Creator's Statement

By William Brown

Clem is an essay-film that is an exploration of the relationship between the filmmaker and their eponymous, now-dead cat. As such, the film is partially a self-portrait, while also being about the relationship between the filmmaker, cats and images, including paintings, sculpture and cinema.

While that relationship involves a problematic moment of ‘objectification,’ in which I confess to having masturbated over an image of Demi Moore taken by Annie Leibovitz in 1992, the moment is nonetheless one of complication. For, not only is there a ‘queer’ aspect to the objectification, in that Moore is dressed in a ‘suit’ that might in some senses be coded as ‘male,’ while also sporting a ‘boyish’ haircut, but the moment also involved a moment of unexpected intimate contact with the cat, Clem. At this moment, a strange link is/was created between images and desire, whereby images are not just drivers of desire, but are also capable themselves of ‘touching back.’

The relationship with images, then, is not a one-way relationship that involves objectification, but it is one in which the image ‘looks back.’ And yet, the history of patriarchy might be a history defined precisely by the objectification and the removal of subjectivity of various ‘others’ to its system, including women, the so-called subaltern/the postcolonial subject, animals, and technology – including image and sound technologies such as cinema.

And yet, as all of these otherwise excluded ‘others’ each in fact has the capacity to look back and thus to cease to be an object and instead to become a subject, so might we begin to recognise that each, including technology, thinks.

For patriarchy to concede thought to women, subalterns, animals and technology is for patriarchy to end, since its centrality is predicated upon the objectification and exploitation of those others. In some senses, it is for patriarchy to die.

And yet, the self-portrait is also a moment of othering the self, or of finding the other in the self. At what is supposed to be a masturbatory, objectifying moment of being-man, then, there is an intervention that queers that process, and perhaps leads not to a being, but to a becoming. By being a moment of becoming, it is a moment that involves a death (of the old) and the birth (of a new consciousness). It is, then, a moment of auto-critique. And so Clem tries to offer up an example of, and perhaps a working through, of that moment of auto-critique, via the self-portrait, which thus emerges as a ‘queer’ (failing and essayistic) art that involves the self looking back, and the realisation that the other in the self is capable of thought, of thinking differently. A moment of schizophrenia, then, that perhaps calls for schizoanalysis.

In this way, Clem attempts/essays to offer us an example, following many filmmakers but perhaps especially the late Agnès Varda, of cinema as self-portrait, cinema as thought, cinema as thinking, cinema not as the exposition of another theory, but cinema as a machine that generates a new type of theory, bringing death to an old world and leading to the birth of new realities.

Or, to put it differently, the aim of this film, as is implied by its connection to portraiture, is not to be a study of cats in cinema or of, say, Agnès Varda’s work, even as Varda clearly makes the connection between cats and technology by filming a cat on her computer at the start of Les glaneurs et la glaneuse/The Gleaners & I (France, 2000), and even as Varda also makes a connection between digital cameras and herself as she reaches repeatedly into the frame, suggesting a haptic as much as an optical cinema. Rather, the aim is to follow Varda’s example and to produce a work of art. This is not without academic relevance; perhaps it is only by becoming an artist (by becoming Varda?!) that one can truly understand art, to feel what art is rather than simply to observe it from a distance. Indeed, if to understand cinema is to understand that cinema looks back, then cinema is another ‘other’ that we must no longer objectify and study in a detached and ‘scientific’ manner, and cinema is thus something with which we must become conscientiously and ethically entangled. We must learn to allow cinema to help us to become other, to become wise about others, even if this leads to the dissolution (and thus in many respects the death) of our old selves and the old (white, western, patriarchal) world that those old selves created. In this sense, we do not just study art or cats or Varda, but we allow art, cats and Varda to help us to become. To become art. To become other-wise.

BIO: William Brown is an independent scholar. He is also an Honorary Fellow for the School of Arts and Humanities at the University of Roehampton, London, which benefits from his otherwise-unpaid research for the purposes of economic recompense in the UK's Research Excellence Framework. He is in solidarity with his former colleagues in the School of Arts and Humanities at the University of Roehampton, who at the time of the publication of Clem are facing announced staff cuts of £3.2 million to 'rebalance' university resources. Otherwise, William is, among other things, the author of The Squid Cinema from Hell: Kinoteuthis Infernalis and The Emergence of Chthulumedia (with David H Fleming, Edinburgh University Press, 2020), Non-Cinema: Global Digital Filmmaking and the Multitude (Bloomsbury, 2018) and Supercinema: Film-Philosophy for the Digital Age(Berghahn, 2013). He is also the maker of various films, including En Attendant Godard (2009), Selfie (2014), #randomaccessmemory (2017) and This is Cinema (2019).

There are three major elements in the film: the author, the cat Clem and cinema. There are also many films in the history of cinema that involve or focus on the relationships between human, cats, and cinema. Such as Maya Deren, Jonas Mekas, Chris Marker, Agnés Varda, Carolee Schneemann, Bill Morrison, Guli Silberstein. This is also what my colleague and I try to do for four years now – we curate a Cat Film Festival especially deals with the issue – human, cats and cinema. But I am digressing a little here.

The film Clem has touched different aspects of interesting issues. It has a very strong voice-over narration, which in my own opinion, is more impressive than images arrangements (including the use of found footage from other films). I understand the connections the author tries to make by using Lumière’s The Little Girl and Her Cat, Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, Agnés Varda’s The Gleaners and I, and so on, as of bridging cats and cinema (or cats in cinema). But sometimes they just don’t work (for example the scene from Varda’s The Gleaners and I, in which Varde’s left hand tries to frame a truck on the high way. What follows is the scene when author’s hand caressing a black and white cat. I don’t quite understand the reason of this arrangement).

Clem shows a particular and strong intimacy which is not usually seen in other cinema-cat essay films. I would say that this is because the relation with the cat was indeed part of author’s life experience. It is not just a philosophical idea or thought that the author ponders; it is also a life the author once lived.

Near the end of the film, cats and people are looking back at us from the other side of the screen. I think this is the main issue the author wants us to think over - through this film, do we know better about cats, the mysterious animals? Do they love us, or do they hate us? How do they see us? Moreover, do we gain more understanding about Cinema? Are we getting close? Do we know what Cinema is?

Have we learned how to love?

Clem, by William Brown, is a compilation video essay concerned with the pleasures and dangers of looking. Its aesthetic is marked by a confessional first person voice over which focuses on the author’s deceased pet cat Clem while overtly naming a potentially Freudian family romance as its desired subject. The narration is supported by a diverse array of feline visual culture references from film and video, sculpture, painting, and popular culture. They range from shots of Maneki-Neko figurines to a scene from Cat People; from Marey studies to footage of tourists atop a Botero cat in Medellin; from Riddles of the Sphinx to La Dolce Vita.

Although the author’s supporting statement offers a paean to Agnes Varda, whose work (especially The Gleaners and I)  is cited in the essay, Jacques Derrida remains the work’s progenitor, its Oedipal eminence gris. This fact is confirmed by the pairing of two moments, one involving the author and the other Derrida, in which a cat’s interaction with human male nakedness elicits species self-consciousness, a curiosity about the feline gaze, and a new understanding of objectification.  This twinning exercise is then marshalled to propose an equivalence among the patriarchal white male’s objectification of three entities that have the capacity to look back: the screen, the animal, and the “subaltern” (a figure that remains largely undefined and only mentioned in relation to the animal). In the supporting statement, Brown writes:

"if to understand cinema is to understand that cinema looks back, then cinema is another ‘other’ that we must no longer objectify and study in a detached and ‘scientific’ manner, then cinema is something with which we must become conscientiously and ethically entangled."

Objectification not only informs the author’s personal history with Clem (and Derrida’s with his cat) in the essay but also emerges from narration and images that evidence the much-theorized synchronicity between the cute cat video and digital media, referred to here as “the singularity.” Technology more than animality—or at the very least technology aligned with animality as Clem and a video camera arrive at about the same time in the author’s life—seems to prompt this meditation on faulty memory (the narration notes that past events are clear but their order is not) and on forms of unreciprocated love that operate in non-human and posthuman registers, that is, in relation to animals and screens. Brown believes Clem’s verbal responses to loving statements would have indicated his disgust.

“Cinema is something with which we must become conscientiously and ethically entangled,” Brown writes in the supporting statement. At first glance, this sounds like a well-intentioned, even somewhat innocuous proposition: who among us does not wish to be doing the right things for a greater good, politically and creatively? If we take this suggestion at face value, it might be understood as (somewhat self-servingly?) endorsing the marriage of theory+practice that marks recent developments in the profession, manifested in the rise of the audiovisual essay as research and in advertisements for academic posts demanding a mastery of video and audio production as well as film and media history and theory. In order to theorise cinema now, we must also make cinema.

Setting aside the assertion of categorial imperatives that seem to police our future relationship with cinema—we “must” be conscientious and ethical, and we “must no longer” use objectification and science—I want to look at the question of what a conscientious and ethical entanglement with cinema might mean and to ask whether these forms of engagement do not already exist.

Given this essay’s precise attunement to language and its visual and linguistic punning—the transformation of the beloved pet’s name Clem to clemency, for example, or the slide from Kirby Dick’s filmmaking to dick pics—it seems appropriate to probe the etymology of “conscientiousness” and “ethics” to get to the heart of the matter. “Conscientious” derives from the Latin conscire, "to be conscious" or "to be conscious of guilt"; the root scire, means "to know.” Moving to the other usual suspect within the great white Western tradition—the Greeks—we find “ethics” translates as “the science of morality.”  

This word game was helpful for grounding my response to the essay, which is undeniably vulnerable in relation to revelations regarding unrequited love—with Clem, with the screen, and potentially with other humans—and thoughtful about probing new possibilities for vision: the suggestion that tears can be lenses, for example, is poignant. Yet at the same time, the essay wrestles with a guilty conscience that, because it is explored only in relation to animality, drives a too-quick dismissal of “science” and “objectification” and forwards a somewhat anodyne call for new ways of engaging with and through cinema that, I would submit, are being thought and done already. One example of such interventions can be found in the queer autoethnographic work of Onyeka Igwe and JD Stokely.

The provocative questions that Clem raised for me relate first to the presumption that the cat’s look and the screen’s look can be understood as objectification, given that the consciousness through which these reflections are interpreted (and, indeed, the visual rendering of reflected gazes in the essay is often inventive and striking) remains male and white and Western. It could not be otherwise, because the animal and the screen cannot communicate in human language. A second related issue is that Fanon is referenced in the essay, but I was hard pressed to identify any examples of the objectification of the white male through the (perhaps tear-laden?) eyes of other humans/human others, “subalterns,” who possess the verbal and visual language to articulate their alternative vantage points.

The essay’s voiceover states that “the world of the white male is ending.” While I admit to my own fascination with contemplating the way animals, technology and posthuman intelligences think about the demise of white Western patriarchy, by investigating only the reversed and potentially hostile gazes of the cat and the screen—neither of which uses human language or logic—and eliding “the subaltern,” the essay has cheated itself out of critically important human interlocutors. The essay bravely asks, “what do we look like to the other that hates us?", but forecloses obvious avenues that would generate answers originating outside the white male consciousness. And, indeed, if the goal, as voiced by the narration, is “to want to still be a part of the world that replaces” white male patriarchy, then developing modes of engagement with human others, as well as that of the animal and the screen, seems to be urgently necessary.