The Film Effect I

Notes on The Scopophilic Gaze: Early Cinema and the Ethnographic Turn in Film and Video

Lumière Brothers

1895. The Lumière Brothers film workers exiting a factory. The door opens and out they file, past the camera, unaware of its gaze. The camera remains stable and static. A dog runs after the workers. The doors close. Like Alberti’s idea that painting is a window onto the world, the factory door acts as a frame through which we see life, in real-time, bustling its way home after work. The visual matrix emphasises perspective and the progression of time.
Another film documents the demolition of a wall. But here, unlike the factory scene, time does not only flow forward. The film plays forward at first but then is reversed, the wall magically becoming resurrected. This play with time introduces a comic aspect to documentary about everyday life. The turn of the century. Comedy and slapstick fast become popular in cinema, continuing the vaudevillian culture of music halls and theatres. The theatricality of cinema is important here because it emphasises a connection that has sometimes been neglected since the birth of cinema: the connection between gaze and performativity. While the gaze of the camera, audience or subject might at first appear to be a one-way act of objectifying what is looked at, it is in fact a reciprocal exchange, and the terrain in which this takes place is a theatre of gazes.[1]

In a third film, a vegetable garden becomes the stage for a farce in which a man watering his plants is drenched when a boy sneaks up and turns his hosepipe on him. Their gestures are exaggerated, the body becoming a comic tool as well as an act of resistance: in an era of Fordist production lines and mechanisation, the body revolts and states its individuality. (This is also exemplified in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, and later, Jacques Tati’s Play Time, that exploit the mismatch of body and modern machine for comic and political effect).

Charlie Chaplin

Jacques Tati

A Kiss in the Tunnel, made by George Albert Smith in 1899, shows a couple in a train that moves into a tunnel, in which they then kiss. Aside from the obvious sexual metaphor, the use of the tunnel points toward a desire to escape the gaze, and modernity of train time mechanisation. Only in the tunnel does the couple feel able to communicate physically through a kiss, when there is blackness and a departure from the optical. 

There is an anxiety about being ‘swallowed’ by machines at around this time, explicitly illustrated – or animated – in George Melies’ Voyage à Traverse L’impossible (1904), a hand-coloured animation in which a little train is swallowed by a huge sun that has a mouth and blasts fire. Here, the tunnel or mouth is not an escape from mechanisation, but a menacing embodiment of it: nature in the form of the sun has become a consumption-machine and furnace. The role of the body is vital in differentiation from the machine: the body has emotion and is a far more cybernetic system than the machine. In 2011 it is perhaps a romantic projection of ours that early cinema was primitive or crude; it was in fact more accurate in capturing life, in its kinaesthetic full, than more recent occularcentric film.

George Albert Smith

Douglas Gordon

From the early nineties, some contemporary artists have been working toward a reunion of mind/eye with body, using the metaphor of the ‘fleshy eye’ as a rubric. Narrative, continuity and slick visuals give way to a haptic cinema of installations, multiple screens, fractured narrative, repetition and obscurity. Douglas Gordon’s 1995 video installation of a shell-shocked man trying to sit up is slowed down from real-time, and looped ad infinitum. The audience passes in front of the projection screen, casting shadows on it and moving on. While the audience is on one hand the viewer, it is also projected, literally, into the theatre of gazes, its shadows, movements and responses part of the installation. Much of Gordon’s work confronts the viewer and subjects them to an uncomfortable immersive encounter. Confessions of a Justified Sinner uses footage from early Jekyll and Hyde, slowed down and looped, projected on two screens and turned at an angle towards one another in a corner space. Hysterical uses footage of a woman suffering a hysterical fit, being constrained by several men. As audience and witnesses, we feel uncomfortable; yet also wonder at the credibility or potential staging of such an event. 24 Hour Psycho slows Hitchcock’s horror until it runs for 24 hours and is projected in the gallery, even after closing time at night. In slowing down and repeating footage, Gordon emphasises the gestural aspect of film. The relationship between pressure to conform and hysteria, catatonia and Tourette’s syndrome shows that gesture is mediated by society. As in the early 20th century when mechanisation and electricity threatened more natural gesture, the return of gesture as shown in Gordon’s work signals a similar anxiety, perhaps today in the face of digital technology. In their use of archived footage, artists are emphasising their link with this history even more.

Harun Faroki

Harun Faroki explores occularcentrism and its role in cinema in Images of the World and Inscriptions of War, weaving a dense web of imagery that explores the role of the gaze. Aerial photographs taken from British planes during World War II show what the surveillance was searching for: IG Farben’s chemical works. However, they also show something else, tucked away in the corners of the photographs, almost out of the picture: Auschwitz. Because the British were following their agenda of studying the chemical works, it was only later that the camp was spotted. When a gaze is too concentrated, it becomes short sighted to the point of blindness. Likewise, when we place too much emphasis upon optical experience, we impoverish our overall kinaesthetic one. Moreover, we often avoid truth by mediating our experience through image making; a camera lens becomes a shield or weapon that guards us from reality, as the voice over explains: ‘the capacity to make photos is the reverse side of facing mortal danger’. Faroki also brings the Renaissance and Enlightenment into the film, exploring their role in propagating occularcentrism, perspective and a distance from the haptic. Optical and rational gaze is allied with control, and the concept of the Panopticon, surveillance and scientific experiment. A scene of a woman contorted into a hysterical arch of the back mirrors Gordon’s Hysteria, and recalls the inflicted gesture or twitch that is linked to a difficulty in adapting to the ‘shock’ of modernity and electricity at the turn of the century. Walter Benjamin writes of the ‘shock’ of cinema, drawing a direct link between metaphorical, psychological and physical charge. Photography is a photo (light) graph (drawing) that happens in a flash. The élan of electrical film projection and flash photography is that of the rapid gesture, élan deriving from élancer to dart, and é (out) lancer (to throw). Éclat shares this etymology, éclater (to burst out). Light and energy burst out, both mimetic of mechanical and mechanically mediated bodily gesture: gesture that is haunted by the spectre of technology.[2]

Hitchcock’s Rear Window marks another exploration into the issue of the gaze. James Stewart’s apartment and residential area form a Panopticon, yet his and our gaze at his neighbours is unreturned. However, in another sense, the gaze is returned, or rather, backfires, because his looking and speculating affect his mental state.  We see that looking is always an exchange, because even when the object looked at is unaware or inanimate, it affects and alters us.

Alfred Hitchcock

Karen Mirza and Brad Butler’s film made in Karachi, The Exception of the Rule, teases our gaze, denying it and tempting it in turn. We are made to recognise the performativity of the act of looking itself, forced into recognition of the Lacanian theatre of gazes.[3] A Pakistani citizen is interviewed; the atmosphere is uncomfortable: he is drawn close up before the camera, unable to escape its interrogation. He does not pause in his speech, but struggles on, trying to think of more to say. He describes his surroundings that we cannot see behind the camera. Sometimes a cloth, obscuring our view or only affording us a peep from the lower left side of the screen, covers up the camera. We think of our treatment of The Other and how spoilt we are in choosing when to view it and when to remove it from our gaze, and thus, thoughts. We also wonder whether the non-image, such as a cloth that covers the camera lens, can be an image; what is our hierarchy of images but an unfair discrimination? This is reverse-scopophilia in which our gaze is returned, denied and made self-conscious as if it were on a theatrical stage. Refusal is an important strategy here because it denies us something of which we are accustomed, and in doing so, speaks politically in a loud yet silent way. This strategy is employed by Bartelby in Melville’s story of a scrivener who says ‘I would prefer not to’ and thus creates a significant change in his life and that of those around him. Denial is like a blind spot or aporia, where the optical nerves converge and the eye is at its most sensitive. Where denial happens, political effect is its most powerful. Perhaps it is only at this point that the ‘real’, as written about by Lacan, is experienced. Perhaps it is only in the tunnel that the couple can kiss, because only in the tunnel is the usual order of optics refused. Of course, here lies the paradox: art that explores this aporia or invisible area of experience in which the ‘real’ exists, makes it visible and thus unreal again. Art thus produces a missed encounter[4] with the real. But at least this encounter alerts us to its absence and to the existence and politics within the theatre of gazes.

[1] Lacan’s concept of the theatre of the gaze in Lowry, J (1998) ‘Performing Vision in the Theatre of the Gaze: The Work of Douglas Gordon’ in Performing the Body, Performing the Text London: Routledge p.273
[2] Lowry, op. cit.
[3] ibid.
[4] ibid. p. 281

with thanks to Maxa Zoller