Vega-Llona, Silvia. “Prologue: Thomas Elsaesser and The Mind-Game Film.” In The Mind-Game Film. Distributed Agency, Time Travel, and Productive Pathology. Thomas Elsaesser, edited by Warren Buckland, Dana Polan, and Seung-hoon Jeong, 1–3. New York: Routledge, 2021.

Prologue: Thomas Elsaesser and The Mind-Game Film

Silvia Vega-Llona

from The Mind-Game Film: Distributed Agency, Time Travel, and Productive Pathology by Thomas Elsaesser, edited by Warren Buckland, Dana Polan, Seung-hoon Jeong

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This posthumous volume The Mind-Game Film is the outcome of an epic life. Many of us played a role and had a part in Thomas’s global, playful, and adventurous journey; at the same time this didn’t come lightly. The rigor of his thinking, his constant meditation and observation of the world, from individuals to society, the arts, and the political sphere, his incisive analysis and counter-analysis didn’t allow his interlocutor to take things with indifference or distraction. One couldn’t get ‘off-focus’ when Thomas started a conversation because he encompassed multiple angles and contradictory arguments, which required our minds to be at play or in ‘game mode,’ always focused on experimenting with thoughts while acutely observing and analyzing the changes in our contemporary environment. He had a sense of humor and manifested exhilaration while discovering. His acuteness and care for the people near him and the planet in general were such that one could only become a better person, or at least a responsible thinker, by being next to him.

I witnessed close-up the journey of The Mind-Game Film. It started in the early 2000s. It was around that time when Thomas had two established cities of residence – NYC and Amsterdam. It was film, yes, that sparked his ideas about the mind-game, but also, and of equal significance, were his observations on contemporary culture and society, the media landscape and studies on local and global politics, that made his work deeply connected with and to the new generations in the global sphere. His life in NYC played an important role as the scenario for his new ideas. A new form of humanity was breeding there, and he recorded it like an anthropologist, to then come ‘home’ to write his elaborate and conceptual insights. It didn’t stop there because he was constantly recontextualizing his ideas during his stays in other cities and continents.

Thomas was invited to The Institute of Advanced Studies in Tel Aviv in 2003/2004. It was then when he started to lecture about productive pathologies, parapraxis and the new forms of trauma the protagonists performed in certain movies mostly at the turn of the millennium. His meditation was constant, not only with his colleagues and students but also by the seashore. Let me explain: I thought a swim would be reconstituting after long hours of research and lecturing, but even while swimming I was his interlocutor, he couldn’t stop thinking and testing his ideas. As someone who grew up by the seashore, I was supportive of this practice. The Greeks walked and talked, I thought. Thomas and I swam while having a conversation about his latest ideas. We then continued the evening with a Mediterranean meal and after dinner he would write down the ideas he had during our conversation at the sea. I am not claiming authorship; I listened and had observations about particular forms of behavior that he integrated into his thinking. I was the anthropologist with clinical experience, he was the theoretician with a vivid understanding of the new forms our humanity was taking within the political context and media landscape. He was also an erudite scholar, constantly studying and exploring.

After his fellowship at the Institute of Advanced Studies, he continued developing the mind-game theory during the seminar he conducted with the Cinema Europe group in Amsterdam. Then, from the Spring of 2006 until 2012 Thomas was visiting Professor at Yale, where he taught “Film Theory through the Senses,” “New American Cinema and Global Hollywood,” and “The Moving Image in the Museum.” During his years at Yale, the concept of the mind-game kept on being recontextualized and then he published ‘The Mind-Game Film’ in an anthology edited by Warren Buckland in 2009. At Yale he had some of the sharpest interlocutors amongst his students; I can recall Seung-hoon Jeong and Daniel Fairfax.

From 2013 until his passing in 2019, Thomas was visiting Professor at Columbia University. It is in his lectures on the mind-game film at Columbia that we witness his latest groundbreaking ideas. In 2018 Thomas published ‘Contingency, Causality, Complexity: distributed agency in the mind-game film.’ Here he expanded the context with a new agenda as new issues were appearing. But even that was insufficient for Thomas. He pushed further, compelled to recontextualize the mind-game within the political. When he first passed on to me his notes of this latest development, while in our apartment by Washington Square in NYC, I thought Thomas was into something defining for our new decade.

Thomas’s working methods were dynamic and exhausting; he wouldn’t stop until he felt the analysis was getting us (we, the community) into a path of explosive understanding. But it wouldn’t end there; as soon as we thought something was resolved he would move it forward and expand it. He kept on questioning and expanding almost non-stop. The Mind-Game Film book is the product of that working method that took place before, during, and after the seminars mostly at Yale and Columbia, but also during his lectures all over the world.

We felt the necessity to finish the book. Three forces came together: Warren Buckland, Dana Polan, and Seung-hoon Jeong, everyone feeling the need that this coming to fruition should happen as soon as possible. First, Dana as the senior 2 Prologue state master coordinating the entire editing process; Seung-hoon (who, to my request, flew from South Korea specially to teach Thomas’s “Mind-Game” at Columbia) and I got together at the Marlton in NYC, Thomas’s regular spot, and we gathered over 2,000 files plus the ones Warren had in Oxford. Soon after, I called Veronica Pravadelli and Lorenzo Marmo in Rome who generously forwarded the files they had for Corpi Conflicti nel Cinema Contemporaneo (2018), and Boaz Hagin in Tel Aviv with warmth sent a number of files for the book Trauma and Phantasy in American Cinema that he was (is) co-authoring with Thomas.

As I mentioned earlier Thomas had an epic life. He cared deeply with a sense of responsibility and generosity for others: the principle of Le Don (The Gift, Marcel Mauss), I believe, is at the core of the completion of this book. He cared about his friends, about their ideas, artistic and scholarly accomplishments; he also cared about their children, love lives, and presence in the world. Thomas thought through carefully about how he could help to make their lives more complete and joyful as he was aware that it was a quite complex and difficult world, without losing his sense of cheerfulness while finding new ways of understanding and conceptualizing. He was never satisfied with one answer; life was a thought-experiment and as such it constantly needed testing and retesting.

The colleagues and friends I mentioned along this opening account, their care, professionalism and generosity have been insurmountable. A labor of love, an act of reciprocity and respect.

The process of finishing the book took place during the pandemic and the editors completed the book during the pandemic.