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Exodus. Gods and Kings

Trmasan Bruialesi, 06.04.2017

Dear Paul,


Shortly after your hasty departure from Warsaw I took a moment to look at the DVD you left behind—I assume on purpose. But why Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, from 2014? You will have had your reasons, and you’ll have to take responsibility for them. Because when the first plague broke out over Memphis in full digital force after a mainly indifferent first hour, there was a knock at the door. It was the young German photographer from the opening the day before—I had suppressed the encounter and forgotten the appointment—accompanied by his Polish girlfriend and his portfolio. He wore a béret and a beard and seemed ambitious in a self-satisfied sort of way. He was working, he said, on a big thing; it would be “wielki,” he added coyly in Polish. He wants to portray the most important Polish artists—musicians, painters, authors, photographers, and of course filmmakers—and then “immortalize” them, as he put it, in gum bichromate prints. Without boring you with technical details, you need to know that gum bichromate was the preferred method of the pictorialists at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, a process that contrary to the classical silver photograph is exceptionally stable, but also exceptionally pretentious. With the gum bichromate the photographer turns himself into the painter of eternity. My objection was that impermanence appertains to the genesis of photography, that the light that draws the image and makes it visible should sooner or later be permitted to erase it, indeed must. Although the quiet rotting of the photographic paper, of the plates and films in the archives, is only a gentle echo of the decaying of their Barthesian referents; and had he seen Nicéphore Nièpce’s Point de vue du Gras in the original? which (unlike the familiar reproduction authorized by Gernsheim) barely shows a trace of the light that fell on a tin plate covered with bitumen of Judea—a light-sensitive bitumen, by the way, that has been extracted from the Dead Sea from time immemorial. I asked him if he knew that the Persian word for bitumen was “mumia” and gave the name for what we understand as mummification in ancient Egypt: artificial or natural circumstances prevent the process of decay at the cost of permanent physical presence, which only manifests permanent mental absence. In short, I said, gum bichromate prints are the mummies of photography! In retrospect that was the point at which his Polish girlfriend started making moves to leave. When the two rather indignantly departed, without our having looked at or discussed a single picture, I felt tired, depleted, and surrendered once again to the plagues over Memphis. I slept through the flight of the Israelites, and was only woken by the frenzied deluge of the showdown—not much of a sublime awakening. Do you know what I really miss in this film? The scene that every Bible film has to have, because of its unbelievable mythological power: Exodus, chapter 2, verses 1–10, the one with baby Moses cast upon the Nile in a “reed casket,” as Luther has it, daubed by his mother “with bitumen [really!] and pitch” to make it waterproof—or even lightproof? Was the casket a camera? Was Moses a film? A false conclusion, to be sure, but a fine one!