James Leo Cahill, Cinema Studies Institute and Department of French, University of Toronto
In Jean Vigo’s 1930 address “Toward a Social Cinema,” he challenges engaged filmmakers to pursue subjects “that eat meat” [qui mange de la viande], in other words, film subject that bite into the flesh and inaugurate a carnivorous cinema. What to make of this strange project? What does it mean to premise an engaged cinema upon a violent imperative to devour flesh? What configurations of body, flesh, life, death, and social relations can such an orientation realize?
A belated response to Vigo’s challenge appears in a diptych of short films made in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War in France: Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon’s L’Assassins d’eau douce / Freshwater Assassins (1947), a documentary about the predatory behaviors of local freshwater insects set to a frenetic hot jazz soundtrack, and Georges Franju’s Le Sang des bêtes / Blood of the Beasts (1948), an unflinching view of Paris’ abattoirs featuring commentary by Painlevé. Read together, these films develop a cinematic reflection on the food chain, nutritive destruction, and carnivorous behaviors that vacillates between anthropocentric allegories of human culture and uncanny direct addresses that refuse to grant humans the comfort of a stable place outside of the food chain. Working with archival materials (correspondences, alternate scripts, technical notes), contemporaneous writings on carnivorous culture by Antonin Artaud and heterodox Surrealists associated with Documents, and recent work by Eric Santner and Anat Pick on Walter Benjamin’s notion of natural history, I draw out how these films develop ambivalent audiovisual discourses on modes of gustatory violence that co-implicate spectators in their reflections of precarity, vulnerability, and creatureliness of flesh.
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