I am very proud to be a new reader for Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading.
This was one of the first stories I read for them.
It’s also one of my new favorite stories! So good. Read on!
Vol. 8, No. 1
In the acknowledgments of “White Dialogues,” Bennett Sims writes that he “borrows liberally” from a few important thinkers, among them André Bazin. Before I ever read Bazin’s What is Cinema? (in college, where else), I was seduced by the audacity of this question. What do you mean, what is cinema? Cinema is motion pictures. Cinema is the movies. But then his first chapter opens with a bold idea: like a family photo album that preserves images of the dead, cinema preserves their vitalities, “mummifying change.”
Or, as Bennett Sims puts it, “Every movie is a pyramid, stuffed tight with mummies. Every movie is a mobile gallery of death masks.” You read that and, suddenly, cinema is not just the movies.
Bennett’s version of Bazin’s What is Cinema? is, What is story? What is this thing that has been, so many times, in front of your face? The answer, it would seem, is as far-reaching and complex as you’re willing to allow.
“White Dialogues,” a story that reads like film criticism or film criticism that reads like a story, is more than influenced by great ideas. It lives inside them—plays them out, gifts them the arc of discovery and application.
For its pedigree, for its language, for its length, “White Dialogues” will make people nervous. It makes me a little nervous. Because the minute you fall in love with this story, as I did, everything becomes fair game in fiction, available for the taking like it never was before. Take Hitchcock’s best film, put it in your story. Take Bazin’s best idea, put it in your story. Borrow from Roland Barthes, while you’re at it. There are no rules. This is fiction. This is story.
Co-Editor, Electric Literature
IS THIS WORTH POSTAGE?
Single Sentence Animation
by Bennett Sims
Recommended by Electric Literature
LISTEN TO HER, BEREYTER SAYS, as together we watch the mute woman mouthing something on the screen. Earlier this semester, the fall of what is to be my final year at the University, Bereyter accepted our cinema department’s prestigious postdoctoral fellowship, to continue his so-called groundbreaking work on white dialogues. Now, several months later, on a dismal morning in November, he is delivering a lecture on the progress of his research, addressing a scattered audience of roughly twenty people—humanities majors, graduate students, film colleagues—from a walnut lectern at the front of the darkened seminar room, down here in the basement of our historic Wolfsegg Hall. Bereyter, only in his late twenties, is a natty dresser, and for the occasion he is wearing a bone-white oxford button-down with a black cable-knit cardigan, a prep-school ensemble that—combined with the short trim of his hair, his boxy eyeglass frames, and his lean build—only serves to reinforce his precocity. That is the brazen boy-genius image he means to project: so young, and yet already he has (in his own terms) fashioned a brand-new technique of close reading, or else has (as my colleagues in the film department have put it) blown cinema scholarship wide open. I am sitting alone in the back row, in one of the room’s hideously uncomfortable desk chairs, with their stiff polyethylene seats and retractable writing surfaces. Of all the audience members, I am the only one with a lowered desktop. I have laid an opened notebook and two pens atop it, even though note-taking will be impossible. The single light source in the room is the overhead projector, a rectangular turret mounted directly above my head, where it is beaming its dazzling adit through the air: a passageway of light extends between the screen and the bulb, the movie and the room. Hundreds of dust motes can be seen fizzing around inside, sucked by some breeze toward the back row. As they approach the projector’s bulb they burn whiter, rising through the light like bubbles up a champagne neck: carbonated, candent. If I were sitting nearer to the screen, I think, I might be able to see better. That is no doubt why my colleagues have chosen the front row: there, Dzieza, Plunkett, and Guss are free to grovel at Bereyter’s feet, taking notes by the glow of the white pull-down canvas behind him. Whereas I, shrouded in secrecy and darkness at the back of the room (there are three rows separating me from the nearest person: Bereyter likely does not even realize that I am back here; Dzieza, Plunkett, and Guss likely have no idea that I am back here, listening to everything), cannot see my notebook page beneath me. Until he turns the lights back on, it will be impossible to jot down my observations, criticisms, or aporia, in preparation for the Q&A. I will have to hold them all in my head until the Q&A. That is the only reason I have come to Bereyter’s talk today: to destroy him, to disturb and destroy him, by posing unanswerable questions and merciless provocations throughout his Q&A. Earlier this morning, before he turned off the lights, I was able to copy down the few scant lecture notes that he had written on the whiteboard. The first item was a works-cited entry for Vertigo, the movie under discussion: Alfred Hitchcock, 1958, Paramount Pictures. The second was a quotation, attributed to (what I took to be) an early lip-reading manual, The Listening Eye, by Dorothy Clegg: When you are deaf, Clegg writes, Bereyter wrote (and I transcribed), you live inside a well-corked glass bottle. You see the entrancing outside world, but it does not reach you. After learning to lip read, you are still inside the bottle, but the cork has come out and the outside world slowly but surely comes in to you. The last was an aphorism of Michel Chion’s: The silent film may be called the deaf film, Chion writes, Bereyter wrote (and I transcribed), because these films gave the moviegoer a deaf person’s viewpoint on the action depicted. Listen to her, Bereyter repeats now from the lectern, his body half-turned to the white pull-down canvas behind him, one hand elegantly indicating the image onscreen. He is exhorting us to listen to the woman seated at the bar. The clip in question keeps repeating itself on a loop, the same four seconds over and over. We have now had the opportunity to witness this woman mouthing her line several dozen times. While James Stewart, seated in the foreground, peers hauntedly off-camera—hoping for a glimpse of Kim Novak—the barfly in the background mutters something to her companion, smiling demurely into her drink, teasing him (or herself?) with a coquettish roll of the eyes. She is a gray-haired woman in a dark blue suit and a matching navy beret. Whatever she is saying, her dialogue remains inaudible.