Embrace the Serpent (2015)
A Book Review by Thomas Puhr.
Movement, both literal and figurative, is an inherent aspect of cinema: the actors, the camera, and even the filmstrip itself – speeding through a projector – are largely defined by their movements. Perhaps most emblematic of this fundamental quality is the so-called “journey film,” the subject of Journeys on Screen: Theory, Ethics, Aesthetics, a new anthology from Edinburgh University Press. In their introduction, editors Louis Bayman and Natália Pinazza announce an intercultural, polycentric approach that covers topics as diverse as “epochal changes in human behaviour, from urbanisation, migration and war to tourism and shopping” (6). The writers explore the many facets of this expansive notion of journeys, and the results are both surprising and illuminating.
Some entries take the more literal approach of equating journeys with modes of transportation, but their perspectives go well beyond the obvious. Lucy Mazdon’s “Brief Encounters: The Railway Station on Film” considers David Lean’s classic 1945 romance in terms of a railroad station’s paradoxical association with propulsive modernity and nostalgia (37), public and private space (45), and adventure and banality (46). Natália Pinazza’s “Colonialism in Latin American Road Movies” redefines what is largely thought of as an American genre (ala Easy Rider, 1969) by focusing on Latin American examples that tackle social problems (238), economic inequality (241), and environmentalism (242). This analysis culminates with the bold argument that Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent (2015) is a road movie; that is, one in which a river replaces a road: “The film uses the road movie’s metaphor of quest…to denounce the exploitation of the environment and indigenous people” (243).
Many entries conceptualize journeys in terms of cultural diaspora. Clelia Clini’s “Diasporic Dreams and Shattered Desires: Displacement, Identity and Tradition in Heaven on Earth” traces how the protagonist of Heaven on Earth (2008), an Indian woman who moves to Canada for an arranged marriage, grapples with domestic abuse and socio-economic marginalization (56, 61). Three chapters look at diasporic movements that result from war: Adam Ludford Freeman’s “Memories, Notebooks, Roads: The Essayistic Journey in Time and Space” looks at documentaries about people returning to countries (Lithuania, Vietnam) from which their families fled; Eva Näripea’s “Shadows of Unforgotten Ancestors: Representations of Estonian Mass Deportations of the 1940s in In the Crosswind and Body Memory” at experimental films about the Soviet-led deportation of Estonians; and Maurizio Cinquegrani’s “The Holocaust and the Cinematic Landscapes of Postmemory in Lithuania, Hungary and Ukraine” at documentaries about the role physical objects (houses, furniture, bullets) play in “the complex network of connections between personal and collective histories” (118).
The above examples speak to the collection’s multiculturalism; an entry on Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995), a fairly mainstream American indie, is the exception rather than the rule. And even this essay stands apart from the countless pieces discussing Linklater’s unofficial trilogy because of its emphasis on classical music’s role in Jesse and Céline’s inaugural journey. Most chapters shine a light on more obscure films, even the lesser-known ones within already lesser-known film schools. For instance, László Strausz’s “Hesitant Journeys: Fugitive and Migrant Narratives in the New Romanian Cinema” foregoes the movement’s internationally prominent entries (think 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, 2007) in favor of Cristi Puiu’s Aurora, George Bogdan Apetri’s Outbound, and Marian Crişan’s Morgen, all of which premiered in 2010 and explore “disoriented, hesitant attempts to map lived space in the transitional setting of post-socialist Eastern Europe” (144). Critical approaches are equally diverse, including Anna Cooper’s Queer Theory approach to marginalized female characters in Allison Anders’ Gas Food Lodging (1992) and Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (2008), or Michael Pigott’s Hauntological approach to José Luis Guerín’s experimental documentary Innisfree (1990).
A few thematic through lines lend the book some cohesion. At least four chapters concern time’s role in spatial journeys, applying philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin’s “chronotope,” which “fundamentally identifies a conjunction of time and space in the novel” (71), to film. As a result, Chris Fujiwara’s piece on Terence Fisher’s Hammer horror series and Hajnal Király’s feminist consideration of three New Romanian films aren’t as diametrically opposed (at least in terms of theory) as their surface differences suggest. Another recurring theme – the paradoxical coexistence of movement and entrapment – is most evident in diasporic narratives about marginalized characters whose physical movements fail to overcome socio-economic constraints, racism, sexism, or even their own faults. Louis Bayman perfectly summarizes this tension in the final essay, “Sic transit: The Serial Killer Road Movie.” His concluding observation that “We are – as spectators, as moderns, or as human beings – mobile, at the same time as we are trapped” could very well function as one of the entire text’s main claims, as it elucidates a “position common to us all” (288).
The diversity of the contributors themselves suggests that the editors have attempted to take this “universal” human condition to heart; pieces from authors of Hungarian, Estonian, Italian, Brazilian, Polish, and Japanese descent are included, among others, and nearly half of the featured writers are women. Across the board, these scholars’ entries are densely researched and pack a lot of critical thought into their compact lengths (most hover somewhere around ten pages). Although the contributions interrelate in a number of intriguing ways, as mentioned above, they could just as easily function as standalone pieces. While they often succumb to academic writing’s tedious structural requirements (say what you will say, say it, and then say what you just said) and prosaic word choices, these shortcomings have more to do with genre constraints than writing quality; with this inherent limitation in mind (I wouldn’t recommend the book to general readers), Journeys on Screen should make for a multifaceted, nuanced addition to many a film and cultural studies course.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.