Bright Lights Film Journal

Bodies Politic/Body Politics: The Political and the Personal in Contemporary Film Essays

“Your body is a microcosm of all existence.” — Death: A Love Story

Early on in director Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me (2004), in which he eats three meals a day at McDonald’s to get a personal sense of America’s obesity epidemic, he scarfs down his first Super Sized meal — utterly inhaling a Big Mac, fries, soda and an apple pie, slowly turning green at the immense weight in his stomach. He relates to his cameraman the discomfort of overeating, using the fast food chain’s particular terminology. He describes, as though performing a self-diagnosis, McStomachache, McGurgles, McGas, McSweats, McTwitches: “I’m feeling,” he says, “a little McCrazy.” With the panic-stricken look of someone who knows he is about to be sick, Spurlock leans out the open window of his truck and vomits onto the pavement, the disgusting sound of his retching only exacerbated by the cameraman’s decision to lean over Spurlock and film the grayish puddle of half-digested food he has left behind — and leaving us to gag and retch ourselves, repulsed by the sight. The most likely response to this sequence, a feeling of nausea and sickness that mirrors Spurlock’s own gastrointestinal distress, is not unlike the “sympathetic magic” of which Jane M. Gaines writes in her essay “Political Mimesis”; that is, film’s “power to produce compelling similarities [between spectator and subject] — in one’s body (through imitation).”1 In the moment of that bodily reaction, viewer and filmmaker come to a kind of intimate understanding, in which the threat to Spurlock’s body — the unhealthy foods that, by the end of the film, will have brought Spurlock dangerously close to liver failure — becomes a threat to our bodies, too. Not only a reminder of the times when, having eaten too much, we felt compelled to vomit, such mimesis, taking place as it does on an individual, bodily level, seeks an alternate path for effecting change. In other words, rather than focusing on images of broad struggle, “bodies moving in a mass,”2 Spurlock’s film essay hits us where we live, in our bodies, in order to galvanize us to action. These carefully, comprehensively constructed ties between the body of the documentary subject, the body of the audience member, and the wider body politic present us with the notion that the threats depicted onscreen are threats to us as well, and must be beaten back through both personal and political change.

Indeed, the contemporary film essays discussed below are implicitly predicated on the notion that historical (possibly even revolutionary) change occurs when a large number of individuals make the choice to change their own lives — to forgo fast food, to bike to work, to treat sufferers of HIV/AIDS with dignity and respect — and so become, almost by accident, a powerful collective force. Thus the form of the films, in which filmmaker and subject are often one and the same, is central to the achievement of the political goals to which the films allude. The conception of social change as an effort toward utopia engages quite strikingly with the term “essay” itself, particularly its etymology in the French — essayer, to attempt or try. An essay is an effort, an attempt at something, which derives both its limitations and its power from the perspective of the writer or filmmaker. As Theodor Adorno writes,

in order to be disclosed, however, the objective wealth of meanings encapsulated in every intellectual phenomenon demands of the recipient the same spontaneity of subjective fantasy that is castigated in the name of objective discipline.3

The critic or essayist only opens up meaning — only extrapolates from the personal to the political, for instance — by bringing to his or her topic the element of subjectivity: rather than offer definitive “proof,” the essay form offers suggestions and notions, is connotative and not denotative, and thus taps into the galvanizing influence of emotional, even physical, provocation.

Adorno misses the point, however, when he notes that “the bad essay tells stories about people instead of elucidating the matter at hand.”4 Stories about people — and all of the documentaries discussed here are necessarily about people first and foremost, focusing as they do on illness, physical decline, and death — humanize the matter at hand, make somehow manageable political concerns that would otherwise be overwhelming to the point of paralysis. From the repulsive image of a regurgitated Big Mac to the gruesome, terrifying sight of Tom Joslin’s corpse in Silverlake Life: The View from Here (Tom Joslin and Peter Friedman, 1993) — the dead eyes, skeletal body, and pale, waxy skin are reminiscent of photographs of Holocaust victims — it is the function of these films to individualize the gruesomeness of much of the political status quo. As in the traditional “body genres” of horror, pornography, and melodrama, such depictions of suffering literally “touch” us, reaching out from the screen not only to elicit an emotional engagement with the image but also to provoke a physical response. By shortening or eliminating the space between a distant image — somebody we do not know — and the viewer, these films practically force us to get to know that person, to care about them, indeed to feel, in however pale an approximation, some small part of the physical distress of the bodies onscreen. In doing so, such films also ask us to take up the subject’s political cause, like his or her illness, as if it were our own — by claiming one of the shards of vinyl siding from Judith Helfand’s parents’ house, portrayed in Blue Vinyl (Judith Helfand and Daniel B. Gold, 2002); by attempting to understand, rather than shun or humiliate, gay men with AIDS, as in Silverlake Life; or by fighting back against the health care industry that prizes our money over our well-being, as in Death: A Love Story (Michelle Le Brun, 1999).

Thus the thematic importance of bodies in the films, bodies falling ill, failing, and dying, works in concert with the films’ essayistic form to foster — with the end goal of encouraging political action — a touching closeness with the image. They promote what Laura U. Marks has termed haptic visuality, “a kind of seeing that uses the eye like an organ of touch,” a process of interacting by which “we cannot help but be changed.”5 I am less concerned here with a strict adherence to Marks’ definition of haptic cinema, particularly her focus on Smooth versus Striated space, than with the related notion that documentaries of the body are necessarily “prohaptic” in some sense, the physicality of our response to bodies depicted onscreen enacting the haptic image’s potential to “help us feel the connectivity between ourselves . . . and the world to which the image connects us.”6 In other words, as Marks writes, “haptic visuality has a strong sense of the material connection between vision and the object. It is thus mimetic.”7 In this sense, the theme of the body, the form of the essay, and the aesthetics of haptic visuality all function to engender a new mode of political mimesis, one centered on the potential for individual change: not satisfied to effect change by portraying the size of radical movements, as in Gaines’ understanding of political mimesis, these films make the personal explicitly political and vice versa. They allow us to come physically close to illness, to feel it within, and thus make us cognizant of the fact that a failure to change can be as deleterious to our own health as to that of the subject. We cannot help but be changed by such an interaction with the film text: the films change us, and ask us to bring that change back out of the cinema and into the world.

In her book The Skin of the Film, Marks writes that she wants “to emphasize the tactile and contagious quality of cinema.” “The words contact, contingent and contagion,” she notes, “all share the Latin root contingere, ‘to have contact with; pollute; befall.'”8 Images of sickness, of the threatened body, play on this tactile quality thematically and aesthetically to propel us closer to understanding and mimicking the illnesses depicted, and thus to combat the social ills that they represent. Moreover, the process to which Marks alludes in her definition of contingere — from contact to corruption of the body to a falling down suggestive of death — perhaps mirrors the experience of the viewer of such images; the film presses us up against the bodies depicted, and our own feelings of bodily threat seem not unlike a transmission of illness from subject to spectator, engendering not only pity but also, and more powerfully, a kind of empathy.

In order to achieve the tactile quality Marks seeks, it might be possible to go beyond merely the use of images that are “hard to see,” instead utilizing extreme close-ups that function like examinations of the body, with the clarity of images revealing the texture of the subject’s physicality. Agnes Varda, for instance, in her film The Gleaners and I (2001), focuses heavily on her hands as an expression of the old age that is slowly but surely killing her: she shows herself brushing her thin hair, with a mirror catching the back of her head behind, and then examines the papery, blemished skin of her wrinkled hand, as though perusing it for messages from her past. “My hair and my hands keep telling me the end is near,” she says in her voiceover narration. This intimate self-examination is emblematic of what she calls “the horror of it” — the horror not only of the aging hand itself, running its fingers over books, postcards, and photographs gleaned on a trip to Japan, but also perhaps of being forced to glean, to undertake that self-examination, by the memory lapses of age. The gleaning that filmmaking entails, in essence a harvesting and piecing together of images as though they were stalks of wheat, “is figuratively defined as a mental activity,” she tells us. “To glean fact, acts and deeds, to glean information. For forgetful me, it’s what I have gleaned that tells me where I’ve been.”

Vitally, Varda ties the “sickness” from which she suffers — a sickness that is the ultimate, unavoidable threat to all of our bodies — to the tactility of gleaning, by which one must either touch, or come in relatively close contact with, the objects and information being picked up or recorded. In this construction, the spectator also becomes a gleaner, taking from the film text a moderated version of what Varda herself takes from the interview subjects, pastoral images, and portraits depicted therein. Indeed, Varda continually relates her own gleaning to portraiture and painting — filming Musee D’Orsay patrons standing before Francois Millet’s “The Gleaners”; filming herself standing with stalks of wheat and then a handheld DV camera, striking the same pose as Jules Breton’s “Woman Gleaning”; ending the film with the image of “Gleaners Fleeing Before the Storm,” being held in place by two hands reaching in from the edge of the frame. In this she recalls Marks’ quotation of Lev Manovich on the unique quality of haptic visuality in film and video: “Cinema becomes a particular branch of painting — painting in time. No longer a kino-eye, but a kino-brush.”9 Here the texture of the haptic, like the texture of paint pushed around on and rising up in little mounds from the canvas, functions as a material and aesthetic analogue to the examination Varda, and by extension the viewer, undertakes. Just as it is visiting the paintings in person that allows Varda to keep remembering, and thus to survive, it is our close contact with Varda as both persona and physical entity — provided by her use of close-ups and allusions to painting rather than by a face-to-face meeting — that allows us to see both the horror and the salvaging power of examination and personal change. She expresses our fear of change, of moving forward relentlessly toward death, while also suggesting that gleaning — the taking in and taking up of information that by necessity changes our very fabric — helps us gain some tenuous control over that change, thus making change possible.

Attempting to see the body up close, these films get “under our skin” in both senses of the phrase: figuratively, they discomfit us, utilizing elements of the haptic grotesque (“the horror of it”) to startle us into action; literally, they depict the goal of a doctor’s examination or surgery, which is to prod or cut into the body in order to find out what is making us sick and proceed to fix it. Super Size Me emphasizes the dramatic effects of unhealthy eating on the body by beginning with Spurlock’s initial health screening, in which the viewer sees the filmmaker stripped down and tested for any predisposition to high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. “Your general health is outstanding,” his doctor concludes, predicting minimal change. Near the end of the film, however, when it has become clear that Spurlock’s continuation of the eating experiment might cause permanent and life-threatening danger to his body, he shows the gory details of another man’s gastric bypass surgery, replete with secreting glands and glistening blood — the incision, invasion, and reconstitution of the body suggestive of just how fully the illness of obesity can break down what was once whole. It is, Spurlock comments, “a drastic solution to a drastic problem.” Beyond a repetition of the same revulsion we feel on seeing Spurlock’s vomit — another, more minor rupture of bodily function — such an arc utilizes a viewer’s fear of physical failure to drive home the political point that McDonald’s and other fast food chains are perpetrating nothing less than the mass poisoning of the populace. As Marks quotes Deleuze, it is “not that the body thinks, but, obstinate and stubborn, it forces us to think, and forces us to think what is concealed from thought, life.”10

Similarly, Jon Alpert’s television documentary Hard Metals Disease (1984), filmed for NBC’s The Today Show as an exposé of the Valenite Corporation’s unaddressed knowledge that toxic byproducts of its production were poisoning workers in its factories, portrays a deep tie between outrage and sadness at the destruction of the body and outrage at corporate greed and injustice. Most affectingly, the film traces the physical decline of one female worker so debilitated by the incurable lung disease that, at the tender age of 30, she is bed-ridden, brittle-boned, and bloated, struggling for air as Alpert films her in the hospital where she will die. As with Spurlock, whose healthy body shatters in part because of the callousness of an industry that continues to produce and market goods that kill people, it is the juxtaposition of a vital young girl with a failing body that brings the indictment home. In other words, the notion that sickness can invade us quickly, already killing us before we know it is there, means that feelings of sickness in our own bodies, though the first warning sign that something is amiss, may already be too late. We need to know how such sickness has previously affected others in order to prevent it from happening to us, which galvanizes us to seek tighter regulations on the production of dangerous materials like fast food, hard metals, or blue vinyl — it is a mode of self-protection. The threatened body onscreen is a red flag for the threatened bodies in the audience.

The narrative of Tom Joslin’s death from AIDS in Silverlake Life makes explicit this connection between the skin of the body (physical revulsion and a cinematic experience of sickness) and the skin of the film (revolutionary revulsion at the sickness of the body politic, requiring drastic change). As the film diary proceeds, our sight of Tom’s illness becomes increasingly tied to a close examination of his body; for instance, while the tale of his medical woes begins with a medium shot of Tom undergoing a CAT scan, frail but in good spirits, we soon are asked to look closely at the KS lesions that are, he says, “a sign that the disease is finally actually here.” In Silverlake Life, the body becomes documentary evidence of sickness that would otherwise be unseen, “concealed from thought, life,” such that Tom’s skin becomes a mirror of the film’s task, which is to reveal at once the sickness within Tom as well as the sickness of a world that asks a dying man to swim with his shirt on so as not to scare other resort guests with his veritable marks of Cain. Tom’s partner, Mark, who also suffers from AIDS, notes that such treatment has made him feel “self-conscious” about his body — when the body becomes something to be held at a distance rather than examined, veiled or covered up rather than viewed, it becomes something frightening or horrifying, like the unseen monster under the bed or the unseen sickness within. What Silverlake Life, like haptic visuality in general, attempts to provide is a counter to this trend: an acknowledgement of the body’s frailty and thus an engagement with the political failings of which it is emblematic.

Like Spurlock’s vomit or Varda’s hand, the extreme close-up of Mark prying open Tom’s right eye, sealed shut by the pus and mucus secreted by a KS lesion on the eyelid, may well be utterly disgusting. But because of the work done by the essay form to personalize the illness, to make it in some sense our own, we are not just repulsed by the manifestations of disease but also desperate to understand the film subject’s plight. As Marks notes in her analysis of video artist Michael O’Reilly’s piece Glass Jaw (1993), haptic visuality “sympathizes with O’Reilly’s incapacity and asks our bodies to respond as well . . . these images appeal to a look that does not recoil from death but acknowledges death as a part of our being.”11 If it is true, as Marks writes, that the haptic depends on “the viewer’s lack of mastery over the image,” then the unmooring sense of sorrow one feels on watching Tom’s decline serves first and foremost to strip away any power we might otherwise feel as a healthy audience member.12 Though the revulsion and pity that are our instinctive reactions to the sight of Tom’s decaying body or emaciated corpse are not in and of themselves reactions that lead to political mimesis, such feelings disrupt our preconceptions and assumptions — and our perceived mastery of our own bodies —in order to clear the path for new critical thinking, in much the same way that a forest fire engenders new growth of wildflowers by eliminating the previous inhabitants. Though the viewer may indeed feel relief when Tom’s corpse is finally zipped into a body bag, the important image of Mark pulling back the cover to reveal Tom after he has died calls to mind the Greek root of “apocalypse”: apokálypsis, meaning revelation; uncovering; “lifting of the veil.” The decision to show Tom’s body seems a reminder of our own mortality — as is Varda’s hand — and the tactility of such bodies is inextricably linked to seeing what impends. Without such haptic images, the future consequences of choices personal and political remain obscure, and the desire to enact change remains untapped.

It is worth noting here, however, that the haptic need not necessarily be manifested in the presence of a particular body — it can also be expressed through voice, an embodiment by which not only the filmmakers but the subjects themselves attempt to create a mental image of what cannot feasibly be depicted onscreen, such as the memory of past deaths. The embodiment of the filmmaker, such as Alpert’s indignant voice calling out questions to wronged workers from behind the camera, is perhaps more important to the role of subjectivity and the essay form in the political mimesis of these films. Indeed, because the expression of a threatened body depends so heavily on notions of voicelessness, the fact that some of the filmmakers in question have a strong voice in their films, rather than being solely, and sickly, a ravaged body, suggests that they themselves are perhaps less deprived of their position as a subject. Marks quotes Elaine Scarry on torture to this point: “Scarry writes that torture deprives a person and reduces him or her to nothing but a body. Language, she argues, is what makes us subjects; it allows us to take a distance from our bodies.”13

Thus Judith Helfand and Daniel B. Gold’s interview with Elaine Ross, the widow of a former worker at Conoco/Vista’s vinyl processing plant, Don, who died from continued exposure over 11 years to vinyl chloride, allows Elaine’s retelling of her husband’s decline to stand in for the footage of the dying man they could not have recorded. Over a still image of her husband lying in a hospital bed with his head bandaged as if he had suffered an unspeakable physical deformation, Elaine says, “I remember all of it. When he couldn’t use his right arm anymore. When he couldn’t use his left arm anymore, when he couldn’t use his legs, when he couldn’t speak to me anymore. When I couldn’t hear his voice anymore” (emphasis added). Elaine, essentially recounting how her husband’s disease dismembered him bit by bit — her remembering attempting, in counterpoint, to piece him back together — notes that the fatal rupture, the moment at which he ceased to be, came when he lost the ability to enunciate, to speak and therefore be present as more than just a body. The layering of voices here is particularly instructive: Helfand’s continuous voiceover narration, embodying the essayistic nature of the film, makes clear the voice’s power to make change; Elaine’s voice exemplifies how vocalization can reconstruct what has been lost; and the absence of Don’s voice expresses the void that a lack of subject leaves behind — the deprivation and reduction (to nothing) of which Scarry writes. The lack of political regulation that allowed Don to get sick is indeed nothing short of torture. Later on in Blue Vinyl, the filmmakers travel to Venice to interview a former vinyl factory worker who has had his larynx removed because of cancer caused by the toxic byproducts to which he was exposed, and who speaks with the aid of an electronic voicebox. He explicitly ties the loss of his voice, which he calls a “scar” left by the work that he did, to the dangers posed by unregulated industries: “It was,” he says, “a choking, murderous job.”

Similarly, Michelle Le Brun’s description of her husband Mel Howard’s death from liver cancer in Death: A Love Story functions to suggest just how much our ability to narrate and thus order our own lives is important to the maintenance of a (subjective) self, and so forms a kind of culmination of a “prohaptic” aesthetic coupled with the vital presence of a human voice. As Mel enters his final days, Michelle describes things going suddenly wrong — dehydration, a rash on the thigh and then on his entire body, swollen lips, and delirium: “Something is eating away at his brain and nervous system,” she says in her voiceover narration. The swollen lips and delirium in particular imply just how deeply illness is tied not only to the body but also to the mind, suggesting that the threatened human body, like a threatened body politic, cannot beat back potentially fatal dangers without the physical ability to vocalize distress. In other words, an audience member who does not seek to change the health system that constantly maligns Mel’s reliance on alternative medicines and mocks his desire to die with dignity is an audience member suffering swollen lips and delirium, unable or unwilling to speak out and thus constrained to suffer quietly. Interestingly, Le Brun does not show Mel’s body on camera in the final days, only the mountain of telemetry, IV bags, and monitors that hang like a cliff over his bedside, and an image of flames superimposed over a blurry picture of Mel’s sickly face. Instead, she describes in horrifying detail Mel’s bodily self-destruction — blood crusting, open sores, eyes glazing over — allowing her voice to replace the sight of his body, and to allow a tape recording of some of his last words to express the final freeing power of coming to grips with death that Marks describes. “I was hoping to cure the disease in my body, and I came very close with your help,” Mel says. “Instead, what I got was authentic healing, was an opening of the closed spaces in my heart.”

Marks explicitly ties subject matter dealing with “the loss of coherence of the human body” to “a diminished visibility: [the films’] images are, quite simply, hard to see.”14 Illness, she continues, is

having a body that is not one’s own, a betraying, disintegrating body. A body that slowly or quickly becomes other, at least insofar as one’s identity is predicated on wholeness . . . I suggest that identification is a bodily relationship with the screen; thus when we witness a disappearing image we may respond with a sense of our own disappearance.15

In expanding Marks’ definition of the haptic, I have attempted to suggest that films depicting the breakdown of the body, even those without “diminished visibility,” function similarly to make the viewer respond with a sense of his or her own frailty; such films may not be “hard to see,” but they are certainly hard to watch. The power of this kind of haptic visuality lies in its ability to create in the audience a physical and emotional analogue to that which is shown onscreen, and thus to bring the illness to our own bodies. If it could be said that identification, as in Gaines’ elucidation of political mimesis, is the most central element in the fostering of political action from a film, then the strength of these films as a galvanizing force becomes clear: in feeling that our bodies are threatened, too, we open up the spaces of our hearts heretofore unwilling to effect change, and take action out of empathy and even self-preservation. These films take us to the brink, creating a sensation of the illnesses that might well invade us; they make us feel as acutely as the subjects of the documentaries in the desire to reclaim body and voice from biological and social disease, and so to stave off “the horror of it.”

Carthage, Tennessee remains a town of idyllic farms, settled amid rolling lawns and the broad trunks of shade trees. There are tracts sprinkled with rundown barns and severed by slow-flowing rivers where the water eddies up against muddy banks, places in which the air becomes thick with the chirp of summer crickets. But for all the nostalgia of Al Gore’s reminiscences in An Inconvenient Truth (Davis Guggenheim, 2007) — interludes that interrupt the lecture on global warming that comprises most of the film — he imbues his guided tour of the old family farm with a grave sense of loss: over grainy, black-and-white images of men harvesting tobacco, he reports that his sister, Nancy, who had taken up smoking as a teenager, eventually died of lung cancer. “The idea that we had been part of that economic pattern that produced the cigarettes that produced the cancer,” he says in voiceover narration, “it was so painful on so many levels . . . It’s just human nature to take time to connect the dots. But there also can be a day of reckoning, when you wish you had connected the dots more quickly.” Framed by Gore’s Power Point presentation, such a moment of the deeply personal is sutured into a larger discourse of change, in which “the day of reckoning” is no longer solely a family tragedy but a collective failure to change the patterns that cause various bodily and societal ills. Gore’s intimate story of loss is a stark reminder that we often regret the action we failed to take, and it meshes with his message that a similar failure to address global warming will also end in disaster. “We have everything we need, save perhaps political will,” he says near the end of the film, linking the self to the larger world. “Are we capable of rising above ourselves, and above history?”

In order to make use of the viewer’s connection to the body onscreen, documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth cannot rely solely on the depiction of physical horrors as a galvanic force — they must develop and utilize a personal relationship between viewer and filmmaker (or, in Gore’s case, a singular, dominant subject), one with emotional aspects beyond the visceral pain we feel at watching a disintegrating body. Subjectivity, rather than defying our attempts to collect or produce “visible evidence” of the social world’s promises and problems, instead actively aids those attempts. In the “post-verité age,” Michael Renov writes, “a range of ‘personal’ issues — race, sexuality, and ethnicity — became consciously politicized . . . In all cases, subjectivity, a grounding in the personal and experiential, fueled the engine of political action.”16 The essay form, framing memory, history, experience, and politics as processes of constant revision and continuous change, takes up our identification with the threatened bodies onscreen and displays political action with which we are meant to identify. In other words, if we identify with the threat of illness, then we also identify with the desire to heal, and so will follow the essayists’ lead in undertaking that cure. Thus, as discussed above and in Renov’s writing, “the corporeal self has been the linchpin of essayistic discourse.”17

What runs through the films is a continued use of the body as a site of this characteristic extrapolation from personal to political, in which the threat to the corporeality of the filmmakers — who are often themselves sick in some way — becomes more than a threat to our own corporeality; it is also a societal threat, which the wider subject matter of the film attempts to address. The presence of the filmmaker as an essayist, taking on a large topic (like global warming) through his or her own lens, is central to our eventual acknowledgment of the need for political action. Georg Lukacs writes that “The essay always speaks of something that has already been given form . . . hence it is part of the nature of the essay that it does not create things from empty nothingness but only orders those which were once alive.”18

The essay, on film as on paper, creates its argument from the fabric of the person writing it, such that the subjectivity of the essayistic investigation becomes an integral part of our belief in its essential truth (as opposed to Truth). Like Chronicle of a Summer, Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s investigation of French life at the dawn of the 1960s, these films attempt to order or narrate our world’s complexity, and seem all the more genuine for honestly admitting that they are just one possible organization of the same information. It is no longer possible, in our post-Cold War era of diffuse globalization and identity politics, to present the world as one of simplistic binaries and logical conclusions — thus the supposedly scientific “objectivity” of a movement like direct cinema feels forced, and the political documentary can no longer concern itself with “proving” injustice so much as asking the cozy viewer to experience it as well. Rather, fragmentary glimpses on an individual basis are the path to understanding and thus addressing complex problems: “The simplest reflection on the life of consciousness,” Adorno writes, “would teach us to what a slight extent insights . . . can be fully captured within the net of science.”19

For Judith Helfand, then, the science of her investigation into the toxic byproducts of vinyl production is best understood with her own body as an explanatory lens. In trying to convince her parents to remove the embossed vinyl siding on their house, for instance, she contracts a Columbia University biologist to present them with facts, figures, and charts on the dangers of dioxin, particularly to fetuses and newborn children. But the understanding arrives most forcefully as she refers to her own day of reckoning: “Dad, in this context, it could act on the fetus the way the DES acted on me.” Helfand’s own sickness — cervical cancer caused by a synthetic estrogen given to her mother during pregnancy, resulting in a radical hysterectomy at the age of 25 — becomes her father’s way of seeing the grave risks of vinyl production. Indeed, the structure of Blue Vinyl repeatedly links the loss of her uterus to the act of exposing vinyl for the dangerous consumer product that it is. In the opening sequence of the film, we see Helfand pressing her hand to the rotten wood of her parents’ house, and then ribbing them for their choice of vinyl as a contractor peels off the wood; simultaneously, we begin to hear her mother’s voice on the soundtrack: “I think you’re reacting to this like it’s a loss in your life,” she says. “You’re going to lose a lot of precious things in your life as time goes by. And you already have — you’ve had one terrible loss.” Thus Helfand’s stricken uterus becomes a personal, bodily analogue for the entire crusade of the movie, which is to counteract the loss represented by the replacement of wood with vinyl — and it is Helfand’s “uterus money,” which she received as payment for the suffering caused by the estrogen drug, that funds both the film itself and the eventual re-siding of the house with a safer material, reclaimed wood with organic varnish.

It is not solely because Helfand is such a charismatic onscreen figure that we come to see in vinyl the same sickness — a corporate sickness, by which greed supersedes the public good — that took Helfand’s uterus. The film itself constantly reiterates the ways in which the viewer is like Helfand’s parents, skeptical at first but ultimately convinced to take action, persuaded over the dining room table that a safe alternative is more important than cost or resistance to wear. “Maybe the next great product revolution,” Helfand says, “could start with our house.” By the end of the film, which depicts Helfand joyously tearing the vinyl from the house and fashioning it into chips to be distributed to viewers who want to participate in such a revolution, the value of her individualized attempt at political persuasion has become clear. She seems no longer just a filmmaker but a friend, someone whose intimate life (with her family, with her body) we have come to know and care about; it is this kind of personal connection and identification, she herself suggests, that moves one out of the cinema and into the world with a renewed commitment to social justice and mutual aid. Repeating an old Yiddish saying, she wraps up both the ties that bind her to her viewers and how those ties make her illness not just hers but ours, too: “If your neighbor’s house is on fire,” she says, “You’re also not safe.”

Though her focus is on collective, even riotous action, Gaines admits that the tie between physicality and pathos is a vital element in understanding the possibility (if not the guarantee) of political mimesis:

Putting the sensuous back into the theory of political aesthetics would require significant reconceptualization. In Eisenstein’s theory of social change and cinema, the bodily sense leads the spectator, whose involvement is not strictly intellectual — politics is not exclusively a matter of the head but can also be a matter of the heart.20

In fact, it might well be argued that, rather than utilizing aspects of haptic visuality to convey the connectivity that drives this particular kind of social change, a film like Blue Vinyl, by dint of its heightened subjectivity, is rooted in what makes haptic visuality haptic in the first place. Vivian Sobchack, whose work has deeply influenced Marks, writes that her phenomenology of film experience

refuses the idealism that yearns for communication . . . made completely rational, somehow “purged” of historical and cultural prejudice or “distortion,” somehow “cleansed” of the contingencies and specificity of biased experience that make communication not only necessary but also possible.21

In this construction, what makes the particular communicative efficacy of the haptic cinema work is necessarily the films’ reduced field of vision, the essayistic form that requires narrower focus and self-interrogation, and abandons the notion of objective “Truth” in favor of a personal style that alludes to our own subjective experience of the world. And because, at least in the context of these films, the haptic and the subjective play such an important role in galvanizing the viewer to action, it could be further argued that political mimesis depends to some extent on this subjectivity as well: it is the “brother to brother” call of Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied (a film not about sickness per se but surely about bodies and explicitly about vocalization) that begins the process of identification and thus mimicry. “Your body is a microcosm of all existence,” Mel Howard’s friend Jeremy tells him as his body fails — it is, even without obvious links to wider political concerns, a deeply political presence, literally embodying, as Helfand does, an entire host of issues that need to be addressed in order to prevent that body, that existence, from dying.

Thus the corporeal embodiment of the filmmakers and their sicknesses in these films mirrors their figurative embodiment (representation of) broader concerns: Gore’s bereavement asks us to connect the dots before our own day of reckoning; Varda’s hand, horrible but continuing to glean, asks us to understand the valor of salvaging the disregarded and dispossessed; Spurlock’s direct address narration at the beginning and end of Super Size Me claims his experiment to be emblematic of an entire epidemic, and makes clear that our bodies and his could share the same fate. “If this ever-growing paradigm is going to shift,” he says, “it’s up to you. But if you decide to keep living this way, go ahead. Over time you may find yourself getting as sick as I did.” Perhaps most forcefully, Tom Joslin links the ostracism he and Mark suffer as gay men with AIDS to their sense, and possibly our own, that such treatment of putative “outsiders” is suggestive of a larger cultural death. “This civilization’s so strange,” he says in a mournful voiceover. “I’ve never felt much a part of it. I think being gay separates you a little. Certainly having AIDS and being the walking dead, if you will, separates you.” To bridge that gap requires not the proof of a scientific experiment but the proof, on an individual, ‘brother-to-brother” basis, that Tom and Mark are human, too; their intimate lives, we see in Silverlake Life — their loves and passions, their jokes and sorrows, their sicknesses and deaths — are in essence no different from our own, even if their choices of who to sleep with and what medicines to seek may well be. To this end, Tom shoots Mark reading from a book arguing that “blatant is beautiful,” that being openly gay is not only nothing to be ashamed of, but also a display of the gay body (like that of Marlon Riggs) necessary to show the public that the LGBT community poses no threat. “The personal is the political, the economic and the cultural,” Mark continues. “Gay is the revolution.”

Though the talking-head interviews, voiceover readings of letters, and extensive re-enactments in Errol Morris’ recent documentary Standard Operating Procedure (2008) make it distinctly less essayistic than the other films discussed here, its thematic exploration of the perceived subjectivity or objectivity of photographs — like the exception that proves the rule — provides an illuminating coda to my exploration of the link between subjectivity and politics. About the damning photographs of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and the soldiers who perpetrated the abuse, the film seems less an excavation of the “truth” of what happened there than an examination of what constitutes “truth” when photography (and by extension cinema) is involved. What emerges is a sense that it is the interplay between an image — at least in part an evidentiary document of reality — and the viewer of that image — someone confined to a particular interpretive perspective — that lends photography its particular political power. “Photographs are what they are,” Army Special Agent Brent Pack says near the end of the film, defending the notion that the photographs in question are “proof” of wrongdoing. But even that proof requires an investigator like himself to piece them together into a narrative: “The pictures spoke a thousand words,” he says, “but unless you know what day and time they were taken, you wouldn’t know what story they were telling.”

The film fascinatingly portrays the difference of opinion between those who believe the “truth claim” of the Abu Ghraib images, like Pack and photographer Sabrina Harman, and others, like Lynndie England and Megan Ambuhl, who see in the processes of editing, cropping, developing, and viewing the potential to depict something other than the full truth of actual experience. Harman, infamously implicated by posing with a wide smile and a thumbs-up next to a prisoner who had been tortured to death, claims that the impulse to photograph the goings-on at the prison came from a desire “to record . . . to prove [to viewers] the U.S. is not what they think.” Yet many of the images, like one depicting a naked man with his head covered by his own underwear, handcuffed to a window with his arms stretched awkwardly behind him, only imply the presence of torturers beyond the frame; the identities of the perpetrators are hidden from view. Even in photographs where the identity of those present is clear, the sheer oddity of the happenings portrayed makes it “hard to see” what is going on. Is England pulling a prisoner by a leash around his neck, or does she leave the line slack so he can crawl on his own? Is a prisoner in yet another photograph tied to electrical wires that will shock him if he moves from his “stress position,” or are the wires just pieces of copper simulating the possibility of pain and death? Does the difference, if the point of the torture is degradation and humiliation, even matter?

Standard Operating Procedure poses these questions but leaves them, perhaps necessarily, unanswered. The possibility that the perpetrators are lying about what happened runs throughout the film, and the images themselves, as Ambuhl suggests, provide no better indication of the entire scene: “The pictures only show you a fraction of a second,” she says. “You don’t see forward, you don’t see backward. You don’t see outside the frame.” The power of the images to disgust us, to prompt investigation and condemnation as they did upon their first release in 2004, is not diminished but heightened by the sense that they do not provide the whole story. Pack, in his summation of the abuse at the end of the film, moves between these two poles, in which the images can be at once irrefutable “proof” and subject to the imposition of a narrative. “Photographs are what they are,” he says. “You can interpret them differently, but what the photograph depicts is what it is. You can put any kind of meaning to it but you are seeing what happened at that moment in time.”

In this construction, Standard Operating Procedure seems to function almost as a meta-cinematic commentary on what we as viewers do when watching any film, but particularly a documentary: weighing intuition and “visible evidence,” grappling with images of sick bodies and allusions to healthy souls, attempting to decide, in the end, whether the evidence is actionable. Using haptic visuality and the essay form, the films discussed above tread the line between the objective and subjective, the political and the personal, and in the process force us to engage more deeply in the process of interpretation than direct cinema-influenced films that present themselves as unadulterated “Truth.” Such engagement mirrors and strengthens the engagement with a political movement suggested by Gaines’ analysis of political mimesis; by structuring the film to draw us into a deeply subjective self-portrait that also contains undeniable intimations of social ills, the filmmakers in question attempt to create multiple links between viewer and subject, and in the process implicate the inactive in those ills. This could too easily be boiled down to an “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem” argument. By relating to us not only on a political level but also on a personal one, however, the films feel more like the gentle pleas of friends and daughters, siblings and parents, than like holier-than-thou condemnations. Political mimesis emerges through a variety of ways, but in these films it works, perhaps, because they ask us to be equal participants, galvanizing us by allowing us in. “This is my project,” Agnes Varda says of filming her hand — implying all at once a personal project, a political project, the documentary project — but in her address it becomes our project, too.

  1. Jane M. Gaines, “Political Mimesis,” in Collecting Visible Evidence, eds. Jane M. Gaines and Michael Renov (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), p. 94. []
  2. Ibid, p. 90. []
  3. Theodor W. Adorno, “The Essay as Form,” in Notes to Literature: Vol. I (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), p. 4. []
  4. Ibid, p. 6. []
  5. Laura U. Marks, “Haptic Visuality: Touching with the Eyes,” in Framework: The Finnish Art Review (2004). Available online at []
  6. Marks, Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), p. 9 and “Haptic Visuality: Touching with the Eyes.” []
  7. Marks, “Haptic Visuality.” []
  8. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment and the Senses (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000), p. xii. []
  9. Marks, Touch, p. 151. []
  10. Marks, The Skin of the Film, p. 73. []
  11. Marks, Touch, pp. 11, 91. []
  12. Ibid, p. 15. []
  13. Marks, Touch, p. xvi. []
  14. Marks, Touch, p. 91. []
  15. Ibid, pp. 92, 97. []
  16. Michael Renov, “New Subjectivities: Documentary and Self-Representation in the Post-Verité Age,” in The Subject of Documentary (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), p. 177. []
  17. Renov, “The Electronic Essay,” in The Subject of Documentary, p. 186. []
  18. Georg Lukacs, Soul and Form (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971), p. 10. []
  19. Adorno, “The Essay as Form,” p. 8. []
  20. Gaines, “Political Mimesis,” p. 88. []
  21. Vivian Sobchack, The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 8. []