This provocative and brilliant book challenges visual anthropologists to consider the primal aspects of cinema, the implications of that “brute fascination” (Baudrillard 1984, 27) for filmmaking, and its consequences for figuring relationships between the human and nonhuman. Film grabs us—the implied violence is intentional—as, to one degree or another, a corporeal experience. This is the source of both its attraction and its problems for anthropologists. Where do we as anthropologists locate understanding in relation to filmic experience? Do the kinds of experiences that film can provide qualify as understanding? Bringing to mind Tom Gunning’s (1995) discussions of audience reactions to early cinema, the primal in Baxstrom and Meyers’s book is a useful irritant in the way it constantly throws the human into doubt.
We are easily swayed by film and, as the authors point out with reference to Otto Rank, “we are in a position to enjoy anxiety and horror.” They also point to Maya Deren’s treatment of possession in her work on Haitian voodoo as a model of cinematic experience that possesses us, rides us. This is what Jean Baudrillard (1984, 27) calls the “evil demon of images,” an “anthropological joy in images” that for him makes them immoral. One of the filmmakers featured in Violence’s Fabled Experiment, Lucien Castaing-Taylor, alludes to this when he suggests that film is beyond language. This feature of film is something that anthropologists often either actively disavow or politely gloss over. But Castaing-Taylor is one of the few anthropological filmmakers to be actively exploring this terrain of corporeality. Why is it otherwise such a problem for anthropologists?
The primal also figures into Baxstrom and Meyers’s argument in another way as the focus of psychoanalytic theory, including strains of film theory that are based on psychoanalytic arguments. One aim of their book is to think through cinema as a kind of simulation/stimulation that brings out inner trauma through presenting us with exterior trauma. As an anthropologist, I tend to view the models that psychoanalytic film theory develops—interior/exterior, conscious/subconscious—as problematic. They rarely take into account the way in which film and cinema are conceived and received by diverse audiences (see also Carroll 1988). Western models of film and catharsis—central to the discussion of Joshua Oppenheimer’s films here—are perhaps different from, say, Indonesian ones.
The lines that define the human are partly drawn through media, and Baxstrom and Meyers raise an important set of concerns for anthropologists to this end. But the particular—one might say culturally specific—definitions of interior and exterior drawn from psychoanalytic film theory become an edifice on which a kind of dissection of film is built. It allows them to argue, for instance, that Castaing-Taylor’s film Leviathan offers no space for audience contemplation because this would be reliant on an ability to separate oneself from the film. In bringing these three filmmakers together the authors productively refigure current debates within anthropology about the Anthropocene, multispecies perspectives, and myriad arguments around how we include and represent nonhumans in our work. But perhaps film is a medium that complicates that division. So, rather than an antagonism between nature and the human, might there be room for an anthropological understanding of film that takes a perspectivist approach?
On a recent research trip to Ladakh, in northern India, I screened a classic 1970s surf movie, Crystal Voyager, on the wall of a remote rural house. I watched as the assembled Ladakhis and Tibetan monks, who have not experienced the sea in person, took turns standing immersed in the projected light as though they were surfing. As Baxstrom and Meyers point out, films are good to think with—but they are also a kind of doing.
Baudrillard, Jean. 1984. The Evil Demon of Images. Sydney: Power Institute of Fine Arts.
Carroll, Noël. 1988. Mystifying Movies: Fads and Fallacies in Contemporary Film Theory. New York: Columbia University Press.
Castaing-Taylor, Lucien, and Verena Paravel. 2012. Leviathan. 87 min.
Elfick, David and George Greenough. 1973. Crystal Voyager. 68 min.
Tom Gunning. 1995. “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the Incredulous Spectator.” In Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film, edited by Linda Williams, 114–33. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.