body is constant, qualified only by an adjective—‘living’ or ‘dead’. We also, of course, use the word ‘corpse’. Dead is dead, no doubt, but if there are degrees of deadness then a corpse is probably deader than a dead body.

Because I am more interested in things than in death, it follows that it is the liveliness of corpses that lures my attention. Not dead bodies that act as though they were alive, nor live bodies that may really be dead, nor bodies that may in fact be composited, or even digitally constructed bodies. No, what lures my attention are ordinary, run-of-the-mill, old-fashioned bodies, bodies once living and now dead which somehow, in their corporeal materiality, exhibit a performative potential for conjuring a quality of cinematic thingness. They are bodies that are physically present in the films, bodies that insist on existing after they are dead. In some films in which dead bodies persist, time is concentrated in the body. And dispersed. When life leaves the body, time—or a particular quality of time—enters into the body, and into the film. The body, then, becomes an index of cinematic temporality.

October 2012, 52 pp., 5.5” x 8.5”. Paperback, ISBN 978-0-9811914-5-4, $5 + $8 in stores. Electronic version, ISBN 978-0-9811914-6-1, $4.
Lesley Stern is a professor in the Department of Visual Arts at the University of California at San Diego. She is the author of The Scorsese Connection (British Film Institute and Indiana University Press, 1995) and The Smoking Book (University of Chicago Press, 1999) and co-editor of Falling For You: Essays on Cinema and Performance. Her work moves between a number of disciplinary locations, and spans both theory and production. She has published extensively in the areas of film, performance, photography, cultural history and feminism, and her essays have appeared in journals such as Screen, M/F, Camera Obscura, Film Reader, Image Forum (in Japanese), Trafic (in French), Emergences and Critical Inquiry.