Freeing Oneself Within the Image
One of the most pressing questions to ask of cinema, and at the same time one of the most liberating, is how is the subject made: how is the viewer created by the film, and how much freedom can the viewer have in relation to this moulding process? For some theorists of the sixties and seventies, this shaping was chiefly ideological and subsequently oppressive. The viewer was corralled into certain thoughts and feelings by the manipulative devices utilised by the filmmaker. In Cahiers du cinema and Screen, much of the writing of this period concerned the nature of the apparatus and the medium’s capacity to subjugate us, often with narrative. “The effect of narrative is exactly that of a tightening”, Stephen Heath believed, “action is moulded in a destiny, an inevitable coherence of the real.” (Screen, Summer 1974)
However, there was other writing much more interested in the nature of this approach that had little interest in seeing the viewer as oppressed, and that instead concentrated on the craft of the filmmaker which allowed for the viewer to follow the image and the story. Critics like Robin Wood and V. F. Perkins were interested in transparency of style combined with nuanced meaning-making. When Perkins in Film as Film discusses the work of Nicholas Ray, he explores the intentionality of meaning on the director’s part, with subtle noticing on the critic’s. As he contrasts certain moments in Ray’s Bigger than Life with Antonioni’s The Red Desert he shows his admiration for Ray over Antonioni. Where in Ray the colours are plausibly incorporated into the narrative, in Antonioni the insistent formal elements mean we are made all too aware of the medium to the detriment of the story. “In Antonioni’s The Red Desert, red is used to represent the threat which the neurotic heroine fears from an alienated, hostile and disintegrating world…We are so busy noticing that we respond rather to our awareness of the device than to the state of mind it sets out to evoke.”
The sort of cinema promoted by Movie in the early sixties (and still very much practised today) wasn’t simply about telling the story, but it wasn’t usually about deviating from it either. The cinema often most admired was that which created an invisible yet at the same time expressive mise-en-scene. A typical and more recent example of this criticism comes in an essay on Eric Rohmer. In Undercurrent Jacob Leigh analyses Rohmer’s use of framing in An Autumn Tale during a wedding sequence, noticing that a young woman the professor is interested in is introduced to us in long shot by the red that she happens to be wearing. For Leigh this isn’t just one of a number of characters in the background of the shot, but the character who will soon become central to the events because of Rohmer’s colour-coding: her red dress tells us that our eye will be drawn to this bold colour even if we happen chiefly to be following the foregrounded conversation between the professor and his ex-girlfriend. What we have here is nuanced filmmaking meeting nuanced observation. It cares little for the sort of ideological readings practised by Screen and Cahiers that might be more inclined to play up the stereotypical notion that the new woman in the man’s life is wearing a bold, red dress, fretting over its ideological implications, and thus attacking the filmmaker for his representational obviousness within a socio-political obliviousness. Indeed there is a very tetchy interview with Rohmer (himself an earlier editor of the magazine) in Cahiers at the beginning of the seventies with several of its critics implicitly and explicitly wondering whether Rohmer was reactionary in his approach to the image. These were very important writers on film (including Serge Daney and Jean-Louis Comolli), but where they were looking for a cinema that could generate new possibilities in the political self, Rohmer was more interested in revealing man and nature in all their wonderment.
Despite their very different stances, nevertheless Rohmer and the critics could see that the image isn’t only a made object as craft, but also a found reality – in Rohmer’s case – and an artificial construct in Cahiers’. Neither Rohmer nor Daney et al took the image for granted no matter the antithetical positions: Rohmer was always interested in the spirit; Comolli and co. in the materialist. Yet unlike the craft criticism practised sometimes with great finesse (in Perkins’ case for example), or more laboriously (in Leigh’s), they are modes of criticism that at least hint at the useful when it comes to the making of the subject, when trying to explore the freedom we have in front of the image. One of the problems with mise-en-scene criticism is that it assumes more or less deliberate intentions on the part of the filmmaker that the viewer discovers through frequent viewings of the film. Perkins would expect his students at Warwick to watch the films he would screen twice, all the better for them to see how the film was compiled. According to one ex-student, Perkins often spread the study of a single film across multiple weeks in his teaching. (Sympathy and Detachment) This might lead to careful and very useful analysis, but does it create a still further subjugation of the viewer and thus too limited an amount of space for the subject’s appearance?
We are using the term subject here rather as Michel Foucault adopts the term in quite different circumstance and to analyse a rather different epoch. In The Care of the Self and his lectures on the hermeneutics of the subject, Foucault wonders what it is that created this care for the self in ancient times, and utilised Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and others to illustrate how epimelia heautou would incorporate anything from detailing one’s daily habits to others, to expressing a sense of what one could claim to be master over. This had nothing to do with power as oppressive tool, but instead power as an act of self-mastery. Foucault discusses what he calls “testing procedures”. These enable “one to do without unnecessary things by establishing a supremacy over oneself that does not depend on their presence or absence. The tests to which one subjects oneself are not successive stages of privation. They are a way of measuring and confirming the independence one is capable of with regard to everything that is not indispensable and essential.” (The Care of the Self) How would this work cinematically? What, in filmic terms, can we be master over, if much criticism has focused upon that which is master over us? Whether it happens to be Perkins and co offering mise-en-scene criticism illustrating the filmmaker’s brilliance that we must then discover, or the oppressive devices filmmakers use according to apparatus criticism, how can a hermeneutics of the subject free us from this twofold yet antithetical oppression?
Let us propose three possibilities. One aspect of freedom lies in the presence of the actor, someone we see not as the star of the film yoked to narrative and glamour, but as a behavioural presence in the work. Thus the star merely becomes the most behaviourally active through the amount of screen time available, but every person with a role in the film has this behavioural presence as we can choose to focus on a star and some anomalous detail, or a supporting actor and their brief moments. Or we can choose to look at a detail that the star offers, that we again find in other films in which the actor appears. Where the standard approach to stardom in film would be to emphasise the actor’s iconicity, a personally hermeneutic approach could concentrate more on how the actor resembles one’s own father, for example, than on the generic thread that runs through an actor’s filmography. Instead of seeing John Wayne as the great actor of westerns and a fine actor in war films, we instead see that Wayne is the great actor of sour self-regard, someone who cannot tolerate weakness in others but in the process reveals it in his own personality as hubris and a certain type of self-love. Wayne’s characters are often vain not because they insistently look in the mirror, but in the manner by which they see other characters mirrored in them. When in The Searchers Wayne advises others not to look in to the cave where Indian brutalities have taken place, he is of course protecting sensibilities, but also making clear his own capacity to look death in the eye where others are too weak to do so. Often in Wayne’s work the brave gesture contains within it the awareness of the brave man doing it. Wayne is the Brave Man not so much acting heroically as looking for brave acts. His personality is set and then there are events that continue to augment it.
Obviously filmmakers have interestingly explored this hubristic element of Wayne’s persona, evident in the contrast between bullish Wayne in Red River, and Montgomery Clift’s pacifistic figure, but the point here is how does one make John Wayne one’s own. Of course we would offer examples from the films to bolster our response, but the reaction should be more our subjectivation in front of the image and not our subjugation. It might be closer to Kafka’s Letter to His Father than standard criticism. We should be taking John Wayne personally, exploring how watching a Wayne film can often feel like an affront to one’s own values not in the broad sense of an American jingoism, but in a more local one where watching a Wayne film can cramp one’s sense of self rather like having an oppressive parent. When Kafka puts some words into his father’s mouth he then says “to this I answer that first of all this whole rejoinder, which can also be partly turned against you, does not originate in you, but, in fact, in me. Not even your mistrust of yourself, after all, is as great as my self-mistrust, which you inculcated in me.” What sort of words does an actor put into our mouth, what sort of position do they hold that then leads to a certain stance we support or reject? Gary Wills says “John Wayne’s control of his body was economical, with no motions wasted. This gave a sense of purpose to everything he did.” Is it this sense of purpose we find so oppressive? (John Wayne)
We might reject something in Wayne because he encapsulates too completely a body that gives little space to doubt and hesitancy. If we’re inclined to say we prefer Dustin Hoffman or Jack Lemmon are we not partly proposing the type of person whose company we would prefer to keep? Traditional criticism often gives very little opportunity for making sense of our feelings in the face of certain dispositions present in the actor and present in ourselves as we watch what they do. These are not only actions that meet with our approval or disapproval in narratively moral terms, but gestures that we react to quite instinctively. Sometimes these responses will appear analytically useless as we say that we don’t like an actor’s voice, or his walk, the way she moves her arms, or her head, but what lies behind these immediate reactions might be analytically very useful indeed. Of course if a viewer says they thought a film was bad because they didn’t like the actor in it, this indicates a poor aesthetic response, but what seems like a weak analytic reaction could contain within it either a strong pointer to its failings, more generally, or to the specifically revelatory. It could help us to understand what we might mean by miscasting; or it could reveal why someone dispositionally doesn’t respond to an actor’s body language and implicit belief system. When Wills talks of John Wayne he is indicating a body of belief within the body of the actor: after all, few actors more than Wayne suggest a body of beliefs in the singularity of the body.
Stephen Prince in Post-Theory some years ago made a pertinent remark but perhaps nevertheless still missed the point when he attacked psychoanalytic criticism for creating a theory of spectatorship that didn’t actually include any spectators. In its place he proposed a notion of the viewer that would empirically incorporate their response into filmic analysis. However, this is what we could call the statistical viewer, the mass audience broken up into individual cinematic responses not for the purposes of exploring their subjectivity, but instead to arrive at general ideas based on spectatorship as empirical evidence. “Empirical evidence” Prince says, “suggests that visual attention to television is a function of age and may have a developmental basis in terms of cognitive growth and increasing sophistication of medium-specific skills, rather than being something driven by a fixed current of libidinal energy.” Yet our own interest in spectatorship is closer to Robert Warshow’s well-known remark, “a man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man.” For many it might seem dereliction of duty to look at a film as though looking into one’s own life or into the mirror, in thinking how an actor resembles a relative or a lover, a friend or a foe, or through an identificatory process that leads us not to identify with the actor as narrative avatar, but instead as a being with characteristics we observe because we share them. In other words instead of foregoing our own personality in the cinematic experience whilst identifying with an actor’s actions, we just as readily meditate upon the behavioural dimension to the actor that might make us more aware of our own behaviour. Do we perhaps abruptly turn our neck as if in mild surprise as De Niro often does; undo our tie with a partial turn of the neck to the left and to the right as Michael Douglas offers in the numerous films in which he wears ties (Wall Street, Falling Down, Disclosure, Basic Instinct)? Do we possess something of Michelle Pfeiffer’s attractiveness within clumsiness as in One Fine Day, Into the Night and Frankie and Johnny? Do we find ourselves putting much of our expression in the head and the neck rather than the rest of the body as Judi Dench often offers, or are we more inclined to utilise our entire self in an expression, as we often see in the comedic, from Jerry Lewis to Jim Carey?
Now obviously some will say that the cinema is both a craft and a dream; these are not real people wandering around the streets, but actors playing specific roles crafted by screenwriters and directors, set designers and cinematographers. They are also often seen as unreal in their physical beauty; to compare oneself to Pfeiffer is surely the height of arrogance; to assume that we have anything in common with George Clooney is to indicate low comedy as delusion of grandeur. But many actors are not especially beautiful. While often cast for their looks, this isn’t the same as saying they have been cast for their comeliness. From Douglas to De Niro, Dench to Depardieu, these are actors cast not for their beauty, however much they may have been cast for their looks. They all contain a physiognomic specificity that is more important than a generic geometry, and so why shouldn’t we compare ourselves to people who are singular cinematically for their appearance, but who in the process perhaps resemble more people in ‘real life’ than stars cast chiefly for their glamour?
One of the advantages of film is the opportunity it gives us to stare at people on screen. A few seconds looking at someone on the underground or on the street and we are expected to look away, and is a mother’s common admonishment one that insists her son or daughter shouldn’t stare? Yet film insists we can gaze at whatever we like, and, while we cannot deny much cinema finds in this attentive look the alibi of narrative, and thus minimises it, many films emphasise the cinematic gaze as exactly that: whether it happens to be almost absurdly so in Andy Warhol’s Sleep, mesmerizingly apparent in La belle noiseuse, or pathetically pertinent to the wonderful Wanda, these are all works giving jurisdiction to the stare. Why shouldn’t we take advantage of this opportunity, and thus not only look at the actor as an object and subject of our attention, but meditate upon the actor as a cluster of characteristics returning us to the perceptually everyday? When Foucault says, “the evening examination for its part was devoted much more specifically to reviewing the day that had gone by”, he talks of Seneca and Sextius. “Sextius would question his soul: ‘What bad habit have you cured today? What fault have you resisted? In what respect are you better?’” Foucault mentions words like “to inspect” and “remeasure” “the acts that were committed, the words that were spoken”, and why can’t we do the same in relation to our cinematic experiences? Where Prince talks of a cognitively general response to the image out of the statistical, can we not create the spectator out of the decidedly personal just as readily?
If our relationship with the actor is one of the means by which we can generate subjectivity in the face of the image; another is to take the film as a ‘reality’. This of course runs absolutely contrary to the way we’re often supposed to see films analytically, since taking the film as real is the default position of the viewer and is often central to the intentions of the filmmaker. The filmmaker’s purpose is to suspend our disbelief, and the viewer’s to be lulled into that suspension. Central to much that passes for film studies is to ask us not to suspend our disbelief but set to work our critical faculties. To notice reaction shots, close ups, establishing shots, whether the music is diegetic or non-diegetic, to see symbols and synecdoches, jump cuts and match cuts. Obviously we don’t want to suggest these are irrelevant, but how do we make their relevance function within a system of disbelief so that the viewer sees such devices not creating a distance between us and the film, but as a means by which to take us closer to the film? By analogy, when a friend turns up to dinner, their dress sense, their actions and their voice carry many of the properties we find in film. Let’s apply the terms we have used above – reactionvshots, symbols, jump cuts etc. – to this ‘real meeting. One might make a certain comment and they respond with a wide-eyed look of surprise and their response isn’t that different from a reaction shot. They tell us something that they say we should keep to ourselves and lean forward as though creating a close up. When they arrived, they stood at the door as they presented themselves, saying what do others make of their new coat and it is like an establishing shot. Even their humming to the music the host plays has an element of the non-diegetic for them; the diegetic for the host. The host has chosen the music so it is within his sphere of choice; it is not chosen by the guest. Now of course in film non-diegetic music cannot be heard by the characters, so it is an analogy stretched a little far, but with most filmic terms we can find some point of comparison with reality. Doesn’t the friend who matches our gesture resemble a match cut, where one shot rhymes with the next one? If they are wearing an anklet might it suggest sexual connotations rather as the ankle bracelet in a film noir indicates sexual allure? All we are proposing is that utilising filmic terms needn’t take us away from the film, but in fact make film closer to life. We analyse not simply to break-up and decode the film, but to see the similarities and codifications evident in our lives.
When David Bordwell and James Peterson in Post-Theory articles ‘Convention, Construction and Vision’ and ‘Cognitive Approach to the Avant Garde’ both invoke convention, they do so to indicate mainstream cinema and even quite arcane film mimic aspects of our perceptual faculties while also being products of cinematic choice. Bordwell talks of ‘contingent universals’. They are “contingent because they did not, for any metaphysical reasons, have to be the way they are; and they are universal insofar as we can find them widely present in human societies.” Peterson mentions Noel Carroll’s belief that “the international appeal and success of Hollywood-style films owes something to the way their structure suits transcultural cognitive habits and abilities.” Our purpose here is neither to defend nor attack such cognitivist thinking; merely to say that the cognitivist position is to normalize; ours is to individualize. Their approach is based on generating viewing norms; ours on the viewer exception. If Bordwell and Peterson take the work as norm-based which then plays into our normalized responses, what we are interested in is saying is that yes there are numerous similarities between how we perceive and how cinema shows perception, but that for us this isn’t for the purposes of a scientifically-oriented analysis of the filmic experience, but towards taking cinema into our lives: to see how cinema can help teach us how to see. The point of many film studies classes (whether cognitivist or otherwise) is to make us see films lucidly: to understand how they are made to generate certain responses in the viewer. What we are proposing here is that watching films more carefully isn’t necessarily about taking them apart, but putting ourselves together all the more complexly. We aren’t the casual viewer watching films unthinkingly who needs to be taught to break down the film into segments all the better to view it analytically, but instead the viewer who wants to remain in a suspended state all the better to view the film phenomenologically.
If the cognitivists, including the name-checked Bordwell, Carroll, Prince and Peterson draw upon the scientific to make sense of the cinematic, we’re more interested in the thoughts of Bachelard, Camus and Weil. This isn’t to usher in an especially phenomenological approach to cinema (already theorised by Vivian Sobchack in The Address of the Eye for example, where she draws chiefly on Merleau-Ponty), but to absorb a more general way of perceiving the image. As Camus says in The Myth of Sisyphus, “thinking is not unifying or making the appearance familiar under the guise of a great principle…in other words, phenomenology declines to explain the world, it merely wants to be merely a description of actual experience.” Bachelard proposes that “the techniques of experimental psychology can scarcely hope to undertake a study of the imagination from the point of view of its creative values. In order to relive the values of the past, one must dream, must accept the great dilation of the psyche known as reverie, in the peace of a great repose.” (The Poetics of Reverie) Weil believes “when we are disappointed by pleasure which we have been expecting and which comes, the disappointment is because we were expecting the future, and as soon as it is there it is present. We want the future to be there without ceasing to be future. This is an absurdity of which eternity alone is the cure.” (Gravity and Grace)
How do such comments apply to film? In Camus’s remark we have the cinematic experience that isn’t based on what Bordwell and others call schema, the norms that viewers learn to identify and master, through general classification, but instead where one constantly seeks the new in a given experience. Rather than watching a contemporary film noir and noticing the tropes utilised, one sees instead the way the sun falls in the room, as in The Long Goodbye, and how it creates a melancholy mood that is uniquely the film’s own and not some general chiaroscuro noir effect. It also allows us as viewers to feel the singularity of that melancholia, meditate upon it as reverie in the Bachelard sense. Such an approach leads us to absorb much more the film’s present rather than its future, and thus we are not narratively disappointed with the future as it becomes the present. Weil might be talking about ‘life’ but isn’t it a wonderful encapsulation of the narrative momentum leading to the deflation of conclusion, where so many films make us aware of little but the narrative and its working out? Focusing more on that light in the room can hint at the eternity Weil evokes. What often makes a film beautiful, meaningful and memorable lies in these small moments of illumination through filmic luminosity. In all three comments one has a rather different approach to film than the cognitivist as one tries to understand less the film experience as a piece of carefully contrived craft and more as a perceptual opportunity.
A third area is the narrative, often the most oppressive aspect to a film if we see it as something we have to follow, like a servant humbly trailing behind its master. But of course numerous films quite deliberately generate gaps in the story that create freedom of interpretation, and many others that appear not to do so intentionally, cannot quite avoid us finding interpretive spaces nevertheless. If L’avventura leaves us wondering what happened to Anna after she goes missing, and we never discover whether she was murdered, committed, suicide or drowned, as the film focuses on a burgeoning relationship between her friend and her ex, then A bout de souffle leaves us wondering about certain motives Patricia, the central character’s lover, possesses that remain odd to us. These are films playing quite deliberately with the enigmatic. Yet many films create moments that we might ponder over as unusual. In a minor film like Basil Deardon’s 1958 The Violent Playground, David McCallum’s character remains a mildly mysterious figure as he runs a gang with a charisma that he doesn’t quite appear to trust. Indeed how often do we wonder about the motivation of a villain whose actions don’t appear merely motivated by greed, but by some underlying tension? Many of the great villains contain within them a paradox: from Frank Booth in Blue Velvet to Joe Pesci in Good Fellas, from Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight to Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men. None of these films are generating hermeneutic gaps as Antonioni’s work so often would, but they aren’t quite closing them up either. We often muse over such villainy rather than predict it. Booth’s problems are so intricately weaved within the sinews of his nervous system that we can hardly expect to guess what he will do next within the confines of plot logic, and wonder instead what type of creature he happens to be. It is as likely to force us back onto our own encounters with ‘moody’ people as push us into the next narrative situation. While some might insist we are no longer focusing on the film as our mind drifts off into thoughts on our own life, we might be inclined to think this is exactly what good cinema often does. Where the well told narrative keeps us confined in plot conventions, excessive or aporiac storytelling can give us the space and freedom to use the film as an opportunity not to slavishly follow, but to pause for thought.
While the term schematic is often used pejoratively, for Bordwell and others schema is a positive term: “If my friend says he wants a burger, and then I see him head for a burger joint, I infer that he’s acting on his beliefs and desires. Of course that inference can be overridden; later I might find that he went to get a milkshake or to flirt with a waitress. But even revising the inference requires the same schema. (Aha, he really wanted a shake, or a date for tonight.)” Bordwell wants to fit the perception into a common-sensical schema, so that if one’s prediction initially proves wrong, there is another sitting behind it waiting to replace the initial assumption. Of course films often expect us to think exactly like this. We see someone going into a bank with one hand in their pocket and think they are probably going to rob it. The person takes out their wallet as they go up to the desk and we realize we are wrong, only for the person to then take out from under their belt a gun. But can we call this thinking or is it really no more than narrative surmising? It keeps us in the film rather than reflecting on life, and perhaps creates a more engaged viewer as a consequence of our schematizing thought, but creating worse thinking as we become hyper-engaged viewers.
One of the challenges a filmmaker like Godard has always presented to us is the relative absence of narrative, an absence that stymies the schematic viewer. One doesn’t lose oneself in a Godard film, and this is perhaps partly why it has been proposed that viewers should be paid to make sense of images, rather than paying to see them. It is a point Gilles Deleuze addresses in an interview with Cahiers du cinema: “why not pay the people who watch television, instead of making them pay, because they are engaged in real work and are themselves providing a public service?” Deleuze is talking about Godard’s TV work but it would be relevant to his cinematic oeuvre as well. Just as we often accept that galleries should be free, and educational grants available to pay for students to study, why not pay people to see films rather than people having to pay to see them? How often when we describe to someone a difficult work do we hear the phrase: I wouldn’t go if you paid me? Are they instinctively acknowledging the work involved? Godard’s aesthetic approach is work, as he asks to employ, as opposed to deploy, our thinking. In other words, in a schematic approach to film we deploy often well-rehearsed reasoning faculties to follow a film that is leading us by the cognitive nose; in employing our faculties the range is much broader.
Now this of course isn’t to say that Bordwell and others have a narrow notion of cinema – Bordwell is nothing if not a broad ranging chronicler of cinematic experience. He has written on Godard at length, and stills from Arrabal, Brakhage and Syberberg films are used in Film Art: An Introduction. As he says: “I’ve indulged my admiration for Hou Hsiao-hsien and Carl Theodor Dreyer, but I’ve also tried to tease out the aesthetics of Hong Kong action pictures and Hollywood blockbusters.” (Minding Movies) It is how much thinking is available within his analysis of film as he and others don’t start with the singular aesthetic response that can lead to subjectivation, but usually the general, normative one that seeks out schemas and patterns: that have everything to do with the constructed art work and very little to do with the individual response. “One of the most powerful ways to get the audience emotionally involved is to show your protagonist treated unfairly. This happens in spades at the start of Slumdog [Millionaire]. A ferocious-faced boy is subjected to awful torture and then he’s intimidated by unfeeling men in authority.” Bordwell presents this pragmatically, but there are ways of taking such scenes personally without reducing our response to no more than personal opinion or anecdote, a position evident in Peter Bradshaw’s review of the film. If Bordwell talks up the form and mentions that the “story pattern carries within it one of the great thematic oppositions of the cinema, the tension between destiny and accident”, Bradshaw has a go at the nature of the content. The film “culminates with a “phone a friend” showstopper and both cheekily suggest the show is transmitted live, when, in real life, it is of course recorded and edited well in advance, at least partly to weed out the cheats. I have some knowledge of all this, incidentally. I was once the “friend” telephoned by a contestant on the show but at the crucial moment, my mobile phone was, shamingly, out of range. Chris Tarrant’s face was reportedly a picture of polite bemusement as my voicemail message echoed pointlessly around the studio, before being smartly cut off and the contestant was permitted to phone another “friend”. Naturally, hiccups like that don’t make it on to air.” But between Bordwell’s beneficence towards cliché, and Bradshaw’s bonhomie as personal history, one could take the film as a perceptual, ethical affront. Whether it is someone willing to get covered in faeces to meet a star, crude moments of torture porn, or a character getting blinded, the film offers plenty opportunity for subjectivized outrage: the question isn’t necessarily how does it work its ‘magic’, nor how implausible happens to be its story, but how does it try and turn us into a certain type of spectator we might not wish to be. It isn’t whether the film works or not that counts; but how the film works on us, and whether it is Slumdog Millionaire, or the recent 12 Years a Slave and Captain Phillips, we might know what the film wants us to think and feel, but believe that the person they wish to target isn’t the one we happen to be.
When near the end of Captain Phillips the image structure has been designed so as to generate a murderous wish for the pirates to be shot in the head and in 12 years a Slave for the educated black to get out of the plantation even if it means leaving others behind less educated than he happens to be, the films offer a spectatorial speciousness we have to extricate ourselves from. John Lindley’s script isn’t too far removed from his well-known Esquire article where he differentiates between niggers and blacks, with the black the one who escapes straitened circumstances to achieve things in the world; the nigger a figure of failure bemoaning his lot. 12 Years a Slave’s Solomon Northup is an educated free man abducted and forced into slavery, Captain Phillips turns its African characters into zombies – people ready to be shot in the head. In Lindley’s argument (and the films’) the first deserves to be rescued by the white man for his education and generally good behaviour; the Somalian pirates deserve to be killed by the white man because they are no more than niggers. Obviously many watching the films won’t accept this reading, but if one feels infuriated by the rescue mission courtesy of the whites in 12 Years a Slave, and the gung-ho executions near the end of Captain Phillips, then this might be the reason why.
It would be all very well to give a cognitive account of how the film generates narrative structures and utilises camera positioning to make us feel a certain way, but what if we don’t want to respond in this generalized manner the filmmaker assumes, and instead choose to respond as a singular viewer taking the film very personally indeed? The people behind Captain Phillips might insist that they had no intention of turning their black characters into zombies, just as Steve McQueen and Lindley would be unlikely to admit they made a film that separates the racial wheat from the chaff, but the films contain within their narrative structures exactly these reactive feelings. Of course those who like the films and see them as liberal works for liberal viewers might insist that one’s reaction is hyperbolized, but what the subjectivated viewer needs to insist upon is that this response is felt because the film expects a viewer to have the bad faith of the liberal who doesn’t believe in the racist implications that they are nevertheless made to feel at certain moments. Whether it happens to be the immense relief one feels when the central character in 12 Years a Slave gets to hug his white savior whilst leaving behind many other blacks, or Captain Phillips’ insistent need to create identification with Phillips so that we demand the death of those who are holding him captive, the films we might feel generate subjugated viewers of bad faith rather than a subjectivated viewer of good faith: a viewer who will not so much look at the film as an experience to be overwhelmed by, but one to be comprehended.
When Foucault says, “the self must be kept before your eyes”, he discusses variations on the phrase. “You must have the self under your eyes, so to speak, under your gaze or in sight. A series of expressions derive from this, like blepe se (consider yourself; you find this in Marcus Aurelius), or observa te (observe yourself), se respicere (looking at yourself, turning your gaze on the self), applying your mind to the self (prosekhein ton noun heauto).” (The Hermenuetics of the Subject) To discuss Slumdog Millionaire, Twelve Years a Slave and Captain Phillips one needn’t dismiss the films polemically, playing the role of a disgusted spectator full of self-righteous socio-political indignation. Chiefly what one needs to do is acknowledge how the film has created a certain type of viewer which you feel you don’t happen to be. This will require looking at both the film and also oneself. Another term Foucault uses in the same lecture is anakhoresis, with one of its meanings the flight of the oppressed “who takes off in the khora, the countryside, thus escaping subjection and his status as a slave.” 12 Years a Slave might present itself as a film about the liberation from slavery, but we as viewers can see that in many ways it puts us in a position of emotional captivity, and that it thus requires a form of withdrawal: one that allows the self to turn away from its enslavement and towards self-consideration. We don’t follow the narrative, but instead resist it. When a female slave is whipped repeatedly we can of course feel anger and frustration at the plantation owner’s vicious act, but we can also wonder about a manipulative force on McQueen’s part that wants us cinematically tied to the post, unable to wriggle free from the whiplash expectations of cinematic technique and liberal assumption. Now of course there are still numerous racists in the US and elsewhere, but if we assume that most people watching 12 years a Slave will be of a liberal disposition, who agree that slavery is terrible, that whipping another human being is horribly cruel and that the plantation owner should be jailed for his actions, then what is the film telling us? Here the visual and the verbal become tautological rather than revelatory: the film offers a predictable message within a predictable form, enslaving us not in our prejudices but in our assumptions, yet cares little to try and work out what the differences might be.
Now perhaps central to a subjectivated viewer is trying to discover what resides cinematically in words like assumption and prejudice. A prejudice might be a word with more negative connotations than assumption, but it is also usually on the part of the owner a more consciously held position. Most of those watching 12 Years a Slave will not be going to see the film to have their prejudices countered: will they not automatically see themselves holding an anti- slavery position? What they might have however is their assumptions reconfirmed. Their liberal sense of outrage will find many scenes appealing to their values if not to their sensibility, and this is where the film fails completely as a work open to subjectivation. When the slave dealer played by Paul Giamatti sells Solomon Northup and others, we have the white actor playing it up with villainous relish as he stands amongst a group of naked black actors. Now of course we aren’t supposed to think about this fact: we are supposed to have suspended our disbelief far enough for us to see a white exploiter and cowed blacks. But if we accept that the audience is going to accept slavery is wrong, then there is no hegemonic tension in that situation – no sense that the film is asking the viewer to question themselves and where they stand on the issue being addressed beyond the diegesis. The film might insist the question of power resides in the white slave owner buying slaves, but one might feel the hegemonic question lies elsewhere, even if there is nothing in the sequence suggesting we should ask it: that here we have an enacted drama with a white clothed man playing gleefully sadistic, and blacks standing around without any clothes on. If the viewer as subject seeks not complacency but self-interrogation, (blepe se) the place to look resides in the casual redramatizing of a representational power dynamic. How does one feel about such a sequence when we interrogate ourselves about it?
It isn’t as though McQueen is oblivious to the performance that pokes out of the story: Hunger was both a film about hunger striker Bobby Sands, but also about Michael Fassbender’s weight loss for the role. In the latter stages we watch an emaciated man as political activist dying for his cause, and an actor starving himself for his art. As McQueen said in a Film 4 interview: “When he was fasting, we took a break and we got extraordinarily close ? more than I would imagine we could in any other circumstance, through the whole idea of this fasting situation.” The film lingers over Fassbinder’s body as if aware that this is of course the story of a man dying, but also the reality of an actor emaciated. McQueen’s background in visual art meets cinematic narration and creates a space to think of both the character and the actor simultaneously. This is missing from the scene in 12 Years a Slave. We might have few prejudices when it comes to slavery; but the film allows us to fall into our assumptions about imagery. In other words we lose ourselves in the story and don’t quite find a complex ethical relationship with the representational images except by escaping from one into the other.
Thus we have explored three of the ways in which we can create ourselves as a subject in front of the cinematic image: through our relationship with the actor, to be ‘naïve’ and see the film’s techniques not as craft skills but modes of perceiving reality, and by escaping the film’s narrative oppression and assumption. Film is of course a relatively new art and the writers Foucault invokes Ancient thinkers. It might seem perverse drawing on writers and philosophers who have been dead for thousands of years over critics who have been addressing the very art form over the last century. Yet much of film theory has been concerned with the general spectator, and film criticism with the judgemental response. If psychoanalysis, mise-en-scene criticism and cognitivism have asked us to analyse the film en masse, if in very different ways, criticism has often illustrated the opposite: the sovereign right of the critic. Speaking of an early seventies film, Pauline Kael in Deeper into Movies said: “I delayed going to see Long Ago, Tomorrow as long as possible – first, because I kept forgetting the title, second, because I knew it was about the love affair of two paraplegics, and who wants to go sit to watch people sitting?” Stanley Kauffmann in Before My Eyes says “Shampoo is disgusting. With technical skill and some occasionally bright dialogue and some excellent décor by Richard Sylbert, it exploits serious subjects and new licenses with nauseating cynicism…” In Have You Seen…? David Thomson muses, “I wonder whether the mental condition of Forrest Gump in 1994 (going from simplicity to sublimity) did not approximate that of Ronald Reagan as he sank from office into Alzheimer’s?”
Here critics are offering very personal responses indeed, the sort of remarks that wouldn’t be easily incorporated into academic discourse, and that rely on the subjective force of the writer. Of course often it adds up to not much more than opinion, evident here, yet sometimes this is evident as subjectivation, and any extensive analysis of care of the self as criticism could do worse than look at its presence in critics like Kael and Thomson, as well as Raymond Durgnat and Serge Daney. The magazine Daney set up not long before he died, Trafic, might be the very journal where such writing is most commonly available. Indeed, Raymond Belllour notes that Serge Daney’s first principle behind the magazine was “highly personal “chronicles” following, from day to day, what is current in cinema.” (Serge Daney in English). Philosopher Stanley Cavell’s The World Viewed and Cities of Words and Gilberto Perez’s The Material Ghost are also works interested in the knottiness of the singular viewing subject and the material object on the screen. One reason why these are great writers on film is that they demand a personal relationship with the image, seeing it as a space not of homogenizing responses, but individualizing ones. The difference between a brilliant cognitivist like Bordwell, and a brilliant mind in a much broader sense like Cavell, can well be illustrated by a quote from each on His Girl Friday. Cavell says he has seen the film many times but “began to find that I could not remember exactly the times Bruce phoned to say he was in jail, nor precisely when and how his mother happened to be in the pressroom just when she was needed, nor for example, how Hildy happened to have both Bruce’s wallet and the 450 counterfeit dollars in it ready just in time to hand to Bruce when he appeared (who had bailed him out of jail?).” (Cities of Words) Cavell adds to this mnemonic doubt speculation. “Weighing the ending of each of the films of both of our genres is something one learns to be as important as pondering the conclusions of a poem. How can this possibly be?” These are very different questions he is asking; one about his own memory; the other about a genre’s demands, but both possess the vulnerability of a cinematic technology of self. Here is Bordwell: “The cause-and-effect logic of the film illustrates yet another principle of classical narrative structure: closure. No event is uncaused. (Even Pettibone’s arrival is no lucky accident, for we know that the governor is under pressure to decide about the case.) More important, both lines of action are clearly resolved at the end.” This latter passage is admittedly from Bordwell and Thompson’s Film Art, a standard cinematic textbook, but it differs little from Bordwell’s analysis of cinema elsewhere, in Narration in the Fiction Film, essays in Minding Movies, in Figures Traced in Light and The Way Hollywood Tells it. His habit of seeing films as machinic works that not so much invite subjectivity but instead create a viewing machine, allows for very pertinent comments on form, and the creation of some useful formal concepts, but the process of understanding oneself through the film is usually absent.
This we feel is also evident in very different ways in Perkins’s mise-en-scene criticism, and much psychoanalytic writing. In a chapter in Film as Film, ‘Participant Observers’, Perkins says, “In order to discuss critically we have to find ways of defining not only images, actions and interpretations but also the nature of our involvement. The precise manner in which any spectator involves himself in the action of a movie, the nuances of his alignment in the actions and aspirations of particular characters, will necessarily be controlled by his personality and experience. But critical judgements depend on demonstrating the validity of a response, on showing that it is inherent in the logic of the presentation and therefore depends on a predictability of dominant responses.” It is this key phrase the dominant response that we disagree with, and not to ape psychoanalysis’s problem with the word dominant. As Christian Metz says at the beginning of Psychoanalysis and Cinema, “reduced to its most fundamental procedures, any psychoanalytic reflection on the cinema might be defined in Lacanian terms as an attempt to disengage the cinema-object from the imaginary and to win it for the symbolic, in the hope of extending the latter by a new province.” This is wrestling dominance from the dominant mode, and has many practical as well as theoretical adherents: from Laura Mulvey to Jean-Louis Comolli, from Jean-Marie Straub/Danielle Huillet to Godard.
But this would still seem to us quite different from the comprehension of self that the Ancients practised in their lives and that we are proposing can be relevant to our relationship with the image. Now of course this idea of the image is quite different from two thousand years ago, and yet taking into account what we have been saying about the image as not only a technical/formal construction, but also a reality that we see, we can draw similarities between remarks by Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and others. “With regard to everything that befalls you,” Epictetus says in the Discourses, remember to turn towards yourself and ask what capacity you have for making a proper use of it. If you see a beautiful boy or woman, you will find self-control the capacity to use against this: if you are subject to pain, you will find endurance: if abuse, you will find patience. If you become used to this, impressions will carry you away.” Marcus Aurelius believes, “happiness [eudaimonia], by derivation, means ‘a good go within’, that is, a good master-reason. Then what, vain Fancy, are you doing here? Be off, in heaven’s name, as you came; I want none of you. I know it is a long habit that brings you here, and I bear no ill-will, but get you gone.” (Meditations) Foucault talks about a text by Plutarch where the Ancient thinker discusses the concern we have for our neighbours and the concern for ourselves. “You get the impression – a first impression anyway,” Foucault says, “that what is at stake is the substitution of a rather serious examination of oneself for knowledge of others or unhealthy curiosity about others.” (The Hermeneutics of the Subject)
How much of cinema is about this unhealthy curiosity without allowing us to turn towards ourselves? Does it contribute to damaging our happiness? Think of how many films force upon us a useless curiosity that does not ask us to show self control when a beautiful woman enters the frame; the music, the lighting, the camerawork are demanding the opposite of Epictetus’s dictum. Films might often be asking for a general viewer, but that doesn’t mean this is what we have to provide. A filmmaker may ask us to be overwhelmed by an actress’s beauty, to cheer at an act of violence, or weep over a death, but we can ask ourselves within the experience what we should give that the film demands. Perhaps at a funeral in a film if we kept looking back at the mother who has lost her child we might be inclined to cry, and that might be exactly what the film expects as it offers numerous reaction shots to the weeping mother. But perhaps we will instead place ourselves within other shots available, maybe a long shot on the mourners from a waiting car. The film will give us shots of the mother weeping, but our own inclination is to seek not the maximum amount of emotion, but the maximum amount of perspective: that one long shot could mean much more to us than several close ups. We might have to accept that the film wants to make us cry, but we don’t have to go along with the film’s manipulative means. The general viewer will be in tears; the specific viewer dolefully more inclined to accept that life goes on.
“Spirituality postulates that the truth is never given to the subject” Foucault says. “Spirituality postulates that the subject as such does not have the right of access to the truth and is not capable of having access to the truth.” (Hermeneutics of the Subject) But what can allow for a subject to have this right to truth rests on his ability “to be changed, transformed, shifted, and become, to some extent and up to a certain point, other than himself.” This however ought not to be the other that obliviously identifies with characters, cries at sentimentality, whoops at violent spectacle and looks to escape from oneself in the cinematic experience. It is instead one who is constantly vigilant in the face of the image, aware that one has a face of one’s own that looks back, and which refuses to take the image for granted. There is a much in the work of the Ancients as there is in modern critical discourse that can help us with this process. Here the technology of the self can meet with the technology of the image in an ongoing act of careful comprehension.