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  • Stepping Sideways
  • Thomas Elsaesser

It is my great pleasure and honour to have been asked to address the forty-ninth annual conference of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. That I should do so as this year's recipient of the Society's annual Lifetime Membership Award (for Distinguished Career Achievement) gives the occasion an especially festive allure, and I want to express my appreciation to the members of the committee for having selected me. As I accept the Award with gratitude, and a due sense of the responsibility that comes with such a distinction, I also want to extend warm thanks to Lucy Fisher, for her most generous introductory remarks, and to Patrice Petro for hosting me this evening as the Society's special guest.

Such a lifetime membership award invites—indeed obliges—one to enter into a retrospective frame of mind. I'm not too blasé to admit that the idea of one's peers thinking one has an achievement to look back on does soothe quite a few anxieties. It soothes the worry that what one has done doesn't really amount to much; it soothes the worry that what one is personally most proud of has gone unnoticed or unrecognized; and for many other common and garden-variety anxieties, such a distinction is a wonderful plaster on the narcissistic wound and a palliative for any soul not immune to self-doubt. It's like a general amnesty—a pardon, a reprieve—in the perpetual plea bargaining between me and myself. And yet, while the pleasure is real, so is the dawning realization that this is not, say, a mid-career show. This is a "lifetime" award, and therefore a hint—a gentle hint, for sure, but a hint nonetheless—that it may be time to prepare, if not for a retreat, then for taking a step sideways.

And this I am happy to do, the more so, when I think—still in this retrospective mood for a few more minutes, if you will forgive me—that my career has really been a series of sideways steps, or to put it too bluntly: my career as a film scholar has often seemed based on a series of misunderstandings—mostly productive ones, to be sure, but (in true melodramatic fashion) out of sync, too soon, too late, the right thing at the wrong place, or vice versa. [End Page 121]

I do not mean the misunderstandings about my name: in the 1970s, the tease was that "Elsaesser" could only rhyme with "Althusser." And in the 1980s, when I was living in North London, I rented a flat in Stoke Newington—some of you here may even remember it—from a Hasidic landlord, who would never have signed the lease had he not thought I was Jewish, presumably because all his neighbors were called Breslauer, Wertheimer, or Rosenthaler. But because in the London telephone directory I was listed just ahead of a Dr. El-Sayed and a Mrs. El-Saway, I would regularly receive letters addressed to Dr. El-sasser, reminding me of my duty to Allah, and asking me for generous donations to the Finsbury Park Mosque.

Nor do I mean the misunderstandings about my nationality, which ended (to cut short a long story of mistaken identities) with the Dutch thinking I'm English, whereas the Germans think I'm Dutch, and only the Americans have the good sense of knowing I'm from "Europe."

I mean a different misunderstanding. The filmmaker Harun Farocki once told me how surprised he was about the international success of his film Images of the World and Inscription of War. He said: "I made the film in 1987 against nuclear power and cruise missiles on German soil, and it came back to me from America in 1990 as a film about the Holocaust." I think I know what he meant: I wrote an essay about melodrama in 1972, to put in my bid, as it were, in a discussion about "authorship" and "genre," hotly debated around the British Film Institute by, among others, Peter Wollen, Jim Kitses, Ed Buscombe, and Colin McArthur, and it came back to me in 1975 as...


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