As If Their Light Could Define Us: Jean Louis Schefer’s "The Ordinary Man of Cinema"

A new (and the first full) translation of the French writer fills a major hole in English knowledge of film theory.
Benjamin Crais

Citizen Kane

For Anglophone readers, Jean Louis Schefer’s name will most likely only be familiar through the reverent, often enigmatic references made in translated works by some of the most eminent French film theorists and critics: Gilles Deleuze, (“Jean Louis Schefer, in a book in which the theory forms a kind of great poem…”), Nicole Brenez, (“In the beginning was Jean Louis Schefer…”), Serge Daney (“[a thinker] mysterious and more complicated than we were”), etc. Semiotext(e)’s recent translation(1) of Schefer’s The Ordinary Man of Cinema, published in France in 1980, rectifies what was previously a serious gap in our knowledge of French film theory and offers the chance—especially as “film-philosophy” is so in vogue in academia right now—to reappraise how we conceive the relationship between cinema and thought today.   

In the opening line of the book, Schefer introduces himself as “the ordinary man of cinema”—someone with no professional standing to speak about cinema “except insofar as [he spends] a lot of time going to the movies.”  Contra attempts throughout the 1970s to develop rigorous theories of cinema, Schefer, a self-professed amateur, endeavors to illuminate and enact—by means of a slippery and occasionally impenetrable style of writing—the phenomenological experience of inhabiting the “experimental night” of the movie theatre. As such, the book is less a series of propositions and arguments (Schefer: “This book was never intended to be a theoretical essay on the cinema”) than a performance and elaboration of the experiential and experimental—both contained in the French expérience, the translators tell us—relationship that forms between spectator and film.

 In a lecture(2) given in 2011, Nicole Brenez says that the “figural” begins with the question “Do we know of what the image is an image?” In other words, it begins when we no longer consider the image as a representation of a pro-filmic referent, but rather, in its difference or strangeness, as a manifestation. It is this distinction between cinema’s powers of representation and figuration that Schefer most consistently evokes throughout his text. For Schefer, the world we see on screen—although it crucially resembles our own—is one in which we do not exist and cannot inhabit. The images we encounter in the cinema are “without exterior repetition, without any copy in time” (165). When we go to see a black and white film, Schefer writes, we do not encounter bodies that mirror our own, but rather grey, gesticulating figures made of granite. Cinema gives us creatures whose bodies cannot be synthesized, who instead exist as disproportionate assemblages of gestures and amputated parts, all composed of that glowing dust glimpsed above in the light of the projector. Yet their resemblance to our bodies and our world persists: "that which is projected and animated is not ourselves, yet we recognize ourselves in it" (101). Schefer evokes the image of a child (one of many throughout the book) who attempts to imitate the heroes of the screen. Although he lacks the “the very milieu (the light world, the world defined by gray diagonals) in which [he] might enact [their] gestures,” he continues to try, 

"hallucinating from their repetition, their variation…continuing these undoable acts that cinema held close…[running] out of breath with those screams, those gestures which, since they did not reach the world, could still have reserved a small space for the child in that parenthesis of time through which Zorro, since physical causality had been suspended, could reach the roof of a house in one leap…" (165)

Cinema’s resemblance to our world stirs something deep within us, even as it continually shuts us out. Its shots are like distorted fragments of mirrors in which we are unable to catch a glimpse of ourselves. Cinematic images knock us down, Schefer writes, “because their resemblance to us occurs through another face and a wholly other composition of time on the body” (129).  We are both the reality of the cinema and impossibly far from its images: those bodies are too strange, their movements too abnormal, their duration too unfamiliar.  

This is a great source of guilt for Schefer. Life at the cinema is a criminal life: sitting in that darkened movie theatre we enact “the crime of an amputation on ourselves” (126), suppressing ourselves and our world for images in which we do not exist, images “to which the soot of our body does not adhere” (159). Schefer, born in 1938, often evokes his autobiography—growing up during the war and under Nazi occupation—intertwining his sense of powerlessness and guilt at having escaped the slaughter with the uneasiness generated by that “suspension of the world” enacted by cinema.  

However, Schefer also suggests that cinema teaches us something. He’s not concerned here with what individual films might express, but rather with the horizon of experience that opens for the habitual moviegoer. By going to the cinema, Schefer writes, we might learn something about time. Like Gilles Deleuze’s second volume on cinema, L’image temps (The Time-Image), Schefer suggests that film can bring us into direct contact with time, usually experienced as subordinate to movement. Because of the cinematic image’s strangeness, the “fits and jerks” through which it disrupts and links its disproportionate movements, Schefer’s ordinary viewer experiences an anteriority of time to any action on screen: 

"If we experience delays or slight anticipations of action here, it’s not the represented subject but the substance of time (invisible up that point) that becomes our knowledge, our pleasure, our entire experience." (199)

If cinema suspends our world, shamefully and criminally separating us from the fact that, outside, “the war does not stop” and “massive police forces” (211) do not cease to kill, it’s not to act as a dream-machine or opiate. Rather, in Schefer’s final pages, he suggests that cinema’s operations are intimately tied to the movement of thought. In making that substance of time—which exists anterior to “all that is solid in the world”—sensible and in the image’s disproportions and disorderings, cinema creates a trembling or disruption of our visible world. As thought “creates a new speech…and at the same time covers the entire world with a new silence” (209), so does cinema, suspending or disturbing our normal conditions of perception in the continual engendering of a new world before our eyes.

Semiotext(e)’s translation of The Ordinary Man of Cinema fills a major hole in English readers’ knowledge of film theory, allowing one to finally engage a thinker who has been of such importance to figures from Gilles Deleuze to Nicole Brenez. But, more than just being of historical interest, Schefer’s book retains a force all its own, sensuously tracing out the effects of that enigmatic and (for Schefer) disquieting relation that develops every time one enters that “experimental night” of the cinema.


1. Schefer’s book was previously translated in part by Paul Smith in The Enigmatic Body (1995), which collects excerpts and essays from throughout Schefer’s career.


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