As established by Christian Metz in my previous post on psychoanalysis, spectatorship in the cinema requires the viewer to replace one consciousness for another.
Lost Highway (1997) Dir. David Lynch, inherits this theory as if the character of Fred is the spectator himself – a notion supported by the video tape that screens only white noise. Soon after watching the tape, Fred has apparently murdered his wife and sent to prison where he magically becomes a mechanic by the name of Pete; having no knowledge of his ‘former life’. It could be said that the use of white noise is intentional and plays upon the idea that a film doesn’t have substance until viewed by a spectator where he will take on a new consciousness and assimilate with a new identity.
With theories of the spectator being both productive and empty, Pete is told that he is in a purgatory of sorts and only death will set him free. This translates itself to me as Fred being the spectator of white noise, and cannot escape the narrative of his new life until the film ends.
Another film that has the protagonist confusing his true identity and assimilation with an other is American Psycho (2000) dir. Mary Harron. Patrick Bateman assumes the identity of a serial killer who asserts his masculinity and destroys his threats to it through the murder of multiple women and to his threat in the workplace; Paul Allen. Now the destruction of the male to reassert typical gender roles isn’t common in cinema, but we could assume that Harron is transcending such notions to a modern society in which power roles exist in capitalism. ”Try getting a reservation at Dorsia now!”
When it is revealed that Patrick’s murders may not have ever happened, it begs us to question whether Patrick has assimilated with a serial killer, like a spectator would do to a character on screen, to express his unconscious desire to rise to power and assert his dominance over women and other males, that threaten the role expected of him as a male in society.
Or since this film comes from a female director – do we simply quote Patrick on Huey and the News and offer that the film is simply “about the pleasures of conformity” in which we see Patrick living more than comfortably and is this form of expression a statement “about the band itself”, the band being Patrick’s inner desires.
The slasher film on a peripheral level makes you wonder how such a thing is possible, how can one identify themselves in such a situation? Well as the quotes below imply, so long as the context of the narrative is not so far removed from the reality of the spectator then the viewer can renounce one consciousness for the other without generating an anxiety that they have been removed from their reality.
“the spectator thus disavows what… she knows in order to maintain the cinematic illusion” -Metz
“The dominant narrative film encourages the viewer to substitute its ‘impression of reality’…A film’s sounds and images will only induce general belief to the degree that they belong to ‘the privileged mode of representation by which the image of the social consensus is offered to the members of a social formation, and within which they [are not only asked to] identify themselves” – Psychoanalysis & Cinema by E Ann Kaplan, Chapter 7: Historical Trauma and Male Subjectivity by Kaja Silverman 1990
“He sees the dominant fiction as a reserve of images and a manipulator of stories,its purpose is to give members of a social structure, a consensus in how they identify themselves ” - The dominant fiction (Macary: 2005)
With a belief in a new ideological consciousness established through the spectator’s relationship to the screen as
“the camera acts as a “fixed point” in film, where meaning is sourced and therefore becomes an “ideological unity” in which film activates itself to the spectator to create the “cinematographic cocoon” in which the spectator is denied contradiction to the illusory centrality, and the camera acts as/is posited as the “philosophical subject of idealism”; the dominant ideology and the ideal ego” – Metz
Thus it is important to remind you that such limitations in conjunction with the womb-like effect of a darkened theater allows the spectator to become a dreamer -
“Certain conditions make film viewing similar to dreaming: we are in a darkened room, our motor activity is reduced, our visual perception is heightened to compensate for our lack of physical movement. Because of this the film spectator enters a REGIME OF BELIEF” … -Metz
…and with a the our consciousness reset, the spectator has no reason to challenge what is truth or moral in the film.
the spectator is now open to identify with characters on screen and accept the embedded beliefs and desires of the narrative and we are able to move on with an analysis of the slasher film.
Now, as feminist theory declares that there is a patriarchal undercurrent to film structure that defiles the image of woman it is important to analyse film to find the evidence they base their theses on.
Laura Mulvey, who published a ground-breaking psychoanalytic criticism of the image of woman in film entitled, “Visual pleasure and narrative cinema” (1975) argues that,
“within psychoanalytic framework, the female also signifies the threat of castration, evoking in the male a reaction of defense”
What this refers to is ‘the lack’ in the female, in a literal sense this means that the woman lacks a phallus, and through ways of seeing it appears to the male notions of spectatorship that the woman is sexualised, which thus threatens the male gender preset of active and subverts the female preset of passive.
“Let us call the phallus ‘God’ …you have no image of him…the relation to the phallus is marked by…a relation of exclusion” -Psychoanalysis & Cinema by E Ann Kaplan, Chapter 7: Historical Trauma and Male Subjectivity by Kaja Silverman 1990
If the Phallus is God, only the male can be openly sexual, any sexual tendencies through the female must be repressed or she is punished. This quote also reinforces Mulvey’s idea that it is the woman’s lack “that produces the phallus as a symbolic presence, it is her desire to make good the lack that the phallus signifies.”It is her desire to become a sexual object that utilises the phallus for “The destruction of pleasure as a radical weapon”.
The 1960′s Hitchcock film ‘Psycho’ reinforces what I have said so far.
The above still, places the spectator at a vantage point which leads them, through theories of enunciation and voyeurism, that they are in control of what is about to happen. In this scene, Norman watches Marion undress, evoking the phallus and threat of castration – as a threat to the gender norms of active/passive arises. This is purposefully embedded by Hitchcock to put a sense of righteousness behind the upcoming death of Marion as seen in the video below:
Now where I talk about the Phallus in a literal sense in regards to sexuality, it does not always play out as literal on screen. With this sequence, 78 separate camera set ups were used to convey the concept of Marion’s shower being pleasurable and in juxtaposition with her previous scenes; sexual -and her death being somewhat misogynistic. The phallic symbol in this sequence presents itself as a knife, that thrusts towards the camera to penetrate Marion until, as Mulvey states she is dead and “demystified” by the male.
I deem Psycho to be the preliminary slasher film, in that since it’s iconic arrival in Hollywood such narratives of the destruction of pleasure have spurned their own genre.
For instance, films such as Last house on the left (1972) Dir. Wes Craven, convey almost identical notions of the threat to typical gender roles and sexuality. Set on the border between the 1960′s zeitgeist of free love, and the 1970′s creation of the cosmopolitan woman, sexually promiscuous Mari and Phyllis are raped and murdered.
The savage rape of the female within a nature setting; typical of female power within the horror genre as an extension of the gothic,emphasises the destruction of the woman. The rapists utilise setting to highlight the concept of an empowered woman and put an end to the concept of a cosmopolitan woman. Craven also resets gender roles back to that of active/passive through his male rapists as they carve their names into the victims – an action that is almost as primitive as caveman nature. This thus reinforces the binary oppositions of hunter/gatherer.
In another of Craven’s movies, he plays upon a notion of Mulvey’s, that Hitchcock also embeds in the narrative of Psycho. In the infamous movie; A Nightmare on Elm Street, Mulvey’s idea that woman
“first symbolises the castration threat by her real absence of a penis, and second thereby raises her child into the symbolic.”
The symbolic being the phallus in which her child must assert himself in masculine notions and destroy the threatening lack is very much present in the authorship of the director. In both Psycho and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), it is evident that the castration of the male through the dominance of a mother figure is evident. Prior to the arrival of a sexual female, the males in question were exposed to a threat of castration through their mother figures. It is the female’s arrival that elicits anxiety from such threats and thus a need to surpress the threat arises.
When Norman is caught in Psycho, he takes on the mentality of his mother – suggesting that the female has won, and castrated the male. In A nightmare on Elm Street, the female wins in a different sense – whilst the females are still murdered in phallocentric ways, the mother takes hold of the males threatened by such sexuality in a literal sense only made logical by their dream-state contexts:
Rod is “sleeping like a baby” a long rope, which could represent the umbilical cord, strangles him, ultimately ending with his death.
Glen’s death is representative of abortion. Glen is literally pulled into the centre of his bed by Freddy and after a moment blood erupts from the hole.
Both of the desires embedded in these narratives stem from auteurship, in that the directors lacked a happy relationship with their mothers and seek to either please them (psycho) or be returned to the womb to start over (a nightmare on Elm street). Whilst auteurship suggests that such desires would make the spectator unable to identify with the male characters actions, ennunciation reminds us that:
the desires of the auteur
“can only realize[d] through the camera [their imaginary form], an apparatus which forbids him to exercise his desire through possession, thus permitting him to represent it.” -Godard via Metz
It could be said that the spectator is not taking on traits of the character but the creator instead – as the creator presents his desire through his representation of the male and thus through him, onto an audience, giving him the outlet he needs to assimilate with the male on screen.
This victory of the posthumous female in my opinion offers a place for the female spectator where the feminist critics say that there is none. In my opinion, this would leave the female spectator empowered.
Alternatively, do i not contradict myself and support critics such as Kaplan and Doane in that I am a female spectator who has taken upon
““liberating dislocation of the feminine gaze”- Doane
through the fact that I am
“the contemporary female spectator – whose reading of the film might be inflected by a feminist consciousness which suggests alternate interpretations, meanings ‘against the grain” (Kaplan 1985:40-3) ?