Dead and Alive: The Body as Cinematic Thing

Lesley Stern (University of California at San Diego)

Second edition forthcoming Spring 2022 with commentary by Tracy Cox-Stanton and Amelie Hastie

Lesley Stern’s elegant and cosmopolitan exploration of the seemingly macabre topic of cinematic representations of dead bodies serves her as a springboard to creating a critical smorgasbord of contemporary topics in feminist film criticism and theory, narrative theory, topics in contemporary philosophy, acting in the cinema and much more. Bringing into her analysis films and filmmakers ranging from Jean-Luc Godard to John Ford by way of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and everything in between, she settles on more extended discussion of three films: Max Ophüls’ final Hollywood film, The Reckless Moment, starring Joan Bennett; the Australian film Japanese Story; and Agneès Varda’s Vagabond. At every step she brings to the work a unique voice and writing style, personal and poetic, informed by a close understanding of modern philosophy, including Heidegger and Latour, and a deep love for all things cinematic, whether dead or alive.

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.

— Lesley Stern
Second edition forthcoming Spring 2022. Library PDF, ISBN 978-1-927852-41-5.

Until her death in 2021, Lesley Stern was 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 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.

Tracy Cox-Stanton is a film scholar, video essayist, and professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia. She is the founder and editor of the online journal The Cine-Files. Her video essays have been published in [in]Transition and NECSUS, and featured in film festival and museum exhibitions including the Alchemy Film Festival in Scotland and the MSU Broad Museum in Lansing, Michigan.

Amelie Hastie has written about Colleen Moore’s dollhouse, eating at the movies, the work and friendship of Peter Falk and John Cassavetes, and histories of film criticism and theory. She was the author of the "Vulnerable Spectator” column in Film Quarterly and is currently working on a BFI Film Classics volume on Klute. She has taught at the University of California-Santa Cruz and, currently, Amherst College.