ABSTRACT

In Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Stanley Cavell says, the film camera, a “somatogram,” reads fits and fidgets as a post-Cartesian cogito of embodied thinking. Giorgio Agamben sees the cameras of motion studies at Salpêtrière in the 1880s as dehumanizing normalizers of gesture, but Georges Didi-Huberman claims that what they recorded as hysteria was solicited by them and sometimes refused. Which is it? Does the camera humanize, normalize, or solicit gesture? I consider the question with Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits (2015). Like Mr. Deeds, The Fits foregrounds non-sovereign body movements, but its protagonist, Toni, agonistically engages the camera’s gaze, extracting from it the respect she deserves. I argue that Toni may be seen as responding to Salpêtrière, and also to Thomas Eakins, in whose attic, in the 1880s, a young Black girl was photographed naked, on a couch. Is her stare a refusal of the white gaze or a coerced pose? Toni’s own stare suggests she avenges such historic wrongs in acts of cinematic agonism. In The Fits, the camera that might have been Toni’s reader/partner (Cavell), betrayer (Agamben), or groomer (Didi-Huberman) becomes a mystical mechanism of remediation and Toni, the ghost in its machine.

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