Friday, 3 February 2012

The formal party

In the Peter Sellars film, The Party there are several funny moments as well as some extended exercises in comedic tension but there is also one outstanding scene with a primal resonance. Another character has shaken Sellars' hand and crushed his fingers. His hand hurts so much that he plunges it into a pile of crushed ice. The audience knows that the ice covers a bowl of caviar. Sellars withdraws his hand which is then dripping with fish eggs. Later he picks up the smell of his hand, a smell which he cannot account for. He then walks about the party with his hand behind his back, witholding it from those he is talking to until the point where he forgets himself and shakes another man's hand. The camera follows this man who then shakes the hand of another man who upon scratching his nose discovers the unaccountable fish smell. By this time Sellars has washed his hand but as he leaves the bathroom he shakes the hand of the first man again and a little later discovers that the smell has returned to his hand. This passing on of a smell in a formal polite circumstance from skin to skin seems to speak of something deep in the gesture of handshaking, and of an anxiety relating to the idea of contamination by the Other. It is probable that the origin of the handshake took the form of sublimated hostility, or even a type of wrestling. One does not shake the hand of those who are already here but only those who have recently arrived. It is an indication of difference but also, because of the intimate skin to skin touch, an acceptance of the Other into one's territory. But at another level there is also a sort of 'ringing' or echo within this touch, a 'passing on' of a smell which maintains the differences between those who have shaken hands... the Other remains on the shaken hand as a pressure that is transformed into a curious smell.

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