Remembering Paul Willemen (1944-2012)


Paul Willemen is sometimes off-handedly regarded, by those who haven’t looked at his work terribly closely, as someone who was (and remained) part of a horde of ‘Screen theorists’ emerging in the 1970s, single-mindedly dedicated to enforcing the shotgun marriage of Lacan, Althusser, Barthes and Derrida within the then institutionally burgeoning field of cinema studies in the UK.


In fact, Paul always followed a very singular path, and he was fiercely critical of many of the developments and tendencies around him. His distinctive contribution begins, in my opinion, with the early meditation (published in 1974) on the concept on inner speech in cinema, via the theories of Boris Eikhenbaum. It was a concept he was to return to again and again, in key articles of 1981 (“Cinematic Discourse – The Problem of Inner Speech”) and 1995 (“Regimes of Subjectivity and Looking”).


What was inner speech all about? Fundamentally, a doubling: images arise (in the mind, and on screen) with words attached, encoded in their veritable DNA; no image exists in some pure realm of visual expressivity or imagination, but rather is always-already enmeshed in what Paul would refer to ‘webs of meaning’, threads of social discourse.


Beyond being a specific trope, I believe inner speech served as a sort of figure or metaphor for Paul, and for his way of thinking. Nothing (certainly no film text) was ever pristine for him, everything was produced in an intersection of forces, lines, influences and contexts; each person, each action, each object was the result of a ‘subject formation’ that needed to be grasped and explicated.


But, as determining as such a subject-grid could be, it also – as in the always unstable interplay of images and inner speech – provided a space for interference, short-circuiting, and thus for internal modulation and change.


Paul had little faith in the movement known as cultural studies as it emerged in the 1980s, and even less in its almost religious invocation of ‘popular resistance’; but he did believe in the hopeful force of desire (starting with the desire for cinema itself: cinephilia), and in its constant process of mobilisation – a mobilisation that had to occur not just in writing and teaching about film, but also in editing and publishing (his years at the helm of Framework, and with various BFI book and DVD projects), in the programming and presenting of work (the film culture of organisations and festivals), and in active, collaborative relations with real filmmakers (and Paul knew many, from Stephen Dwoskin to Amos Gitai).


Over the last 15 years of his life, Paul sketched out, in various places, an ambitious program for a ‘comparative film studies’ of world cinema; these pieces need to be collected in a book now, because they constitute a theory – and a critical-pedagogical practice – that we sorely need.


Paul was someone who (as the saying goes) didn’t suffer fools lightly, and he made a polemical show of denigrating most forms of sloppy, sentimental humanism. But his politics was of a truly passionate kind, and its core was summed up in the title of a film that he championed: So That You Can Live.


© Adrian Martin 19 May 2012

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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