Saturday, January 15, 2011

Not Dead Yet: Richard Burt, Medieval and Early Modern Film and Media


We don't often talk about film here on ITM: for exceptions, see my discussions of Rohmer's Perceval le Gallois, here, and Roberto Rossellini's Francesco, giullare di Dio, here, and the Holy Hand Grenade, here, and also have another look at our brief plugs for Marty Shichtman/Laurie Finke's Cinematic Illuminations and for Kathleen Coyne Kelly/Tison Pugh's Queer Movie Medievalisms. Another entry today: Richard Burt--my Facebook cinephile interlocutor extraordinaire--has delivered into my hands his Medieval and Early Modern Film and Media, which Palgrave wisely, generously decided to release in paperback. It's not a cheap e-book (PLEASE weigh in), but it's something.

The relationship between paperback and hardcover, between analog and digital film, between cinematic release--framed by a publicity machine and the supposedly authentic experience of being alone in the dark with a crowd of cineastes--and packaged and repacked DVDs--which provide us with a supposedly derivative experience of starting/stopping, of exploring the paratextual material of the fancier DVDs [the commentaries, the film stills, the documentaries, the essays]--all of these "uncanny doublings" (158), these hauntological things and thing-relationships (to speak pleonastically) (or perhaps not), resonate with and through Burt's book.

Films treated include Bram Stoker's Dracula, Mad Love, Anamorphosis (and The Cabinent of Jan Svankmajer), Se7en (!), Day of Wrath, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and, more sustainedly, El Cid, Kingdom of Heaven, and The Return of Martin Guerre.

For a short sense of how Burt does his thing: his engagement with the credits of Walkabout, here.

For a longer sense of how Burt does his thing, see his taking Monty Python seriously (my emphasis):
A problem of arriving at interpretive closure follows from the erosion of the paratext’s authority and related policing functions: in a radical manner even more avant-garde than Eric Rohmer’s Perceval le Gallois (1978), the film repetitively deconstructs and reinscribes (and reanimates) a distinction between meaning and nonsense, logic and illogic, parody and its policing; even more radically, it deconstructs a generic distinction between the film as medieval historical film and a documentary about the making of such a film. The shot of the police car entering the frame near the end of the film is followed by handheld cinéma verité shots of the police that continue to the end, making it seem as if we are witnessing a documentary about reenactors of a medieval battle. Yet this tension between historical film and documentary is present even in the historical sequences, made manifest through pointless but immediate point of view shots from inside the Green Knight’s helmet as he fights the Black Knight, the handheld shots of the mob rushing to burn the “witch” and the knights charging in the final battle, to take only a few of many such examples. What counts as the death of film, the cut from the policeman’s hand blocking the camera to the end of reel footage to the black screen and carnivalesque organ exit music that plays as if from a separate source in the theater (the same as the intermission music), amounts to a full-scale dismantling of the production and reception of the historical film. We get a deferral of closure rather than the dialectical sequence from documentary (profilmic real) to its fictionalization as diegesis and finally to simulation of documentary through excessive spectacular supplementary details, often in the form of extras, that according to Rosen (2001, 160–99) define the historical fiction film and differentiates it from the documentary film (to which Rosen tellingly devotes a separate chapter). If the historical film, in Rosen’s words, lets us conclude “what we see is not actually what was, but what it would have looked like” (182), Monty Python and the Holy Grail’s self-reflexive serialization of its narrative, subversion of its paratext’s authority, and use of extras playing knights who appear out of nowhere for the final and aborted battle estrange and confuse us, provoking us to wonder again and again about just what kind of film we are watching: a film parodying films about the Middle Ages such as Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957)? A documentary about making such a film parody? Or a documentary about a film about reenactors making a film about the Middle Ages played by actors who are acting as reenactors? One of the film’s many recurrent and hilarious tag lines—“Not dead yet”—may serve as a tagline for the problem of interpreting the film’s staging of its continual deferral of meaning, its refusal to deliver a narrative sequence of its own life and death.
HAVE A LOOK: For students of psychoanalysis, of desire, of presence and disappearance and ineradicability.

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