Art Gallery of York University Thematic Writing Prize

Pierre Bismuth's Respect the Dead

"The person one films is growing older and will die. We film, therefore, a moment when death is working" – Jean-Luc Godard

Pierre Bismuth's Respect the Dead is composed of six monitors, each playing a DVD of between 2 and 7 minutes. Bismuth uses the fiction feature films Goodfellas, Dirty Harry, Vertigo, À Bout de Souffle, The Magnificent Seven and Dr. No as source material. Bismuth starts the film at the beginning, allowing the opening credits and the first scene or scenes to run. Once someone dies in these opening moments, Bismuth cuts to the closing credits and the end of the film. All the DVDs follow this basic outline, with only slight variations in how long after the death Bismuth waits before his cut.   

Death scenes are extremely prevalent in the cinema. Bismuth's simple gesture memorializes a selection of the many thousands of deaths that have occurred in film history. By showing each film on a different monitor, the pieces function as austere electronic monuments for these cinematic dead. Bismuth's title instructs viewers to think about the death scenes we see in his exhibit, and by extension the many cinematic death scenes we will see in our lives, in a new way. He is lending the represented deaths a moral weight that they did not necessarily have in the narratives. Instead of lending an aura of solemnity to the deaths by showing the characters' loved ones mourning, or by providing a back story and biographical information so that we can appreciate the gravity or at least the meaning of the character's loss (as the original filmmakers attempted), Bismuth refuses to provide any more narrative information then the isolated death scenes. His intervention subtracts rather than adds visual information. He suggests that death is so important that the film should stop in its tracks and end itself in tribute, as a way of paying its respects.    

The credit sequences provide counterpoint to the representations of death, and they also draw our attention to the fact that the film is a constructed, fictional world. The opening and closing credits and titles run the gamut from stylized to austere, lengthy to concise. I am thinking more specifically of the extremely stylized and lengthy credit sequences of Vertigo and Dr. No, obviously the product of much labour and thought by a designer, which is contrasted with the quick, seemingly thoughtless deaths that meet the policeman who falls off the roof and the businessman shot by the "three blind mice," respectively. The amount of time spent on visual experimentation and self-congratulation in the credit sequences is far longer than the amount of time devoted to the dispatching of the characters who will presumably set the wheels of the narrative in motion. Ironically, the characters who would die in the first few minutes of the film are probably not even in the credits we are forced to watch, it is only the people who have organized their destruction.          

By isolating death scenes, Bismuth is positioning death as the essence of narrative cinema. By taking the death scenes completely out of context Bismuth makes the original source films seem morbid and unfamiliar. He forces us to examine our own fascination with death, which can easily be established by looking at the prevalence of death in fiction films. We obviously want to watch death or it would not be provided to us by the cinema in such plentitude.   The cinema provides us with many more experiences of death than we could ever know first-hand in one lifetime. Yet we can only be exposed to a shadow of what death is like, for it is arguably impossible to communicate the intensity of the feeling of losing a loved one, let alone actually knowing what the experience of death is like first hand.       

Cinema, especially narrative cinema, allows us to work out our anxieties about life and death by providing a space where human drama is played out and usually resolved. Bismuth's installation, by forcing us to watch the same death scenes repeated over and over again, prevents us from experiencing the narrative closure that would usually resolve the death scene in the film. Perhaps the best example of this is his re-editing of The Magnificent Seven (the longest piece) where he uses a cross-dissolve to cut from the victim's wife throwing herself on his body to the iconic image of a cowboy riding off into the sunset at the end. It no longer matters whether justice is served, whether the victim's family will recover or whether new relationships are formed but simply that a death occurs, end of story (literally). Another example would be Goodfellas, where a wounded man locked in a trunk is brutally stabbed and shot by the protagonists. It comes off as the cruellest piece, with Bismuth allowing Ray Liotta's character to utter his whimsical line "as far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster" before cutting to the end credits, instead of cutting right after his death. Where as Scorsese's film gave us two hours in which to identify with his characters or at least understand their motivation, the first scene just leaves them us with the impression that they are pure sadists, potentially beyond empathy.

Bismuth is working with genre films: the western, gangster film, suspense film, new wave romance, spy film, and crime film are all represented here. The near mathematic nature of Bismuth's editing intervention is echoed by the formulaic quality of much genre cinema itself. Also, virtually all of the scenes (except for Vertigo) are of premeditated murders rather than accidental deaths.  In the world of fiction film, there is no room for randomness or chance, everything must be planned out whether structurally or on the level of content.  

All of the films presented, including Godard's new wave epic (Godard's dedication of the film to the "poverty row" American film studio Monogram is visible in Bismuth's remix) are intended foremost as entertainment, and have only been reconsidered as art films after the fact, if at all. Since feelings of abject fear and grief do not make good bedfellows with profitable filmic entertainment, commercial filmmakers have had to conceive of ways of representing death that are not too threatening or disturbing in their realism as to make the films unpalpable and thus unprofitable. Messy feelings such as mourning and grieving are usually ignored entirely by giving the death little weight within the narrative (Goodfellas , À bout de souffle) or by sublimating them into the search for justice and/or a romance (as the other films do). The myth of classical Hollywood is that love and truth conquer all and can adequately resolve the narrative. The film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has suggested that the huge number of revenge plots in American films have conditioned the minds of the nation into accepting revenge automatically as something natural and an ideal for restoring justice: someone has to pay, by any means necessary. Obviously the cinema has also played a huge part in propping up the idea of romantic love as the most important goal in emotional life and the one thing that can transcend the finality and loneliness of death: love is forever. Bismuth is effectively silencing these heady myths, and we are left in a void. Our feelings about the death are what the work interpellates, and Bismuth does not allow the narratives to offer us reconciliation so that we may continue on with our lives secure in our mastery of the world.   

Julie Taymor, director of the films Titus and Frida, is just one filmmaker who has tried to counteract the tendency in contemporary cinema, especially in action films, to minimize the impact of a death scene by not showing its emotional and physical consequences so that we can watch without moral conflict. Taymor's technique is to show deaths and mutilations in graphic, stylized detail in order to draw attention to the gravity of the physical and emotional pain of real death while also distancing the viewer and making them realize that they are just watching a film. Bismuth, working in a video art as opposed to feature film tradition, has a more reductive tactic; he doesn't alter the way that the death is represented but instead removes all context and further development. The narrative dies along with the (usually minor) character. He draws attention to our role as voyeur by making us watch a character forced by digital technology and the artist's hand to relive their death over and over again.

Bismuth's installation reflects on his use of digital technology. He could have easily made the works from re-edited motion picture reels or on videotape, but he chose to present the original films (all shot on film) on DVD. Bismuth's choice of media can be seen as a metaphor for the increasing mediation and corresponding banalization of trauma. I found it impossible to cotemplate Bismuth's endlessly repeating deaths without referencing the constant replaying of "live" digital video footage of major events such as the World Trade Center attacks or the war on terror in corporate news media spectacles. It has been suggested that this obsessive repetition of horrifying imagery has a numbing effect on audiences, rendering the images of real death (usually of anonymous soldiers and civilians) almost banal through over-exposure.

Bismuth is suggesting that the digital image's status as information, as opposed to the analog, more material film frame, problematizes the desire to memorialize and truly experience another's death by forming another level of mediation, and a further distanciation from direct experience. While it would be naive to assert that film was ever totally based in the real, it does indexically register events in a way that digital technology does not have to. The figures who are killed in the opening scenes of the films are performed by real human beings who will one day, or have already, died in real life. Films can be seen as both a premonition of the deaths that will one day take everybody, and a form of freezing people's representations in time for as long as the film image is legible.  

Bismuth would like to interfere with our ability to watch representations of death automatically, without consciously thinking about what it means to die. He wants to free us from being sutured into the narrative and accepting whatever information the director will provide us throughout to eventually come to a satisfying conclusion at the end. For Bismuth, the deaths in the films must remain unresolved. This is the only way of fully appreciating the gravity of the event, by trapping us in a self-enclosed DVD loop of endlessly repeating death.