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Against Adaptation: World Cinema and the Politics of ‘Speaking to’, Or: Everything You Always Wanted to Know about G. C. Spivak But Were Afraid to Ask Walter Hill

“Is cinema a thinking of the Other?” This is a very important question, and I think that cinema is in fact a new thinking of the Other, a new way of making the Other exist.
(Badiou 221)

As sophisticated as they may be, discourses both on world cinema and on postcolonial theory rely heavily on an epistemological privileging of the West. Problematizing implicitly essentialist notions of ‘writing back’ and ‘listening to’, this essay argues for a radical deconstruction of any category of ‘original’ and ‘adaptation’, instead developing the idea of a ‘speaking to’ in world cinema that does not run into danger of assimilating the Other. Special emphasis will be placed on works by Walter Hill which singularly realize the very politics of ‘speaking to’ that theorists such as Roland Barthes and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak reflect on, albeit in the aesthetic realm. Consequently, Hill’s aesthetics, and its dialogues with filmmakers such as Akira Kurosawa, John Woo, and Jean-Pierre Melville, will not be analyzed as representation, but rather as a form of creation. To be precise, Hill creates thinking: keeping in mind Alain Badiou’s indispensable lesson that “cinema thinks with images” (Badiou 225). Cinema is produced by images, yet the image does not represent. Rather, it is itself the production of thought.

1. Authors and Subalterns

In a remarkable interview, Californian director-screenwriter-producer Walter Hill remembers his cinematic education during the 1960s. “Seeing so many of the […] Japanese films, I was part of this isolated community in east Hollywood”, he says. “Directors were already my heroes. Kurosawa […] One wanted a chance to tell stories in an open, loose, not constricted Hollywood kind of way. At the same time you wanted to work in Hollywood” (Hill in conversation with Markowitz). Walter Hill, himself a ‘director’s director’ and one of the most influential filmmakers in post-classical Hollywood since the 1970s (see Ritzer 2009), addresses several key aspects for any discussion of the concepts of ‘original’ and ‘adaptation’ in this short statement. On the one hand, he openly expresses his debt to intertextual influences, and therefore the impossibility of framing his work as a product of pure inspiration. Put differently, he acknowledges that the author does not write, but rather that she is written. Hence, origin and destination of classical hermeneutics are to be reversed, because an author’s subjectivity is to be understood as the effect of the text. And yet, of course, it makes sense to approach such highly idiosyncratic works as those of Walter Hill through an auteuristic perspective. Not only because, as Adrian Martin recently once more has demonstrated, that there can be no doubt “that the director, while rarely working or inventing alone, is nonetheless the central, organizing point of the creative process, the one who can implement a cohering, systematic vision” (Martin 17). It must be remembered that already Roland Barthes in his famous remarks on the “Death of the Author” by no means makes a case for a general vanishing of the author, his argument is rather about the end of a very specific historical conception of the author-subject: the concept of a romantic genius whose art supposedly draws ex nihilo and must therefore be explained biographically. Against the original genius, Barthes develops the notion of the modern scripteur which is unquestionably situated in the intertext of transindividual structures: she is

born simultaneously with his text; he is in no way supplied with a being which precedes or transcends his writing, he is in no way the subject of which his book is the predicate; there is no other time than that of the utterance, and every text is eternally written here and now (Barthes 1977, 145).

Barthes is interested in a concrete écriture that he regards as the inscription of a signature in the intertext of generic conventions. Beyond language and style, the synchronic and diachronic structure, this écriture emphasizes a performative quality. The scripteur is thus to be understood not as an origin of meaning but rather as an instance of negotiation which opens rather than finalizes its understanding. From this perspective, any aesthetic form is to be marked as an external part of the scripteur, hinting at a compromise between freedom and memory that enables a gesture of choice. To examine a work in its own special way of writing must therefore amount to dealing with the already generically implemented history of the medium, which is not a history of language (as a product of time), nor one of style (as empirical product), but rather as a history of signs: functions rather than objects. Semiotically speaking: The écriture forms a signifier, while its genre functions takes the role of the signified. In this way, the writing of écriture always emerges as a historical construct, for it signifies the relationship between a work and its context. Each scripteur is thus at the same time a product as well as a producer of the works surrounding him, both an effect and a presupposition of intertextual aesthetics.

On the other hand, Walter Hill’s emphasis on Japanese cinema and the works of Akira Kurosawa in particular adds another key dimension in reflecting intertextual relations. Certainly, no tradition in world cinema has left more distinct traces in Hill than Japanese films. Time and time again does his work go back there, and it would be tempting to dissect Hill’s complex reference structures encyclopedically in a cinéphile project: from the knife thrown into an opponent’s forearm in Yojimbo (1961) and The Warriors (1979), the service weapon lost to a gangster in Stray Dog (1949) and 48 Hrs. (1982) or the geysers of gore in Sanjuro (1962) and Southern Comfort (1981). However, in contrast, my concern in the following passages is rather a more theoretical work, as Hill himself states that he is indebted to the tradition of Hollywood, yet at the same time aims for difference. It is exactly the reference to Kurosawa that has to be understood as the decisive mark of difference here. This means that Hill is not concerned with an orientalist ‘cognition’ or ‘understanding’, a kind of aesthetics that somehow is to be essentialized as ‘Japanese’ in the works by Kurosawa. Rather, his negotiation of Kurosawian aesthetics may provide a solution to the most urgent problem haunting Adaptation Studies today, namely the notion that the West produces some form of ‘genuine’ material, while non-Western cultures, especially those from the Global South, just adapt and rework that material. Hence, I argue ‘against adaptation’ as long as the term bears such a colonial imprint, and maybe it does so by necessity. To redress this, the following remarks will explore a perspective that still keeps an inevitable Western perspective – how could it not, coming into existence by the reflection of a White European academic – but decenters the West, sees it in much more receiving terms, and tries to re-frame transcultural adaptation as a ‘speaking to’, i.e. a cultural technique that enables us to interrogate multiple and thwarted trajectories of dialogue across cultures. In doing so, reference must be made to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s classic essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1988), in which Spivak wholly rejects a complete dismissal of speaking for others. She explicitly criticizes the self-abnegating intellectual pose that ‘radical’ Western philosophers such as Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze adopt when they claim to reject speaking for the non-Western Other because their own position assumes that the subaltern masses might transparently represent their true interests. Following Spivak, such a self-abnegation only leads to a concealment of the actual authorizing power of the Western intellectuals who, even when they claim to retreat, work towards a consolidation of experience as transparent and self-identical in the process of their very retreat. Hence, a promotion of ‘listening to’ as opposed to ‘speaking for’ still essentializes the oppressed, now only in the form as supposedly non-discursively constructed subjects outside of ideology and interpellation. Finally, Spivak opts for a ‘speaking to’, in which the intellectual neither denies her discursive role nor presumes an authenticity of the oppressed, but still allows for the possibility that the subalterns will produce a ‘counter-sentence’ that might then suggest a new narrative. Altogether, Spivak’s differentiation between a ‘speaking to’ as opposed to a ‘listening to’ and ‘speaking for’ seems to be highly instructive for postcolonial Adaptation Studies, laying out a way to avoid the complicated positionality implicit in the relationship between West and non-West by allowing the latter to be the producer of ‘genuine’ material that is appropriated by the former.

Bringing together Spivak and Barthes, it is important to understand how, on the one hand, already the main concepts of Aristotelian philosophy were forged by Greek language, and how they signify an irreducible space of differences on the other hand, so that only a very distant language can give us, as Barthes says in Empire of Signs, his book on Japan, a “glimpse” (Barthes 1983, 48). In this sense, the challenge would be to trace such a Barthesian glimpse that manifests itself in the breakages and gaps of those cultural adaptations that a key Western director such as Walter Hill produces out of his ‘speaking to’ Kurosawa. As an example, I will refer to three films and three characters by Hill: the eponymous protagonist in The Driver (1978), the bodyguard in Last Man Standing (1996) and the killer in Bullet to the Head (2013). These protagonists not only resurrect the damaged heroes of Kurosawa but also create an echo space of negotiation which must be read as a breakdown of meaning itself:

to know a foreign (alien) language and yet not to understand it: to perceive the difference in it without that difference ever being recuperated by the superficial sociality of discourse, communication or vulgarity; to know, positively refracted in a new language, the impossibilities of our own; to learn the systematics of the inconceivable; to undo our own “reality” under the feet of other formulations, other syntaxes; to discover certain unsuspected positions of the subject in utterance, to displace the subject’s topology; in a word, to descend into the untranslatable, to experience its shock without ever muffling it, until everything Occidental in us totters. (Barthes 1983, 6)

The result of the encounter is a new cultural freedom, throwing into question not so much the Other and her unknown language as the West’s own superiority. We will see how remarkable works such as Hill’s Last Man Standing, Bullet to the Head, and The Driver produce aesthetic tension which shows resistance to ideologies of representation. They show signs of incommensurate difference and untranslatable estrangement that are based on a radical aesthetic politics of speaking to the Other.

2. The Bodyguard

Last Man Standing is an official remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Like Toshiro Mifune’s homeless swordsman Sanjuro – and, of course, Clint Eastwood’s Joe from Sergio Leone’s un-official remake Per un pugno di dollari (1964) as well – Bruce Willis’ “John Smith” arrives in a small town, here called Jericho, where two hostile gangs battle for supremacy, and each assign him as a bodyguard. The Whiskey bottle, initially shot in the desert sands as a fateful vote by Smith, is a direct quote from Yojimbo, where Sanjuro throws a branch at the beginning. The dead white horse on the street a few minutes later already acts as a harbinger of death, as does the dog with a human hand in its mouth in Kurosawa (and the horse with a corpse on its back in Leone). However, the city seems to have been architecturally built in the 1880s, while the design of the automobiles dates back to the late 1920s. In Jericho, the times co-exist eclectically side by side. Syntactic rules are destroyed and replaced by parataxis, defined by an order of hybrid organization. Last Man Standing works by the logic of the heterogeneous: Hill turns a sword-fighting film (Kurosawa) and a western (Leone) into a gangster movie. He transposes the events of post-feudal Japan and the Old West into the prohibition era. By doing so, Hill refers to the actual literary source of the material: Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled novel, Red Harvest (1929). The transcultural politics of “speaking to” thus leads from the USA to Japan, from Japan to Italy, and from Italy back to the USA; from a novel to cinematographic adaptation. It works intermedially as well as internationally.

Interestingly, Walter Hill himself explicitly distinguishes between ‘remakes’ and ‘adaptations’ and considers his film an adaptation: “There is nothing new in the cinema. [...] Had I done a literal remake, [...] I would have just wasted energy and money. But when you move a story to another place and another time [...] then another story comes out. Not a new, but a different one” (qtd. in Höbel and Hüetlin 260, my translation). Last Man Standing certainly is an example of a politics of ‘speaking to’ that places its reference material in a way that is heavily reminiscent of a kaleidoscope. Yojimbo, Per un pugno di dollari and Red Harvest are all synthesized, they mirror each other. The kaleidoscopic view ensures continually different configurations of the visible. The old works in the new, the other in the same; a game with variation and modification, with remembering expectation and expected memory, in a truly post-dialectic way, as all elements return, yet always on another turn of the spiral. In this sense, Hill is concerned with dislocations and displacements. He is interested in the variation of repetition. Formal and narrative as well as semiotic traits of Yojimbo and Per un pugno di dollari remain in Last Man Standing. Known elements of the diegesis constantly return, but only to be varied all the more. One could therefore call the relationship of the films cubist: Hill opens his subject into the polyphonic. Instead of repetition, we get a relocation where no meaning can be fixed in the movement between the films and the flow of signifiers which intensifies what emerges as a mental image beyond the visible.

Contrary to Yojimbo – and also Per un pugno di dollariLast Man Standing is a consistently self-referential pastiche. Smith takes advantage of the fundamental conflict of the American gangster film by playing the Irish off against the Italians, both immigrants of the first and second generation. “It was all right out of some dime novel”, is how Smith himself comments on the situation, and hence stresses the artificial nature of the fiction. On the one hand, this is directly related to the literary source, Hammett’s Red Harvest, of course; on the other hand, the artificial quality of the film is being highlighted. All characters oscillate around the boundary of near self-parody, they are generic stereotypes that act and show at the same time that their actions are media clichés. The Italian gangsters appear as deliberately glamorous as in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), the Irish act as psychopathically as in Budd Boetticher’s The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960). Both dream of the mythical mobsters in Chicago and try to stylize themselves into gangsters, just like their role models. Thus, on a meta-level Last Man Standing re-performs their performance. The film makes it clear that only second-rate theater is played in Jericho. A tragicomic dimension is added by Christopher Walken’s killer Hickey. “I don’t want to die in Texas … Chicago, maybe”, he hopes in vain. While Yojimbo finally deals with the early post-samurai era and Per un pugno di dollari reflects on the birth of capitalism, Hill’s focus is on generic forms. His film cannot seriously be read as a political allegory of the desolate status quo of an uprooted society at the beginning of the Great Depression.

Yet, the a-historicity of Last Man Standing is less affected by a nostalgic longing for a return to history, which seems so typical of late-modern artifacts. History is not replaced; it is already fused with stories. The pastiche world does not function as the death of the real, but rather as its aesthetic supplement. It intensifies the productive potential of physical phenomena. Thus, Hill gives everything that is visible the aura of an unreal real, a parallel and counter-world that only works according to the rules of pulp fiction. The synthetic quality is not being concealed, but rather strongly displayed. Every image is a citation, every narrative situation an ironic game, every sequence a conglomeration of generic myths. The remote scenery is modeled on the Western, the straightforward action borrowed from the gangster film, the dark tone as well as Smith’s voice-over correspond to film noir. Where Kurosawa wistfully staged a morbid twilight of feudal Japan, Hill relies on a floating of the signifier, to which everything becomes a game: even and in particular the bodies of the characters, tattered by projectiles in slow motion montages that formally date back to Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954).

However, in Hill, this intense material fetish of the flesh and the flashy (see Figures 1-2) is not a final gasp of melancholy as in Kurosawa, but rather leads beyond denotation and connotation, information and symbolism. It is not an accommodating emotion, but rather an intense affect that emanates from this materiality of the image-sound-assemblages and cannot be grasped in the narrative sense of the fiction. It causes the gaze to slide, and creates an excess of the visibility, which pervades and fills the image. This affect produces not sense, but sensuality, signifiers without a signified, something that is not easily grasped by the intellect. While Yojimbo, and even Per un pugno di dollari still emphasize an oncoming sense of drama, Last Man Standing is to be seen as an expression of an obtuse sense of aesthetic appearance. Kurosawa believes in the one last great narrative, the realization of reality through experience; Hill radically abandons the idea of a reality in favor of the game with ostentatious quotes. The significance lies in the sensual experience of the image-sound effects, the discursive is replaced by the performative. In the end, Hill’s bodyguard “John Smith” disappears back to where he first appeared. With a telephoto and long focal lens, Hill abstracts the vanishing as an oneiric phantasmagoria. In the dust of the desert, Smith seems to just dissolve. He cannot find his way back to the valley of legends, as Kurosawa’s Sanjuro still does. He returns directly to media history.

Against Adaptation: World Cinema and the Politics of ‘Speaking to’, Or: Everything You Always Wanted to Know about G. C. Spivak But Were Afraid to Ask Walter Hill
Ivo Ritzer (University of Bayreuth)
, Literature Film Quarterly Against Adaptation: World Cinema and the Politics of ‘Speaking to’, Or: Everything You Always Wanted to Know about G. C. Spivak But Were Afraid to Ask Walter Hill
Ivo Ritzer (University of Bayreuth)
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figures 1 & 2: The fetish of the flesh and of the flashy in Last Man Standing

3. The Killer

Where Last Man Standing ends with a voice-over by the protagonist, Hill’s late noir masterpiece Bullet to the Head (2013) opens with one, now spoken by Sylvester Stallone’s hired killer Jimmy Bobo: “The guy I just saved is a cop”, he says, having shot and killed another hitman in order to save police officer Kwon’s life: “That’s not the usual way I do things, but sometimes you gotta abandon your principles and do what’s right.” Like the swordsmen of Kurosawa, but also so many protagonists in Hill’s films, including Hard Times (1975), Streets of Fire (1984), Extreme Prejudice (1987), Red Heat (1988), Johnny Handsome (1990), or Undisputed (2002), this protagonist is another lonely man who seeks to assert himself in a despicable world by almost stoically defying it. Yet, Hill makes his protagonist nearly unlikable. In an inversion of the premise of Hill’s earlier buddy-movie classic 48 Hrs. (1982), in Bullet to the Head the killer Bobo is forced to collaborate with Korean-roots cop Kwon, and Bobo turns out to be a blind racist. Although he has Italian roots and is therefore marked as ‘non-white’ in the sense of WASP ideology, he never misses an opportunity to slur and attack the new partner. He calls him “Oddjob” or “Confucius”, speaks of a “samurai thing” or “white tiger juice”, and answers the question, “How am I supposed to trust you?”, with “Why don’t you read some fucking tea leaves?” Bobo’s orientalist racism is presented as an undifferentiated stereotyping of ‘Asian’ culture, which reduces Kwon to the allegedly ‘essential’ characteristics of the ‘Asian’. At the same time, these striking qualities not only appear to Bobo to be ‘nature’, to him ‘Korean’ is more or less synonymous with ‘Chinese’ and ‘Japanese’. In his discourse, the signifier of the ‘Asian’ functions as general alterity of the self, constructing the foreign ‘Asian’ as static, homogeneous, and inferior.

But Bobo’s attitude is by no means that of the film itself. In contrast to positively prejudiced productions such as the Rush Hour franchise (1998-2007), paradoxically inspired by Walter Hill’s very own anti-racist buddy film 48 Hrs., Bullet to the Head undermines all orientalising attributions and refuses any inscription of dominant discourses of power. Kwon does not practice kung-fu, he does not philosophize in the style of ‘Eastern wisdom’, he does not wear ‘traditional’ clothing. Rather, it is Kwon who in the film’s showdown evolves into a heroic subject position and saves Bobo’s life. It is Kwon who not only kills the villain but also gets the girl – Bobo’s daughter. Bullet to the Head thus denaturalises the stereotypical construction of Asian-American masculinity as ‘castrated’ in the hegemonic discourse. Bullet to the Head can thus be considered a thoroughly taboo-breaking text: “In Hollywood’s terms, Asian male sexuality does not exist at all, since major studios do not yet view Asian couples as commercially viable, and Western cultural taboos still delegitimize a white woman’s attraction to an Asian man.” (Gallagher 182) It must be remembered that the ‘ethnicization’ of characters is directly related to their ‘gender identification’. In other words, the ‘color’ of the body implies its gender. Dominant representations of ‘Asian’ masculinity in particular have clear tendencies. In the hegemonic discourse of the West, ‘Asian’ masculinity is demasculinized, repressed or demonized according to long traditions of racist representation. In particular, “feminization” is used as a strategic practice, so that ‘Asian’ masculinity is signified by deficiency. Whether effeminate dandies like Charlie Chan, homosexual villains like Fu Manchu or asexual clowns like Jackie Chan, the characters are always missing phallic attributes. In contrast, Hill’s Bullet to the Head mobilizes traditional signifiers of masculinity in a fluidity that makes them usable for subaltern forms of ethnic appropriation and thus has a decidedly anti-orientalist quality.

However, once more the truly progressive achievement of Bullet to the Head probably is not so much its politics of representation. Just as we have seen in Last Man Standing, Hill again aims for an aesthetics of affect that is produced by rigorous formal abstraction. Here, the showdown of the film is staged by Hill not as a shootout, nor as a sword fight, but rather as a fight with fire axes – preceded by Bobo’s diegetic commentary, “What are we, fucking Vikings?” Just like in Last Man Standing, this creates a self-reflexive discourse on the production of representation. In Alain Badiou’s terms, the axe fight could be characterized precisely as “a stylized inflation, a type of slowed calligraphy of general explosion” (Badiou 143). For Badiou, the most iconic representative of such a cinematic calligraphy is Chinese director John Woo: interestingly a scripteur whose écriture is heavily influenced by Walter Hill, and also Hill’s own favorites, i.e. Kurosawa and Melville (see McDonagh). Hill, on the other hand, was planning to adapt Woo’s The Killer (1989) as a Hollywood remake in the early 1990s, before directing Last Man Standing instead (ibid.). In contrast to Woo and Kurosawa, however, the calligraphy of Hill’s écriture appears less as an oneiric choreography in Bullet to the Head, but is much more focused on the physique of his lead actor. Hill’s mise-en-scène of Stallone challenges the aged hard-body, explicitly historicized by Hill through a series of stills from Stallone’s younger years at the film’s beginning. Although Stallone’s body is difficult to integrate into the world he lives in, Hill still focuses on performative acts for his marked yet still muscular body (see Figures 3-4). Clearly, Hill is concerned with the materiality of the physical in its present appearance, the body’s own logic, freed exactly at the moment where bodily excess breaks free from narrative interpretation in Bullet to the Head.

Against Adaptation: World Cinema and the Politics of ‘Speaking to’, Or: Everything You Always Wanted to Know about G. C. Spivak But Were Afraid to Ask Walter Hill
Ivo Ritzer (University of Bayreuth)
, Literature Film Quarterly Against Adaptation: World Cinema and the Politics of ‘Speaking to’, Or: Everything You Always Wanted to Know about G. C. Spivak But Were Afraid to Ask Walter Hill
Ivo Ritzer (University of Bayreuth)
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figures 3 & 4: Highlighting the muscular body in Bullet to the Head.

Figures 3 & 4: Highlighting the muscular body in Bullet to the Head.

In cinéphile discourse as opposed to mainstream criticism, this mise-en-scène of what Tom Benton rightly praised as the “best American movie in years” has been much appreciated:

Walter Hill, the director, hadn’t made a movie in 10 years prior to Bullet to the Head. But he made Bullet to the Head like no one’s made a movie since 1943, like film was still young and undefined – and during Bullet to the Head, man, it seems like it. Hill shot the kind of scenes we’ve seen a million times in a million films like he was discovering them for the first time: snap zooms and tilts where you’d expect a stationary low-angle, stuff like that. Only it’s in the editing, too, which is so alive it seems polyrhythmic, like your body’s systems running together. Some of the shots literally burn into the others. The whole movie’s pulsing and alive and on fire. (Benton)

With Bullet to the Head, Hill is indeed producing a novel synthesis of classical style and modern abstraction: On the one hand, establishing shots and reaction shots provide a permanent orientation in the diegetic space through the principle of shot and counter-shot; on the other hand, Hill uses zoom effects, a handheld camera as well as rapid editing, all of which give the action a synthetic quality. The mise-en-scène, however, does not result in the signification of a rush, but rather the camera, editing and, last but not least, the bass-heavy sound design epitomize the destructive consequences of bodily performances. In this way, Hill gives an impression of how cinema can be an art of a “pure mise-en-scène” (see Ritzer 2017). He creates an aesthetics of affects where shapes and colors blend into each other, obscure and eventually clear the gaze, again and again. Hence, Hill’s project is exactly the one that G.C. Spivak has shown to be of such importance in Jacques Derrida: a project which is “obliged to develop within the discourse of presence. It is not just a critique of presence but an awareness of the itinerary of the discourse of presence in one’s own critique, a vigilance precisely against too great a claim for transparency.” (Spivak 293) Hill’s approach is precisely not an hermeneutical project of interpreting the Other; rather, on the contrary, it is concerned with the materiality of the objects and the power of their appearances. This is exactly where the performance of the cinematic emanates in Hill, based on signifiers that show and always refer primarily to the act of showing, thus always transgressing the semiotic level of action into formal abstraction.

4. The Driver

The Driver is Walter Hill’s unofficial ‘adaptation’ of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967). And, indeed, it can certainly be called “the most abstract movie ever made in Hollywood” (Sragow 195). Yet, unlike Melville’s deeply orientalist discourse – which includes the titular moniker for the anti-hero as well as freely invented ‘Japanese’ quotes from the Bushido, i.e. the mythical code of honor dictating the ancient samurai way of life – Hill takes a decidedly non-orientalist approach. Melville for his part already refers to Kurosawa’s sword-fighting films by the choice of the film’s title. Then, in the paratext of the opening he claims to quote from the Bushido: “There is no greater solitude than that of a samurai, except perhaps that of a jungle tiger.” However, Melville merely simulates a reference, because such a quote or a similar one is not to be found in the Bushido at all. The title and motto of his film are a simulacrum of an idea of ‘Japan’ that imagines the ‘Orient’ as the place of an ascetic Other. Hill, by contrast, makes this simulation a consistent program of The Driver: the entire film appears as the radical abstraction of a “shock of meaning” in the sense of Barthes, a transgression “lacerated, extenuated to the point of its irreplaceable void, without the object’s ever ceasing to be significant, desirable” (Barthes 1983, 4). Hill highlights a project of discontinuous materiality and playful cancellation of subjectivity that elicits imagination through obfuscation.

In the opening scene, Hill connects the eponymous escape car driver, who indeed is lonely and unnamed like ‘a tiger in the jungle’, by montage with a young woman, the player, also without a name, who watches him at a job. Analogous to Melville’s Le Samouraï, there is a brief exchange of gazes between the gangster and the witness, until the third central character of the film appears, the detective, who also has no proper name. All three seem to float through the film with vacuous, icy facial expressions, like somnambulist figures, ciphers more than characters. They are condensed to types, have no past, exist only by their function. By eliminating the generic difference between cause and effect, subject and object, an absorption of meaning comes into existence: as mere traces of signs, freed from fixed signification. In Hill’s radical reduction, everything is condensed into mere mechanics. A synthetic world of gestures and rituals is created, and aesthetics are markedly stylized: not only dark shadows, but also pale light and washed-out, very faded pastel colors determine the composition of the images. They lack contours and sharpness, floating through the film like enigmatic silhouettes, often offset orthogonally by Hill (see Figures 5-6). Their techniques of the self do not aim at a form of individuality, rather, through the mechanization of all action, every subjectivity shows a lack of origin, a transformation of life into matter. The Driver gives rise to a semantic fluctuation, a syncope of meaning, forcefully demonstrating that meaning can never be limited to what is said, but always goes beyond the surface and the level of the verbal. In other words, Hill’s visible contains an enigma that the gaze cannot grasp.

Against Adaptation: World Cinema and the Politics of ‘Speaking to’, Or: Everything You Always Wanted to Know about G. C. Spivak But Were Afraid to Ask Walter Hill
Ivo Ritzer (University of Bayreuth)
, Literature Film Quarterly Against Adaptation: World Cinema and the Politics of ‘Speaking to’, Or: Everything You Always Wanted to Know about G. C. Spivak But Were Afraid to Ask Walter Hill
Ivo Ritzer (University of Bayreuth)
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figures 5 & 6: The characters as enigmatic silhouettes in The Driver.

The driver lives in a small, spartan apartment that recalls Alain Delon’s room in Le Samouraï. Like Delon, he is barely able to exist outside the realm of action. At one point, he is visited by the player, but he manages to resist her explicit offers, in an arrangement of bodies that is staged planimetrically by Hill. The Driver is too professional to engage privately with the player, never allowing himself the luxury of emotions. Only a relationship of aseptic looks can exist between him and the player. In their encounters, body and facial expressions remain apathetic and as rigid as the professional code of conduct to which they feel obliged.

However, similar to the sword fighters in Kurosawa and the hitman in Melville, the driver is not to be understood as a tragic figure because he does not despair of his eremite existence. He commits crime for its own sake, everything else does not matter to him. He recognizes the absurdity of the world, but is unable to revolt against it. Instead, he engages in self-serving rites of action, consequently: to escape in driving. The same applies to the detective, as he also is a true ‘samurai’, and therefore he must be an enemy to the driver. Unlike in John Woo’s buddy-movie The Killer (1989), collegiality between the two protagonists is never on the cards (see McDonagh). From the beginning onward, a fatal confrontation between the driver and the detective seems unavoidable.

For the first time, the driver and the detective meet at an identity parade. The driver is supposed to be identified by different people, among them the player. Just like the night club singer in Melville’s Le Samouraï, she emphatically denies having seen the gangster. During the interrogation, the detective and the driver both explicitly emerge as characters with ‘samurai’ ethics. In analogy to Melville, the antagonists paradoxically do not contradict one another. They are both radical loners, two professionals of the same character type, who come into conflict only by practicing different jobs. In this way, the film pursues a duality principle that abstains from moral differentiation. Hill does not contrast the driver with the detective, but points out how both figures correspond to different sides of the same coin, and how a subcutaneous connection exists between them. Both reduce their lives to the essentials of each profession. Hence, they are undoubtedly homologous characters: on the one side stands the state-authorized policeman, on the other side the outlaw, onto whom society projects its hidden longings. It is he who transcends the limits of bourgeois ideology. But even the detective works on the fringes of illegality. This is tolerated by his colleagues as long as he succeeds. For them, the end justifies the means, too. Finally, however, the detective has to let the driver go due to a lack of evidence. The film does not close with a deadly confrontation. Instead, Hill establishes a form of understanding between these fierce opponents, who face off but do not confront each other, because in the end both have been tricked by the player. As the credits roll, The Driver leaves a lot of unanswered questions. Only so much is clear: ultimately, even professionalism turns out to be a chimera. The detective does not manage to arrest the gangster, and the gangster cannot secure his money. Both have forgotten about the player, and thus made a mistake: both lose.

Nothing really is reconciled, nothing is resolved in this movie: The Driver ends with a truly post-existentialist view on protagonists whose lives have been crystallized, completely frozen, and are slowly expiring. This aesthetic even breaks away from Hill’s abstraction of action, that of course, also comes to perfection in the movie’s three big car chase sequences that set a standard for decades to come. Hill’s aesthetics no longer articulate a question of finding oppositions in the reading of the world and the subject, but completely focus on the performance of breaking away of representation, in the transgressing, shifting, slipping of images and sounds. Again, this project is very much akin to the postcolonial criticism that Spivak has in mind when describing practices of deconstruction which do not “attempt to displace their own production” invoking a “text-inscribed blankness”, but rather signify “an ‘appeal’ to or ‘call’ to the ‘quite-other’ [...] opposed to a self-consolidating other”, i.e. the “rendering delirious that interior voice that is the voice of the other in us” (Spivak 294). What remains in Hill’s The Driver is the dense, indeed delirious materiality of pure presence that wraps itself in its own reference, exactly in dialogue with the quite-other that cannot, and should not, ever be approached hermeneutically. In other words, Hill does not explain, he shows.

5. Conclusion

The politics of ‘speaking to’ in Walter Hill can be understood as a ‘transcultural adaptation’ of “Asian” cinematic traditions. In the multiple references of his écriture, however, especially to the works of Akira Kurosawa, it is not about the search for other symbols, for a different metaphysics, for another wisdom; rather, much like Barthes’ Empire of Signs, Hill’s aesthetics directly address the question of “the possibility of a difference, of a mutation, of a revolution in the propriety of symbolic systems” (Barthes 1983, 3-4). The politics of ‘speaking to’ as an adapter is not interested in an objective cinema. It is motivated not by a look at the ‘Japanese’ Other but rather by a perspective, forcefully producing imaginative differences. The idea of a sign freed from all reference focuses on the material moment of an écriture, which dedicates itself to those aspects of significance that do not fit into the concept of the signified. As shown not least by the preceding examples, this does not mean, of course, that a pre-sense or an origin of culture that might precede meaning is to be rediscovered. What is at stake is the creation of an after-sense: a traversing of sense to exhaust it.

Accordingly, the politics of ‘speaking to’ is not concerned with incorporating the Other. Instead, contrary to this, the politics of ‘speaking to’ explicitly stresses the absence of traditional relationships in reference. It subtracts meaning from signs in order to find affects that are produced materially. Its presence can be seen as a predisposition of significance as well as its dissemination. Hence, the politics of ‘speaking to’ creates nothing less than a major challenge that shakes the drive for knowledge that fuels the subject. The resulting emptiness is completed with the act of filling gaps left by inscription and écriture. Thus, indeed, a truly transcultural space opens up, which exists only in the suddenness of its own performance. With the politics of ‘speaking to’, there is neither an Orient nor an Occident. Any binary between the self and the Other is suspended.


48 Hrs. (1982). Dir. Walter Hill. Paramount, 2011.

Bullet to the Head (2013). Dir. Walter Hill. Warner, 2013.

Last Man Standing (1996). Dir. Walter Hill. Warner, 2010.

Le Samouraï (1967). Dir. Jean-Pierre Melville. Criterion, 2017.

Per un pugno di dollari (1964). Dir. Sergio Leone. MGM, 2018.

The Driver (1978). Dir. Walter Hill. Studiocanal, 2014.

Yojimbo (1961). Dir. Akira Kurosawa. Criterion, 2010.

Works Cited

Badiou, Alain. Cinema. Polity Press, 2013.

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Image, Music, Text. Hill and Wang, 1977, pp. 142–148.

Barthes, Roland. Empire of Signs. Hill and Wang, 1983.

Benton, Tom. “Bullet to the Head, a Straight Shot into the Classics.” Basement Medicine, 7 Feb. 2013, http://www.basementmedicine.org/arts-entertainment/2013/02/07/bullet-to-the-head-a-straight-shot-into-the-classics.

Gallagher, Mark. Action Figures: Men, Action Films and Contemporary Adventure Narratives. Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

Höbel, Wolfgang and Thomas Hüetlin.“Den besten Gag nie am Anfang.” Der Spiegel, no. 44, 1996, pp. 260–262.

Markowitz, Robert. “Visual History with Walter Hill.” Directors Guild of America, 2007, http://www.dga.org/Craft/VisualHistory/Interviews/Walter-Hill.aspx?Filter=Full+Interview,2007.

Martin, Adrian. Mise en Scène and Film Style: From Classical Hollywood to New Media Art. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

McDonagh, Maitland. “Action Painter: John Woo.” Film Comment, vol. 29, no. 5, 1993, pp. 46–49.

Ritzer, Ivo. Walter Hill: Welt in Flammen. Bertz + Fischer, 2009.

Ritzer, Ivo. Medialität der Mise-en-scène. Springer VS, 2017.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, edited by Gary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, University of Illinois Press, 1988, pp. 271–313.

Sragow, Michael. “Don’t Jesse James Me.” Sight and Sound,no. 3, 1982, pp. 194–198.