Kaja Silverman, “The Subject of Semiotics”

1983

Kaja Silverman expands on Oudart’s and Miller’s Lacanian interpretations of suture in cinema. She points out that Psycho undermines suture by making us realize we are invited to be voyeurs through the window, victim and killer at once, and we have an ‘unmediated’ relationship with the camera, which ‘exceeds’ Marion’s gaze. Silverman’s argument is that suture can be even more swaying when not tied to a subject. In the shower scene, the camera routinely cuts and returns more than 30 degrees from the last shot, drawing attention to its ruptures.

“Even though we have just lost our heroine, and our own discursive postion, we can afford to finance others. What sutures us at this juncture is the fear of being cut off from narrative. Our investment in the fiction is made manifest through the packet of money which provides an imaginary bridge from Marion to the next protagonist… What Psycho obliges us to understand is that we want suture so badly that we’ll take it at any price, even with the fullest knowledge of what it entails – passive insertions into preexisting discursive positions… threatened losses and false recoveries, and subordination to the castrating gaze of a symbolic Other.” (Silverman)

“Mulvey’s argument… bears a striking resemblance to the suture theory. Both posit a cinematic adventure in which plenitude is fractured by difference and lack, only to be sealed over once again… the lack which must be both dramatized and contained finds its locus in the female body… Classic cinema abounds in shot/reverse shot formations in which men look at women.” (Silverman)

“Suture can be understood as the process whereby the inadequacy of the subject’s position is exposed in order to facilitate (create the desire for) new insertions into a cultural discourse which promises to make good that lack. Since the promised compensation involves an ever greater subordination to already existing scenarios, the viewing subject’s position is a supremely passive one, a face which is carefully concealed through cinematic sleight-of-hand… attributing to a character within the fiction qualities which in fact belong to the machinery of enunciation: the ability to generate narrative, the omnipotent and coercive gaze, the castrating authority of the law” (Silverman)

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Jean-Pierre Oudart, “Cinema & Suture”

1969

Oudart uses the term suture and applies it to cinema. Here, the gaze in the fiction (the character/subject) conceals the gaze outside the fiction (the camera and production), so that the viewer is aware of his own absence as speaking subject and is aligned with the male gaze of Laura Mulvey’s argument. (Interesting also to consider how the ‘grand theorists’ resist the idea that the cinematic apparatus must enact Althusser’s ISAs). Shot relationships are considered as syntactic elements would be in discourse. If the viewer becomes aware of the frame, he also becomes aware of the absent or ghostly presence of the camera, and of his own partial hold on the scene.

That camera is a speaking subject, absent and controlling as a father. To prevent this, the film attempts to hide its own frame, denying any extra-fictional reality. The shot/reverse shot conceals this by making the viewer feel more potently observing. In this sense, suture is like ISA in that it encourages the viewer to identify with the viewing subject or gaze to which it is directed (think of Fish and Poulet on reading…)

“Suture is best understood through a consideration of what is at stake in the process of ‘reading’ film… To understand this demands reading the image to its detriment, a reading with which the contemporary cinema has sometimes made us lose our familiarity, since its use of images without depth hides what the depth-of-field cinema revealed all the time: that every filmic field traced by the camera and all objects revealed through depth of field – even in a static shot – are echoed by another field, the fourth side, and an absence emanating from it.”

“Every filmic field is echoed by an absent field, the place of a character who is put there by the viewer’s imaginary, and which we shall call the Absent One. At a certain moment of the reading all the objects of the filmic field combine together to form the signifier of its absence. At this key-moment the image enters the order of the signifier, and the undefined strip of film the realm of the discontinuous, the “discrete”. It is essential to understand this. since up to now film-makers believed that. by resorting to cinematic units as discrete as possible, they would find their way back to the rules of linguistic discourse, whereas it is cinema itself, when designating itself as cinematography, which tends to constitute its own énoncé in “discrete” units.”

The spectator is doubly decentred in the cinema. First what is enunciated, initially, is not the viewer’s own discourse, nor anyone else’s: it is thus that he comes to posit the signifying object as the signifier of the absence of anyone. Secondly the unreal space of the enunciation leads to the necessary quasi-disappearance of the subject as it enters its own field and thus submerges, in a sort of hypnotic continuum in which all possibility of discourse is abolished, the relation of alternating eclipse which the subject has to its own discourse; and this relation then demands to be represented within the process of reading the film. which it duplicates.

Thus what we are here calling the suture is primarily the representation of that which. under the same heading, is now used to designate “the relationship of the subject to the chain of its discourse”: a representation sliding under the signifying Sum and burdened with a lack – the lack of someone – and with an Absent One which abolishes itself so that someone representing the next link in the chain (and anticipating the next filmic segment) can come forth.

The ideal chain of a sutured discourse would be one which is articulated into figures which it is no longer appropriate to call shot/reverse-shot. but which mark the need – so that the chain can function – for an articulation of the space such that the same portion of space be represented at least twice, in the filmic field and in the imaginary field – with all the variations of angle that the obliqueness of the camera with regard to the place of the subject allows. This ideal chain consists, as it progresses, of a duplicating representation, which demands that each of the elements composing its space and presenting its actors be separated and duplicated, and twice read or evoked in a to-and-fro movement which would need describing more precisely.

Up to now (except among a handful of great film-makers who understand that the absent field is as important as the present field and that the fate of the signifier is governed by their mutual articulation) the problem of the cinematic has only been raised by modern film-makers. In rejecting a space which today is still largely only one of fiction, they have put cinematic language under exemplary pressure, but at the risk of leading it to the threshold of reification.

For it is nevertheless essential to recognize that, in articulating the conditions and the limits of its signifying power, the cinema is also speaking of eroticism….For too long eroticism in the cinema has only been exploited or located on the filmic level; people talked about the eroticism of a camera-movement as improperly as they did about the camera-eye and possession of the world by the film-maker, etc. A substantial shift in point of view has in face taken place; today the phenomenon of quasi-vision, peculiar to the cinema, only appears as the condition of an eroticism recognizable in the articulation of the filmic and the cinematic, and affecting the signifiers and the figures conveying them. thereby demonstrating that the very nature of the cinematic discourse is in question. The discovery that the cinema, in speaking itself, speaks of eroticism, and is the privileged space where eroticism can always be signified…

In the very process which is at the same time jouissance and “reading” of the film – a “reading” which in turn is signified and annulled, and by which the spectator is subverted – something is said which can only be discussed in erotic terms, and which is itself given as the closest representation of the actual process of eroticism.

If we can think of the shot-reverse shot of film as chiasmus in language

dir. Michael Powell, “Peeping Tom”

1960

Released the same year as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Peeping Tom takes ‘scopophilia’ to newly literal levels. It tells the story of Mark Lewis, who has a conspicuously German accent and works on a film crew, shooting soft-porn photos part-time. He lives in his dead father’s house, where he poses as a tenant and lets the other rooms to tenants. In the first scene, Mark follows a prostitute into her home, murders her while filming, and watches the tape of it at home. He later kills an extra on the film set where he works, and the film builds tension as he becomes particularly taken by his neighbor Helen. (Her mother, a blind woman, senses that something is “off” about him and worries for her daughter, but she is dead before she can do anything about it.) His last murder is of a pin-up girl named Milly. Mark shows her some home movies from his childhood, revealing that his psychologist father obsessively filmed him when he was young by putting him under duress and documenting the child’s reactions for “research.”

We discover only at the film’s conclusion that part of the horror of his victims’ last looks (this is how the police link the first two murders) lies not only in the knowledge that they are going to die as he comes towards them while filming, but also that they are seeing themselves at the moment of death, since Mark has affixed a mirror to the pointed camera leg that also serves as his weapon. In the final scene, Mark corners Helen when he catches her watching his snuff films and approaches her to kill her. The police arrive and Mark impales himself on his own camera while filming – the last shot of his documented life. Thus, in classic horror film mode, Helen is both the “girl who gets away” and the only one to live to witness the mode in which the killer kills being turned against him (think Halloween, etc.).

dir. Martin Scorsese, “Taxi Driver”

1976

Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro), an “honorably discharged” U.S. marine, is a taxi driver in New York City. He becomes obsessed with the pure and obviously bourgeois Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), but things sour on their second date, when he takes her to a dirty movie and she doesn’t want to speak to him again. Travis becomes angry and his behavior becomes increasingly erratic. He begins plotting to assassinate Palentine, the senator whose presidential campaign Betsy works for, and stockpiles a number of illegal weapons. He works out obsessively and practices integrating the weapons to his body, including through the use of a slider from a file cabinet running down his arm (DeNiro improvised the famous “You talking to me?” scene).

Eventually, Travis redirects his attention to the more helpless “Easy” (Jodie Foster), a twelve year-old prostitute whose real name is Iris (Easy/Iris making a neat pun on “easy on the eyes”), and whose violent and filthy world embodies the “scum and garbage” Travis is so obsessed with cleansing from the city. After killing everyone in her brothel, including her pimp, Travis mimes killing himself to the police, but cannot actually do it, since he is out of bullets. As the camera slowly pans out of the room where Iris weeps, into the staircase, down the hallway, and out into the street, finally ending in Travis’ room (covered in clippings), we learn he has become something of a hero for his actions. In the final scene of the film, we see Betsy’s disembodied face reflected in the rearview mirror of his taxi, surrounded by the flicking lights of the city (like Daisy in The Great Gatsby). She seems interested in him again, now that his violence has garnered him status, but he only gives her a free ride and drives off into the night, his eyes twitching anxiously around.

The film was made in the 1970s at a moment of urban crisis (white flight), conspiracy culture (Watergate), anxiety about children (Children’s Defense Act), and post-Vietnam cultural crisis (traumatized veterans). In particular, Travis’ transition from “copper” to “cowboy” in Sport’s eyes, “pioneering” the merging of his body with guns, and finally to renegade “Indian” (with his mohawk) for the murders, plots a particular mode of psychotic American individuality comparable to both Psycho & American Psycho. His status as an ex-marine also draws attention to a crisis of masculinity. In this sense, it would be interesting to put this film, with its slow-jazz phonograph soundtrack and dark clouds of steam, in conversation with Bladerunner & American Gigolo, which have still stronger “film noir” emphases in their depiction of seedy 1980s LA (rather than seedy 1970s).

I am also interested in thinking about how the film rewrites Lolita, with Jodie Foster as a crass pre-teen Lo, her pimp, Sport, as a sort of Quility (a “director” who lays out the sexual possibilities for Iris’ clients and tells her “If you ever liked what you were doin’ you wouldn’t be my woman), and Travis as a possessive, sociopathic Humbert Humbert who believes he is saving a girl with a wad of money and the murder of another man (a fantasy of himself as a defender, rather than an aggressor).

dir. Alfred Hitchcock, “Psycho”

1960

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 thriller tells the story of Marion Crane – at least we think it’s going to. On the run with $40,000 in stolen cash to her lover Sam, Marion stops at the Bates Motel rain. There she meets Norman Bates, who lives there alone with his mother, whom she has heard shouting at Norman. Marion eats a sandwich with him in his creepy parlor full of stuffed birds, takes a shower (we see Norman voyeuristically watching through a hole in the wall), and is stabbed to death by someone who looks like a woman in what is probably the most famous murder scene ever filmed. After her sister Lyla shows up, the detective on the case is also murdered. Eventually we discover, in the final twist of the film, that Norman is schizophrenic and has committed these murders in the guise of his mother, whose persona he adopts whenever he feels sexually attracted to a woman. He murdered her and her lover many years ago out of jealousy, but out of guilt, he now keeps her mummified body in his house and talks to it.

Namwali Serpell argues that the doubles of the film (2 stacks of cash, 2 lookalike sisters, a lookalike boyfriend and murderer) ask us to re-cathect our attention from one face to another in a concatenation of reorientation as the film goes on and Hitchcock reroutes our attention as characters die. As it is, the film is a study in surfaces – Serpell likens the porcelain, shower curtain, drain, and mop to the skin, clothes, eye, and hair of the dead girl. Marion’s name, birdlike as it is, foreshadows her end. Norman Bates’ name is a sort of descriptor for what the “normal-man” does in the film – he “baits” women. One of the most fascinating surfaces or guises in the film is the drag Norman puts on to kill. Why have him inhabit his mother as persona? Certainly, the glib psychological explanation at the end does not satisfy…

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.

Linda Williams, ed., “Viewing Positions”

1994

In the introduction to the edited volume Viewing Positions, Linda Williams refers to both John Berger’s 1972 Ways of Seeing and Laura Mulvey’s 1975 “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” as foundational texts for the established notion of the “male gaze,” in Western art and “classical” Hollywood cinema 1. She continues on to describe apparatus theorists, such as Christian Metz (coiner of the “imaginary signifier”) and Jean-Louis Baudry (“representations experienced as perceptions”), who extend the idea of the disembodied spectator in their work 2.

For Mulvey, whose work became fundamental to feminist film studies, only the cinematic avant-garde offered a way out of this trap, largely by subverting the audience’s pleasure 3. What Williams presents instead is the idea of a freer, more imaginatively productive and more wide-ranging observer, one that can only be partly or occasionally accounted for by the trope of the male gaze (Miriam Hansen compares its outmodedness to bellbottoms; Williams suggests they have returned as postmodern pastiche, and so might the male gaze – as “one among many possible costumes, or roles, to be taken on”) 3.

Williams holds that she remains committed to the importance of “a theoretical understanding of relations between films and viewers,” but would like to expand that understanding through historical, cultural, and gender & sexuality studies 4. The volume explores apparatus theory, historicity, and gender & sexuality (via horror) as approaches to altering the narrowness of “the gaze” 5.

I.

“Modernizing Vision” – Jonathan Crary: Against Baudry’s assertion that the “cinematic apparatus represents the culmination of the Western philosophical tradition of a transcendental idealist subject,” Crary argues, as he does in Techniques of the Observer, that the earlier half of the 19th century saw a transition to a bodily spectator who was “the key producer – rather than neutral registerer” – of images 6. For Williams, Crary’s argument “radically alters the standard division of 20th-century art into a classical mimesis and an elite, avant-garde modernism that is supposedly alone in its capability of returning the spectator to an awareness of the effects of an apparatus” by blurring “the boundaries between body and image on the one hand, and body and machine for viewing on the other” in a “Foucauldian approach to the discontinuities of the history of vision” 7.

“Phenomenology and the Film Experience” – Vivian Sobchack: Sobchack complicates the divisions between subject and object by arguing that film “is an act of vision with both a subjectivity that views and a view that is seen” 9. Thus watching the cinema is dialectical and, as for Crary, bodily 9.

“Cinema and the Postmodern Condition” – Anne Friedberg: Friedberg claims that “many of the arguments about the detemporalized and despatialized experience of postmodernity are applicable to modernity as well,” tracing a “mobilized gaze” in the form of the flaneur or flaneuse, according mobility to the 19th century female shopper in addition to the male dandy 8. Friedberg: Jameson suggests a link between schizophrenia and postmodern subjectivity (see also A Thousand Plateaus), based on uncertainty about signifiers of language and time, “the mise-en-abime of referents lost in the labyrinthine chain of signifiers” 72.  What Jameson argues for the nostalgia film Friedberg claims (ala Metz’s “discours” taken for “histoire”) is true of the collapse of narrative, production, and projection for all film 73. This is heightened in the 90s with at-home recording, VCR control, and the many showtimes and screens of the multiplex, arranged as so many shop windows to a flaneuse: “As I’ve begun to indicate, both cinema’s and television’s capacity for endless replay and repetition – the remarketing of the past – consists in more than the textual or thematic use of nostalgia, but becomes a commodity form itself” 76.

II.

“Cinematic Spectatorship before the Apparatus” – Vanessa R. Schwartz: Schwartz traces a variety of 19th century Parisian attractions that were “more like real life” than their predecessors, including morgue and wax tableaus demonstrating newspaper fascinations 11.

“An Aesthetic of Astonishment” – Tom Gunning: As in his “Cinema of Attractions,” Gunning argues here that narrative was not the dominant form of early cinema, bur rather “the exhibitionistic display of events and actions” 11. Williams argues that Gunning’s “description of the difference between early cinema’s spectatorial relations and those of classical narrative has recently begun to vie with Laura Mulvey’s classic formulation of the spectatorial relations of classical cinema as one of the most frequently cited concepts in the field,” probably because these ideas underlie classical cinema as well, and do so at least as much as “the gaze” 11. Gunning: “A film like Edison’s Electrocuting an Elephant from 1903 shows the temporal logic of this scenography or display. The elephant is led onto an electrified plate, and secured. Smoke rises from its feet and after a moment the elephant falls on its side. The moment of technologically advanced death is neither further explained nor dramatised. Likewise a fictional film… demonstrate[s] the solicitation of viewer curiosity and its fulfilment y the brief moment of revelation typical of the cinema of attractions. This is a cinema of instants, rather than developing situations” 123. (It would be interesting to compare this to American Psycho).

“Early Cinema, Late Cinema: Transformations of the Public Sphere” – Miriam Hansen: “The spectatorial lessons of early cinema, as Miriam Hansen’s essay so well explains, may have more to do with our own, postclassical and postmodern, sense of existing as heterogenous spectators in an era of fragmented and diverse spectacles that have more affinity to early cinema than to a cinema of classical spectatorship” 12. For Hansen, the aesthetics of “the glance” continue to replace the aesthetics of “the gaze” (this is obviously even more true now) 12. If cinema and mass culture figure in “the structuration of subjectivity” for the Frankfurt School, Hansen argues that the public sphere must be expanded: “The political task of such critique is thus to make connections between isolated fragments of experience – across segregated domains of work and leisure, fiction and fact, and past and present – to identify intersections among diverse and competing publics… The cinema and mass culture can be catalysts for new forms of community and solidarity” (sounds like faceting!) 13. Hansen refers to the recent Frankfurt School critic Kluge: “central to his film aesthetics is a concept of montage predicated on relationality – he refers to montage as the morphology of relations… a textual climbing wall designed to encourage viewers to draw their own connections across generic divisions of fiction and documentary and of disparate realms and registers of experience” (like Bunuel and Dali’s Un Chien Andalou?) 144. “A film is successful in that regard if it manages to activate (rather than merely usurp) what Kluge calls “the film in the spectator’s head” – the horizon of experience as instantiated in the subject. The specific conections encouraged by the film respond to the structural blockages of experience perpetuated by the dominant public sphere, in particular, in the case of (West) Germany, the divisions imposed by the ossified programming structures of state-sponsored television” 144.

This is a “still to some extent modernist film aesthetics” for Hansen 145. If Frankfurt School theory would encourage a study of film reception able to account for personal memory and the unconscious, this might dangerously reduce such phenomena to the idiosyncratic, “missing out on the more systematic parameters of subjectivity that set off the viewer’s memory, the contrast between the nostalgically evoked local theater setting… and the context of electronic and global postmodernity… the likelihood that the viewer in the third row, like the one behind her, may usually watch soap operas… the fact that the viewer belongs to the social group of women – differentiated according to class, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and generation – which renders her relation to the film shown, probably one version or another of classical cinema, problematic in particular ways” 146. “Indeed, the cinema can, at certain junctures, function as a matrix for challenging social positions of identity and otherness and as a catalyst for new forms of community and solidarity. That this may happen on the terrain of late-capitalist consumption, however, does not mean that we should resign ourselves to the range of existing products and modes of production. On the contrary, the category of the public retains a critical, utopian edge, predicated on the ideal of collective self-determination. (this perspective mandates not only maintaining critical distinctions with regard to the commercially disseminated fare but also envisioning alternative media products and the alternative organization of the relations of representation and reception. In that sense, the concept of the public forestalls the idealization of consumption that has become habitual in some quarters of cultural studies” 146. For Hansen, the spectator positioning of classical cinema was a response to the diverse and unruly audiences of early cinema 147. The preclassical and the postclassical are periods “characterized by a profound transformation of the relations of cultural representation and reception and by a measure of instability that makes the intervening decades look relatively stable by contrast… Both stages of media culture vary from the classical norm of controlling reception through a strong diegetic effect, ensured by particular textual strategies and a suppression of the exhibition context…. a greater leeway, for better or for worse – in interacting with the film – a greater awareness of exhibition and cultural intertexts… Both early modern and postmodern media publics draw on the periphery – then, on socially marginalized and diverse constituencies within American national culture, and today, on massive movements of migration on a global scale that, along with the globalization of media consumption, have irrevocably changed the terms of local and national identity” 149. Hansen concludes that “Drawing a trajectory between these two moments in the history of public life may make classical cinema and the classical mass culture of the New Deal and Cold War eras look more like a historical interlude, a deep-freeze perhaps, than the teleological norm that it has become and that has shaped our approaches to reception. And once we have shifted the frame, classical cinema itself may no longer look quite as classical as study of its dominant mode suggests” 149.

III.

“Paradoxes of Spectatorship” – Judith Mayne: Mayne deals with the gap between the “ideal” viewer (address) and the “real” viewer (reception) 14. For Mayne, fantasy is vital because “its pleasures are the pleasures of mobility, of moving around among a range of different desiring positions,” and she challenges the notion that the binary of sexual difference is the only source of filmic desire 15. Mayne: “the apparagus can have unexpected effects,” though on the other extreme are theories that “mediate any notion of the cinematic institution out of existence,” which “substitutes one monolithic political notion for another. The challenge, then, is to understand the complicated ways in which meanings are both assigned and created” 159.

“In a series of interviews with teenage girls, for instance, Angela McRobbie concluded that their passion for a film like Flashdance had far more to do with their own desire for physical autonomy than with any simple notion of acculturation to a patriarchal definition of feminine desirability. Now it seems to me that one can be stunned by these tentative conclusions only if the model of the cinematic institution one had in the first place corresponded to the conspiracy theory view of capitalism popular in some New Left circles in the 1960s… Unfortunately, this type of work has led to a peculiar reading of the reception of  mass culture, whereby any and all responses are critical ones… power [should be] analyzed rather than taken for granted” 160. “These claims are reminiscent of the kinds of implications in ‘reading against the grain’ arguments about the classical cinema – i.e., that what appears to be a smooth ideological surface is marred, rather, by rebellion, critique, or even implicit rejection of those norms. What the reading of fantasy brings to such claims, however, is the insistence that investment and pleasure in film watching involve a range of subject positions. Apparatus theory tends to pose a spectator so aligned with one subject position that anything departing from that position would have to seem radical or contestatory by definition. The exploration of the classical cinema in terms of fantasy enlarges considerably what possibilities are contained within the fantasy structures engaged by film viewing and in so doing inflects differently the notion of ‘reading against the grain.’ Far from the vantage point of fantasy, the distinction between with and against the grain of the film becomes somewhat moot” 168. Mayne warns against predicating this simply on sexual difference. Instead, she suggests “negotiated readings,” though even these, for her, fall on a too-predictable scale: if “the dominant reading is one fully of a piece with the ideology of the text,” then “the negotiated reading is more ambivalent; that is, the ideological stance of a product is adjusted to specific social conditions of the viewers. The oppositional reading is, then, one totally opposed to the ideology in question” 171. “I do not wish to evoke a traditional and moralistic Marxism whereby art provides us with a glimpse of the truly integrated human beings we will all become in the communist future… the discussion of utopianism seems to fall into exactly the kind of large abstractions – having to do with the ‘human subject under capitalism or patriarchy’ – that McRobbie sets out… to challenge” 175.

“Film theory has been so bound by the heterosexual symmetry that supposedly governs Hollywood cinema that it has ignored the possibility, for instance, that one of the distinct pleasures of the cinema may well be a safe zone in which homosexual as well as heterosexual desires can be fantasized and acted out. ” 176. I am not speaking here of an innate capacity to read against the grain, but rather of the way in which desire and pleasure in the cinema may well function to problematize the categories of heterosexual versus homosexual” 176. “The notion of negotiation is useful only if one is attentive to the problematic as well as utopian uses to which negotiation can be put by both the subjects one is investigating and the researchers themselves… negotiation seems to be a variation of the Marxist notion of mediation – the notion, that is, of a variety of instances that complicate or mediate in various ways the relationship between individuals and the economic structure of capitalism” 177. Mayne uses Greenblatt to point out that the appearance of simultaneity in capitalism is a balance between “drive toward differentiation and the drive toward monological organization,” so that not all presumably “unauthorized” forms of observation are actually radical 178. Cathy Gallagher has pointed out that “under certain historical circumstances, the display of ideological contradictions is completely consonant with the maintenance of oppressive social relations” 179. For Mayne, “the model is no longer the passive, manipulated (and inevitably white and heterosexual) spectator, but rather the contradictory, divided, and fragmented subject” 179.

“The Eye of Horror” – Carol J. Clover: Taking the horror film’s ideal male spectator to hand, Clover argues “not that horror always forecloses voyeuristic pleasure but that the real investment in this genre is in the reactive or introjective gaze that vaginally takes in and absorbs what comes at it” 16-17. In fact, “one of the most important pleasures of film viewing resides in the journey made by one gendered identity (the male viewer) into the position of another gendered identity (the female victim-hero)” 17. Clover: In Peeping Tom, “the tripod is equipped with a hidden, extendable spike and the movie camera with a mirror, neither of which appears in the visual frame of the murder scenes; when Mark moves in for a close-up, the spike pierces the victim’s throat and she sees her own terrified face in the mirror” 185-6. Thus, the girls, according to Mark, see their own deaths – see their own fear. As it turns out, Mark is continuing his father’s work, the documentary of Mark’s entire life, including Mark’s suicide at the hands of the same “magic camera.” Mark shows Helen the studio, where his Freudian repetition impulse to return to the scene of trauma is evident by many reels of film. The movie should “be taken at face value as a commentary not only on the symbiotic interplay of sadistic and masochistic impulses in the individual viewer but equally as a commentary, within the context of horror film making, on the symbiotic interplay of the sadistic work of the filmmaker and the masochistic stake of the spectator – an arrangement on which horror cinema insists” 191. This eye penetrates, but as the target stuck by an arrow at the very start of the film suggests, it is also penetrable (again, Un Chien Andalou!) 197.

Clover also points to Poltergeist, a film in which the absorptive medium of television (vs the phallus of the camera in Demon Seed or Peeping Tom), “does not strike out and penetrate its viewers but instead sucks them in and swallows them up – in images and language that could hardly be more vaginal” 199. Clover refers to Hitchcock’s directions for Psycho – to make the audience itself feel stabed 201. “Horror movies themselves, in short, bear out in both letter and spirit the double gaze of Peeping Tom. On one side is the killer’s (or monster’s) predatory or assaultive gaze, with which… the audience is directly invited to collude… associated with the camera… resolutely figured as male. What is striking about this male gaze, however, is how often it remains at the level of wish or threat – how seldom it carries through with its depredations and, even when it does succeed, how emphatically it is then brought to ruin… the status of a fiction straining to be a fact… On the other side is the reactive gaze. It too is associated with the cinematic or televisual apparatus – but as its object, not its subject. The frequency, in horror, of images of victim-eyes under attack underlines the interest of horror in hurtable vision, vision on the defense. The reactive gaze too invites our collusion through the steady accumulation of ‘normal’ first-person shots… the usual empathic devices. And the reactive gaze too is resolutely gendered – but as feminine, not masculine.” (again, American Psycho) 203.

If Mulvey allows no place for the female spectator and Metz’s “imaginary signifier” makes the spectator a voyeur, both Mulvey and Metz stop short of this at points, Mulvey acknowledging the issue and Metz acknowledging an “introjective looking” opposed to projective looking, a “receiving, recording, sensitive surface” onto which “things are deposited” or “projected” 205. Clover is concerned with complicating how viewers inhabit and critique such gendered forms, lest we work “to naturalize sadistic violence as a feature of masculinity” 214. Actually, the male viewer does identify with the female victim-hero (it would be interesting to think about the androgyny of Sigourney Weaver in Alien or Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween). Perhaps our revulsion at horror is not simply that we fear being made to identify with rapists, but with victims – to be so explicitly and vulnerably gendered as female 216.

“Spectatorship as Drag” – Rhona J. Berenstein: Berenstein suggests that this is not only transgressive for male spectators, but for female spectators as well, who might explore Judith Butler’s notion (“gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original”) as a means of inhabiting or desiring the male aggressor 18. Berenstein also focuses on ways in which gay and lesbian viewers might identify with “a socially marginalized monster” in “the safe zone” of the darkened theater 18. Berenstein quotes Lawrence S. Kubie: “from childhood and throughout life… in varying proportions or emphases, the human goal seems almost invariably to be both sexes, with the inescapable consequence that we are always attempting in every moment and every act both to affirm and deny our gender identities” 239. Part of the fearfulness of the monster is its destablilization of gender norms 239. Freud’s oscillation theory between sadism and masochism, then, could be a fulcrum for reading horror 240.

Drag, in particular, as Esther Newton has pointed out, presents a double bind: the shock of it underscores the “naturalness” of binary gender, but the success of it underscores the performativity of it, undermining that same reality or naturalness 246 (here it could be useful to think of Psycho – the success of drag). In some “Afterthoughts to ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,'” Mulvey writes that  female spectators oscillate between passivity and transvestitism – between identifying with the on-screen woman and the male point-of-view 251. Mary Ann Doane tried to improve this model by pointing out its passivity, in which “female viewing” is “overidentification with women and images” 251. Instead, Doane suggests that the distancing female observer constructs herself performatively with distance from the image. Berenstein then describes Williams’ argument for the sympathy between girl and monster, often based on similarity or lust, “shared difference with the male,” though Berenstein thinks this downplays “desire based on sexual sameness” 252. Sedgwick has pointed out the problem of identifying homosexual desire with identification, rather than difference 253.

Berenstein suggests that the conventional permission for heterosexual women to scream and cower is itself a masquerade, a masking and unmasking of the eyes that mimics what is onscreen 258. Berenstein suggests lesbians may engage in the same over-performance to conceal desire, even as they identify with the aggressive fiend and desire the female victim 260. Masquerade is “an apt response to the images of a genre that consistently trades in ambiguous sexual identities and represents the concept of disguise as a narrative, visual, and marketing trope” 260. “If a heterosexual woman identifies with a heterosexual hero, she identifies against her own constructed identity on the basis of sex (she is not a man) and sexual orientation (in her everyday life, she is not a lesbian)… even more striking if we shift the terms of the participants and position a heterosexual man identifying with a heterosexual woman’s point of view… against his own identity… The pattern continues to shift if we posit a lesbian viewer identifying with a heterosexual male… against herself on the basis of biological sex, she identifies with the hero through the operations of desire… transvestitism not only depends on differences but also accommodates similarities” 260. (Is this problematically flat in terms of how desire functions?)

Whether this has impact outside the theater is unclear for Berenstein, but “the masquerade involves distance from the image not only because womanliness is performed (by the monster, the heroine, and the spectator) but also because the sight of the monster (a figure who resembles a woman but is not one) generates a schism between the performer and the sex role adopted…. Masqureade does not indicate that behind a feminine veneer lies a woman who is a man but that behind the mask resides someone who is not a man and who is terrifying and powerful precisely because she resembles a man but does not possess her father’s penis… the terrors offered by the masquerade of manliness are that behind the mask resides a man who is not a woman but who is feminine nonetheless… Spectatorship-as-drag, therefore, transposes classic horror’s sex and gender ambiguities to the spectating domain… transgressive identifications and desires lurk beneath or on the surface of gender displays… the  lure of conventional roles does not counteract social expectations… classic horror’s transgressive spectatorial pleasures are intimately connected to the genre’s simultaneous support of conventional desires” 261.