Laura Mulvey, “Visual & Other Pleasures”

VISUAL PLEASURE & NARRATIVE CINEMA (1975, Screen)

“This paper intends to use psychoanalysis to discover where and how the fascination of film is reinforced by pre-existing patterns of fascination already at work within the individual subject and the social formations that have moulded him. It takes as its starting-point the way film reflects, reveals and even plays on the straight, socially established interpretation of sexual difference which controls images, erotic ways of looking and spectacle… Psychoanalytic theory is thus appropriated here as a political weapon, demonstrating the way the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form” 14.

(Interesting that Mulvey uses ‘fascinate’ twice – linked to witchcraft and enchantment, but also to the Greco-Roman ceremonial phallus, the fascinum.) Mulvey begins by pointing out the paradox of phallocentrism: that the man’s “presence” can only exist against the woman’s “lack”: woman is necessary to the construction of man 14. Maternal plenitude and phallic lack are the two forms “posited on nature (or on anatomy in Freud’s famous phrase). Woman’s desire is subjugated to her image as bearer of the bleeding wound; she can exist only in relation to castration and cannot transcend it. She turns her child into the signifier of her own desire to possess a penis” 14.

“Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which an can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer, not maker, of meaning” 15.

Mulvey argues “we can begin to make a break by examining patriarchy with the tools it provides, of which psychoanalysis is not the only but an important one” 15. With the advent of 16mm film, Mulvey argues, film has been opened up to artists beyond the capitalist Hollywood regime and its ideologically mimetic films 15. The “magic” of Hollywood cinema is in “its skilled and satisfying manipulation of visual pleasure. Unchallenged, mainstream film coded the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order… through its formal beauty and its play on [the subject’s] own formative obsessions” 16. Mulvey seeks “a total negation of the ease and plenitude of the narrative fiction film,” since “analysing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it” 16. The tradeoff is “a new language of desire” 16.

One of the pleasures of cinema is “scopophilia” – the pleasure of looking 16. Freud identifies it as a drive separate from the ‘proper’ erogenous zones: “he associated scopophilia with taking other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze… the voyeuristic activities of children… the primal scene” 16. The gaze is “essentially active” – its extreme is the voyeur or Peeping Tom (think Psycho & Peeping Tom, both 1960!) How can this be in film, where “what is seen on the screen is so manifestly shown”? 17.

“The mass of mainstream film, and the conventions within which it has consciously evolved, portray a hermetically sealed world which unwinds magically, indifferent to the presence of the audience, producing for them a sense of separation and playing on their voyeuristic fantasy. Moreover the extreme contrast between the darkness in the auditorium (which also isolates the spectators from one another) and the brilliance of the shifting patterns of light and shade on the screen helps to promote the illusion of voyeuristic separation… an illusion of looking in on a private world… the position of the spectators in the cinema is blatantly one of repression of their exhibitionism and projection of the repressed desire onto the performer” 17.

Cinema actually “develops scopophilia,” however, it does not just satisfy it, partly by creating a world on screen that is anthropomorphic in its proportions and fixations 17. Lacan’s mirror stage hinges on the moment the child’s “physical ambitions outstrip their motor capacity… more complete, more perfect than they experience in their own body… thus overlaid with misrecognition… an ideal ego” that “prepares the way for identification with others in the future” and “predates language for the child” 17. The parallel for Mulvey between mirror and film screen lies mainly in the fact that “cinema has structures of fascination strong enough to allow temporary loss of ego while simultaneously reinforcing it… the sense of forgetting the world as the ego has come to perceive it… is nostalgically reminiscent of that pre-subjective moment of image recognition” 18.

Thus the cinema is involved in contradictory pleasure structures: one scopophilic (sexual stimulation by the sight of another), one narcissistic (identification with the image as mirror) 18. Instinctual drive and self-preservation are polarized forms of pleasure, but they both engage in “indifference to perceptual reality” 18. “The look, pleasureable in form, can be threatening in content, and it is woman as representation/image that crystallises this paradox” 19.

“In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female… In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Woman displayed as sexual object is the leitmotif of erotic spctacle: from pin-ups to strip-tease, from Ziegfield to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, and plays to and signifies male desire” 19.

“Mainstream film neatly combines spectacle and narrative. (Note, however, how in the musical song-and-dance numbers interrupt the flow of the diegesis.) The presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story-line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation” 19.

Woman is erotic object for both subjects: character and spectator, “with a shifting tension between the looks on either side of the screen,” making the showgirl, in her exhibition to both, a perfect combination of those gazes (think of Foucault, “Las Meninas” 19. (Do we compete with characters for her?) “For a moment the sexual impact of the performing woman takes the film into a no man’s land outside its own time and space” 19-20 (think of Betty & Megan in Mad Men, or Some Like It Hot – where the men in drag actually drag the pace of the action – use ‘female’ performance as a delay mechanism!)

“Conventional close-ups of legs… or a face… integrate into the narrative a different mode of eroticism. One part of a fragmented body destroys the Renaissance space, the illusion of depth demanded by the narrative; it gives flatness, the quality of a cut-out or icon, rather than verisimilitude, to the screen” 20.

(FACETING!) “The male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification. Man is reluctant to gaze at his exhibitionist like. Hence the split between spectacle and narrative supports the man’s role as the active one of advancing the story, making things happen… the bearer of the look of the spectator… transferring it behind the screen to neutralise the extradiegetic tendencies represented by woman as spectacle” 20. The centrality and activity of the male protagonist are a “screen surrogate” for the spectator, who feels omnipotent and in control of the filmic events – the male film star is the ideal ego (more in control than the spectator) and the female film star is the object of scopophilia (voyeured object of desire) 20. The narrative space of the male star is thus 3-dimensional, rather than flat (interesting to think about this as another reason for treating surface seriously – because women themselves are reduced to it – it is a tool of patriarchy that can unmake the house?)

The female star is usually presented alone, sexualized, and exhibited at the start of the film, but becomes the tamed property and possession of the protagonist over the course of the narrative (and therfore of the spectator as well) 21. The problem, however, is that

“ultimately, the meaning of woman is sexual difference, the visually ascertainable absence of the penis, the material evidence on which is based the castration complex essential for the organisation of entrance to the symbolic order and the law of the father. Thus the woman as icon, displayed for the gaze and enjoyment of men, the active controllers of the look, always threatens to evoke the anxiety it originally signified. The male unconscious has two avenues of escape from this castration anxiety: preoccupation with the re-enactment of the original trauma (investigating the woman, demystifying her mystery), counterbalanced by the devaluation, punishment or saving of the guilty object (an avenue typified by the concerns of the film noir); or else complete disavowal of castration by the substitution of a fetish object or turning the represented figure itself into a fetish so that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous (hence overvaluation, the cult of the female star” 21.

(This all seems pretty flawed to me, actually. Williams’ argument is stronger by far.) Fetishism is flatter than the sadism of scopophilia, which “demands a story,” either “punishment or forgiveness” – as in Hitchcock 22.  Mulvey emphasizes the flatness of Sternberg’s films (vs Hitchcock’s), focused on women as stylized products that merge with the screen, ultimate fetishes in cyclical, rather than linear, time, with plots focused on misunderstanding, rather than conflict, sans controlling male gaze. 22. “The high point of emotional drama in the most typical Dietrich films, her supreme moments of erotic meaning, take place in the absence of the man she loves in the fiction” 22. In Hitchcock,

“the power to subject another person to the will sadistically or to the gaze voyeuristically is turned onto the woman as the object of both… True perversion is barely concealed under a shallow mask of ideological correctness – the man is on the right side of the law, the woman on the wrong… liberal use of subjective camera from the point of view of the male protagonist draw the spectators deeply into his position, making them share his uneasy gaze. The spectator is absorbed into a voyeuristic situation within the screen scene and diegesis, which parodies his own in the cinema” 23.

Versus other visual forms, cinema uses the “shifting emphasis of the look… cinema builds the way she is to be looked at into the spectacle itself… Playing on the tension between film as controlling the dimension of time (editing, narrative) and film as controlling the dimension of space (changes in distance, editing), cinematic codes create a gaze, a world and an object, thereby producing an illusion cut to the measure of desire” 25.

“There are 3 different looks associated with the cinema: that of the camera as it records the pro-filmic event, that of the audience as it watches the final product, and that of the characters at each other within the screen illusion. The conventions of narrative film deny the first two and subordinate them to the third, the conscious aim being always to eliminate intrusive camera presence and prevent a distancing awareness in the audience. Without these two absences… fictional drama cannot achieve reality, obviousness, and truth” 25.

“Nevertheless… the structure of looking in narrative fiction film contains a contradiction in its own premises: the female image as a castration threat constantly endangers the unity of the diegesis and bursts through the world of illusion as an intrusive, static, one-dimensional fetish. Thus the two looks materially present in time and space are obsessively subordinated to the neurotic needs of the male ego. The camera becomes the mechanism for producing an illusion of Renaissance space, flowing movements compatible with the human eye, an ideology of representation that revolves around the perception of the subject; the camera’s look is disavowal in order to create a convincing world in which the speaker’s surrogate can perform with verisimilitude’ 25-6.

“Simultaneously, the look of the audience is denied an intrinsic force: as soon as fetishistic representation of the female image threatens to break the spell of illusion, and the erotic image on the screen appears directly (without mediation) to the spectator, the fact of fetishisation, concealing as it does castration fear, freezes the look, fixates the spectator and prevents him from achieving any distance from the image in front of him” 26.

For Mulvey, this phenomenon is specific to film (a lot of it seems like baloney, as many critics have since pointed out). Mulvey calls for a freeing of the look of the camera (Vertov? Eisenstein?) and the freeing of the look of the audience “into dialectics and passionate detachment” 26. This destroys the pleasure of film, which for women should cause nothing more than “sentimental regret” 26.

AFTERTHOUGHTS (1989)

Mulvey returns to “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” to address the melodrama of the uncertain female sexual identity (making female stars central) and alternatives to the 3rd-person male spectator position (the liberation of the female spectator vis a vis the freedom of the male protagonist) 29. For Freud, children of both sexes pass through a phallic phase, though for girls it ends in the repression of the masculine 30. “Hollywood genre films structured around masculine pleasure, offering an identification with the active point of view, allow a woman spectator to rediscover that lost aspect of her sexual identity, the never fully repressed bedrock of feminine neurosis” 31. “As desire is a given cultural materiality in a text, for women (from childhood onwards) trans-sex identification is a habit that very easily becomes second nature. However, this Nature does not sit easily and shifts restlessly in its borrowed transvestite clothes” 33.

The marriage or not- marriage plot is the signifier of either social acceptance as it “sublimates the erotic into a final, closing, social ritual” 34 or “the rejection of marriage personifies a nostalgic celebration of phallic, narcissistic omnipotence” 33. For the female spectator, the Western is more than Oedipal nostalgia, more than the loss of a fantasy of omnipotence 37. For a woman to “drag” in masculinity is to refuse acceptance, even as she accepts a sort of vicarious agency 37.

NOTES ON SIRK & MELODRAMA (1989)

“It has been suggested that the interest of Hollywood 1950s melodrama lies primarily in the way that, by means of textual analysis, fissures and contradictions can be shown to be undermining the films’ ideological coherence,” which “seems to save the films from belonging blindly to the bourgeois ideology which produced them” 39. But “this argument depends on the premise that the project of this ideology is indeed to conjure up a coherent picture of a world and conceal contradictions which in turn conceal exploitation and oppression. A text which defies unity and closure would then quite clearly be progressive” 39.

This unfortunately creates a trap “quite characteristic of melodrama itself,” however 39. “Ideological contradiction is actually the overt mainspring and specific content of melodrama, not a hidden, unconscious thread to be picked up only by special critical processes” 39. The excitement of melodrama lies in sexual repression and frustration, in conflicts of love and blood, not those of enemies 39.

“Melodrama as a safety-valve for ideological contradictions centred on sex and the family may lose its progressive attributes, but it acquires a wider aesthetic and political significance. The workings of patriarchy, and the mould of feminine unconscious it produces, have left women largely without a voice, gagged and deprived of outlets (or a kind supplied, for instance, either by male art or popular culture) in spite of the crucial social and ideological functions women are called on to perform. In the absence of any coherent culture of oppression, a simple fact of recognition has aesthetic and political importance. There is a dizzy satisfaction in witnessing the way that sexual difference under patriarchy is fraught, explosive, and erupts dramatically into violence within its own private stomping-ground, the family” 39. (think of Berlant)

Melodramas like Sirk’s are thus “a corrective… probing the pent-up emotion” 39. As in Greek tragedy, where the overvaluation of patriarchy destroys social balance, the melodrama calls for the softening of sexual difference 40. “As Sirk has pointed out, the strength of the melodramatic form lies in the amount of dust the story raises along the road, the cloud of overdetermined irreconcilables which put up a resistance to being neatly settled, in the last five minutes, into a happy end… He turns the conventions of the melodrama sharply” – away from happy resolution 40.

“Discussions of the difference between melodrama and tragedy specify that while the tragic hero is conscious of his fate and torn between conflicting forces, characters caught in the world of melodrama are not allowed transcendent awareness or knowledge” 41.

“The formal devices of Hollywood melodrama… provide a transcendent, wordless commentary, giving abstract emotion spectacular form, contributing a narrative level that provides the action with a specific coherence. Mise en scene, rather than the undercutting of the actions and words of the story level, provides a central point of orientation for the spectator” 41.

“Sirk allows a certain interaction between the spectator’s reading of mise en scene, and its presence within the diegesis, as though the protagonists, from time to time, can read their dramatic situation with a code similar to that used by the audience. Although this device uses aesthetics as well as narrative to establish signs for characters ont he screen as for the spectator in the cinema, elements such as lighting or camera movement still act as a privileged discourse for the spectator” 41.

“Sirk ironises and complicates the theme of the continued sexuality of mothers” 43.

“Melodrama can be seen as having an ideological function in working certain contradictions through to the surface and re-presenting them in an aesthetic form… It is as though the fact of having a female point of view dominating the narrative produces an excess which precludes satisfaction. If the melodrama offers a fantasy escape for the identifying women in the audience, the illusion is so strongly marked by recognisable, real and familiar traps that escape is closer to a day-dream than to fairy story… a story of contradiction, not reconciliation” 43.

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