The Film Effect V

Notes on The Fleshy Eye: Tactile Cinema and New Phenomenology

Phenomenology is the study of conscious experience of phenomena, focusing on our direct encounter with the world. As Maurice Merleau-Ponty says, we do not face the world and look at it, but are part of it – we are its ‘flesh’.[1] His use of the metaphor of flesh emphasises the visceral, haptic element of the encounter, reinserting a bodily rather than occularcentric and overly structural response.

Such a physical focus on our everyday encounters in the world can lead to both erotic and horrific experiences. Proximity can push us either way, but whichever direction we take, our whole body is engaged – the mind and eyes are united with the other senses.
Although film is mainly visual and aural, it is a tool well fitted to dealing with haptic encounters with the world because its form sweeps the viewer along in its sequence of images and sounds. It can increase the speed at which the viewer’s heart beats by increasing the tempo of action, music and frequency of scene changes. It can make viewers ‘jump out of their skin’ by placing a loud action scene after a silent one of long duration. It can make the viewer’s ‘skin crawl’ by showing close-ups of wounds, perhaps using sound to heighten the abject experience. In short, the filmmaker can bridge the gap between life and representation, working in a liminal space that Jean-Luc Godard called the ‘And’.

The Big Swallow

Tarkovsky’s film, Mirror, is an example of the medium producing a haptic experience in the viewer. In her introduction to her book, The Tactile Eye, Jennifer M. Barker discusses Tarkovsky’s methods of making the camera perform like the viewer (turning in jolted movements, like a person looking around in confusion) in order to elicit a physical response from the viewer. Barker echoes Merleau-Ponty in talking of the ‘fleshy’, sensually informed film.[2] Many scenes in Mirror begin in medias res, dropping us into the centre of action; the camera pans so fast that we cannot get our bearings, and characters and camera move at once, away from each other in opposite directions, confusing us as to who is actually moving. Thus we find it difficult to be aligned with a single or comprehensible body in the film, and as a consequence, are left with a heightened awareness of our own physicality. Not only is the camera’s corporeal presence made explicit in Mirror, but also other trappings of the industry, such as a sound boom that casts a visible shadow on the wall behind a character in one scene. Again, this element draws the viewer’s attention to the film’s ‘body’ as something separate from its characters’ and our own. We see ‘the film seeing[3], and thus become aware of ourselves in relation to it, perhaps asking if we see as it sees, or in another manner. It is thus that we explore the blurred boundary between ourselves and the film, the viewer and the viewed. ‘Watching a film, we are certainly not in the film, but we are not entirely outside it either’;[4] we are in a liminal space of haptic encounter, both distant and near; and aware of our bodies.

While cinema was still in its infancy, and factory production was choreographing time to the tick of its machinery, there existed an anxiety about the extent to which technology was influencing the human body. In The Big Swallow (1901), body and machine (camera) battle for possession of the image, with eating providing a metaphor for control. The static camera depicts a man shuffling towards us, drawing ever nearer until his mouth fills the screen. Then he opens his mouth and the camera is engulfed into its black void. In the next shot – an over-the-shoulder one – we see the cameraman, who was behind us and out of sight in the previous scene, being devoured by the blackness too. Now it feels as if the filming technology is the void that is eating the one originally in control of it. In the final shot, the blackness reduces until the close-up mouth of the first man reappears, and he shuffles backwards, chewing energetically. Although we are still watching, the effect is as if the subject (the man) has eaten the author (cameraman) and technology (camera). The man has become technology, and now ‘captures’ images at the same time as being captured as an image himself.

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror

This blurring of roles between captor and captive continues to interest filmmakers today, perhaps also as a result of our relationship with technology that often confuses power structures (for example, we install and use cameras everyday, but often feel controlled by the subsequent effect of omniscient surveillance). In Taking My Skin (2006), Sarah Pucill films herself and her aged mother in 16mm black and white film and a macro lens that transform their skin into photographic abstractions of light and darkness. The lighting is oblique, coming from an open window and a summer garden. The effect is soft, and even the shadows are calm depths rather than the black, gaping voids of The Big Swallow. ‘I wanted to come close in’ explains Pucill in the film, making her ‘artist’s statement’ of intention part of the work. ‘Why so close?’ asks her mother. ‘To see what happens’, she replies. ‘You’ll get burnt’, warns her mother, half-smiling. The pair share these short exchanges throughout the film’s duration of 35 minutes, gentle with each other and yet slightly distant. The camera is a metaphor here for the gap between two people and communication: Pucill remarks ‘I’m very close with the camera but not physically close. Just with the lens’. Pucill and her mother take turns to sit holding an oval shaped mirror on their lap. The mirror displays a reflection of the other person in its womb or egg-like shape recalling the intimacy of pregnancy. ‘Do you feel I’m always part of you?’ asks Pucill, ‘Yes’, replies her mother. Yet this is undermined because Pucill then takes the mirror from her mother (birthing herself, in a sense). Thus we are reminded of the role of camera and mirror as optical devices, and of the distance that exists between the women despite the macro lens.

‘I’m not aware that you’re so close to my skin… I don’t know what you’re looking at’, says the mother, emphasising the problem that Pucill is exploring: whether the camera can perform more than an optical gaze, and instead offer a physical encounter to filmed, filmmaker, and audience. The mother is not entirely comfortable being filmed, and prefers to stand behind the camera, perhaps to avoid being ‘burnt’, as she says. This burning sensation of the camera’s gaze suggests, then, that proximity is being achieved and felt – and as something painfully intimate. The mother is not as safe from the gaze as she might think, standing behind the camera, because mid-way through the film, a second camera is introduced, and so each woman is both filming and filmed. Lacan’s theatre of the gaze is illustrated here, the living room a stage on which gaze is reciprocal and roles are constantly shifting.

Mother and daughter look remarkably similar, especially in their almond eye shape. Pucill performs her title, Taking My Skin, in filming herself and her kin; they come from the same flesh. The mother worries that the zoom of the camera will distort her form, and here, as with their roles, forms become abstract in close-up: the image is process-based and not commodity. The process not only questions a rigid model of separate identity, filmmaker and filmed, but also cinematic conventions: a direct gaze into the camera, usually banned in favour of shot/ reverse shot convention, is used.

In testing how haptic the camera’s gaze can be, Pucill questions the occularcentric history of distance, perspective and control. The Panopticon and war technology’s surveillance systems have infiltrated society and culture so that everyday life and cinema are shaped more by optical experience than a fuller corporal one. Pucill’s close-ups bring us so close to the subject (even if the women participating not feel it), that we find ourselves looking in a tactile way, feeling the skin with our eyes, and imagining its feel on our fingertips. In this way, Pucill occupies Godard’s ‘And’ space between filmic image and reality.

Sarah Pucill’s Taking My  Skin

Hiroshima Mon Amour (dir. Alain Resnais, 1959) also relates reality – the reality of war and loss – through a haptic representation that depicts sensation, and elicits our sensations too. The lovers in the film understand each other’s former experiences ‘through their skin’, by touch, which is contrasted with the film’s use of news footage, and its more optical and ‘cold’ relation of history.

This being said, some documentary footage and images do affect us viscerally – Barthes talks of the ‘punctum’ or physical sting of an element in a photograph that strikes us as surprising, poignant or shocking.[5] We experience an increasing bombardment of scrolling news footage that possibly desensitises us to the sensual and emotional impact of images. However, certain ‘punctums’ still sting us – elements from news footage of Japan’s earthquake, most recently.

Jean-Luc Godard’s 1974 film Ici et Ailleurs (‘Here and Elsewhere’) is full of potential punctums, its form a massy accumulation of footage taken by Godard in Palestine in 1970, and archive footage of dictators, rallies and protests. Godard was more politicised by 1970 than his former self (when directing A Bout de Souffle, a New wave, upbeat and youthful film), and by 1974, more cynical and disillusioned by politics than four years previously. Ici et Ailleurs, therefore, comprises a stock of political footage that is ‘useless’ due to the collapse of utopian, socialist optimism. Godard no longer uses image as a political tool, but questions its very form – the film’s subtitles tell us that its title was to have been Victory, but presumably a victorious conclusion became a futile concept. Political slogans and gunshot sounds are repeated so much that they lose their initial power and become meaningless; the subtitles read in the past tense, melancholically recalling Godard’s trip of 1970. The personal pronouns used in them (you, me, him, her) confuse the roles of characters in the film; as in Pucill’s work, filmmaker and subject are in flux. Historical interpretation is also in flux: ‘cela est devenu ce ci’, ‘this… became that’, and the flow of war images represents death. A shot of a hand typing numbers into a calculator coincides with the non-diegetic sound of gunshots, the implication being that each number corresponds to a death that is then homogenised into a statistic on the news. Likewise, the subtitle says that value is equally abstract, simply an accumulation of zeros. But while the gunshot-calculator sums stand for a gruesome reality, the zero-suffixed values stand for something that does not exist: it is an artificial value.

Binaries are listed, echoing the film’s title: foreign and national, everywhere and nowhere, inside and outside, dream and reality. These pairings suggest that boundaries are artificial constructs that may well contribute to political conflict. The conjunction sometimes changes from ‘and’ to ‘or’: normal or mad, always or never, reflecting the stubborn insistence of such binaries that exists in society. A nuclear family sits before a television set, their faces dumb and apathetic. The little girl has her fingers over her doll’s eyes as if shielding her from the television’s broadcast, but she is not protected in such a way herself. The subtitle reads: ‘poor revolutionary fool… millionaire in images of revolution’, suggesting that we and the family are rich only in images. Our physical sense of reality, Godard says, is lost under our massy accumulation of images. Like the statistics of mortality and inflation of value, reality is aestheticised and abstracted. ‘Et et et’, read the subtitles, echoing the idea that images are piling up in a pointless panoply, separated from their original referents and hopes. The noun panoply is useful here because its etymology (pan ‘all’ and hopla ‘armour’) suggests that our only ammunition is a set of images.

Jean-Luc Godard’s Ici et Ailleurs

Godard is occupying the space of the ‘et’ that lies in between each empty image, and in between reality and representation. This space is the present time, having neither faith in the past or a clear conception of the future. The film expresses extreme doubt in the effectiveness of images and political campaigning. Yet for this doubt to exist, and for Godard to occupy his liminal position, binaries must exist. Here lies a paradox: a culminated synthesis of doubt relies upon the maintenance of a thesis and synthesis that oppose each other. But perhaps this is part of the film’s complexity, for it recognises its contradictions, as it does the fact that some its images will still shock, provoke and ‘touch’ the viewer, no matter how anesthetised we are by media. Even in juxtaposing pop music with marching songs, Godard is aware that he is simultaneously showing music to be an emotive tool employed for politics and propaganda, and using it himself, to provoke emotion in his audience. 

So, as an audience – and like the nuclear family in Ici et Ailleurs – we are ‘thin skinned’ in the sense that we absorb image and sound like sponges. Yet we are also numbed as a result of the proliferation of material transmitted to us. In experiencing so much shocking footage of war, along with advertising, we become numb. Gunshots may as well be numbers, and deaths, zeros. As a defence mechanism, we discourage our bodies from recognising and empathising with distressing stimuli (the stimuli make us want to ‘jump out of our skin’, and make us ‘go out of our minds’).[6] As Marshall McLuhan says in his essay, The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis, when faced with distress, the body ‘amputates’ the site of the pain, numbing the area as a form of protection.[7] Likewise, because warfare is so disturbing, we avoid it by reducing and homogenising it to a set of images that we can exchange and proliferate in the pretence that we are keeping informed. Perhaps we make images for the same reason that we form scabs: they are an extra skin of protection over a wound, and can be ‘shed’. This is only true in part. While we might well numb ourselves to avoid too much emotion, images and sound can still affect us. Ici et Ailleurs is a case in point: while we know that Godard is questioning the validity and role of his material, it can still strike us as with a blow.

Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour

While looking back at his former idealistic political views with scepticism, Godard also seems to feel a melancholy at their loss. His position of doubt is perhaps inevitable, but the film suggests it is not a final or comfortable one either. The massy effect of conflicting sounds and images often provokes us, going against television’s style of feeding us information, and towards a cinematic mode of political montage. This implies that Godard has not completely given up his former political agency as a filmmaker, and still believes, albeit with some doubt, in the possibility of engaging our responses. For, while he is doubtful, Godard is not numb like the television family. They are a closed system[8] whereas he is open and alert to the problem of images and authority. The television is an extension of the body, into which, and out from, the amputated worries flow. Narcissus fell in love with his reflection, which was an extension of him; because he did not want to fall for Echo. He thus became a nonreciprocal closed system. As McLuhan says, ‘It is in this continuous embrace of our own technology in daily use that puts us in the Narcissus role of […] numbness […] By continuously embracing technologies, we relate ourselves to them as servo-mechanisms’.[9] The guns and cameras of Godard’s film are forms of McLuhanian self-extension, and they too are driven by anxiety, and perpetuate anxiety. Godard desires to see and show all, but knows all the while that this is impossible and something that he is against.

Godard is correct in saying that despite so much image and stimulation, we still respond to things with emotion that can possess our entire bodies. Similarly, the way we deal with concepts that are beyond our comprehension is very physical. We treat the Internet as a virtual environment despite the fact that it is purely image/ sound/ a set of signals. The Internet is impossible to comprehend in full, composed of seemingly infinite codes, therefore we visualise it, spatialise it, and thus translate it into something tangible. We open windows, exit sites, scroll down pages and use the cursor as if it is our finger. In a reversal of what McLuhan describes as the amputation of a part of ourselves in response to distress, we bring the body to the abstract concept, in order to humanise or tame it.
Thus, despite being numbed at times and in parts, our bodies still play a crucial role in our perceptions of technology, film and politics. Our eyes are fleshy and sensitive.

[1] Merleau-Ponty, M (1964/68) The Visible and the Invisible, Followed by Working Notes
[2] Barker, J M (2009) The Tactile Eye: Touch and the Cinematic Experience
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Barthes, R (1980) Camera Lucida
[6] McLuhan, M (1964) ‘The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis’ in Understanding Media
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.

with thanks to Maxa Zoller.