Peter Szendy is a philosopher and musicologist at the Université Paris-Ouest. His early research examined the concept of listening and its relationship to political power (Ecoute, une histoire de nos Oreilles, Minuit, 2001; Sur écoute : esthétique de l’espionnage, Minuit, 2007). In 2008, he followed up on this with a study of melody and the power of its psychic effects (Tubes : la philosophie dans le juke-box, Minuit). Since then, his object of study has been cinema. In L’apocalypse cinéma. 2012 et autres fins du monde, Capricci Editions, 2012, he shows, through an analysis of films portraying the apocalypse, that cinema tends by its very nature to refer to the end of the world: far from being one genre among many others, disaster films appear to point to the very essence of cinema.
This video interview has English subtitles and is followed by a full audio transcript
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Prises de vue et montage : David Bornstein.
audio transcript of the interview
La Vie des Idées: What is a disaster film?
Peter Szendy: A disaster film is a huge financial sacrifice, a huge cinematic expenditure, a huge investment of energy into the picture. I’m giving you a definition that isn’t really narrative or dramatic. We could talk about the screenplays, but in essence they are probably all very similar. I would find it more interesting to try and give a definition that you might call “energetic”, but meaning an energy which you should think of as being in the picture and for the picture. We might think of Lyotard, of what he wrote about what he called the “libidinal dimension of the image”, meaning the investment of energy and desire into the image. So a disaster film would probably look like a kind of big potlatch, where you invest everything, a sort of general expenditure into the image. Hence, by the way, the fact that disaster films use and combine so many resources. This isn’t at all a secondary aspect of disaster films. People say these films are huge investments, cost a lot of money, they’re super productions. This is by no means a coincidence. Of course, this does not mean that all disaster films, or all apocalyptic films, are necessarily super productions, but I believe that any disaster or apocalyptic film will at some point have to face this issue of expenditure.
La Vie des Idées: Has this type of film undergone any developments?
Peter Szendy: There have been different eras for disaster films, developments of the genre itself. You might even say that, depending on the social and political context, each era chooses, or recognises itself in a certain type of disaster film. I’m thinking in particular of nuclear catastrophe, which at the time of the Cold War and of nuclear escalation and dissuasion was a favoured genre. Another type of disaster film would be the Martian or extra-terrestrial invasion, which has often been interpreted as a kind of projection of the Communist threat, for example, etc.
I also think it would be interesting to examine the development of this genre in purely filmic terms, and a recent film like Melancholia by Lars Von Trier offers a figure of catastrophe which is quite new. More precisely, I am thinking of this black screen at the end. This black screen and total silence. I’m not completely sure this is a first in the history of cinema, but still, it seems to me that this is a radical gesture, radical in a way we had not seen before. There are precedents, of course. I’m thinking in particular of the second episode of the Planet of the Apes franchise, where the film finishes and it’s the end of the world. But let’s say that it’s the end of the Earth, but there’s still a voiceover, talking from a narrative point of view which must be that of cosmic space, this voiceover tells us that the planet Earth has died. There is thus still a post-apocalyptic narrator left, whereas in Lars Von Trier’s film, there really is nothing left.
La Vie des Idées: Is the end of the world a privileged cinematic object?
Peter Szendy: I think there is a profound relationship between filmic temporality, which is that of the expectation of an event, whatever that event may be in fact: a catastrophe or a revelation. And when I say “filmic temporality”, what I mean is that from one image to the next, between images, while you are waiting for the next frame, you’re always waiting for an event, in a film. You’re waiting for a revelation, meaning, in a literal sense, an apocalypse. It’s true that photography too offers us a visual revelation every time, both in the literal and in the etymological sense. You could say that photography too is apocalyptic, it’s a kind of curtain which tears open onto the visible. But what is specific to film is that this apocalypse – in the Greek sense of “revelation” – expected with the next frame every time, and is at the same time deferred every time, in that it will only really take place at the end of the film, of course. From this perspective, it’s no accident that it’s the cinema that invented, or at least this is what people say, and I checked it by researching the issue in quite some depth. It was for the cinema that the figure of the countdown was invented. The countdown is really the temporality of the foretold catastrophe. We wait for this event that will come, and everything there is before the event is a countdown. I think that this structure of the countdown really corresponds to the nature of filmic time.
Of course, filmic time is not the only one that appears as the expectation of an event. We could probably say the same about all time-based arts: music, narration, storytelling. There is a famous book by a British critic, Frank Kermode, called The Sense of an Ending, which says that, fundamentally, in the Western tradition, all stories more or less use the model of the apocalypse. All stories are the expectation of their own ending. But there is nevertheless this specificity of film, and the fact that Fritz Lang – he was who I was thinking of – in his film entitled The Woman in the Moon, he invented the figure of the countdown. It’s very striking in the film. We count down from six to one, and at the end of this countdown, there is a title card, since this is a silent film, and this title card shows the German word “Jetzt” in capital letters, it bursts out of the screen at you, it’s as if cinema itself was screaming at you: “It’s now.” And this is really this expectation of this great now that is on its way, it’s really the catastrophic time, or the catastrophist time of film. I believe there’s a really profound relationship here, really a structural relationship between filmic time and the time of the catastrophe.
La Vie des Idées: Isn’t filming catastrophe always filming the end of the world?
Peter Szendy: Derrida, in the title of one of his books, which is a collection of posthumous texts, of homages to thinkers and friends who have passed away – sums up and condenses what, for me, really is the paradox, the aporia of the catastrophe, which is always the end not of a world, but the end of the world. This book by Derrida is The End of the World, Unique Each Time, which is contradictory: if it’s the end of the world, it can’t be every time, it should be one single time. This title should be understood from the perspective of the issue of catastrophe as mourning, and if we don’t want to evacuate this mourning in advance, which is is always problematic: if we say that it’s just the end of a world, then really it’s alright, we’ve finished mourning already, it’s not that serious. We start to calculate: there were quite a few dead people, but not that many really, a little more, a little less, etc. We’ve already entered into the logic of calculated mourning, whereas really Derrida is asking us to think, very strongly, that it’s the end of the world every time.
Mourning is impossible every time, with catastrophe. Or at least mourning should remain impossible, it certainly shouldn’t be dealt with as an economic issue, too quickly and too early. Now, if we transpose this to film, and I don’t believe that this is just about simply applying this philosophical thought to film. I believe film gives us a very special experience of this mourning, which is unique every time, meaning that – as we all know, this is quite banal – when a film comes to an end, a world comes to an end. I recently had a discussion about this with Abel Ferrara, and he objected that a film isn’t always a world. But let’s say that when a film really is a film, it is a world, and when we come out of it, it takes time, it’s a difficult mourning process. Let’s not even mention the mourning of a series, which is also a world in and with which we live.
So, I believe that there really is something about film that makes us undergo or experience this kind of mourning, a mourning for catastrophes, but in a unique way each time. This is impossible mourning – must remain impossible mourning.
La Vie des Idées: What do these films tell us about catastrophe?
Peter Szendy: The representation of a catastrophe is always somewhat reassuring, as long as it is only a representation. This means for a start that we can show the catastrophe, tell its story. We can handle it, set it up, we can play with it. Essentially, filming a catastrophe already involves the process of taming it, domesticating this catastrophe. We are playing with the catastrophe a little like Freud’s child plays with the reel. Maybe what we should think is that the real catastrophe would be the catastrophe of representation. Not catastrophe represented, but the catastrophe of representation. It is true that a certain perspective that we can have on disaster film, or apocalyptic film, even in the case of its worst productions… A film like 2012, which may be one of the worst films I have ever seen, a film by Roland Emmerich. This film, if you look at it in a certain way, tells us about the image burning, the image being endlessly consumed. There is a sort of overdrive of the image, an overdrive because the image is hypertrophied in a way, overfed with special effects and yet also constantly consuming itself. What we see is always the image at the limit of itself, tearing itself. The seismic chasms that open up are like tears in the screen or in our gaze.
Here, if we think about the fact that the most commercial cinema, cinema that is meant to console, to tame catastrophe… In fact the story of 2012 is absolutely ridiculous, it’s the reuniting of the family practically on the edge of the seismic chasms which are splitting the earth in half. It’s really very ridiculous. But if we look at it another way, this film is telling us about the catastrophe of representation, meaning that in each frame, the image is practically burning. This is also the case in another film which, in my view, is a masterpiece: Melancholia by Lars Von Trier, where we see burning images several times, for example there’s a painting by Brueghel that burns. And above all, I believe this film tells the story of the ultimate catastrophe of representation, meaning the ultimate limit of the film, the fact that, ultimately, the film runs aground a bit like a boat would, as though it’s the ship of cinema. This is something incidentally that cinema has often been. Cinema has often been represented as onboard a ship. I’m thinking of King Kong, E la nave va by Fellini, etc. As if this cinema ship was running aground onto the ultimate reef, namely total blackness.
It’s the end of the journey, the final full stop not only of the film but also of cinema itself. It’s what comes after cinema, what we might call, to reuse a term coined by Lyotard, “acinema”. Essentially, it is from this ultimate point, where there is no representation anymore, that cinema takes its meaning, since this is the only absolute anchor point of cinema: when there is nothing left to represent. So the representation of catastrophe, fundamentally, always pleases us. We might here go into the good old logic of catharsis, which we have haven’t stopped hearing about since Aristotle: we represent to ourselves the things that most terrify us in order to get rid of them. As logic, it’s not very… We’d be staying at the surface of the question of cinema. The real question of cinema is the catastrophe of representation, meaning what cinema is always tending towards, namely total blackness, the tearing of the gaze, what, ultimately, we all carry at the centre of our eyes, and which Hegel describes as this sort of cosmic chaos that is at the heart of the pupil: blackness.