Reading the Specular Text; Synthesis of The Spectator in the Text by Nick Browne

Professor Nick Browne describes a fundamental problem with the analysis of cinematic narration through existing paradigms; the motivation behind the composition of a sequence based on the action and the gaze of the character does not consider the authority of the narrator. Instead, he proposes a reevaluation of the “center” through “reading” the film and assessing rational through an implied narrator placed by the spectator (126). His case is explored through a sequence 28 minutes into the movie Stagecoach which defies previous analytic structures, but is clarified when the text is interpreted through “implied position of the spectator” (125).

Traditional explanations for camera position and framing rationalize placement as “following the action” (126); the camera follows the gaze of a spectator who would be watching the events on a stage, and the content is edited to highlight the attention of the audience. An important characteristic noted in the traditional paradigm is in the authority of gaze, which is guided by the action. A second theory referenced is Oudart’s suture theory, which places the authority for the shot in an offscreen viewer dubbed the “absent one”; shot/countershot sequences are interpreted as depictions of the gaze of an off camera character within the scene. The suture system addresses the character, but neither theory addresses the “authority of narrative”. Browne proposes interpretation of imagery as motivated through a combination of the judgment of an “implied narrator” and the “imaginative action” caused by his placement (126).


(The camera is placed for the vantage of the antagonist, but the audience identifies with the protagonist.)

Attempting to analyze the opening and closing shots of the sequence through the traditional or suture systems yields a problem attaching the point of view to character or action. Browne argues that the failure arises because the shots function to present the complex psychological state of the group, rather than a single character. He supports his assertion with the fact that the opening and closing shots cannot be attached to anyone’s glance, and also sites supporting examples when the spectator is placed in one character’s location, but identifying with another (135). These exceptions make the interpretation of the figurative placement or “center” of the spectator complicated because the viewer can disagree with the opinions of the character represented through the geographic position and angle of the camera. This act of defiance with the physical perspective places the narrative authority in the possession of the spectator (132-133).

The switching of modes, alternating contrasting elements, is read as a as a coherent statement to the spectator, conveying a sense of meaning over time. Key to the process of reading is forgetting the elements that composed the dramatic impact, brought about by the placement of a new occluding significant event for the spectator to read, an effect Browne calls “fading” (135). A spectator reads emphasis implied through temporal variation in cycles of retrospection, fading, delay, and anticipation, an act that further involves the spectator (136).

Identification with a character on screen, without a sense of displacement as the shots change, relieves the spectator’s point of view from a “given spatial location” (134 and 137). The text the spectator inhabits is, as Browne puts it, “the product of the narrator’s disposition toward the tale” (136). Within the presentation of this structure the author transfers the appearance of authority onto the characters.  To the reader, the “center”, in the context of the specular text, is a function that is adopted as the one who makes the form intelligible, and for the spectator the center is the impression of being able to occupy the space of the narrative (137).

Relation to the image on screen is literal, but the relation to the space implied can be recognized through different terms. The audience is outside the action; actor’s and spectator’s glances cannot meet, the result is a “prohibition boundary” that separates the spectator from the action, but this boundary is the defining element of the narrative system, segregating the film as  “different from dream in being the product of another” (137 – 138). The result is a form which “conveys a point of view and define(s) the course of the reading” (139), “assist(ing) in the construction of attitudes”. The act of reading the scene becomes a performance that “recreates the point of view enacted in a scene” (140).

Works Cited:

Braudy, Leo, and Marshall Cohen. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

Classical Narration


Classical narration refers to one dominant mode of narration in fictional filmmaking. It is defined as “a particular configuration of normalized options for representing the fabula and for manipulating the possibilities of syuzhet and style” (156). In classical Hollywood cinema, the narration follows paradigmatic building blocks as events, actors and agents, linear chains of cause and effect, primary and secondary story lines. Bordwell’s analysis is framed on Russian formalism; the concepts of fabula (the chronological order of the events contained in the story), and syuzhet (the narrative order of the events contained in the story) are in fact key to his analysis. In addition, Bordwell heavily relies on narrative theory. Film considered in the chapter arch from 1917 to 1960, the time span when “classical narration” was the standard in Hollywood. The classical narration mode has a significant impact on the viewer who is driven to focus on understanding the fabul (rather than questioning how the fabula is constructed as in the art-cinema narration).

Classical narration makes use of two distinguished segments. First of all, the montage sequence, a series of shots that compress different actions in time and space into a short sequence. The other one, the scene is instead a part of the story and it portrays a specific action occurring at a specific time in a specific place. The end of a scene is often made explicit in the unfolding of the syuzhet — by variations in time, space and action – and through editorial intervention — by standardized technical punctuations as use of the fade, sound bridge etc. Scenes tend to display distinct phases. At the beginning the scene presents the context (time, space and characters); then it portrays the characters operating toward their goal; and finally it either closes off or it leaves a space open for further development of the story. For this reason, classical Hollywood is often described as “linear.” The same trifold structure is at play at the level of the fabula. The narrative is indeed structured with a discernable beginning, middle, and end. However, linearity is not absolute. This becomes apparent when the epilogue shows some sort of tension between the preceding causality and the happy resolution or when the fate of secondary characters are left opened or only hinted at.

Bordwell argues that classical narration mode tends to be omniscient because the narration has almost complete knowledge about the events; highly communicative because most of what is necessary for reconstructing the fabula is explicitly shown; and only moderately self-conscious, because very rarely the film acknowledges directly its audience. Of course, these features are not absolute. For example, certain genres — as detective films — tend to conceal more details. In addition, the level of self-consciousness fluctuates within the same film, generally being at its apex in the opening and in the final scene. Furthermore, throughout the entire film, the spectator’s level of omniscience progressively grows until the end when he/she can finally grasp the entire fabula. The “happy ending” is a common form of resolution but it is not structurally necessary. In certain cases, the protagonist does not achieve his goal and the film ends with a defeat.

The world presented in the narration is inherently consistent. As consequence, characters — especially the protagonist(s) — are psychologically defined and they have a stable worldview. Not surprisingly, in the classic Hollywood stars system actors become roughly identified with a prototype character. In classical Hollywood film, the goal of the characters appears to be psychologically rather than socially motivated. Since both the filmic world and the characters’ essence do not go through any sort of transformation, the spectator is asked to interpret the fabula in a certain way. This is indeed the almost monolithic constant: the narrative provides a resolution that is limited to a single “legitimate” interpretation.

Causality is the glue of the story. A great majority of films have a “double causal structure.” On the one side the heterosexual romance, on the other side another sphere of personal relationships. These two lines are distinct and at the same time interdependent.
 The plot can be further complicated by adding lines and subplots. One of the lines can be brought to end before, but more often they end together. In the narration, temporal and information gaps are rarely permanent. The viewer is generally spoon-fed all the necessary details through dialogues or a montage sequence. Often times, details are purposely redundant to make sure that the viewer can easily follow the syuzhet. Even when information gaps are imposed by the genre (as in detective film), soon or later the facts or the motivations are disclosed. In classic Hollywood film, the viewer is conceived as “ideal invisible observer” who always holds the optimal point of view.

In order to understand why the style of the classical Hollywood film appears to be self-concealing, Bordwell brings into the discussion the role of the spectator. He identifies three propositions. First of all, film technique serves as a vehicle for the unfolding of the story. Second, time and space are consistently presented through stylistic choices. For example, the camera makes abundant use of anticipatory movements to guide the spectator; generally, each shot follows logically the previous one. Exceptions, like discontinuous editing or hallucinatory sequences, are admissible only if they conform to a disorienting situation provided in the story. Third, a limited number of specific technical devices are deployed for specific communicative purposes. The result is that for each shoot there is a more likely set of “rules” that can be applied. The consistent use of these rules and the explicit orientation of the spectator in time and space make the style invisible to a general viewer.


Stagecoah (1939) offers, in many respects, an example of classical narration. It should be noted that narration modes are not absolute. Exceptions to the paradigm are indeed not infrequent. Browne examines a sequence from Stagecoach and challenges the conventional critical definition of classic film. Still, Stagecoach presents many features of the classical narration mode. In this section I discuss some elements at play in the film that are prominent in the classic narration mode. In order to highlight some features of the classical narration mode, I will bring into the discussion 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), a film that belongs to a definitely different mode of narration. In Stagecoach, characters — even the secondary ones — are psychologically defined and their personality remains unvaried throughout the whole film. I find interesting how at the beginning of the film Dallas, the prostitute, is depicted in a sympathetic way. The narration achieves its intent by representing the members of “Law and Order League” who have driven Dallas out of town as unpleasant and overly conservatory. In the film, the cause-effect relations are straightforward and the narrative is clearly structured around a linear development: initially obstacles and difficulties are presented; then the situation evolves until a final (happy) resolution. Let’s take Ringo Kid, the protagonist, by way of illustration. Ringo breaks out of prison to avenge the murder of his brother and of his father. In the course of the action, Ringo runs into the east-bound stagecoach. There he meets Dallas and then asks for her hand in marriage. In the end, Ringo succeeds in killing the three Plummers and he “escapes” with Dallas on a calash. The couple is expected to get married and live a happy life. Clearly, the “double causal structure is at play in Stagecoach. The fabula interweaves a story of revenge with a story of heterosexual romanceDetails are not concealed; the narration tends to be omniscient and highly communicative. For example, while riding in the stagecoach, it is Ringo to inform why he evaded from prison. The narration is also not very self-conscious: the audience is never directly acknowledged. The prominence of classic narration in Stagecoach becomes even more obvious when one compares other types of narration modes. For example, in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days the importance given to the characters is overturn. Ottilia who is aiding her friend Gabriela to have an abortion is the central focus of the narration. A number of details are purposefully hidden. The film directly acknowledges the spectator at the end of the film when Otilia looks directly at the camera (does she?) letting the audience guess what will happen between the two friends.

Summing up, Bordwell offers a compelling overview of the narrative at play in classical Hollywood film. From the limited research I have done on the subject, I assume that the adjective “classic” as an attribute to early Hollywood film is to be credited to Bordwell. This adjective confers to early Hollywood film a layer of aura. On the one hand, Bordwell claims that classical narration mode is only one of the narrative modes possible for realizing a film. On the other hand, he labels it “classic” and in so doing he confers a special value to mode. Many of the narrative features at play in classical film are style widely used in filmmaking not only in the US but all around the world. Beside the socio-economic influence of the U.S is there some inherent property about “classical narrative mode” that makes it so prominent? In addition, as we have glimpsed at, when narrative modes emerge they are not paradigmatic. How long does it take before a narrative mode gets crystalized? Where does the necessity to innovate or reject a mode and come up with a new one stems from?


Into the West: Landscape Rhetoric in Stagecoach

Our readings on classical narration this week seem focused on character, particularly in Browne. Bordwell makes a strong case for character as the central cause of action in classical Hollywood, but I see a gap, perhaps one particularly important for Westerns: what is the rhetoric of the landscape or location? Thus the rabbit hole I want to go down is minimally related to the themes Bordwell and Browne focus on, but might illuminate some gaps in their essays.


I’m thinking particularly of the scene in Stagecoach that begins at about 0:15:00 (at least in this YouTube version of the film)—the long shot/take of the western landscape as the stagecoach departs, followed by the column of cavalry. It’s remarkable (IMO) for the length of the take, which extends well after the cavalry has passed as the coach and soldiers diminish into the landscape, and for the stationary camera. Most other long takes in the film seem to be tracking shots (as in several cases of people walking and talking) or possibly-faked tracking shots (like those of the coach traveling).

The landscape shot is also notable for its depiction of space. There are also shots during the chase scene that emphasize the expansive landscape, but none quite like this one. The depth of landscape is striking, recalling the Hudson River School of painting, which places humans in the “middle landscape” and is tied to exploration and expansionism in 19th-century American culture.


Asher Durand, “Progress” – note the title and the wagon train in the middle landscape


Much could be said about the cultural connotations of such a shot in an American movie, and I’m sure someone better informed than I would have even more comments on the landscape shot and the western genre. But I want to touch on two things: the rhetoric of this bit of landscape in Stagecoach, and (at least briefly) the contrast between it and the way space is depicted in Deadwood.

Bordwell looks at narration as the meeting of fabula, syuzhet, and style* (156). In classical film narration, he writes, syuzhet is generally linear and fabulae are character-driven. Narration tends to be covert once the situation is set up, particularly when the action is driven or information conveyed by characters (something Browne also dwells on). However, the “communicativeness of classical narration is evident in the way that the syuzhet handles gaps” (160). The primary gap-handling strategy he’s interested in is the montage and its ability to facilitate a skip in time.

But what are we to make of this landscape shot? As a simple statement of plot—the coach has left town—it’s too long. There’s a sense of digression from the main course of events, as in a montage. But it’s the opposite of a montage in a technical sense, even though it also facilitates a skip in space and time, by transitioning to scenes in/on the coach and implying that a great deal of space has been traversed. At the same time, the implied observer is stationary at the edge of town. We take the position of civilization at the edge of the wilderness, our attention split between the column of riders and the seemingly limitless landscape.

I’d argue that the film is using the viewer not so much to re-enact the work of the narrator (as Browne suggests, 140), but to reconstruct/narrate Stagecoach’s ethos—nostalgia, American exceptionalism and the frontier, a particular vision of heroic-but-untamed masculinity (e.g. Ringo). This isn’t far off what Browne’s arguing, but transposed to the level of ideological identification rather than character identification.

Deadwood diverges from Stagecoach (and presumably other classic westerns) ideologically as well, in addition to obvious aesthetic differences. Deadwood rarely features these sorts of wide landscapes, favoring grit, as we’ve discussed before, and close spaces that conceal all manner of sins. (This week’s episode contained an exception: Jane’s view down the hill of Wild Bill’s burial.) The difference is so noticeable as to seem a repudiation of both the aesthetics and ideology of the classic western. The landscape has been dramatically constrained, and within four episodes the western frontier hero—Wild Bill—is dead. It would be incorrect to say that this is a farewell to American exceptionalism, but it’s hardly a story driven by the nostalgic optimism of the endless landscape.


* Where fabula is the events of the story and syuzhet is the way they’re arranged in the storytelling.

The Sound of Silence in Fritz Lang’s M


In his essay, Kaes underlines Lang’s aversion toward the sound film: “(r)umors had spread about his fundamental opposition to sound.” (Kaes, 16), and when the UFA urged Lang “to ‘modernise’ the film (Woman in the Moon SR) and add a soundtrack, he flatly refused and instead left his long-term employer before his contract expired.” (Kaes, 16). A striking aspect of M is the thrifty use of sound throughout the film, and the reduction of its use to the minimum makes the film almost work like a silent film. I’d like to suggest that this peculiar use (or not use) of sound has a specific goal.

As Doane points out, the “fear on the part of the audience of being ‘cheated’ is one of the factors which initially limits the deployment of sonorous material” (Doane, 276). I believe that Lang’s use of sound in this film mostly aims precisely to cheat the audience, to mock sound cinema. As already mentioned, the diegetic sound throughout the film is reduced to the minimum (mostly steps and dialogues), and sometimes it is sudden and very short, like for instance the sound of heavy traffic, to which no actual images correspond, while there is no hint of such traffic anywhere in the film. Belton states that “(s)ound lacks ‘objectivity’ (thus authenticity) not only because it is invisible but because it is an attribute and is thus incomplete it itself. Sound achieves authenticity only as a consequence of its submission to tests imposed upon it by other senses – primarily the sight.” (Belton, 290) I’d go a step further and suggest that in M sound sometimes is not only not objective, but also sheer useless, even counterproductive.

The voices of people talking on the street are peculiar too: their clear echoes make it evident that “M is entirely a studio production” (Kaes, 9), the film was in fact shot in the “Staaken studios (a former Zeppelin hangar from World War I)” (Kaes, 15); the dimension of the hangar explains the echoes of the voices in the film. I do not think that people working at the film did not realize it. I believe they kept it that way to produce a “contradiction between word (sound in this case SR) and image” (Kaes, 24), which reminds of Brecht’s Epic Theater.

Moreover, the voice of a character sometimes becomes the voiceover of the following scenes, and here the film strongly reminds me of documentary films. Nevertheless this commenting voice is slightly different from the voiceover in documentary as Doane describes it: “(t)he voiceover commentary in documentary (…) is, in effect, disembodied. (…) It is precisely because the voice is not localizable, because it cannot be yoked to a body, that it is capable of interpreting the image, producing its truth.” (Doane, 281), since we know whom each voice belongs to. Anyways, such scenes endowed with a voiceover are the description of the fingerprints (15:52 – 16:15), the handwriting and the psyche of the murderer (16:39 – 17:13), the engagement of the policemen (17:35 – 18:12), the investigation (18:13 – 19:29; 21:05 – 21:56), the old distillery where the mock trial takes place (1:34:50 – 1:35:03), and finally the report of the burglary (1:28:54 – 1:30:08). This voiceover however does not work like Doane’s documentary voiceover, “in which the sound carries the burden of ‘information’ while the impoverished image simply fills the screen.” (Doane, 282), because given the diegesis of the film, I think that all those scenes speak for themselves and they actually do not need any explaining voiceover; therefore I’d suggest that Lang used sound here to show its uselessness in fictional films.

Interestingly enough, the moments before the raid into the criminals’ bar (22:11 – 23.22), when cars brakes on the street with countless policemen getting off and walking toward the bar, is completely silent. A scene, which one could expect to be rather loud is soundless, but nevertheless it works well. Here, again, I’d suggest that Lang wanted to point out the superficiality of sound.

On the other hand, there is a specific sound that plays a peculiar role in the film, i.e. the sound of whistles, which stands for moments of discovery: whistles sound loudly when the criminals realize that the police are storming into bar (23:23); Inspector Lohmann whistles when he understands that one of the criminals’ ID is a counterfeit (26:43); a loud whistle is to be heard when the criminals enter the entrance of the building where they know they will find Beckert (1:11:11); and Kaes interprets Beckert’s whistling Peer Gynt as a sound that “subtly exteriorizes his subconscious, also suggesting the punishment that he expects and want” (Kaes, 21), and thus his desire to be discovered.

As already mentioned, I believe that the way Lang employs sound in M represents his plea for the silent movie. The most important scene in the film, the scene in which Beckert’s guilt and perversion is the most evident, is almost completely silent. I’m referring to the scene when we see for the first time Beckert’s reaction to the sight of a little girl (in the scene with Elsie Beckmann at the beginning of the film, we don’t see his face as only his shadow and his back are shown). The initial and the final parts of the sequence (52:33 – 53:20 and 54:18 – 54:45) are completely silent; in between there are the traffic sounds, his whistling of Peer Gynt, and finally the conversation between the little girl and her mother. But the shots where we see his physical reaction to the sight of the girl and to the missed opportunity to kill another child are completely soundless. I think here Lang wants his film to be silent to better emphasize Lorre’s magnificent acting and facial expression. As Doane states, ”(t)he absent voice reemerges in gestures and the contortions of the face – it is spread over the body of the actor.” (Doane, 275) And as a matter of fact “Lorre fascinated Lang because his round, child-like face and his corpulent body seemed to conceal a demonic force which might erupt at any moment.” (Kaes, 25) The use of sound here would probably distract the audience from Lorre’s bravura performance, which would find a more appropriate setting in the silent film.


Creating and Inverting the Soundscape: Music in Deadwood S1E4

When Jack McCall walks into the saloon and kills Wild Bill at the end of episode 4 of Deadwood, his action cues a sequence unlike anything we have seen in the show thus far. Akin to an opera act finale all the characters gather in one place as Jack is corralled to the middle of the camp; accompanying this sequence is foregrounded music that aligns with the characters’ and audience’s disbelief. In order to understand why the music in this scene is out of the ordinary for Deadwood, we must first address the construction of the show’s soundscape.

Screen music is meant to act as a guide of sorts for the audience, cueing them to various aspects of the onscreen action: setting, time, mood, and (often) the characters’ inner feelings. In this respect, the opening sequence for Deadwood behaves as it should; the title sequence opens with a “twinkling” banjo that is overtaken by a rowdy fiddle blaring away on double stops (two notes played at once) and note bends, the banjo serves as accompaniment along with unnamed percussion instruments (reminiscent of pots and pans). The theme recalls Appalachian folk music—a tradition with connections to bluegrass and skiffle (sometimes called jug bands, this music is created by using homemade instruments)—and immediately cues to the audience that this show, its characters, and events are going to be gritty, messy, and, to some extent, improvised; in other words: this is a western.

Apart from this opening sequence, however, the music in Deadwood defies our expectations, primarily through its absence. As Geuens states, “[Film sound] can help us question the visible, make us discover something we would have missed in the world, even suggest an extra dimension to ordinary life” (200). In music’s absence, however, we are left in an uncomfortable swarm of characters with unknown motivations and allegiances. Do any of these characters actually trust each other? Should we trust any of these characters? We’re not sure and the small amount of underscoring in each episode does little to reassure us. Musical cues in the first three episodes primarily consist either of the fiddle playing a quiet drone or a plucked string instrument alternating notes; in these cases the music is static and, while it keeps us attentive in the moment, these cues only add to the mystery rather than clarifying what is happening or how we should feel. Furthermore, when music is present it is relegated to the background of the soundscape, its volume below that of the speaking characters and other “realistic” noises—horses, background conversations, the clanging of glasses, etc., aka the sounds of the camp. These other sounds are vital to the show and without them “the characters on the screen are not quite real . . . As for the world they move in, it does not appear solid. It feel undeveloped, inadequate; it is found wanting” (Geuens, 204). The hierarchy in Deadwood, then, is dialogue, realistic sounds, and, lastly, music. However, in the aforementioned scene at the end of episode 4, this hierarchy is inverted.

In the death of Wild Bill scene, the music begins quietly at 55:13 with a banjo that recalls the opening theme; as Jack runs through camp the music is foregrounded and sounds that once would have been higher on the hierarchy—the sounds of boots in the mud, yelling bystanders, and the chasing mob—are dampened, allowing the music overtake the soundscape. The banjo’s melody becomes more complex with each main character that joins the action; beginning with an alternation between two notes, the melody gradually adds notes following the alternating ones to become a full-fledged theme. When Jane leaves her room in the hotel to join the other camp members in the street, her addition is paralleled in the music as a quiet string drone that accompanies the banjo. The hierarchy is righted again as Bill’s fall from the chair serves as the cadence for the music.

After almost four full episodes of the show we have grown accustomed to how the music behaves—it is barely even there and does not give us substantial information to help us make sense of the plot. By breaking with these established expectations, the extensive use of music feels cinematic and is a break with the “realism” of the show that enforces a sense of disbelief at Bill’s death for the both the characters and the audience.


The Politics of Sound – Creating the Uncanny in M?

In “The Voice in the Cinema,” Mary Ann Doane articulates a relationship between sound-voice-body-space in the framework of cinema. She begins with a contrast: whereas silent films created a disjuncture between voice and body using intertitles (resulting in an “uncanny” effect), sound cinema creates the “phantasmatic body” or the “body reconstituted by the technology and practices of cinema” (318-9). This phantasmatic body is maintained through two properties: unity and presence-to-itself (conceptually related to Benjamin’s aura), both of which add to a fuller representation of reality through synchronization. Doane gestures to other technological advances that sought to conceal the apparatus, “reducing the distance perceived between the object and its representation” (320). Just as continuity editing reduces the spectator’s recognition of cinema as medium, synchronization, the creation of the phantasmatic body and the prioritization of dialogue in the hierarchy of sound contribute to sound’s ability to close the gap between spectator and diegesis, as well as to sustain the cinematic illusion.[1] Sound and dialogue spatialize bodies/voices and define a depth within cinema (even through the physical placement of the apparatus) to create “the consistency of the real” for the spectator (321).

Doane theorizes the voice-off and the voiceover as sounds that contribute to the lateral dimension within cinema. Voice-off signifies moments when a character’s voice can be heard but their body is outside of the frame. The voice-off is traditionally used to deny the limits of the frame and affirm “the unity and the homogeneity of the depicted space,” thus, the phantasmatic body remains whole (321). Doane argues that despite the fact that sound is typically analyzed in conjunction with the visual, sound is not “subordinate” to the image (322). In fact, because sound occurs continuously (homogenously) throughout dominant narrative cinema, a lack of sound is even a taboo. Space – not sound or image – is therefore the most productive means of considering the heterogeneity of cinema and Doane reaches the conclusion that the voice-off not only “deepens the diegesis,” but functions in the “service of the film’s construction of space” (323). Doane mentions the potential risk in the voice-off, namely that “there is always something uncanny about a voice which emanates from a source outside the frame” (323). Separating body and voice is construed as unnatural and for this reason, returning the voice to the body is a common device used to signify narrative closure.[2] On the other hand, voiceover[3] is a completely disembodied voice that – for Doane – only occurs in the mode of documentary. This disconnect between voice and body imbues the voice with a rather gendered authority and unquestioned power due to “its irreducibility to the spatiotemporal limitations of the body” (325).[4]

In “The Pleasure of Hearing,” Doane treats sound, space and the spectator through the framework of psychoanalysis. She posits that the voiceover and/or interior monologue communicates directly with the spectator, but the synchronous dialogue or the voice-off imagines a spectator who overhears, paralleling voyeurism and the visual (325). True to form, Doane’s psychoanalytic analysis looks back to childhood development and she concludes that “the use of the voice in cinema appeals to a spectator’s desire to hear” (325). Doane compares the child and the spectator, suggesting that they attain pleasure within the “sonorous envelope” of the theater from the unity, singularity and presence of the voice (327). Near the end of this section, Doane explains that the voice’s “potential aggressivity” is managed in two ways: 1) through dialogue in narrative cinema or 2) through a juxtaposition with the visual in documentary. Newer forms of documentary reject the all-knowing (aggressive) power of the voiceover and allow the images presented to create their own story, masking the constructive nature of cinema.[5]

Doane ends with a discussion of the possible politics/erotics of the voice-off. She notes that conceptualizing an erotics of the voice-off does not aptly confront the epistemological issue of “mind/body dualism” and only furthers this separation (329). Doane then expresses concerns that a sole focus on politicizing the voice will be reductive because “a film is not a simple juxtaposition of sensory elements but a discourse, an enunciation” (329). She finally considers the feminist “double bind”: it is risky to politicize the body because it has always been the site of feminine oppression, but the body simultaneously opens up new possibilities of “gain” because it has been a site of said oppression (329-30).

Dialoguing M with Doane’s article raises some important questions with regards to the film and Doane’s theorizing. It seems that Doane’s notion of voice as interiority is reaching towards subjectivity, a more popular theoretical framework today than psychoanalysis. Beckert’s monologue at the end of the film is not interior, but his the quality of his voice expresses his terrifying interior life and the suffering he has endured. In this way, his voice “displays what is inaccessible to the image, what exceeds the visible” and communicates to the spectator “the ‘inner life’ of the character” (324). Can a monologue that is audible within the diegesis also have the qualities of an interior monologue that is shared only with the spectator?

Silences and whistles are additional aspects of M that require further attention. Doane occasionally mentions silences, even conceding that “the voice is even more powerful in silence,” but does not fully elaborate this power (327). Does Beckert achieve some kind of power (or terror) in his silence? The scene that portrays the first big search for Beckert plays with sounds and silences; the car pulls up (makes no sound), men get out (no sound), the street is quiet until – tweeeeeeeeeeet – a high-pitched whistle breaks the silence. This order-signaling, disciplinary whistle contrasts with Beckert’s uncanny whistling of the Hall of the Mountain King. How can we compare this whistling with Doane’s conception of the voice? Does it similarly express interiority? Overall, is Lang trying to use sound to conceal the constructed nature of the film or draw our attention to it? Do we get closer to the “consistency of the real” in M than we do in a film like Boyhood, which does not play with sound (ie: there is a fairly consistent soundtrack, no obvious lack of sound and dialogue is at the top of the hierarchy), or is it reversed?


[1] When the hierarchy is broken, it is indeed jarring – think back to the very end of Lost in Translation when the sounds of the street overtake the whispered goodbyes between Charlotte and Bob.

[2] In relation to M, the voice-off is a particularly relevant concept, but interestingly, Lang seems to use it to purposefully invoke the uncanny and rupture the phantasmatic body. The first time we hear Beckert (Peter Lorre, the murderer) speak in M, he appears as a shadow, outside yet inside the frame simultaneously. Lang uses the voice-off in a way that Doane does not theorize by creating a sense of the ominous through this disjunction of voice and body. Beckert’s voice is silenced throughout the film – we get most of his interiority through facial expression, more like a silent film – and his voice only reunites with his body at the very end during his monologue.

[3] In Doane’s translation of Bonitzer’s quotation, she explains that Bonitzer uses “voice-off” to mean both voice-off and voiceover (in French). In Spanish, the same holds true. The term voz en off (literally voice on off) implies voiceover narration, not Doane’s “voice-off.”

[4] It is interesting to note that Lang considered M to be a documentary (Kaes 9), which certainly raises some questions about his use of voice. While M does not have an omniscient narrator, we could interpret Inspector Lohmann’s phone call detailing the search efforts as a disembodied voice with absolute knowledge. Although Lohmann’s body technically has spatiotemporal limitations (established by the scenes of his body present in his office), his voice seems to travel effortlessly through the images of everything he is describing, leaping beyond limitations of time and space.

[5] Where does Lang’s “documentary” fall into this? Is there a “voice without a subject” that is present in M (327)?

Lazy Gaze: A Synthesis of Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure”

Laura Mulvey begins “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” by stating her goal to “discover where and how the fascination of film is reinforced by preexisting patterns of fascination already at work within the individual subject and the social formations that have moulded him,” and promptly asserts that psychoanalytic theory is the proper “political weapon” necessary to complete this goal (711). She acknowledges the difficulty in challenging patriarchal structures when one has no choice but to use language that has been constructed by the self-same structures; however, she consciously chooses psychoanalysis—itself a crucial tool of patriarchy—as her framework in an attempt to “make a break by examining patriarchy with the tools it provides” (712).

Mulvey argues that mainstream Hollywood cinema exploits the audience’s unconscious erotic desires through a “skilled and satisfying manipulation of visual pleasure” (713). And the most prominent pleasure of cinema is scopophila—which includes both “pleasure in looking” (voyeurism) and “pleasure in being looked at” (exhibitionism); in each of these variants, the active watcher reduces the passive watched to an object and “subject[s] them to a controlling and curious gaze” (713). Mainstream cinema provides the perfect atmosphere for fulfilling scopophilic desires; the characters appear unaware that they are being watched and the dark theater contrasted with the light of the screen creates an illusion of separation between the viwer and the viewed. The screen becomes a window into an unsuspecting, private world; however, Mulvey explains, the screen is also like a mirror wherein the watcher recognizes himself. Like a child who recognizes his/her image in the mirror for the first time and in the process, uncovers his/her subjectivity, cinema allows us to at simultaneously escape our own subjectivity while also reinforcing it. So, the second main pleasure in cinema arises from narcissism. And the delicate balance between scopophilia and narcissism allows the audience to fulfill their laden desires while also remaining separate from them.

Cinema maintains this balance by contrasting the passive female object with the active male protagonist who “mak[es] things happen” (716). Mulvey argues that the female character has two functions: to be an “erotic object” for both the characters within the film and the audience outside of it (716). Her performance exists outside of time and space and “freeze[s] the flow of action” to allow for “erotic contemplation” (715). On the other hand, the male protagonist’s actions make up the plot of the film. In short, she “bears” meaning while he “makes” meaning (712). Therefore, the viewer is encouraged to “identify” with the male protagonist, and the language of cinema fosters this identification through camerawork and editing that promotes a “satisfying sense of omnipotence” (716).

Finally, Mulvey explains that there are three “looks” in cinema: that of the camera filming the actors in real-time, that of the audience watching in the theater, and that of the characters looking at one another. Hollywood cinema, she claims, tends to disregard the first two looks—which are grounded time and space—and focus solely on the third in order to maintain a feeling of distance between the viewer and the events played out on screen. In focusing only on the third kind of look, these films ensure that they will never achieve “reality, obviousness, [or] truth” in favor of maintaining the “neurotic male ego” (721). Mulvey suggests that “alternative,” avant-garde cinema may be able to destabilize the male gaze. In order to do this, she claims, these films must emphasize the other two looks: of the camera (which will return the film to a particular space and time rather than appearing to be only a scocophilic dream) and of the viewer (which will destroy the illusion that he is merely an “invisible guest”) (722).

In this piece, Mulvey glosses over the fact that a film can have a female protagonist—in a footnote, she claims that the strength of these characters tends to be “more apparent than real” (716). How does the male gaze operate in a film like 4 Months where the narrative is moved forward by a female protagonist? Who are we being encouraged to identify with? Or, is this an example of the kind of “alternative” cinema that breaks free from the gaze? How do we conceive of the male gaze knowing that women tend to go to the movies more than men? Does the male gaze operate no matter who is in the audience? Can a woman watch something with a “male gaze?”—especially considering that women presumably don’t experience castration anxiety? While thinking about this piece I was reminded of Boyhood and how some of us gawked at the idea that “anyone” could identify with Mason—who is the ideal viewer of that film? And finally, while watching Lost in Translation, I found myself questioning whether or not Charlotte falls prey to the gaze—especially considering the opening shot that Erica discusses in her post. Mulvey claims that “conventional close-ups of legs … or a face … integrate into the narrative a different mode of eroticism. … One part of a fragmented body destroys … the illusion of depth demanded by the narrative, it gives flatness, the quality of a cut-out or icon rather than verisimilitude to the screen?” Does this opening shot merely play to the voyeuristic male gaze—especially since Charlotte is presumed to be completely alone in this moment? The shot was influenced by the paintings of John Kacere, so is Coppola providing commentary on the omnipresence of the male gaze? Is she “mak[ing] a break by examining patriarchy with the tools it provides” (712)? Or is she merely inviting the gaze—which, according to Mulvey, must be easy to do since “cinema builds the way [the female character] is to be looked at into the spectacle itself” (721).

Image result for john kacere painting

John Kacere’s Lorena 91
(Literally, all he does it paint butts.)


Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”: Lost in Translation?

Erica Law

Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”: Lost in Translation?

Scarlett Johansson: Opening Credits of Lost in Translation

Scarlett Johansson: Opening Credits of Lost in Translation



Lost in Translation (2003), begins with a visual of Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) in pink sheer underwear and a sweater, a representation of woman as both spectacle, and mysterious object simultaneously. The voyeuristic nature of the opening credits (or pretext) of the film, shows this scene for close to 30 seconds, keeping our attention on Charlotte’s leg movements, and presenting a very raw display of her body in the film. Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” illuminates our reading of this particular scene when she states, “the paradox of phallocentrism in all its manifestations is that it depends on the image of the castrated woman to give order and meaning to its world” (711). Charlotte is gendered through their use of sheer pink underwear, and we are beholden to her identity due to her feminine physique, or what we might ascertain as “feminine,” and asserts that we partake in blatant scopophilia. We see Charlotte as a visual of this castrated woman, leaving us with the idea of the monstrous feminine throughout the film through Charlotte’s use of her intelligence (or what her husband might think to be as monstrous and castrating, the idea that she is perhaps more intelligent than others). The sheer underwear leaves little to the imagination, and while we could see more of Charlotte (Johansson’s body), it’s interesting that there is a blatantly voyeuristic scene, one in which she seems to be engaged in something other than laying around for our visual benefit. Furthermore, the fact that Charlotte, Johansson’s character, is a philosophy graduate from Yale also shows an interesting take on our analysis of Charlotte’s underwear scene. Mulvey states that, “woman’s desire is subjected to her image as bearer of the bleeding wound, she can exist only in relation to castration and cannot transcend it” (712).

Charlotte is often left to her own devices in her abandoned hotel room, from which John, (her husband) has left due to his job. At one point he asks her why she has to, “make everyone feel stupid.” To which she replies, she “thought it was funny.” John dismisses this, and tells her he loves her and rushes off. With this particular scene, Charlotte is painted as an educated young woman, and Kelly (Anna Ferris) is portrayed as an uneducated model, or “thing,” unable to correctly identify herself even through her anonymous name, Evelyn Waugh, to which Charlotte says that Evelyn Waugh was a male. In some ways, this film wants us to deconstruct Charlotte’s beauty, by first recognizing her as an intelligent, educated, woman, able to wear underwear and sweaters as a means to visually represent the “in-between” of hyper-sexualization, but on the other hand she is presented as a lonely wife, abandoned and cast off by her working husband.

What’s more—Charlotte longs to find her purpose, but is stuck in a hotel room waiting longingly (at times) for her husband to return. In some ways, her experiences represent the symbolic order, as she is left to discover her path through males (by her husband, and by Bill). As Mulvey asserts, “it is said that analyzing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it,” which is my main prerogative by writing about Charlotte’s sheer pink underwear (713). Charlotte plays the “person as object” at the beginning, because she is the object of femininity we are supposed to focus on. When we realize further on in the film that it is in fact Charlotte that is wearing the underwear in the beginning of the film, we are left to wonder how this representation of the woman is working within the sphere of the film. Mulvey states, “Although the instinct is modified by other factors, in particular the constitution of the ego, it continues to exist as the erotic basis for pleasure in looking at another person as object” (713). Charlotte could be a castrating female to men; therefore, she is posed as a sexual and intellectual threat to their very existence and their lives as they know it.


Keathley and the “Cinephilic Spirit”


In the introduction and opening chapter of Cinephilia and History, or The Wind in the Trees, Christian Keathley seeks to describe the nature of cinephilia as both a spectatorial practice and historical-cultural phenomenon, as well as to articulate its continuing importance for the field of film studies. Defining cinephilia broadly as a “certain kind of intense loving relationship with the cinema” (2), and more specifically, as a particular “way of watching films” (6), one that is characterized by ritualistic practices of spectatorship and a deeply personal, suffusive, even “quasi-religious” (21) attitude towards the entire apparatus of the cinema, he locates the height of its expression and influence in post-World War II France with the writings of André Bazin and the Cahiers du Cinéma circle. Keathley likewise tracks its fall from critical prominence beginning in the late 1960s, when the academic and political institutionalization of film and its study, combined with the increased accessibility to film brought on by the advent of cable television and home video, resulted in widespread distaste for the openly reverent qualities of cinephilia. Moreover, Keathley argues that the resultant changes in patterns of viewership have actually influenced the production of films in recent years, causing a formal transformation in the way in which films are shot and a simplification of “film images that are unencumbered by any ambiguity” (25).

The explicit goal of his work is, in fact, to combat this distrust in the relevance of the cinephilic perspective to contemporary film theory. By narrowing his focus to an investigation of “the cinephiliac moment,” or, “the fetishisizing of fragments of a film, either individual shots or marginal (often unintentional) details in the image, especially those that appear only for a moment” (7), Keathley attempts to offer a new approach to historiographic methodology and writing that takes into account not only the generalized “cause-and-effect relationships” (9) of traditional practice, but also the uniquely subjective experiences of the individual. In so doing, he expresses the hope that he will provide a way of reintegrating the “cinephilic spirit” into modern film study without sacrificing the theoretical elaboration in the field gained after the initial demise of cinephilia.

Keathley’s suggestion for the reintroduction of the “cinephilic spirit” begs the question: what exactly is the essence, the defining characteristic, of that spirit? If the primary prerequisite for a truly cinephilic experience is the presence of a Benjamin-esque “‘auratic’ quality” (21) surrounding a given film and the circumstances of its viewing, a presence which has been largely negated, Keathley claims, by the technologically induced availability of films today, is it even possible to cultivate and extract a quality in any way remotely related to the “sacred” and “immortal” (28) sense of cinema inherent in the original movement? The continual development and introduction of new audiovisual technologies, which has undeniably increased in rapidity in recent years, can only make the distillation and application of a relevant “cinephilic spirit” all the more challenging. Already, elements of Keathley’s argument, barely ten years old, are no longer of any real cultural significance. The video store (which, in its own modest way, as Keathley himself implies, represented the semi-equivalent of the repertory or arthouse theater for the first post-cinephile generation, with its capacity to function similarly as an autonomous “event,” a symbolic and literal start to the prolonged act of film viewing overlaid with its own social and physical rituals of browsing, debate, etc.) and the home video player, the entities most complicit in the decline of pure cinephilia, are now themselves obsolete, replaced by a near complete diffusion, temporally and spatially, of the entire body of cinematic material since the birth of the form. What aspect of the original cinephilic concept can scholars now point to and harness in the formulation of a new approach to film theory or style that will remain vital for any productive amount of time?

Moreover, how do film scholars reconcile the reemergence of cinephilia with the critical theories that came after it, as Keathley suggests they should? If we approach the concept in the most generalized and reductive way, then perhaps cinephilia’s essence can be boiled down to the “loving relationship with the cinema” that Keathley highlights as a hallmark, and by a logical, and even necessary, extension, a love of watching. How might this type of perspective interact, or even be used in conjunction, with an approach such as Laura Mulvey’s in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” especially when applied to the analysis of a particular film?

Lost in Translation, for example, seems to me to be a post-cinephile film made for a cinephile audience. The intricacy of scenic detail, the uncontrolled and fleeting vibrancy of the city setting, and the heavy use of lingering shots and long takes all offer countless opportunities for an experience of the “cinephiliac moment.” Yet the thematic emphasis on spectatorship both on the part of the external audience and on the part of the characters within the internal diegesis of the film, who consistently watch each other and the city around them with as much fascination and emotion as we, the audience, do, also invites a more critical reading of the implications of the gaze in the vein of Mulvey’s approach; this is especially valid considering the presence of a clearly gendered dimension in Coppola’s film. Is there a way to incorporate or utilize two such distinct interpretive frameworks in order to formulate a more incisive, more comprehensive reading of the film?





Authenticity: The Search for an Aura

The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity.—Walter Benjamin, 220

In trying to tackle the density of Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, I have to start with an explanation of the “aura” and work out from there:

It was 2012 when I first made it to the Met in New York City. I turned the corner into the 20th century art exhibit and right before me, attached to the wall, was Jackson Pollock’s Drip Painting. I’d seen it dozens of times on my computer screen, but never before had I been in its presence–never before had I stood at a same distance away from it as Pollock did. The experience of being in front of a favorite painting—the original—was moving. But, for what reason? As I know now, what I experienced that day was the aura—“… the unique appearance of a distance”. This was no reproduction. It had authenticity and through that authenticity, authority. It uniquely occupied space and time in a way that only that painting could. But, as Benjamin says, “the uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition” (223). So, the aura that I experienced is not simply some abstract power emanating from the painting itself, but a perceived distance from the original—the authentic. Through engaging with “the authentic”, through its perceived or actual uniqueness, I engaged in its history as part of a particular tradition that changed the way the world understood painting at the time. I submitted myself to the cult of beauty and gave myself over to the ritual looking and contemplation that I believed this piece deserved. “I feel its confusion. I connect with its erratic qualities. I had to make my pilgrimage to the original to feel this”.

This feeling, this veneration for an object, is the power of the aura. And, the aura is only present—only has authority—with the presence of the original, the authentic. So, what happens when art no longer has an original? What happens with “the work of art designed for reproducibility” (224)? With the destruction of the original, the aura too is destructed. Without the aura the ritual value we could assign to it is also destructed. Suddenly, we cannot justify the value of art based on its uniqueness—rather, there are many copies we can see. The reproduced art meets us half-way; our pilgrimage is no longer necessary. Art in the age of mechanical reproduction does not earn our uncritical veneration which is so closely related to our perception of it as unique and authentic. Rather, “The instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice—politics”(224).

Film and photography, then, have their roots as an art designed for reproducibility. From their very origin they have no aura, and without an aura they serve a political end. They uproot the ritual practices and force the viewers into new practices. They force new habits of mind and break us from the ritualistic reverence of art for art’s sake. In this way, the art of film and photography are politicized, whereas previous art was used for political ends. The Fascist rulers would use art’s aura to maintain property traditions. Now, film and photography have no original—nothing inherently unique about them—and this is what the “masses” are consuming. In this consumption, they are (consciously or unconsciously) breaking the rituals on which facism relies. The destruction of the aura progresses society forward and combats fascist practices that find their root in defining inherent authority.

Assuming I haven’t gone wildly off course, this is where it is left in 1935. What about today though? It is common to hear someone excited about the 70mm film screening of The Hateful Eight. It is common to hear enthusiasm (and see people pay more) for a vinyl copy of a record. It is common for many of us to favor the local brewery. But, why? Critically there are probably many answers, but culturally I hear a certain value being ascribed to these items that I think mimics that of aura. “The film print is more authentic—it has flicker and grains.” “The vinyl is pure, man. It’s analog—needle to wax.” “The brewer is local—I know him; I touch the hands that touch the hops”. We are perceiving ourselves as closer to the original when we use this logic to assign value to these things. In these we practices, we are not so displaced as we may feel by the digital process—but we are. There is something real to be experienced in the analog. But, that realness is not aura—we are not closer to the original. Rather, it has market value. The market tells us it is closer to the original. The market is capitalizing on the search for an aura and we are so accustomed to the diminished aura that these seemingly unique, authentic, originals feel as if they do have aura. I have to go to the theater for the film print instead of streaming from Netflix. It feels more real; it satisfies my desire to experience the authentic. Yet, is this search for the aura not a dangerous practice that Benjamin warned against? Why do these practices have the cultural pull that they do? What are we searching for if not the authentic? Variety?  If it is the aura, then at the very peak of our new search for an aura, we are experiencing presidential candidates that have reignited the conversations about fascism in this country. Perhaps a new mode will redestroy the aura. Perhaps the complete reproduction of reality in Virtual Reality will be the shock of the 21st century that film was for the 20th.