Un Certain Regard

9 Jun

Cinema, or, the Regard for Uncertainty

Perhaps the most famous, if not the most productive, aphorism of cinema is itself uttered in a film. In Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat we are told that “cinema is truth twenty-four times per second”. There is something at once powerful and incredible about such a statement. Today, when we are often bombarded by the elaborate spectacles and visual excess of Hollywood blockbusters, it seems rather silly to hold on to the notion that cinema equals truth since much of what is depicted on the screen can hardly be said to be an experience of the everyday. Moreover, the ability to create such special effects owes its existence to the newer digital technologies which have at once “enhanced” cinema as such, but also put its very identity into radical doubt.

As Lev Manovich reminds us, computer media has destabilized the long held belief in cinema’s identity as “the art of the index” because

it is now possible to generate photorealistic scenes entirely on a computer using 3-D computer animation; modify individual frames or whole scenes with the help of a digital paint program; cut, bend, stretch, and stitch digitzed film images into something with perfect photographic credibility, even thought it was never actually filmed … (295)

Since the 1990s, cinema has been radically redefined, and it is “radical” in the sense that it marks a return to its “roots” as animation: “Live-action footage is now only raw material to be manipulated by hand — animated, combined with 3-D computer generated scenes, and painted over … Born from animation, cinema pushed animation to its periphery, only in the end to become a particular case of animation” (Manovich 302, emphasis in original). Much like the proclamation of a certain “death of photography” with the arrival of digital imaging, the spontaneous belief in the veracity of the image is now suspended. What we are left with, as Manovich suggests, in this digital age is the irrefutable notion that cinema has always been animation by human hands rather than “nature’s automatic writing” as was assumed of the photographic arts (Marien 23).

This of course is an intriguing proposition from Manovich, and one that unsettles much of film theories and criticisms accumulated over the years. Was it not Andre Bazin who, infected by a desire to elevate film as an artistic medium, famously emphasized the objectivity of the photographic image in opposition to the plastic arts? As he frames it: “For the first time an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man” (Bazin, “Ontology” 168). The automatism of the camera has meant that one could reproduce reality largely freed from creative analysis and manipulation. However, Manovich’s argument would seem to place Bazin’s “ontology” of the image in radical doubt. For it is as if the painterly element which has always haunted cinema has now, in the digital age, return to the fore, rendering the image on the screen somewhat uncanny. Yet, while all these seem to make for a fascinating history of cinematic discourse, I would argue that cinema enjoys, as Bazin insisted, a privileged connection with the real, but it is not the real as Manovich understands it. In so doing, I would come back eventually, by way of Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze’s thoughts on cinema, to the quotation which began this long digression — that is, “cinema is truth twenty-four times per second”.

“What are you looking at?”: Reality as Cinema

Manovich’s thoughts on digital cinema would, at the very least, seem to imply a certain death on the part of cinema in the sense that cinema as we knew it (an “art of the index”) needs to be critically revised. Yet, this argument rests on the assumption that it is cinema that has changed, whereas reality remains nonetheless the stable entity against which the identity of cinema is measured or defined. In the case of reality, it was business as usual. But while he is certainly right in pointing out that cinema’s identity has experienced a kind of reterritorialization (from an index to an icon of reality), Manovich does not entertain the question whether it is reality whose grounds have been unsettled in the process as well. There is, then, a sliver of the metaphysical in Manovich’s argument which needs some unpacking here: one which would also require a relook at Bazin’s thoughts on the relationship between cinema and reality.

When reading Manovich against Bazin, it is almost impossible to avoid the impression that Bazin had somehow been misguided in the intimations he charts between cinema and reality. Indeed, writing before Bazin’s time, another film critic Rudolf Arnheim had already made the call to differentiate between cinema and reality and to maintain that distinction. For Arnheim, the camera is hardly “an automatic recording machine” since the singular perspective of the camera already requires an exercise in creative discretion: to select one point of view amongst many others which would optimize the information contained in the final image (283). It is on this basis that Arnheim would go on to make the case for film as art. On the first reading at least, it would appear that Arnheim and Bazin make strange bedfellows in the world of film theory since Bazin makes the strong claim of cinema’s privileged connection with the real.

However, consider what Arnheim goes on to champion film for: “It is one of the most important formal qualities of film that every object that is reproduced appears simultaneously in two entirely different frames of reference, namely, the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional, and that as one identical object it fulfills two different functions in the two contexts” (288, emphasis mine). Put simply, Arnheim was all for the “reduction of depth” in cinema that made the latter “neither absolutely two-dimensional nor absolutely three-dimensional, but something between” (284, emphasis mine). Whereas reality in its actuality is said to be solid, unchanging, and perhaps undeniably three-dimensional, the image on the screen was, for Arnheim, ghostly, equivocal and undecidable. And it is precisely these qualities that would motivate Arnheim’s hesitance towards the so-called “talkies” made possible by the then-new developments in sound technology. As he observed, there was (and perhaps still is) a tendency to view “the introduction of sound as an improvement or completion of silent film” (Arnheim 289, emphasis mine). Here, Arnheim’s anxiety towards the “talkies” stems from his rejection of a teleological account being sold of cinema’s historical evolution: for it was not as if silent film prior to the introduction of sound was truly silent since there was, typically, non-diegetic music that would accompany the image. More importantly, Arnheim is aware of and in fact acknowledges the privilege that the spoken word enjoys over the written or the graphic sign, confessing a fear that the ambiguous image would be glossed over by the fuller presence of the voice (290). Therefore, Arnheim’s hesitance towards the introduction of sound, or more precisely of recorded dialogue, is not merely a historiographical concern; it is also marked by an anxiety against the potential saturation of the image’s presence. In short, Arnheim argues for a filmic medium haunted by an equivocality, rejecting both the notion and prospect of a cinema which simply mimics the actuality or pure presence of reality.

Contrary to first impressions then, there is a strong connection between Arnheim and Bazin. That is, despite their disagreements over the relationship between cinema and reality, both Arnheim and Bazin essentially look to cinema as a privileged site which could provide for its spectators an encounter with uncertainty. What is different is the way in which each understood what reality meant. Bazin’s essay “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema” is perhaps most famous for its defense of Realist cinema and what he saw as the latter’s respect for an immanent reality reproduced by the camera. It is certainly easy to attack Bazin for mistaking the camera as a passive or neutral medium for the reproduction of reality. But I would argue that in doing so, one loses sight of the prize Bazin was really after: cinema’s ability to present a reality that is always already ambiguous and undecidable. If Bazin had made the call for filmmakers to privilege deep focus and long takes over shallow depth and rapid montages, it is motivated by his observation that the former pair “reintroduced ambiguity into the structure of the image” (Bazin, “Evolution” 136). “What is at stake in the subjective distortion of the filmic image through design, editing techniques, or camera settings is this connection of the spectator with the everyday unpredictability of living” (Hadjioannou 19). Indeed, Deleuze would confirm this by arguing that the reality Bazin wrote about in his criticisms of cinema is always already “dispersive, elliptical, errant or wavering, working in blocs, with deliberately weak connections and floating events” (1). To that end, I would think that Bazin is not so much looking to assert, naively, that the cinema is merely a passive or neutral tool for the reproduction of reality. Rather, he is strategically drawing on this faith placed on the image’s indexicality to the real to claim that cinema is not a re-presentation of reality if it is to be understood as a copy; cinema is a presentation of a reality that is already haunted by ambiguity and uncertainty, irreducible to any closed system of thought.

It is a subtle difference, perhaps, but one that has tremendous implications that would unsettle both the accounts of Arnheim and Manovich. For it clearly departs from the truism of a transcendental reality at work in Arnheim and Manovich’s accounts. Rather than maintaining a binary opposition between cinema and reality, Bazin’s criticism of cinema marks an attempt to suspend the boundaries drawn up between the two and to point us towards an understanding of reality as always already cinema. If the real “ is what we mean by the ways things, objects, and individuals appear” (Phillips 165, emphasis in original), and cinema had become one of the most popular form of media by the time Bazin was writing in the middle of the twentieth century, then surely one needs to ask the questions if and indeed how cinema has radically altered the nature of reality. And even in the attempt to address that question alone, one is already experiencing a de-sedimentation of reality into the cinematic.

All the World’s An Animated Specter

In an interview regarding his “performance” in Ken McMullen’s film Ghost Dance, Derrida observes:

[C]ontrary to what we might believe, the experience of ghosts is not tied to a bygone historical period, … but on the contrary, is accentuated, accelerated by modern technologies like film, television, the telephone. These technologies inhabit, as it were, a phantom structure. Cinema is the art of phantoms … When the very first perception of an image is linked to a structure of reproduction, then we are dealing with the realm of phantoms. (“Ghost Dance Interview” 61, emphasis in original)

For Derrida, modern technologies which have enabled us to reproduce our world has led to an increasing sense of haunting since it suggests that reality, or the way in which our world appears to us, is never fully present in itself. This is closely tied to what Derrida has elsewhere noted as the “iterability” of all things. Paraphrasing Derrida here, for a sign to remain a functional and meaningful sign it has to be repeatable rather than a “one-off”. But at the same time, to be repeatable, it cannot afford to have its meaning saturated or fulfilled at any iteration. Therefore there is always something of a non-present remainder that necessarily haunts every sign. Not only does this undecidability ensures that there is a certain consistency in the sign’s meaning across the board but also opens it up to a future of potential otherness. Repetition, in short, always entails a difference to come; and things are never, nor can they afford to be, fully present in themselves at any instance. The greater implication is that in order for the world to maintain a certain and somewhat stable economy of meanings, it is necessarily given over to a radical uncertainty that at once ensures its possibility (and impossibility). In Derrida’s argument, cinema’s ability to reproduce the real over and over simply makes this all the more apparent: reality is not reducible to a given instant but necessarily haunted by a non-present remainder, by a future of potential otherness that is always yet to come. Already, one is approaching what is possibly meant by the aphorism “cinema is truth twenty-four times a second”. At this point, a brief excursion into Deleuze’s thoughts on cinema is in order.

For Deleuze, cinema is not merely a specific mode of storytelling or communication. Instead, “the very mode of cinematic form altered the possibilities for thinking and imagining” (Colebrook 29). While Deleuze privileges cinema as a medium through which one may come to think about time, Deleuze understands time not in our usual spatialized understanding of it but as “the power of life to move and become” (Colebrook 40). To venture a summary of Deleuze’s thoughts on cinema, it might be said that cinema makes apparent the very dynamism of life or reality itself as constant movement and process of becoming, not dissimilar to Derrida’s argument above. And this is hardly surprising given Deleuze’s preoccupation with terms such as rhizomes, deterritorialization and reterritorialization. But more importantly, like Bazin and Derrida, Deleuze does not maintain a strict binary opposition between cinema and reality. Quite simply for Deleuze, reality is always already cinematic in its constant flickering state of becoming.

More than that, there is something else in Deleuze’s work on cinema that is especially enlightening in terms of the supposed crisis of cinema with the advent of digital imaging: what Deleuze calls the “time-image”. The time-image is constituted by “opsigns” and “sonsigns”: visual and sonic signifiers that are not reducible to any fixed  or given meaning, often appearing as irrational cuts which creates a strong sense of disequilibrium. This unsettling effect gestures the spectator towards a recognition of that “something intolerable and unbearable” which haunts not only the film s/he is watching but of reality in general (Deleuze 18). As Deleuze argues, these equivocal or undecidable signs have “always haunted the cinema” even though it is the modern cinema of the postwar years that gave it prominence (41). But this uncertainty is not so much negative in the sense that it destroys established structures of thought as it is positive for Deleuze since it puts the wheels of reality in motion and paves the way for new modes of thinking. In reality as in cinema, the world is haunted, possessed, never settled with itself but constantly on the move — at twenty-four iterations per second or otherwise.

The uncertainty surrounding the “ontological” status of the image in the age of digital imaging — i.e. whether it is an analogical index we are seeing or a digital icon made to resemble its predecessor — have only added to this ghostly experience of cinema. This is not to say that every frame of every film today is necessarily a time-image, but rather that perhaps now more than ever, cinema is increasingly the site for an encounter with the undecidable or the unthought of reality. By way of concluding, I will examine Takashi Miike’s Visitor Q (2001) and Michael Haneke’s Cache (2005) in what follows. These two films are chosen not simply because they are highly ambiguous or employ time-images rather frequently, but also because in many ways they function as contemporary commentaries on cinema itself on top of their obvious social critiques.

Of Haunting Strangers: Visitor Q and Cache

The first thing that one notices when watching Visitor Q is the “lo-fi” quality to its images, compared to the glossy images that constitute many films. With the ubiquity of digital images today, it would be easy for many to recognize that the film is shot on digital video (something hinted at in the film itself with the constant appearance of the father’s video-camera). Arguably, this lends itself a sense of “immediacy” to the images despites its “technical imperfections”, perhaps mimicking the effect that Direct Cinema in the early 1960s once had. This filiation to Direct Cinema is not without its significance since Visitor Q is similarly embracing the new technologies that would allow for films to be made more quickly and more cheaply. Particularly important too is its historical context. As one film scholar observed, just a few years before Visitor Q was released in 2001, Hollywood cinema was busy churning out films that evoked “digital paranoia” in the form of virtual simulations taking over the otherwise authentic “‘analog’ world of everyday life” as evident in films like Dark City and The Matrix (Rodowick 1397). Rather than being bullied into thinking that digital was “fake” or “inauthentic” in opposition to the analog image, Visitor Q embraced the new means of filmmaking and did so with a terrifying brilliance.

The film clearly has its self-reflexive moments. In the sequence just before the title of the film is presented, one sees the father sitting down in a railway station, static like a spectator. As is well known, the relationship between cinema and trains is a significant one: Lynne Kirby famously wrote that the two shared an uncanny similarity in the paradoxical experience of “simultaneous movement and stillness” (2). The camera then pans across the station and there the window frames allude to the cinematic movements of framed images. In a sudden moment, the strange visitor who has been standing behind turns to whack the father on the head with a rock before we are shown the film title. This sudden, absurd moment marks precisely the experience of cinema that the likes of Arnheim, Bazin, Derrida and Deleuze all speak of in their own ways: the uncertainty or unpredictability of the world that cinema presents us.

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Timothy Iles would go on to read the film as an “absolutely absurdist assault on the notions of middle-class domesticity”; the aim of the film is to strike the spectator on the head, to awaken him to the reality of absurdity in the structure of the nuclear family (94). While I agree with Iles’s reading of the film’s social critique, I do think that this sequence also warrants a reading in terms of its commentary on the conditions of cinema in the so-called digital age.

Against the digital paranoia evoked by Hollywood cinema, Visitor Q suggests that the cinematic experience had always been one of haunting disequilibrium — digital or otherwise: Cinema’s value lies not so much in its ability to represent reality as it truly is, but in its ability to present the radical uncertainty of reality. One does not ever find out who this strange visitor really is, whether he represents the film itself or is a godly avatar. But what is certain and more important are the effects he brings about for the family: its change and reconfiguration. Towards the end of the film when the son thanks the strange visitor for destroying the family, it is not to be taken in its negative sense but rather a positive one understood in terms of a dynamism and becoming. That the son, who represents the future, is missing from the last sequence also disrupts the easy assumption that Visitor Q settles for a family finally restored. Family, as a transcendental signified around which many of us navigate our lives, is shown to be cinematic: equivocal (as signaled by the replacement of a father-householder’s phallus for a pair of breasts with excess milk), constantly changing or flickering as it were.

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Similarly in Cache, the culprit responsible for sending the mysterious tapes remains at the end of the film unidentified. (It also remains to be seen if Georges’s family is still haunted by these mysterious recordings of their lives and home.) Here, one could speculate on the identity of the sender: Majid’s son, a stalker of Georges, perhaps God? But the thrill of watching Cache lies in the uncertainty it evokes in the spectator: the joyride itself rather than the end result. Of course, one could read Cache as an allegory of France’s post-colonial guilt imploding within the walls of a typical middle-class white family. But I would like to focus on how Cache functions too as a critical commentary on cinema in the digital age. As Ricardo Domizio argues, Cache, as Haneke’s first digital production, stages the “cultural apprehension” surrounding not only the “ubiquity of images” but also their “newfound instability” (238, 243). This is evident in the way the film constantly toys with the spectator by blurring the boundaries between the first order of the diegesis (Georges’s actual world) and its second order (that of the recorded footages). At the most elementary level, this is an allusion to the seamless mediascape offered by digitization where media loses their specificity, becoming merely numbers and pixels under the indiscriminate gaze of the digital eye. These undecidable moments would therefore function like the irrational cuts of Deleuze’s time-image, where their meanings or their “ontological” statuses constantly remain suspended.

Consider the opening sequence in which one is presented with what looks to be a still image held far too long for a typical establishing shot. Indeed, it is only after a passer-by walks into and out of the frame after two minutes of stillness that one realizes that this is a moving image. From the beginning then, Cache is already haunted by an undecidability that sustains the spectator’s look. And even then, the spectator is once more shown to be fooled as the image reveals itself to be merely a taped recording received by Georges and his family. Right before this revelation, one hears Georges’s and Anna’s booming voices as if from behind, already hinting that there is something yet to be determined as one tries to put faces to these two voices.

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Arnheim’s anxiety about dialogue and recorded voices saturating the image’s ambiguity is especially pertinent here: this seems to put the spectator at ease and glosses over the destabilizing moments seen earlier — at least for the moment. For as the film develops, the presence assumed of these two voices, Georges and Anna, are shown to each have their own secrets (i.e. Georges’s childhood, Anna’s infidelity), thus evoking the sense in which no one is ever fully present to others nor indeed themselves. Not surprisingly, the last sequence in Cache which features both Majid’s son and Georges’s son, again representatives of the future to come, remains ambiguous at best. One is left unsure as to what was the subject of the conversation between the two and who was it really that had sent those mysterious tapes. In that sense, I would argue that Cache amplifies the uncertainty of cinema in the digital age not only with the astute blurring of the boundaries between the different layers of its filmic diegesis, but also in the sense in which it gestures us towards a recognition, if not the embracing, of the radical uncertainty in our (cinematic) becoming and the future that is always yet to come.

That is, rather than remaining stuck on the debates between “digital delusion” and “analog authenticity”, Visitor Q and Cache have taken up to the new technologies not only for the economy it brings to filmmaking, but also to explore the ways in which they allow for an expression of a cinema that was perhaps always about the undecidability and equivocality of reality. To put it in a different frame, reality is always already cinematic.

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Works Cited

References

Arnheim, Rudolf.  “Film and Reality”. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. 7th ed. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print. 282-291.

Bazin, Andre. “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema”. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. 3rd ed. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Print. 124-138.

—. “The Ontology of the Photographic Image”. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. 6th ed. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Print. 166-9.

Colebrook, Claire.  Gilles Deleuze.  London: Routledge, 2002. Print.

Deleuze, Gilles.  Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta.  Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1989. Print.

Derrida, Jacques.  A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds. Ed. Peggy Kamuf.  New York: Columbia University Press, 1991. Print.

—. “Ghost Dance Interview”.  Public 2 (1989): 60-67. Print.

Domizio, Ricardo.  “Digital Cinema and the ‘Schizophrenic’ Image: The Case of Michael Haneke’s Hidden”. The Cinema of Michael Haneke. Ed. Ben McCann and David Sorfa.  London: Wallflower Press, 2011. Print. 237-246.

Hadjioannou, Markos.  From Light to Byte: Toward an Ethics of Digital Cinema.  Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. Print.

Iles, Timothy.  The Crisis of Identity in Contemporary Japanese Film: Personal, Cultural, National.  Boston, MA: Brill, 2008. Print.

Kirby, Lynne.  Parallel Tracks: The Railroad and Silent Cinema.  Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1997. Print.

Manovich, Lev.  The Language of New Media.  Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2001. Print.

Marien, Mary Warner.  Photography: A Cultural History.  London: Laurence King, 2002. Print.

Phillips, John.  “Humanity’s End”. Baudrillard Now: Current Perspectives in Baudrillard Studies. Ed. Ryan Bishop.  Malden, MA: Polity, 2009. Print. 159-171.

Rodowick, D. N.  “Dr. Strange Media; Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Film Theory”. PMLA 116.5 (2001): 1396-1404. Print.

Films

Cache.  Dir. Michael Haneke.  Artificial Eye, 2005. Film.

Dark City.  Dir. Alex Proyas.  New Line Cinema, 1998. Film.

Ghost Dance.  Dir. Ken McMullen.  Channel Four Films, 1983. Film.

Le Petit Soldat.  Dir. Jean-Luc Godard.  Société Nouvelle de Cinématographie, 1963. Film.

The Matrix.  Dir. Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski.  Warner Bros. Pictures, 1999. Film.

Visitor Q.  Dir. Takashi Miike.  CineRocket, 2001. Film.

In the Beginning was the War of Words

26 Apr

Film Theory 101

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The feud between the Formalism led by Sergei Eisenstein and the Realism championed by Andre Bazin has now become something of a standard hunting ground for new-comers in the field of film theory. Mostly, this has to do with the ease in which the two are often thought of as clear antithesis of one another. In fact, it was Bazin himself who provided such a basis by distinguishing between filmmakers who veered towards the “image” and others who remain faithful to “reality” (“Evolution”, 41-2). Bazin opposed the highly-caffeinated editing style of Formalism, preferring instead to have reality unfold itself before the camera:

Editing that manipulated a found reality or transformed it in order to yield a particular message were suspect to [Bazin], not merely for political reasons but because they violated one of the truly unique aspects of the cinema, precisely the mechanical recording of reality without human intervention. (Elsaesser and Hagener 29)

Put simply, Bazin objected to an uninhibited analysis (i.e. breaking apart) of reality, privileging the automatism of the camera as that which is truly objective and faithful to an immanent reality. Given that Bazin survived World War II and witnessed cinema’s complicity in the horrors of the Holocaust, it is therefore understandable that Bazin stood vehemently opposed to what Walter Benjamin called the “aestheticization of politics” as practiced by fascist regimes (270).

But more importantly, Bazin was also inflicted by a desire to elevate film as art, which explains why he placed such a strong emphasis on the objectivity of the photographic image: “For the first time an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man” (“Ontology”, 168). If the tradition arts of painting or literature can be said to nonetheless involve a creative interpretation or analysis of reality, Bazin reserves his highest praise for cinema’s continuity with reality. Put simply, the difference between Formalism and Realism, represented by Eisenstein and Bazin respectively, might be reducible to a preference between cinema as a discretized/modular form and cinema reflecting and maintaining reality’s “integrity”. However, it should be noted that Bazin does not forbid editing; but for him Formalism problematically assumes that meaning only arises in the relational differences between two or more discrete shots, whereas for Bazin there is always already a meaningful presence in “the ontological presence of the [recorded] things themselves” that ought to be at least acknowledged, if not respected (Elsaesser and Hagener 30).

Similarly, Siegfried Kracauer maintains that cinema can both record and reveal to us things that normally beyond our everyday experience. However, Kracauer is much less of a Romantic than Bazin. For instance, he does not advocate a non-interventional stance when it comes to cinema. Rather than simply planting the camera there and waiting, like Bazin, for reality to reveal itself to us, Kracauer opts for a more dynamic approach with cinema. Drawing on Benjamin’s notion of an “optical unconscious” (266), Kracauer posits that cinema is able to present to us the “blind spots of the mind”: “motion picture camera has a way of disintegrating familiar objects and bringing to the fore – often just in moving about – previously invisible interrelationships between parts of them” (309, emphasis added). If Bazin’s position was that of a passive camera allowing reality to unfold itself, Kracauer’s is more of a dynamic camera making surgical incisions into reality and revealing what lies beyond the “blind drive of things” (312). That Kracauer even champions “slow-motion” and “accelerated-motion” as expressive modes of cinema would have drove Bazin livid, since these two techniques clearly manipulated the continuity of reality (or time) that Bazin held dear to a Realist cinema.

Here, I would like to turn to the sequence in F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu when Thomas Hutter first encounters Count Orlok on his coach. In a static long shot that frames Hutter in the corner of the forest, we are treated to an accelerated motion of the coach before cutting to a close-up of Hutter shot at “normal” speed. Today, most of us would be able to recognize that this effect was done simply with an acceleration of the film-rate. But this ability to accelerate time, as it were, is only possible because cinema is always already an analysis of time: the film-rate is quite clearly a testament to the spatialization or discretization of time. The continuity that Bazin so privileges must not be taken for granted. In that sense, this is much closer to Kracauer’s dynamic cinema in that the camera’s discretization of time is already an intervention, if not a surgical incision, into the “flows” of reality. This then reveals an oversight in Bazin’s work: In his diatribe against filmmakers who have a habit of spatializing reality (i.e. those who belong to the “image” camp), Bazin neglects the fact that cinema, even without a supposed human creative intervention, already spatializes time. (This in fact explains why Kracauer begins his essay noting cinema’s intimate relationship with time.)

Whether or not this accelerated motion is expressive isn’t so much my concern here. That being the case, this sequence is crucial to our discussion since it reveals that the camera is hardly a passive or neutral witness; its recording is an incisive sampling of reality, motivated by a (modern) spatialization of time. As Bernard Stiegler writes, the continuity of an image is a “reality effect” that “ought not to conceal the fact that the analog image is always already discrete” (155-6, emphasis in original). Stiegler goes on further to qualify that “framing operations and choice about depth of field” are already evidence that the image recorded by the camera can hardly be said to be continuous with a so-called reality (155). Therefore, Bazin’s claims run the risk of mystifying the camera into a black-box.

In his spirited essay “The Long Take”, Brian Henderson takes to task Bazin’s failure to consider the “expressive possibilities of mise-en-scene” (315, italics in original). For Henderson, Bazin is guilty of “eliminat[ing] mise-en-scene expressivity (in any independent sense) by equating it with the pre-existing structures of reality” (ibid.). In a sense, this is a similar criticism of Bazin that I have attempted to show with Kracauer and through the sequence in Nosferatu. Namely, the image is discrete; it displays a discretion. Therefore, the mise-en-scene chosen by the filmmaker is hardly ever a passive reflection of “reality” as it were. Furthermore, Henderson himself explains that editing cannot simply be assumed, as Bazin had prescribed, to function as “mere connection” between the corresponding shots (317, emphasis in original). To paraphrase Henderson, the question is not so much whether a filmmaker should or should not analyze an event, but how and when should he do it so as to best communicate this sequence with his audience (319).

Consider the last sequence in Francois Truffaut’s 400 Blows where the protagonist Antoine escapes from the observation centre he has been placed into. First, it begins with a long shot of the class jogging from the observation centre to the field for their game of football. Then the camera cuts to field and the boys playing, occasionally zooming in for a closer shot centering on Antoine. Antoine escapes through the fence, and we are presented with a tracking shot of Antoine jogging through the outskirts of a town, before finally cutting to a desolate shore. The camera cuts to Antoine walking towards the shoreline, closes up on him. And then a freeze frame.

400blows

It is obvious here that Truffaut punctuated this sequence not merely for connection but rather, the intra-sequence cuts serve to differentiate spaces that are increasingly less populated. From the concentrated mass of “delinquents” at the observation center to the outskirts of the town, to the empty shore and finally to Antoine alone. In other words, the cuts here clearly accumulate into a rhythm, if not a logic of spaces increasingly void of human “colonization”. But the freeze-frame is especially brilliant here in that it disrupts this logic, suggesting that no matter where Antoine runs, he cannot escape the colonizing gaze and surveillance of “civilization”. Had there not been these calculated editing, the impact of the ending would probably be lost. In fact, I would go as far as to suggest that the use of the freeze-frame also complicates Bazin’s assumed neutrality of the camera. In this sequence, Truffaut is pointing at the camera’s complicity in a surveillance society — hence the observation center in the first place. That the film is set in Paris has its historical significance as well, since it was in 1871 Paris when the state set the precedent of using photographs as objective proofs to identify and round up the Paris Communards (Marien 113-5). Ironically, it had to fall to one of Bazin’s colleague at the Cahiers du Cinema to criticize the assumption of a camera’s objectivity.


To conclude, the Realist camp was never really as homogeneous as some film theorists and historians would insist for the sake of historiographical or pedagogical convenience. To that end, the division between Realism and Formalism must perhaps be constantly probed and opened for a reassessment.    

Works Cited

Bazin, Andre. “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema”. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. 6th ed. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 41-53.


—. “The Ontology of the Photographic Image”. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. 6th ed. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 166-9.

Benjamin, Walter. Selected Writings Volume 4: 1938-1940. Trans. Edmund Jephcott et al. Ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003.

Elsaesser, Thomas and Malte Hagener. Film Theory: An Introduction through the Sense. London: Routledge, 2010.

Henderson, Brian. “The Long Take”. Movies and Methods: An Anthology, vol 1. Ed. Bill Nichols. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976. 314-24.

Kracauer, Siegfried. “The Establishment of Physical Existence”. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 303-13.

Marien, Mary Warner. Photography: A Cultural History. London: Laurence King, 2002.

Stiegler, Bernard. “The Discrete Image”. Echographies of Television: Filmed Interviews. Trans. Jennifer Bajorek. London: Polity, 2002. 146-63.

Traversing the ImagiNation

6 Jan

The Radical Gaze in Akira (1988)

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Benedict Anderson’s seminal notion of the nation as an “imagined community” supplemented by the mass reproduction and circulation of printed literatures has been almost indispensable for film scholars examining the intersections between film and the national imaginary. The connections between a collective imagination of the “nation” and the cinematic experience are almost too tempting to pass up. In fact, film scholars who took issue with the universalizing film apparatus theory of the 1970s popularized by figures such as Jean-Louis Baudry and Christian Metz have profited from Anderson’s work. According to Michael Walsh, the theoretical turn towards film spectatorship grounded on local and/or national experiences has been more or less a response against what was seen as the reductively universalizing theories of the film apparatus (6). But this isn’t to say that the theories of particularized film spectatorship have simply disavowed the psychoanalytic insights brought in by these earlier accounts. Rather, film apparatus theory has been appropriated and expanded to accommodate the specific historical and cultural contexts. Even then, many of these newer critics carried on the skeptical tradition inherited from the earlier film theorists, preferring to read films as being complicit with their respective national imaginaries. A reading of films as fantasmatic supplements to the ideologies of their respective national imaginaries are still very much the good standard practice of academic skepticism. In other words, there has been insufficient attempts to explicate the radical potential of films to challenge the orthodoxy of the national imaginaries  which can be said to be the conditions of their productions.

This is an attempt to read Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (1988) as a film that pushes its spectator towards an alternative imagination of Japan. By paying particular attention to the ways Akira deploys the gaze, it would seem that the film exposes for its spectator the gaps within its cinematic fantasies, and in so doing gesture towards the recognition of gaps repressed in any fantasies. That being the case, it is also my contention that the significance of when and how such gaps are exposed in Akira must then be read against the Japanese national imaginary dealt with by the film. Through the strategic deployment of the gaze, Akira opens up spaces for the spectator to deterritorialize and reterritorialize the national imaginary of Japan. Rather than reading the film here as a national allegory, I chose instead to focus on the significant moments in which gaps within the image are exposed and thereafter to read them by recourse to the film’s narrative. Since the film Akira does draw on and indeed engages with the existing national imaginary of Japan, an allegorical reading of the film is of course possible. However, to systemize it as such into an allegorical reading runs the risk of subordinating, from the outset, the film’s disruptive moments to their imaginary ‘origins’, thereby potentially reducing the import of their political force. To facilitate this paper’s argument, I would begin by briefly recapitulating some of the new currents made in Lacanian film theory and animation theory that this paper draws on. This would then be followed up with the analysis of disruptive moments when the gaze is presented to the spectator in relation to Japanese nationalism.

The Legacy of Lacanian Film Theories

The earlier accounts of Lacanian film theory drew extensively on Jacques Lacan’s earlier essay “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function, as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience” as their point of reference for the gaze, without so much as to acknowledge Lacan’s own revision to this concept. For these early theorists, the cinematic apparatus was simply an ideological mechanism built for the recalibration and reproduction of conservative subjects. Through the fantasmatic provision of a sadistic gaze, the spectator is simply deluded into having a subjective agency whereas in actuality, he leaves the cinema just as he was before: a politically-impotent subject. In short, these theorists saw cinema as the new opiate for the masses. However, these earlier accounts placed an overemphasis on the realm of the imaginary in the spectatorial experience, and thus mistakenly conceived of the gaze as a subjective gaze for mastery. In fact, Lacan himself offers in Seminar XI a contrary revision of the concept; the gaze, as the objet petit a of the visual field, refers to the uncanny sense of the object looking back at the spectator from an unidentifiable point outside of the spectator’s visual field, thereby addressing “the lack that constitutes castration anxiety” (73). Rather than the “external view of the filmic image”, the gaze is also the lacuna in the visual field that accounts for the loss that constitutes the subjectivity of the spectator; it is that which therefore disrupts the spectator’s ability to remain all-perceiving and unperceived in the cinema (McGowan 7-8). As the object cause of desire, the gaze is also that which holds the spectator’s desire to look in the hope of finding something that could account for this profound sense of loss despite the apparent plenitude of the image before him.

However, this loss of an illusory mastery is not to be mourned for. Todd McGowan asserts that this vision (which was the subject of early Lacanian film theory) gives us “an implicit sense of mastery over what we see”, but it is merely the product of the imaginary filling in for the constitutive loss addressed by the gaze in the first place (16). While the symbolic order and its system of representation is always already punctuated by lack for it to work (i.e. for the possibility of symbolic exchange to exist), the imaginary functions to gloss over the insufficiency of the symbolic in order to maintain the image of coherence. But the ‘magic’ of the cinematic fantasy is rooted in the realm of the imaginary; it works insofar as it represses the gaps or interstices within the moving image itself in favour of an illusory contiguity and integrity. While the early theorists like Baudry and Metz may have explicated on the relationship between the illusions of a coherent image and a coherent subjectivity, they have tended to slide over the implications of the gaps within the cinematic fantasy in favour of politicizing the ideological complicity of cinema. In fact, was it not Baudry himself who alerted us to this necessary “denial of difference” between the frames, i.e. the repression of gaps within the cinematic fantasy (536)? As Slavoj Žižek notes, fantasy is “much more ambiguous than it may seem”; in trying to conceal the horrors of the gaps of the real, fantasy simultaneously “creates what it purports to conceal, its ‘repressed’ point of reference” (92). Therefore, a psychoanalytically-informed film theory cannot afford to focus solely on the ideological effects of cinematic fantasy concealing the real; it must address the ways in which the cinematic fantasy can and does expose the gaps it tries so hard to mask over.

One of the ways in which the film can gesture towards a realization of interstices within its cinematic fantasy is by drawing attention to its interval. In fact, this interval between the frames is precisely the lacuna at the heart of the spectatorial experience, or the points of negation repressed in the unfolding of the cinematic fantasy. And as with the antagonism of the real, the intervallic lack shares the potential to disrupt the imaginary/fantasmatic coherence of the moving image when it becomes visceral for the spectator, when it addresses the real poverty of any fantasies. Though rarely deployed as the gaze, every interval between the frames of the moving image when felt by the spectator has the potential of the gaze radically disrupting the “magic” that the cinematic fantasy has over the spectator. (One only has to recall the jump-cuts popularized by Jean-Luc Godard.) Because the moving image is dependent on this inter-frame interval to work, one could say that there is an inherent potential in all forms of the moving image to expose the lack in the form of gaps within the fantasy.

Animetism and the Interval

Thankfully, the interval between the frames is not the only analogous form of the Lacanian real in the moving image. Thomas Lamarre has conceptualized two terms in his discussion of animation that addresses the interstices within the framed image. But before diving into what Thomas Lamarre terms as the “animetic interval” and “animetism”, it behoves us to turn to what Paul Virilio calls “cinematism” since Lamarre’s concepts are derivative of Virilio’s. Cinematism refers to a ballistic vision, a movement into depth with the visual technologies of modern warfare being the apotheosis of such a logistic of perception. As Virilio explains in a tone not unlike the apparatus theory offered by the earlier Lacanian film theorists, “What happens in the train window, in the car windshield, in the television screen, is the same kind of cinematism” (85). For Virilio, cinematism represented a site for the mass calibration of our vision; it is designed “to align our eyes with weapons of mass destruction, with the bomb’s eye view. The eye becomes one with the bomb, and everywhere in the world becomes a target” ready to be bombed into submission (Lamarre, “Anime Machine” 5). Here, the resemblance to the subjective gaze proposed by earlier accounts of Lacanian film theory becomes clear. The main import of their work lies in their shared scepticism of how the modern subject has been instrumentalized and duped into thinking that he is a master over all he sees – be it through a sadistic voyeurism or a ballistic vision. Curiously, both film apparatus theory and Virilio’s concept of cinematism cannot fully account for the multiplanar image that is appearing substantially in today’s post-filmic cinema – of which Akira arguably belongs.

Rather than race along the trajectory of motion as in cinematism’s violent movement into depth, Lamarre conceptualizes a different potential in the moving image in which the spectator looks from the point of a sideway glance. This he terms “animetism”. Instead of movement into depth, it is a movement “on and between surfaces” (Lamarre, “Anime Machine” 7). But more importantly, animetism causes a “separation of the image into multiple planes” which thus allows fault lines to “appear in the apparently unified and totalized modern technological condition …[as] denounced in Virilio” (Lamarre, “Anime Machine” 6). This perhaps needs to be understood with a brief exegesis on the animation process of the multiplanar image: Prior to the digital overhaul of the animation process, the animation stand with its stacked layers of cel sheets were used to produce the illusion of depth in animation. Rather than drawing movements frame by frame as was the method favoured by American animators such as Walt Disney, animation in Japan took to the animation stand because of its ability to economize the number of drawings that needed to be done. Instead of drawing movements between every frame, the animation stand moved drawings across and within the frame, thus saving on the amount of labour that is required. But this is also why there is a potential in the multiplanar image to produce the lateral effect of animetism. Because the lateral movements are perpendicular to the illusion of depth, there is a much more visceral effect of the interstices between the layers of the multiplanar image (Lamarre, “Anime Machine” 17-8). Lamarre terms the fault lines or gaps opening up between the constitutive layers of the image as the “animetic interval”. If the terms “cinematism” and “animetism” suggests a kind of essential difference between cinema and animation, Lamarre makes clear the point that the latter two are but different potentials that can appear or be harnessed in any form of the moving image – even though he does observe that there is a greater tendency of animetism in animation over other media forms (“Anime Machine” 9-10). Nevertheless, animation can be wholly cinematic and film can also display moments where the animetic interval is presented to the spectator.

What I find interesting and valuable about Lamarre’s concepts of “animetism” and the “animetic interval” is that both seem to gesture towards the understanding of the objective gaze as countered by new Lacanian film theory. The animetic interval in its visceral effect draws further attention to the gaps within the frame of the moving image itself, and not just between the frames. When the animetic interval presents itself to the spectator, it is as if the interstices point to some unidentifiable space from which the image gazes back at the spectator, thereby disrupting the “magic” of fantasy – or to put in terms much more favourable with the early Lacanian film theorists, it disrupts the fetish of the image. It is as if the fantasmatic repression of this lack within the image causes the latter to resurface in the form of the animetic interval. But of course, because the ‘magic’ of cinema necessarily resides in the realm of the imaginary, the animetic interval is always haunted by the possibility of being glossed over or ‘filled in’ by the cinematic fantasy. In fact, this is very much similar to what Baudry meant when he noticed that the cinematic fantasy is perhaps guided by a very strong possibility of repressing differences between frames in favour of a coherent image (536). Therefore, the animetic interval finds itself just as likely to be repressed as it is to be experienced by the spectator. Here then, I should state that while I have experienced these moments in Akira where the animetic interval is viscerally felt and which I will thus attempt to analyse in this paper, I acknowledge that another spectator might not have the same radical experience with the animetic intervals – if any at all. But would this not only prove the varied spectatorial experience that even perhaps the most ideological or deterministic of films have to concede?

Film and the national imaginary are intimately related insofar as they are both forms of fantasmatic distortions. As fantasiesworking in the realm of the imaginary, and as distortions of their actual (social) conditions, both film and the national imaginary have the potential to render the otherwise impossible possible, and the invisible visible (McGowan, “Real Gaze” 24). If we are to understand national imaginaries as fantasies of a coherent community (as per Anderson’s notion), the nation becomes an image that unites identified members; it is a fantasy that enables members, who could otherwise live out their separate lives without having to meet one another, to hold on to this sense of solidarity and identity. In other words, the national imaginary as a fantasy thus renders the otherwise invisible members of the imagined (national) community visible through this projection.

More importantly, and to paraphrase Žižek here, the solidarity of a group hinges not so much on some positive essence identified, but on that which all members of the group disavow in order to maintain the unity and integrity (99). To take the example of Japan, it is not so much the positive content of Japanese-ness that is the basis of Japanese nationalism, but rather the common repression of what could threaten this image of national coherence – i.e. what is ‘not Japanese’ (Yoshino 11). As such, attempts to supplement a national imaginary via fantasmatic images of a coherent community (such as those performed by propagandist films) are always plagued not only by the potential exposure of its repressed, but also the potential realization that there is essentially nothing behind the screen of its national imaginary. That a fantasy (e.g. national imaginary) requires another form of fantasy (e.g. film) to supplement it should already expose the lack of a presence or self-evident truth in the former. Therefore, the further translation of the national imaginary onto the screen of cinematic fantasy brings its lack much closer to the surface . The task of the film theorist would be to discern the moments when such gaps are revealed for the spectator. Or as one of titles of Žižek’s books would have it, it is a matter of “looking awry” at our fantasies. And in this paper, it is a matter of the spectator looking awry at the national imaginaries of Japan played out before him.

Encountering the Sideway Trauma

To recapitulate and consolidate the concepts discussed so far in this paper, it is perhaps necessarily to illustrate them through an analogy of the spectator as the passenger of a moving car. Elsewhere, Lynne Kirby has noted how the spectatorial experience is analogous to that of a train passenger insofar as both entail a paradoxical experience between movement and stillness (2). Cinematism, ballistic vision, or the masterful ‘gaze’ occurs when the spectator aligns himself with the trajectory of the moving car – like Kirby’s spectator-passenger – and thus misrecognizes himself as the master of that vision. But a glance to the side would clearly reveal that he is not the master-driver, and is instead subjected to the drive(r), thus exposing the lack of his fantasy. Likewise, a glance thrown to the window on the other side would present a landscape that seems to open up into layers rather than reveal a totalized vision as before. This sideway glance is precisely the anamorphic effect of the objective gaze that Lacan, Žižek and McGowan speak of; it addresses the lack in the visual field that our imaginary fantasies are keen to gloss over. In other words, there are indeed moments where the gaze of the moving image comes as a kind of ‘sideway trauma’ that hits the spectator, forcing the latter to come to terms with the gaps in the fantasy. Films that deploy the gaze in such a manner thus disturb the workings of fantasy and open up – at least momentarily – a space for the spectator to look awry at the fantasy before him. Rather than remain contented with the easy formulation that all forms of the moving image are always ideologically suspect as vehicles of mass culture, it is necessary to move beyond such ominous foreclosures in order to recognize the radical potential in the moving image.

Curiously, in Katsuhiro Otomo’s animated masterpiece Akira, there is in fact a moment in Akira that the analogy of the gaze as a sideway glance and trauma is directly alluded to. On their way to a showdown with the rival gang of “the Clowns”, Kaneda’s crew decides to wreak havoc on a passing car at a road junction. The driver experiences a blinding light from the side of his seat, much in the same way the spectator’s vision is disrupted by the traumatic gaze. Here, it is as if the spectator-as-driver is made aware of his blind spot and shocked out of the imaginary “total vision”. This encounter with the gaze, this lacuna of the visual field, is the blinding light that hits the innocent driver in Akira like a side-way trauma. Moreover, it seems hardly a coincidence that the title “Akira” translates to “light”. Would this not therefore serve as a suggestion that the “light” of any moving image contains within it the potential for the spectator to encounter the radical gaze?

Unlike Kirby’s spectator-passenger which places an emphasis on passivity, Akira seems to imply that the spectator ought to be a driver discovering his blind spots. In fact, this sequence suggests that the spectator only recovers his agency in the encounter with the gaze. To put it in more familiar terms, it is only in the encounter with the lacuna of that visual field, i.e. this something there which I cannot quite see or identify, that the image or fantasy loses its aura. I the spectator become painfully aware of my own constitutive loss and the poverty of this fantasy before me; but at the same I am joyous at this feeling of liberation this disruptive moment affords me. Only by exposing this gap in the fantasy, the spectator is accounted for, and a negative space opened up to resist the workings of fantasy (both cinematic and national). In that sense, this sequence of Akira serves as a repetition of Kirby’s metaphor but with an important difference that recovers the agency of the spectator. Not only does the spectator have the agency to look and to do so from a decentred position, but this agency also comes courtesy of the image’s gaze before him. Thus, both Virilio and the earlier Lacanian film theorists might have been too hasty with their dismissal of cinema, too fatalistic or deterministic in fact.

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More importantly, it is not without significance that the disruption arrives from the side. As discussed earlier, this of course has its resonance with the sideway glance of the Lacanian gaze. But more than that, this disruption from the peripheries of the spectator’s (or the driver’s) vision must be read also as a commentary on Japanese nationalism. Here, I would like to suggest that Akira deliberately had Kaneda’s biker gangs approach and attack from the side of this traveling car. It is as if the peripheral outsiders to this empire of Neo-Tokyo (i.e. an outlandish biker gang made up of delinquent youths) are now attacking the normative Japanese salary-man that has very much come to figure as the poster-boy of post-war Japan’s economic resurgence. The distinction becomes much more obvious if one considers the difference between the motorbikes of Kaneda’s gang and the car driven by the innocent salary-man, drawing attention to the stratified society of Japan. Of course, no nation is completely homogeneous, much less any capitalist nation-state. However, it needs to be said that Japanese nationalism is perhaps slightly more peculiar since it functions at the level of an extreme nationalist discourse known as nihonjinron (discourses of Japanese-ness). As Harumi Befu notes, Japanese nationalism is largely predicated upon a conservative essentialism that not only “espouse[s] the isomorphism of land = people = culture = policy”, but also masks how it is fundamentally centred on the ethos of “central Japan (the Kansai-Kanto belt)” (34-5). While not exactly ethnic others, Kaneda and his gang do play the role of Japan’s peripheral outsiders. In that sense, their disruptive attack must be read as a traumatic moment that accounts for Japan’s ‘internal’ others, since it is precisely through a repression of these others that the coherent image of a nihonjin empire is maintained. It could also be argued that Akira assumes its spectator to be precisely this innocent salary-man driving his car – which would not be a leap of the imagination since the salary-man does constitute the bulk of post-war Japan’s demographics. In other words, the spectator encounters not only the gaze of the film as a sideway trauma, but also this repressed other whose marginality guarantees the identity of the spectator-subject. In a word, it deterritorializes and reterritorializes for the spectator the national imaginary of Japan.

In the gang fight sequence which follows immediately, Akira goes even further to present its spectator with the objective gaze of the moving image – namely, through the irruption of the animetic interval. Just as Kaneda and his biker gang ride out in preparation of their imminent fight with a rival gang, the spectator is treated to a view of the city’s skyscrapers as though it were the point of a view of a rider with his head turned to the side. Yet, the spectator cannot be sure as the film does not disclose this. The image thus ends up like a kind of free floating gaze that haunts the spectator, on top of the animetic intervals that surfaced here. In other words, the gaze presents itself with twice the force, and the spectator becomes doubly aware of the gaps within the cinematic fantasy. It would be easy to dismiss this effect as the consequences of a ‘low production value’. In fact, it would seem almost too easy. After all, if one considers the fact that Akira was commissioned with the largest production budget for a Japanese animation feature to date, such a dismissal seems all the more unlikely – if not downright petty. Moreover, is this lateral view of the cityscape not surplus to the narrative? And Akira deliberately presents this view of the city with the animetic interval rather than provide a smooth coherent moving image. That this sequence is the only sequence in the entire animation film to sustain a succession of animetic intervals calls for critical attention. It is also significant that the exposure of the animetic interval occurs against the vertical skyscrapers towering over the city. Obviously, the contrast between the vertical figures and the horizontal force of the moving image makes the presence of the animetic interval much more visceral. But more than that, the most poignant image in this sequence belongs to the long shot that frames the entirety of a glowing Neo-Tokyo. It is a grand image that soon gives way to the animetic interval. If the skyscrapers are symbolic of the social architecture, the revelation of the inassimilable gaps here disrupts the fantasmatic image of a coherent social order. But how exactly should one read this constant disruptive ‘presence’ of the gaze here in relation to the overarching narrative of Akira, and in fact back to the Japanese national imaginary?

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Read against the historical and cultural context of Japan, I would suggest that the encounter with the gaze here marks a point of failure in the post-war national imaginary of Japan perpetuated through the official discourse of nihonjinron. What the atomic bomb shattered in the war was the efficacy of a Japanese imaginary based on the image of a pure and powerful nihonjin empire. The collapse of the Japanese empire at the end of World War II, however, was met not only by an intrusive American occupation but also uncomfortable questions concerning externalized ethnic others in Japan. Against these threats, “post-war nihonjinron re-defined Japan as homogeneous again” (Ko 17). That is to say, the post-war national imaginary of nihonjinron must be read as a reactionary response to reconstruct the image of a coherent Japanese society/empire, predicated upon the repression of both the ethnic minorities within Japan as well as the castrating presence of American soldiers. If so, it is hardly a surprise then for Otomo to structure his film around an outlandish biker gang traversing Neo-Tokyo and its secret(s). If the national ideology of Japan has been predicated fundamentally on the assumption of some positive essence to be found (Befu 21), the gaps revealed here through the interstices of the animetic intervals therefore gesture towards the absented other effaced by this national imaginary. This sequence, in its ostensible attempt to overwhelm the spectator with the succession of spectacular images of the Japanese empire/metropolis, ended up exposing the gaps repressed. The animetic intervals decentre the spectator from the auratic ‘presence’ of Neo-Tokyo, positioning him as an outsider like Kaneda and his gang. Rather than allow its spectator to remain beholden to the conservative fantasy of post-war Japan, the animetic intervals of Akira here open up an invaluable space for the spectator to resist not only the cinematic fantasy but also by extension, that of Japan’s post-war national imaginary as well.

The criticism of post-war Japanese nationalism is followed up in the next (and last) appearance of the animetic interval in Akira which occurs towards the final showdown between Tetsuo and Akira. From the outset, the spectator has been led to invest in this fantasy of “Akira” as the object that is able to grant any character who acquires it unlimited power.  That is, “Akira” is positioned as the lost object of desire for the characters as well as the spectator. Through a secondary identification with Tetsuo, the spectator imagines the possibility of traversing this fantasy, of acquiring “Akira” whatever or whoever it may be. But the impoverished nature of such a fantasy surrounding “Akira” is revealed in this sequence. Rather than a powerful being or wholesome object, the spectator discovers a set of dissected body parts stored in cryonic canisters. What follows is the image of these canisters opening up to its internal interstices, thereby de-spectacularizing the aura of this “Akira” fantasy. Like Tetsuo, the spectator who has traversed the fantasy of power and plenitude finally comes too close to the “truth” or true poverty behind that fantasy.

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In fact, I would like to add that this fantasy of power and plenitude that the film initiates the spectator toward needs to be read in conjunction with the film’s rather enigmatic opening sequence where the spectator is presented with a Tokyo being bombed. This then cuts to a black screen that stares back at the anxious spectator, before zooming out to reveal what looks to be a bomb crater. But the spectator is never told what it is, or at least what were the incidents leading up to this event. This is therefore the very first encounter with the objective gaze of the film which sets the spectator out on a quest to find something that might ameliorate this castration anxiety, some kind of an imagined presence that would explain the ‘origin’ of the film. The title “Akira” then glosses over this crater, thus initiating the spectator on the course of seeking out “Akira” (or substitutions of it) as if it was the lost object that would bring the spectator’s profound sense of loss to relief.

Here, it is helpful to turn to Rey Chow’s account of post-war Japan. Because of the restriction placed against Japan’s militarism after World War II, “[post-war] Japan became one of the world’s leading producers of cars, cameras, computers, and other ‘high-tech’ equipment …. [T]he victim of war rises again and rejoins the ‘victor’ [America] in a new competition” (Chow 97). In other words, the post-war economic reconstruction of Japan was really predicated upon a reactionary and nostalgic image of Japan as a superpower. Similarly, Lamarre asserts that Akira repeats the traumatic event of the 1945 bombing in hopes of breaking with “the constitutive cycles of [Japan’s] postwar economic reconstruction” (“Born of Trauma” 141). The grand view of 2019 Neo-Tokyo here clearly parallels the neo-imperial imagination of post-war Japan. To that, I would add that the abyss of the bomb crater therefore functions as the imaginary lost object of post-war Japan; it glosses over the trauma of the bombing with the fantasy of a lost object, as if some form of plenitude existed prior to the traumatic event and that which post-war Japan can recover through the acquisition of this lost object. In other words, the spectator is aligned with both Tetsuo and post-war Japan in Akira, made to seek out this lost object, but only to encounter the very impossibility of this lost object – in the form of Akira’s dissected body parts. Returning to the disruptive moment where the animetic interval irrupts into scene, it is as if the gaze makes its reappearance once more to confirm the very inanity of the spectator’s fantasy. Through this, Akira gestures its spectator towards the recognition of post-war Japan’s national ideology as a nostalgic project founded upon a fundamental misrecognition of some lost object of power.

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Yet, and rather distressingly, Akira does in fact make a final appearance in the film and presents himself as some kind of final revelation that would resolve the deadlock. Does it not simply suggest that this lost object is attainable? In other words, Akira seems to provide a fantasmatic resolution of this lost object. This is complicated when one considers just how it is that Akira comes to save Neo-Tokyo from being destroyed by Tetsuo’s berserker body. For all of the disturbing potential of the lost object, this seems to suggest the possibility of domesticating the lost object after all. While all these are certainly valid, it behoves us to consider the last sequence of Akira when the spectator is greeted by what looks to be a giant human eye. Here, it is as if the film makes a last ditch intervention to shake things up once more, to reintroduce the gaze so as to destabilize the euphoric moment of the resolution before. It suggests that there is once again something yet to be determined, thus opening up a space once more for the spectator to resist any imaginary foreclosure of the fantasmatic resolution offered up earlier.

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Despite globalization and the transnational flows of today’s digital culture, it would still seem tenuous to dismiss nationalism as an ideological project of the past, now done and truly dusted. After all, the organizing principle of the nation still exerts the greatest symbolic efficacy today, both politically and culturally. It is hard not to think of our passports and our national teams up there on the world stage, just as it is of categorizing films and other cultural products along the lines of their national ‘brand’ (e.g. Hollywood blockbuster, Japanese anime, Korean drama, British humour). Yet, convenient labels these may be, it needs to be stressed that they work insofar as they repress certain differences or tensions that are nonetheless there within their demarcated boundaries. In other words, the nation is never a homogeneous entity or a coherent image as it would imagine itself to be. There are always already other voices. Particularly in the case of Japanese nationalism, Katushiro Otomo’s Akira comes as an intervention perhaps to the conservative essentialism of the Japanese state. And contrary to the common criticism of mass culture as always ideologically complicit with the ruling ideology, these other voices can be heard in the popular medium of film. If anything, films do not cultivate a unidirectional look that is necessarily aligned with the national ethos. Whether it is the de-spectacularization of the post-war discourse of nihonjinron in Akira or otherwise, disparate voices can be heard by the spectator and for the intrepid film theorist to pick up on. But only if one looks hard enough. Otherwise, they might just irrupt into view from the peripheries of one’s vision.

Works Cited

Akira. Dir. Katsuhiro Otomo. Toho, 1988. Film.

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 2006. Print.

Baudry, Jean-Louis. “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus” Movies and Methods Vol. II. Ed. Bill Nichols. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985. 531-541.

Befu, Harumi. “Concepts of Japan, Japanese culture and the Japanese” The Cambridge Companion to Modern Japanese Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Print. 21-37.

Chow, Rey. “The Age of the World Target: On the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Dropping of the Atomic Bomb” Mass Culture and Everyday Life. Ed. Peter Gibian. New York: Routledge, 1997. Print. 91-107.

Kirby, Lynne. Parallel Tracks: The Railroad and Silent Cinema. Devon: University of Exeter Press, 1997. Print.

Ko, Mika. Japanese Cinema and Otherness: Nationalism, Multiculturalism and the Problem of Japaneseness. London: Routledge, 2010. Print.

Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1998. Print.

Lamarre, Thomas. The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009. Print.

—. “Born of Trauma: Akira and Capitalist Modes of Destruction” positions: east asia cultures critique 16.1 (2008): 131-156. Web. 22 October 2012.

McGowan, Todd. The Real Gaze: Film Theory after Lacan. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2007. Print.

Virilio, Paul and Sylvère Lotringer. Pure War. Trans. Mark Polizzotti. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983, Print.

Walsh, Michael. “National Cinema, National Imaginary” Film History 8.1 (1996): 5-17. Web. 31 October 2012.

Yoshino, Kosaku. Cultural Nationalism in Contemporary Japan: A Sociological Enquiry. London: Routledge, 1992. Print.

Žižek, Slavoj. The Žižek Reader. Ed. Elizabeth Wright and Edmond Wright. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1999. Print.

They Say Love is Really Only Skin Deep

7 Aug

Screening Phallic Fantasies in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958)

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When asked how deep is our love, the tendency is go hysterical with the most exaggerated metaphors. From the highest mountains to the deepest sea, there seems to be nowhere the young Conan would not go to just to prove a point. Well, the depths of his love in this case. Yet, do these hyperboles not betray something fundamental about love that borders close to the curious case of Orsino’s love (cue “if music be the food of love, play on …”). That is to say could this love be actually a love for one’s capacity to love. In other words, this love is but fundamentally narcissistic in nature. Or more radically perhaps, the other who happens to be identified as the object of one’s love is merely a macguffin that distracts one from the engine of narcissism that runs beneath every iteration of love and desire.

Not only is Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo a cinematic masterpiece (though it never did fly in the box office), it is also a great site for the investigation of the narcissism fundamental in what has been quaintly called ‘love’ itself. This short piece is therefore an examination of Vertigo, paying particular attention to how both the phallic fantasies of Scotty and of the film’s interpellated spectator are fundamentally narcissistic in their registers and are predicated upon a fetishized screen. As such, this essay will first examine how the melancholic ‘love’ relationship between Scotty and Judy/Madeleine is predicated on Scotty’s phallic fantasy, before turning to a brief analysis of the film’s opening sequenceto reveal how the film is deeply aware of its complicity in the production of a spectator caught in the same phallic fantasy as Scotty.

Madeleine and Scotties’ Phallic Fantasy

When Scotty lost Madeleine to the ghost of Carlotta and had to be subsequently put through a guilt-crushing trial, it seemed almost inevitable that Scotty lapsed into “acute melancholia”.  For Freud, melancholia entails not only the “loss of a beloved object” but also a “disorder of self esteem” (204-5); a disruption of the coordinates for or the sense of self. Put simply, melancholia sees “the loss of the object … transformed into a loss of ego” (Freud 209). The loss of Madeleine as Scotty’s love-object causes him to reproach himself for his shortcoming (his acrophobia) which prevented him from saving Madeleine. In other words, losing Madeleine made Scotty more acutely aware of his impotence – pointing him perhaps closer to real conditions of his subjectivity founded upon a fantasy that masks his fundamental lack.

Scotty’s acrophobia led to his being put out of duty as an officer – as an active agent-enforcer of the paternal law – and to don a corset for his injured back, thereby becoming symbolically ‘emasculated’ in his incapacity. However, the figure of Madeleine possessed by Carlotta provides Scotty with an avenue to project/screen his phallic fantasy and in so doing, ‘recovers’ his former sense of subjective potency: It is through her that he is able to (re)imagine himself an active phallic lover who can ‘arrest’ the flux of Madeleine’s subjectivity straddling between Madeleine and Carlotta – to essentialize the interstitial body of Madeleine into an Oedipal subject with his anchoring presence. In other words, the ‘love’ relationship is really predicated upon her being the conduit for the narcissistic fantasy of his phallic agency.

In fact, this seems to fall in line with Lacan’s conception of the mirror stage in our psychosexual development insofar as our subjectivity – our ability to interact with our others – is predicated upon our narcissistic fantasy of personal potency projected onto a mirror/screen. Thus when he loses Madeleine, Scotty loses the fantasy support crucial; the screen for the projection of his phallic subjectivity, and lapses into a state of melancholia. In short, Scotty’s love for Madeleine is really a screen fantasy or a defense mechanism allowing him to bypass the lack inherent in his subjectivity – a kind of symbolic ‘short circuit’. In this sense, there is no ‘depth’ to Scotty’s love for Madeleine founded upon a narcissistic fantasy.

Vertigo and its Spectator

Apart from Judy’s flashback on the true proceedings of Gavin Elster’s murderous plot, Vertigo positions its spectator into identification with Scotty throughout its narrative. If Scotty is the bearer of the gaze throughout the film, courtesy of his assignment as a private eye for Elster, the spectator’s identification with Scotty thus allows for the projection/imagination of a similar position of phallic agency as well – as the bearer of the look. In this sense, Vertigo’s spectator is gendered male and implicated in the phallic fantasy of Scotty’s.  But it is only in doing so that Vertigo is able to expose the ‘wounds’ of the system and to reveal (even if only in this brief moment in the opening sequence) that there is nothing essential about our fantasmatic subjectivities – be it the phallic spectator or the male subject in general. In fact, this is rather perversely revealed in the film’s opening sequence: Opening with a partial face of a female subject framed within a close-up, then cutting to extreme close-ups of her mouth and of her eye, the title “Vertigo” eventually emerges from the depths of her eye –before a series of spirals follow from the abyss of the eye/“I” (see below).

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What the spectator sees so far is a series of yonic signifiers alluding to the void beneath his subjectivity itself – an intolerable abyss the spectator risks falling into should he look too deep beyond the ‘screen’ of his screen-other’s subjectivity, or his for the matter. In this brief moment of self-exposure, a ‘wound’ within the cinematic screen is deliberately revealed.

In that sense, Vertigo opens with a perverse reminder to its spectator of how the screen of the cinematic experience parallels with the fantasmatic screen of our symbolic subjectivity. Put differently, both cinema (at least in Vertigo) and the paternal symbolic matrix are asylums that provide its interpellated subject with the narcissistic fantasy of personal agency in order to mask the inherent lack/impotence behind that very screen.

There is no ‘depth’ to Scotty’s love for Madeleine, just as there isn’t any for the spectator’s love for the screen which acts to affirm his phallic fantasy as a bearer of the look. I won’t dive the deepest sea to prove my love for you, but I’ll go as deep as your skin/screen allows me to.

Works Cited

Freud, Sigmund. On Murder, Mourning and Melancholia. trans. Shaun Whiteside. London: Penguin, 2005. Print.

‘Bushido’ and the Celluloid Nation

22 May

Japan’s National Myth and the Samurai Film: Ran (1985), Zatoichi (2003) and The Last Samurai(2003)

Though Japan’s economy has taken a break in recent years, the stereotype of modern ‘samurais’ decked in the business attire of the quintessential Japanese salaryman continue to circulate the global marketplace. We know how these things work and we often blame the white man for the perpetuation of these reductive images. (Aaiiieee! Blame the white man!) More often than not, the concept ‘bushido’ gets thrown around rather too frivolously by both ‘outsiders’ as much as the Japanese themselves. (Though I should probably add, at least not to the extent that ‘postmodern’ has.) In fact, the cinematic representations of both the ‘bushido’ ideal and of the samurai figure in the three films will be read against the backdrop of Japan’s history in order to understand why some of these misrepresentations are deliberately worked on the cinematic screen in order to foster Japanese nationalism.

As a form of popular culture, cinema is or can be a site of collective imagination for the masses. In Benedict Anderson’s definition of a ‘nation’ as “an imagined community”, he suggested that such a collective imagination is sustained and facilitated by printed literatures (124). While film is not exactly a “printed” literature in the traditional or strictest sense of the word, it is arguably one of the most ubiquitous forms of popular culture and mass media. As such, I believe that the cinema becomes an important site for the masses to imagine their ‘nation’ on screen. Mette Hjort and Scott Mackenzie explain:

Films … do not simply represent or express the stable features of a national culture, but are themselves one of the loci of debates about a nation’s governing principles, goals, heritage and history. (4)

In other words, cinema is a powerful tool that can be used to either challenge or to further perpetuate the national imagination (or at least the dominant narrative and myth of the ‘nation’).

Samurai Films and Japan’s National Myth

Ian Littlewood, claims that the issue of stereotypes is “not so much that stereotypes are inaccurate as that they are partial” (41). Therefore, a stereotype is a representation that is clearly a misrepresentation to the extent that it is a partial truth taken out of its context – all in hope of replacing the ‘whole’. Consider Littlewood’s further claim: “In the interest of a simplified and more manageable reality, they [stereotypes] ignore conflicting evidence and invite us to take the part for the whole” (41).

In a way, such a practice can be located in the cinema as well, insofar as filmic narratives are or can be used to mediate certain misappropriations of history in order to facilitate a simplified image of the nation. Of particular interest to this paper is the Samurai film genre and how it is deliberately used to redefine or re-imagine Japan as a nation. According to David Desser, these samurai films are not simply “cinematic translations” of history but tended to “mark an almost complete break … a ‘remythicization’” (Samurai Films 20, emphasis mine). The point here is that these samurai films accentuate certain truths or notions from the past and re-imagines them on screen in order to fit the national myth of Japan – imagined in and of itself. In short, samurai films have been used to disfigure history insofar as to configure Japanese nationalism, producing stereotypes around the samurai figure or of the ‘bushido’ ethics in order to sell the myth of the Japanese nation.

By ‘bushido’, I mean to refer to the popularly-consumed ideas and values appropriated from the earlier bushido ethics, in no part thanks to the influence of Nitobe Inazo’s 1899 book Bushido: The Soul of Japan. To sum up Karl Friday’s explanation, ‘bushido’ was “at best only [a] superficially derived” version “preached” by the government of Japan, sold to the people as “the essence of Japanese-ness itself” with the intention of creating a “unified modern nation out of a fundamentally feudal society” (342). As such, “the abolition of the samurai class [in the process of Japan’s birth as a nation] thus marked not the end of bushido, but the point of its spread to the whole of the Japanese population” (Friday 342). What this then suggests is the following: the national imagination predicated on this appropriated ‘bushido’ is played out via the warrior figure (the samurai) on the screen. In other words, the samurai film and its screen becomes the site for the performance of Japan’s imagination of itself as a nation.

Loyalty and Strategic Betrayals in Ran (1985)

One of the first things to strike the audience in Akira Kurosawa’s epic film Ran is the explicit theme of betrayal. After all, the film being an adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear also drives its narrative plot through a series of calculated betrayals. But particularly important is how such a discourse on strategic betrayals problematizes the ‘bushido’ ethics of absolute loyalty embodied in the samurai. And just to illustrate how deep the theme of betrayal runs in the film, consider the iconic sequence in Ran in which a massacre occurs as a result of both Taro’s and Jiro’s betrayal of their father Lord Hidetora and their attempts to wrestle power away from him. In this highly dramatic sequence, we are presented with a flurry of chaotic images with no sound save for the ominous theme looming as the sequence’s background music. But essentially, sound and image are from two different ‘worlds’ or, in cinematic terms, two different diegesis. Put simply, sound has betrayed the image. This dramatic tension only leads to an intensification of the betrayal theme in Ran.

In a film whose plot is driven by planned usurpations and calculated betrayals been made between samurais and their lord-masters, strategic allegiance and contractual relationships dominate rather than a vague notion of absolute loyalty discoursed by the ‘bushido’ ethics. Ikoma’s betrayal of his lord-sovereign Hidetora that saw him deflect over to Lord Jiro’s ‘winning side’ suggests a calculated move to effect one’s will for pragmatic self-preservation rather than a perpetuation of some lofty idealism of absolute loyalty. In other words, Ikoma merely performed what G. Cameron Hurst, III has observed about the history of samurai behavior (contrary to what Japan has essentialized as a value of ‘bushido’ ethics): “samurai frequently changed masters to improve their immediate and future circumstances” (518).

Furthermore, paying close attention to a conversation between Lord Jiro and his samurai-retainers reveals something problematic of this myth of absolute loyalty from the servant to the master. In their discussion of a planned usurpation of Lord Taro from the throne of power, Lord Jiro’s retainers reminded him that he owes it to them to accumulate power – if not for himself, at least for them. They added that “dogs will abandon a master who abandons a chase,” therefore reminding him that their loyalty to him is on a contractual basis: their loyalty is performed and promised to him insofar as he kept to his bargain of accumulating power. Immediately, what is made clear here is that absolute loyalty certainly did not exist but rather that “loyalty was a highly personal and contractual agreement between samurai and lord, conditional on both parties fulfilling their mutual obligations” (Hurst 518). Betrayal, in the world of the samurai, is therefore a reality never too far removed from the bonds of loyalty.

Yet, where does this preoccupation of betrayal in Ran gets us in terms of the national myth perpetuated by a modernizing Japan? Sure, loyalty certainly did exist for the samurai but the idealism of ‘absolute loyalty’ seems to be born from a separate agenda. As Hurst observes:

Loyalty is indispensable to state-building, and the entire Japanese structure of legitimacy … originally designed to achieve acquiescence to this absolutist rule, that is, to inculcate loyalty in the Japanese [to their imagined ‘nation’]. (516)              

By that, Hurst is claiming that the valorization of absolute loyalty in the ‘bushido’ ethics is a means to achieving the end of a Japanese national solidarity. But what is important here is the gross misrepresentation of bushido and an oversimplification of loyalty in samurai history aggrandized for the effect of strengthening nationalist sentiments. Therefore by continuously reminding his audience of betrayal in his film, Kurosawa, I argue, wishes to problematize the national myth of Japan embodied in the ‘bushido’ ethics of absolute loyalty. As such, I suggest that in the final analysis of the film, the ultimate betrayal is located in the ultranationalists’ betrayal of history for their own interest of Japanese nationalism. Ran becomes a sort of counter-discourse in the Japanese cinema; one which alerts its audience to the betrayal of history done so to ‘dupe’ the masses into a collective (mis)recognition and re-presentation of the modern Japanese nation. That is to say that Ran is a piece of cinematic fiction designed to rescue its audience from the lived fiction of Japan’s national myth.

Challenging the Samurai Iconography in Zatoichi (2003)

Takeshi Kitano’s Zatoichi arguably finds itself defined within the subgenre of the “sword film” with its exuberant displays of violence. It is a subgenre which, according to Desser, critics love to hate for its “vast wasteland of formulaic pulp” despite the subgenre’s “huge commercial appeal in Japan” (“Towards a Structural” 155). Yet, to dismiss Zatoichi as a further sign of Japan’s cultural wasteland might be an oversight, as a closer reading of the film reveals several counter-discourses to the iconography of the samurai. Here, I believe that the film actually turns the table around and leads us, as audience and consumers, to question if the ‘wasteland’ did not belong to the inadequate imagination from those who no longer want to imagine beyond the conventional image of the samurai – that is, its iconography.

As with what has been discussed in the paper earlier, ‘absolute loyalty’ embodied in the samurai warrior and espoused by the ultranationalists in Japan has been somewhat of a sleight-of-hand: this ideal of loyalty held up as part of a national essence inherited from the time of the samurai warriors. Karl Friday explains of this historical misrepresentation and uncritical assumption in the national myth; “loyalty of a samurai is said to have been unconditional and utterly selfless” (341). Zatoichi undercuts precisely such an assumption with its characterization of a ronin or a masterless samurai, Hattori, who has to find alternate career paths in the fictionalized Tokugawa Period just so that he can afford medical treatment for his sickly wife.

The film rather accurately describes the changing roles and social situations for samurais in this historical moment, when a time of relative peace called for samurais to re-invent themselves in order to find sustenance on a daily basis. Hattori now works instead as a bodyguard for Ginzo’s yakuza gang. In a pre-modern and capitalist Japan, Hattori sold his skills and, as a corollary, his loyalty to anyone who wishes to pay for such his service. Here, any lofty notion of absolute loyalty seems to be displaced. And while Hattori does sell his loyalty to his yakuza master, it is on a contractual basis in which his employers would have to reciprocate his loyalty with their loyal payments. I would even go as far as to suggest that rather than some transcendental or ‘otherworldly’ virtue of loyalty believed to have been embodied in the samurai’s ‘bushido’ ethics, Hattori’s loyalty is much rooted at a more (loosely speaking) existential level: his is a loyalty towards his wife, more than some kind of a spiritual narrative. Loyalty, in this case, is sold more as a commodity than that which ‘naturally’ emanates from the samurai or the ronin figure. Again, the spotlight falls on the idealism surrounding the samurai figure put forth by the nationalists of Japan. The film effectively casts into doubt the figure of the samurai as some kind of a transcendental exemplar – insofar as he is not as perfect as what is sold and painted by the ultranationalists.    

Also, by essentializing samurais as exemplary warriors, a fraction of samurai history is marginalized. The samurai was never always a warrior, in the sense that he was never always fighting or perpetually in arms throughout the history of Japan. Rather, in the relatively peaceful times of the Tokugawa order, it has been said that many of these samurais had to reinvent themselves as bureaucrats armed with a pen and not a sword for their daily chores. Such a vital piece of samurai history which gets marginalized by the narrative of the ‘bushido’ is fortunately addressed by the film Zatoichi – with a bit of help from irony. In the film, an autistic man dubbed as the “village idiot” runs around the farm all day in make-shift samurai armor, caught in his own fantasy of playing the samurai figure. We laugh at his silly antics of course. But the cinema turns its mirror on us to reveal the funny side: the real ‘idiots’ are those of us who are similarly trapped in our fantasy of the samurai figure as one soaked perpetually in blood and sweat. Zatoichi subverts from within the conventional images and the abated iconography of the samurai, challenging its audience to question the line between the cinema and the lived ‘reality’ of Japan – that is, it adroitly questions whose is the stranger fiction or the true myth of the samurai.

Cinematic Nation-Building in The Last Samurai (2003)

Although produced within the same year as Takeshi Kitano’s Zatoichi, Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai positions itself in a different ideological perspective when it comes to Japan’s national myth surrounding ‘bushido’ and the samurai figure. What I really mean to say is that unlike Zatoichi which aims to destabilize the assumptions made in Japan’s nationalist narrative, The Last Samurai largely tries to further perpetuate Japanese nationalism.

Right from the onset, we are introduced to a sort of creation myth surrounding Japan: Japan was created by a divine sword that, when dipped into the ocean and then subsequently pulled out, formed four perfect drops that fell back down to the ocean as the four main islands of Japan. Already, this sets the stage up for a kind of ‘essence’ (symbolized in this divine sword) that can be found of Japan. Fetishism of the sword aside, this locatable ‘essence’ of Japan as narrated by the film corresponds with the reality of Japanese nationalism as observed by Mika Ko:

At the core of Japanese state nationalism and dominant discourse of ‘Japanese-ness’ was the concept of kokutai, which is usually translated as ‘national essence’ or ‘national polity’ … and this created the illusion of an unchangeable Japanese essence. (12)

The Last Samurai which situates itself historically in 1876 during the Meiji Restoration basically aims to essay Japan’s birth as a nation. But it does so by suggesting that the samurai tradition or the ‘bushido’ ethics were the last bastion of hope for Japan in the onslaught of a necessary modernization. This is clearly evident in the film’s narrative. The samurai rebellion army is resisting the rapidity of Japan’s uninhibited modernization and they made a stand against the emperor swayed by greedy merchants and industrialists. Eventually, their bravery reached the heart of the emperor who soon realizes that he must not forget the samurai tradition of his great nation despite the necessary circumstance of modernization. Such a narrative only results in a further perpetuation of the national myth surrounding the samurai and the ‘bushido’ ethics of Japan. Alluding back to an earlier remark, The Last Samurai is hopelessly geared towards a cinematic form of nation-building.

More importantly, we know that such an ‘essence’ never did exist prior to Japanese nationalism nor was it something from time immemorial which the Japanese people needed to protect. Ostensibly, the film sets out to protect such a ‘lost world’ by romanticizing it on screen. It suggests that by holding onto to the ‘old’ samurai ways and to the blade instead of ‘whoring’ out completely to Westernization, a modernizing Japan will remember its ‘true’ self. In other words, the film is making a statement about Japan as a modern nation: that it has an existence in itself independent from modernity. Yet, such a statement if left critically unengaged comes to be accepted as if it were simply true, and becomes a problematic misreading of Japanese nationalism. By that, I mean to say that ‘Japan’, insofar as we are speaking about the modern nation, certainly was a modern invention sustained or legitimized by its national myth which this paper has been trying to show is a malpractice of its samurai history. In short, ‘Japan’ as a nation is the modern and to speak of a Japanese nation before its modernizing might be a futile gesture. Hence, the narrative of The Last Samurai (and the national myth of Japan itself) is strictly erroneous in its attempt to establish a nationalist link to a pre-modern past for Japan. While I cannot comment on whether the producers of the film are aware of such a fact, I believe that the film is a performance of this nationalist belief on screen inasmuch for the Japanese as for others consuming ‘Japan’.

Conclusion

Japan’s national myth or narrative fundamentally operates with a historical misrepresentation of its own samurai history. As far as stereotypes goes for the samurai figure and his ‘bushido’ code of ethics, Japan’s nationalism requires a continued performance and an invested perpetuation of these mythicization in order to sustain itself. What is interesting about the films discussed is that out of the three, two films are arguably produced by Japanese directors for a Japanese audience (Ran and Zatoichi) and they both aim towards a more critical deconstruction of the national myth. It is heartening to know that cinema as a site of collective imagination may be used by artists with a sense of critical and intellectual responsibility, so as to gesture us towards a deeper understanding of the assumptions that we often take for granted; assumptions that affect our daily lived ‘reality’ and assumptions which ought to be critically examined through the cinematic lens.

I’d say, there’s more to this picture huh.

 

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. “Imagined Communities” The Postcolonial Studies Reader. Ed. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. New York: Routledge, 2005. 123-125. Print.

Desser, David. The Samurai Films of Akira Kurosawa. Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1983. Print.

—. “Towards a Structural Analysis of the Postwar Samurai Film” Reframing Japanese Cinema. Ed. Arthur Nolletti, Jr. And David Desser. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992. Print. 145-164.

Friday, Karl F. “Bushido or Bull? A Medieval Historian’s Perspective on the Imperial Army and the Japanese Warrior Tradition” The History Teacher 27.3 (1994): 339-349. Print.

Hjort, Mette and Scott Mackenzie. “Introduction” Cinema and Nation. Ed. Mette Hjort and Scott Mackenzie. New York: Routledge, 2000. 1-16. Print.

Hurst, G. Cameron, III. “Death, Honor, and Loyality: The Bushido Ideal” Philosophy East and West 40.4 (1990): 511-527. Print.

Ko, Mika. Japanese Cinema and Otherness. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.

Littlewood, Ian. The Idea of Japan: Western Images, Western Myths. London: Secker & Warburg, 1996. Print.

Pop Friction: Fuck Yeah, I’m a Consumer

13 Dec

The Culture Industry and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994)

I think most of us are familiar with the criticisms that often surround consumer culture: it’s really cultural homogeneity more than anything, the industry is manipulating consumer behavior, brands are just illusions of ‘taste’ created to cheat c0nsumers (blah blah). Mostly, these criticisms often resemble something along the lines of conspiracy theories. While it would be completely foolish to think that consumers are absolutely ‘free’, there is a lot more ‘power’ that popular consumers wield that critics belonging to the pessimistic camp would care to admit. By that, I mean to say that consumers do have some modicum of power in the sense that they get to negotiate their roles and positions as consumers, however first interpellated. Simply, we are not forced at gun point to buy/consume whatever and whenever the ‘social elites’ may fancy.

Popular culture is, as Stuart Hall notes, an ongoing everyday negotiation between the center of the elite culture and the culture of the periphery. For cultural critics like Theodor Adorno and Dwight Macdonald, “mass culture” fits a better description of popular culture in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution. For them, popular culture is invariably shaped by the mode of cultural production – namely, the Fordian mode of mass production. It may be a little unfair to sum up Adorno’s concept of the “culture industry” within a paragraph, but if anything it goes like this: It is a popular culture controlled by the elites “whose economic control over society is the greatest” and who are more than happy to feed the masses with cultural “rubbish” for their own profit (Horkheimer and Adorno 39). All cultural products have essentially become horribly repetitive – “cyclically recurrent and rigidly invariable types” whose formulaic details are ultimately “interchangeable” (Horkheimer and Adorno 41). James Twitchell provides a sardonic account of Adorno’s argument,

“the manipulators, aka ‘the culture industry’, attempt to enlarge their own hegemony by establishing their ideological base in the hearts and pocketbooks of a weak and demoralized populace … [T]he masters of the industry and their henchmen, the media lords, are predators.” (273)

But what has this got to do with Tarantino’s film? Isn’t it mainly an exploration of American small-time crooks and gangsters on the periphery of the American society trying their best to master their own failed realities and to realize their own imagined ‘American dream’ (however unlawful these plans may be)? I mean, there’s Bruce Willis playing an old-timer of a boxer who wants to run away with the bribe paid to him by a match-fixing gang leader, a ‘Bonnie-and-Clyde’ couple robbing the American diner, and pair of trash-talking gangsters (Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta) realizing their own versions of romancing America. It’s supposed to be gangsta yo. Bitch be crazy, talking about Adorno and shit.

In a way, the gangster ‘spirit’ of Pulp Fiction lies in its commentary on the cultural lives of consumers. If critics or the social elites condemn consumers to their passive roles, Pulp Fiction is a film that tries to re-present and negotiate what it means to be an active consumer who doesn’t take shit from anybody, takes matters into his/her own hands and most importantly, isn’t all that powerless but is capable of mounting resistance from the periphery/Americana suburb. Pulp Fiction is as much a requiem as it is a re-evaluation of the ‘American dream’ from the perspectives of ‘outsiders’ in the American society.

That the film Pulp Fiction was marketed as “a film made by a film buff for film buffs” with a “collection of references to earlier movies” already highlights the consumer aspect of the cultural product. In other words, Tarantino is a film buff, he is a seasoned consumer taking up the role as a producer to make a product for other consumers much like himself. In other words, Pulp Fiction is Tarantino’s way of ‘giving back’ to the consumer community of film buffs. This sounds suspiciously like what some theorists have suggested in their description of the “folk” dimension in popular culture. But more importantly, what this really emphasizes is that consumers can become producers themselves. Tarantino may not have gone to film school or other forms of ‘institutions’ in the film industry, but here he was, a film buff/consumer empowered as a film director/producer. Therefore, the boundaries between popular consumers and cultural producers are not as clear and intransigent as critics may sometimes reduced them to be. Here, it might be helpful then to consider the film’s interlocking narratives bleeding into one another as a way of highlighting the porous nature of the discursive lives of consumers and producers.

Also, if Pulp Fiction is a homage to its name-sake – the gritty pulp fictions of the ’50s – only a seasoned consumer would be able to make the most out of the references and allusions made in the film itself. In other words, how much meaning we are able to produce out of our semiotic consumption of the film depends on how ‘well-versed’ we are as consumers. There is a huge amount of references that resonate within Pulp Fiction itself, but perhaps, the most significant one lies in its metatextual commentary of its celebrity-cast:

Bruce Willis is seen to play a version of his Die Hard persona, Rosanna Arquette might be her character in After Hours, Harvey Keitel stages a domesticated reprise of his role in Nikita remake The Assassin, and John Travolta is the street boy dancer Tony Manero of Saturday Night Fever a few years on and a few pounds heavier. (Brooker and Brooker 230-1)

But these cinematic allusions would simply be lost if the consumer-audience is not ‘well-versed’ in the films circulating popular cinemas. Yet it should also be noted that these references are not mere repetitions but are each a repetition with a difference: they were “a series of warped repeats of several actors’ earlier roles” (Brooker and Brooker 230). These differences, highlighted earlier, are not merely “interchangeable”, and to reductively assume that would be proof that one is not atuned to the differences (however marginal) and does not produce meanings at the level of the seasoned film buff/consumer. Semiotic production here therefore is determined by the consumer’s semiotic consumption leading up to the consumption of Pulp Fiction. Simply put, the film celebrates and empowers the consumer rather than merely condeming him or her. In fact, it even goes as far as to suggest that to be a good producer, one needs to be a good consumer in the first place. 

In the schema of the ‘culture industry’, brands or brand-labels perhaps play the guilty part of constructing illusory differences in an otherwise state of homogeneity. Understood in this light, brands are therefore tools that the industry uses to pull the wool over the eyes of mass consumers. Of course, some of us have in our consumptive experience wondered why are we paying so much more for a particular brand of a product as compared to the other when both strucked us basically as the same thing in our hands. That’s when companies often hire smart-ass marketing consultants to ‘dream’ up brand differentiation and to construct images of their particular franchise, which would otherwise be lost in the sea of seemingly-similar products out there in the market. Pulp Fiction does not disavow the above perspective. Rather, the film expands upon it and uses the framework of such a view to insert its own ‘rebellious’ commentaries as well.

When we think of the term ‘brand America’, what often comes to mind is the fast food industry and the corresponding mecca that is America. Apart from the observation that the ubiquity of fast food globally reflects the cultural imperialism of America, the fast food industry represents the kind of Fordian mass production that American cultural processes has come to be understood popularly (what sociologist George Ritzer termed ‘McDonaldization’). Particularly in the Fordian mode of production, one would think that a burger would taste exactly the same as the next burger in line, that a Big Mac eaten in Boston would taste the same as one in Brussels, Belgrade or Beijing.  A burger’s just a burger, right? And a Big Mac is, well, just a Big Mac. However, in Pulp Fiction, consumption of fast food takes on a different bite.


It’s hard to think of outlandish gangsters as your everyday philosophers. But in Pulp Fiction, that is exactly what happens with Jules and Vincent (Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta). In only the second sequence, Jules and Vincent sit in their car discussing the fast food industry, with Vincent explaining his observations made during his trip to Europe:

Vincent: But you know what the funniest thing about Europe is?
Jules: What?
Vincent: It’s the little differences. I mean, they got the same shit over there that they got here. But it’s just there, it’s a little different.

Vincent: And in Paris, you can buy a beer in McDonald’s. You know what they call a
Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?
Jules: They don’t call it a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?
Vincent: They got the metric system. They won’t know what the fuck a Quarter Pounder is.
Jules: Then what do they call it?
Vincent: They call it Royale with Cheese.
Jules: Royale with Cheese.
Vincent: That’s right.
Jules: What do they call a Big Mac?
Vincent: Big Mac’s a Big Mac. But they call it Le Big Mac. (transcription and emphasis mine)

In an industry typified by its standardized mode of production, a burger should technically be just like any other burger. At least, it should taste like any other. Pulp Fiction however alerts both audiences and consumers that consumption does not occur merely at the material or literal level of something as banal as ‘taste’. Here, the film addresses the issue of semiotic consumption and the role that local consumers have in their negotiations with global producers such as McDonald’s. Even if the global brand of McDonald’s could insist on a standardization of taste, the franchise must acknowledge the power that the local consumers (French in this case) have. If it were truly that powerful an industrial producer and consumers were so passive as some critics of mass culture have suggested, then surely McDonald’s could have easily insisted on selling their Big Mac simply as ‘Big Mac’. As a cultural product, the burger is translated across linguistic and cultural borders, taking on different semantic and semiotic networks. The “little differences” here are therefore evidence of consumers’ modicum of power to negotiate and question the limitations interpellated of them.

In Adorno’s conception of the “culture industry”, there is an implicit assumption that the industry, or the producers, are a big homogeneous family made up of the social elites. What this perhaps translates to in terms of the fast food industry is the tacit suggestion that it doesn’t matter if it were McDonald’s, KFC or Wendy’s. They are all one big happy family of manipulators eager to maintain power over mass consumers, constructing differences to conceal their solidarity. This, however, gets questioned in Pulp Fiction. 

In what seems like a typical product-placement shot (above), the fictitious brand of ‘Big Kahuna Burger’ is playfully inserted. On one hand, the film seems to be immediately challenging the ossified line between the real and the ‘reel’. On the other hand, and this is perhaps the larger point, Pulp Fiction questions the ‘actual’ reality of a homogeneous band of producers in the case of the fast food industry. The ‘Big Kahuna Burger’ is not a typical fast food franchise, and it isn’t because it is merely fictitious.  Rather, it is because the brand is a ‘Hawaiian burger joint’ – a minority franchise in an industry dominated by its bigger white American cousins such as McDonald’s and Wendy’s.

Had the audience not have the cultural capital to recognize that the ‘Big Kahuna Burger’ brand was fiction, s/he would have simply glossed past the shot above and ‘condemned’ it to the domain of just-another-burger-joint. In this case, only if one was (perhaps an oxymoron here) a ‘fast food connoisseur’ or a ‘fast food buff’ would one be able to rescue that “little difference” put on display. Again, the film Pulp Ficiton teases the idea that consumers are merely passive and powerless. Here, only the consumer well-acquainted with fast food culture would be the most productive of the pool of audiences, semiotically speaking. If brands are truly mere fiction, Pulp Fiction was able to use fiction (in the ‘Big Kahuna Burger’ brand) to challenge the fiction of the “culture industry”.

All in all, Pulp Fiction dismisses the idea that consumers are like lambs to the slaughterhouse. If you ask me, it shakes down like this: Pulp Fiction is the gun held by film buff Quentin Tarantino, a consummate consumer, who understands the ‘rules’ of the industry and knows enough of it to fashion a tool for himself (as well as other consumers like him of course). Of course, there will be and has always had friction between consumers and producers. But that only shows that consumers are not merely powerless. The film Pulp Ficiton is like an overdose of cocaine shot up the nose of Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman): it awakens us to the possibilities and unfulfilled potentials of being a consummate consumer; it is a moment of clarity/epiphany that resuscitates us from the overdose of ‘reality’ as we think we know it.

“I say, goddamn.”

 

Works Cited

Brooker, Peter and Will Brooker. “Pulpmodernism: Tarantino’s Affirmative Action” Film Theory Vol. IV. Ed. Philip Simpson et al. London: Routledge, 2004. 229-241. Print.

Horkheimer, Max and Theodor Adorno. “The Cultural Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” Cultural Sociology. Ed. Lyn Spillman. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 2002. 39-46. Print.

Twitchell, James B. Lead Us into Temptation: The Triumph of American Materialism. New York: Columbia University, 1999. Print.

Fish (Think)Tanks at the Cinema

4 Feb

Pleasure Seekers in Ekachai Uekrongtham’s Pleasure Factory

When Pleasure Factory was shown in theatres back in 2007, it was touted by the media as a “docudrama” that will have audiences looking deeper into the ‘underworld’ of Singapore’s red-light district. In a country that has guarded its secrecy like a mother would with her newborn, sex being fleshed out in the theatres was sure to make a few bang for bucks (excuse the poor pun).

Pleasure Factory in short is a piece of social drama shot in an almost ‘documentary’ and lyrical mode – like a miscegenation of Poetic Realism Cinema and of French New Wave Cinema. Its plot is an interweaving series of three concurrent stories. A young cadet loses his virginity but also gains an emotional depth in one night. A teenage girl is initiated into the industry. And a jaded prostitute pays a charming busker for a performance he never really gets to finish.

Yet, while the film is largely centred within the Geylang red-light district, the film’s focus is not necessarily that of the pleasure-seekers in Geylang. Rather, take a closer look and you might find that the camera is really pointing at you. Like Gareth Edwards’ Monsters, glimpse of self-reflexive commentaries can be found in Uekrongtham’s film.

Almost immediately when we think about sex and/or the flesh trade, our thoughts come tagged with voyeurism. I think it’s pretty hard to deny that our carnal urges are largely motivated by what we see (or sometimes with ‘teases’ what we can almost see). If you’ve been reading your healthy dose of Laura Mulvey, you’d probably know where this is going.

We are voyeurs. Us peeping toms at the cinema are no exception to the rule.

In one of the earliest sequence, the teenage girl (Isabella Chen) is introduced through a shot behind an aquarium [above]. You don’t really have to think that hard to know what Uekrongtham is trying to achieve in this shot: A play on the sex industry’s ‘fish-tank’. Women are housed in faux aquariums to have the prospective customers gaze at them before deciding which ‘fish’ he wants. And guess who’s looking at the girl through the tank now?

If our good friend Sigmund Freud is to be taken seriously, then we had better believe that there’s a sexual element to just looking alone. Freud’s scopophilia suggests that there’s a kind of sexual enpowerment for the looker objectifying the looked-at. In that shot alone, we’ve objectified the character, trying to penetrate her thoughts and her world.

Some critics have claimed that Pleasure Factory provides “too little depth” with its characters, resulting in a “sense of superficiality” about the film (Uhde and Ng Uhde 153). But I’d like to think that Uekrongtham (having been trained foremostly as a theatrical director) employs an element of Brechtian Theatre – that is, distanciation. We have been denied emotional penetration with the characters, more so because the film maintains that it cannot or will not reveal the pains of the ‘underworld.’ After all, the camera is merely a voyeur. And we are but tourists to the truth. Therefore, the film cannot provide an accurate look nor neither should it pretend to be able to do so.

Of course, this film is a glimpse into the consumer world of the flesh trade. It shows us that bodies are commodified and pleasure can be manufactured – hence the less than subtle title of Pleasure Factory. Bodies are constantly being line-up to be feasted on by prying eyes, what precipitates for most part is the urge to consume what is in view.

But Pleasure Factory is also a window into our own world. So in a way, we are perpetrators too – us and our voyeuristic gaze in the cinema. After all, what is constantly uttered in the film is “Take a look at our girls” before the camera directs our gaze to exposed bodies. Consumption of images becomes the mantra of the contemporary world we find ourselves living in. (a nod of approval from Baudrillard)

Pleasure Factory‘s social commentaries on the sex industry goes further.

One of the best edits in the film, the two shots above introduce a graphic match between them: three ‘bodies’ lined up alongside one another. In this sequence, the parallels are drawn up between the three bodies and that of the three deities. A literal reading would probably suggests that the prostitutes are ‘worshipped’ in the flesh.

While pleasure-seekers aren’t exactly singing hymns in the bedroom, religion and sex do share some point(s) of convergence. There is almost an existential element shared between the two. But while some people may be calling hits on my head now or calling me a blasphemer, but consider the role both play in the complex world we live in. They both offer some point of entry (ok, bad pun) and some form of respite.

You have sacred rituals and we have had mating rituals. You’ve got your sacred text and some of us have bought our copy of the kama-sutra. I think some of us might even defend that sex has an element of ‘transcendance’ about it too – think Da Vinci Code and its take on paganism. This isn’t a call to go “oh god” when one is banging the night way. Far from it. But as early as we’ve discovered gods, we’ve also discovered most of our bodily functions. And I’m not saying that sex is the new religion either. I’m no hippie. But I do think that Uekrongtham is pushing audiences to deconstruct for themselves the line between the sacred and the profane, between religion and sex.

Returning to our fish-tank, there’s even a sequence in the film when the young cadet (Loo Zihan) speaks nervously to the sex worker about the fishes painted on the walls of their motel room. There the sex worker (Xu Er) explains that her favourite fish is the clownfish: They have “short lives” but are “beautiful.” A wonderful reflection of the lives of these workers who have a short window of opportunity to make the most out of everything.

Aquariums and fish-tanks continue to feature prominently in Pleasure Factory.

In fact, one of the most poignant editing in the film (a dissolve and a graphic match) involves a fish-tank/aquarium.

In this shot [above] the rectangular aquarium is matched graphically with the high-rise apartment buildings that are almost synonymous with life in the city. The graphic continuity here is, for me, the most powerful point in the entire film.

Quite simply, life in a fish-tank is equated to a city-life. It is an environment where pleasure is in the objectifying gaze, an environment where the sense of surveillance is perennial and where one is always unable to break the glass that separates the gazer/gazed dichotomy and to truly connect with one another. In short, reality in the city has become a spectator sport (think: reality television).

Necessarily, the cinema becomes a sanctioned asylum for our voyeuristic tendencies – a different sort of ‘pleasure factory’. Yet, one is deemed illegal and the other isn’t. Both are talked about passionately if people would listen – they both continue to fascinate and find their way into after-dinner conversations.

Next time you’re in the cinema, remind your neighbours and friend(s) that we are all perverts – one way or another.

Oh next time you watch your porno flick, you’re twice the pervert! hah.

Works Cited

Uhde, Jan and Yvonne Ng Uhde. Latent Images: Film in Singapore. Singapore: NUS Press, 2010.