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Enunciating Film – A Response to ‘On Writing the Last Line First’ in the Form of a Film Program

Dimitri de Preux, Research and Film Program: Dimitri de Preux and Anna Tarassachvili

To cite this contribution:

de Preux, Dimitri and Anna Tarassachvili. ‘Enunciating Film – A Response to “On Writing the Last Line First” in the Form of a Film Program.’ OAR: The Oxford Artistic and Practice Based Research Platform Issue 0 (2016),

The set design of Mitleid. Geschichte des Maschinengewehrs (Compassion. History of the Machine Gun), Milo Rau’s theatre play produced by the Berliner Schaubühne in February 2016, appears as such: a large screen is placed above the stage, facing the audience. On stage, amongst a set of chairs and a table, stands a camera on a tripod, which two actresses use to record selected moments of their performances. The camera’s images are screened live on the screen, detailing and framing gestures, expressions, and flows of speech.

Mitleid. Geschichte des Maschinengewehrs addresses the conflicts at play in Western humanitarian help in post-genocide Rwanda and Burundi. Actress Ursina Lardi plays a Caucasian NGO volunteer worker; actress Consolate Sipérius a Belgian citizen of Burundi dissent and a genocide survivor. In her final monologue, Sipérius examines the notion of vengeance. At first exploring this notion via her personal history, she moves on to quote a piece of collective memory drawn from largely-distributed fiction cinema – the climax of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009). Sipérius is present both on stage and on the screen above her as she narrates the sequence in which the Jewish character Shoshanna Dreyfuss screens a vengeance monologue to Nazi officials locked inside a cinema, before burning it to the ground. The oral recollection of that sequence of film shifts into its very re-enactment, given the spatial and cinematic environment in which it is told. Sipérius never impersonates the character or the actions she describes; she never speaks in the first person singular. Rather, she becomes the sequence itself, as the space she describes in her narrative begins to mirror the spatial and cinematic arrangement on stage, with a screen facing the audience. The enunciation of a film, in this instance, becomes haptic and omnipresent, given that everyone present in the theatre partakes in it, willingly or not.

Film, in Adrian Rifkin’s ‘On Writing the Last Line First’, draws on two sets of antagonistic and shifting conditions of being, two indeterminacies regarding its appearance and usage. Narrated in the past tense, Rifkin first recounts how he used to think of film as a salvation media through which he had hoped to save himself from the archival or academic discourses and their enunciative mores. He had planned to interrupt his flow of speech and let film sequences speak for him. He had identified selected instances of film as providers of a ‘perplexity’ effect, which would purportedly place his enunciation into ‘something which is paradigmatically now’, into a present that he struggled to meet via the ‘careful unfolding of archival research’. The enunciative quality of a specific line in Ernst Lubitsch’s film To Be or Not to Be (1942), the idiosyncratic force of that line when linked to the manner in which it is pronounced, or the unexpected smile on the character of Irmgard’s face when she is being offered fresh pears in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Händler der vier Jahreszeiten (The Merchant of Four Seasons) (1971), were all presented as guidelines for attitudes in speaking and being. Rifkin would screen these attitudes, hoping they would become his ‘I’ ‘for a certain moment in [his] enunciation’, rightly joining idiosyncrasy and collectiveness, namely the personal and the political, in order to ‘place knowledge into a present’. But then, Rifkin tells us that the chosen sequences lost their capacity to escape the archival once they were screened in front of an audience. Once they are reified on the screen, shown one after another, Rifkin labels them as forming a ‘dictionary’, as ‘ruins’. He compares the filmic instances to the archive he has scattered on the floor earlier during ‘On Writing the Last Line First’.

In the introduction of the enlarged edition of his book The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film, philosopher Stanley Cavell acknowledges the presence of errors of ‘content’ and ‘sequencing’ in descriptions of film sequences that appeared in the first edition of his work.1 Instead of going back to the original sequences in order to correct his imagined recollections, he states that he will not make this archival gesture and will instead allow this false memory of the film to remain. He further explains that the filmic object he is interested in is his personal recollection of film, his enunciation of film, whether his memory differs from the archive or not. The memory of film becomes superior to film as an archival authority. Hence, to access this memory, the narration of film is vital. What becomes interesting for us, therefore, is this enunciation of film by its spectator. In ‘On Writing the Last Line First’, we are presented first with the expectations of the effects of film, later by their failure. We thus experience the enunciation of film, bribes of re-enactments of sequences that we create in our imagination – a sort of encounter between our own loose memory of Irmgard’s smile in The Merchant of Four Seasons, Rifkin’s re-enactment of the smile, and the explanations of what he wanted to use it for, which, as in Cavell’s case, differs from the filmic sequence as archival document.

The second indeterminacy, or shifting condition regarding the usage of film in ‘On Writing the Last Line First’, relates not to how film is used by Rifkin, but to what it is about film that he would like to enunciate. At first, one might have the impression that Rifkin wishes to replace his enunciation by human attitudes or fragments of narratives recorded on film, from a particular smile to a line of dialogue. But this attempt is only one aspect of the project. ‘It’s that shot who I would wish to be’ he says, ‘it’s that sequence in that shot’. Rifkin extends the wish to impersonate gestures and speech recorded on film to the desire of becoming the filmic material itself. The paths ‘to place knowledge into the present’ cannot only materialize through the events, the reactions, and the attitudes that are represented in film. Rather it seems to be the editing and films’ capacity for swiftness that Rifkin wishes to become, or that would trigger the perplexity effect he wishes to become. Rifkin’s use of onomatopoeia and gestures to evoke or embody quick editing and shot/reverse shots in To Be or Not to Be show how rarely filmic properties can be translated into words. ‘Everything turns around, so the minute it’s gone, you can’t remember, it’s too swift and too perfect.’

Thus, Rifkin places film in a limbo state where, on the one hand, its showing has failed – for the reasons explained above – and on the other hand, words and gestures do not seem sufficient to recreate every aspect of the filmic effect. But maybe this is exactly where Rifkin wishes to place lost documents, between their presentation and the narration of their incompleteness when they are narrated. We would like to position the following film program (which we were commissioned to imagine) nearby this limbo state, triggered by the two mentioned indeterminacies or shifting conditions of appearance and usage of film as they appeared in ‘On Writing the Last Line First’. It can seem conflicting to respond with filmic material to an enunciation of film where film ended up being absent, ended up being narrated instead of shown (replaced by its narration). But the films in this program are thought of as guidelines or reflective objects on how to enunciate film in its absence, as a set of tools on how to produce film out of its oral enunciation. We like to think of the series as a set of documents which are somehow witnesses to their own filmic format and which incorporate narrative agents who enunciate film as if film were an alien object to their narrative. The selection aims to reflect on how film can function as a method for enunciative acts instead of illustrative or mirroring acts.

Shohei Imamura, History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess (にっぽん戦後史 マダムおんぼろの生活), 1970, 35mm, 105 minutes, Japan.
Real-life Japanese bar hostess Chieko Akaza has been hired by the filmmaker Shohei Imamura to narrate episodes of her life. The film starts when he shows her archival Japanese newsreels, which are also presented in full screen to the viewers of History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess. Imamura then cuts back to Akaza. The images which she and we have seen trigger her personal narrative – which she tells facing the camera, in front of a dark and abstract background. All of a sudden, her own stories – from her love life to anecdotes about her job as a bar hostess – are told in a voice-over while a new series of archival newsreels occupy the screen. This time, instead of triggering her personal narrative, the images seem to illustrate or rather somehow ‘universalize’ her individual story. In History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess, oral narration and moving images assist one another, confuse one another, and finally contradict one another.

Nicolás Pereda, Greatest Hits (Los Mejores Temas), 2012, DCP, 103 minutes, Mexico, Canada, Netherlands.
In Greatest Hits, Nicolás Pereda worked with actress Teresa Sánchez and actor Gabino Rodríguez. In several of Pereda’s previous films, they had played a mother and a son. In Greatest Hits, Sánchez and Rodríguez’s roles borrow from the entire gamut of the past roles they have enacted for Pereda. Their performance is not a remake of their past roles, but rather functions as a sort of condensation or an average of several ways of being, or several ways of saying words and sentences, embedded into a new diegesis and life context.

Jean Eustache, A Dirty Story (Une sale histoire), 1977, 35mm, 50 minutes, France.
A Dirty Story is split in two parts, clearly separated by the final credits of the first part. In the first section, actor Michael Lonsdale delivers a monologue in front of a small audience of two women and a man, in a comfortable living room. He talks about how he used to peek into a women’s restroom situated in the basement of a restaurant. In the second part, we witness the non-fiction footage of the same narration, this time told not by an actor but by the actual voyeur whose story the film is based upon. In a simple editing gesture, the sequencing – with the re-enactment preceding the original footage – disrupts the standard order of events and their retelling in documentary film.

Alfred L. Werker, The Reluctant Dragon, 1941, 35mm, 74 minutes, USA.
The Reluctant Dragon
, a Walt Disney production, aims to show in detail how an animated Disney film is fabricated in the early 1940s. Shot mostly in non-animated live action, the film narrates the visit of Robert Benchley, an American humorist playing his own role, to the Disney studios. He wants to meet Walt Disney in person in order to suggest adapting the story of a reluctant dragon. Benchley visits all of the film studios’ departments and even gets to see the voicing of Donald Duck and the coloring of Bambi. The Reluctant Dragon narrates the techniques of fabrication of a very specific type of film (a Disney work) with the means of the very narrative tropes inherent to a Disney film, namely a hero who explores places and encounters characters while experiencing gags and overcoming obstacles.

Charles de Meaux and Philippe Parreno, Le Pont du trieur, 2000, 35mm, 74 minutes, France.
The film addresses the conditions of life in the Pamir Mountains, in the Republic of Tajikistan after the fall of the Soviet regime. But Le Pont du trieur opens with a French-speaking actor filmed in a Parisian sound recording studio. He emphasizes the rarity of existing cinematic images of the Pamir region. As viewers, before we are allowed to see images taken in the area, we are introduced to a Tajik botanist who is invited into the sound recording studio. He is placed in front of a white screen and is asked to perform a voice-over for the moving images still to be shot in Tajikistan – images which we begin to see halfway through the film.

1.  Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979), ix.

About the authors:

Dimitri de Preux is a film programmer and translator. He holds a BFA from ECAL and undergraduate and graduate degrees in art history from the Sorbonne and University College London. He has worked for Visions du Réel, Les Cinémas du Centre Pompidou, and with other film festivals and museums in Switzerland and France.

Anna Tarassachvili is a film programmer and the deputy artistic director of the International Film Festival Entrevues Belfort. She studied history of art and film at the Sorbonne and has worked with the Cinémathèque Française, the Centre Pompidou, and for other festivals and museums in Paris and New York.