Displaced Identification

The following is an analysis of two panels that took place during the 2016 NYU Cinema Studies Graduate Conference. Pictures added for blog format.

The theme of displacement, whether it be through technology, media, diegesis, time, geography, or countless other methods, seamlessly weaves itself through much of cinematic history and historiography. Championed as the most recent focus of the NYU Cinema Studies Graduate Conference, these various iterations of displacement were thoroughly explored in the panels during the conference. However, two in particular, “Authorship & Diegetic Displacements” and “Visualizing Displacements,” dealt with the topic of displaced identity, through characters and narratives within film and individual artistic projects. In cinema, spectators are placed in a passive role to the visuals, forced to travel through disrupted and nonlinear narratives, mistaken memory, and unreliable narrators. Filmic images can occur in distant pasts, futures, or the present, or even some combination of all three. As kinesthetic subjects, can we ever actively interact with the images, or are we simply manipulated by the film’s characters and narrative(s)? Analyzing these two academic panels alongside the “Cinema as Brain – Mind and Body” chapter in Thomas Elsaesser and Malte Hagener’s “Film Theory: An Introduction Through the Senses,” I hope to further elaborate on cinema’s displacement of identity, to characters within films and the spectators as subjects to it.

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The first panel of the conference, “Authorship & Diegetic Displacements,” focused on three film directors: Alain Resnais, Lisandro Alonso, and Nicholas Roeg. Though originating from three disparate regions (France, Argentina, and England, respectively), their practice of using characters as subjects of displacement are interrelated. In Hannah Bonner’s presentation on Alain Resnais, she spoke about how Resnais’ particular form of displacement is explored through the thoughts and memories of his characters, specifically focusing on his first three feature-length films: Hiroshima mon amour (1959), Last Year at Marienbad (1961), and Muriel (1963). By incorporating discrepancies between what the characters say and the visual images accompanied by their dialogue, in so denying the audience synchronized sound and image, spectators must repeatedly situate themselves within these cinematic environments. With characters displacing past and present tense in their dialogue, and traumatic experiences and memories displaced within these same figures, viewers are left to themselves to piece together a cohesive narrative, if that is even possible. As Elsaesser and Hagener argue, “when these indices of identity fail, or are temporarily disabled, as in conditions of trauma, amnesia, or sensory overload, it challenges the idea of a unified, self-identical, and rationally motivated individual, assumed and presupposed by humanist philosophy.”[1] Instead, these films present us with characters uncertain of their own past, caused by trauma or simply incomplete or fabricated memories.

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Similarly, Melina Gills’ presentation on Lisandro Alonso’s use of displaced objects to trace lines of lost connections and Laura Hatry’s presentation on Nicholas Roeg’s use of displacement (displaced language and age in Walkabout; displaced humanity in The Man Who Fell to Earth) both point to the issue of displaced identity in cinema. As we experienced in class with Szabó’s Lovefilm, when a protagonist’s own identity and memory is unreliable and displaced, it is frustrating as spectators to emotionally invest in the narrative. When the role of spectators is made uncertain within a film, Elsaesser and Hagener question what we become – “Are we impartial witnesses, active participants, or manipulated pawns?”[2] Though this confusion may be the intended affect of the director, as viewers we are forced to contemplate what is real, unreal, and how this displacement affects our particular screening and interpretation of the film.

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Though still concentrating on the topic of displaced identity, the “Visualizing Displacements” panel explores the affect of displacement on personal life stories – how similar some people’s lives are to these similarly confusing cinematic narratives. Two artists, Ursula August and Alexandra Sage, presented inside looks on their developing projects, both about their own displaced lives on a racial and geographic scale. The first presenter, Ursula August, explored how imperialistic legions on the southern tip of Africa created a displacement of race, where people are unable to properly classify their own identities. This displacement of racial identity caused by forcing families into government classification systems created a major contemporary issue. Now that the imperialist government is no longer in power, how do these people identify their own race, never mind their ancestry? By depicting this struggle within her own family, using archival and contemporary documentary footage, Ursula is attempting to convey this sense of unease caused by displacement. While Ursula traces her family’s struggle, Alexandra’s quest is much more singular.

Alexandra Sage’s project revolves around her own geographical displacement, from Brooklyn, New York to Scotland at the ripe age of ten. Attempting to contextualize her memories in a scholarly framework, Alexandra is re-connecting her displaced memories into a tangible and cohesive timeline, re-categorizing these re-experienced moments from her childhood, whether through old photographs, diary entries, or dialogue from old neighbors and family members. As Alexandra’s own memories conflict with physical evidence, her own thoughts on her first years in Brooklyn began to shift and mold into a divergent mental image. Similar to Jancsi in Lovefilm, Alexandra has to cope with coming to the realization that perhaps her own memories do not equate with reality. Though still a mediated, subjective version of reality, certain details were misplaced or completely erroneous. No longer playing a ‘role’ as spectators to a cinematic experience[3], both Alexandra and Ursula are struggling with re-conceptualizing their own lives through displaced physical extracts.

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With the films of Resnais, Alonso, and Roeg, as well as Ursula and Alexandra’s personal projects, an experience of “different kinds of pasts, presents, and futures… simultaneously happening”[4] is occurring. Whether it is re-living traumatic memories that have been warped by the passing of time or attempting to ‘fix’ one’s own personal memories of a lived past that is inaccurate, both of these panels attempted to combine multiple timelines to create the most precise narrative. Though an honorable expedition, when this is depicted in cinema identification with the protagonist is problematic, as spectators are left in the fog about which flashbacks are real, which are memory, and which may not be flashbacks altogether. As we discussed in class about Lovefilm, reality may deviate wildly with memory, entire characters displaced within the narrative, resulting in a pastiche of recollections. In a cinematic storyline that is largely based within a past point of time, when viewers learn of these misrepresented memories, questions dwell over the rest of the film’s accuracy. Can we identify with a protagonist who can’t even identify with him/herself? This issue of displaced identity, not only of the filmic characters, but also the spectators, gives rise to an inherent disconnect between the audience and the visuals they are subject to. Perhaps transforming normally passive subjects into active theorists, displacement, in its many deviations, has an immeasurable effect on the cinematic medium.

[1] Elsaesser, Thomas and Malte Hagener. “Digital Cinema and Film Theory – The Body Digital.” Film Theory: An Introduction Through the Senses. Routledge: New York, 2015. 178-202.

[2] Ibid, p178.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, 184.


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