Wednesday, December 07, 2005
In his essay “Identification, Mirror” from The Imaginary Signifier, Christian Metz talks about the cinema and its roots in the unconscious. He uses psychoanalysis to reveal three specific areas: mirror identification, voyeurism and exhibitionism, and fetishism. This essay will summarize Metz’s discussion of mirror identification, and relate it to the classic musical Singin’ in the Rain, a film which could easily serve the purpose of explaining any of Metz’s areas of discussion, but serves the area of mirror identification particularly well. This essay will briefly touch on the idea of disavowal, which Metz discusses alongside fetish, in relation to mirror identification.
When discussing mirror identification, Metz discusses cinema in terms of it being an imaginary signifier. That is, the perceptions which cinema conjures are absent. Metz begins with the observation that cinema, more than any other medium, involves the senses. It is “more perceptual...than any other means of expression” (Metz 820). But cinema reveals itself to be completely absent of the perceptions it creates. The person seen or the sound heard is nowhere to be found in the auditorium. It is greatly ironic, and, as Metz says, the source of cinema’s unique form of expression that it is endowed with “unaccustomed perceptual wealth, but at the same time [it is] stamped with unreality to an unusual degree, and from the very outset” (822). Not only is film an imaginary signifier, but it is a special kind of mirror, according to Metz. The visual (and aural) replicas it creates are similar to a mirror in all aspects, except that it lacks the subject, that is the viewer, who sees himself along with all the other objects in a mirror. It is, in fact, these other objects that allows the subject to define himself (that is, his ego if formed in relation to these objects), when the subject is in the mirror phase as defined by Freudian psychology. In the sense that the subject does not find himself an object in the film mirror, he becomes the “all-perceiving subject” because it is he who sees all, hears all. It is, in fact, by him that the film comes into reality, because it is his perceptions that interpret the lights thrown upon the screen and the air reverberations in the auditorium as understandable sights and sounds. The subject’s knowledge of what is happening around him makes film possible, according to Metz. Specifically, the subject knows that “I am perceiving something imaginary…and I know that it is I who am perceiving it” (Metz 823). The subject becomes the “second screen” where these images and sounds are deposited, “where this really perceived imaginary accedes to the symbolic by its inauguration as the signifier of a certain type of institutionalized social activity called ‘cinema’” (Metz 823). The subject is recognizing himself as part of the process of cinema, and thus identifying with himself in the cinema.
The viewer, however, is not only analogous to the screen. As the “all-perceiving subject,” they identify with the camera. Metz says that when the subject “identifies with himself as the look, the spectator can do no other than identify with the camera, too, which has looked before him at what he is now looking at and whose stationing ( = framing) determines the vanishing point” (824). The viewer becomes part of the apparatus of cinema, as both camera and screen. Metz explains this in terms of vision being a double movement, one that is both active and passive. It is active in that it “casts” it vision upon something, choosing to look in a particular direction, at a particular angle, etc, and it is passive in that it records the object (Metz 824). The mirror-like nature of the apparatus becomes a metaphor for the relationship between the viewer and signifier. Due in part to this mirror-like nature, the viewer unconsciously recognizes the absent nature of the signifier. The viewer knows that what he is seeing is only a recording, yet he chooses to understand it as reality within in the confines of cinema (he understands that it is a train he sees on screen—it is reality in this sense—but does not run away when the train comes directly at the screen—it is within the confines of cinema in this sense). This is disavowal: when the subject denies his perceptual belief in favor of a more primal belief (i.e., that he is seeing a train and thus he understands it as having all the qualities of a train). Metz goes on to explain that some “cinematic sub-codes inscribe disavowal into the film” (834). Singin’ in the Rain is just such a film.
Singin’ in the Rain is itself a movie within a movie within a movie. There are three separate levels to the film. One level is the movie The Singing Cavalier. The next level is about the making of The Singing Cavalier. The last level, suggested by the final shot of Don Lockwood and Kathy Selden standing in front of a billboard for Singin’ in the Rain, suggests the movie Singin’ in the Rain is actually a movie about the making of itself (Metz’s discussion of fetish would be very appropriate here, as the movie is obsessed with its own apparatus). And thus, it isn’t actually Don Lockwood and Kathy Seldon standing in front of the billboard, but Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds. There are many other sub-levels within the movie (such as Lockwood’s retelling of his rise to fame, which itself is later echoed in another sequence), but these are the three primary levels. As the film transitions from level to level, the apparatus which creates each level is revealed. The audience becomes more and more aware of the mirror-like process of the apparatus they are apart of. The audience even becomes directly aware of themselves at particular points in the film.
One sequence in particular demonstrates the audiences’ unconscious self-awareness quite well. In it, Don Lockwood and Cosmo Brown pass by three separate sets, discussing their current film project and Lockwood’s own romantic distraction with Kathy Selden. This shot allows the viewer to see the making of three separate movies, all being filmed concurrently and immediately next to each other on the same soundstage. The viewer sees the film equipment used to capture the image; they see the director orchestrating the events; they see actors in partial costume off-set. This view of the actors in particular confirms the absent and imaginary nature of the signifier. Don and Cosmo speak with one actor (half dressed as an African native) who is off-set while his fellow actors dance wildly in full-garb in the background. Not only is this African native calmly sipping some hot drink, he is white! Surely the signifier that the potential viewers of this African native film perceive is revealed to the viewer as a patently false construct, the truest confirmation of the imaginary signifier. One other set in the background reveals a western drama being filmed, surely in one sense a tribute to bygone days. While the three main levels of the movie are a narrative discourse, this particular sequence of the film could indicate a fourth level, that of a political discourse, in its nod to the racial perceptions and idealizing tendencies of the 1950s. It could be said this fourth level addresses the audience in an indirect political manner that would later become direct in movies such as Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. As the sequence continues, Don and Cosmo discuss the originality of cinema (ironically, in front of the mill-like process in which Hollywood turns out entertainment). Cosmo states that “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all” and that the most important thing is to “make ‘em laugh.” This launches a musical sequence, in which Cosmo expounds on the importance of making the audience laugh, while accomplishing the very thing he’s singing about with his antics. This particular sequence continues to engage the audience on the fourth level of political discourse, questioning their own motivations in coming. It questions whether the signifier that makes them laugh is actually humorous, or simply manipulation. Through this political discourse with the audience and the constant revelation of the apparatus, the audience becomes aware of its own presence in the movie and its part of the apparatus. But this awareness is unconscious.
What makes Singin’ in the Rain so masterful is how effortlessly it moves from one level to the next, and yet still manages the draw in the audience while revealing to them their own place in the film. The viewer doesn’t even realize the discontinuity during Cosmo’s “make ‘em laugh” routine when Cosmo stops looking at Don Lockwood and turns directly to the audience, addressing them in the visual equivalent to the 2nd person, while speaking about them in the 3rd. It is like a magician who reveals how his trick is done, yet still amazes his audience. The viewer completely disavows everything he perceives that tells him he is watching a patent falsehood, unconsciously choosing rather to enjoy it for the cinematic reality he wishes to see. Thus, one can see that the cinema is like the unconscious wish Metz describes in his essay. And if cinema is driven by the unconscious desires and beliefs Metz describes, then the cinema truly becomes the art form of the wish.
Metz, Christian. “From The Imaginary Signifier: Identification, Mirror.” Film Theory and Criticism, Sixth Edition. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 820-836.
Thursday, October 27, 2005
André Bazin’s essay on the theater and cinema from What is Cinema? opens with a discussion of the concept of presence. Bazin is responding to those who despise filmed theater, explaining that the last argument left for the superiority of actual theater over filmed theater is the “‘the impossibility of separating off action and actor.’” (Bazin 418). The actual presence of the actor with the audience allows for the greatest impact of the play, and thus theater is the best medium for the text that was created by the playwright. Presence, as Bazin explains, is “defined in terms of time and space.” (Bazin 419) While the audience is absent from the actual actor, Bazin shows that there is a sense of time and space which is present with the actors in cinema. Cinema captures an object in the same manner photography does, but also, “makes a molding of the object as it exists in time and, furthermore, makes and imprint of the duration of the object.” (Bazin 419) Bazin goes on to make the case that the cinema is actually truer to the reality of space than theater; it is the one reality of which cinema cannot be deprived. Thus, in the cinema everything “takes place as if in the time-space perimeter which is the definition of presence.” (Bazin 420)
For Bazin, though, the question of theater versus cinema should focus on the terms “opposition” and “identification.” Bazin quotes Rosenkrantz:
“The characters on the screen are, rather, objects of mental opposition because their real presence gives them an objective reality and to transpose them into beings in an imaginary world the will of the spectator has to intervene actively, that is to say, to will to transform their physical reality into an abstraction.” (420)
Thus, the focus shifts from ontological to psychological. The viewer, psychologically isolated from his fellow audience, is passive, taking in whatever the cinema offers him. Such a state allows the viewer to identify with characters in the story. In the theater, however, the actor and the audience are both aware of each other. Such an awareness puts them in opposition to each other, and thus the viewer is not passive anymore; he does not identify with the characters on stage.
Jean Renoir’s classic masterpiece, The Rules of the Game is the perfect demonstration of Bazin’s ideas about film, particulalarly how the accuracy of décor affects the reality of space and thus, the effectiveness of the film. Rules of the Game itself is very theatrical, and it is ironic that it should be used to prove Bazin’s points in his essay comparing theater and cinema. Perhaps this is what makes Renoir’s film so interesting when coupled with Bazin’s ideas. It often uses theatrical framing and sets, but intersperses them with techniques unique to film (such as close ups and panning the camera) to make it effective. Renoir uses other techniques in addition to close ups and panning to keep the reality of décor such as deep focus, background actions, pacing, and the use of camera. The sequence of scenes during the party provide plenty of examples of Renoir’s craft and use of these techniques.
Renoir’s use of deep focus is the key to many of the other techniques that confirm reality of space, and it is also the primary confirmation to the viewer’s eye of the reality of space. Deep focus is closest to how the human eye sees, and thus, Renoir creates a visual that subconsciously confirms the realness of his story to the viewer. Additionally, deep focus does not seek to direct the viewer’s eyes. They are free to take in whatever they wish on the screen, be that the action in the foreground or the action which may be developing in the background.
The use of background action is another technique Renoir utilizes to confirm the reality of space, and his use of deep focus allows him to let the viewer explore these actions. Renoir uses it extensively during the party sequence, and it allows the multiple story lines to progress and weave together. One scene in particular to consider during the party sequence takes place in the foyer with the stairwell. Marceau, a house servant, asks his master Robert Chesnaye to cover for him while he escapes from the groundskeeper Schumacher, who is seeking revenge on Marceau for philandering with his wife. Robert intercepts Schumacher, who has been dragging his wife from room to room looking for Marceau, and informs him that he must stay out of the party area. While speaking, we see Marceau escape through a back door, and Schumacher’s wife quietly slips away to escape through the same backdoor. After Robert is called away, Schumacher, realizing his wife is gone, looks around desperately. While doing this, Andre Jurieu, who is in love with Chesnaye’s wife, Christine, enters and asks Schumacher if he has seen Christine. Schumacher says he has not and in the process of looking for his wife, opens a door to reveal Christine with Saint-Aubin, another party guest. Jurieu sees them and enters the room. This particular background action not only simply convinces the viewer that they are watching a realistic party scene (something theater could have a hard time accomplishing, due to lack of stage space), but also advances the story line. It is both décor and story. This is the beauty of film, that such action can be simultaneously part of the atmosphere, and concurrently advance the story.
This scene also demonstrates another technique of Renoir, namely, putting multiple events in one long, extended shot. This particular shot contains three events and allows them to proceed almost concurrently: Robert intercepting Schumacher, the escape of Marceau, and Jurieu’s discovery of Christine. In showing the events at almost concurrent moments, Renoir tells the story in a realistic manner. Instead of breaking the three events into three separate and differently framed shots, he is showing things as they progress in their true pacing. By layering these events in a single shot, Renoir is confirming the accuracy of décor, and thus, the reality of space. The extended shot, like deep focus, allows the viewer to absorb the story in the same way they would watch such events unfold in real life. This also confirms the accuracy of décor.
During extended shots Renoir does not always keep the camera stationary. Oftentimes, he moves it from room to room, as if the viewer is a silent observer, mingling amongst the party guests and studying the goings on. In addition to this, Renoir has the camera enter in the midst of action, as if it has been going on for some time while the camera was in another room. This is reminiscent of Bazin’s point about the conventions of theater which a theatergoer must accept. While theatergoers know the actor exits the stage and goes to his dressing room, they accept for the purpose of the story, that he actually goes some place else. In the world of film, however, the camera can follow the actor as they leave and go to that “some place” or enter on them later in that “place,” confirming that they were there the whole time. The character does not cease to exist in the mind of the viewer, rather they simply go out of view. This particular aspect of the reality of space is extremely important to Renoir’s films. The viewer must be convinced that while Christine and Jurieu are speaking in one room, Schumacher is still pursuing Marceau. The tension of that chase is still there for the viewer, even when the camera is not present to observe those actions.
Renoir does a supremely good job of creating a décor that is true to reality. It is almost as if he has simply turned the camera on, and the viewer becomes the silent observer described by Bazin in his essay. Renoir accomplishes this reality and sense of the film as a temporary universe through the techniques of deep focus, background action, and his use of camera. Rules of the Game is a masterpiece, orchestrated by a master filmmaker. This becomes perfectly clear when analyzed through Bazin’s critical lens
Sunday, September 11, 2005
Thorough the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God's name.
Oftentimes, Father Tom felt the cross around his neck weighing heavily. Usually during visits to the ER, or through marriage counseling, or when hearing confessions, it seemed to be an extra weight to him, pulling down on the nape of his neck, almost digging in, leaving its interlinking marks in red indentations.
Father Tom saw the faces through the matted confessional wall, knowing who they were, knowing the faces, but seemingly removed from their bodies. Only their souls made it through the confessional screen. And the souls he saw…
Sometimes, when lighting incense and candles, the smell burned in his nose. The large Bible he carried to the altar during mass felt like an unnecessary burden. And the faces he saw while processing down the center aisle, similar, but not identical to the ones he knew through the confessional screen, seemed to hang like they were strung from the ceiling.
The priest is the unmitigated carrier of burdens, Christ-like at times, single and dedicated solely to the work of God. In theory, the priest passes these burdens along to God, but his humanity inevitably gets in the way.
As the priest got up to speak
The assembly craved relief
But he himself had given up
So instead he offered them this bitter cup
~Pedro the Lion
Father Tom, dressed in his cassock, spoke at the head of the casket that was suspended over the open mouth of the ground:
Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you,
of your own fold,
of your own flock,
a sinner of your own redeeming.
Receive him into the
arms of your mercy,
into the blessed rest of everlasting peace,
and into the glorious company of saints in light.
The people responded: Amen.
Father Tom continued:
of all the departed,
through the mercy of God,
rest in peace.
After the body had been lowered into the ground, some parishioners were talking at the wake.
“Martin died of a broken heart. After Emily went, there wasn’t much he could do to stay alive.” The parishioner sighed, “the cancer just kept coming back.”
“Yes, I think Emily was the only thing that kept him alive, sometimes. He always talked about how he hated the way things changed. I think what angered him most were remote key chains. Remote controls for the TV were bad enough, but when people began using remote key chains to lock their cars, I think that’s when he decided it was time for him to go. He said, ‘Reaching around to unlock that rear passenger door is the only thing that keeps my shoulders rotating! Goddamn people can’t even bother to stand up and change the channel. They just flip, flip, flip, flip, flip all the time! And they wonder why they got such fat asses!’”
The parishioners suddenly noticed Father Tom was standing amongst them.
“Oh …Father…I was just quoting Martin. For, uh, accuracy’s sake…”
Father Tom smiled. He had always found it humorous when he walked in on parishioners doing something of which they thought he’d disapprove. Several times he found Brother John munching the communion wafers and sipping the wine before the service. One time he found the communion wine to be so low that he had to run across the street to the liquor store, collar and all, to buy the cheapest wine he could find. He barely had enough time to bless it before mass, and he pretended not to notice when Brother John kept praying to Peter, Paul, and Mary while humming “Puff the Magic Dragon.” “Martin usually said what was on his mind. I always liked that about him.”
The parishioners nodded in agreement. One spoke up, “Father, it doesn’t seem right that Martin should be stuck on this earth in that casket when he hated this place so much sometimes.”
“Well, the Bible says that in the end, our bodies will be resurrected from the ground: ‘The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them.’ The stone will be rolled away…again, so to speak. All these things will pass away. So, really, I don’t think Martin’s stuck here. And in the meantime, I’m sure he won’t mind.”
When the sun was setting, all those who had any
that were sick with various diseases brought them to Him;
and He laid His hands on every one of them and healed them.
Father Tom was the minister on call in the St. Mary’s Emergency Room when they brought Emily in. He held her hand and looked into her eyes as the gurney was rolled into hospital. The doctors administered morphine and told Martin it was only a matter of time. Martin spent a long time sitting by Emily’s bed, whispering things to her. Father Tom sat in a nearby chair, silently, holding one hand in the other.
When the doctors came in, it was Father Tom who spoke to them, not wanting to distract Martin from his last chance to speak with his wife.
“The cancer has grown so much that it’s begun to eat into several vital organs. We just looked at her last X-rays…” the doctor sighed, “someone should have put her in a hospice several months ago. I can only imagine the pain would have been incredible.”
“Emily hasn’t complained of anything,” Father Tom said.
“Sometimes, when a person knows they’re dying, they’re able to resist the pain if they think it’s better for their loved ones.”
After a few hours of sitting by her side, Martin got up. He began talking to Father Tom outside the room.
“I knew it was coming, but I just couldn’t accept it. I think she knew that too…” he sobbed.
Martin left for a few moments to call their children. Tom walked back into the room. He stood over Emily for a while, contemplating. Her breathing had been labored for a while now, and he had grown used to the wheezing sound. He wondered what it would take to make her well.
Martin and Emily had been members of the parish long before he was there. He was very fond of them both, and especially close to Martin. As the years passed by, Tom grew close to many of the parishioners, but he was drawn to Emily and Martin. He was a friend to them, but also their priest. He knew the pain Martin was feeling now. He understood that if Emily died, Martin would follow soon after.
Father Tom breathed in deeply, and laid his hand on Emily’s head. He gazed intently at the picture of Mary over the bed. He cycled through all the prayers he knew, desperately trying to fine one. He tried, and was unable to think of a single line. Instead, the only words that came out were “Please. Please…” His hand shook, sweat beaded on his forehead, but nothing happened.
For those who do not yet believe, and for those who have lost their faith,
that they may receive the light of the Gospel, we pray to you, O Lord.
~Book of Prayer
Father Tom had just gotten off the phone with a man who was struggling with his faith. The man had lost his brother when he was younger in an accident.
“I just don’t understand, Father. He was pretty young, had a lot of potential. More than me, you know? And I just can’t believe that God would want us to suffer like I did.”
The man went on like this, while Father Tom listened. As he did, the cross around his neck, which was already heavy, began to feel heavier. It varied at times in weight. At times like this, though, it seemed unbearable to wear around his neck.
“Well, we have to have faith sometimes. I don’t know if I can explain why, but I do know at the times when I feel the most doubtful, or in the most pain, those are the times when I feel the most need to believe.”
When Tom got off the phone with the man, he closed the doors of the empty church behind him as he left, leaving it unlocked in case someone felt the need to stop in and pray. He walked down the sidewalk to the church parsonage next door, and opened the front gate. Coming inside, he took off the cross that hung around his neck and hung it on a nail in the door frame. He looked out the back window at the statue of Mary, wondering if one day she would speak to him.
Friday, August 12, 2005
...this chance to blog from my cell phone again-the gadget temptation is too great. this post is completely unable to justify itself unless you value such family vacation gems like this one (see above) or stories of canucks driving along with gas caps hanging on the side (those silly canadians!) or cars bursting into flames as you pass. in other news i'll be moving to binghamton monday. from what josh tells me, my room is pretty sweet, complete with a huge closet and massive octagonal bay windows. so i'm purty durn excited. but i'm going to miss all my virginian friends :-\ ...and mia :-(