In this blog I hope to grapple with ways of seeing and feeling matter, and the matter of seeing and feeling: through the abstract and overfull economies of film pleasures, and of non-filmic pleasures that may reverberate as inherently (or experimentally) cinematic. Its objects may be promiscuous, and are inspired by two general, if not definitive or related, “things:” film and scent.
Thus, I begin with an image of Hedy Lamarr smoking in Ecstasy (Gustav Machaty, 1933), an ode to the dissipation of smoke as the filmic materialization of post-coital reverie. There is perhaps no better image to express the ways that cinema moves the viewer and moves within itself, the contingent wending of evanescent particles and profilmic particulars together in a chiasmic logic of desire: the desire for a world beyond the screen and one intrinsically animated by the world placed in front of the camera.
In the course of teaching a seminar called “The Carnal Screen” I've been struck with the recursive trope of smoking that appears in proximity to, or as metonym for, the unseen sex act. This is a place where material representability (as well as its limits) is bookmarked by immaterial experience, in which the puffs and cloudy, sinuous slivers of cigarette smoke make visible forms of pleasure and modes of feeling that evade the gravitational heft of the body, while simultaneously passing through its enfoldings. Smoke rises up and away from Lamarr’s horizontally reclining face, profiled in its stillness, framing it in unpredictable curlicues. Her arm creates a triangular frame that gesture upward, mirroring a previous shot in which her face, seen in close up and upside down, in her evinced moment of pleasure, is partially concealed by the diamond frame of her elbows. The smoke in the air is the frangible archive of Lamarr’s breathing, inhalation and exhalation itself an index of cinematic arousal (no one heaves her chest and breathes more dramatically than Lamarr!) Ingestion, consumption, possession, swallowing are all inflected by Lamarr’s intense performance-as-portraiture, her relative stillness and statuesque nature only highlighting rustling moments, slight reverberations. The smoke emanates, drifts upwards, the inverted residue of that which has been represented seconds prior in terms of falling and rending – the descent of the new lovers bodies onto the settee, the pearls tumbling to the floor, Lamarr’s porcelain hand grasping at the fur of the sheepskin rug below her, the draped fabric which falls to the ground.
Images like this speak of the relation between bodies and cinema, and that, which lies sometimes mutely, in between – at the cusp of form and formlessness. The smoke signal that permeates through the prison wall in Jean Genet's Un Chant D'Amour (1950), orally received on the other side through the ingestion of its threnodic fumes, partakes in this rich interplay between material and immaterial. The gesture of eroticism is abstracted through the limits and perverse extensions of the embodied self into matter, into the very objectness which the architecture of the prison itself enacts and signifies - yet in the punitive register of a disciplining subjection. What is transmitted in this erotic gesture, in the absence of physical contact, but the ephemerality, the impossibility of the gesture itself? Smoke here operates, gains flight as figurative expressivity. It instantiates a liminal symbolic order that aestheticizes eros, showing desire to be purely aesthetic, emitting from the creasing folds between bodies and things.
Lesley Stern, the poet of smoke’s ineffable cinematic “thingness,” invokes the nature of its contingency,
“Yet if every passion, as Benjamin remarks, borders on the chaotic, cigarette smoke surely evinces the waviness of the border…it is often cited as one of the simplest examples of chaos – the smoke rises in a spiral from the cigarette, then suddenly it breaks up, it’s trajectory becomes chaotic, random. This moment, when laminar flow dissolves into nonlaminar flow can’t be predicted, and neither can the pattern of dispersal be foretold.” (The Smoking Book, 109.)
Cinema best narrates this path of desire’s meandering contingency and dissolute directionality, like the smoke that breaks up the field of the image, creating curtains of translucency and shadowy phantoms which snake and tease, the pulsion of enchantment. We are dispersed into forms that evaporate, leaving only memorial residues - smell, taste, breath, feeling, sense that involutes language.
So, what kind of smoke gets in your eyes? There is much left to say, but I have run out of breath.