Essay: Film Theory

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Film Theory

Film and Reality

When photography appears in historical development, its indexicality adds the appeal of endurance through time to the impression of likeness in painted perspective. Crucially, ?likeness' is not given epistemological or cognitive value in itself, but rather is being invoked as a sup- port for fundamental needs of the subject vis-a-vis time. And cinema adds duration to the embalming of a single temporal instant in still photography. As Bazin puts it in ?the Myth of Total Cinema, this makes cinema the realization of a perennial compulsion, a virtually ageless dream of perfect realism, which would have to include duration (Bazin, 1971). but, as with any wish fulfillment, such preservation of the real object is protectively converted into the preservation of the subject. Always, for Bazin, cinema achieves its specificity through the relations of the subject.

But also, and more complexly, if its character as indexical trace gives the automatically produced image a special appeal, this appeal is inseparable from the limitations of such images with respect to the perfect reproduction of reality. As we have already seen, Bazin freely acknowledges these limitations. In fact, since it is grounded on subjective obsession, Bazin's ontology could not exist without a gap between referent and signifier; hence his oft-noted assertion of an asymptotic relation between film and reality (Mast & Kawin, 2000).

This gap is determined by the inevitable abstraction from reality inherent in the effort to form representations that make contact with it. This gap serves central functions in Bazinian realism. It is precisely this gap that is filled in variable manifestations of human imagination, which are in effect subjective projections. This imagination is obsessively drawn to discover types of signs that can be invested with the credibility of the real in order to maintain itself. The subjective project requires an objective gap as a field for its actions and realizations. The mummy complex and the break between film and reality are the interlinked premises leading to Bazin's accounts of various components of the filmic process. They ground his accounts of both spectator- ship and filmmaking or authorship (Henderson, 1980).

At the level of spectatorship, it is from the desire to counter threats to its own existence, its own being, that the spectator is drawn to investing an unprecedented credibility in the image in spite of its perceptible differences from the referent in full, three- dimensional space; the spectator may thus affirm his or her own subjective being (Henderson, 1980). In a parallel way, Bazin's writings on the history of filmic textuality suppose that the artist responds to this universally anxious condition of the human subject by artistic means, especially through his or her style, including narrative form. These necessarily embody an attitude toward the world, since they respond to the objective inadequacies of the signifier (the gap between film and reality) in the face of the subjective desire for a fantastic control over materiality (locus of causation of death). So what is usually regarded as Bazin's ontology describes a subjective intentionality for automatically produced images based on a preservative obsession. Now, of course this means that the relations between such images and the physical world remain crucial for his theory: the special appeal to the subject rests on the preexistence of concrete objects, a pre- existence offered by their preservation via indexicality (Zettl, 1999). Nevertheless, once it is emphasized that the referential force of such concreteness exists only for a subject, the relation of indexical trace to the preexistent takes on a broader function. It can become a pervasive ideal or privileged model-that is, a manifestation of certain ambitions of subjectivity vis-a-vis representation beyond the basic level of the relation of a film image to its referent (Mast & Kawin, 2000). There are many illustrations of Bazin's recourse to this relation as an ideal representational model rather than a literal description at key points in specific arguments. In his 1955 defense of Rossellini, for example, he defines Italian neorealism not by the physical appearance of the image and its likeness to some reality, but by the subjectivity of the artist, which (he believes) necessarily filters out aspects of literal reality. He then explicates the consciousness of the neorealist by analogy to the indexicality of a black-and-white photograph: a true imprint of reality, a kind of luminous mold in which color simply does not figure (Zettl, 1999).

2. Active and Passive Spectatorship

Tania Modleski questions Mulvey's claim that Hitchcock's Rear Window is cut to the measure of male desire. To be sure, the film seems to confine us to the hero's vision of events and to insist on that vision by stressing his point-of-view throughout. But a closer look at the fihn calls these assumptions into doubt. The impotence of the immobilized Jeff is suggested by the enormous cast on his leg. By contrast Lisa is anything but help- less and incapable despite Mulvey's characterization of her a ?passive image of perfection. Indeed our first view of her is of an overwhelmingly powerful, self-assured presence (Mast & Kawin, 2000).

In view of all this, and of Lisa's aggressive sexuality, it seems odd that Mulvey sees in the image of Lisa only a passive object of the male gaze. For Modleski, the film increasingly stresses a dual point-of-view. Both Jeff and Lisa intently stare out of the window but from different points-of-view. Lisa is less interested in spying and relates to characters through empathy and identification. Lisa is able to provide the missing evidence because she claims a special knowledge of women that men lack. And at the climactic moment in the film, the scene in which Lisa is flung around the room by Thorwald, Jeff himself-and, by extension the male fihn viewer-is forced to identify with Lisa. Jeff becomes aware of his own passivity and helplessness in relation to the events unfolding before his eyes.

When Thorwald finally attacks Jeff, the "feminization" process is complete and Jeff finds himself in the role previously played by Mrs. Thorwald and then by Lisa -- a victim of male violence. Jeff ends up with two broken legs while Lisa has become the mirror image of the man-dressed in masculine clothes and reading a book of male adventure while Jeff sleeps. The film gives her the last look. And we are left with the suspicion that while men sleep and dream their dreams of omnipotence over a safely reduced world, women are hardly locked into the male "view" of them, imprisoned in their master's dollhouse (Mast & Kawin, 2000). Tom Gunning adds a historical perspective to the discussion of film spectatorship. Referring to, among others, Metz's description of the first silent fihn audiences as terrorized and overcome by its experience of the illusion of film, Gunning criticizes this distinction between the credulous and incredulous aspects of spectatorship along with the "legend" of the naive spectator of early fihn.

He argues instead for an aware audience for whom film was an extension of illusionistic theater. It is an informed amazement at fihn's power rather than a child's incomprehension that is at work in what Gunning calls this ?cinema of attractions, characteristic of the first decade of early film- ?an encounter with modernity? In all its fragmentation. The moment of spectacle, then, which Mulvey defines more narrowly as the stopping of narrative in order to gaze at the image of woman, thus goes back to the beginning of film's preoccupation with spectacle of many kinds, including today's action fihns with their grandiose special effects. Robert Stam and Louise Spence believe that studies of racism and anti-colonialism need to make the kind of methodological leap made by feminist criticism when journals like Screen and Camera Obscura transcended the usefully angry, but method- of the investigator, typically a male, who will complete the story for us.

Logically flawed, "image" analysis practiced by such critics as Molly Haskell and Majorie Rosen. They wish to pose questions concerning the apparatus, the position of the spectator, and the specifically cinematic codes. These studies should apply, as well, to the understanding of other oppressions including sexism, class subordination, and anti-Semitism, indeed, to all situations in which difference is transformed into "other"-ness and exploited or penalized by and for power (Bordwell, 1997). The approaches that Stam and Spence wish to supersede tend to focus on issues of social portrayal, plot, and character. While making an invaluable contribution by alerting us to the hostile distortion and affectionate condescension with which the colonized have been treated, these approaches have often been marred by a certain naivete.

Stam and Spence cite Tom Engelhardt to note that the paradigmatic fihnic encounters between whites and Indians in the western typically involve images of encirclement. The attitude toward the Indian is premised on exteriority. The besieged wagon train or fort is the focus of our attention and sympathy, and from this center our familiars sally out against unknown attackers characterized by inexplicable customs and irrational hostility. The possibility of sympathetic identifications with the Indians is simply ruled… [END OF PREVIEW]

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