I’m flying back from a trip to the George Eastman House (in Rochester, New York), where I did a couple days of archival research. I thought I’d write a bit about what I was doing there and what I found, in the hope that capturing the experience here will help me organize my thoughts about it later.
I was interested in a physician-filmmaker named James Sibley Watson, Jr., who made a number of striking cinefluorographic (X-ray) films. I’ve been hoping that Watson will be the basis of a fourth chapter of my book, Depth Perception, which is about medical filmmaking. Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of what, together, we think constitutes a body: mind, anatomy, disease, and, with the addition of this fourth chapter, skin. My argument is that it’s surprisingly difficult to make a medicalized body cohere on film. It takes tons of editing tricks, special effects, and dedicated equipment. In fact, it’s so difficult, I argue, that we should pause to consider whether the medicalized body exists at all.
I first encountered Watson’s films in a 2010 presentation by the filmmaker Barbara Hammer, whose experimental short film Sanctus is constructed from Watson’s X-ray films. I was struck by the haunting quality of Watson’s work, as well as some other facts Hammer related about the physician. The only son of a wealthy Rochester family, Watson graduated from medical school in 1921, but maintained a keen interest in modernist literature and film. With a partner, he edited and published The Dial, the modernist literary magazine, publishing work by E. E. Cummings, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, and many others. He also made two well-regarded experimental films: The Fall of the House of Usher (1928) and Lot in Sodom (1932). In the mid-1940s, however, Watson turned his attention to radiology, joining the faculty of the University of Rochester’s School of Medicine and filming (according the Eastman House’s finding aid) more than 10,000 cinefluorographic exams.
I was intrigued by the possible connections between modernism and the strange, haunting X-ray films that Hammer showed. What was the line that, in Watson’s mind, drew together these different parts of his career? I also felt that X-ray films highlight an interesting complexity of thinking about the body: its permeability and porosity, its tendency both to escape its bounds and to absorb external matter, the difficulty of knowing where the body (where life?) begin and end. I noticed that Watson was particularly interested in the processes of coughing, swallowing, and digestion, and it occurred to me that these are all mechanisms by which the body assimilates and excretes matter. Could there be something there, I wondered?
It’s very hard to see Watson’s X-ray films, largely, I imagine, because not too many people are interested in them. The Eastman House has seven, which I got to see on a flatbed. The available films are quite short: 20 seconds to one-and-a-half minutes. They’re ghostly little films; everything is serpentine (spine, intestines — even, in one film, a real snake) and pulsates in a distinctly animal way.
I thought of Jean Epstein, whose better-known version of The Fall of the House of Usher was released the same year as Watson’s own. Epstein’s Fall, too, pulses with weird energy. Everything is fecund, dripping, and unwholesome; at one point, we see two frogs copulating. Epstein lingers on close-ups of faces, a testament to his theory of photogenie, which held that the camera could reveal things invisible to the naked eye, particularly qualities that hid beneath the surface. Epstein believed that a close-up of the human face could show truths that otherwise lurked underneath the skin, perhaps by revealing the movements of tiny muscles, perhaps through a process altogether more mystical.
Could there be some connection between Epstein’s photogenie and Watson’s cinefluorography? I’m not sure. Perhaps they’re two different approaches to getting at the truth of our bodies. Perhaps it means something that both Epstein and Watson were trained as physicians. Perhaps it means something that both were drawn to The Fall of the House of Usher.
Watson’s papers are extensive but not particularly revealing, at least not for someone interested in his cinefluorographic work. He spent a good 20 years of his career on these films, and became quite well known for his advances in this area, but he wrote very little about it. I found a few technical descriptions of cameras and the like, which are useful but don’t shed much light on his motivations and larger interests. I was also able to pin down important dates and facts about Watson’s life, which, again, are useful, but don’t provide any major insight. It might have helped to have more time in the archive, but the archivist’s schedule and mine made this difficult.
A note on workflow: I was surprised to discover when I arrived at the archive that cameras were not permitted. I should’ve asked, but it’s so rare to encounter this restriction these days. Instead, I took notes and transcribed — I hate ordering photocopies, which is such a laborious and expensive process. Each time I encountered a document of interest, I created a record for it in Zotero and entered transcriptions and observations in the Notes field. I also kept a running Word document with brief notes on which documents contained useful information. The process was slower than I usually like, but I should have no trouble citing documents later.
As with any archive trip, I spent a good deal of time wondering about who this person might be, what he was like, whether we’d like each other if we met. Did he love his wife? His parents? Was he basically a good person? None of these things, of course, are any of my business, but that doesn’t stop me from wondering.
In the end, I’m not sure I understand Watson’s work or motivations well enough to write extensively about him. But I intend to read more about cinefluorography and Watson’s milieu, and perhaps this will lead to more material to work with.