Introduction: Materialising Absence

Absence (noun)
1 The state of being away from a place or person.
1.1 An occasion or period of being away from a place or person.
1.2 The non-existence or lack of.

If absence is a noun, who or what does it name in film and media studies? If absence designates who or what is lacking, what happens if we combine it with the activity of materialising?

This Dossier addresses absence as theme, form and experience. We start from the central premise that absence in screen media is not ‘nothing’ – that absence itself is always invested with material attributes. We ask: how is an aesthetics of absence foregrounded in film and media? Consider some of the following examples, all of which resonate with the selection of articles that we have assembled and the close interrelation between absence and presence.

Inspired by the historic Spiritualist movement and how its mediums worked with the media technologies of their day, Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016) sees its ‘ghosts’ communicating through smartphones, texting and the internet as well as cinema. Employed as a personal shopper in Paris, Maureen (Kristen Stewart) runs errands for her celebrity model boss while attempting to commune with the spirit of her departed twin brother. Laden with grief, Maureen covets, caresses and (eventually) dresses herself in the haute couture items that she buys for another, as if their different fabrics, shapes and textures (leather, silky, sequinned) provided her last material connection to any sense of presence in the world.

While some ghosts are fully visible, manifesting with full ectoplasmic force, spectrality belongs to the living as much as the dead in Assayas’ film. Just as Maureen herself appears to be on the verge of slipping away, so does Assayas imbue Personal Shopper with a sense of ghosting by distending time and space, keeping certain characters off-screen or just out of sight and rhythmically fading-in and out. All of this culminates in a compellingly eerie sequence that sees Maureen following her anonymous messenger to a designated hotel room. Just as Maureen looks towards the door, the image fades to black, absenting Maureen from the film for some time. [1] In the next shot, we are located outside of the hotel room. The camera snakes back through the hotel’s empty hallways, moving towards the elevator. The elevator doors open on cue even though the call button is visibly inactive. Downstairs, in the populated lobby, the camera traces a path of movement from the elevator through a set of automatic doors and out onto the boulevard outside. When Assayas cuts to an exterior view of the hotel in long shot, no one can be seen exiting the building. A sudden wind ripples through the scene, shaking the trees: something just happened. As with earlier examples such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1948), camera movement and the filming of seemingly vacant spaces and objects inscribe a spectral presence into the frame. But whereas Hitchcock had coupled these techniques with climactic revelations about his titular character, Assayas’ ghosting only furthers narrative and interpretative ambiguity. As a number of our contributors are concerned with the ontology of the ‘beyond’, with ghosts and ghosting, the dead and the supernatural, how a spectral sensuality manifests itself in film and media makes for a recurring concern.

“Every love story is a ghost story” intones the voice of the American avant-garde artist and musician, Laurie Anderson, quoting David Foster Wallace. This elegiac line is repeated throughout Anderson’s film, Heart of a Dog (2015). First commissioned as a ‘philosophy of life’ project by Arte TV, Anderson made Heart of a Dog following the death of her beloved rat terrier dog, Lolabelle. Working in an essayistic mode, Anderson intersperses live action and archival footage with her own music, voice over and animation, also including photographs, intertitles, philosophical quotations and staged re-enactments. As she recounts Lolabelle’s life and her death, she weaves in stories from her childhood, tales of a post-September 11 New York, sequences that are dedicated to the power of the imagination (Lolabelle seen in the Tibetan after-life) and the deaths of various friends and family members (including her mother). Many of the film’s human figures appear as hazy and spectral, luminously flickering across time. Although Anderson’s late husband, musician Lou Reed, is largely absent from the film he is in fact everywhere, as are all of Anderson’s loved ones/ghosts. “Every love story is a ghost story”.

Similarly concerned with mortality and mourning is Philip Hoffman’s What These Ashes Wanted (2001). In this three-part experimental film, Hoffman brings together images and sounds that have been collected from across the life-span of one relationship. Hoffman made the film following the death of his partner, writer Marian McMahon, in 1996 to “illuminate the conditions of her death … the mystery of her life and the reason why, at the instant of her passage, I felt peace with her leaving … a feeling I no longer hold”. [2] In his efforts to manifest memory, grief, love and its persistence on-screen, Hoffman favors non-linear, enigmatic and poetic uses of film form (“He always thought they would be together”). Home movie excerpts of the couple alternate with the images of ladybugs, swathes of sunflowers, footage of the places that the couple journeyed to together or apart and audio recordings of medical reports and hospital phone calls to Marian. Like Heart of a Dog, What These Ashes Wanted is a moving testament to the tangible presence of absence and how we carry the departed with us. What some films call ‘ghosts’, others figure as “a mixture of the departed and how they connect with our own inner world”. [3] They prompt us to question the lived duration and durability of absence. How does absence inflect multiple temporalities: the past, the present and the future? Those contributors writing on topics relating to personal and collective memory, belonging, death, affect and sensation explore similar questions.

Other authors are invested in imaginative absences. For instance, how often do we get to see a human heart beat? How many heart beats do we have? Pulse Room (Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, 2006) is an interactive light installation. Lozano-Hemmer, a Mexican-Canadian artist, was inspired to make the work after seeing Macario (Roberto Gavaldón, 1960). After the film’s starving protagonist, Macario (Ignacio López Tarso), enters Death’s mist-filled cavern, he sees all of humankind laid out as an infinite expanse of candles. [4] “You can see lives burning quietly”, Death (Enrique Lucero) tells him, “Sometimes the winds of war or of plague blow and lives extinguish”. In Lozano-Hemmer’s iteration, Death’s candles have been replaced by up to 300 incandescent light bulbs that are housed inside a dimmed, self-contained space. Inside Pulse Room, the room’s lights are switched on by the warmth of the human body and we, too, are granted access to an ‘impossible’ vision. After you grab hold of the room’s built-in interface, a computer triggers a single light bulb in front of you to flash in accordance with the rhythm of your heart. As Pulse Room suggests, invisibility is not equivalent to absence. This sentiment is echoed by many of our contributors. Just because you cannot see something (a heart beat, air, a supernatural entity, freedom) that does not mean that it is not present, is not forthcoming or that it is not possible to imagine. And yet, what is present to the body is already becoming past. The installation darkens and your new illuminated heartbeat is added to the mass that have already been collected. Every time that a new visitor’s heartbeat is added to Pulse Room, older light patterns are discarded. No individual pulses endure.

In On Body and Soul/Testrol és lélekrol (Ildikó Enyedi, 2017), Enyedi alternates between nature-based scenes that are set in a snowbound dreamscape and industrial scenes that are set in a Budapest abattoir. Within the frozen forest, two animals (a stag and a doe) forage for food. Inside the slaughterhouse, the general manager Endre, (Géza Morcsányi), is attracted to Maria (Alexandra Borbély), the new quality control inspector. Both characters are painfully aware of their bodies albeit in different ways. Endre possesses a crippled left arm that he attempts to keep out of sight. Maria has a pathological fear of being touched. All of her gestures and movements are very precisely controlled. After the two discover they have been meeting as deer in their dreams, an awkward romance begins. Through her evocative paralleling of human and animal life, Enyedi reverses what had been absent for much of the film: a mutual touch and the integration of body and ‘soul’.

As absence is relational, it often manifests through character interaction. Amelie Hastie captures this dynamic well in her discussion of the painful presence of an absence. Discussing a scene from Whale Rider (Niki Caro, 2002), Hastie describes how pain and absence commingle in the film’s young character of Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes), the twelve-year-old-girl who aspires to be the leader of her Maori tribe.

She does not exist as the thing that her grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene) wanted; she is a reminder of what is not there (a boy, a future male leader). This pain of absence is inscribed on her body before us: in her tears, for instance, as she asks her father, ‘Why doesn’t he want me?’; or as she recites a speech in honour or her grandfather who is, at that moment, absent from the space of the audience. [5]

Here, absence is made material through Paikea’s pained gestures, her speech, attitude and comportment, as well as by the gaps, emotional voids and empty spaces of the mise en scène. By making visible this kind of emptiness, cinema can elicit our compassion and “the hope of its being filled”, Hastie states.[6] Manifesting a painful absence in film and media, however, is not always bound up with hope. For some of our contributors, especially those who are exploring the affective politics of absence and its connections to the gendered and culturally situated body, this pain endures.

Bearing these diverse examples in mind, let us now outline the specifics of our call for papers. In contemporary film and media theory, topics relating to embodiment and sensation have been productively explored through ideas of proximity, mutuality, temporality, the phenomenological concept of the lived body, Deleuzian studies of affect, cognitivist accounts of the emotions, the haptic sense, the synaesthetic and so on. Nonetheless, the reign of presence and visibility continues. Film bodies (however defined) and the body of the viewer are often used as a vital testament to the animate and animating power of cinema. In developing this Dossier, we wanted to speak to the sensuality of what is not there, what might only be implied or suggested. We wanted to address the materiality of what exists beyond the frame or perhaps at the very limits of representation; the expressivity of landscape, environment and the non-human; and more elusive properties of film and media sensation such as mood, atmosphere and the imagination. We asked our authors to speak to the interrelationship between absence, embodiment and presence – and that they maintain a close focus on how the aesthetics of absence works in relation to specific screen media examples. While we encouraged scholars to submit film-philosophical approaches, we deliberately did not favour any one thinker or critical framework in our selection. Similarly, while we encourage our readers to trace recurring concerns across the Dossier, articles have been clustered according to a shared leitmotif or theme. Where appropriate, we have related the Classics and Reprints section of Screening the Past to particular pieces.

The first three articles all touch upon the horror of absence in some way. Anna Backman Rogers’ article, “Imaging Absence as Abjection: The Female Body in Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides”, opens the Dossier. Extending her previous work on Coppola in the context of American independent cinema, Rogers argues for Coppola’s film as transforming the story of the Lisbon sisters into a feminist hauntology. Employing Julia Kristeva’s notion of abjection, Gilles Deleuze, Kaja Silverman and others, she posits that The Virgin Suicides is a horror film that abjects and erases all visible signs of horror. Here, the reality of the female body is nowhere to be seen. It exists only as a cliché, a hollow archetype, a ghost, creating a structural absence that haunts and troubles. Nonetheless, for Rogers, the girls’ suicides can be read as a struggle against or a refusal to take up normative, patriarchal subjectivities.

In “Air, Atmosphere, Environment: Film Mood, Folk Horror and The VVitch”, Saige Walton argues that experiences of mood in the cinema can be connected to a making visible of the air. Bringing together the figure of the female witch with Gaston Bachelard’s philosophical work on the imagination, as well as other past and present accounts of mood, she suggests that air in the cinema involves more than respiration. Returning to early thinkers of film mood such as Jean Epstein and Béla Balázs, she maps out a recurring concern with the non-human sensuality of mood though her focus on landscape, environment and movements of air. Her analysis of The VVitch demonstrates how atmospheric, partially visible and aerial renderings of the supernatural are essential to folk horror. For Walton, mood and a film’s material imagining of horror open up new possibilities for an embodied film theory that need not depend upon a human body/subject.

In “Lens Sense: On Seeing a World as Sensed by a Camera”, Kjetil Rødje proposes that the omnipresence of the camera in contemporary life – cell phones, webcams and so on – has hastened the rise of a ‘camera-centric vision’ in cinema. Using select examples from found-footage horror and the films of American director Tony Scott, he examines films that foreground traces of ‘photographic’ production (lens flares, cracks and splatter) and films that gesture towards the presence of a camera. For Rødje, camera-centric vision materialises non-human, a-subjective ways of seeing and sensing the world. Drawing on the non-anthropocentric perspectives of thinkers such as Daniel Frampton, Deleuze, Steven Shaviro and others, he conceives of the camera in these films as visualising affective intensities and relations that lie outside of human subjectivity. He reads camera-centric vision as a testament to cinema itself as a medium of speculative thought.

The next two articles focus on female absences within the context of experimental film and moving-image art. Explicitly concerned with female embodiment, ghosts and spirits, they suggest that absence can manifest in painful, pleasurable and even revolutionary ways. In their “Pornography, Ectoplasm and the Secret Dancer”, Hilary Bergen and Sandra Huber argue for a kinetics of movement that lies ‘beyond’ the bounds of individual bodies. They offer a close examination of Naomi Uman’s Removed (1999) and its making. To create Removed, Uman re-worked a 1970s German soft-core porn film, employing bleach and nail polish remover to visually ‘remove’ the bodies of its women. For Bergen and Huber, the film’s ghostly and unstable shapes and forms disrupt mechanical ‘truths’ (be these pornographic and/or scientific). Whereas Bergen traces a connection between Uman’s film and the history of rotoscoping, Huber develops a media archaeological link with the ectoplasmic extrusions of Spiritualist mediums. As Bergen and Huber also take their inspiration from Jacques Lacan’s concept of the lamella, we have included a previously unpublished English translation of one of Jacques Lacan’s own film reviews in our Classics and Reprints section.[7]

In “‘My Flight is the Rebellion’: History, Ghosting and Represencing in Nalini Malani’s Video Installations”, Livia Monnet examines the oscillation between presence and absence in two video plays by the celebrated Indian artist. In Unity in Diversity (2003) and Mother India: Transactions in the Construction of Pain (2005), Malani diffracts her political engagements with the often painful experiences of women and other minorities in India, generating a radical allegorical aesthetic that Monnet terms represencing. Bringing the concepts of Deleuze, Deleuze and Félix Guattari and Walter Benjamin to bear on Malani’s practice, Monnet proposes two variants of the time-image: the allegorical-palimpsest-image and the schizo-image. Wandering female ghosts and a host of other allegorical figures haunt Malani’s video works, helping to materialise historical and virtual events, as well as a shared topology of pain.

The next three articles engage with the leitmotifs of time, ‘home’, place, and belonging, demonstrating how a past event, experience, grief or trauma (be it individual or collective) persists. In “Beyond the Archive: The Work of Remembrance in John Akomfrah’s The Nine Muses”, Malini Guha questions how filmic resurrections of the archive can assume the status of ‘remains’ (a socio-political and sensorial concept that she derives from Rey Chow). Engaging with Jacques Derrida’s ‘trace-structures’ and the essay film format, Guha argues that The Nine Muses (2010) brings past experiences of Black migration and settlement to Britain into a status of presence. Precisely because of his manipulation of the indexical status of the archive, she suggests that Akomfrah is better able to ‘write’ the affective and sensorial responses of migrant populations. Through his augmentation of the archive, his use of essayistic techniques, his hijacking of multiple media and his inclusion of abstract and/or mood-based imagery, Akomfrah realises an imaginative aesthetic project that is dedicated to history albeit without monuments or official modes of remembrance.

In “The Spectral Present”, Adam Ochonicky, our next contributor in this grouping, provides a detailed, parallel reading of the aesthetics of absence in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia/Bir Zamanlar Anadolu’da (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011) and Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman/La Mujer Sin Cabeza (2008). As he explains, both films are haunted by an incomplete erasure of the past, by the destabilisation of memory and by attempts to alter personal and public records. Addressing the crucial relationship between duration and absence in these films, he deploys not only theories of temporality developed by George Herbert Mead but Derrida’s writing on the spectrality of audiovisual recording technologies. Drawing a connection with Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, Ochonicky explores how Ceylan and Martel both spatialise absence through naturalistic settings that are permeated with the subjective (what he calls ‘landscapes of absence’), inventive uses of framing, mise en scène and focus. [8]

Nadine Boljkovac’s article, “In [No] Home Movie Style: Her Death and Rebirth”, closes the grouping. Drawing on the thought of Raymond Bellour and Deleuze, amongst others, she analyses how experiences of home, abandonment, illness and mourning are sensorially inscribed within Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie (2015), Michael Haneke’s Amour (2012) and Hoffman’s What These Ashes Wanted, previously discussed. Although these films are explicitly concerned with death, they contain transient flashes and images of enduring life and endless duration as effected via instances of filmic (self-)portraiture and (self-)perception. For Boljkovac, these films render visible ‘invisible’ strains and dimensions of pain, grief and loss. By embodying lingering portraits of both the deceased and the ‘living’ (the late filmmaker/motherless daughter, grieving partner, beleaguered widower), they also materialise, fragment and liberate already dead and endlessly dying women.

The last two articles return to the importance of the imagination in materialising absence, both implicitly and explicitly. In “An Architecture of Light and Air, A Rhythm of Stillness”, Davina Quinlivan continues her exploration of cinema’s evocations of the unseen. Through her sensuous analysis of the British filmmaker Joanna Hogg’s Exhibition (2013), she redresses the neglected discussion of gender and female subjectivity in Hogg’s work. She explores Hogg’s externalisation of the imagination in relation to her female protagonist, detailing its linkages with processes of creation, desire and spatiality. Coupling Luce Irigaray’s sexuate philosophy with Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, Quinlivan develops a compelling portrait of the female body/psyche inhabiting a particular site and space. Along the way, she examines how Hogg materialises inner psychic life through colour, sound, modernist architecture and the elements. Given Quinlivan’s focus on Hogg’s creative mapping of the house, we have included an essay by Adrian Martin in our Classics and Reprints section that also deals with the imaginative plotting of space, bodies and architecture: “Three Ways to Exit a Building: The Cohesive Style of Jacques Becker”.[9]

Julian Hanich concludes the Dossier with his article, “Omission, Suggestion, Completion: Film and the Imagination of the Spectator”. Drawing on thinkers from the fields of film-phenomenology, cognitivism, aesthetic theory and more, Hanich attends to the thematic, formal and experiential importance of what is left out by the cinema – or perhaps only visually or aurally suggested. For Hanich, what is absent in the cinema cannot be conceived purely as a lack, if only because the artistic act of ‘leaving things open’ calls the viewer’s sensual imagining into play. As he himself observes, film theory has not dealt with the aesthetic or embodied experience of that which is visually or aurally absent in a sustained fashion (not even film-phenomenological scholarship). Redressing that scholarly absence, he furnishes us with a comprehensive taxonomy of the many ways in which ‘omission, suggestion, completion’ operate in the cinema. Hanich foregrounds the viewer’s imagining as a necessary, and necessarily embodied, component of that aesthetic principle.

Before closing, we would like to personally thank all of our contributors for their wonderfully thoughtful and varied responses to this Dossier. Thanks also to our international team of peer reviewers whose considered feedback and expertise helped to enrich the collection. A special debt of thanks is owed to the following individuals: Hanjo Berressem, Lucio Crispino, Ian Hutchison and Anna Dzenis. Above all, our thanks must go to Adrian Martin for steering this Dossier through to publication and, like us, for being interested in the theme, form and experience of materialising absence in the first place.

[1] Similar disappearances occur in the cinema of David Lynch when his characters temporarily disappear from view or vanish altogether. In her analysis of Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001), Jennifer M. Barker reads these ‘out of sight’ moments as instances in which Lynch appeals to the viewer through senses other than vision. By contrast, Assayas’ recurrent use of the fade is suggestive of a ghosting that is already present within the space of the film. See Jennifer M. Barker, “Out of Sync, Out of Sight: Synaesthesia and Film Spectacle”, Paragraph, Vol. 31, No. 2 (2008): 236-251 and Michel Chion (trans. Robert Julian), David Lynch (London: BFI, 2006), p. 161.
[2] Hoffman quoted in “What These Ashes Wanted”, (last accessed: 1 February 2018).
[3] Oliver Assayas quoted in Hilary Weston, “Everyday Ghosts: Olivier Assayas on Personal Shopper”, March 14 2017, Criterion, (last accessed: 1 February 2018).
[4] The incredible chiaroscuro effects in this sequence are the result of the cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa, who was also responsible for shooting films such as The Exterminating Angel/El Ángel Exterminador (Luis Buñuel, 1962) and The Night of the Iguana (John Huston, 1964). For video footage of Pulse Room in action see Rafael Lozano-Hammer’s artist website, (last accessed: 1 February 2018).
[5] Amelie Hastie, “A Cinema of Compassion”, LOLA, Vol. 4 (2013), (last accessed: 1 February 2018).
[6] Ibid. As the phenomenologist Drew Leder reminds us, the lived body is intimately bound up to absence through its anonymous and recessive modes of functioning. See Drew Leder, The Absent Body (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990).
[7] Lacan penned his review of Benoît Jacquot’s first feature, The Musician Killer (1976), after the director married into the Lacan family. Our thanks to Adrian Martin and Girish Shambu for providing us with Lacan’s piece.
[8] The signature ‘pillow shots’ of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu also resonate with the linkages between cinematic space, duration and the materiality of absence.
[9] Thanks to Adrian Martin for furnishing us with this reprint.

About the Author

Saige Walton and Nadine Boljkovac

About the Authors

Saige Walton

Saige Walton is a Senior Lecturer in Screen Studies at the University of South Australia, Australia. She is the author of Cinema’s Baroque Flesh: Film, Phenomenology and the Art of Entanglement (Amsterdam University Press, 2016). Her articles on film-philosophy, film-phenomenology and the embodiment of film/media aesthetics appear in journals such as Culture, Theory and Critique, Cinéma & Cie, NECSUS: European Journal of Media Studies, Senses of Cinema, the New Review of Film and Television Studies and Screening the Past. Her current book deals with the embodiment and ethics of a contemporary cinema of poetry and is forthcoming from Wallflower/Columbia University Press.

Nadine Boljkovac

Nadine Boljkovac is Senior Lecturer in Film at Falmouth University. She is the recipient of a University of Cologne 2018-19 Fellowship (Morphomata International Center for Advanced Studies) and was a University of New South Wales 2015-17 Postdoctoral Fellow, the Brown University 2012-13 Carol G. Lederer Postdoctoral Fellow, a University of Edinburgh 2010 Postdoctoral Fellow and University of Aberdeen 2009-10 Film Teaching Fellow. Boljkovac’s monograph examining affect and ethics via Chris Marker and Alain Resnais, Untimely Affects: Gilles Deleuze and an Ethics of Cinema (EUP 2013), was reissued in paperback in 2015 and precedes a second in progress, Beyond Herself: Feminist (Auto-)Portraiture and the Moving Image. Peer-reviewed pieces appear in The Anthem Handbook of Screen Theory (eds Tom Conley and Hunter Vaughan, 2018); A Festschrift... (2018); Understanding Deleuze, Understanding Modernism; Deleuze Studies; Open Letter: A Canadian Journal of Writing and Theory (‘Remembering Barbara Godard’); Anamnesia: Private and Public Memory in Modern French Culture; Gilles Deleuze: Image and Text.View all posts by Saige Walton and Nadine Boljkovac →