Cinema On the Run

Curator's Note

In recent years there has been a surge of interest in ultrarunning—defined, generically, as running or racing distances exceeding the standard 26.2 mile marathon. In turn, there has also been an increase in coverage of these events, no less so than with cinema. In thinking about the theme "virtual subjects" I can’t help but be drawn to this cinema and its attempt to image endurance as an embodied virtuality. Whether feature length, such as Running on the Sun (1999), Running the Sahara (2007), and Wandering Fever (forthcoming), or short, as embedded to your left documenting the 2011 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, these films actively engage a form, concept, and idea of virtuality in terms of an enduring body.

Periods of intense physical activity are always interesting for cinema because the images themselves tend to lead its viewers to question: What is endurance? The virtual offers an interesting point of direction for this question through its careful negotiation between the temporal coordinates of past, present, future, and the body. George Sheehan, the great philosopher of running, writes in Running and Being of traversing a series of particularly arduous hills: "Once past, the hills are still in my body. Because the past is always incorporated into your body. Each cell contains the past." For Sheehan, runners are virtual subjects to the extent that past acts—running as a means of becoming—do not pass, but instead live with and inform the present through their capacity to become actual. It seems fitting, then, to think of the virtual, a philosophy of movement, action, and change, with a cinema so carefully concerned with the transformative nature of the subject through the transformational action of running.

Ultimately, the images these films testify to think a mode of becoming Giorgio Agamben renders as an ethical pursuit, in The Coming Community, where "the being proper to humankind is being one’s own possibility or potentiality." Agamben’s argument authorizes an ethical stance, being proper, to a subject that is willing to be one’s own potential. In this sense, the cinema of endurance confronts viewers in a way that returns the affect and force of running to us in this form of thoughtfulness. In viewing the images of ultrarunning as a form of becoming one’s own potential we gain a greater insight into an idea of endurance harnessing the ethical power that the virtual exerts.


Forgive my naive question/comment below - But I found your post so Interesting, especially since I had no idea of this sub-culture of extreme running. George Sheehan’s clip in particular was fascinating to me. But since I’m not a runner, I don’t have the same orientation to the high of this activity. Sheehan took up running in his words after “reaching a middle-aged melancholia” he “went back to his body.” A pursuing of one’s own outer limits. In this he seemed to me to be connecting his material form to “saving one’s soul” as he says. Instead of Agamben, I thought immediately of Baudrillard and his commentary on America, especially Americans who run. In America he writes: “Nothing evokes the end of the world more than a man running straight ahead on a beach, swathed in the sounds of his walkman, cocooned in the solitary sacrifice of his energy, indifferent even to catastrophes since he expects destruction to come only as the fruit of his own efforts, from exhausting the energy of a body that has in his own eyes become useless.” While Baudrillard is talking about joggers and not long-distance runners, there seems to be something of an essential difference between the long-range running of Sheehan (which reminds me of Rumi’s followers who are spinners), and the activity of running in order to BE a certain body. In Sheehan's philosophy - you almost have to release your body into virtuality while in Baudrillard's depiction you must subscribe to a kind of cult of the body. Thank you for sharing this fascinating contribution. in film. (I realize I didn't even comment on your connection to Agamben, temporality and even the body's image in film here).

Thank you for your reply Sheila, I'm glad you were able to find the potential of theorizing endurance as fascinating as I do. I really appreciate your suggestion concerning Baudrillard here. I have read America but it has been so long ago I had completely forgotten this passage. I agree with your suggestion concerning the fundamental difference between Sheehan's premise of the body's potential for transformation, or even recreating the soul he feels he has lost to the hopeless stagnation of everyday white collar life--and Baudrillard's take on the construction of a form of body. This is a great point and one I will take moving forward in thinking further about this idea. What I find so interesting, more generally, about running and the cinema that attempts to capture it is the political efficacy that can be mined by thinking of endurance as an ethic of the virtual. Sheehan writes in another book, This Running Life, "All my potential [in running] becomes actual. I leave nothing behind, nothing in reserve. There is only now, the here and me in the unity of this effort." This passage, and the one I cite earlier in my post, opens a productive line of thinking how we might think these individual efforts of sport as something, in fact, social and communal in their politics. I'm glad you enjoyed taking a peak into this bizarre and inspiring subculture.

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