Tag Archives: CMV

“Cc…: CCC,” part 13

Hi  all,

John, your invocation of Stuart Marshall’s effort to historicize the epidemic in his 1987 videotape brought to mind your own indelible contributions in this regard, notably Zero Patience, which dates from 1993.  As Paula Treichler writes of your film in How to Have Theory in an Epidemic, “Early in Greyson’s musical…the character of Sir Richard Burton performs an ode to empirical science:  ‘A culture of certainty,’ he sings, ‘will wipe out every doubt.’  But by the end of the film, virtually every apparent certainty has been called into question, including some of the most treasured certainties of AIDS treatment activism.  The character of George, losing his sight from CMV, is also losing patience with treatment orthodoxies, no matter whose they are.  But even as his poignant refrain asserts this condition of radical uncertainty – ‘I know I know I know I know that I don’t know’ – Greyson’s story of the stories of the epidemic never lets us forget what we do know:  That a narrative can be powerfully persuasive, that a democratic technoculture must find ways to acknowledge the power of competing narratives, and that, for all the power of narrative, this epidemic leaves hundreds of thousands of people dead.”  She goes on to remark that, as the film unfolds, the various codes and conventions that have characterized the historiography of the epidemic “are self-consciously framed, contrasted, and denaturalized:  repeatedly called ‘tales,’ ‘stories,’ and ‘histories,’ they are used and manipulated to furnish data for grant proposals, fed to the media, distorted by the media, juxtaposed to other stories, told differently by different people, espoused and repudiated, hammed up, camped up, acted out, politicized, ridiculed, idealized, and discredited.  In this sense, they represent competing regimes of credibility…placed in visible collision.”

In the aftermath of writing The Brevity of Life, this recalls for me the threat to historiography formulated by Walter Benjamin in his fifth thesis On the Concept of History:  “The true image of the past flits by.  The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again…. For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own threatens to disappear irretrievably.”  Like the dancing shadows John invoked in his last message to us, flitting around the hearth of the virus, whose company presumably includes a number of more and less helpful, useful, risky analogies.  As William Haver notes in his admirable essay “Interminable AIDS,” “The ghost is the figure of what we can never quite forget altogether, but also of that which memory can never satisfactorily recover:  the figure of the impossibility of forgetting what we have forgotten.  The ghost is the figure of what disrupts every attempt at historiographical pacification.”  Witness Zackie’s video phantom addressing the conference delegates and the world from the screens temporarily erected in Barcelona for the occasion.

And John’s question – “Do we learn from history, or do we do history a disservice by recasting its specificity into a generalized metaphor for today’s agendas, today’s needs?” – resonates with Gertrude Stein’s singular history lesson, the final line of her poem “If I told him”:  “Let me recite what history teaches.  History teaches.”  If, as Gregg contends (with Benjamin), “A radical break with history can only follow from a radical break with an understanding of history,” we urgently need to attend to what HIV/AIDS has to tell us, to teach us, about our understanding of history.  For example, as Gregg also points out, “When we are forced to contemplate the AIDS crisis in the U.S. [in 2002], all illusions of progress disintegrate.”  Hence our received understanding of what Benjamin calls “the historical progress of mankind” is radically undercut by the material events that constitute the history of the pandemic to date, and in particular is shown to rely on a notion of our progression through a homogeneous, empty time.

More later, I hope.


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Archive of Devastation (Derek Jarman’s ‘Blue,’ part 3)

A journal entry dated March 2, 1993 registers Jarman’s satisfaction on completing the film whose possibilities he had contemplated for years.

We sit in the Blue…. Intricate landscape of pain, all at sea, leaving one’s senses.  We finished Blue just before midnight…. I think the film is magnificent – it’s the first time I’ve been able to look one of my films in the eye.  Cinema catches up with the twentieth century, this is the first feature to embrace the intellectual imperative of abstraction, it’s moody, funny and distressing; … it takes film to the boundary of the known world, the River Oxus.  The film is dedicated to HB and all true lovers.  [Smiling in Slow Motion, 320]

For the reader of the journals written from 1991 to 1994 and published posthumously as Smiling in Slow Motion, there is no small irony in the figuration that has Jarman, for “the first time,” looking his last film “in the eye” (and that has cinema, in and through Blue, “catch[ing] up with the twentieth century,” as the virus whose appearance is dated from the 1980s catches up with its director).  For by this point, HIV has more than once cost him (among much else, certainly) his sight.  The journals of this period chronicle a series of opportunistic infections that deprive him of visual perception, as well as the treatments administered to ward off the encroaching blindness.  In August, 1992, in language that will resurface in Blue, Jarman notes:

Dr. Mark thought that he could detect lesions in the back of my retina, and put the stinging drops in….

Eyes again, a terrible blinding light.  I was put on a succession of machines.  “Look left, look up, look down, look right.”  The torch was blinding, but worse was to come, as CMV, now diagnosed, was photographed.  A blinding flash into the eye while you concentrated on a small flashing red and green light, a green moon after-image and then the world turned magenta.  The photos of my eyes looked like one of those colour photos of a distant planet.  “Like a pizza,” said the doctor.  “We often use culinary terms in the hospital”….

A young South African doctor came to inspect the damage.  I won’t get the vision back this time, though when the bleeding in the eye is stopped it might improve slightly.  Blindness is on the cards.  I’m relieved that I know what is happening, the worst is the uncertainty.  I think I have played this scenario back and forth nearly every day for the last six years.  [Smiling, 189]

Shortly thereafter, he resolves to play the hand he has been dealt, and to stay true to his vision even in the absence of his sight:  “I think I have to come to terms with my blind fate, there is so much to do, if Beethoven could write the ninth without hearing, I’m certain I could make a film without seeing…. I wonder how long it takes to learn Braille.”  [Smiling, 192]

It was a year later, in August 1993, that Jarman participated in an interview with John Cartwright of the British Arts Council, filmed in his art dealer’s studio against the backdrop of one of his last paintings and released under the title “There we are, John…”  [dir. Ken McMullen, British Arts Council, 1993]

In response to a question about his most recent feature, Jarman observes that “It is a film…. Technically speaking, it shouldn’t be.”  His spare formulation underscores the fact that Blue, with its “roots in painting” (it began as a film loop of a Klein monochrome in the collection of the Tate Gallery), has a singular status in the annals of cinema.  For not only is it a film without images, whose sole visual content is a blue colour field that approximates IKB.  It did not, moreover, ultimately result from any activity of filmmaking as conventionally conceived and practiced:  in the event, the film loop was set aside, and the colour produced in a lab.  Blue thus stands in stark contrast to the director’s earlier endeavors, notably The Last of England and The Garden, with their highly wrought image montages and internal references to the process of their own creation.

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