Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Cinematic Wish: Christian Metz and Singin' in the Rain

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.