How Do Films Construct Us As Spectators
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Through an analogy between film and the dream state, which serves as an unconscious process of transformation, psychoanalysis has provided a useful way of discussing the relationship between cinema and it's audience (Allen, 1992, p. 203). Psychoanalytic theory draws its basis from psychoanalysis, a branch of psychology that aims to treat mental disorders by investigating the relationship between conscious and unconscious realms of the mind. In the 1920's and 1930's, Surrealism drew inspiration from psychoanalysis, praising the countless similarities between film and the dream state. It wasn't, however, until the 1970's that psychoanalytic theory took a leap and became a key component in film studies by developing cinema as an institution or apparatus, as well as explaining the relationship between screen and spectator.
Key to 1970's psychoanalytic theory is the concept of cinema as an apparatus developed by French theorists Jean-Louis Baudry and Christian Metz. Baudry and Metz were contributors to the French film magazine Cahiers du cinéma, a publication that was vital in influencing what we now consider modern film criticism. Within this modern sphere of film criticism and analysis lies psychoanalytic theory. Baudry and Metz drew from Cahiers di cinéma's editor Jean-Louis Comolli and his concept of film as a product of a certain society. Due to film's merchandisable quality Comolli was very critical of communist and Marxist theory in relation to cinema. In his 1969 article, written alongside fellow Cahiers du cinéma editor Paul Narboni, Comolli explains that since film is a material product "manufactured within a given system of economic relations" it also represents an ideological commodity of said system (1969, p. 29). As a result of Cahiers du cinéma's influence on film theory, Metz and Baudry's apparatus theory is developed on both the pillars of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan's psychoanalytic theories as well as Marxist values. Because of this foundation, Metz and Baudry were led to conclude that cinema's role was, as a product, aimed at providing entertainment for its spectators. They saw both the institution of cinema and the film industry itself, as a mental machinery (Metz, 1982, p. 7). The Apparatus theory they proposed was that cinema's popularity as an art form, as well as an entertainment source, lay in its potential of being a reflection of reality accessible to all, as well as a method to enter an unconscious dream state. In other words, film is an ideological construct and projects representations based on a set of inherent beliefs; therefore, film can be a manipulative resource to shape and mold a particular audience's perception of reality.
In Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954) James Stewart's character L.B. Jefferies, is portrayed as an "ideal," white male with a respectable job, high social status and beautiful girlfriend in the form of Grace Kelly. However, as he witnesses events unfold from his window, his mental state begins to change, much as his physical constraints reshape his perception. According to psychoanalytic theorists, film shapes the viewer's perspective much like society molds individuals into their own image. Baudry drew a lot on the theories of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, particularly Lacan's theory of the mirror stage. Lacan's mirror stage describes the formation of the Ego. This formation occurs through identification of external objects. From birth to eighteen months an infant's reflection will therefore work as a gestalt of his emerging perception of selfhood. The infant, on seeing himself as an independent person, separate from the mother's doting and nurturing hand, reaches a sort of self-fulfillment recognizing his reflection as his ideal self. This realization plays a crucial role in the mental development of the child (Lacan, 2004, p. 311). The infant will therefore subconsciously strive throughout his life to become the personification of the reflection he once saw. Therefore, according to Lacan, within the first eighteen months of one's life, an infant is able to reach self-realization by identifying his reflection as his ideal self.
Baudry drew a similarity between Lacan's mirror stage with that of the spectator's experience in the cinema. Baudry claims that since cinema is dominated by the visual sense, the spectator identifies an on screen character as his own ideal self by absorbing the character's image and mirroring their traits. Metz drew further on this by introducing Freud's concept of scopophilia. Scopophilia is the derived pleasure attributed to watching someone's actions anonymously. Metz attributed the desire to view without being seen to the cinematic experience, since as spectators we see the life unfolding on screen without the characters being able to peer back at us. In Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954) scopophilia is the central premise for the film, since the narrative is based on the act of observing the surrounding occurrences. Metz also drew on the voyeuristic nature of the spectator who, according to Freud's theories, will find pleasure and often-sexual desire in the act of watching others. Many enjoy the cinema due to its quality of anonymity. When viewing a film the spectator is able to witness and understand the events without needing to take action towards the outcome. Because of this, cinema allows an audience to derive vicarious entertainment from the human experience without the need to interact thus offering a sense of emotional fulfillment within a safe environment.
British theorist Laura Mulvey expanded these ideas of psychoanalytic theory to construct feminist film theory. Feminist theory criticizes how the apparatus theory assumes an ideal male spectator. In her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema Mulvey drew a concrete division between genders within the cinematic institution. She drew on the notion of an active male protagonist set against a passive female character looked at in a sexual and erotic light by adopting Freud's theories of scopophilia and castration as well as Lacan's theory of subjectivity (1975, p. 441). By doing so Mulvey developed the concept of male gaze in the context of cinema. Mulvey's notion of male gaze relied on the fetishization of a female character through the eyes of a male protagonist. This can be seen in many Classical Hollywood films including Billy Wilder's Some Like it Hot (1959) starring Marilyn Monroe, as well as in Hitchcock's Rear Window (1945) where, in the opening scene, L.B. Jefferies watches a young neighbor dance around her kitchen scantily clad. Mulvey also argued that, based on Freud's theory of castration, women in film were seen as sexual threats sent to emotionally castrate the male protagonists.
Because of this Mulvey later concluded that women in cinema had two fates; they would either be punished for their sexuality or overtly sexualized and denied emotional development in order to conquer the impending threat that women and their sexuality imposed. Janet Leigh's character Marion Crane in Hitchcock's 1960 film Psycho, was punished for her sexuality by being stabbed in the shower by Anthony Perkins' Norman Bates, just as Tippi Hedren's Melanie Daniels was attacked by crows in Hitchcock's The Birds (1963). Mulvey arrived at a possible female gaze in which a female spectator has two options when viewing a film; either to identify with the female character and feel guilty for her sexuality and power of castration or view the film from a man's perspective (Creed, 1998, p. 12).
Many post-structuralist feminist theorists such as Joan Copjec and Tania Modleski elaborated on Mulvey's points and argued that the dismissal of gender within the cinematic apparatus was due to the Western tradition of a patriarchal society and the denied place of women within it. Joan Copjec (1989, p. 54) saw that Mulvey's latter female identification with the male gaze as a variation of the panoptic gaze, the idea of a silent overseer that controls all aspects of life. She also identifies the panoptic gaze as the perfect definition for "the situation of the women under patriarchy: that is, it is the very image of the structure which obliges the woman to monitor herself with a patriarchal eye" (1989, p. 54). Copjec's notion of a panoptic gaze therefore means a female viewer is drawn to view the audio-visual material with a male gaze, fetishizing the female characters and identifying with the male characters.
Tania Modleski however found that a possible fourth gaze could exist while analyzing Hitchcock's films in her 1988 book The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory; the bisexual gaze. The concept of a bisexual gaze is attributed to a fluctuation of identification between a male and female character taking on aspects both of a male mind and that of a female psyche. Freud's concept of bisexuality was that the sexual identity of a person "combines the characters of both sexes" (Freud, 1962, p. 10) and that it was more dominant in female children than in male. As a result of this concept, psychoanalytic film theory considers the bisexual gaze to be a fluctuation of identification between a male and female character when dealing with a female audience. According to the bisexual gaze constructed by Modleski, a female viewer is therefore likely to equally identify with the male and female characters.
Psychoanalytic film theory has been heavily debated and criticized, particularly for the concept of "viewer" it has established. The most controversial trait of psychoanalytic theory is the construction of a monolithic viewer (Creed, 1998, p. 16) both with Baudry's passive male spectator and Mulvey's active male gaze. Certain theorists, such as David Bordwell and Noel Carroll, were more interested in establishing the spectator's reaction to the material viewed, rather than constructing the ideal witness, driven by a theory in cognitive psychology that praises the "real" viewer over an ideological one.
Another main criticism of psychoanalytic theory's is it's ahistorical nature, not taking into account the social context and issues in place, both in the film's setting as well as during the film's production (Creed, 1998, p. 17). Psychoanalytic theory also doesn't take into account social factors such as race, class, sexual orientation and geographic location which risks constructing the "ideal" spectator as a white, heterosexual male such as James Stewart's character in Rear Window. However, the biggest controversy to the theory is the fact that, to many, psychoanalysis is considered a string of theories without evident scientific proof and therefore, both the practice and the theory, are dependent on ideas and not solid evidence which deletes the possibility of validity within a film's analysis.
In my opinion, psychoanalytic film theory is a fantastic way of understanding the motivations and incentives behind the character's actions. With Freud's concepts of Id, Ego and Super-Ego the possibilities of following a certain character, and therefore the actor's thought process, are limitless. I also agree and find a sad reality in the fetishization of women in the media whether it be cinema, television or music and see a diminished possibility of viewing female characters from an empowered female perspective. However, due to psychoanalysis's ahistorical nature, many films, particularly those from a time in which the reality of racism and sexism was all too real and frequent, it is hard to apply the theory. Many films, particularly those of the Hollywood Golden Age on which psychoanalytic theory focuses, can't be critiqued for being projected onto those with a "male gaze" or excluding people of a different race from the cinemas, because at the time, psychoanalytic theory's "ideal" spectator of the white, heterosexual, middle class man was the reality.
According to both psychoanalytic film theory of the gaze and cinema as an institution and apparatus, films construct us as spectators by manipulating the audience to identify with the characters on screen through a gaze. Each individual spectator must identify solely with one gaze, whether it is the apparatus's male gaze, Mulvey's female gaze, the bisexual gaze or the possible panoptic gaze. Due to this identification, a complete audience will experience the film differently dependent on how they identify with the on screen characters. Despite the controversy surrounding it, psychoanalytic film criticism has become central to modern film theory. It is curious to see how psychoanalytic film theory will fare in a future global cinematic institution since, in essence, it analyzes classical Hollywood cinema without taking into account international film industries such as India's Bollywood, European cinema and the newer pan-African motion pictures.
Allen, R. C. 1992. Channels of Discourse, Reassembled. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Comolli, J. and Narboni, P. 1969. Cinema/Ideology/Criticism. Cahiers di cinéma, (216), p. 29. Available at: http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic235120.files/CdC_CIC.pdf [Accessed: 20th Nov 2013].
Copjec, J. 1989. The Orthopsychic Subject: Film Theory and the Reception of Lacan. October, 49 pp. 53--71.
Creed, B. 1998. Film and Psychoanalysis. In: Hill, J. and Church Gibson, P. eds. 1998. The Oxford Guide to Film Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Freud, S. and Strachey, J. 1975. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. New York: Basic Books.
Lacan, J. 2004. Some Reflections on the Ego. Journal for Lacanian Studies, 2 (2), pp. 306--317.
Metz, C. 1982. The Imaginary Signifier. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Mulvey, L. 1975. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Screen, (16), p. 441.