Critical Theory in Times of Crisis Working Group | Historical Gestures in the Cinematic Present

In the flexible realms of cinematic time and movement, in oceans of contingent detail and the overwhelming expressivity of bodies and gestures—does history risk drowning in sensory response, in ritualistic absorption, in pleasure or in shock? The experience of presentness of the screened, time-based moving image can be maneuvered and intensified in ways that cut across a range of articulations, genres, and modes of filmmaking—reportage, re-enactment, documentary, fiction. Working through instances in which the experience of duration and repetition, performance and gesture, are heightened, I weigh the impact of cinematic temporality and the corporeal image vis-à-vis the cinema’s historical task. In transforming the narrative past tenses of both fiction and history into the present tense of film viewing, the cinema may be said to loosen the critical grip of writing (history’s “proper medium”), to destabilize legibility and interpretation, to interfere with the retrospective, synthetic, academic work of history. But this variability, the inherent “impurity,” even promiscuity, of the medium also invests the act of film viewing with urgency and vitality: it implicates us in what we see, it animates our response which is at once aesthetic and ethical.

Steimatsky’s scholarship engages with questions of media, aesthetics, and cultures of the moving image through specific historical intersections. She has a special interest in the workings of location in postwar cinema (especially Italian), and in the human visage as privileged site of representation. Her new book, The Face on Film (Fall 2016, Oxford University Press) reflects on the equivocal visuality and illegibility of the face, and the sense of belatedness and loss that distinguishes its post-classical cinematic incarnations.