Media @ McGill

Caroline Bem | The Cinematic Diptych: From Writing Tablets to System Reboots

Submitted by hive on


In the fall of 2011, I received a Graduate Research Fellowship for Continuing Doctoral Students from Media@McGill. I am pleased to report that I was able to complete three separate projects with the support of this award.

Firstly, it has allowed me to substantially revise the outline for my PhD thesis which now closely resembles a manuscript format. My thesis, which is divided into 6 chapters, is structured entirely around a single artifact, Quentin Tarantino’s 2007 film Death Proof, which it explores from a range of perspectives. Put succinctly, my thesis utilizes Tarantino’s film to explore the possibilities that arise from the unique (and singular) meeting between an object and a theoretical tool when neither is fixed, that is to say, when neither the object nor its context—methodological, historical—are stable. Insisting on the “low” status of my object of study, I emphasize how this object finds a direct correlate in the diptych form itself since, historically, the diptych has been regarded as a widespread but relatively “minor” form. Thus, my thesis is structured around three central chapters which theorize, in succession, the visual diptych, the narrative diptych and, in chapter 6, the cinematic diptych. The three remaining chapters explore crucial aspects of the film: the first offers a reflection on the film’s position within Tarantino’s understudied body of work, the second offers a reflection on the complex mechanisms of gender and power-structures at play in the film, and the third (chapter 5) offers a game-theoretical reading of the film which introduces yet another dimension of the cinematic diptych.

By establishing the outline of my thesis, I gained enough security to be able to envisage future avenues for my research, as well as a post-PhD timeline. Thus, I was able to dedicate a substantial part of my summer to researching and developing a postdoctoral topic. As a result, I am currently applying for a range of postdoctoral positions and aim to have completed my PhD thesis by the summer of 2013.  My proposed postdoctoral project, tentatively titled New Formalisms in the Study of Literature, Art and Film (1990-2015), aims to offer a book-length study which examines the progression of New Formalism from the literature and art history departments where it originated to other areas of the humanities and more specifically film studies. The term “new formalism,” which is not to be confused with the homonymous movement in recent American poetry, first appeared in the conclusion to Heather Dubrow’s A Happier Eden: The Politics of Marriage in the Stuart Epithalamium (1990). In a 2007 review, which offers the most exhaustive account of New Formalism to date, Marjorie Levinson likens it to a movement rather than a theory or method, since writings usually focus on an advocacy of formalist practices in general rather than on the spelling out of theoretical agendas. New Formalisms is a theoretical project that focuses on the history of disciplinary developments and methodological paradigm shifts. It traces an arc, beginning with an account of writings ostensibly invested in a new-formalist project and ending with an investigation of less overt, yet arguably more pervasive, approaches to a formalist renewal. Overall, my analysis is concerned with the ways in which a host of influences (methodological, ideological, disciplinary) have proved fundamental, firstly in deflecting widespread anti-formalist charges of ahistoricism and apoliticism and, secondly, in reshaping the formalist project. At a basic level, then, I will be preoccupied with the question of what constitutes the “newness” of New Formalism.

Finally, I was also able to make significant progress on my PhD thesis. Thus, I completed, submitted and received approval from my supervisor, Prof. Straw, on my second chapter, titled “The Revenge Contract.” In this chapter, which is the longest of my thesis, I argue that the implementation of a revenge contract is central to Death Proof, both from a formalist vantage point pertaining to the film’s narrative organization and, from a gender philosophical perspective, as the mechanism by which reversible ethical positions are made manifest. The term “gender philosophy” is introduced here on purpose to create a clear demarcation from those analyses which situate themselves within the discourses of gender and identity politics. Just as this chapter resists investigating the visual pleasure derived from Tarantino’s films by spectators of any gender, it also deliberately situates itself outside of the larger debates which have so far dominated discussions of the rape-revenge film. As I demonstrate, revenge becomes essential to the preservation of the film’s narrative coherence and unity: insisting on revenge as a transferable entity, in particular through an analysis of its mirroring and economical aspects, I show how a revenge contract is carried out or, indeed, carried across from one segment of Death Proof into the second. In so doing, I address both the temporal and gendered dimensions of revenge as they appear in three other Tarantino films: while both Kill Bill films (2003, 2004) and Inglourious Basterds (2009) focus primarily on the generational transmission of revenge, these films also rely on an archaic coding of revenge exemplified, in particular, by the figure of the avenging mother in Kill Bill. I argue that Death Proof perpetuates and radicalizes both these temporal and archaic dimensions of revenge, leading them to become inextricably connected in the process. Finally, by expanding on an analysis of rape-revenge first put forward by Peter Lehman, I also propose to view the two halves of Death Proof as the two segments of a masochistic contract similar to the ones described by Gilles Deleuze in his analysis of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novella Venus in Furs (1870).

I have also made significant advancement toward the completion of two other chapters from my thesis (Chapter 3 on the visual diptych and Chapter 4 on the narrative diptych), which draw heavily on material from my comprehensive examinations and my thesis proposal, as well as from an article, titled “The Cinematic Diptych: Death Proof, A Case Study,” which I am currently reworking for submission to Cinema Journal. Thus, I am keeping with the time-frame I had outlined in my application for the award and remain on track to finish my thesis over the winter and spring of 2013.