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the digital gift of death

As DVD releases continue the vast rollout of the 20th century’s image history, Laura Mulvey begins her new book with the idea that cinema can be seen as increasingly peopled by spectres. Increasingly we watch characters on screen played by deceased stars and see films by seminal directors whose collected works are being re-born into digital life after they are themselves long gone. Celluloid itself is fast facing extinction; hence ‘cinema’ in its century-long incarnation is dead or dying. From these ashes Mulvey describes the ramifications of new ways of watching and conceiving films since the advent of domestic VCRs, a process intensified by DVD. Dead film meets new technology, “bringing, almost incidentally, new life to the cinema and its history.”

More precisely and theoretically, Mulvey is very interested in the way the new technologies enable and even encourage the remote control-wielding viewer to see figurative death in the form of the still or slowed image extricated from narrative movement. Replaying sequences and freeze-framing particular shots, for Mulvey, enable a significant re-making of the film away from its original organisation towards a more malleable, stretched and fragmented form that opens up a new engagement with “the presence of death.”

The new viewer-image relationship in this analysis enhances our perception of cinema’s rendering of the irrational and the pre-modern. This opens the way for Freud to be introduced into the story, a theoretical commitment Mulvey has maintained since the 1970s despite the extensive critiques of psychoanalytic theory in Film Studies over the last two decades. She starts with a telling early 20th century opposition that she suggests comes tellingly unstuck in the 21st: while Freud himself was dubious about cinema for celebrating modernity’s “novelty, speed and glamour”, to present-day eyes “the cinema [now] seems closer to Freud’s uncanny of the old and familiar, and ... the archaic.”

back to the archaic

A chapter on Hitchcock’s Pyscho (1960) overcomes the reader’s initial we’ve-been-here-before scepticism serving well Mulvey’s argument that cinema’s predilection for irrationality, the archaic and death is all the more noticeable for the 21st century viewer. Treated as aesthetically ‘modern’ compared to Hitchcock’s previous melodramatic and theatrical presentation of murder, the famous shower scene’s primary importance here is in conceptually killing off the fashionable, sexualised female body, and hence the modernity Freud dismissed, instead enforcing the ‘dead’ body of the mother whose archaic psychic power persists beyond death. Mulvey therefore emphasizes at length the elaborate post-murder camera manoeuvre—from the modern woman’s naked body, accoutrements (and money) in the motel room, up to the old house—as inaugurating a circular movement away from civilisation’s straight lines and linearity seen earlier (notably with the highway sequence), back into primal darkness.

The connection with post-celluloid technology is then addressed via a discussion of Douglas Gordon’s art installation 24-Hour Psycho (in which the original film is ‘stretched’ over 24 hours), illustrating how the trajectory away from movement and towards death is made all the more palpable when the film’s narrative momentum is subverted. The point is fair, and Psycho shows the trajectory as already present in the original; nevertheless, the vast majority of viewers are still likely to first watch feature films at home, not in galleries, in real time and linear form.

Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy (1953) proves almost equally viable for discussing cinema’s tendency towards death and the archaic. However I think Mulvey (like many leading film scholars) overstresses the generative tension caused here by confused Hollywood actors in a relatively ‘plotless’ European art film. The ancient religious rituals practiced by people of the Pompeii area in which the film is set are presented as having a magical, positive effect on the ennui-ridden bourgeois couple so that the reconciliatory final kiss is justified as Hollywood and the folkloric coming together. The turn to religion and ritual at the heart of what is claimed here as “the first modern film”, suggests a reactionary or escapist strain in the fascination with the archaic, irrespective of the ills of a jaded modernity.

outside the narrative

A chapter on the seminal contemporary art cinema of Abbas Kiarostami develops the idea of film as proffering epistemological doubt and non-narrative interest. This is refreshingly argued without the mystical and ethically affirmational interpretations of the Iranian master’s work favoured by many western critics. A discussion of his ‘Koker trilogy’ (1987-94) emphasises the increasingly reflexive nature of the films through which Mulvey seeks to expound cinema’s tendency towards the labyrinthine . She then sees the reflexivity of the video coda of Taste of Cherry (1996) as providing an elegy for cinema (the rest of the film is 35mm) at its centennial ‘death’ while also offering “a possible resurrection and return, phoenix-like, from the ashes.” Though a familiar reading, her analysis is less romantic and willful than most in concluding with a point apposite for the book’s argument about video re-activating cinema as a death-inscribing form—Kiarostami’s fond backward glance, she suggests, reflexively dramatises a “dead love.”

re-thinking the gaze

Mulvey eventually comes face-to-face with her own hugely influential 1970s thesis of the gaze, encouraged then by classical Hollywood cinema and reconsiders it in the wake of the viewer’s new agency where she says subjectivity, gender and ideology are less prescriptive. The radically reconfigured cinema and viewing relations Mulvey advocated back then (broadly, politically informed avant garde cinema) she now suggests have, in a different sense, come about not through the ‘content’ of the films but as a result of their new carrier medium. Thirty years ago Mulvey was criticized by many for being too deterministic in her denigration of Hollywood cinema’s spectatorial regime; perhaps now she is rather too uncritically invested in the liberating potential of the new technologies.

At its most pragmatic, the book’s argument is based on the idea that the democratizing of control over the image enables and encourages amateur textual analysis, which is thereby returned to “its origins as a work of cinephilia” rather than as an elite academic enterprise. Mulvey elaborates on this by showing how slow motion and freeze-frame allow an unprecedented essaying of every frame and editing correlation in a scene from Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959), effectively disabling protagonists, story and movement as central to classical narrative film; for example, extras at the edges of the quickly moving frame previously impossible to see are now thematically telling. This emphasis on stilled and repeated “fragments” and “tableaux” pushes cinema towards an “extra diegetic mode of address”, all encouraged by the technical control enabled by DVD and the medium’s breaking of movies down into ‘chapters.’

a new revolution

Mulvey’s argument asserts a new viewer-film relationship—a technical, hermeneutic and sensual access to films in all their aesthetic minutiae—rather than cinema per se, which has always contained such elements even if shrouded by narrative action and linearity. This allows a newly multi-dimensional understanding of “the internal world of cinema.” Taken as a whole, the book effectively, if idealistically, essays this newly empowered gaze as a revolution in our knowledge of the increasingly important image world she says is equivalent to 19th century photography transforming “the human eye’s perception of the world.”

Laura Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, Reaktion Books, London, 2006, ISBN 10: 1 86819 263 2

RealTime issue #77 Feb-March 2007 pg. 16

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