Thursday, November 17, 2011

Going to Tokyo?

If you live in Toronto and are interested in Japanese cinema make sure to check out the Shinsedai Cinema Festival, which is programmed by Chris Magee and Jasper Sharp. The festival will take place some time in July 2012 at the Revue Cinema. - D.D.

Title: World Film Locations: Tokyo
Editor: Chris Magee
Publisher: Intellect Ltd.
Pages: 128
Price: 18$
More a tour guide then pure film criticism, Intellect Books' new series World Film Locations - with ones on London, New York, Los Angeles, and Tokyo - are a welcome introduction through the movies to the famous buildings and neighborhoods of these various cities. The books are divided into six separate sections dedicated to the different districts. All of them being preceded by a map of the city with numbered indicators locating where the scenes took place. Each entry includes a description of, and pictures from the scene. As well a current picture of the location that allows you to compare how it is presented in the film with how it looks now.

Chris Magee who edited the boook also writes a nice introduction and pieces on Tokyo March (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1929), a rare pre-war portrait of Tokyo; Pom Poko (Isao Takahata, 1994), Kikujiro (Takeshi Kitano 1999), Fear and Trembling (Alain Corneau, 2003), Confessions of a Dog (Gen Takahashi, 2006), and Retribution (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2006). I would also recommend Marc Saint-Cyr's piece on The Yakuza (Sydney Pollack, 1974). A lot of the contributors to the book also contributed to the other Intellect book Directory of World Cinema: Japan.

The essays in the book help contextualize the films within Tokyo's cultural and political history, within the genres of Japanese cinema, the restrictions of filming in the post-WWII era, the director Yasojiro Ozu, and anime. The essay's include Jon Jung's Tokyo: City of The Imagination, Eric Evans' Worst of Times/Best of Times: Post-War Tokyo in Film, Samuel Jamier's Tokyo Must Burn! The End of The World Through Anime Eyes, John Berra's Tokyo Stories: The Humanistic Cityscape of Yasujiro Ozu, Roberta Novielli's Strangers Among Us: A Cinematic View of Immigrants in Tokyo, Steven Sarrazin's Shinjuku: Dawn is West, and Reiko Tahara's Edo: Old Tokyo resurrected on film.The two page long entries are well researched and well written. While the choices of films are interesting as they include political works and documentaries. While also including some unexpected Tokyo films like those made by foreign directors to the city like Samuel Fuller's House of Bamboo (1955), Wim Wenders' Tokyo-Ga (1985), Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation (2003), and Gaspar Noé's Enter the Void (2009).

The entries try to do justice to all of Central Tokyo's twenty-three wards, and beyond. But it just so happens that some of the wards are more cinematic then the others ; so they get more attention. And the contributions by locals and people that have visited the city give the book an insider-like quality. As if you are walking the backstreets of the city with your own personal guide. There are recommendations of where you can go for a drink or a meal (the famous La Jetée), what hotel to stay at, where to shop, and information about the subway stations. I would recommend World Film Locations: Tokyo, and all of the titles in the series, to any cinephile that will be traveling to these cities. - David Davidson

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Igor Drljača's Sarajevo Memories

This is the first of three reviews on new Canadian short films. – D. D.

Igor Drljača was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1983. He left the country on May 1st 1992 on a military plane due to the violence of the Bosnian war, like so many other families. He recalls the flight out of the country in a military plane that “was not a cool looking MIG I had imagined,” where everyone had to sit on the floor. He arrived in Canada in 1993 where he has since completed his Bachelor’s and Master’s in Film Production from York University. His short films include Rana (05), The Battery-Powered Duckling (06), Mobilni Snovi (08), On a Lonely Drive (09), Woman in Purple (10), The Fuse: Or How I Burned Simon Bolivar (11), and he is currently in post-production on another short film and his first feature-length film (hopefully completed by next year) which will be “about a man that’s now in Toronto but was involved in the Bosnian civil war so it deals with themes of immigration, themes of isolation, themes of trauma, war trauma especially. Sort of these universal elements that a lot of people in Toronto can relate to, a lot of refugees.” Much of the subject of Drljača work blends the personal with the political, mixing a child-like pleasantness with serious subjects and his approach to filmmaking blends the traditional with the avant-garde and documentary.

An exposition shot of a crater-ridden apartment complex in today’s post-war Sarajevo opens Woman in Purple. A young boy Mirza (a sorrowful Haris Begic) lives with his grandmother, who asks him a few questions as he is on his way out: Did you eat yet? How will you buy food later? Remember to visit your mother later. When will you be back home? One thing that sticks out in this scene is the long and heavy silences, as if these questions have been asked hundreds of times before. They also recall the trauma of the war when such things were of grave concern. During these moments of silence the only thing you can hear is the television that is turned on in the background.

Mirza goes to the park to watch some older boys play basketball. He is bored. There is nothing really for him to do. A local drug dealer approaches Mirza asking him to do a few rounds for him. The addresses that Mirza will need to go to are on a note that the dealer gives him. What Mirza will have to do consists of receiving cash and dropping off the packaged drugs (Marijuana? Cocaine?). Mirza goes with it, as he has done before, but this time he makes sure to get paid first. The day goes by smoothly - one of the clients even buys him a wrap - but similarly to the beginning of Cristian Mungiu’ 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) the suspicion that something might go awry has a looming presence. At the end of the day Mirza meets up with the dealer at the basketball courts where he makes a significant decision in regards to his future, he chooses not to continue doing jobs for the dealer. He does this by hitting the basketball that is in the dealers hand and starts playing all by himself on the opposite side of the court. The hitting of the ball is an act of social protest and an intense moment of everyday heroism worthy of the films of Mike Leigh. The film’s score which was full of natural street noises so far breaks out into a storm. The films end with Mirza sitting in a grassy cemetery, surrounded by the Sarajevo hills and mountains, watching a plane fly out of the city. In an astonishing reverse-shot you see that he is sitting beside his mother Hasanovic Sanela tombstone. She died in 1996.

The script of Woman in Purple is by Drljača and Hrvoje Župarić. Drljača in Woman in Purple uses a wide frame (2.35:1) and shoots in long shots as he follows Mirza walking in hand-held shots from behind the head. Mirza’s silence emphasizes the films visual storytelling qualities. The Sarajevo City Film Grant helped financed the film. A short note, the fact that Drljača is a Toronto resident and films in a different country has led some commenter’s to place him within the context of First Generation directors alongside Nicolás Pereda and Chris Chong Chan Fui. As Kazik Radwanski describes these First Generation filmmakers, “These temporary-residents play a role in Canadian cinema: their films maintain a connection to Toronto, while defining their own territories and landscapes.”
To contextualize Drljača’s short films within contemporary Sarejevo culture I am going to bring up the Serbian-American poet Charles Simić, from his recent article The Bright Side of the Balkans (The New York Review of Books Aug. 18th, 2011). In the articles Simić describes his experiences going to Sarajevo to attend an international poetry festival. He describes many things from his visit there. Like the recent arrest and trial of the general Ratko Mladić, who with Radovan Karadžić led the siege by the Serbian forces that caused extraordinary suffering, which lasted from April 1992 to February 1996. Simić describes the city,
“Since a great deal of what had been blown up has been re-built, the city appeared to be thriving, and given the warm and sunny weather during my visit and the sight of many people strolling in the streets or sitting in cafes chatting amiably, everything that occurred here fifteen years ago seemed inconceivable.”
On the themes of their contemporary poetry, Simić notes that much of Bosnian poetry is about the war unlike the poetry of the Serbs and Croats. On the residing emotional and intellectual impact of the war, Simić notes,
“Two survivors of the Sarajevo siege described in a calm, matter-of-fact way what life was like without water and electricity and with constant fear that members of their family might die as they stepped into the streets.”
And in regards to the younger generation Simić writes,
“Still, two out of three of them [the young men and women], according to a poll I saw in the papers when I was there, want to leave because there will be nothing for them to do when they finish school. They no longer need visas to travel to other parts of Europe, but since neither they nor their parents have enough money, fleeing the country, as thousands of others had done in the past, is no longer a realistic option.”
The Fuse: Or How I Burned Simon Bolivar is a personal documentary on the ravages of the war that blends home video with achieves footage from Drljača nineties boyhood in Sarajevo. The film separates the footage and progresses the chronology through black inter-titles with the location, city and date. “It’s like an homage sort-of to my childhood,” which took about three years to make says Drljača. The Fuse recalls the found-footage documentary by Andrei Ujică, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (2010). And Andrew Parker in the Toronto Now writes about The Fuse, “Powerful first-person footage and youthful exuberance add up to a short that’s far better than the program [2 in Short Cuts Canada] it’s in.”

The Fuse opens with Igor as a little boy in his childhood apartment introducing himself and his family to the camera. It proceeds to footage of children standing around the Simon Bolivar bust in his school and then to shots of the students singing and dancing until the camera eventually finds itself on Igor pixilated in the middle of a crowd. Through a voice-over Drljača starts to recollect that week’s art assignment “to paint the arrival of spring,” but when he was painting “that large tree next to his cottage, that always blooms first” he ran out of pink-paint and it didn’t look right. He remembers this experience vividly,
“During our lunch break, Aco, who sits in the first row, said that he saw the teacher marking our paintings. He said that I received a C. But I had never received a C in art. I still hadn’t seen my mark, but I was getting more and more nervous. That night, I thought: Dear God, I’ve never asked for anything before. I am not sure whether to believe in you. Mom and Dad say that you don’t exist. Both of my grandmas say that you do exist. And if by chance you do exist, I’d like to ask you for one big favor. I don’t want to go back to school; I don’t want to see my grade. So if you are able to help me out in any way. I’d be forever grateful.”
Cut to a shot of a teacher on television reading off a message: “All schools in region: Sarajevo, Mostar, Doboj, Tuzla… are on strike.” And then the military trucks and tanks start to roam through the streets of Sarajevo. His family is watching the news of the outbreak of the Croatian War, March 3rd, 1992. The city is no longer safe and his family is no longer leaving their appartment. Footage of bullets going by close to his apartment window is especially frightening. It’s a strange feeling watching the unfolding of a war from the perspective of the residents and how they see it happening on television. There is one especially wrenching shot of a hurt little black dog with his limbs twitching. But still life goes on, the family celebrates Igor’s brothers Dado’s birthday. And also the kids find ways to have fun, “Along with the other children, I excitedly collected shrapnel and shell casings.”

Igor leaves Sarajevo with his mother and brother on May 1st 1992 on a military plane. The last shot of The Fuse is footage of a building burning (is it the school?) in bright red fire and dark black smoke. This is the last footage his father would have filmed and brought with him when he joined the rest of his family in Canada. “After we were able to reach him on the phone. He told me that a few days earlier, my school, Simon Bolivar, had burned down. At that moment I realized that I no longer had to worry about my mark in art,” Drljača says in voice-over narration. This child-like optimism and ability to move forward after trauma gives Drljača’s work an enduring quality. Drljača cinema is one of perseverance and that of being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. - David Davidson

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

On Donigan Cumming’s Karaoke (1998)

In anticipation for the Pleasure Dome projection and book launch of Splitting the Choir; The Moving Images of Donigan Cumming, which includes Toronto's premiere of Too Many Things, on Saturday November 5th at 7PM at the CineCycle (129 Spadina Ave) ; here is a guest contribution by Canadian Film Institute programmer Scott Birdwise. – D.D.


In an introduction to a public screening of Karaoke in Toronto in 2008, experimental filmmaker and writer Mike Hoolboom posed a question to Donigan Cumming, “Why conjure this universe of a body, this landscape of flesh.”1 To my understanding, Hoolboom’s question, perhaps inadvertently, cuts to the very heart of the matter of the documentary example. A description of the video will help set up my explanation.

Karaoke opens with an extreme close-up study of an elderly man’s face: with his eyes closed, the man licks his lips; the camera jostles slightly, suggesting it is handheld; the image is almost imperceptibly in slow-motion. Given the man’s apparent age, his reclined posture suggesting infirmary, and the emphasis on his fragile bodily-being (his labored swallowing), it seems, for all intents and purposes, that he is quite sick and unconscious – perhaps even near death. Is this, as Cumming puts it, a “deathwatch?”

The oral component of the video is somewhat distorted: the audio track hisses, faint sounds, clicking and clacking in general proximity, are heard – is this the diegetic room sound recorded by Cumming’s camera’s built-in microphone? Perhaps. But while the sound first seems to correspond to the elderly man’s action, his lip-licking and swallowing possibly the source of the audio, it quickly becomes evident that the sound we hear is not necessarily coming from him, or even from the room, at all. The audio and the visual do not seem to be in synch; they may be from different temporalities, perhaps even different spaces entirely. It really is difficult to tell.2

While the handheld camera lingers over the elderly man’s face with a kind of special emphasis given to his oral region (his mouth), moving slightly back and forth and continually reframing as handheld shots do (a trope of observational cinema), a song emerges from the off-camera audio: a strange combination of Christian pop music and Inuktitut singing.3 The off-camera voices of two women, presumably of Inuit origin, join in with the music, singing along to the lyrics praising Christ, declaring his love and how they are blessed for partaking in it – as one line exclaims (with English subtitles) “How the message will be understood!” At one point early in the song, the recorded music cuts out: it is here, via this aural cue, that the viewer recognizes that the Inuit women’s voices heard are not part of the music recording; they seem, in fact, to belong to the same space as the old man (who, importantly, it seemed at first was singing but in fact was merely breathing). The women are singing along to the tape beside the old man in a kind of impromptu karaoke performance.

About half way through the three minute duration of Karaoke, the camera begins to deliberately and purposively scan its way over the horizontal plane of the old man’s body, arriving at his feet. As it turns out, the elderly man seems to indeed be listening to the karaoke performance with some measure of interest: he is tapping his foot in time with the song. This is the “punch-line” of the video, the moment of truth revealing that the opening half of the video is a kind of set-up, the necessary opening of the gag. As Cumming puts it, “In Karaoke, the horror of a deathwatch is pure illusion. The transgression is a set-up, which turns on the spectator when the camera gets down to the feet. Nelson [the elderly man] is not dead! He is tapping his toes!”4

From here, again in an almost imperceptible gesture, the tape in fact begins to repeat itself backwards, audio included. This switchover almost passes unnoticed – in fact, I would argue first-time viewers often miss it – as the camera lingers over the tapping foot only to return to the “grizzled face” of the elderly man, licking his lips and breathing, in slow motion. With this, the tape ends.5

If we consider Karaoke a kind of documentary, exhibiting its means without end, then we are forced to take seriously Hoolboom’s inquiry. Hoolboom again: “[Karaoke] is shot very close up, refusing the surroundings, the room, the context. Why conjure this universe of a body, this landscape of flesh? Who is this man…?”6 Hoolboom’s query points to the foundational problematic of the documentary logic of example, which Karaoke exposes via my Agambenian reading of its strategies. The central problem: how is “a landscape of flesh,” that is, bare life, produced, and how is it overturned; or, rather, how is a form of life founded that does not fall back into the trappings of the citizen?

The elderly man framed by the extreme close-up of Cumming’s camera is presented to the viewer in a kind of extreme biological proximity at the expense of knowing who and where he, the would-be subject, is. The epistemological grounds of knowledge related to context and the like are refused for the ontological priority of the body: here he, or perhaps it, is. The elderly man is first and foremost an object of display and his being is reduced to maintaining his very existence: he breathes, he licks his lips – his life is stripped of context, it is bare life. As such, his position relative to the documentary logic of example is analogous to what Agamben considers the foundational gesture of Western politics and metaphysics: the inclusive exclusion of bare life. In this case, Cumming refuses the elderly man’s life-world by way of the close-up, framing and including him as bare life by excluding his environment. The elderly man is the environment, a “landscape of flesh.”

The elderly man’s existence, his existence as such, that Karaoke establishes at the outset and which seems to teeter on the brink between mere being (life) and non-being (death), or, even more to the point, the human (a speaking-being with subjectivity, desire, and history) and the inhuman (a mere “landscape of flesh”), finds an instructive parallel in what Agamben identifies as one of the paradigmatic figures of the twentieth century: the Musselmann. The Musselmann, for Agamben, is the exemplary figure of the concentration camp, whose total degradation and malnutrition has wasted away the speaking subject to the limit-figure of life and language at the brink of death and speechlessness.7 A kind of living dead – who/which is the site of confusion between the categories of life/death and human/inhuman as figured in the extreme biopolitical decisionism of the Nazi regime – the Musselmann is part of the administered process of the killing machine of the concentration camp, wherein the prisoner passes into the threshold of the Musselmann and thus does not die as a Jew or human being, but as mere biological existence, bare life. The Musselmann, then, is a (non)subject without context, history, personality, or desire; it is biology, possible motor skills, and the barest minimum of needs. This seems to be the transgressive status of that withered face in Karaoke: it is the death scene-and death seen, what Cumming calls “the horror of a deathwatch.” Or is it?

As argued above, the Musselmann comes into existence by way of the concentration camp. Agamben is quick to argue, however, that while the Nazi concentration camp is a historically specific phenomenon, it is nonetheless the hypostatized manifestation of a much more general logic. Agamben:
The camp is the paradigm itself of political space at the point in which politics becomes biopolitics and homo sacer becomes indistinguishable from the citizen […] If the essence of the camp consists in the materialization of the state of exception and in the consequent creation of a space for naked life as such, we will then have to admit to be facing a camp virtually every time that such a structure is created, regardless of the nature of the crimes committed in it and regardless of the denomination and specific topography it might have […] From this perspective, the birth of the camp in our time appears to be an event that marks in a decisive way the political space itself of modernity.8
The camp can appear and manifest an otherwise latent state of exception anywhere, isolating bare life, zoe, from the qualified life of the citizen-subject, bios. The camp is mobile and can temporarily install itself in such spaces as airports, shopping centres, soccer fields, and even living rooms – it is the potential for a kind of sovereign violence that confounds the distinction between the oikos (the home) and the polis (the city, public space) where all public citizens are potentially private prisoners. In this way, the camp is what Agamben calls a “dislocating localization” that scrambles the co-ordinates of a seemingly determinate topos – a space and place – in order to suspend law and order and institute the “inscription of life” into the paradoxical order of sovereign violence.9

In Karaoke, Cumming’s camera, his frame, imposes a kind “dislocating localization” upon the profilmic space: the frame excludes “the surroundings, the room, the context,” rendering the elderly man as “this landscape of flesh,” bare life on the brink of death. As an object/subject held up by the documentary as an example, what Karaoke seems to present is the fact of the elderly man as such. However, is the man merely a “moving still,” that is, a being (moving) on the brink of death (still)? As we shall see, and as was suggested above, the “fact” of the elderly man – the “deathwatch” of bare life – is problematized by the same “violence” and power of the frame which presented it. Indeed, the frame, the logic of the camp as dislocating localization, becomes the very means by which Cumming repotentializes the world: the camp becomes the “constructed situation,” as the presence of fact gives way to the mediality of potentiality; as action falters the gesture appears. This is the gag of/in Karaoke.

The gag of Karaoke, of course, is that the seemingly unconscious subject-object, the ailing man as bare life, is revealed to be engaged with his milieu, tapping his foot as he enjoys the off-camera music. The movement of the frame thus establishes a kind of newly invigorated ontological context for the world in which the video takes place. The significance of the gesture of foot tapping is not that it has the priority of being the new fundamental reality or fact to which the video bears witness, but that, in Agamben’s words, it “defines a life – human life – in which the single ways, acts, and processes of living are never simply facts but always and above all possibilities of life, always and above all power.”10

If the camp is a mobile space of exception that organizes its own form of disorganization (a zone of indistinction between citizenship and the natural body), that realizes the nihilistic potential for sovereign violence at the heart of everyday law and order (a pure political violence), and that isolates bare life in the ruthless alienation of the human being from its form (by way of transforming experience into spectacle), the “constructed situation” takes this alienation and violence and turns it on its head in a liberatory gesture. It is the constructed situation which can take “this biopolitical body that is bare life” and transform it into “the site for the constitution and instalment of a form of life that is wholly exhausted in bare life and a bios that is only its own zoe.”11

Following Debord and the Situationists, Agamben defines the constructed situation in the following way:
The situation is neither the becoming-art of life nor the becoming-life of art. We can comprehend its true nature only if we locate it historically in its proper place: that is, after the end and self-destruction of art, and after the passage of life through the trial of nihilism… [at] a point of indifference between life and art, where both undergo a decisive metamorphosis simultaneously. This point of indifference constitutes a politics that is finally adequate to its tasks. The Situationists counteract capitalism [and I would add the state of exception, the logic of the camp] – which “concretely and deliberately” organizes environments and events in order to depotentiate life – with a concrete, although opposite, project.12
The constructed situation mobilizes the “dislocating localization” of the frame and its intrusiveness, its manifestly interruptive nature in a given milieu (breaking the supposed unity of the moment for aesthetic reasons [a nice picture]), and makes of it an opportunity for experimentation in the zone of indistinction it opens between art and life. In this way, the constructed situation transforms life at the level of experience rather than representation or contemplation: life and theatre intersect to mutually transform and repotentiate one another. To put it another way, if the generalized state of exception and spectacle in which we live has already falsified experience and inclusively excluded life, then the constructed situation uses an apparent falsity – its constructedness – to highlight this very spectacle and fragmentation, and thereby put it to an alternative use, albeit one not directed toward a specific end.
Central to Agamben’s conception of the constructed situation is the gesture. Indeed, in explaining the constructed situation, Agamben argues that
Gesture is the name of this intersection between life and art, act and power, general and particular, text and execution. It is a moment of life subtracted from the context of individual biography as well as a moment of art subtracted from the neutrality of aesthetics: it is pure praxis.13
Just as the constructed situation emerges from a “dislocating localization,” the gesture exhibits itself as a kind of action that, in exhibiting itself, suspends its commonplace function as a means to an end and becomes a means without end. For Agamben, as I outlined toward the end of the previous chapter, this is the very promise of cinema – the paradigm of (a potential) situation-constructing apparatus (and not necessarily a storytelling medium at all) – itself: to exhibit the very movement of humankind in a state of suspension freed from immediate ends, that is, to show in an immediate way the fundamental mediality of humanity. As Stephen Crocker states in his article “Noises and Exceptions: Pure Mediality in Serres and Agamben,”
What the late nineteenth century interest in gesture seems to promise, and what, Agamben argues, remains the promise of cinema since, is some understanding of the world’s movement exempted from all-purpose and displaying nothing more or less than the taking place of life in a ratio of time and movement. As such, cinema gives us the world in the form of a gesture. Cinema brackets out the significance of the event so that the pure act of its enunciation can come forward.14
The constructed situation as, with, and by the gesture does not operate on a representational so much as a kind of para-phenomenological level: whatever “understanding” it generates is not something one possesses, as a collection of facts to be decided on in sovereign fashion, but is rather something one does: it is an orientation, an attitude, of the political body opening to the world.

Cumming’s Karaoke is exemplary in its exhibition of the very gesture that Agamben identifies with the constructed situation. First, the video brackets out the context in its suspension of typical documentary markers of place, “refusing the surroundings, the room, the context.” What transpires is not a narrative or argument in any conventional sense; rather, a situation develops. The viewer is confronted with what seems to be the exhausted figure of bare life, of mere life, struggling to simply be. Is this the barest expression of an existential dilemma? Perhaps, but then, as the camera tracks to his tapping foot, the elderly man’s gesture opens up the question of the political. Neither a fact nor reducible to individual expression (as Hoolboom asks, “Who is this man?”), and not the expression of an autonomous, modernist aesthetic (the “aesthetic dimension” of dance), the gesture exhibits the mediality of the elderly man and the ultimate inseparability of his life (zoe: his breathing, his bare existence) from his being a singularity.15 “It is a moment of life subtracted from the context of individual biography as well as a moment of art subtracted from the neutrality of aesthetics.” 16

The gesture of tapping his foot to the music is an expression, an exhibition, of the elderly man’s “form-of-life.” This is crucial in understanding how Karaoke moves from the fact of a “landscape of flesh” to the potentiality of a subject and the inseparability of his being from his body: “this being that is only its bare existence and…this life that, being its own form, remains inseparable from it.”17 In this sense, it is the degree to which the subject of Karaoke evades being knowable “factually” or as a citizen-subject that he exists as a “form-of-life;” his life is connected to possibility: the elderly man’s political existence depends on his irreducibility to factual existence. The “horror of a deathwatch” as fact gives way to the “gag” of the gesture; bare life opens to what Agamben calls the “absolute and complete gesturality of human beings.”18 In the gag, the elderly man, Nelson Coombs, is thus not the documentary example of a victim, bare life, but an exception. He is an exception precisely because, in the apparently closed-in world of the frame, he is epistemically undetermined; a weak symbol in his potentiality; a “whatever-being” occupying the zone of indistinction between the example and the exception.

Furthermore, the reverse playback of the video deconstructs any pretences of non-mediated presence. Cumming makes Karaoke, the video, gesture itself, undoing its “action” by reversing it back to the beginning. Effectively, Karaoke splits itself in its doubling: it makes itself an example, a paradigm, beside itself. The reverse playback is another example of the ongoing and endless deferrals in the video, challenging any sovereign decision which would ground the political in a limited, instrumentalist frame. In this cinematic gesture of a means without end, Cumming makes the mediality of Karaoke immediate.19

Karaoke suspends the instrumental use of documentary: it never arrives at a definite conclusion, a clear cut end. In the video, being and appearance continually shift, as the “deathwatch” gives way to the punch-line of the gesture of the tapping foot, which in turn moves into an exhibition of the medial nature of the video as it plays back in reverse. The extreme close-up on the elderly man’s face which, while “violently” refusing context, would seem to privilege a kind of epistemology of proximity, yields no such thing. Rather, as the camera tracks, the video exhibits the “gag”: a gesture not circumscribed by the clichés of bare life and citizenship so naturalized by the documentary form. The close-up of Karaoke does not establish the presence of a citizen-subject but exhibits a “form-of-life” that is “not the sphere of an end in itself but rather the sphere of a pure and endless mediality.”20 As a means without end, Karaoke and its exhibited example are held up for free use, never exhausting their potentiality in appearing. In contrast to a specific meaning, mediality is the message: Karaoke redeems as the true vocation of both humanity and the documentary project the endless, repetitive and seemingly futile Sisyphean execution of a task without proper completion: an inoperative operability, a non-work: means without end.

Scott Birdwise

1. “We're going to watch a three minute movie you made ten years ago called Karaoke. It's shot very close up, refusing the surroundings, the room, the context. Why conjure this universe of a body, this landscape of flesh? Who is this man, and why is the tape called Karaoke, (after all, he never utters a word, nor do you)?”
2. Cumming interview with Hoolboom: “The tape starts with the cassette being loaded and a tight shot of Nelson’s head, as he licks his lips. The movement of his tongue is slightly accentuated in the edit with some slow motion.” (10)
3. Cumming informs us that the singing is in Inuktitut in the Hoolboom interview. This opens up thinking about a provocative ethnographic intertext to read with Karaoke, Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922). For starters, both films partake in a kind of cross-cultural encounter; furthermore, music – and the apparatuses for playing recorded music – figures strongly in both. Also, in both films there is the problematic relationship of staging and re-enactment. Pursuing the specifics of this interesting comparison is, however, beyond the scope of this thesis.
4. Hoolboom interview, 10.
5. It should be noted that Karaoke, as part of the “Moving Stills” series, was originally shown in an art gallery context, in a room alongside the other videos in the series. Each video, projected at a large size, ran in a continuous loop, alternating between their respective soundtracks. This presentation format reinforces the formal repetition of the work that is arguably lost in a single channel, non-looped, screening.
6. Hoolboom interview, 10.
7. For his most sustained discussion of the Musselmann see Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, chapter II, The Mussleman.
8. Giorgio Agamben, “What is a Camp?” in Means Without End: Notes on Politics, 41-42.
9. Ibid., 45.
10. Agamben, “Form-of-Life” in Means Without End: Notes on Politics, 4.
11. Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, 188.
12. Agamben, “Marginal Notes on Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle” in Means Without End: Notes on Politics, 78-79.
13. Ibid., 80.
14. Stephen Crocker, “Noises and Exceptions: Pure Mediality in Serres and Agamben,” 12
15. Agamben, “Notes on Gesture” in Means Without End: Notes on Politics, 58.
16. Agamben, “Marginal Notes on Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle” in Means Without End: Notes on Politics, 80.
17. Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, 188.
18. Ibid.,60.
19. Indeed, as Cumming makes clear in the interview with Hoolboom, the encounter itself was staged for his camera; that is, the performers in Karaoke had already listened to the song, sang, and tapped along. Cumming asked them to do it again, this time with his camera running. Thus, the repetition in/of the video replicates the founding repetition of the performance.
20. Ibid., 59.