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Black and Blue: The Bruising Passion of Camera Lucida, La Jetee, Sans soleil, and Hiroshima mon amour.

Black and Blue: The Bruising Passion of Camera Lucida, La Jetee, Sans soleil, and Hiroshima mon amour

By Carol Mavor

Duke University Press Books, 2012.

216 pp; $89.95 cloth; $24.95 paper

Films, photographs, artworks, books, and family snapshots: These things impact us when they are successful. In Carol Mavor's estimation, their impact bruises us, leaving us "black and blue." In Black and Blue: The Bruising Passion of Camera Lucida, La Jetee, Sans soleil, and Hiroshima mon amour, Mavor follows her variegated reflections on four works that leave her "black and blue," but she also touches on many many other works. Mavor allows her attention to wander from her memories to her current experiences, from films and books to photographs and paintings; the book falls somewhere between criticism, theory, and autobiography.

Mavor describes in her introduction some of her earliest childhood memories, chiefly a memory of staying home sick from school and watching A Patch of Blue (1965), a black-and-white film starring Sidney Poitier as a man who cares for a young, blind white girl whose only memory of vision is of the color blue. Her introduction also describes radical memory loss in the form of her mother's Alzheimer's disease. Black and Blue is an important book for its deft analyses of the memory- and photography- focused works, Barthes' Camera Lucida, Chris Marker's La Jetee and Sans soleil, and Alain Resnais and Marguerite Duras' Hiroshima mon amour, ft is a compelling work for Mavor's ability to trace an unexpected path among many "bruising" works and for the invitation she offers readers into her own intimate experiences with these texts.

In her first chapter, Mavor focuses on her principal muse: Barthes and his Camera Lucida (1980). Indeed, Mavor points to her ongoing fixation with Barthes: "Those of you who know my work well may bemoan: 'When will she wean herself from Barthes?' It seems, at least, not yet" (25). Mavor's chief focus here is on the way that race punctuates Barthes' slim volume. And more specifically, Mavor directs her attention to Barthes' reading of a photograph by the Harlem Renaissance portrait photographer, James Van der Zee.

The photograph is a portrait of three African Americans from the photographer's own family. Mavor exposes in Barthes' discussion of it his "erroneous readings of race," his perception that the goal of the family's visible "social advancement" is their desire "to assume the White Man's attributes" (29). Within his description of one of the women in the photograph, Barthes inserts an arresting aside: "6 negresse nourriciere," which Richard Howard translates as "the 'solacing Mammy'"(29). Mavor: "My mouth falls open" (29). Mavor ruminates over the possibilities of translation, identifying her surprise chiefly in the word "Mammy," "dirtied with American racist connotations," but what eventually becomes clear is that with this identification of blackness with nourishment (nourriciere), Mavor connects Barthes to her own childhood memory of A Patch of Blue, where the white girl is cared for, nourished by, a black man (31).

Before she arrives at this connection, though, Mavor follows the trajectory of her thoughts from Barthes to Kara Walker, an African American artist known for her silhouettes of people that often depict racial stereotypes. Walker "embraces the fairy tale as sugary violence. She draws us in with sweet desirable images and punches back. She makes viewers black and blue, no matter what the color of their skin" (31). Walker's silhouettes and their fairy tale quality lead Mavor to Hans Christian Andersen, a writer of fairy tales who also made paper silhouettes. Mavor touches on many others before the chapter's end and before she returns to A Patch of Blue: Carrie Mae Weems, Frantz Fanon, Toni Morrison, Felix Nadar, Richard Avedon, and Alfred Hitchcock, among them. Each of her chapters follows a similar seemingly unmapped route: the key text leads Mavor to other works, to her own memories and experiences, and finally back to the key text. Among all of these landing points in her discussion, Mavor returns frequently to Barthes but also to Proust, another of her muses.

As this rather lengthy summary of Mavor's first chapter suggests, her writing style and the observations she makes fall outside of what might be called traditional, argumentative scholarship with its rigors and its logic. There is a looseness, an unfocused quality to Mavor's style, a comfort with the personal, and an eschewing of readerly signposting. This is by no means to suggest that the book is slight. Mavor is a learned scholar whose encyclopedic knowledge allows her to unearth deft connections between texts and figures whose distance from each other may have seemed immense.

In her second and third chapters, Mavor turns to two films by the French Left Bank filmmaker Chris Marker: La Jetee (1962) and Sans soleil (1982). La Jetee, Marker's twenty-eight minute film composed of black and white stills that narrate a story of time travel, Mavor describes as a "post-apocalyptic fairy tale" (61). She names the hero that Marker leaves unnamed "jet-man" after Barthes' essay in Mythologies. Barthes continues to "nourish" Mavor's project, but the chief figures that Mavor pairs with La Jetee are Proust's Recherche, Hitchcock's Vertigo, Joseph Cornell's experimental film Rose Hobart, and Lewis Carroll's Alice narratives. All of these works are concerned with memory and time and with envisioning both as holes or passageways, distances to be traversed whether through the taste of a tea-soaked madeleine or a deep, dark rabbit hole. Marker's more recent feature length film, Sans soleil, is an assemblage composed of color moving footage rather than stills, where time and memory once again take center stage along with a focus on consumption and destruction. The lenses through which Mavor chiefly reads this film come from the visual arts: Manny Farber, Gordon Matta-Clark, and Ann Hamilton.

Mavor's fourth and final chapter draws attention to how we remember and whether those things we remember actually occurred as we remember them. This chapter once again charts a course through many sources, beginning with Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and the documentary film Hiroshima-Nagasaki, August 1945, excerpts of which Resnais included in his fictional film. The documentary footage is difficult to watch; "the footage burned itself into my brain" (121). Drawing on the work of contemporary artists and photographers who seek to document objects that remained after the bombs dropped and still survive, preserved in museums, Mavor arrives at the notion that many of our memories are filtered through or produced by film, by screens: "Film, like photography, replaces memory" (139).

Although her personal experiences play a role in each chapter, Mavor's own memories are woven thickly throughout this final chapter. By the end of the chapter, she describes her "memory" of a family scene that took place when she was only six months old, a scene she could not possibly remember. And, echoing the famous line of Hiroshima mon amour, "You saw nothing at Hiroshima," Mavor ends her book with these words: "I saw nothing" (158). But, importantly, she remembers.

In Mavor's book, these works that bruise are concerned with the past, with memory and nostalgia, with trauma and forgetting. Instigated in part by her mother's memory loss, Mavor's book seeks to preserve the impact that these many "bruising" works have had on her and on their audiences. Early on she writes that her book has very little yellow, "the color that appears when a bruise begins to heal" (15). Mavor is not seeking recovery from the effect these works have on her; recovery in this case means loss and forgetting, just what the works themselves also wish to stave off. Black and Blue instead aspires to preserve by lingering over her own bruises and by bruising her readers in their turn, and in this, like Barthes, Marker, and Resnais and Duras, she succeeds.
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Author:Anderst, Leah
Publication:Film Criticism
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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