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  • Reviving the Elephant; or, Cinema Plays Dead
  • Matthew Noble-Olson (bio)

Cinema's century-long life span is punctuated at both its birth and its death by a dead elephant. Thomas Edison's Electrocuting an Elephant (1903) announces its fatal event in the title: an elephant named Topsy is executed by electrocution in front of a crowd of thousands at Coney Island. One hundred years after Topsy's electrified end, in the age of cinema's purported death, Douglas Gordon's postcinematic art installation, Play Dead; Real Time (2003), presents three screens (two projections and a video monitor) that show varying images of an elephant named Minnie performing a series of tricks, including the eponymous act of playing dead, in the empty space of the Gagosian Gallery in New York. While Edison's film shows the reality of Topsy's violent death amid the chaotic bustle of Coney Island, Minnie enacts her own fictitious death as part of an innocuous performance in the sanctified space of an art gallery. These two differently dead elephants, separated by the span of the twentieth century, the century of cinema, provide the means to reexamine and reimagine the terms of the "death of cinema" as playful rather than elegiac. This essay will theorize the deathly element of cinematic ontology in its contemporary moment through a reading of Play Dead; Real Time. Gordon's installation is not simply reminiscent of Electrocuting an Elephant; it revives Edison's film. Play Dead; Real Time articulates cinematic death as other than final—excessive—through a staging of Edison's imagery of the dead elephant among its spatially dispersed screens, which initiates an engagement of the viewing subject in the real time and space of the gallery. Gordon's installation produces excess time that redefines cinematic death as a necessarily repeated event, troubling the terms of that death and the identification of the "death of cinema" with the present historical moment. Cinema lives on after its death in the excessive time cultivated [End Page 84] in the viewer's playful mediation of the nonidentity between the varied temporalities of the work: the individual temporalities of the multiple screens, the real time and space of the gallery, and the historical time produced in the citation of Electrocuting an Elephant.

Electrocuting an Elephant begins with a long shot of the elephant, Topsy, walking toward the camera and then turning to its left and moving rightward across the screen and into a close-up. The camera tracks the elephant through this movement and then cuts to a medium-long shot of the elephant standing, completely visible, turned with its left side angled toward the camera, matching the direction of the animal from the previous shot. The motion of the film is tightly controlled and limited in its short running time (roughly seventy-five seconds) but it is highly meaningful. The moment of death appears in the static image, emphasizing the stillness of death, which was preceded by the movement of the camera tracking the living elephant in the previous shot. After a few seconds of relative stillness, punctuated by occasional stirrings of the animal—lifting its legs, raising its trunk—smoke appears without warning at the animal's feet where the current is attached, and as the electricity forces its way through Topsy's body the animal shudders and seems to freeze in place before slowly lurching forward and falling to the ground, the now lifeless body continuing to convulse.

While the movement of Electrocuting an Elephant is carefully controlled and contained by the singularity of the filmic image, Play Dead; Real Time emphasizes motion, both through the viewing subject's movement between the multiple screens and within the images themselves. Each of the installation's three screens presents a unique sequence of images filmed in 35 mm and transferred to video. Each screen shows a differing variation of Minnie performing a set of actions as commanded by an unseen and unheard trainer. The images are silent and insistently mobile, tracking around Minnie as she lowers herself to the floor or slowly zooming out from a close-up of her eye. The first part of the work's title derives from one...


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pp. 84-104
Launched on MUSE
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