click to buy 'Toward Cinema and Its Double: Cross-Cultural Mimesis' at Amazon.com(Indiana University Press, 2001)

Cinema and Its Double: Cross-Cultural Mimesis announces itself from the outset as “a book of film criticism, nothing but film criticism”. (xi) At the recent book launch in Sydney, Meaghan Morris nominated this as one of the 10 best-ever opening lines for an academic book. A polemical gesture, it also sets the tone of critical playfulness that underscores this highly imaginative, sophisticated rethinking of the relationship between cinema and writing.

Cinema and Its Double is a substantial collection of Laleen Jayamanne’s writings on film from a period that spans some 20 years. It is divided into five sections, covering an impressive range of films and contemporary concerns. It begins with a section on Australian cinema (Night Cries: a rural tragedy [Tracey Moffatt, 1990], The Good Woman of Bangkok [Dennis O’Rourke, 1991], The Piano [Jane Campion, 1993]). This is followed by interviews and commentary on Jayamanne’s own films and videos (A Song of Ceylon [1985], Row Row Row Your Boat [1992]). The middle section highlights her in-depth study of Sri Lankan national cinema. The two remaining sections comprise much of her work on world cinema. Here she uses Gilles Deleuze’s writings on cinema along with other contemporary thinkers to explore cinema as “an art of movement and of duration”. (xiv) These latter sections include pieces on the films of European feminist director, Chantal Akerman, Raul Ruiz’s films and Charlie Chaplin’s slapstick comedies. She also writes on contemporary American cinema, including the thriller The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1990) and Spike Lee’s cult independent hit Do the Right Thing (1989). This arrangement of material works well. It avoids the predictability of chronological order and helps to develop the main tenants of Jayamanne’s project.

In the introduction, Jayamanne confesses that she believes in mimesis. (ix) Mimesis is, she writes, the “operative concept” or “guiding star” for the book. As she explains, she is not using this term in the Platonic sense of imitation. Rather, she borrows Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin’s related conceptions of mimesis as they are elaborated by Michael Taussig in his book Mimesis and Alterity. (1) This is a conception of mimesis that emphasises its transformative and revelatory power: the mimetic process transforms the original by creating a new version that reveals the truth or “inner logic” of the original. The originality of Cinema and Its Double lies in its brilliant demonstration of how the process of mimetic transformation operates within film and as a model of the process of encountering film.

In the first section, titled “’Two-Way Street’”, Jayamanne responds to various forms of cross-cultural exchange in a diverse group of Australian films. In her reading of The Piano, for example, she uses Taussig’s term “second contact” as a conceptual tool to take us beyond the usual analysis of the moment of “first contact” in the colonial encounter. Here, she turns her attention to the occasions when “the mythical one-way street of first contact gives way to the ‘two-way street’ of mutual othering via a performative mimesis”. (37) She argues that cross-cultural mimetic doubling in The Piano reveals the inner logic of colonialism as a “problem of difference (otherness) and not identity (sameness)”. (40) In doing so, she shows how cultural conflicts in The Piano are not simply “the background against which the main conflicts are dramatized”. (40) Rather, they are “absolutely integral to the negotiations of the main conflicts”. (40-41) As elsewhere in the book, this critical move is double-edged. It forces us to re-view the cultural significance of mimicry in this film. It also challenges our understanding of film genre through its demonstration of the way in which Campion’s film “is able to redefine the Gothic by widening its terms to include the ethnic other”. (41)

This first section also introduces the reader to Jayamanne’s use of mimetic transformation as a way of writing about film, or, as she says, “encountering” it. (xi) At the book launch, Morris reminded the audience of the stir created by Jayamanne’s cross-cultural “Sri Lankan” reading of Tracey Moffatt’s Night Cries when it was first presented at the Australian Cultural Studies Association conference at Murdoch University in 1991. I also remember Jayamanne’s unexpected response to Dennis O’Rourke’s controversial film The Good Woman of Bangkok on national radio. This response is reiterated in her piece “Reception, Genre and the Knowing Critic: Dennis O’Rourke’s The Good Woman of Bangkok”, included in this book. Jayamanne inverts the conventional reading of woman-of-colour-as-passive-victim that I’m sure many members of the Australian media expected to hear when they invited her as a female, Asian-Australian film critic to comment on O’Rourke’s depiction of his Thai prostitute lover, Aoi. Jayamanne’s close analysis of the film’s structure shows how Aoi repeatedly undermines the filmmaker’s controlling gaze. For example, she reveals that the close-up image of Aoi narrating her life story that constitutes nearly one third of the film is in fact a mirror image, that is, “an image of a man and a woman in conversation via the latter’s own virtual image”. (20) This analysis allows Jayamanne to make a convincing argument about the film as a presentation of a failed masculinity. Moreover, she argues that this rare image of an Australian male investing in sexual love transforms one of Australian cinema’s main myths of masculinity. Turning this film on its head, Jayamanne’s inventive response mimics Aoi’s mode of behaviour: Jayamanne describes Aoi as “an agile improvisor”, able to invent playful answers to O’Rourke’s predictable, “numbing” questions.

Jayamanne’s proven ability to take up various possible critical positions, indeed, to invent a range of fictional critical personae, is much more than a stylistic device. The reader quickly learns that the vivid array of critical figures in this book are a direct consequence of the rigorous methodological tool Jayamanne calls “correct description”:

In the film criticism that I have come to practice over some twenty years, correct description is as necessary as hitting all the right notes … One is to ride an impulsive move toward whatever draws one to something in the object – a colour, a gesture, a phrase, an edit point, a glance, a rhythm, a whatever. Enter the film through this and describe exactly what is heard and seen, and then begin to describe the film in any order in which it unravels itself. Soon one’s own description begins not only to mimic the object, as a preliminary move, but also to redraw the object. This is not a betrayal of the object through an enthroning of the subject’s narcissistic projection but rather the activation of an encounter, a means of entering the object, though not necessarily through the door marked ‘Enter’. An eccentric, impulsive, descriptive drive will cut the film up and link fragments differently from the way the film is itself organized. It is through this montage of description that a reading might emerge … (xi)

And Cinema and Its Double is a stunning collection of the readings that have emerged as a result of this “eccentric, impulsive, descriptive drive”. Some pieces hit their notes more perfectly than others. For example, I found some of the pieces in the fourth section – that originate from Jayamanne’s expressed compulsion to explore Deleuzian concepts – too rigid or too formal in an abstract way. On the other hand, I think the final piece, a reading of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, is an inspired use of a cluster of concepts relating to Deleuze’s writing on music. This piece challenges the dualisms found in many contemporary cross-cultural interpretative practices by providing a micro-close reading of differences in rhythm throughout this film.

I also enjoyed the section on Sri Lankan cinema. Here we find traces of Jayamanne’s critical methodology as she systematically views, catalogues and categorizes hundreds of films while, at the same time, responds in impulsive ways to certain images. She takes us beyond technical liabilities, such as bad lighting, to follow sparks of inspiration that more often than not lead to brilliant insights into gender relations in Sri Lankan cinema. This work marks the starting point for Jayamanne’s important contribution to the thinking of gender in cinema, including the cross-cultural, cross-cinematic experiences that inform her own filmmaking practice.

At the Sydney launch, Jayamanne graciously thanked her daughter for providing her with the gift of the image of “the little girl”. This figure pops up all over the place in this book, and is, as Jayamanne describes her, “an enabling figure”. (xiv) For Jayamanne, the little girl is an image of fleeting time, an image of cinema itself as a very particular temporal experience. And it is, I suggest, this figure that carries the significance of this book as a major contribution to the field. As with the little girl who believes in mimesis, who is agile and supple in her practice of mimetic transformation, this book crosses cultures, “cinematic and other”, opening up new possibilities for thinking about the world we live in. In doing so, the book mimics the temporality of cinema – it takes moments in cinema and extends them for the duration of a second viewing, allowing us to see differently, to see that the magic of cinema lies in its capacity to unsettle habitual ways of seeing.

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Endnotes

  1. Taussig, M., Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses, New York and London: Routledge, 1993

About The Author

Therese Davis lectures in Film and Cultural Studies at the University of Newcastle. She is the author of The Face on the Screen: Death, Recognition and Spectatorship (Intellect, 2004) and co-author with Felicity Collins of Australian Cinema After Mabo (CUP, 2004). She is currently working with Nancy Wright and Brooke Collins-Gearing on an ARC funded project on a cultural history of collaborations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous filmmakers and writers in Australia.