The tropics really pop in Jean Renoir’s The River (1951), the first film to be shot in Technicolor in India. The film’s photographic depiction of a wet, verdant Bengal prompted Rumer Godden, author of the novel on which Renoir’s film is based, to complain that the film’s backgrounds had “swamped” its narrative with an “overabundance of Indian life and color.”1 In his memoirs, Renoir refers to scouting locations along the banks of the Hugli with his production designer, Eugène Lourié. There, Lourié discovered a palace that belonged to the maharaja of Gwalior, but its grounds were deemed insufficiently green. The lawn, yellowed somewhat by the summer sun, was torn out and a new one sown. Yet even the freshly grown grass wasn’t green enough for Renoir: on the day of filming, Claude Renoir (the director of photography and the director’s nephew) could be seen splashing the grass with green paint.
Let there be no ambiguity: the world has turned into a horror show, a modern-day political Grand Guignol of global proportions with an emerging Axis of Evil (Trump, Putin, al-Assad, and now, Bolsonaro in Brazil, to name only a few). Their bases are the virtual spaces of social media, their proscenium the many screens blanketing the planet with news alerts of the latest mass murder, police shooting, war-related atrocity, or xenophobic government policy. It has become all too common to see people look up from their laptops or phones and, with a hand clasped over their mouth, let out a guttural “Oh, my god.”
In 1998, Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner published an essay entitled “Sex in Public,” which now appears as the utopian vision of a bygone era. Drawing from Jürgen Habermas and Michel Foucault, Berlant and Warner called attention to the public mediation of sexuality in the United States and critiqued the heteronormative ideologies and institutions that hinged on a structural delineation of “personal life.” Where a hegemonic public sphere had been constituted by “a privatization of sex and the sexualization of private personhood,” so they argued, queer culture represented a world-making project involving the development of ephemeral, promiscuous, and often-criminal forms of intimacy—ones “that bear no necessary relation to domestic space, to kinship, to the couple form, to property, or to the nation.”
For many critical theorists, it has become second nature to view science with a degree of suspicion. Complicit in the most egregious offenses of the modern era, science has been identified with everything from positivism and instrumental reason to essentialism and biopolitical control. Such skepticism came to a head in the late twentieth century, as leftist thinkers in the humanities sought to undermine a realist approach to scientific knowledge; social transformation seemed to hinge on the unsettling of epistemic certainty and the subversion of all normative, objectivist validity claims. Yet, as philosopher Bruno Latour has argued, the “science wars” now appear outdated in light of geopolitical exigencies, particularly the accelerating process of climate change. The language of social construction and cultural relativism must give way to an emphatic defense of scientific consensus and global, albeit inconvenient, truth.
As Catherine Russell observes in her new book, Archiveology: Walter Benjamin and Archival Film Practices, countless moving images are now easily accessible for recycling and remixing. No longer the primary domain of experimental artists, the retrieval and reassembling of audiovisual fragments have become widespread creative practices in contemporary media: “The death of ‘film’ and the rise of digital media,” she notes, “have effectively enabled and produced a new critical language that we are only really learning to speak.”
Translation, broadly conceived, has been an underlying theme for much of my own research and work recently, but it is a subject that Tessa Dwyer has obviously thought through on many levels, for many years. I must admit, when I first read this book, I expected it to be bounded by the discipline of translation studies. I was very pleasantly surprised to see that Dwyer addresses so much more. From the outset of Speaking in Subtitles she asserts that translation in any media form entails risk. This gambit is an effective way to encourage readers to question their own positionalities vis-a-vis the subject and object of translation in film. What is at stake when shifting the hierarchies between sound, image, and words in a film? What is lost? What is gained? What might be a vestigial artifact or unexpected outcome?
This special dossier for Film Quarterly comprises a selection of essays that share the central idea that the work ahead for scholars in the current moment must be to appreciate what has been an ever-increasing complication of the idea of black film and media over the last ten years. This dossier considers significant trends, film and media objects, and clusters of work related to issues of blackness and questions of aesthetics, historiography, industrial practice, collectivity, politics, and culture. It is compelled by a shared belief that requires scholars to remain open to contemporary and future enactments while at the same time recognizing the momentum of the past.
In Memoriam: Brian Henderson. April 17, 1941- March 1, 2017. Brian Henderson wrote frequently for FQ and was a longtime member of the FQ Editorial Board. To celebrate his contribution to the field of film and media studies, we offer here his first feature-length article published in FQ’s pages.