- Cinema's Queer WitnessIra Sachs's Last Address and the Indifferent View
Come hither in thy hour of strength;Come, weak as is a breaking wave!Here stretch thy body at full length;Or build thy house upon this grave.—William Wordsworth, from "A Poet's Epitaph"
I've always thought that New York City will never blink when I die. Will hardly notice.—Ira Sachs
It has not escaped the notice of thinkers of photography and cinema that the photographic image seems indifferent to a world in which humans are highly invested. Cinematic automatism is the name given to what a range of film theorists, including André Bazin, Jacques Rancière, Siegfried [End Page 163] Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Stanley Cavell, have described as the technologically mediated representation of the world yielded by the cinematic apparatus and its photographic basis. Echoing Jean Epstein, who argues against the focus on dramatic narrative in film, Rancière states that
The truth about life has finally found an art capable of doing it justice, an art in which the intelligence that creates the reversals of fortune and the dramatic conflicts is subject to another intelligence, the intelligence of the machine that wants nothing, that does not construct any stories, but simply records the infinity of movements.(2006, 2)
The nonhuman intelligence of the camera lens is sensitive to complex and chaotic phenomena, what David L. Clark calls the "camera's hospitality" (2015, 163). These motions can be elided or instrumentalized by subjective perception and selection, or the human's desire to humanize the inhuman photograph. Automatism should not be confused, says Rancière, with an identical reproduction of things, but performs a kind of ontological work that the human eye cannot; that is, the camera shows a world coming into being outside human rationality, permitting us to see our world through a decentered gaze. Similarly, Bazin credits the camera with an "instrumentality of a nonliving agent" (1960, 7), which for many makes it a compelling source of evidence that may compete with human testimony. Dziva Vertov praised this capability of the camera to expose facts of the world in his early speeches for what would later become known as documentary film. But automatism is perhaps best known as the cornerstone of Cavell's philosophy of film in his 1971 book The World Viewed (Cavell 1979). Automatism produces representations that circumvent subjective intervention, and he identifies it as the artistic medium of cinema, placing film alongside other representative arts in the modernist tradition.
Cameras have a way of "looking" at the world that is different from human perception. They generate representation without subjectivity, the visual without vision. They are nature denatured. Their precise relation to or difference from human perception is too mobile to state, and this disunity is part of what charges automatism with such intrigue. The camera may be inhuman, [End Page 164] and it may radically decenter the human, but the wish it satisfies to view the world "as it is" (Cavell 1979, 165), or as it is unseen by humans (101), argues Cavell, is all too human. In the capriciousness of its own logic or illogic, the automatic apparatus does not so much lie outside the margins of human perception as it effaces that anthropocentric difference between the human and the nonhuman, locating the human indifferently in the midst of a nonhuman universe.
In this essay, I ask how this insentient gaze is put to the task of witnessing the AIDS epidemic and if film itself can be considered a queer witness to the epidemic. By bringing film theory devoted to automatism to bear on queer film, I ask how the cinema's impersonal view becomes legible in film that is thinking about the epidemic, and how filmmakers put that impersonality to use to testify to its toll and its ongoing violence. Turning to Ira Sachs's experimental short, Last Address (2010), which mourns the losses of queer artists who died of AIDS-related complications, I suggest that the film reflects on and reperforms cinematic automatism to address cinema's role in witnessing the epidemic. When humans forget, or were never there to attest...