Richard Burt Duly Noted or Off the Record?


LangesTod, or Notes From Beyond an Unreasonable Doubt



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LangesTod, or Notes From Beyond an Unreasonable Doubt

Much more powerfully than the postmodern conspiratorial films Jameson discusses, Lang’s allegorical films call into question the indivisibility of life, death, testimony, reason, justice, the archive, the sovereign, media, and testimony. By turning briefly to Lang’s productions notes on his last American film, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, we may understand how the history Lang’s films cannot be contained by biography and linear chronology, but further divide life and death. Gunning relates a fascinating anecdote about an intensely uncanny encounter he had with Lang “years after his death with words in [Lang’s] handwriting” (2000, 479) when Gunning was teaching a class on Lang. Gunning had prepared a slide of Lang’s “notes” (479) for Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, which Lang divided into two columns, one for what the film showed the audience, and one for what the film did not. Gunning writes:

My attention was drawn to an obscure line at the bottom of the right column, enlarged as I projected it on the screen for my class. The line is in Lang’s handwriting, but seems to have been partially erased, or whited out. Closer examination showed it read: “the dead never leave you.” (479)

As Gunning points out, the line does not fall into either column of notes and does not seem to refer to anything specific in the film. Is it possible, Gunning asks, that “this note is a personal note of Lang’s . . . ? And why . . . was it erased, particularly in the manner it was—obscured, but still readable?”

Gunning is no doubt right to refuse answers to these questions and to insist that the meaning of the note will always be a matter of speculation. I would suggest, however, that there is a recursive structure in Lang’s films from the notes in the film back to the notes for the film. The issue is not a single referent, a match between one film and another or others, but a pattern. This encryption / inscription of Lang’s note “the dead never leave you” does not lead us back to an original secret, which may be disclosed and decoded, but instead puts us in a loop from meaning to the catastrophic, explosive destruction of meaning to its uncannily doubled reconstitution as another meaning. The looped note is therefore not fully narratable: though it can be momentarily paused, its disclosure can never arrive at closure since the notes are always only partly legible. Lang’s encrypted, handwritten note has to be enlarged, blown up, if you will, and “projected” by another medium, like a slide, in order to be made (il)legible. In Gunning’s account, we move from Lang’s own notes, to their reproduction as a photograph in a reproduction in a book where they become only partly legible, to a slide of the photograph, projected on a screen in an academic lecture hall, then recognized as a note, decoded, retranscribed again into writing, that Gunning “anecdotalized” in print in his own book, missing the anec-note, become a “post-it-note,” in the anecdote.32 “LangesTod” encrypts and performs the way handwritten notes and cinematic inscription and projection live and die in the recursive delays and relays of the note as it is posted from one medium to another and—if I may be permitted a neologism with a triple pun--destin(t)erred.33 Lang’s encrypted note (to himself?) loses its indexicality through its reanimation or re-sui-citation in other media: it gets detached from the notes to Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, from other films by Lang, and even from Lang himself, as the note’s possible referents, even if they are the usual suspects, proliferate.34 The hand and hand writer are divided and doubled up, or, perhaps, doubled down. Putting a Langian perspective on the shared practices of note taking in legal trials, scientific research, and film production and narrative cinema, we might say that the criminal justice system, like science and film, always works in terms of a double-columned (in)visibility, inscribing a haunting kind of death-like absence or loss, in its workings that decides what may be noted (down) by the jury and the public and what may not.




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