Age of Innocence (1993)

I’m really proud of the following paragraph from my Scorsese 15 page Final Paper:

“There is a good argument to be made for how the reader/viewer never really gets a clear understanding of who Ellen is because all that we see of her is mediated through Newland’s point of view who, as an aesthete, has a view of Ellen that is very much romanticized and mediated through the art he loves and fetishizes. This is seen in how almost all of his major meetings with Ellen is preceded or followed by an art form of some sort that informs his manner of interaction with her. He is in attendance at Gounod’s Faust during the daisy scene when he is reintroduced to Ellen for the first time. The next time he sees her at Mrs. Mingott’s is preceded by a shot of The Death of Jane McCrea (1804) by John Vanderlyn. In Ellen’s house, decorating her drawing room is a painting of a woman with a parasol but no face from the pre-Impressionist Macchiaioli School of Italian painters (Scorsese 189). Their sorrowful parting after he convinces her not to divorce the Count is followed by a highly melodramatic scene, also about departure, from Dion Boucicault’s The Shaughraun (1874), which he then rewrites in a wish-fulfilment fantasy at the Patroon house at Skuytercliff. In his final meeting with Ellen before his marriage, hanging over the fireplace is a Fernand Khnopff painting called The Sphinx or The Caresses (1896). At the Mingott house in Newport, right before he is asked to call Ellen from the shore path is a painting by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema titled Expectations (1885). And finally at the Louvre, 26 years later, Newland is appreciating Peter Paul Rubens’ Apotheosis of Henry IV and the Proclamation of the Regency of Marie de Medici (1624), which contains a complex blend of an allegory of the times and mythological elements (Adeline), when he comes to the realization that Ellen had become to him ‘an imaginary loved one in a book or picture,’ ‘the complete vision of all that he had missed,’ more ‘abstract’ than real.”

Here’s a break down of some of the paintings in Martin Scorsese’s Age of Innocence (1993):

the_death_of_jane_mccrea_john_vanderlyn_1804_crop

Title: The Death of Jane McCrea (1804) by John Vanderlyn

Significance: Newland sees Ellen as a captive of the aristocratic tribe in New York

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Title: Signora seduta all’aperto by Giovanni Fattori

Significance: Ellen’s motivations remain inscrutable to the end of the film. The figure in the painting has no face because she doesn’t let you see it? Or is it a matter of the blankness inviting the viewer to impose/imagine an expression in that blank space?

fernand_khnopff_002

Title: The Sphinx or The Caresses by Fernand Khnopff (1896)

Significance: Ellen is a sphinx that Newland can’t understand. She is a female mystery, and enigma. But she is also threatening as in the original oedipal myth. She is also a myth and an unreal conception of the male imagination (Newland’s). The painting is also called The Caresses and this is also the scene where Newland and Ellen share that odd embrace:

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expectations-large

Title: Expectations (1885) by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Significance: this is the painting Newland sees right before he goes to fetch Ellen from the shore path. Ellen is posed the way the woman is posed in this painting with both of them looking out to sea in anticipation of something. This casts Ellen in the position of art object to Newland’s subject position. The title of the painting is also ambiguous. It is unclear whether the woman is expecting to see something or whether we are expecting her to see something? Sort of like how Newland expected Ellen to turn around while she simultaneously expected him to come to her. So it’s a matter of who’s doing the expecting and whose point of view is privileged that becomes important.

peter_paul_rubens_-_the_apotheosis_of_henry_iv_and_the_proclamation_of_the_regency_of_marie_de_mc3a9dicis_-_wga20342

Title: Apotheosis of Henry IV and the Proclamation of the Regency of Marie de Medici (1624) by Peter Paul Rubens

Significance: the painting contains both allegorical and mythical elements making it a blend of both history and fiction. The allegorical element in the painting refers to how the woman on the right in the throne is supposed to be Marie de Medici who had to assume the throne after the assassination of Henri IV (Louvre). The point being that this painting is a blend of both historical fact and myth just like how Ellen had become to Newland – “Whenever he thought of Ellen Olenska, it had been abstractly, serenely, like an imaginary loved one in a book or picture. She had become the complete vision of all that he had missed.”

To find out more about the other paintings in The Age of Innocence and in other movies, checkout the following website: Paintings in Movies

Alternative Theory: The Essay Not Written

The Road Not Taken

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood

– Robert Frost

As anyone who spoke to me while I was struggling with this final paper will know, I struggled greatly with keeping my essay within the page count. So for this Alternative Theory assignment, I thought of all the possible incarnations this essay could have taken on, all the side streets and avenues it could have gone down, but didn’t, and decided to put this monster of a hyperlinked mess on my blog as a tribute to The Essay Not Written…

Because my mind is an associative map of fragmented thoughts and images, you will find also in the hyperlinks not just paragraphs foregone and similar theories not mentioned but sometimes videos to other films not mentioned in my essay and images, screenshots, videos, gifs (moving images!) I wished I could include in the print version of my paper to illustrate the points I tried to make in my essay.

The Negotiation of Female Sexuality in Were-Creature Feature Films

One of the main arguments in Teresa de Lauretis’ “Desire in Narrative” is how women are constantly “seduced into femininity” so they can be “remade again and again as woman” (588). By looking at the Oedipal myth, Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, Laura Mulvey’s theory of “the gaze” from her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” and the filmic works of Alfred Hitchcock, de Lauretis offers a comprehensive cross-section across various discourses to suggest how women have been circumscribed in an all-encompassing Oedipal narrative that aims to shape them into fitting the mold of male desire. By taking a closer look at Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (1942), Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (1984), and John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps (2000), this essay hopes to illustrate how a novel way out of this circumscribing Oedipal narrative can be achieved through a cinesthetic experience of the female body as it is portrayed in these particular were-creature films, particularly in terms of how visceral contact with flesh, skin and body parts becomes a way of bringing these female characters back into contact with a kind of lived reality.

In order to flesh out this idea of a cinesthetic experience, this essay will draw on the Vivian Sobchack paper on phenomenology and film that coined this neologism – “What My Fingers Knew.” In this paper, Sobchack privileges the lived body of the spectator as the primary site where we first make “literal sense” of films through our powers of perception, before we can make “[figurative] sense” or meaning of them through more cognitive frameworks (58-9). In order to make this argument Sobchack draws on the medical definition of synesthesia – “an involuntary experience in which the stimulation of one sense cause[s] a perception in another” (Richard Cytowic qtd. in Sobchack 67) – so as to establish how film, which is a primarily audio-visual medium, can stimulate the other senses available to us.

Furthermore, the value behind reading cinema as a synesthetic experience is that these bodily reactions happen “involuntarily” and therefore bypass the gatekeeping function of cultural and cognitive frameworks embedded in our conscious minds – while still being of it (Barthes qtd. in Sobchack 60) – thereby turning our bodily reactions “potentially subversive” (67). This element of subversiveness is most useful when deploying a lived body experience to combat the circumscribing Oedipal narrative that attempts to define the female experience.

However, instead of focusing solely on the lived bodies of the spectators, this essay would also examine onscreen bodies and the screen as body. The precedence for this is already heralded in the portmanteau term coined by Sobchack because inherent in the term ‘cinesthetic’ is the blurring of boundaries between offscreen spectatorial bodies, onscreen bodies of the characters, and the screen as body (67). Furthermore, when Sobchack tries to explain her lived body experience of Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993), she describes her skin as “both mine and not mine,” “’here’ and ‘there,’” and in both the subject and object position (66). This coincides with her later explanation of the “irreducible and dynamic relational structure of reversibility and reciprocity” that exists between one’s literal and lived body and the “figural objects of bodily provocation on the screen” (79). As a further shortening of the distance between onscreen bodies of characters and offscreen bodies of spectators, Sobchack borrows from Elena del Rio to suggest that “body and image no longer function as discrete units, but as surfaces in contact” (65), thereby providing a sense of the immediate exchange that occurs between onscreen and offscreen bodies such that together with their continuous influence on each other, they also seem to share the same metaphysical space of the screen.

Further reasons for downplaying the emphasis on the lived bodies of spectators and expanding this definition to include screen bodies and screen as body, include most importantly the desire to avoid presenting an overly solipsistic argument by overemphasizing the spectatorial experience. This is seconded by how Thomas Elsaesser and Malte Hagener in their book chapter, “Cinema as Skin – Body and Touch,” acknowledge “all positions concentrating on skin, contact, and touch… [focus] more strongly on the receiving subject than on the filmic material: the aesthetic experience becomes more important than the aesthetic object” (130-1). And this kind of emphasis on the aesthetic experience of the spectator at the expense of the aesthetic object will grossly undermine the efforts the three films mentioned above took to incorporate a phenomenological approach to the suffering of onscreen bodies.

Having argued for this essay’s particular use of Sobchack’s theory of phenomenology, one further caveat needs to be made about the nature of the monstrous women to be discussed in this essay. Unlike in Barbara Creed’s essay, “Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection,” that deals mainly with the uncontrollable “generative mother seen only as the abyss, the monstrous vagina, the origin of all life threatening to re-absorb what it once birthed” (62), the female characters in the three films to be examined are all on the cusp of womanhood, and are therefore dealing with a different phase of a woman’s life cycle, separate from motherhood.

Instead these films are about female protagonists experiencing periods of great physical and emotional change hence the appropriateness in the use of the were-creature narrative, which is also about great and violent transformative moments. This is seen in how both Rosaleen in Company, and the eponymous Ginger are menarcheal women, and Irena is forced to grapple with her awakening female sexuality due to her romantic relations with and marriage to the male lead, Oliver, in Cat People. Thus what is at stake here is the refiguring of the innocence of a budding female sexuality into the body of a monstrous other used to terrorise women into fearing their own bodies. However, this essay will also suggest that these monstrous bodies on screen function as a kind of clarion call for the need for a change in the patriarchal narrative that aims to suppress and control female sexuality.

Teresa de Lauretis explains this patriarchal narrative by referencing the Oedipal myth and explaining how male-centred the myth is with Medusa and the Sphinx continuing to survive the test of time only as guests in the Oedipal narrative (579). By quoting Algirdas Julien Greimas, de Lauretis establishes that “the semantic structure of all narrative is the movement of an actant-subject toward an actant-object” (581), wherein the role of actant-object is invariably filled by woman who represents the “plot-space” of narrative completion (584). The problem arises when women become an obstacle to narrative closure by being “structurally insoluble” (589). De Lauretis explains this structural insolubility by referring to Freud’s writing on the “dark continent” of femininity, in which he describes femininity as a “riddle” and an “enigma” (580). Drawing a parallel between the “riddle of femininity” and the “riddle of the sphinx” (580-1), de Lauretis seems to suggest that if women remain an enigma they become narratively inassimilable in the Oedipal narrative and an obstacle to narrative closure. As such, the only way to circumvent this conundrum was to remove women from the equation altogether and refashion her through narrative strategies into an attainable object of desire, just as how “[Freud] first formulates – defines – the question and then answers it” (581).

The constructedness of woman is consistently represented across all three films. Oblique references to the societal machinery that aid in the narrativising of what it means to be woman are seen in the brief mention of Irena Dubrovna’s involvement in the fashion industry the first time we see her on screen watching and sketching the caged panther at the zoo looking for inspiration for her next collection in Cat People. Similar echoes of the insidiousness of this patriarchal machinery is seen in the mise en scene of Rosaleen’s room in Company which is full of the accoutrements of femininity like mirrors, make-up, dresses, magazines, dolls and doll houses. The manner in which these pieces of information are introduced – briefly and casually – and positioned such that they fade into the background of the films, allow them to form a kind of subconscious in the film text that resonates with the spectator in a way where it is both noticed and forgotten, lingering on the edge of consciousness such that this subtle foregrounding of the narrative machinery of the patriarchy turns the screen itself into a kind of cinesthetic body that does not just represent this aspect of lived reality but presents it in a kind of “ongoing present tense of sensory perception that, through technology, constitutes and enables the film for us and for itself” to be a lived reality (Sobchack, 74). The subversiveness in reproducing this lived reality comes from the knowing representation of it so it may be better deconstructed[1].

Ginger Snaps, on the other hand, offers more explicit critique of the way the patriarchal narrative molds women to fit male desire. For instance when Ginger delivers the line about how “girls can only be a slut, bitch, tease or the virgin next door,” it is directed not just at Brigitte but to the audience too. Furthermore, when the Fitzgerald sisters try and distract their mother from Ginger’s lycanthropy and the dead girl in the freezer by playing up feminine stereotypes like Ginger demanding not to be looked at because she feels “fat” and Brigitte asking their mother “what do guys want?” just as she opens the freezer to store some freshly purchased meat, degrees of interpellation amongst women start to emerge. The menarcheal maiden whose relevance to the patriarchy is only beginning to emerge is seen as not yet fully interpellated, and therefore in a position to buck against the descending constraints of the Oedipal narrative, versus the mother who has been fully inducted.

This is seen in the manner in which Pamela (Ginger’s and Brigitte’s mother) accepts these performances of femininity so unquestioningly. In Pamela, we see a woman who has become completely subsumed in the patriarchal narrative such that she appears out of touch with reality. There is a similar disconnect in the character of Rosaleen’s mother in Company who seems to have given up her power to tell stories and control her own narrative – and thereby control the image on screen – unlike Rosaleen, a menarcheal maiden, and her grandmother, the crone who has outlived her usefulness to the patriarchy, whose stories fill the runtime of Company with vividly interwoven narratives full of dramatic storytelling and visceral transformation sequences in an attempt to reclaim narratives for women.

Instead it is the direct confrontation with the lived body that brings these mother-figures back in touch with their lived reality. This is seen most clearly in Ginger Snaps, especially when Pamela’s lack of appropriate reaction to her daughters’ peculiar behaviours is juxtaposed against her husband’s, Henry’s, suspicion and horror. For instance, immediately after the sequence mentioned above where the girls seek Pamela’s advice on how to appeal to boys as a way of distracting her from finding Trina’s body that they have temporarily stored in the freezer, Pamela and Henry have the following exchange:

  • Henry: “I think they’re up to something.”
  • Pamela: “They’re just being normal teenage girls.”
  • Henry: “Then why are they suddenly so interested in what you have to say?”
  • Pamela: “Stay in your own little world, Henry. This one just confuses you.”

There are multiple shades of ‘normal’ that emerge from the above exchange. On one hand, what is considered ‘normal’ for Ginger and Brigitte is the staging of multiple, gorily made-up suicides[2] around their suburban house for a school project. On the other hand, for Pamela, “normal teenage girl” behavior is asking for advice on how to deal with boys. What is really abnormal is Pamela’s easy confusion between the two that demonstrates the high degree of anticipation Pamela feels towards fielding such questions – as if her daughters’ lives are unfolding according to a pre-existing schema. Most importantly, however, is the irony and mild-mannered tragedy of just how completely out of synch with reality Pamela is. The fact is, while a woman’s world would confuse Henry, Pamela is living a completely fictional existence written for her by the patriarchy that creates a barrier between her and her lived reality.

It is not until a later scene when Pamela and Henry discover Trina’s severed fingers in the garden that Pamela realizes what is going on. In this scene, again it is Henry who reacts immediately with a horrified exclamation when he sees the severed fingers while Pamela’s initial reaction is to wave the fingers off as props from “the girls’ death project” and chide him for being a “big baby.” However, the moment she picks up the fingers, the reaction shot of her face shows a dawning realisation that these fingers are indeed real, severed fingers. To link these two scenes back to de Lauretis’ theory about a circumscribing Oedipal narrative that aims to narrate a female experience, and Sobchack’s theory of a cinesthetic body as potentially subversive, it would seem that Pamela has been so enfolded in this Oedipal narrative that she has completely lost touch with her lived reality in comparison to Henry who has no problem interpreting the events around him because they live in a reality of patriarchal design; and it eventually comes down to visceral contact with these severed fingers to trigger a phenomenological response and realization that puts Pamela back in touch with reality, thereby snapping her out of this suffocating Oedipal narrative of suburbia and domesticity[3].

There are similar results for an array of characters across all three films where confronting monstrous bodies forces characters to engage and grapple with a lived reality that they seem to have forgotten about or been oblivious to. In Cat People, Irena is from a small Balkan village where the women turn into aggressive panther women when they experience heightened emotions or sexual arousal. Knowing this about herself, she avoids consummating her marriage to Oliver despite her love for him. However, instead of being met with patience and understanding, she is cheated on and forced to seek psychiatric help from a quack doctor whose best course of treatment for her supposed neurosis is to force himself on her in the final moments of the film, forcing her to kill him and flee to the zoo where she dies from a fatal wound she received from the doctor, and reverts to her panther form. It is only when Oliver and the other woman, Alice, see her carcass do they realize that her fear was real all along. Thus in Cat People we get a slight inflection on the idea of the Oedipal narrative because it is not just women who are circumscribed in this narrative about what it means to be woman, but men too have been fooled by this patriarchal narrative. Similarly in Company, when Rosaleen’s mother sees the silver crucifix hanging around the neck of the wolf near the end of the film, she is finally forced to acknowledge that the tales of werewolves grandmother and Rosaleen tell are not just old wives’ tales, and that that wolf before her was once her daughter.

The conflation of woman and beast in these three narratives also point towards the limited options the Oedipal narrative affords women. By having Ginger, Rosaleen and Irena be both the protagonists and antagonists of their respective narratives, these three women are forced to confront their dual and contradictory nature as “object of desire” and the “obstacle to be overcome” (de Lauretis). As such, we begin to see the Oedipal narrative start to collapse. Just as Ginger points out, women’s limited options boil down to playing the virgin or the vamp, resulting in the signs of female excesses that fail to fit into these roles being written on the body. As women who manifest masculine traits such as being sexually aggressive or having an active libido, they are given hirsute bodies, and in the case of Ginger, protuberances along her back and a false phallus in the form of a tail. As women with female excesses that defy the civilizing limits of the Oedipal narrative, they are made bestial and turned into panthers, wolves and in the case of Ginger, a pale sickly werewolf replete with extra teats along her torso.

Thus, the monstrous forms these characters take on can be considered a kind of catachresis – a “false and improper metaphor” that “forces us to confront and name a gap in language” (Sobchack 81), except that in this case it is a gap in cinematic representation. And just like de Lauretis points out, the true power of “monsters” lie in their nature as “beings awesome to behold, whose power to capture vision, to lure the gaze, is conveyed in the very etymon of the word ’monster’” (579). As such, the monstrous form of these female characters shifts the power of the gaze away from the beholder to that which is beheld. Audiences cannot help but stare, their vision “captured” against their will, thus forcing them to confront the catachresis represented by these monstrous forms. Furthermore, when we look at the etymology of the word “monster,” it goes back to the Latin forms monere and monstrum, both of which carry within them the meaning of “warning” and “portent.” Thus, the monstrous female form can be said to be subversive because it serves both to point out a gap in our representational structure when it comes to women and as a warning of the dangers of such a gap if it remains unaddressed.

The limits of the Oedipal narrative are further tested in the ends that these characters meet. When there is no other recourse but to kill off Irena and Ginger in order to achieve narrative closure, thereby turning them into tragic figures that failed to overcome their own natures, a disruption of the pleasure derived from what de Lauretis calls the “double identification” of “gaze” and “image” is created. De Lauretis debunks the false binary between “identification-with-the-look as masculine and identification-with-the-image as feminine” by pointing out “no image can be identified, or identified with, apart from the look that inscribes it as image, and vice versa” (586). As such, the female spectator must identify with both the “gaze” and the “image” – male protagonist and patriarchal conception of woman – in a “double identification” in order to derive pleasure at the movies (587), while at the same time imbibing the Oedipal narrative, assimilating it and being assimilated by it.

By reasserting women’s original status as obstacle to be overcome, which the Oedipal narrative tries to elide by turning women into objects of desire, a dissonance is created. The monstrous form that exceeds the roles set aside for women as object of desire in the patriarchal narrative, then produces a coenesthetic effect. Coenesthesia is defined as “the potential and perception of one’s whole sensorial being” and likened to the “general and open sensual condition of the child at birth” due to a “prelogical and nonhierarchical arrangement of the senses” (Sobchack 68-9). This would suggest that when audiences are confronted with a scene so drastically different from what they are accustomed to, a coenesthetic effect can be achieved because in seeing something they have never seen before, the scene would have a horizontalising effect on all the senses as the audience tries to make sense of what they are looking at.

For example, in Ginger’s final moments, her monstrous form is shrouded in chiaroscuro. The same thick strip of white light across her full breast and the site of penetration with a long carving knife also highlights the unusual choice of having a pale, mostly hairless and clearly gendered look for the beast. The coenesthetic effect of this serves to defamiliarise audience’s popular preconceptions of werewolves as physically imposing, dark-furred and male, hence forcing them to read the image and the werewolf narrative anew, as an extended metaphor for the biological transformations women have to face during puberty. Biological changes that are horrific enough in their own right but further exacerbated by an Oedipal narrative that puts women out of synch with their own bodies as seen in how Ginger’s growing monstrosity is closely marked by her refashioning of her public image to match the mold of male desire.

Similar coenesthetic effects are achieved in the transformation sequences in Company and while these transformation sequences happen to male werewolves in the film, they come to bear on the final image we have of Rosaleen as a fully transformed wolf if we read the image of the wolf with the silver crucifix as a narrative image. A “narrative image” is defined as a “the join[ing] of image and story, the interlocking of visual and narrative registers effected by the cinematic apparatus of the look” (de Lauretis 584). Thus, even though we are not shown the rending of flesh and the tearing of skin in Rosaleen’s transformation, we are conscious and aware of it because of the earlier scenes in the film. Perhaps the decision to omit an image of a skinless woman comes down to how “culturally taboo [it is] because, historically and artistically, the female is represented by her skin” (Esaesser and Hagener 137), so perhaps the filmmakers thought a skinless female character might be too anti-Oedipal, resulting in a narrative of unpleasure which would run counter to de Lauretis’ sensible call for a “women’s cinema [that] must embody the working through of desire: such an objective demands the use of the entertainment film” (577), if one aims to get one’s message about the need for change in the Oedipal narrative out into the world.

As a way of closing this essay while taking a long view of the future as to what these films can mean for women’s cinema, this essay would like to invoke Béla Balázs’ theory of physiognomy in his essay, “The Face of Man” while doing a close reading of the transformation sequences in Company. From “The Face of Man,” Balázs argues that when looking at a face we recognize “not a figure of flesh and bone, but an expression… emotions, moods, intentions and thoughts,” all of which are elements that exist outside of physical space (131), thereby turning the physiognomy of the human face into an abstract understood in a different “dimension” (131).

This understanding of the innate readability of the human face is problematized in Company when a major transformation sequence contains a transforming character tearing off his face piece by piece. Due to the clear graphic matches between shots of the transforming werewolf’s face and the intercutting with close-ups of the female face in the reaction shots, the spectator experiences the presence and absence of the human face simultaneously. However, by the end of the sequence, what is left in the absence of a human face on the denuded face of the werewolf, is the abstract dimension that Balázs talks about. Moreover, without a face as a focal point, there is a horizontalizing of the significance of face and body of the monster. Thus, instead of containing “expression” this dimension is suddenly emptied of meaning and becomes a space outside lived reality for the negotiation of possible new readings of the human face and body.

It is possible to extend this a little bit further by considering that this “other dimension” that Balázs talks about however, is not a free-floating dimension. Instead it bears a great resemblance to Sobchack’s lived body of the spectator because as mentioned at the start of this essay, the lived body of the spectator is both the site where “literal sense” of films is made through our powers of perception, and “[figurative] sense” or meaning of them is made too (58-9). As such, even as the screen on which these fantastic and horrific bodies are projected seems to provide the patriarchy with a kind of barrier behind which all the excesses of femaleness can take place without ever touching them, the lived body which is caught in a “chiasmatic relationship of perception and expression” with the screen (Sobchack 60), turns the screen into a permeable membrane, and carries within it the continuous negotiation of female sexuality posed by these monstrous onscreen bodies.

Works Cited

Balázs, Béla. “The Face of Man.” Braudy, Leo and Marshall Cohen. Film Theory & Criticism. 7th Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 275-281.

Cat People. By Val Lewton and DeWitt Bodeen. Dir. Jacques Tourneur. Perf. Simone Simon, Kent Smith and Jane Randolph. 1942.

Creed, Barbara. “Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection.” Screen: Oxford Journals (1986): 44-70.

de Lauretis, Teresa. “Desire in Narrative.” Corrigan, Timothy, Meta Mazaj and White Patricia. Critical Visions in Film Theory. Boston; New York: Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2011. 575-593.

Elsaesser, Thomas and Malte Hagener. Film Theory: An Introduction Through the Senses. New York; London: Routledge, 2015.

Ginger Snaps. By Karen Walton and John Fawcett. Dir. John Fawcett. Perf. Emily Perkins and Katharine Isabelle. 2000.

Sobchack, Vivian. “What My Fingers Knew.” Sobchack, Vivian. Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture. Los Angeles; London: University of California Press, 2004. 53-84.

The Company of Wolves. By Angela Carter. Dir. Neil Jordan. Perf. Angela Lansbury, Sarah Patterson and Stephen Rea. 1984.

[1] This much can be said for Company at least given that the script was written by Angela Carter, author of The Bloody Chamber and The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography, and a known feminist who wrote extensively about the need to reclaim narratives for women.

[2] Death by Suburbia: death by white picket fence, death by lawnmower, death by garage door, etc.

[3] There’s even this wonderful image of Pamela putting the severed fingers inside a Tupperware so she might bring them to school to confront her daughters with that becomes a succinct visual argument about the encircling narrative of domesticity that contains the horror of the body.

The Hyperreal of Digital Cinema

I went spelunking through my notes from my National University of Singapore days when I wrote an essay on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) and the point about the hyperreal and the mechanical robin at the end of the film came from this citation in case anyone’s interested or is using the film for a final paper or something:

Rhombes, Nicholas. “Blue Velvet Underground: David Lynch’s Post-Punk Poetics.” The Cinema of David Lynch: American Dreams, Nightmare Visions. Eds. Erica Sheen & Annette Davison. London: Wallflower Press, 2005. 61-76.

In addition to the point made in class though, I wanted to just share that I really liked this idea of the “change from inside out” when it comes to digital cinema that Lev Manovich proposes and Elsaesser and Hagener reference because of this idea of the unbroken skin of digital cinema that parallels the way in which virtual reality is discussed as a truth onto itself because of its all encompassing nature that doesn’t even put it in competition with “realism” in cinema.

I liked the idea of the “inside out change” that cinema is undergoing because it helps me understand and rationalize how when it comes to the change and improvement in computer generated images over the years, we’ve evolved so much more and so much further beyond the ‘morph’ (that theorists seem to have become hung up over as if it’s some film technique to be fetishised and theorized over ad nauseum) to the point where it’s sometimes hard to tell if the image is CGI or not.

However, as much as I like the idea, I can’t say that I agree that virtual reality is not in direct competition with realism in cinema. Instead, I find that the concept of the hyperreal is a more apt way of describing the relationship or the progression between realist cinematic modes and the virtual realities created using the skin of digital cinema.

According to Jean Baudrillard in his publication Simulacra and Simulation (1981), and please correct me if I’m wrong, but the hyperreal is something we arrive at at the end of a 3-stage progression. There is the Real, there is the simulation of the Real in models or Simulacra, and there is the Hyperreal, defined as “the generation by models of a real without origin or reality” (Baudrillard). My personal take on this concept is that even though there is no reality to the Hyperreal, there seems to be a lineage of realism embedded within it given its reliance on models of the Real, once removed; and the nomenclature that continues to make reference to a’real’ even if it is a missing one.

This lineage of realism is clearly seen in the nature and functions of the (other less discussed) computer imaging softwares used in film today. For instance, algorithms that deal with ray-tracing and caustics, otherwise known as the movement of light across smooth and curved surfaces, and through refracting material, all contribute to the realism of a generated image.

Or how about the study and use of Subsurface Scattering software in the generation of computer images, particularly that of skin that gives it its translucent, life-like quality rather than the absolute plasticky fail that we saw in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001).

Or how about Forward Kinetics and Inverse Kinetics software that move joints on models of monsters and creatures, unreal as they are, based on the parent-child relationship joints on an actual skeletal structure will have.

spriter-pro-shift-ik-s

Or how about just how all the great special effects people emphasizing the need to have a solid understanding of anatomy and musculature in order to make good, believable looking monsters? Here, I’m talking about the advice Willis O’Brien, who created and animated through stop-motion the eponymous ape from King Kong (1933), gave to Ray Harryhausen who went on to give us such fantasy classics as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and The Clash of the Titans (1981).

I guess at the end of the day I’m trying to say two things:

  1. there’s a tonne of interesting software used in CGI and they deserve some attention and people should stop focusing on the morph like it’s the holy grail of CGI software
  2. while all questions of realism are at the end of the day period specific, there is a lineage of realism that impacts the kinds of images we create in digital cinema and we shouldn’t just jettison the whole debate over realism in cinema and virtual reality just because virtual reality “is no longer understood as index, trace, and reference of an elsewhere, but as a total environment” onto itself (Elsaesser and Hagener 199). I get the impression that if we take a more “apparatus” centred approach in our examination of the software of CGI, we’ll find many more traces of the real than we thought we would.

Theory Response: Conclusion

The persistence of the realist tendency is further aided by the expansion of its definition to include not just physical reality but psychological realism as well. Kracauer actually makes a similar observation about the gap between signifier and signified in film even though his theory is not based on semiotics per se. He points out that an inherent quality of film is that natural objects filmed exist in a sea of indeterminacy with their meanings determined very much by the changing contexts in which they are placed (303). As such, filmed natural objects have the potential to link the physical dimension to all possible latent psychological meanings they might possess until such a time where a specific psychophysical correspondence is privileged by the context set in the film. This allows filmed natural objects to possess what Lucien Sève calls the “anonymous state of reality” (qtd. in Kracauer 303), and what Bazin calls the “essence” of reality (312). The implication of this intersection between Metz and Kracauer is that even though the imaginary signifiers on screen present us with fantastic monsters, a non-realist film can still reflect a psychological real that is real enough to incite a genuine emotional response in audiences thus proving the continued presence and privileging of the realist tendency regardless of a film’s degree of fictionality.

Theory Challenge: Cartooning Violence

I wanted to see if I could use Vivian Sobchack’s argument about the viewer’s lived body as the site of the “reversible (or chiasmatic) processes of perception and expression” (60), from her essay “What My Fingers Knew,” to explain in a step-by-step manner how we come to understand the cross-genre nature of Yudai Yamaguchi’s The 10th Night contribution to the filmic adaptation of Natsume Soeseki’s Ten Nights of Dreams (2006).

When Sobchack suggests that the “lived body is always already engaged in the… meaning-making capacity of its senses” (60-61), she makes clear that this process of meaning-making is always a result of acculturation (61). Hence, when we first see the protagonist stagger down the street with his insides on his outside, there is a palpable increase in tension in the lecture theatre as our lived bodies anticipate the torture-porn cinematic experience we have been acculturated to expect when we come in contact with such cinematic sequences. This is seen in the similarity between the screenshots below of Shotaro’s enucleated eyeball dangling by a nerve and a similar screenshot from Eli Roth’s torture-porn masterpiece, Hostel (2005).

However, the sequence that I am really interested in comes immediately after the title when Shotaro’s friend pulls on his eyeball, snapping it back into position:

The audio-visual cues perceived by the lived body such as the visible tension in the nerve as it is stretched, the subsequent speed with which it moves when it is released, coupled with the sound of rubber stretching and the popping sound it makes upon impact when it re-enters the eye-socket, all come together to communicate the notion of elasticity through audio-visual cues. However, more important than this multi-sensorial, synesthetic experience perceived by the lived body, is the instantaneous, non-verbal expression of laughter elicited from the audience during the screening.

Laughter here is important for several reasons. Firstly, it is a reflexive expression that happens “without a thought,” thereby illustrating Elena del Rio’s idea of “body and image no longer function[ing] as discrete units, but as surfaces in contact” (qtd. in Sobchack 65), that allow for such an instantaneous expression given the non-existent gap between body and image or perception and expression. Secondly, this non-verbal expression is an example of the “‘obtuse’ meaning that Roland Barthes suggests escapes language yet resides within it” (qtd. in Sobchack 60). And thirdly, it is an expression that still “resides within [language],” especially if we see “language” as representative of the Lacanian realm of the symbolic, and therefore functioning on the same tier as acculturation, because it is the body realizing before the mind the acculturated familiarity of such elastic bodies that can bounce back from an insane amount of abuse as being a feature of cartoons – a tame, non-threatening, child-friendly genre.

As such, the release of tension in the stretched eye nerve that snaps back into position parallels the flood of relief experienced by the audience that finds expression in involuntary laughter.

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Works Cited

Sobchack, Vivian. “What My Fingers Knew.” Sobchack, Vivian. Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture. Los Angeles; London: University of California Press, 2004. 53-84.

Ten Nights of Dreams. By Natsume Soeseki. Dir. Yudai Yamaguchi. Perf. Ken’ichi Matsuyama. 2006.

The Skin I Live In and the Rape-Revenge Narrative

Pedro Almodóvar’s 2011 horror film The Skin I Live In is a strangely muted experience that leaves audiences a little dumbstruck if not a little confused because of its treatment of the conventions of the Rape-Revenge narrative.

From the inciting incident in the garden at a wedding party to the multiple events of rape that occur throughout the narrative, the film has a disquieting, desensitizing effect on the idea of rape.

What is rape? Is what happened in the garden enough to constitute rape? Does it matter that the girl, unsocialized and excluded from society as she had been, was accidentally (mis)leading the guy on? Or what about the fact that he was high as a kite? What if he pulled out the moment he realized there was a miscommunication or showed remorse later on? Can these be considered ameliorating circumstances? If so, does the punishment fit the crime?

In a typical rape-revenge narrative there are the excruciatingly drawn out moments of sexual violence enacted on a helpless (female) individual followed by a sequence where the violated individual recovers after her ordeal and plans her revenge before going all-out on her attackers bringing the narrative to a bloody conclusion.

Almodóvar’s film problematizes this by softening the inciting incident by suggesting multiple ameliorating factors, having the avenging figure be a male character, and creating an elaborate revenge plot, that some would argue is much too severe for the crime in question, that simultaneously allows the turning of rape itself into the revenge, particularly the rape enacted on yet another female body. I suppose on one level it makes you wonder why rape-revenge is even a genre that exists and when we watch films that are part of this genre what are we watching them for? For the rape or the revenge?

I wanted to say something about the shared dream sequence too but it doesn’t seem to quite go with the rest of this post about rape-revenge narratives so I’ll save it for another time.

 

Baudry’s Ideological Effects of the Cinematic Apparatus

Having read and re-read the assigned reading multiple times I just feel like it’s such a waste to end the week without saying something about Jean-Louis Baudry.

Summary

  • Thesis: The cinematic apparatus itself functions as a gateway of sorts that allows for ideological effect to enter more easily into narrative cinema
  • (1) Baudry establishes this by talking about how the conception of the image projected on the cinema screen is based on the western easel painting that presupposes a subject position
  • The nature of the subject position is that this is the single point of reference from which all else in the image is constructed in reference to
  • This subject is then placed in a Transcendental position by having its vision enhanced by the mechanical eye of the camera that can travel throughout the diegetic world in a seemingly unfettered manner
  • However, unbeknownst to the subject (spectator) all images projected on the screen carry within them the “intention” of the filmmaker
  • So, even though the spectator has been led to believe by the cinematic apparatus that s/he is in an empowered position, s/he really isn’t.
  • (2) Furthermore, the nature of the film strip and editing functions on the assumption that the spectator will willingly negate the infinitesimal differences that make up the raw material of film (discontinuous shots cleverly edited together in order to hide the cuts and make them as invisible as possible; and cells in a continuous strip of film that actually contain a series of images that contain infinitesimal differences from their adjacent cell) in preference of perceiving it as a continuous whole
  • (3) the platonian cave-like structure of the cinema allows for spectators to regress into a child-like state of compromised mobility with enhanced sight that opens one up the the imaginary

Critique

  • Of the 3 above mentioned parts, it’s been said to death in class already that this assumption of passivity in the audiences is a load of crock and I completely agree. We don’t just sit there and let the cinema turn us into their dupes.
  • But at the same time, it was an epiphanic moment for me, personally, to see that embedded in the machinery of the cinema itself are all these structures that persuade us to let our guard down (presupposing a subject position; lulling an audience into a false sense of security over the “empowered” position they are supposedly in as the subject; getting us to agree to negate the differences in the shots we see on screen in order to enjoy/appreciate/take pleasure in the continuous whole of the narrative or the shot).
  • In Elsaesser and Hagener, we read that Baudry has been criticized for his fettishistic obsession with the cinematic apparatus but I can’t help but link Baudry’s detailed critique of the cinematic apparatus to how Marshall McLuhan, talked about how “The Medium is the Message
  • in McLuhan’s writing, he talks about the electric light and uses it to explain the difference between the “content” of the medium and the medium. If we use the lights to spell a word, say the name of a bar, that’s the content of the medium. But the medium itself holds meaning. A light in the dark means a restructuring of human activity no longer bound by the diurnal rhythms. And this of course has far reaching effects on other aspects of life like business, economy, industry, labour, politics, law, etc. (you go figure it out yourself… I’m to lazy to name them one by one)
  • So I think Baudry is right. Wholly, unambiguously, incontrovertibly right. Narrative cinema of course contains its own ideological effect but that’s just the content. It is the cinematic apparatus, the medium, and its subtle workings that open up the doorway and makes ready the spectator to be manipulated by narrative cinema.

Clip

  • This clip actually illustrates a lot of what Baudry talks about. But because of time constraint and page limits I just feel like I wasn’t able to do it justice? And I really want to do it justice.
  • the clip opens with the film strip going into the projector and focuses on the cinematic apparatus
  • We hear the audiences responding to the film being screened and we see Hitler laughing at something on screen. Clearly, the audience is completely at ease and enjoying the film. This would imply that they would have entered into the above mentioned contract with the cinematic apparatus where in order to be entertained by the film, their critical faculties have been compromised, their guard has been lowered.
  • The close up of Shoshanna’s face as she delivers her monologue presupposes a subject who will hear her message
  • But this subject is very quickly shown to be in a disempowered position instead of an empowered position
  • the audience is literally trapped in this sequence because they have also literally let their guard down during the screening and allowed themselves to be trapped in the cinema where they will now be gunned down like fish in a barrel
  • So where’s the ideology? There are two tiers to this. First tier is the wishful/wish-fulfilment rewriting of history by having WWII end with Hitler being gunned down in a cinema. But on a second tier, it is also a reference to a whole host of Nazisploitation films that perpetuate the fallacious view of Nazis as the ultimate evil Other when the truth of the matter is that the capacity of evil is in all of us, as captured in Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil

Baudry in Film Today: Films about Film

  • While Baudry spoke of “concealment” in his essay, the current trend of self-reflexivity in films makes certain that this concealment of the ideological effect of the cinematic apparatus is a thing of the past. Or is it?
  • Like I covered in today’s presentation, audiences today are more mature, more exposed to film not just in quantity but in quality and are more well-versed in reading and appreciating film. Combining this with the Postmodernist impulse to be ironic, we have a rising trend of self-reflexivity in film.
  • In class, I gave the examples of Cinema Paradiso (1988) and Hugo (2011) because I think they were especially relevant to Baudry and his fixation on the cinematic apparatus.
  • Since we already discussed Cinema Paradiso at length in class the previous week I’m just going to skip straight to Hugo

hugo

  • Much like Cinema Paradiso that dealt on some level with the materiality of film, there is a whole paraphernalia of film scattered throughout the subconscious of Hugo. Although not explicitly referenced the film is greatly concerned with the mechanical nature of film particularly in the early black and white films before narrative film became the dominant style of filmmaking with D.W. Griffith’s success with Birth of a Nation (1915)
  • This is seen in the visual motifs in Hugo – Clocks, Clock towers, clockwork, gears and machinery, trains, train stations and schedules, the homage to Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895), mechanical toys, automatons, Georges Méliès as the central figure of interest, and known for his trick films and mechanical effects.
  • The fact that this is a tribute to Georges Méliès, who is also known as the father of special effects, the film is also fittingly filmed in 3D, some of the latest technology in special effects, and thus becomes a meaningful marriage between form and function in Hugo.
  • In order to appreciate the subtle inflections the fill the background of the narrative in Hugo, one needs to be not just an active audience but an active audience well-versed and familiar with film history

Extension

  • But here is where I would like to raise a question that occurred to me only after class today. How active an audience member do we have to be in order to be an active spectator?
  • is it enough to catch the references to auteur figure and film history? Or has self-reflexivity become yet another tool in cinema to lull audiences back into a false sense of security where we let our guard down again and look no further into a film text because we think we have engaged with it actively enough because we have caught all the references to be caught?
  • Did we notice that this is a nostalgic veneration and celebration of film history? If it is nostalgic, what has been romanticized and sanitized? If it is a kind of film history, what has been omitted?