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Spectatorship, More Spectatorship and the Avant-Garde Paul Karpenko CINE 361 May 5, 2003 “The gaze of the camera – that gaze in which we participate – exceeds us.”1 Film, according to Kaja Silverman, appears to be a great magic trick and so the job of the director, the magician, is to wave his wand and direct your attention to the cards on the table and away from those up his sleeve. Much of spectator theory explores the concepts of the camera shot and the composition of shots, or “suture”. Stan Brakhage, in his article on the Avant-Garde also talks about the camera. But he examines how limited its scope is and how limited film is compared to what it could potentially be if people were to think outside the confines of say, visible light for example. For the Avant-Garde, the camera exists for a reason: to showcase the fact that cinema is not real life. It cannot be and never will be reality. Therefore, the more experimentation, the better. Advocates of Spectatorship theory, however, strive for the elimination of the camera as an identifiable entity in cinema. By attempting to attain invisible editing and abiding by “structuring functions”2, the whole (a film sequence) can truly be greater than the sum of its parts (the individual shots). In most cases, a film will occupy only one end of the spectrum – it will either be a coherent, flowing feature-length story, or it will be a mad scientist’s experiment with saliva on the lens or abrupt, confusing editing. From time to time, however, even an industry as static as Hollywood will fund a film that bridges the gap of the standard and the Avant-Garde. David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive is one such film. It has invisible editing, it abides by the rules of shot, reverse-shot but it is at the same time a structured experiment in cinema. Perhaps rules are meant to be broken. 1 Kaja Silverman, Film Theory and Criticism, pg 143 2 Daniel Dayan, Film Theory and Criticism, pg 119 Daniel Dayan, an advocate of “tutor-codes”, which are guidelines which a filmic system of suture should follow, says that the code must be hidden by the message. And while Stan Brakhage may not agree, “looking between the frames” is crucial for the style of fiction most feature films aspire to follow. Dayan says that it is, in fact, the task of the critic “to locate the invisible agent of this function”2 (the aforementioned structuring function) and that film, unlike language, always has behind it an ideology and historical dependency. (Language being “free of historical influences” and un-evolving in its basic structure.) The language of cinema is ever-changing and developing and without semiotic innovation, any given film runs the risk of being stagnant or worse, ignored. But Dayan’s idea of suture – that juxtaposed shots form a statement in the language of film – is challenged by William Rothman, author of the article “Against the System of Suture”. Rothman observes that unlike a linguistic statement, a sequence of shots is closer to a sentence in the linguistic comparison, since the filmic sequence makes no claim of being either true or false,3 something that a statement in language must do. What, then, must a film do to convey its meaning? If symbolism cannot be extracted from a series of shots, must the film be taken as a whole and never in parts? Rothman will attest to just that. “The statement thus made by a film may be, at one level, a statement – lying or truthful – about itself.”3 But Rothman and Dayan outline the polar extremes of the suture argument. Promoters of Soviet montage theory, for example, will say that the arrangement of shots in a sequence is of paramount importance and, in fact, can exceed the meaning of the rest of the film. More modern arguments exist for the importance of the encapsulation of filmic reality and ideas like the story arc have been in cinema since the first days of novel adaptation. Both, then, are valid approaches to film. 3 William Rothman, Film Theory and Criticism, pg 135 What becomes important, then, is what the audience (if the film is made for an audience) is able to extract from the film. Time after time, it has been proven that the average audience responds better towards understanding a film as a whole rather than its individual cinema aspects. But that is the case with all art. Looking at a painting, one unacquainted with its style may simply see the picture rather than the brush strokes. The strokes, however, are equally important. That audiences don’t respond well to experimentation may be reason enough for the success of Hollywood and the cult status of the Avant-Garde. Audiences want to identify with on-screen personas, to be taken for a ride and to be dazzled in ways that they can understand as well as perceive. Many film techniques are so subliminal at this point that audiences expect certain developments in a film based on earlier shots. (e.g. the noir convention to show the murder weapon lying on a desk or hanging on a wall before it is used) And these conventions have existed since the days of silent cinema. Miriam Hansen observes such conventions and their implicative double-standards in writing about silent cinema’s heartthrob, Rudolph Valentino. “Whenever Valentino lays eyes on a woman first, we can be sure that she will turn out to be the woman of his dreams, the legitimate partner in the romantic relationship.” And on the flip-side, “… whenever a woman initiates the look, she is invariable marked as a vamp, to be condemned and defeated in the course of the narrative.”4 Such concrete stereotypes may not quite exist in today’s cinema, but how often have characters fallen in love by looking at each other across a room. How often has a villain been introduced in high-contrast, colored lighting in a dark location. This is not mere homage to classic cinema. This is part of the language of modern film. 4 Miriam Hansen, Film Theory and Criticism (pg 587) It is refreshing, then, when certain movies break the mold and develop narratives rivaling the level of confusion of some of Avant-Garde’s most famous works, and yet, still manage to appeal to (at least somewhat of) a wide audience. The public still doesn’t fully understand directors like David Lynch and that’s absolutely fine. But Mulholland Drive was a widely released film that was seen by members of a regular movie-going audience. Now, that is not to say that it was hailed as a masterpiece by every one of them. One needs only look on Amazon.com and read Mulholland Drive’s one-star reviews to be sure of that. With headings like “A muddled mess”, “Confusing and Illogical!”, “Gloomy, sad and depressing movie for psychotics” and, a personal favorite, “What IS This... and... WHO CARES?” it is clear that this is not a movie that a lot of people understand. But it is an alternative to the rest of Hollywood’s output and that, at least, is commendable. David Lynch said at a press conference for Mulholland Drive, “Abstractions can exist in cinema and for me, that's one of the powers of cinema. I love the abstract feel of it and I hope others will, as well.” There are those that understand Lynch’s vision and those who could not care less. But Lynch and directors like him are the connection between ideas of strict suture and Avant-Garde experimentation. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of innovation in cinema because, as Dayan suggests, without development, film semiotics will stagnate and cease to drive cinema forward. The language of film is not a language many understand or, worse, it is one many think they understand – when in fact, what they think is cinema language is actually a narrative or dialogue. Cinematic linguistics are the driving force beneath the surface of every film and to understand their inner workings is a step forward in understanding modern cinema, but more importantly, classic cinema, without which the cinema we know today could not exist.
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