The Pleasure of That Obstinacy

One would be forgiven for thinking that the story behind this film was lifted from a Victorian novel. The story begins, that is, with an unexpected legacy. In 2004, a Flemish priest, Father Paul Druwé, contacted the University of Leuven because he wanted to leave his worldly belongings to a fund for the study and promotion of the works of Anthony Trollope. As the resident Victorianists, Ortwin de Graef and I were given the task to find ways in which we could fulfil Druwé’s wishes. One such opportunity was the organisation of a major academic conference in 2015, to celebrate the bicentenary of Trollope’s birth. We hit a snag, unfortunately, when the advancing years of our keynote speaker, the eminent literary critic J. Hillis Miller, made him stop travelling. Undaunted, we hatched the plan of recording an interview at his home instead. And so, in May 2015, I found myself travelling to Deer Isle, Maine, with a film crew and a director.

Over the summer, we turned our footage into an intellectual portrait, The Pleasure of That Obstinacy, in which J. Hillis Miller reflects about the place of Trollope in his thinking and writing, which leads him to consider the value of literature and the imagination in a world that is increasingly digitised and mediatised. If the film’s message seems transparent, so does its form: the film attempts to craft a visual language that performs the way in which Miller structures his own writing and thinking. The camera is positioned so that viewers are watching over the interviewer’s shoulder: viewers know that J. Hillis Miller is talking to someone, but not to whom. The absence of a voiceover, the length of the shots, and a serene colour scheme all further serve to create the illusion of transparency. The stillness and tranquillity of the images complement the threatening implications of his words.

Like the deconstructive readings for which Miller is celebrated, however, The Pleasure of That Obstinacy refuses to sustain its own illusion. As the film progresses, the viewer becomes aware that the chronology presented is not linear. The film’s different strands are interconnected, and, as in a Victorian multiplot novel, multiple narratives are made possible by their juxtaposition. The images that bridge and illustrate various moments, too, create room for interpretation, as they shift between prolepsis and retrospection. The frequency of these images increases towards the end; this creates the feeling of a crescendo, in which the viewer’s forgetfulness of the film’s own medium is eventually undone. Viewers, in short, have to adopt the posture of a critic if they are to unravel what is happening in front of their eyes.