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Spectatorship Theory



What we want to do here in discussing the nature of spectatorship is look not at how viewers respond to a film statistically and scientifically, but instead at how the viewer is involved, implicated and engaged in the viewing experience. To do so we’ll utilise a variety of terms, including distanciation, self-reflexivity, focalisation and subjectivation.

In utilising such terms we will hopefully show that this is not the viewing subject that Metz invoked psychoanalytically, and that we talked about in the notes on psychoanalysis, where viewers are perceived to misrecognize themselves in the mainstream viewing experience and the radical filmmaker has to alter that misrecognition. No, instead we are thinking of a viewing subject closer to the one Dutoit and Bersani invoke in their book Forms of Being. Here they say “the camera’s point of view on the world it films necessarily includes assumptions about the spectators of that world.” This seems to be neither the passive viewer of false consciousness Metz proposes, but neither is it quite the Brechtian viewer so many films of the late sixties wanted to create, and that we touched upon in relation to structuralism, psychoanalysis and ideology and politics: the viewer made out of the ideological and formal mechanics of the apparatus.

Dutoit and Bersani go on to say “those who will watch the film have, in a sense, already been created by it. That’s how the camera looks at us: it imposes on our looking an identity already invented for us.” To some degree this involves distanciation, or what literary theorist Victor Shklovsky called ‘estrangement’ – where the reader or viewer would be aware of the made aspect of the art work – but often in recent cinema this has been incorporated into a high degree of manipulation on the filmmakers’ part. Many filmmakers over the last few years who have utilised distanciation devices have done so to point up the effectiveness of the immediacy devices they have been utilising. Michael Haneke, with Funny Games and Hidden, and Gaspar Noe with Seul Contre tous and, in a different way, with Irreversible, want the viewer drawn into the film only to throw them out of it again at key moments. This is not the lucid self-awareness of the apparatus laid bare, but closer to a carpet pulled from under our feet: viewer manipulation isn’t eschewed; it’s central. One thinks here of the scene in Funny Games where it looks like the family are going to get revenge on the house intruders only for the film to rewind the footage. The footage is again rewound on several occasions in Hidden, leaving us unsure whether what we are seeing is ‘real’, or footage the characters are watching. In Seul contre tous, a thirty second warning comes up at a certain point in the film and gives us the opportunity to leave the cinema, so gruesome and disturbing will the film’s denouement be. In Irreversible Noe reverses the temporal order, so that the film has a happy ending in terms of the plot – as it moves from tragedy to happiness – but a tragic ending in terms of story chronology: a pregnant woman is brutally raped and her boyfriend and friend go looking for the rapist. The film ends on her pregnancy but the story ends in prison.

These seem to be distancing devices quite unlike those utilised in the sixties and seventies, where many of the key filmmakers were trying to create self-aware viewers by undermining manipulation devices. In Godard’s Weekend, the director offers a panoply of distancing elements to avoid the viewer engaging on the narrational and characterisational level. Whether it is the leading female character telling her lover of a sexual fantasy, while shot against the light, a lengthy tracking shot showing cars wrecked all along the road, or characters reacting in reaction shots to events that seems to be different from the events we are actually seeing, Godard seems to want to create the most aware viewer possible. Though at the beginning of his career Godard wasn’t afraid to adopt aspects of genre – the gangster film for A bout de souffle, the musical for Un Femme est une Femme, and the war movie for Les Carabiniers – it was the genre structure and tropes he would utilise and then mock, rather than work from their capacity for generating strong emotional responses.

Contemporary filmmakers like Haneke and Noe will utilise the intruder in the house genre in Funny Games, and the revenge drama in Irreversibe, to generate strong affective viewer reactions, and then ask the viewer to call them into question. Where Godard, Buñuel, Pasolini and Antonioni would want the most aware viewer possible, and hope for an affective response out of that retreat from manipulation, many of the newer generation want that manipulation to generate an awareness in the viewer of manipulation. If much cinema and theory of the sixties and seventies made the viewer aware of the construction of the image, and thus utilised Brechtian distancing, are more recent filmmakers also interested in estrangement effects, but offering them within an art work that is at the same time very interested in manipulating the viewer’s feelings? Is this cake and eat it cinema, or is the filmmaker trying to work less with the construction of images (the apparatus), than with the construction of feelings?

This is a cinema that seems to blend Hitchcock with Godard as it looks for the self-reflexive viewer involved in not only analysing the film, but also their own ongoing emotional responses to it. When Noe asked viewers after they had watched Seul contre tous if they had cried, this was the filmmaker asking the viewer to investigate their own emotional reaction: to ask from where those tears might have come. The same could be said of Lars von Trier in a couple of his ‘weepies’: Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, where he insisted everything was instinctive, but, by the same token there would be an idea behind every shot. There is both manipulation and the awareness of the problem of that manipulation. Can the filmmaker generate not the sort of ‘engineered’ tears Colin McArthur talks of in his book Brigadoon, Braveheart and the Scots, quoting Tom Lutz’s “jump-starting tears”, but what Slavoj Zizek has called, paraphrasing the filmmaker Krzystof Kieslowski, ‘the fright of real tears’? This is the way filmmakers can generate emotion without relying on the mechanics of tear-jerking McArthur talks of when saying aspects like cue music and ‘focalisation’ (the moment where a character becomes temporarily the focus of our attention) crudely directs our emotions. How can filmmakers avoid focalisation, which usually includes numerous close-ups and subjectivised cue music, for a self-reflexive emotional release: to create a questioning relationship with tears real or otherwise?

The problem for Kieslowski arose while making his lovely documentary First Love, about a young couple who are having a baby. Kieslowski fretted over showing the father holding the baby in his arms when it was born, believing there was something wrong with, in Zizek’s words, “the obscenity of such unwarranted probing into the other’s intimacy”. How does one find the right proximity from the human to reveal them yet at the same time allow them to retain their dignity? Often focalisation wants to zero in on the emotional juice of a scene, and thus Colin McArthur quotes Lutz’s useful phrase ‘jump-starting the tears” to describe how it is done functionally.

What seems central to spectatorship in a number of the films we have talked about is how to manipulate the viewer, but at the same time to do so is to ask bigger questions than the manipulation readily answers: it must do more than make us cry, jump, scream or shout. For example in Catherine Breillat’s A Ma Soeur!, late in the film there is an horrific act of violence in a film that has up until this point been a deliberately paced examination of two sisters. The act of violence throws the viewer physiologically by the shift in pace, but no less so psychologically, by being an event inexplicably reacted to by the younger sister. It is as though many contemporary filmmakers (including Haneke, Noe, Von Trier and Breillat, as well as Gus Van Sant, David Lynch and David Cronenberg), are as interested in the manipulators of the medium, like Eisenstein and Hitchcock, as in Brechtians like Godard. They want the viewer to question their shocks and their tears, but they do want these shocks and tears.

Stanley Cavell, in his book The World Viewed, first published at the beginning of the seventies, says, looking at films like Psycho and Marnie, that Hitchcock “reactivates his long obsession with the phoney psychological explanations to ward off knowledge”. He goes on to say Psycho is the ultimate version of this obsession, “the brutal rationality of the “psychiatrist” at the end, tying up the loose ends of our lives, exhibits one form in which our capacity for feeling, our modulation of instinct, is no longer elicited by human centres of love and hate, but immediately by the theories that we give ourselves of love and hate.” For all Hitchcock’s desire to offer phoney explanations, he is of course simultaneously doing the exact opposite: throughout the film he plays with our emotions as directly as he can. It is partly why the explanation is ‘weak’ next to the emotions extracted earlier in the film.

What many of today’s most interesting filmmakers want to do is ‘subjectivise’ us through a combination of emotionally engaging us and at the same time forcing upon us an awareness of that engagement. They want any idea to be contained by a strong emotional reaction. It is perhaps in this combination that a certain ‘subjectivation’ can come. This is a term Michel Foucault utilised in various ways, but one of them, picked up by Gilles Deleuze, is interesting here. Deleuze says “the struggle for subjectivity presents itself, therefore, as the right to difference, variation and metamorphosis.” This is the sort of self that isn’t full of expectations and determined to hold onto its individuality, but instead an emotionally amorphous self that is constantly allowing for disorienting hypothetical encounters rather than the sort of narrow ‘focalisations’ beloved of the mainstream, or for that matter the stringent, cautious self wary of falling into misrecognition in Metz’s Lacanian model.

We have been proposing here, then, how numerous filmmakers haven’t been afraid of drawing the viewer into the filmic experience, but what we may want to ask ourselves is whether the filmmaker is creating fresh thoughts and feelings out of intensifying our relationship with the image, or are they creating misrecognition not much more demanding than Pavlovian reflexivity? Is this the difference between the heavily predictable image, and the image that reveals new thoughts in our response to it?


©Tony McKibbin


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