Marginalia to ‘Dreaming of an Expedition’
In ‘Dreaming of an Expedition’, published in 1996, the then 52-year-old Dirk Lauwaert takes stock of his long personal relationship, and his relationship as a critic, with the medium of film.1 He describes his burgeoning passion for film and how it further shaped his life as a young man; he clarifies, briefly and powerfully, what is at stake for him in the film experience; then the argument tilts: the film lover feels cheated by the dominant visual culture of the mid-1990s: it separates watching from experiencing. This calls for a renewed struggle for the autonomy of the film experience. But isn’t that a losing battle?
‘Dreaming of an expedition’ is an ambivalent essay. Lauwaert portrays the genesis of his existential sounding approach to film and defends this passion with all corresponding zeal; at the same time, he concludes that his passionate words are losing solid ground. The two closing paragraphs vacillate between redemptive and commemorative criticism. The experience Lauwaert stands up for in the name of the past seems to be increasingly losing its object – the film – in the present. The text tellingly ends in the past tense: “Wasn’t life with film...”
The testamentary retrospective of an idiosyncratic cinephile, both highly subjective and explicitly critical and moralising: this characterisation fits ‘Dreaming of an Expedition’ like a glove (but aren’t most of Lauwaert’s texts private testimonies that aim to transcend themselves by making hefty moral statements?). This ambivalent self-reflection invites a double reading. Which biographical context, and other contexts, colour the text? And how does this essay perhaps still resonate with the current cultural context?
‘Dreaming of an Expedition’: it is a somewhat strange title, one that does not immediately suggest that film will be the topic. In any case, an expedition differs from a trip; the word rather evokes an adventurous voyage of discovery to exotic places. This is also how Lauwaert describes his earlier cinema visits in the opening paragraph: as an adventure. His sombre final remarks, however, suggest that the era of going to the movies as an expedition is over. You can only dream of it, longing for the time when film images illuminated hitherto unknown gestures, places, situations, affects...
There is something else at play in the title, too, as revealed when reading the text. Every film opens up a dream world, an imaginary universe populated by images in which one’s own self, personal sexuality and, more broadly, the relationship with the surrounding reality are transformed. Film alienates: that is its fundamental exoticism. The new visual culture that has become mainstream during the 1990s, however, confirms the identity of the spectator and the world. What is shown in cinemas is no longer exotic but affirmative, not alienating but mesmerising.
Lauwaert connects the film experience with the position of an orphaned boy. The link is partly autobiographical.2 After WWII Lauwaert’s father was sentenced to life imprisonment for collaborationism. In 1952 he was released on parole. And yet something more general is at stake too.
The male film lover is always a fatherless son, entangled in “Oedipal impasses”, writes Lauwaert. What are those impasses? Lauwaert does not answer the question directly; he confines himself – as he often does in his texts – to an open allusion, this time to the Oedipal triangle. The father possesses the desired woman (the mother) and forbids that the son love her, which makes the son identify with the father and his morality – with the symbolic order: the normal course of events, according to Freud. Thus, the “Oedipal impasse” is a lasting libidinal identification with the mother figure as much as a persistent disidentification with the father. Or both.
To what extent is Lauwaert’s intriguing characterisation of the male film lover not just an individual experience but also a generational issue? Lauwaert belonged to the generation that loudly protested the existing power relations during the 1960s. This protest generation – and this is still too little discussed – was mainly populated, and certainly led, by young men. Standing on the barricades, the young men fought a symbolic order dominated by older men. This casts a different light on the “Oedipal impasses” singled out by Lauwaert. Something like: young man “kills” older man, the son “murders” the father – but that does not at all mean that the patriarchal order has been eliminated.
Are young men today, in a society where authority takes on forms that differ considerably from direct coercion or symbolic violence, still caught up in “Oedipal impasses”? Perhaps – but they are in any case dealing with it in a very different media context. Troubled young people now spend less time in the cinema and watch series and, above all, post self-made images and scenes on YouTube, Instagram or TikTok.
Lauwaert’s characterisation has yet another stake, one that film theory placed at the centre of the film experience during the 1960s and 1970s and is based on the Freudo-Marxism (yet mainly Lacan’s work) of the time.3 The basic idea is that the film apparatus positions the spectator as an omnipotent subject at the price of a mostly unseen subjectivation, in the sense of submission: the spectator must primarily identify with the camera. The viewing position, however, is always also mediated by subject positions that are socially “brought along”, which can break the “watching along” with the camera gaze, as Lauwaert repeatedly emphasises. The film experience, so it is said at the end of ‘Dreaming of an Expedition’, is carried by “the social self”.
The spectator is male or female. In line with the dominant heteronormative regime, psychoanalysis at the time and the film theory grafted onto it do not recognise or even know the x position. From the symbolic position of a man or a woman, one maintains a libidinous relation to what Lauwaert in other essays calls “the image-body”: the filmed body that is imbued with consciousness because it knows that it is showing itself to a camera and, through this intermediary, to an anonymous public that enjoys what is shown.4 Heterosexual men usually fall in love with female image bodies, but sometimes also identify with a male actor. That too is cinematic alienation: your socio-sexual identity dissolves for a moment.
In short, Lauwaert characterises film as a queering medium. At least, that is what we would call it today; with this contemporary gaze we also see how much he was still thinking within the boundaries of the binary gender regime twenty-five years ago. Man or woman as the object of desire: changing places is only possible between these two positions. This assumption probably reflects the dual organisation of sexuality in twentieth-century visual culture, first and foremost classic Hollywood cinema, whose implosion Lauwaert witnesses in the nineties. Lauwaert reproduces this binary premise: his film criticism moves within the gender boundaries of the analysed film culture. This does not immediately render his work obsolete. Lauwaert's essays are both historically marked documents and topical invitations to review the discussed corpus, in the literal (seeing, experiencing) and figurative (valuing) sense.
Lauwaert’s intersectional gaze remains limited to gender and class: the whiteness of twentieth-century film culture is still a matter of course for him. While gender positions are explicitly thematised, class positions are rather discussed in passing. Along the way, Lauwaert calls himself a “bourgeois boy”, which he was. From the diaries he kept for a while from the age of seventeen, we know that Lauwaert grew up with the bourgeois canon.5 There was room for jazz music or chanson, too, but it was mainly film that allowed him to distance himself from what was then still called high culture.
The young Lauwaert cared little for the social rituals of the art world: he preferred the shared solitude of the anonymous film theatre. Above all, he did not agree with the modernist rejection of affect in all its forms, not least the openly sentimental register. It is one of the most beautiful sentences in ‘Dreaming of an Expedition’: “He chose (indifferent to the censorship of emotions) the shameless brothel of affects.” In a brothel you pay for sex; whoever buys a ticket for a commercial film pays for a sentimentality that particularly the melodrama impudently exhibits: thus proclaims the legitimate culture that the young Lauwaert self-consciously rejected.
Nevertheless, the distinction between art and kitsch continued to play a role in Lauwaert’s practice as a film critic. At the end of the 1960s and during the 1970s, he often wrote about “quality film”. It was the period in which, just like in jazz, part of the film production (Godard, Antonioni, Wenders...) was situated between illegitimate and legitimate, in the intermediate zone of legitimisable culture. During the 1980s, classic Hollywood cinema – the expression “classic” is telling – moved towards legitimate culture; at the same time, the difference between the wider commercial circuit and art-house cinema became definitively established. Lauwaert was always sceptical of this dichotomy: the decisive factor is whether or not a film offers a film experience. Judging by his film reviews, he found this experience mainly in “quality film” and classic Hollywood cinema.
Experience: it is a key word in Lauwaert’s texts.6 It captures the essence of a critical practice, which according to Lauwaert is essentially bourgeois. “As a bourgeois figure, the critic embodies the ambitions of Romanticism: to elevate one’s own experiences to the norm. He exalts his own findings, the autonomy of his taste and his emotions,” writes Lauwaert in the essay ‘The Shot in the Mirror’. Further into this barely concealed self-portrait, it is said: “The critical relationship is not one of insight but of consciously produced hallucination.”7
The word “experience” keeps cropping up in his texts, without ever acquiring any unambiguous meaning. The notion’s vagueness is in keeping with the cryptic character of its referent. Criticism encircles with words an experience that evades expressibility because it is of the order of affect and the sensual, the physical and the erotic.
Not that the film experience is purely subjective. It is dialogical, it takes shape in the relation between the viewing subject’s desiring body, which is marked by gender and class (and ethnicity, age...), on the one hand, and the viewed image-bodies and the stories within which the latter are given meaning, on the other hand. An image-body is potentially confusing: identification with it threatens to puncture self-identification. This possibility of a momentary loss of self is, in every way, constitutive of the film experience.
Any real experience is disruptive and ties a strange knot that the critic tries to disentangle. Film critics try to find themselves again in the echo of the undergone film experience. “To reason with my impressions: to talk reason into them, to be talked over by their reason”: inspired by the example of Roland Barthes, Lauwaert’s notion of experience implies criticism as a dialectical pendulating between experienced pleasure and “the pleasure of the text”.8
Unlike Barthes’s critical practice, however, Lauwaert’s is averse to theoretical references. Lauwaert’s erudition is beyond dispute but he never shows it off. It is precisely because of his proclaimed fidelity to experience that his film essays make do without concepts and insights linked to author’s names are lacking. Intellectualising experiences independently, not theorising them: this could be the motto of Lauwaert’s critical practice. Academicism was alien to him, even when it leaves room for subjectivity. For Lauwaert, criticism was a space in which the desiring and, say, dialogical subject was given free rein. It is a far cry from the practice that has permeated art and cultural criticism since the institutionalisation of film studies, cultural studies or gender studies.
When writing about experience, Lauwaert often speaks of distance, repeatedly even of “the right distance”.9 The image must be neither too distant nor too close. There must be enough space in the relationship with the viewed image, otherwise the experience will fail to occur. This necessary distance is precisely what the new visual culture shatters in the cinema. Images tumble about, for instance during kinetic chase scenes: film is no longer narrative but hysterical; images aim to grab hold of the body directly, even penetrate it. “Films today pierce into our eyes like needles. Their fundamental metaphor is the projectile,” Lauwaert notes in an essay with the telling title ‘Extreme, extremer, extremest’.10
Apart from distance, the film experience needs images that are credible. The image in itself does not suffice; it must be analogously anchored in reality: that is what co-produces the distance that is needed both for a real viewing experience and for critical judgement. This is especially true of image-bodies. When they lack reality value, desire cannot start to proliferate in the distance to the image-body. Digital film, however, can manipulate images so well that the viewer does not know whether they are referential. “That doubt is now effortlessly and harmlessly our new certainty,” Lauwaert concludes.11
So there is no film experience without distance, but because it is anchored in immediate reality, there is also closeness. In the film experience, the registered reality turns into a credible image that, from a right distance, brings reality closer (this quasi-automatically brings to mind Walter Benjamin’s notion of aura). According to Lauwaert, the film experience finds both its aesthetic and epistemological truth in this dialectic of distance and closeness. It founds the possibility of both criticism and ethics, of an evaluative judgement in which subjectivity and objectivity ignite one another.
Digital cinema and a culture saturated with numerical images shatter the conditions of possibility of the film experience: this verdict accompanies ‘Dreaming of an Expedition’ like a shadow that is alternately conservative and nostalgic. Is this more than “a consciously produced hallucination”, a provocative exaggeration of an older white heterosexual man? Hasn’t the new visual culture in the meantime also opened up a string of new critical possibilities, especially within cinematography? ‘Dreaming of an Expedition’ remains topical because of the questions Lauwaert posed at the beginning of an era we still live in. And also through his writing style, the unique voice with which Lauwaert wrote in a language that may no longer be ours but still appeals.
- 1For a selection of his film reviews and essays, see: Dirk Lauwaert, Dromen van een expeditie. Geschriften over film 1971-2001 (Vantilt: Nijmegen, 2006). The title essay can be found on pp. 111-116. It is also included in: Dirk Lauwaert, artikels (De Gelaarsde Kat: Brussels, 1996), pp. 197-206.
- 2Bart Meuleman, “Hoe eenvoudig zou alles niet zijn, mocht ik een taak hebben…,” in: De Witte Raaf, nr. 171, September–October 2014.
- 3In particular the theorists around the British magazine Screen: Colin MacCabe, Stephen Heath, Laura Mulvey... In France, Communications played an important role in the development of a strongly Lacanian film theory, with publications by Christian Metz and Jean-Louis Baudry, among others. For a useful reader, see: Philip Rosen (ed.), Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology. A Film Theory Reader (Columbia University Press: New York, 1986).
- 4See, for instance, ‘Het klassieke filmlichaam’, in: Lauwaert, Dromen van een expeditie, pp. 213-216.
- 5Meuleman, op. cit.
- 6Rudi Laermans, “Dirk Lauwaert als criticus. Fragmenten voor een intellectuele biografie,” in: De Witte Raaf, nr. 171, September–October 2014.
- 7Dirk Lauwaert, ‘Het schot in de spiegel’, in: Lauwaert, artikels, p. 191 en p. 192.
- 8Dirk Lauwaert, “Hedendaags sofisme en de arme ervaring,” in: Lauwaert, Dromen van een expeditie, p. 208. Lauwaert explicitly refers to Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse. Fragments and Camera Lucida.
- 9See, for instance, Dirk Lauwaert, Affect/Afstand: 47 foto’s gekozen en beschreven (Klapstuk: Leuven, 1987).
- 10Dirk Lauwaert, ‘Extreem, Extremer, Extreemst’, in: Lauwaert, Dromen van een expeditie, p. 118.
- 11‘Het klassieke filmlichaam’, p. 214.
Stills from Indiscreet (Stanley Donen, 1958)