Jean Louis Schefer - The Ordinary Man of Cinema signaled a shift from the French film criticism of the 1960s to a new breed of film philosophy that disregarded the semiotics and post-structuralism of the preceding decades. Schefer describes the schizophrenic subjectivity the cinema offers us: the film as a work projected without memory, viewed by (and thereby lived by) a subject scarred and shaped by memory
Jean Louis Schefer, The Ordinary Man of Cinema, Max Cavitch, Noura Wedell and Paul Grant, Semiotext(e), 2016.
The first English translation of a foundational work in cinema studies and the philosophy of film.
When it was first published in French in 1980, The Ordinary Man of Cinema signaled a shift from the French film criticism of the 1960s to a new breed of film philosophy that disregarded the semiotics and post-structuralism of the preceding decades. Schefer describes the schizophrenic subjectivity the cinema offers us: the film as a work projected without memory, viewed by (and thereby lived by) a subject scarred and shaped by memory. The Ordinary Man of Cinema delineates the phenomenology of movie-going and the fleeting, impalpable zone in which an individual's personal memory confronts the cinema's ideological images to create a new way of thinking.
It is also a book replete with mummies and vampires, tyrants and prostitutes, murderers and freaks -- figures that are fundamental to Schefer's conception of the cinema, because the worlds that cinema traverses (our worlds, interior and exterior) are worlds of pain, unconscious desire, decay, repressed violence, and the endless mystery of the body. Fear and pleasure breed monsters, and such are what Schefer's emblematic "ordinary man" seeks and encounters when engaging in the disordering of the ordinary that the movie theater offers him. Among other things, Schefer considers "The Gods" in 31 brief essays on film stills and "The Criminal Life" with reflections on spectatorship and autobiography.
While Schefer's book has long been standard reading in French film scholarship, until now it has been something of a missing link to the field (and more broadly, French theory) in English. It is one of the building blocks of more widely known and read translations of Gilles Deleuze (who cited this book as an influence on his own cinema books) and Jacques Rancière.
“Schefer’s insights flicker in and out. Flashes of illumination are followed by pages that read like an obscure prose poem—suggestive, but enigmatic and sometimes unyielding. A strange and often beautiful book, The Ordinary Man of Cinema has little to say about the beauty of film itself. Rather, the word that keeps resurfacing is sublime. For Schefer, film does not inspire aesthetic contemplation but instead directs us toward the limits of the thinkable.”—Artforum
First published in 1980 in France, Jean Louis Schefer’s study L’Homme ordinaire ducinéma, which is now available in English translation for the first time, appeals to two often overlapping interests. The first is French intellectual history, as the book fills a missing gap between Roland Barthes, Schefer’s teacher, and Gilles Deleuze, whose writings on cinema were greatly influenced by Schefer. Schefer’s book will also neatly slot into a nostalgia for a moment when, before video and digital formats, movies meant the projection of film in darkened theatres. The Ordinary Man of Cinema is more than a rescued relic of a favourite period, however. Schefer is a highly idiosyncratic and, on his own terms, a brilliant theorist. The book proposes that cinema is a phenomenon activated in the viewer, especially in the sensations it awakens. Cinema, then, is itself a mode of thinking, rather than an inert object of… - GENEVIEVE YUE
Jean Louis Schefer’s The Ordinary Man of Cinema is a strange and challenging book. It is strange because the author examines, in minute detail, a very personal universe of going to the movies. It is challenging because the language tries to convey the ghostliness of cinema rather than any particular material expression or historical context. There are no discussions of “the apparatus,” camera or editing techniques, directorial intentions or any formal exegesis of particular films. Fragments from genre films (mostly burlesque, horror and noir) are presented out of context and filtered by Schefer’s idiosyncratic observations, associations and memories. In its extreme subjectivity and phenomenological reduction, The Ordinary Man of Cinema awakens the reader’s own secret history with the cinema.
This English translation of Schefer’s influential 1980 work comes at a time when “the cinema” itself is a ghost in contemporary culture. Cinema is undergoing either a crisis, a redefinition, a slow death, a technological transformation or even a rebirth, depending on whom you consult. But one reads The Ordinary Man of Cinema now as if it were addressing the ordinary person of the Internet age. What is the cumulative effect of all those screen images on our psyches and bodies? Can we even know? We take our seat with others in the theater. We settle into the bed with our laptop and earbuds. The cinema experience, then and now, is “shared,” but it remains “solitary, hidden, secretly individual.” The collective expectation (of producers, theater owners, streaming services and their customers) [End Page 539] is that the movie will successfully transport us into another world. But as Schefer points out, there is more to the story. A movie is made of details: gestures, textures, objects and shadows; and not all of these images are connected to the narrative or to any precise meaning. “I don’t expect the hand resting on a table and sweating like a face to signify, but to pass, that is to say no longer be at hand.” While we consciously attend to the plot, the most insignificant details work on us invisibly. Here is Schefer, in characteristically dense prose, on how some images, lacking clear narrative purpose, become unknowingly absorbed into the spectator:
Something is linked to the mystery of meaning that we add to the image in our uncertainty of grasping its totality, as we doubt that such an addition would be anything other than an incomplete sampling of what pleas for signification it contains—being uncertain, moreover, that what we add isn’t primarily something that we should call ourselves. Beyond the seduction of images, the film will thus keep the mystery complete (and will keep it like a part of ourselves): before any apprehension of new meaning we learn that signification is, here, a body.
Schefer avoids conventional explanations or terms because they are abstractions that mask a complex, murky and contingent experience. His writing style is sometimes as dreamily opaque as the cinema he writes about, as if the writing were the commentary trying to catch up with the flicker of the author’s ideas and associations. But then there are wonderfully clear passages that embrace our collective pleasure and pain at the cinema. A mummy is “the bearer of all the bandages of our lives, of our entire hospital life.” Bursts of poetic montage startle the reader from the hypnotic prose: “a hand rises, a rowboat sways on the waves, a rotating pane of glass shifts a landscape.” Schefer sinks into his own confessed ignorance of film theory in order to explore the residue of cinema’s “fund of affects,” the unnamed and unthought regions that remain when we leave the theater. The work in form and content is exhilarating and as relevant to today’s media ecology as it was in 1980. - Will Luers
For Anglophone readers, Jean Louis Schefer’s name will most likely only be familiar through the reverent, often enigmatic references made in translated works by some of the most eminent French film theorists and critics: Gilles Deleuze, (“Jean Louis Schefer, in a book in which the theory forms a kind of great poem…”), Nicole Brenez, (“In the beginning was Jean Louis Schefer…”), Serge Daney (“[a thinker] mysterious and more complicated than we were”), etc. Semiotext(e)’s recent translation(1) of Schefer’s The Ordinary Man of Cinema, published in France in 1980, rectifies what was previously a serious gap in our knowledge of French film theory and offers the chance—especially as “film-philosophy” is so in vogue in academia right now—to reappraise how we conceive the relationship between cinema and thought today.
In the opening line of the book, Schefer introduces himself as “the ordinary man of cinema”—someone with no professional standing to speak about cinema “except insofar as [he spends] a lot of time going to the movies.” Contra attempts throughout the 1970s to develop rigorous theories of cinema, Schefer, a self-professed amateur, endeavors to illuminate and enact—by means of a slippery and occasionally impenetrable style of writing—the phenomenological experience of inhabiting the “experimental night” of the movie theatre. As such, the book is less a series of propositions and arguments (Schefer: “This book was never intended to be a theoretical essay on the cinema”) than a performance and elaboration of the experiential and experimental—both contained in the French expérience, the translators tell us—relationship that forms between spectator and film.
In a lecture(2) given in 2011, Nicole Brenez says that the “figural” begins with the question “Do we know of what the image is an image?” In other words, it begins when we no longer consider the image as a representation of a pro-filmic referent, but rather, in its difference or strangeness, as a manifestation. It is this distinction between cinema’s powers of representation and figuration that Schefer most consistently evokes throughout his text. For Schefer, the world we see on screen—although it crucially resembles our own—is one in which we do not exist and cannot inhabit. The images we encounter in the cinema are “without exterior repetition, without any copy in time” (165). When we go to see a black and white film, Schefer writes, we do not encounter bodies that mirror our own, but rather grey, gesticulating figures made of granite. Cinema gives us creatures whose bodies cannot be synthesized, who instead exist as disproportionate assemblages of gestures and amputated parts, all composed of that glowing dust glimpsed above in the light of the projector. Yet their resemblance to our bodies and our world persists: "that which is projected and animated is not ourselves, yet we recognize ourselves in it" (101). Schefer evokes the image of a child (one of many throughout the book) who attempts to imitate the heroes of the screen. Although he lacks the “the very milieu (the light world, the world defined by gray diagonals) in which [he] might enact [their] gestures,” he continues to try,
"hallucinating from their repetition, their variation…continuing these undoable acts that cinema held close…[running] out of breath with those screams, those gestures which, since they did not reach the world, could still have reserved a small space for the child in that parenthesis of time through which Zorro, since physical causality had been suspended, could reach the roof of a house in one leap…" (165)
Cinema’s resemblance to our world stirs something deep within us, even as it continually shuts us out. Its shots are like distorted fragments of mirrors in which we are unable to catch a glimpse of ourselves. Cinematic images knock us down, Schefer writes, “because their resemblance to us occurs through another face and a wholly other composition of time on the body” (129). We are both the reality of the cinema and impossibly far from its images: those bodies are too strange, their movements too abnormal, their duration too unfamiliar.
This is a great source of guilt for Schefer. Life at the cinema is a criminal life: sitting in that darkened movie theatre we enact “the crime of an amputation on ourselves” (126), suppressing ourselves and our world for images in which we do not exist, images “to which the soot of our body does not adhere” (159). Schefer, born in 1938, often evokes his autobiography—growing up during the war and under Nazi occupation—intertwining his sense of powerlessness and guilt at having escaped the slaughter with the uneasiness generated by that “suspension of the world” enacted by cinema.
However, Schefer also suggests that cinema teaches us something. He’s not concerned here with what individual films might express, but rather with the horizon of experience that opens for the habitual moviegoer. By going to the cinema, Schefer writes, we might learn something about time. Like Gilles Deleuze’s second volume on cinema, L’image temps (The Time-Image), Schefer suggests that film can bring us into direct contact with time, usually experienced as subordinate to movement. Because of the cinematic image’s strangeness, the “fits and jerks” through which it disrupts and links its disproportionate movements, Schefer’s ordinary viewer experiences an anteriority of time to any action on screen:
"If we experience delays or slight anticipations of action here, it’s not the represented subject but the substance of time (invisible up that point) that becomes our knowledge, our pleasure, our entire experience." (199)
If cinema suspends our world, shamefully and criminally separating us from the fact that, outside, “the war does not stop” and “massive police forces” (211) do not cease to kill, it’s not to act as a dream-machine or opiate. Rather, in Schefer’s final pages, he suggests that cinema’s operations are intimately tied to the movement of thought. In making that substance of time—which exists anterior to “all that is solid in the world”—sensible and in the image’s disproportions and disorderings, cinema creates a trembling or disruption of our visible world. As thought “creates a new speech…and at the same time covers the entire world with a new silence” (209), so does cinema, suspending or disturbing our normal conditions of perception in the continual engendering of a new world before our eyes.
Semiotext(e)’s translation of The Ordinary Man of Cinema fills a major hole in English readers’ knowledge of film theory, allowing one to finally engage a thinker who has been of such importance to figures from Gilles Deleuze to Nicole Brenez. But, more than just being of historical interest, Schefer’s book retains a force all its own, sensuously tracing out the effects of that enigmatic and (for Schefer) disquieting relation that develops every time one enters that “experimental night” of the cinema. - Benjamin Craismubi.com/notebook/posts/as-if-their-light-could-define-us-jean-louis-schefer-s-the-ordinary-man-of-cinema
Jean Louis Schefer, The Enigmatic Body: Essays on the Arts, Cambridge University Press, 1995.
read it at Google Books
This volume presents for the first time in English the work of one of the most important French theorists of today. The selection represents the whole of Schefer's career, from the 1960s, when he was influenced by structuralism, to his more lyrical and autobiographical essays of the 1990s, which meditate on the role of the spectator in relation to art practice. Schefer considers the nature of art, film and writing through his close examination of artists as diverse as Uccello, Poussin and Cy Twombly, and writers such as Paul Valéry and Roland Barthes. These provocative essays register the writer's direct confrontation with these media in a way that stands as a corrective to the formal traditions of interpretation and criticism. Schefer's work offers some of the most original interpretations of art available today.
Jean Louis Schefer, The Deluge, The Plague: Paolo Uccello, Trans. by Tom Conley, University of Michigan Press, 1995.
A meditation on a painting--and on the history of memory, imagery, and culture.
Uccello's account of the Deluge can be read not only for its citations of classical and Renaissance texts but also for its anticipation of the visions of Georges Bataille, silent film, and Antonin Artaud. Schefer brilliantly demonstrates that Uccello's images and texts are a fragment of Western civilization's history of memory: the book offers an analysis of a painting as it performs a psychoanalysis of our experience of the collective past. In contrast to art history, in which a painting or an object is reconstructed and situated in the complexity of its past, Schefer's essay is a speculation on the ways we use fragments and images to create a sense of time and space in our cultural productions. Readers of literature, painting, and contemporary theory, historians of art and culture, and students of the Renaissance will all appreciate Schefer's imaginative reading of Uccello's art.