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Essays (book reviews)

Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image
by Laura Mulvey
(London: Reaktion Books, 2006)

 


We are familiar with cinema histories that tell their tale in two parts – making a grand slice between the silent and sound eras (the old-fashioned version), or between the ‘movement-image’ of classical Hollywood and the ‘time-image’ ushered in by European and Asian cinema after the end of World War II (the new-fangled version care of Gilles Deleuze). But, in the early days of the 21st century, we are beginning to see the emergence of three-part schemas, such as that offered by veteran critic Jacques Lourcelles on Sacha Guitry in a 2006 essay in Trafic magazine.

 

In her fascinating Death 24x a Second, Laura Mulvey offers a particularly ingenious division of the history of cinema. In its first phase, she argues, cinema was dominated by the marvel that she names the ‘technological uncanny’: even documentary footage could seem strange and magical, and fiction films frequently followed the trail of such wonderment. Eventually, however, the magic waned, and cinema entered its second phase of ‘everyday entertainment and modernity’: in all its forms, it became routine, formulaic, banal, nothing new or surprising anymore, and more an instrument of ideology than of poetry.

 

But the dawn of a new century, with its rampant digital technologies, brought massive changes that, for the most part, prompt optimism in Mulvey. The cinema, as we have known and loved it, has now become a vast archive of images and sounds that can be effortlessly stored, retrieved, recombined and manipulated. Rather than this cultural and industrial phenomenon heralding the much-vaunted ‘death of cinema’, Mulvey hails it as a rebirth: once again, as in the very first film projections, there is an effect of the technological uncanny, the ‘sensation of seeing movement fossilised’ and – most importantly – reanimated. The cinema may, in a sense, indeed be dead; but that means it is now a precious trace of the past that – as it comes alive for us again and differently on a digital support – we can reinterpret, remake and project into the future.

 

Laura Mulvey knows a thing or two about being fossilised. She is still most often cited as the author of that canonical, mid ’70s Screen article ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ – as if she scarcely wrote anything since, or at any rate must surely hold to the principles she laid out so influentially over thirty years previously. In truth, Mulvey has never ceased returning to, commenting upon, revising and expanding that early piece, in her essays, lectures and books including Visual and Other Pleasures (1989) and Fetishism and Curiosity (1996). But – and this is just as significant – she has never repudiated it, either, as so many intellectuals are prone to do when they spectacularly convert from one movement or ideology to another. Mulvey remains faithful to the pleasure – as much intellectual as cinematic – that got her into the game in the first place.

 

The trick that sustains her own engagement in the field is her rigorous habit of historicising both the practice of film theory/analysis, and her own part in it. And so, returning to her three-part schema of cinema history, it turns out to be a record not merely of changes in the medium, but also of the commentary made by critics like herself. When the initial magic of cinema gave way to a grubbier, more suspect kind of illusion, film theory (including its semiotic and feminist wings) needed to expose its workings, problematise its pleasure. Fortunately for all of us, history does not end there.

 

Mulvey is far from being the severe theorist of the male gaze in cinema that she is so often caricatured as. In fact, I would propose that the central motif of her work as a scholar and critic (as well as filmmaker) is not scoptophilia but change – the pressing question of how to ‘live historically’ (as Godard once put it). Technology rapidly alters its forms and thus its possibilities; collective cultural moments (even the most inspiring and idealistic) must pass; intellectual paradigms shift (in Mulvey’s case, from the exploration of the gaze to the more open theme of curiosity) – but what remains constant, if any individual or community is not simply to blow every which way with the winds of cultural fashion?

 

A key essay, in this regard, is Mulvey’s 1983 ‘Changes: Thoughts on Myth, Narrative and Historical Experience’ included in Visual and Other Pleasures, in which she wrote: ‘If narrative … can be conceived around ending that is not closure … it can question the symbolic, and enable myth and symbols to be constantly revalued.’ This, in embryonic form, is the argument of Death 24x a Second. Except, now, technology has entered into a happy rendezvous with intellectual Utopia: first video, and then even more powerfully DVD, have brought what Mulvey and others once practiced behind closed classroom doors as textual analysis into the loungerooms of anyone who can afford the equipment. To slow down or freeze the image, to seize or ponder it, is a radical act in Mulvey’s account of contemporary film-watching experience: it reconnects cinema with its long-lost association with the still photograph, and the different kind of temporality it brings.

 

Although parts of Death 24x a Second have appeared in print before, it is far from being a loose collation of Mulvey’s essays since her last book  – a lazy format we are seeing a little too frequently in academic publishing today. Mulvey argues her case coherently, building it up gradually and lucidly from chapter to chapter. The red thread of the book is the opposition – a classic one in film theory from its earliest days – between stillness and movement. The still image, the single frame, is associated with death; while the moving image is associated with the flow of life. This deathly image is also something of a guilty secret, since the cinematographic apparatus, when in projected motion, ‘represses’ the materiality of the individual frames that make up the celluloid strip. The new twist that Mulvey brings to these familiar terms (formerly theorised by Raymond Bellour, Jean Louis Schefer and others) is a certain poignancy, and power, that comes with passing time: the secrets of the dead that are buried within the artefacts of cinema history are now precious indices or documents – records not simply of faces or places or styles, but also of what Mulvey (following Roland Barthes) calls the punctum, moments of uncanniness that can infiltrate past, present and future.

 

It is possible to quibble here and there with details or tendencies in the book. At times, I feel that Mulvey confuses the virtual power of the digital age – i.e., what people might possibly do with the new technology – with what they already, actually do. Let us not forget that, not so long ago, cultural theorists wrote paeans to the consciousness-raising power of the humble VCR, or even the zapper on the TV remote control – and yet these devices hardly delivered to the world new generations of aware, radicalised viewers. It is perhaps a little too easy to claim, as Mulvey is keen to do, that the intellectual tools of the ‘70s (such as textual analysis) are now, osmotically and spontaneously, democratised. Likewise, Mulvey’s (unapologetic) attachment to her formative period of the ‘60s and ‘70s tends to lead to a analytical recycling of very familiar (and very few) figures like Hitchcock, Sirk, and the two Michaels (Powell and Snow), with only Abbas Kiarostami and Douglas Gordon’s tricksy 24 Hour Psycho standing in for The New. And yet, from another angle, even this amounts to a demonstration of Mulvey finding a way to live historically within her own practice: it is thrilling to see how she adapts and alters previous tools she has used, such as gendered narrative and the castration complex.

 

If I have a stronger criticism to make of this book, it is not to point out faults internal to its argument, but rather in the spirit of historicising its project still further. About every fifteen years, it seems, contemporary film theory takes what is commonly called a Turn. The Psychoanalytic Turn of the 1960s and ‘70s (the inquiry into the cinematic apparatus and its effect on the spectator’s unconscious) was followed by the Historiographic Turn (the attention to social and industrial contexts) that took us through much of the ‘80s and ‘90s. But now we are fully into a Philosophic Turn. Deleuze kicked off the trend in France in 1983 with his cinema books, followed by various certified philosophers exploring their passions for cinema – Bernard Stiegler, Slavoj Zizek, Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben and Jacques Rancière, among others. The US already had Stanley Cavell working in this area, and the Philosophic Turn gave him much greater prominence as a film scholar. With books such as Daniel Frampton’s boldly argued (if fatally lopsided) Filmosophy appearing in 2006, hard-line cinephilia and hard-line philosophy have merged.

 

However, it is fair to say that many film scholars whose formation predates this Philosophic Turn are greeting it with indifference, suspicion or outright disdain. Those who have brought an essentially leftist orientation – however intellectually inflected – to the study of cinema are wary (fairly or otherwise) of philosophy’s supposedly timeless, metaphysical categories, and its often seemingly apolitical musings. Perhaps more mundanely, the edifice of philosophy’s history, not to mention the complexity of its specialised language, is daunting, and impossible to master quickly. You can almost hear the exasperated collective sigh go up: after the rigours of Christian Metz and Stephen Heath, Michel Foucault and Jacques Lacan, Mikhail Bakhtin and Walter Benjamin, another jargon that must be learnt!

 

Mulvey, for her part, expresses no explicitly negative sentiments towards this new wave of film-and-philosophy in Death 24x a Second. Indeed, it is safe to predict that many with a dual interest in philosophy and film will embrace the book and make extensive use of it. But Mulvey, consciously or not, pulls her own project up short of the Philosophic Turn. Certainly, she quotes Deleuze’s cinema books – but only in order to mine the propositions pertaining to film history (which, as Rancière argues persuasively in his Film Fables, are not the strongest aspect of Deleuze’s analysis), not as philosophical speculation (which is what all the stuff about movement-images and time-images essentially and primarily is). And, while she reflects eloquently throughout on ‘the human psyche’s anxiety at the shadow of passing time and the inevitability of death’, she still operates at some distance from a properly philosophic inquiry into Being or Time. More centrally and crucially, a philosophical approach – of the kind used by Jean-Luc Nancy in his investigation of ‘the image and violence’ in The Ground of the Image – might have probed and problematised further the assumed self-evident equation between the photographic image, stillness and death.

 

Ultimately, however, I judge any film book by a simple test: does it affect how I see the very next film that comes my way? In this case, the film was De Palma’s The Black Dahlia (2006). And, sure enough, this movie about a horribly mutilated corpse that returns, as a mental image, to haunt and psycho-sexually destabilise the living was greatly illuminated by the image from Psycho that Mulvey vividly places at the centre of her argument: naked Janet Leigh performing the stillness of death so brilliantly that, when a drop of water from the shower nozzle jolts us into the recognition that the frame is not still, we are truly in the uncanny realm between the animate and the inanimate, the living and the dead. It’s true: everything old is new again.

 

© Adrian Martin October 2006


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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