Shinya Tsukamoto, a film artist

Shinya Tsukamoto, more than a director, more than a scriptwriter, more than an actor, more like an artist; with a vast career in filmmaking, as well as acting, Shinya Tsukamoto is one of the most renowned names of the contemporary Japanese cinema. A unique and interesting figure, Tsukamoto maintained throughout his career his status as an independent filmmaker, avoiding to pledge his name to any of the big Nippon film companies, although his own company Keijyu Theatre associated with Third Window Films for digitalizing his earlier works captured on film.

Born on 1st of January 1960, Shinya Tsukamoto discovered his passion for films at the age of 14 when his father brought home a Super 8 camera. The possibilities of translating reality as well as depicting one’s fantasies, believes and inner world through the dynamic filmic medium, fascinated young Tsukamoto who instilled even his early amateur projects with a personal style which later became his trademark. He experienced theatre as well, by starting an independent theatre group, and worked for a television advertising company in the few years when he wasn’t making films.

Working independently, without outer founding, was and still is, for Tsukamoto and his usually limited crew a whole adventure, a difficult but exciting process of getting the best out of little resources. However, this approach of making films has its perks. Freedom; the exhilarating sense of freedom, the possibility of following one’s instincts, and impulses in an uncensored expression of self, is a privilege which Tsukamoto always indulged himself, and actually not only a privilege, but more a creed which moulded his cinematographic works. Working with young and inexperienced volunteers, when the budget did not permit to pay true professionals, reinforced Tsukamoto’s pathos from his earlier days.

Shinya Tsukamoto is definitely what one would call a film auteur. From his debut underground, cyberpunk, sci-fi, horror, cult film Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989), Tsukamoto worked on every aspect of its films from directing to acting, to editing, to designing the costumes, building the settings and drawing the storyboard, his films are his own in the most denotative sense of the word. Filmmaker Shinya Tsukamoto embraced all of these roles which for him are more than intertwined with the same thrills every time. Followed by 2 sequels Tetsuo 2: Body Hammer (1992) and Tetsuo 3: Bullet Man (2009), Tetsuo, might be the most resonant name from Tsukamoto’s cinematography. Based in an industrialising Tokyo, the director’s first 16mm film, conceived when the underground cyberpunk genre was shyly starting to flourish is an industrial horror, a nightmarish trip of guilt, lust, desperation, alienation, and acceptance. The relation between human and machine has been a topic of interest ever since Fritz Lang brought to the screen his mechanical Maria in the silent Metropolis (1927), but Tsukamoto’s approach of this idea was completely new. He does not create a robot. He does not show in his film an animated silhouette of metal made by some queer scientist, not even by far. Tsukamoto brings metal and human flesh together into an agonising hybrid of warm blood and screws, pulsating organs and hard steel, soft skin and iron, who returns to its primary instincts and urges while turning into the Iron Man. Often linked with David Lynch’s industrial nightmare, Eraserhead (1977), and David Cronenberg’s filmed metamorphose, The Fly (1986), Tetsuo: The Iron Man’s pace is much faster than the one in Eraserhead, which leaves the viewer with a feeling of not catching up with the film. Tsukamoto also avoids the Kafkaesque metamorphose of human into another breathing creature, while still maintaining the absurdity specific to Kafka.

The obsession of industrialisation, the fear of the city dehumanising its residents followed Tsukamoto ever since Tetsuo until his 2004 film Vital. Tokyo Fist, Bullet Ballet, the other 2 Tetsuo, all explore the effects of the urban environment, of the concrete blocks, of the skyscrapers, of the reflecting windows, of the cars, the factories, the computers, the routine of the hours spent in an enclosed office, of the underground train, and cemented alleys on the humanity of the metropolis’s inhabitants, and their romantic relationships. Tsukamoto is a master of alienation and rediscovery through a primordial violence. The city oppresses one’s most human, flesh desires, one’s sexuality, one’s rage, one’s love, and Tsukamoto’s films capture the struggle of being the only breathing organism between cemented walls. The violence in his films does not have a negative connotation, is a cry of desperation, a test of humanity, when the characters harm themselves they do not do it to die, but to feel alive; the proximity of death just makes them feel more alive.

This era of cinematographic creation had yet an end, and that end started with A Snake of June (2002), a project which haunted the director even before the first Tetsuo, and was marked by Vital (2004). Industrial elements specific to Tsukamoto can still be found in A Snake of June, but these are in contrast with natural and organic elements (rain, plants, snails) which enhance the whole sexual feeling of the film. A Snake of June was meant to be an erotic film, and while the erotic sense is conveyed even through the blue tint of the images, the film is also a piece on self-discovery, on self-acceptance through the embrace of the flesh, and the consciousness of death. Vital is also a route of death, love, eroticism, pain where the natural, the organic element is the human body itself as a counterpoint of the whole universe. Tetsuo 3 is a reminiscence of his previous era. Made for an American public, the film which was initially asked by Quentin Tarantino, aimed for a bigger public, and is his first English film.

Tsukamoto eventually changed to digital film, change which had a certain influence on his style. Kotoko (2012) is at a first sight nothing like his previous films. The subject is so utterly different, a psychologically disturbed woman’s struggle with her statute of being a mother might trick the viewer, but the violence as a proof of life, the contrasts, the cracks in the narrative, the nightmarish visions are all there. It is visually different, sound wise as well, but it revives the idea of dance and music as the perfect state of the human, first expressed in Vital, and it has the same acute intensity of any other Tsukamoto films. Maybe even more, as this film is of a special importance for the director due to his relationship with Cocco, the Japanese singer who played and shaped the main character.

His last film, Fires on the Plain (2014), also holds a particular meaning to Shinya Tsukamoto. Being an adaptation of the book with same title by Shohei Ooka (1951), Tsukamoto was deeply impressed by the tragic war novel, and pursuit his own research in regards to the Second World War, by talking with war veterans and traveling to the Philippines jungle to see with his own eyes the sites were the action of the book was taking place. It is a tragic, violent, grotesque story of war. Set in the wild and heavenly natural background of the Philippines, the film follows its protagonist descending into despair and madness, running from an unseen enemy and resorting to inhumanly deeds for survival. It might not be a beautiful film, but it is true and touching, like most of Tsukamoto’s films. War is not beautiful, it destroys with no purpose the very thing which makes humans humans, it strips people of their hopes, of their smiles, of their beauty turning them into cruel beasts. Tsukamoto wanted to represent the war, the alienation, the anxiety, the fear, the fury, and rage, the despair and the way the experience of war does not disappear when the event itself ends but haunts its protagonists forever like a suffocating shadow of memories, and he succeeded majestically. The film came at a certain point in Japan when the perception of war was changing, a moment which Shinya Tsukamoto felt was vital for the existence of his film.

Tsukamoto acted in the main role of Fires on the Plain, more out of financial necessity, but his career as an actor is also well known, especially after the last film in which he starred, Martin Scorsese’s Silence (2016). Scorsese being one of his favourite directors, among Akira Kurosawa, Ridley Scott, Shohei Inamura, Tsukamoto put his soul into his role, giving an exquisite performance, as he does in his own films, where the intensity of his characters pierces the screen.

After this short incursion in what is an impressive career of an artist, I can only end by stating that Shinya Tsukamoto’s films are not just cinematographic images unwinding on a screen, but experiences. With their bizarre imagery, the stop-motion frames, the expressionist and surreal touch, the vague narrative, the power of the actors’ performances, the contrasts between calm and violent, organic and artificial, the masterful soundtracks, Tsukamoto’s films are pieces of art, made not only to be watched but to be felt and remembered, not a storyline, but an emotion.

#Beings (2015), a film by Andrei Stefanescu

Some films you follow, some films follow you. #Beings can easily fall in the second category of films which end up by following you for a while after watching it. It’s neither beautiful nor narrative. It is not everybody’s cup of tea; for some might be a whole kettle, while for others less than a cup. It might actually not even be a cup of tea. A dark atmospheric underground no-budget production, which proves once again that a film is more than polished visuals, special effects, and Hollywood stars, it is firstly a feeling, an experience, meaning exactly what lingers when narrative is erased from memory and images fade into colours.

Starting from a Eva, the film brings together a tormented love triangle, struggling with their own inner beings in an amalgam of guilt, love, lust, grief, loneliness, friendship, madness and absurdity which contours the human existence. Looking for and banishing each other at the same time, while looking for themselves, every character falls into its own interior world, trying to hide and escape their own anxieties. There is an uneasiness, a claustrophobic feeling of suffocation, an impossibility of breaking free. The film attracts its viewers and estranges them at the same time and with the same means. An hour of slow drowning, of diving into the most obscure and meaningless fears, an hour of industrial sound followed by crushing silence, which takes its passive viewers from Marie Claire to the desolate outskirts of Berlin.

Eva (Doro Hohn), Teo (Cătălin Jugravu), Ana (Andrea Christina Furrer) are just names in a hurricane of desperation and helplessness, each one enduring the guilt of the others’ suffering. No reason, no logic, no desire of going back to a once lost normality, probably; and love is not the solution as it usually is in a cliché of a world, but the trigger of irrationality itself. As I consider Andrzej Zulawski’s Cosmos (2015) to have a world of its own, which does not wait to be deciphered by its viewers, so does #Beings; the film does not try to explain itself, and it does not need to. The characters live in their own world, a world with no map, no directions.

#Beings gives no glimpses of a so-called normality, no light, no warmth, and once you start watching it you find yourself caught in a foggy loop as strange as it is familiar, through the clew of emotions and expressions it depicts, and which are nevertheless deeply and indisputable human. A poem of greyish images, the 53 minutes are a route from tense trepidation to quiet stillness. All the quick shots in the beginning, the long takes of the human body, Ana’s burdened gaze, and Eva’s cries for help melt into the static image of the sun setting over the industrial remains of something which was long forgotten.

For more info and insides link here: http://qualiafilm.com/blog/category/beings/

No Other, only Mommy (2014, by Xavier Dolan)

The Family: the father – a man, the mother – a woman, the child – a boy or a girl. And there it is. The norm, the normal family, the foundation of society, little bricks shaping the grand construction. The figure of the father, the authority. We know, without reading psychoanalysis, without knowing who Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan were, without reading, before we could even read, we knew that the father is the head of the family, the voice of reason, of authority. If we needed permission to do something we went to our father, if we got hurt we went to our mother to groom our wounds with her magical hands. Even though in my family I ran to my mother in both cases and mostly just laughed and played along with my father, I still knew that the father is, following an unwritten holy rule, the authority, not for me in particular, as this did not apply to my own situation, but in general.

If the father is the reason, which he should be in a “normal family”, then the mother has to be the heart. Father’s arms are strong and protective, mother’s arms are warm, caring, but weaker. Following this structure of an ideal family, one can see, if one can discern beyond the shiny smiles from the American advertisements over a new house, that the family members are subjected to the father’s convictions, and thus oppressed and repressed. The child who is forced to grow up following the father’s principles, fulfilling his demands and satisfying his desires in return to the breeding he has provided. But also the mother, who is bound to resign to her role as a wife and child carer.

This introduction is of use when bringing into discussion “Mommy”, Xavier Dolan’s film from 2014 in relation to Robin Wood’s theory on the figure of The Other in films. Wood applies his theory on the American horror film, identifying 8 forms in which The Other is presented in cinema: 1.Quite simply, other people. And taking into consideration than the normative image of normality is a middle class heterosexual white male, the other forms are not hard to guess. The most obvious other is the woman, seen by Jacques Lacan as the image of castration through the lack of phallus , which then leads Laura Mulvey (1975) to appropriate the concept of the gaze discussing it in the relation with the Hollywoodian films of the ’60s.

Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning (Mulvey 1975). Following Mulvey, the woman is not only the other for the male, but by being so is also the object of desire, tieing the gaze to the subject’s object of desire. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. (Mulvey 1975). But Mulvey was contradicted by McGowan (2007) who stated that: the gaze compels our look because it appears to offer access to the unseen, to the reverse side of the visible; it promises the secret of the Other, but the secret exists only insofar as it remains hidden – the subject cannot uncover the secret of the gaze, and yet it marks the point at which the visual field takes the subject’s desire into account. The other is this terms is the unseen, is the disruptive element which makes the Symbolical order to tremble from its grounds, and this other seen in a film is exactly what makes the film to gaze back at its viewers, by making them feel guilty and ashamed for seeing something which is not supposed to be seen but is nevertheless what incites their curiosity. The other “others” numbered by Wood (2003) are: 3. the proletariat; 4. Other cultures; 5. Ethnic group within the culture; 6. Alternative ideologies or political systems; 7. Deviations from ideological sexual norms—notably bisexuality and homosexuality; 8. Children

The otherness is caused by escaping the surplus repression which should: makes us (if it works) into monogamous, heterosexual bourgeois patriarchal capitalists. If it works; if it doesn’t, the result is either a neurotic or a revolutionary (or both)… (Wood 1979)

“Mommy” is not a horror film, not even close. There are no monsters, only humans; real, convincing, deeply damaged humans, in an endless struggle with life and with the result following their own decision. The characters are not villains, they are no supernatural beings, no individuals with a shady past or secrets deeper than anyone else’s secrets, and yet the film is constructed around “the others”.

I started from Antoine Olivier Pilon’s character, Steve Després, considering him as the representant of the other in his status as a son, therefore a child, even though his age makes him fall in the teenager’s category. After further consideration, I find myself in the situation of stating that “Mommy” is a film on the others. Starting from the controversial figure of Xavier Dolan, the young, homosexual, Canadian director who refuses to collect the Queer Palm at Cannes in 2012 for his film Laurence Anyways, even the title of the film, “Mommy”, sketches the image of a family, but this family is automatically labeled as abnormal, as the mother is not the head of the family. Next is the relationship between the mother and her son. A dysfunctional, strange relationship, between a mature woman, with money and attitude problems and a teenager diagnosed with a psychological condition, whom she previously hospitalized into an institution. Female sexuality repression or the escape of it is suggested by Die’s look an attitude and by the means, she uses to convince a lawyer to help her with her son’s case. In Mulvey’s terms, the character would probably be an object of desire, and when she is no longer passive, she is no longer desirable.

The mother and son relationship is further reshaped to permit the entrance of a third character. Another woman, Kyla, another mother, who comes from a “normal family” where the father is the figure of authority, but whose son died and is left with speaking difficulties as a result of the trauma. Her role in her own family is suffocating, but she finds an escape in the dysfunctional relationship between Diane “Die” Després and her son.

Steve, a father orphan, a psychologically disturbed teenager, with anger issues and violent outbursts, with homosexual tendencies, suicide attempts and a seemingly Oedipus’ Complex, who is unable to show his affection without “crossing” the line, is most definitely every parent’s nightmare. And every parent is left wondering who is at fault. Is it Die for not raising her son right? Is it society for not giving Steve any chance? Is it a cumulus of unfortunate events which befell on this family? Is it the lack of paternal figure?

Furthermore, the characters belong to the working class. Even a bit lower as Diane gets fired and is unemployed until she finds a new job as a housemaid in a wealthy and luxurious mansion.

The film has, or at least had on me an enormous emotional impact because it makes “the others” so relatable, it shows that actually there is no other, there are only humans. The difficult role which Die has to shoulder as a single mother, the tragic decision she has to make in regards to her son’s health, and admitting that her love as a mother is not enough – opposed to Kyla’s background story as a grieving mother over the death of her son, having to deal with a crippled family in which the father is trying to hold everything together, and the glimpses of absolute and innocent happiness the 3 characters live together are the elements which make these characters more human than a “normal” individual and enhance the emotional effect.

The ideal ending imagined by Die is in antithesis with the real denouement; the utopic life of the “normal” as opposed to the unfortunate destiny of the other. When discussing the film in these terms, what else could the ending be, but a metaphor of oppression. Steve being submitted in a “lunatic asylum” is the way society deals with otherness, it casts them away, it hides them, it does not accept them.

Steve is a neurotic and a revolutionary at the same time, this being proved by his attempt of breaking free with an unspoken, but easy to discern result.

Reference:

http://www.blue-sunshine.com/tl_files/images/Week1-Wood-AmericanNightmare.pdf

McGowan, T (2007) Real Gaze [online] SUNY Press. Ithaca, US, 1-20. available from: <http://site.ebrary.com/lib/coventry/reader.action?docID=10575994> [19 November 2016]

Mulvey, L. (1999) “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP. pp. 833-844.

Wood, R. (1979) “An Introduction to the American Horror Film: I. Repression, the Other, the Monster,” American Nightmare. Toronto: Festival of Festivals.

Wood, R. (1979) “The American nightmare Horror in the 70s”

Looking for the fourth look in Cosmos… (by Andrzej Żuławski, 2015)

We go to the cinema, or not so much now that the “land of wonders”, the Internet, virtually houses almost anything that we could wish for, and films make no exception. Either way, in the dark of a grand cinema hall, or sheltered by the intimacy of our own private rooms in front of our own laptops, watching a film triggers a voyeuristic pleasure. The pleasure of seeing, of watching, of following without being seen, without our presence being noticed by the ones whom we are following.

The spectator is cast in the role of ‘invisible subject’, identifying itself to the camera as the punctual source of the look which constitutes the image along the lines of a monocular perspective. (Willemen 1994:99)

Like an innocent Peeping Tom, like the rich voyeur who’s watching Fellini’s Casanova defiling a pretended nun, and whose identity remains unknown, we follow, from the comfort of darkness, the characters in their undisturbed actions, pursuing heroic missions, falling in love, making love, trying to cope with daily burdens, descending into madness, reinventing themselves, forgiving, forgetting, moving on, growing up, getting old, dying, being killed or killing, saving lives. As long as our look isn’t acknowledged, we are safe. The film is pre-produced, pre-recorded, it cannot be affected by our reactions, it follows its course without interruption. I, as an individual, am totally aware of these facts. I can stare at a character for as long as I please, I can even pause the film and stare a little more, and the character would not be disturbed in any way, the character would not notice in spite of how insistent and disturbing my look is. This applies to the conventional films [which] tend to suppress all marks of the subject, of the [filmic] uttering (enunciation), so that the spectator may have the impression of being that subject but as an empty and absent subject, reduced to the mere faculty o vision. (Willemen 1994:100)

But what happens then if and when “the film looks back”? When the character turns his or her face to the camera, pierces the screen, and looks straight into the spectators’ eye? When the character hides himself/herself from the camera, in a bashful pose, trying to cover or to hide his/her own naked body, or a broken thing, even though no other human being is present at the scene?

It disturbs the viewer, it makes the viewer aware of the fact that he or she is peeping, it disrupts a little, for a moment, the comfort of the dark cinema hall. […]the viewer has to confront his or her sadistic voyeurism, the presence of the imagined look in the field of the other makes itself increasingly felt, producing a sense of shame at being caught in the act of voyeurism. By this time, the viewing subject has become the exhibitionist. (Willemen 1994:107) It negates the spectator’s privilege of seeing everything, knowing everything, which is nevertheless a privilege only simulated through the look of the camera, and its mastery, and it transforms it into a shared feature of both the viewers and the characters. As if the walls of Dogville would become transparent for the characters too, and they would be able to have the same vision as the spectator. The spectator’s special power of seeing through walls in Dogville, is however, so masterfully built, that the spectator totally ignores the simple fact that he/she is actually on the same level as the characters, as he/she, himself/herself, cannot see Dogville the way its villagers do, until the very end when the film allows its spectators to witness the dog’s “incarnation” and thus gives away only a glimpse of the true shape of Dogville’s universe. Some films don’t even give that glimpse away, one never sees the narrator in Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror, although the characters look at him, interact with him, know him. He is a crucial part of the narrative, yet, the camera’s look, never follow the characters’ look, hence, never satisfies the spectator’s curiosity.

If Laura Mulvey identified three different looks, that of the spectators looking at the screen, that of the camera and the characters’ look (Mulvey 1969), Paul Willemen comes to add a fourth look, the most problematic, which, in contrast to the first three, does not emerge in every film and is not seen by every spectator. The fourth is the film’s look, the film which acknowledges its viewers and thus challenges them. The fourth look arises when the moving images on the screen show taboos, break stereotypes, and by doing so, inhibit, hinder and confuse the spectator (Goldsmith 1998). The film’s look upon its spectator comes with a feeling of uneasiness, with a discomfort. The rupture in the middle of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona is so abrupt that shocks the spectator, by demonstrating that the film itself knows something that should only be known by the spectator, the film knows that it is a construction, “a mechanism”; The film acts upon us, addressing us, viewing us, as we view it, until the film itself becomes a gaze, rather than something to be gazed upon (Dixon 1994:2).

I could find a few other examples out of the films I have watched and considered to “watched” me back, from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Martha to Michael Haneke’s Cache or Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema, but the one I chose for a more detailed analysis is Andrzej Żuławski’s “swan song”, Cosmos. The film, Cosmos, as an entity, as a filmic organism, as a whole, looks back at its spectators, looked back at me. Firstly, as mostly every film out there, the film focuses on a character, the camera sets itself on the main character with whom the spectator is supposed to identify. Witold walking down a pathway through a forest. One sees him and understands, without caring about his name, that this is the individual around whom the narrative is going to weave itself. And even though a feeling of uneasiness is vaguely present from the beginning, the spectator is made to empathize with the main character, by portraying him as a student, who failed an exam, who was forced by his father to study law even though he wanted to become a writer, whose heart had been broken, and comes to clear his head in a bohemian, slightly rustic surrounding by the seaside. His frustration is understandable, his quirkiness is rather odd, but is for sure acceptable when knowing the circumstances. He is an artist after all…

Some strange events befall, a hanged bird appears and disappears, a hanged chicken near the house is remembered being seen a while ago. Events which seem to have a reasonable meaning, which awaits to be discovered. The spectator is thereby tricked into thinking that the main character, with whom he/she had previously empathized is in charge of putting together the pieces and solving the mystery. Nothing more false than this. From a personal point of view, and after watching the whole film and ruminating upon it for a certain period, the odd events’ only purpose is to suggest the idea of being watched by someone or something, whom neither the spectator, from its position nor the characters can see. It instills thus an unpleasant feeling of insecurity. But this is just the prelude of complete discomfort, of complete confusion. The character with whom the viewer is supposed to identify, becomes impossible to follow, understanding and identification are totally excluded, and the viewer is given no other character to identify with. The spectator finds himself/herself, after entering the filmic universe of Cosmos, utterly alone, with no anchor within the film. And the harder he/she tries to find a fulcrum to rely on, the more the film escapes through his/her fingers.

Cosmos does not break some stereotype about the world, does not show some taboo. It breaks the narrative, the logic, the idea of a film being a story, destroys the linear and fluent narrative, while still including short bits of something which might, by far, outline some kind story, and which are almost immediately followed by exaggerated, out of place actions, making the film even more distant.

The film turns its spectator from a voyeur into a part of the film, by confusing him/her until the point he/she asks himself/herself what is the film about, what is its whole purpose, why is he/she watching it, and then totally ignores the viewer. The evolution of the characters in Cosmos does not even raise the question of being or not being aware of the fact that they are being followed by the spectator, or even by the prankster who is hanging birds. The characters simply do not care if they are being watched, because they have an intrinsic world which cannot be deciphered only by looking at it, not even by a theoretical analysis.

The Cosmos’ universe, the film’s world is cryptic, is enclosed, runs by its own rules, is animated by its own reasons, or lack of reasons, and in can only be understood from within, a within which is impossible to touch, to even approach, by far, by the spectator; The difference between the two “worlds” is masterfully suggested through the brusque apparition of the enormous stains of mould which make the walls to shrivel at the corners of the rooms, which surprise the viewer and makes him/her curious about the causes, while the characters, unlike the ones from Dogville which aren’t aware of the sketched walls, observe the stains, but do not even bother to question them. The characters do not have the slightest desire to make themselves approachable, the film leaves no space for intruders, for individuals which do not already know the way things go. Hence, the spectator is not only unable to “step” into the Cosmos’ realm, but he/she is made more than clear that he/she is a total outsider with no chance of getting close, of getting in, leaving him/her feeling the whole, unmediated discomfort, frustration, confusion, and even pain of being forever just an outsider in search of a key which he cannot possibly find because of his own perception of that key.


References:

Dixon, W.W. (1994) It Looks at You. The Returned Gaze of the Cinema. Postmodern Culture. SUNNY series.

Goldsmith, B. (1998) To Be Outside and In-Between. Film-Philosophy. Australia: Griffith University.

Mulvey, L. (1999) “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP. pp. 833-844.

Willemen, P. (1994) Looks and Frictions: Essays in Cultural Studies and Film Theory. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press; London: British Film Institute. ISBN 0-85170-398-4 263 pp.

Kubrick’s Monolith and Lacan’s Gaze

Jacques Lacan’s psycho-analytical theory was highly used, quoted and related to film theory and film interpretation and analysis, and actually with the media in general. Film and media theory absorbed Lacan’s concepts and ideas and used them in its own relation with the spectator.

Films were discussed in psychoanalytical and Lacanian terms for quite a while now, starting from critics such as Laura Mulvey, Peter Wollen, Colin MacCabe, Stephen Heath and the French Christian Metz, Jean-Louis Baudry, Jean-Louis Comolli. Laura Mulvey translated the Lacanian gaze in terms of cinematography, by identifying, in Hollywood cinema, a “male gaze”, which regarded the female counterpart as an object of desire, an object to stimulate fantasies, an object which was utterly different and could stand as “the other”. The male characters of films were subjects while the female ones were objectified, and the relation established between them was the one between the desirer and the object of desire, which was invested with such features as to facilitate and incite the existence of desire. The desire, as Mulvey says, exceeded the screen and was assimilated by the male spectator. Hence, the gaze was present within and outside the filmic realm[1], and positioned the spectator in the role of the child looking in the mirror. The viewer standing determinate a voyeuristic perspective, placing him on a different level from the cinematic narrative, a place of seeming mastery,[2] which gave him a false sense of power and authority over the film while his position was still passive.[3]

Todd MacGowan stresses, in Real Gaze, the errors made by Laura Mulvey in her depiction of the cinematographic gaze, and states that she deflected from the Lacanian meaning of the gaze, for the gaze is what is lost in the translation from the Real to Signification[4]. Is the object of desire which’s existence is only possible as long as it is intangible, unreachable, as long as it remains just the fuel of desire.

Gaze in Lacan’s later work refers to the uncanny sense that the object of our eye’s look or glance is somehow looking back at us of its own will. This uncanny feeling of being gazed at by the object of our look affects us in the same way as castration anxiety (reminding us of the lack at the heart of the symbolic order). We may believe that we are in control of our eye’s look; however, any feeling of scopophilic power is always undone by the fact that the materiality of existence (the Real) always exceeds and undercuts the meaning structures of the symbolic order.[5]

Resuming the above quote, I understand the gaze as an encounter with the real, which is lost forever once the mirror stage, and desired for the same amount of time by the subject. The split between the three Lacanian orders is so traumatic that any trace of it is erased from our conscious minds and all that remains is the forever impossible desire of going back to the primordial state, to the state previous to the symbolic structure and order of the world and of our own interior worlds. The encounter with the real subsequent to the mirror stage is, despite our craving for it, almost as traumatic as our split from it. The perspective of the gaze seen as the encounter of the subject with the real is crucial to my following argumentation on the function of the gaze in Stanley Kubrick’s science-fiction film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The gaze is present, as Todd MacGowan informs us, in films, more, it is a characteristic of films. As we, in our everyday life, on our daily routine, and in our conscious state avoid the traumatic interaction with the gaze, films as well as dreams enable our encounter with it, by neutralizing our power to consciously alter the narrative, it is in a way a forced encounter, which in the case of films we willingly put ourselves up for. He recognizes four ways in which the gaze is present in the films’ medium: films that make the gaze present through fantasy; films that sustain the gaze as a fundamental absence; films that obfuscate the gaze through a turn to fantasy; films that enact a traumatic encounter with the gaze.[6]

According to MacGowan’s study, any film can be discussed in “the gaze” terms, so how did I hinder my own work with the hazardous choice of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, with the mammoth film which 2001: A Space Odyssey is? I will simply state it. It was instinctual. Reading the paragraph quoted above about the object which looks back at us, the final scene with the character front in front with the monolith entity in a tacit dialogue came immediately to my mind.

MacGowan does include Kubrick’s cinematographic work in the first category of films depicting the gaze, by appealing to the fantastical dimension of his films, highlighting the coldness and intriguing lack of human affect which Kubrick’s films bring to the screen. The fantastical dimension in which the films are set enables Kubrick to bring into question the obscenity of the authority and with it the inconsistency of the symbolic order which governs our world. The understanding of these two issues leads the subject who acknowledges them to freedom.[7] But this is not the direction this essay is going to take. I have no interest in discussing the idea of authority or invoking the computer HAL 9000 as an obscene figure of authority.[8] I am more inclined to put the film in the fourth MacGowan’s category: films that enact a traumatic encounter with the gaze, but not through an escape in the fantastic realm of one’s fantasy as it happens for example in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, but by actually introducing the gaze in the image, giving it an imagistic representation in the body of the black monolith.

fronts-n-1314-00-000192-wz-pyr

Jacques Lacan exemplified the presence, the encounter with the gaze with Hans Holbein’s painting “The Ambassadors”. The 16th century interior in which the two characters are represented is violently disrupted by a figure in the middle, which at a first sight resembles nothing and puzzles the viewer. The figure of the skull floating randomly between the painting’s borders annihilates everything the painting otherwise depicts. All the symbols of power, arts and science are disavowed by the view of the skull, which stresses the futility of everything in the symbolic order. I am bringing this 16th century painting into discussion because I find the skull’s intrusion, given as an example of the power of the gaze by Lacan himself, similar to the presence of Kubrick’s black monolith in the middle of the white neoclassical room, as well as in the African Savannah. This element’s presence is uncanny. The monolith is there but viewed from a rational perspective, shaped by the rules of the symbolic world, it is not supposed to be there. The image is complete without it and its presence only bothers, stirs and makes the viewer uncomfortable, exactly as the skull in Holbein’s painting. But in contrast to the skull, the monolith has a neutral shape, cannot be read as an imagistic symbol for anything. It is a black block with no traces of features to trigger any kind of connotative meaning, in the middle of an image which would make perfect sense otherwise. Unlike the skull which is immediately read as a symbol of death, as a memento mori, the monolith stands for nothing but itself. One cannot pinpoint its nature or its purpose, its beginning or its end, the only fact that one can know is that the monolith exists, it is real and it is present. Furthermore, it is literally a foreign body, an extraterrestrial entity.

2001-a-space-odyssey-1968-movie-dr-david-bowman-dave-keir-dullea-monolith-jupiter-dying-in-front-of-bed-review

The monolith appears in Kubrick’s film four times. For me, the most memorable ones are the first and the last one, and I am going to concentrate on them, with a certain interest in the last. Both are long scenes deprived of words. The language is missing. In the first one, the encounter with the monolith marks, as the mirror stage, a change in the apes’ behaviour, a moment which marks an evolution from an arbitrary society to a hierarchized one in which the ones who hold more knowledge, also hold the power, and therefore can rule over the others.

In what concerns the last apparition, the monolith seems to force itself in the symbolic structure. The visual contrast between the white room and the black entity enforces the differences in the nature of the two. Bowman, the human subject is “trapped” in the room, he cannot escape the influence of the monolith. His behaviour does not change, but he involves in a silent dialogue with the monolith, a dialogue which is beyond words, which has no use or need for language. It is so powerful that defies language, and with it defies the worldly order and structure. The dialogue between the monolith and the character is out of reach for the spectator, but, nevertheless, the monolith’s power, the gaze, transcends the screen and proposes a different dialogue to every eyes which are set on it, because one cannot avoid the gaze. This scene is, at least for me, utterly uncomfortable, puzzling, and it has a sense of bizarre, of uncanny which lingers long after the film is over and which I cannot exactly put in words. It is not an easy scene to watch, it almost banishes the viewer but it attracts him with the same force.

 Maybe this is why there are so many controversies around the meaning of the black block and its role in the science-fiction film. Maybe the final encounter with the monolith is not meant to be deciphered like one would crack down a code, like it would be a conglomeration of symbols which read in the correct order and by the right pattern reflect the great truth. Maybe it is supposed to be felt, and it is itself an encounter with the great truth, with the big Other, an encounter with no need for words, or symbols, or meanings. Maybe it is so puzzling because of our need for structure, for meaning and because of our incapacity to accept the existence of non-sense and only of senses. It might just be a moment of freedom for the character and for the spectators.


[1]Sassatelli, R. (2011) ‘Interview with Laura Mulvey: Gender, Gaze and Technology in Film Culture’.

Theory, Culture & Society [online] 28(5), 123-143 available from <http://tcs.sagepub.com/content/28/5/123.full.pdf+html> [21 November 2016]

[2] McGowan, T (2007) ‘Introduction: From the Imaginary Look to the Real Gaze’. Real Gaze, [online] SUNY Press. Ithaca, US, 1-20. available from: <http://site.ebrary.com/lib/coventry/reader.action?docID=10575994> [19 November 2016].

[3] http://www.filmreference.com/encyclopedia/Independent-Film-Road-Movies/Psychoanalysis-CINEMA-AND-THE-MIRROR.html

[4]  McGowan, T.

[5] Felluga, D. (2011) ‘Modules on Lacan: On the Gaze.’ Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. available from <http://www.purdue.edu/guidetotheory/psychoanalysis/lacangaze.html> [October 27, 2016]

[6] McGowan, T

[7] McGowan, T. ‘The Coldness of Kubrick’. Real Gaze. 43-49

[8] Ibidem.


 References

Felluga, D. (2011) ‘Modules on Lacan: On the Gaze.’ Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. available from <http://www.purdue.edu/guidetotheory/psychoanalysis/lacangaze.html> [October 27, 2016]

Gallop, J. (1985) Reading Lacan, Cornell University Press. Ithaca and London

Lacan, J. (1998) The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Vintage. London

McGowan, T (2007) Real Gaze [online] SUNY Press. Ithaca, US, 1-20. available from: <http://site.ebrary.com/lib/coventry/reader.action?docID=10575994> [19 November 2016]

Poole, R. (2001) ‘2001: A space odyssey’, History Today. 51(1), 39-45. available from: <http://search.proquest.com/docview/202814924/fulltextPDF/CEDD3629E57A4C92PQ/1?accountid=10286 > [20 November 2016]

Restuccia, FL (2003) ‘GRAHAM GREENE’S LACANIAN ENCORE: THE END OF THE AFFAIR’, Religion & The Arts. 7 (4), 369-387, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost. available from:<http://web.a.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=e13a2101-0f29-4df3-b272-d6b33325beff%40sessionmgr4010&vid=1&hid=4114> [15 November 2016].

Sassatelli, R. (2011) ‘Interview with Laura Mulvey: Gender, Gaze and Technology in Film Culture’.

Theory, Culture & Society [online] 28(5), 123-143 available from <http://tcs.sagepub.com/content/28/5/123.full.pdf+html> [21 November 2016]

http://www.filmreference.com/encyclopedia/Independent-Film-Road-Movies/Psychoanalysis-CINEMA-AND-THE-MIRROR.html

 

Metropolis a masterpiece

This is a short essay dealing with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis’ (1927) status of masterpiece. It was an assignment for one of my courses and translated to English afterward. Anyway, I was pretty contempt with the result, and this is why I am posting it on my PDP.


 

Ein Film von Fritz Lang[1]. Metropolis.

Capo d’opera the Italian term for masterpiece, perfect work, artistic production with exceptional value or, as translated word by word, head of work. Starting from this latter meaning of the term, probably the easiest too, I will start the argumentation for Fritz Lang’s film being a masterpiece. However, the previous sentence reunites two statutes of the film: the one that is going to be argued as being a masterpiece and the one suggested by Fritz Lang’s syntagma.   By placing such an ample production as Metropolis as belonging to only one person, that is the director, we don’t do anything else but have it fall into the category of author films. This paper has not as a purpose to argue for or against the character of the film  Metropolis as being an author film, but it is interested in the effect that this status of author film had on the way the public received it and on building its statute of masterpiece.

Ein Film von Fritz Lang, an advertising phrase, that can be seen on the film’s poster near the mechanic woman, with the outline of the dysfunctional city Metropolis rising behind her. A slogan such as Du mußt Caligari werden![2] of the film Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari from 1920, that had been spread  in Berlin a few weeks before the release of the film, without offering at least a sign that it might promote a film production and have thus the purpose to arouse the curiosity and incite the public, because it relied on the lack of information, was not necessary for the film Metropolis.  Following the resounding success of  Die Nibelungen (1924),  for Metropolis, the name of the director, written between the shoulders of the robot character, was itself a form of promoting. Therefore, Fritz Lang’s name functioned similar to the way the stars’ names from contemporary times function on the one hand, and on the other hand it was sufficient so as to describe the film, similar to the way Frederico Fellini’s name or Quentin Tarantino’s name, associated with a film production  bring a series of characteristics.   Of course, the author film too, as any myth of the artist or of the artist’s workshop, is an artificial construction . In the case of the film art, maybe more than for any other art form, the matter of assigning is even more  problematic. Cinematographic creation is a collective effort, assigned many times to only one name, whether it is that of the director, leading actor or actress, or rarely to the script writer or the cameraman or the image manager.

Fritz Lang played in turn the key parts of the film production, from a script writer to an actor and then a director and he calls himself a film creator, but he acknowledged the true worth of the team he worked together with at producing the film Metropolis, particularly the cameraman Gunther Ritau, whom he described by the word genius and his wife, the scriptwriter Thea von Harbou.[3]  He admitted even that, although the production process gave him great pleasure, the central motif of the film, the element that dispels tension, was not in agreement with his creed (beliefs).

Therefore, in Fritz Lang’s film, providing a solution itself to the conflict and the metaphorical sentence: the heart is what unites the brain and the hand, do not belong to the director, but to his wife, as he reaches this conclusion much later.  

Coming back to the term masterpiece, more precisely to la capo d’opera, we can state about the film that it is not the head of a work, but the head of a cinematographic genre. If  Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari is the horror film before horror films, Metropolis is the first science fiction film in the formula that we know nowadays.

Therefore, one can consider Lang’s film as a founder work, that has not only surprised by technical innovations, visual effect, the unprecedented robot character, whose transformation into a human being is due to Gunther Ritau but it was also quoted in numerous subsequent productions, passing beyond the film area and entering pop culture. It incited discussions on his symbolic significance, his political or prophetical disposition, he was criticized and appreciated to the same degree, destroyed and recomposed, he was  a vast, costly project, whose success  was quantified in the debates that he gave rise to, more than the financial remuneration and whose intricate history is one of the factors that brought about  bringing the term masterpiece near the title Metropolis.

In order to identify the recurrent motifs and cliches that outline the new genre we must direct our attention to the topic of the film. Fritz Lang identifies and problematizes the social evil, without having the intention of finding a solution.  Facile and romantic reconciliation in the epilogue of the film does not belong to the director. The political dimension is also repudiated by Lang: When you say that my films take into account the problem of criminality, it is a wrong statement. I try to identify social deviations. I am not a politician, I can not come to a conclusion about giving them a solution   but I can draw attention that these deviations, this social evil exist .[4]

Being influenced by the historic ambience of the capital in a defeated republic, still haunted by the drama of the First World War and encountering the industrialization and technical progress, antithetical to physically and psychically traumatised victims, Lang, as all the other directors of Wiemer Republic, doesn’t  present in a documented way the problems of society, but he makes an utopic construct, dreamlike, on the background of which he projects (plans) the tension among social classes.  The utopia Metropolis is in fact a dysfunctional town where social classes are placed vertically and seem not to have but a vague conscience of  the others’ existence. The metropolis organized around Babel Tower is ruled by Joh Fredersen, a silent tyrant, concerned neither about the needs or the complaints of any of the members  in the community that he manages, nor by his son Freder’s needs.

Antithesis between new and old, between technology and occultism is illustrated not only by the scenery, by bringing close some futurist buildings, high speed vehicles, hung up motorways and a gothic cathedral, with gargoyles, symbols of the evil and allegorical statues of the seven main sins or of the underground grotto presided over by Maria, a modern maiden who preaches about peace but also by the relationship between the Master of the metropolis and  the scholar Rotwang.

Rotwang, prototype of the mad scientist, is dressed in clothes that don’t suit the vestimentary style of the other characters, suggests the image of a wizard, representative of the past and he is the one who reaches the highest level of technology.  He creates the  robot woman, the mechanical man, who rises, as level of development, above the human being and can destroy or restore public order in the city[5].The mechanical man, the robot who raises above and/or against his creator is also one of the key elements of science fiction films. We can offer as an example the character – robot Hall from Stanley Kubrick’s Spatial Odyssey: 2001, C-3PO from Stars War whose visual resemblance to  Rotwang’s woman robot is undisputable, or the child robot, the dying robots from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, or David, from Steven Spielberg’s  A. I. Artificial Intelligence, character who, similar to the second Maria from Metropolis, has human appearance but, unlike Lang’s character, David outshines the human being, paradoxically, mainly due to his deeply human character.

By giving Maria the robot’s appearance, the film also introduces the idea of mechanical woman, artificial as object of male wishes and problematizes thus the woman’s statute [6].  The myth of artificial woman[7], created by men so as to satisfy their intellectual, physical and emotional need, that is to comply with  their own ideal, claims its origin from Pygmalion’s Galateea, but Metropolis moves the coordinates from the occult area of magic to the technological area the second Maria being revived by science, not by magic  – and brings the myth from the field of literature to that of cinematography image. Among the subsequent numerous examples of artificial female characters  I will provide only a few: the mechanical woman in  Fellini’s Casanova , the robot character from the more recent film Her, directed by Spike Jones.

The fantastic and equally technologized framework provides the viewer with a new world, dominated by expressionist aesthetic, with a specific dreamlike atmosphere, aspatial and atemporal. The delimitation between social classes is mainly represented by visual ways.  The bustling, crowded city, surrounded by the circular shaped building of Babel tower, with tall, modern, diverse architecture, the upper class city, is  antithetical  to the austerity of cube-shaped monolithic blocks of flats, arranged in a series, around a central market in the workers’ city.

Frivolous activity, lacking any practical finality, of upper class where Freder belongs to, is in total opposition with the strict organizing of workers’ world in the underground town.

Workers’simultaneous movements, mechanical typified gestures become prominent by means of depersonalized uniforms and create the impression of robotized conglomerate, stronger than Maria’s malefic image, as a representative of mechanical beings.

The key sequences are marked visually by intricate and innovative techniques. Endowing the robot woman with Maria’s physical features needed long term effort and numerous experiments made by Gunther Raus and his team. In fact, the film was more appreciated for its visual constructions than for its topic itself  which was considered to be facile.

Even under these circumstances, the main motifs: of the utopic city, mechanical woman, mad scientist, technical buildings handled by depersonalized people, that the proper functioning of society based on prosperity and luxury relies on, are recurrent motifs of science fiction films. Besides these, Fritz Lang’s name  brings a   legend of the artist, who ran from home when he was young , with a rich and fascinating personal story,  Krakauer’s wrong theory that presented the film as a prophetic sign of Nazism, as well as the history of the film itself, modified in order to be seen  in American cinemas, destroyed and then restored in 2002 and later in 2010, the specificity of  expressionist image, which served as a source of inspiration for Noir films that people gave up to as soon as the Second World War broke out, are factors that contributed to building the statute of masterpiece  for the  film Metropolis. The  fact that it amazes contemporary public too, either by technical effects, related to the inter-war period, or by its unprecedented character, different from the   visual culture  of contemporary world  validates its  statute of masterpiece related to time.

[1] A film by Fritz Lang.

[2] You must become Caligari!

[3] Fritz Lang Interviewed by William Friedkin from 1974

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=or0j1mY_rug 

[4] Idem

[5] Peter W. Evans, „Metropolis: Structures of the Super Ego”, Renaissance and Modern Studies, p. 107

[6] Ibidem

[7] Rotwang creates the woman robot as a substitute of  Joh Frederson’s wife, who dies in childbirth and that they both loved.