restricted access The First Sail: J. Hillis Miller by Dragan Kujundžić (review)
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The First Sail: J. Hillis Miller. Dir. Dragan Kujundžić. Deer Isle Productions, 2011.

I spent many years lugging thick anthologies filled with the wisdom of great men and women whom I rarely thought of as living, breathing, contributing thinkers. It was with great pleasure, then, that I watched Dragan Kujundžić's 2011 documentary film The First Sail: J. Hillis Miller. The film could best be described as a biographical essay: not a birth-to-death account of Miller's life and work but rather a series of vignettes that show the scholar as a person, a lively and vital contributor to the academy and the world beyond it. The film is divided into six chapters, each of which serves to bring Miller himself, [End Page 353] more than his work, to life for the viewer. His work and contributions to literary criticism are not neglected nor ignored—in fact, one scene shows Miller pointing out shelves and piles of books he's written or contributed to—but rather seem present as afterthoughts or side notes to a perspective on Miller more as a man than as a great mind of the past—we see the gentle, kind, open, opinionated, passionate, competitive, and still questioning man behind the curtain, not the great and powerful Oz. This observation may seem trivial to established scholars, but for a student just beginning to engage Miller's ideas, it can enliven the texts she is studying to know and see the living, breathing, questioning and interesting person behind the famous seminal articles and books.

The film opens on a black screen, the sound of the murmuring ocean lapping against a shore punctuated every few seconds by a foghorn, then a shot of the lighthouse on Deer Isle, Maine, fades in, with title credits superimposed against a lovely blue sky. Then a jump cut to Miller and a friend standing on a dock readying a dinghy to row out to Miller's small sailboat (christened Frippery III). His friend rows, while, in a voiceover, Pamela Gilbert introduces Miller prior to his 2006 keynote speech at a conference on Jacques Derrida at the University of Florida. This introduction is almost the only reference in the film to Miller's eminent place in the world of literary thought; Gilbert's listing of Miller's many honors and positions and book titles—which she admits is woefully abbreviated—is the only time in the film when we get a sense of how important Miller's varied and often pioneering contributions to the fields of "nineteenth- and twentieth-century English, American, and comparative literature and, of course, literary theory, . . . phenomenological criticism, speech act theory, deconstruction, cultural studies [and] queer theory" are (Gilbert). As if to counter Gilbert's encomium, Miller's first comments at the podium are delivered laughingly and somewhat self-deprecatingly. He tells the conference audience— almost as if he were anticipating the nature of Kujundžić's vivifying filmed interview—that "this is a very lighthearted lecture"—he could have said, "film"—"but," he continues, referring to the conference talk he's about to give, "it has a subtitle, . . . which is horror autotoxicus. Horror autotoxicus was . . . the name given a century ago by the visionary bacteriologist Paul Ehrlich to autoimmunity. He called this horror autotoxicus, so this is really a lecture"—again, he might have said, prophesying The First Sail, a "film""about horror autotoxicus," that is, autoimmunity. Kujundžić and Miller show us a man too warm to wear his suit coat and possessed of a mind that, like each one of ours, conjures false memories (in this case of Wallace Stevens wearing high-button shoes and a celluloid collar because [End Page 354] he was an insurance executive). Thus they have given us in The First Sail a sort of autoimmunity to the attitude of so many students that, like me, read Miller's work (and Derrida's and de Man's and any number of others') as freestanding prose or thought without a living mind moving behind and through and even subsequently beyond it.

Through most of the first chapter, filmed principally in the president's house...