Vivisection of the Screen: Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s somniloquies and Caniba
While there is an increasing tendency in contemporary moving-image arts to tackle the issue of how images mediate the world, the recent works of Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor invite viewers to pay attention to what cannot be mediated by images, for image-making is as much a physical encounter as it is a medium. This question was already posed in Paravel and Castaing-Taylor’s acclaimed experimental documentary, Leviathan (2012), a work which leaves us in a state of visceral and epistemic awe at how little we understand our world. In their most recent works, the site of image-making is again reassessed and expanded, as their interest shifts from the external to a more internal world through the documentation of dreamscapes, memories, and desires.
somniloquies, shown at both the 2017 Berlinale and Documenta 14, is a feature-length film deploying an idiosyncratic combination of archival sound recordings and documentary footages. The filmmakers select and sequence episodes of the sleep-talking of Dion McGregor, perhaps the world’s most famous sleep-talker, recorded in the 1960s and ’70s by his roommate. Listening to McGregor’s voice, we are transported into delirious scenes such as a “midget city” with 145 buildings, weekly vivisections of McGregor’s own body, and a square in which weekdays are individually named “suck wagon,” “masturbation wagon,” “tit wagon,” etc. While trying to construct mental images of McGregor’s dream worlds, audiences must simultaneously engage cognitively and materially with the onscreen images—blurry, irregular, and dimly lit, yellow shapes gradually emerging from pitch-black. We slowly discern them before they disappear back into darkness: a chin, a woman’s crotch, an arm. Body contours are intelligible not so much through the images themselves—the shots are always out of focus—but rather through the persistent and subtle movements of a handheld camera, which reveal spatial continuum as it attentively roams over sleeping naked bodies in long takes.
Leviathan has often been cited for its simulation of a non-human perspective of the ocean, fishes, seagulls, human subjects within nature, and the fishing industry. Less discussed is the fact that this non-human perspective is produced through the most human efforts. Technological innovations, like the GoPro cameras used to shoot Leviathan, provide necessary but not sufficient conditions for Paravel and Castaing-Taylor’s practices. The film immerses audiences in extreme close-ups of machines, mutilated fishes, human skin, and other beings in and around a fishing trawler. It is as much about proximity as about a different perspective.
Both Leviathan and somniloquies draw on the peculiar phenomenology of experiencing images of meat—fish meat and human flesh. The effect of meat here is uncanny in that it exists somewhere between a live actor and an inanimate prop. It is part of a living creature but doesn’t feel like a living creature. It is more of a relation than an object bridging the human and nature. The experience of viewing human flesh in somniloquies is complicated by our awareness of McGregor’s unconscious mind, the sleepers’ unconscious bodies, and the filmmakers’ conscious presence. Perhaps this is the reason why the images of somniloquies by turns resemble oil painting and CGI. We can no longer tell whether the tissue of other beings is analogue or digital.
Meat as a form of knowledge and a method is further explored in Caniba, which takes as its subject the infamous Japanese cannibal Issei Sagawa. In 1981, Sagawa killed and consumed the flesh of his Dutch classmate Renée Hartevelt while studying comparative literature at the Sorbonne. He was declared legally insane and unfit for trial, and was subsequently repatriated to Japan where he has since been living as a free man. Now in his late 60s, Sagawa is ill, cared for by his brother Jun in a small apartment in suburban Tokyo. Caniba is the first of Paravel and Castaing-Taylor’s films to feature talking heads, though their use of this trope is entirely idiosyncratic. Two-thirds of the film consists of long takes of extreme close-ups, drifting in and out of focus on Issei and Jun’s faces as their minds travel between memories of the past and present-day desires. The psychological intensity of these shots recalls the way André Bazin comments on Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), that an extensive usage of close-up “satisfies two apparently contradictory purposes: mysticism and realism,” and it makes “the actor’s mask crack.” Paravel and Castaing-Taylor’s gaze strips Issei’s face of any sensational or anecdotal references. The long close-ups call for neither moral judgement nor physiognomic interpretation, but make palpable an extreme form of desire.
In his present life, Issei desires not so much to consume as to be meat. (“I want to be eaten,” he says). And onscreen, meat is what he becomes. Surprisingly, Jun makes use of the filmmakers’ presence, and confides for the first time to Issei how, throughout his own life, he has gained sexual pleasure by hurting himself. He invites the camera to record the process of him becoming meat, piercing his arms with barbed wire, knives, and needles. Jun’s self-harm, the filmmakers’ wobbling handheld camera, and our visceral reactions together conjure a cinema of corporeality that unsettles any stable relationship between filmmaker, subject, and spectator. The subjects are treated neither as native informants nor as cultural texts, as they often are in ethnographic investigations. Instead, in the process of becoming meat, they are transformed into a being that is at once immanent and transcendental.
As visual ethnographers, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor engage with fundamental questions concerning alterity. In Leviathan, alterity is located in an external Other; in somniloquies and Caniba, alterity is found in one’s own unconscious. In each of these cases, alterity is approached without self-fashioning the Other nor othering the Self. And yet, meat as an alternative epistemological paradigm is at once fragile and robust. Fragile in the sense that Paravel and Castaing-Taylor’s works need to be screened in ways that cannot be definitively separated from conventional cinema—they require the audience to be immersed in the overwhelming scale of images and sounds in a darkened environment. A small screen would simply not “work.” And robust in the sense that what cannot be mediated by images in their works—the visceral and epistemic strength—would not be subsumed under the deterritorialized environment of film festivals or the re-contextualizing spaces of art exhibitions. For instance, when Commensal, the installation version of Caniba, was displayed in an abandoned German tofu factory at Documenta 14, the images’ distinct Beckettian minimalism and gallows humor were capable of engaging in a critical dialogue with, rather than corroborating, that mega-exhibition’s overall historical and post-colonial frameworks. Their images, always shown in both cinemas and museums, are places for film and art to clash rather than fusion, reinventing both modes of watching in the process.