After having established herself as a key figure in the fields of cinema studies, feminism, and philosophy, Domietta Torlasco chose to pursue these interests through the lens of creative filmmaking. This shift toward film as a creative medium is not a break in Torlasco’s work but, rather, a continuation of a constellation of ideas and images that she analyzed in her studies of the moving image from Italian Neorealism to contemporary performance and installation art. In both her critical academic studies and in her creative work, Torlasco returns to the relationship between space and the body. She does not see these as immaterial images or allegories, instead they have a compulsive materiality that exerts a power of her and over us. If we return to them it is not simply as an idée fixe, it is because we experience them as affective and physical experiences. This insistence on the film being something more than inspiration for thought and action has been at the core of Torlasco’s work over, at least, the last decade. Images are not simply reflections of the material world. They are memory; they are thought, they are space, they are labor; they are power.
The three video essays in her upcoming program This Is an Island: Video Essays by Domietta Torlasco, screening in the Walker’s Mediatheque this week, represent an extension of many of Torlasco’s critical interventions in the fields of cinema studies, psychoanalysis, and feminism. This is not, however, to say that they are essays as an academic reflection on what cinema is, what it has done, or what it could be. Instead they speak more, as Theodor W. Adorno said in “The Essay as Form,” to the essay’s desire “not to seek and filter the eternal out of the transitory; it wants, rather, to make the transitory eternal.” As video essays, they do not simply analyze or offer propositions, they serve as open attempts to investigate how cinema can elicit memory and how our memory is conditioned, if not composed, by cinema. This is not to suggest that cinema serves as a cultural mythos that binds us all together, speaking to larger narratives. For Torlasco cinema’s history is one that speaks more of repressed histories of those subjected to power, whose images are relegated to the background or effaced entirely. These repressed histories are ones expressed through the cinematic generation of space. In Torlasco’s work—both critical and creative—space is not a neutral plain in which action takes places, it is made of psychological and physical force, tied to memory, trauma and labor. Here, we could think of these video essays as being encounters with the effects of these forces, especially as made evident upon laboring and exhausted bodies. Labor is what gives meaning, but in Torlasco’s three video works it also points out what has been extracted from life and what has been left behind: bodies bereft of energy but which, in their exhaustion also point to a larger sense of hope and production beyond the frame.
In Philosophy in the Kitchen, Torlasco—along with Cesare Casarino—returns to the films of Italian Neorealism and traces an alternative history of European cinema in which we can think about the form of labor that is housework and how this generates and sustains life. Here, we are introduced to Torlasco’s split screen technique that she utilizes to juxtapose imagery and to break apart the cohesion of the cinematic plane. We are also introduced to the disruptive power of voice over in these video essays as we move from explication to poetic reflection, to a disembodied voice perhaps speaking more to our own locations and reactions.
In House Arrest, Torlasco examines the power of surveillance upon our everyday lives. Shot in the Stasi Museum, Torlasco’s film distances the viewer geographically and historically through its reference to the kitsch aesthetic of East Germany and its leisure room brand of brutalism. After almost thirty years, we feel removed and safe from this form of surveillance until we begin to realize that the geographical and historical distance from East Germany points directly to our own state of constant surveillance. The voices surrounding us speak of their internal thoughts and memories, all of which are now public records and open secrets thanks to the NSA’s global surveillance program.
Torlasco’s latest work, Sunken Gardens, focuses on the cruelly surreal lives of those living in the tourist hotels of Florida—veterans, social assistance recipients, people working multiple low-wage jobs, former drug addicts, and those displaced by the mortgage crisis. Surrounded by the decaying excess of 20th-century America’s tourist industry and its notion of leisure as the proper reward for work, the subjects of Torlasco’s film confront us with their stories and the physical evidence of their bodies worn by work, poverty, and depression. We might be led to think of these subjects as the objects of an exploitative gaze, but they are anything but that. They are, instead, the new citizens of an economy defined by “flexible” labor, debt, and dislocation who interact with Torlasco and become the voices that give voice to her own thoughts as a filmmaker trying to document this new American dream.
Together these three video essays offer us a way to think about cinema as the place where we encounter what reality hides from us, what we perhaps cannot accept. In Torlasco’s work we are forced to confront those blind spots of our own viewing habits and, in so doing, see another side of our world that is one of productive life and hope, as much as it is one of suffering and sorrow.