Karen Beckman


On her book Crash: Cinema and the Politics of Speed and Stasis

Cover Interview of February 27, 2011

The wide angle

This book grew out of a number of different and at times very intense interactions, conversations and collaborative projects.  Sometimes the conversations were in person, and in other instances they involved repeated reviewings of films, as well as rereadings and rethinkings of theoretical texts and arguments.

Many years ago, I was fortunate enough to have the chance to teach a course on contemporary literature as an assistant to the poet and scholar Craig Dworkin, from whom I learned an incredible amount.  J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash was one of the assigned texts, and that’s really where I began thinking about car crashes specifically.  Through conversations with Craig, and through listening to his lectures, I began to think about how one moves between theoretical discourses like feminist and queer theory and formally experimental work that comes out of the avant-garde traditions, work that often takes women as sites rather than agents of experimentation.

I was also reading Susan Suleiman’s work at the time.  Both types of work appealed to me, but they often seemed incompatible, and this moment marked a type of “crash” or collision in my own intellectual formation.  It was an extremely generative time, and I’m very grateful to Craig for his generosity.

Around the same time, the art historian Branden W. Joseph was co-organizing a conference on Pop art, architecture and literature of the 1960s, and he invited me to present a paper on literary pop.  The book’s chapter on Ballard’s Crash grows out of that conference, and it was really because of that particular context that the whole project became one involving the issue of intermediality, and how experiences, experiments or concepts transform as they are translated from one medium into another.

This conference was also formative for the project because it included a screening of Andy Warhol’s film Since (1966), a reenactment of the Kennedy assassination shot in Warhol’s factory and using his couch as a stand in for Kennedy’s Lincoln convertible.  The film was introduced by the late Callie Angell, who, from that moment on, gave incredibly helpful advice and suggestions for the book—not just for the Warhol chapter, but also for the larger project of understanding how this trope has functioned in diverse ways throughout the history of film.

By this point, I was teaching at the University of Rochester, and my own methodological approach was developing in part through conversations with Douglas Crimp about queer theory on the one hand, and with Sharon Willis about feminist film theory on the other.  Once I moved to the University of Pennsylvania, the book continued to be shaped by my experience of teaching in both the Program of Cinema Studies and the History of Art department.  More than anything else I’ve written, this book strikes me as, among other things, a history of intellectual engagements and friendships, and I like that aspect of it.

I am coming to think that most of what I’ve written concerns interstitial spaces, whether between visibility and invisibility, life and death, cinema and photography, stasis and motion, feminist and queer theory, cinema studies and art history.  My current research explores the relationship between documentary and animation film, and so also fits this interest in a border space. At the same time, throughout my time working with the MIT journal Grey Room, my co-editors and I have tried to foreground work that demonstrates strong intra-disciplinarity, and I tend to like work that both recognizes and crosses boundaries.

There is an undercurrent in Crash, as there is in a book I co-edited with Jean Ma, Still Moving, that is interested in the institutional future of the study of moving images—where it will find a home, what it should involve, and how, in collaboration with our students, we can forge the best possible spaces for critically engaging cinema’s past, present and future.

Originally, in fact almost up to the point of publication, the book was called “Little Bastard”: Car Crashes, Cinema, and the Politics of Speed and Stasis.  With this title, which took its inspiration from the Porsche 550 Spyder in which James Dean died, I wanted to capture the essential and radical hybridity of both the medium of film and of Cinema Studies.  As Cinema Studies becomes more of a “discipline” in its own right, I think we have to be careful not to throw the bastard out with the bathwater.