Discourse 24.3 (2002) 3-26
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Treasures of the Earth and Screen:
Todd Haynes's Film Velvet Goldmine
The affinity between Walter Benjamin and contemporary film scholars depends on something deeper than agreement with the theoretical points he makes. Many of his claims, like the link between the evolution of film and the development of socialism, stand on questionable ground. Nonetheless, he uses the experience of film to connect in a vital way with the experience of the reader. More than any other mode of representation, the phenomenon of film in all its aspects mediates a new encounter with our own senses. Where Benjamin finds the consistency of concrete experience changing at its root, he responds with something beyond the abstraction of modified concepts in theory. He constantly looks for ways to make language and the basis of his representations more and more concrete in order to match the unique sensory quality of the modern environment. It is important to recognize in its full significance how he attempts to match the impact of a particular experience by a style of formulations that always contrive to make a strangely direct appeal to the senses, and in this regard, his writing contrives to mimic the rhythm and the impact of images cut, framed, and mounted together in the sequences of cinematography.
For example, he does not offer a technical or theoretical definition of how he will use the term "aura" in his essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Instead he conjures up a concrete situation—holding up a twig against the distant line [End Page 3] of mountains on the horizon—that the reader could reproduce in an actual, physical procedure in order to recreate the experience that this expression signifies for Benjamin in his critical procedure.
In One Way Street, the section "This Space to Rent" compares the techniques of advertising in the street with the language of criticism. The significance of the neon sign, and its superiority in signaling that we have entered into a new realm of life has little to do with the words it flashes above us, according to the experience Benjamin shares with us, but rather with the harsh transformation of the ground on which we walk. There we have to negotiate "the fiery pool reflecting it in the asphalt" in a spectacle that "hurtles things at us with the tempo of a good film" (Reflections 86). The film-like suddenness of the spectacle occurs without definite precedent, and without any of the reassuring quality of an established authority in a critical or philosophical language by which we might maintain the steadiness of distance. Catching this agitated glow at our feet we no longer proceed with the steady rhythm of self-possession. The reflections of light and color on the surfaces around us light up their response in our bodily senses, leave us bereft of that mastery of our time implicit in any act of reflective reading or of informed contemplation.
This sense of suddenness, of having something thrown one's way which we must react to and catch at once, gives our reading of Benjamin, and even our re-reading him, its characteristic exhilarating immediacy. In the middle of a discussion on the explosive forces of "atmosphere" available in transient objects, the essay "Surrealism" suddenly turns to its reader and asks him or her: "What form do you suppose a life would take that was determined at a decisive moment precisely by the street song last on everyone's lips?" (Reflections 182). The German, "Was glauben Sie wohl ... " perhaps gives the question an even more challenging tone. But in any case, it permits no answer in terms of theory, or history, or philosophy. Either we simply cannot imagine such a world, or we are forced to enter into a sphere that plainly goes beyond the style of thinking—informed, critical, and reflective—by which we had most probably identified ourselves as appropriate readers working through Benjamin's essay up to that point.
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