Katherine Lee on Laura Mulvey's "Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema"

Before I start jumping into Mulvey's text here are some general observations that I noted. Her question: how to fight the unconscious structured like a language while caught in the language of patriarchy? (She doesn't ever answer this question) Her intent: to destroy how the masculine unsconscious views pleasure and in doing so, lead to the total negation of the narrative film. Her process: to reveal the manipulation of pleasure by narrative cinema as fetishistic, voyeuristic, and narcissistic scopophilia. also, to show how subjective coamera technology and invisible editing have blurred screen space to produce "natural" conditions of human perception. Her examples: films by Hitchcock and Sternberg that have isolated female images/forms involved in exhibitionistic activity for the male look. Her solution: alterative cinema that offers a distance between the film and the spectator, the look of the camera, and the characters on screen. The negation of the male, voyeur look will offer a new way of looking at film.

I have always found it difficult to read Freud-- and it's a good thing that I'm not writing about him. Maybe it's because I find his writings to be so inherently misogynistic, or maybe I find it disturbing that his myths continue to be maintained and perpetuated (to varying degrees) in today's culture. As we have seen in past texts, culture is not arbitary and that which is seen as natural is carefully chosen by the dominant order or ruling class. In the two texts by Freud and Lacan, we see the same attempt to render 'natural' the oppression of women due to her physical inferiority manifested in the castration complex. Both Lacan and Freud theorize female sexuality within masculine parameters. Woman is conceptualized as a "lack", seen through men's eyes, and this has been justification for her objectification, fetishisation, and inferiority vis-a-vis the male. Consequently, woman has always been effaced to act as a blank screen for man and his fantasies as illustrated in Laura Mulvey's "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema". This "lack of penis" theory has naturalized the dominancy of the patriarchal oder which, like Irigary, Mulvey claims is the status quo. In her artical, she reveals how the unconscious of patriarchal society has formed past film structure and how it posits woman as the object of the masculine look. By appropriating psychoanalytic theory to evaluate past cinema, Mulvey seeks to disarm the myths and weapons of the patriarchal unconscious and negate cinematic pleasure which appeals to voyeuristic scopophilia and narcissistic/identification scopophilia.

Mulvey claims that mainstream narrative film has been formed on the premise of female inferiority and that the patriarchal unconscious has manifested itself to objectify woman and reinforce her inferiority. Men's superiority is built upon the image of the castrated woman; and her objectification is justified by her lack (of penis). Because the status quo is a male dominated order, then the unconscious for the society is male. This unconscious has become part and parcel of our cultural heritage. In past cinema, women hav not had the chance to be the composing/speaking/writing subjects of their tales. Narrative structure has been controlled by the active hero and the passive female heroine. Women in cinma have been iconized to the myths imposed by the male. Women have been appropriated and confined in their body and in the look of men as illustrated in the works of Hitchcock and Sternberg (I couldn't help but think of Rita Hayward in Gilda).

Narrative film for Mulvey positions the spectator in a voyeuristic setting. Film controls space, time, and creates a "gaze, a world and an object, thereby producing an illusion cut to the measure of desire" (p25). In the closed and dark theatre, the spectator is manipulated into an idenfication and an intimacy with the images on the screen. However, the intimacy and engagement are purely masculine in nature. Desire is male, just as the symbolic order is male. Pleasure from the look is masculine, because the male spectator can identify with the hero-there is verisimilitude. Contact with woman on the screen has only been in relation to scopophilia. Since the woman is only viewed in terms of her form, the specator (in his identification with the hero) gains possession and control of the female character via the look. The female represented on the screen is seen in fragmentation (we glimpse a leg, profile) so that she is no longer identifiable, but rather an image of desire for men. Woman is the erotic object for the hero and the masculine audience. The stories and the way in which the camera details it are told by and for men. "He articulates the look and creates the action"(p20). For Mulvey, woman is the signifier for the male other, and in this symbolic order, she submits to his fantasies and linguistic commands.

Mulvey hopes that by analysing the pleasure will destroy it and that by unveiling these constructions, a "new language of desire" may arise. She claims that a distance between the audience and the film will help circumvent this scopophilic pleasure so that the spectator will be a critical observer rather than an illicit participant. There is only one look that is being solicited in narrative cinema, and that is the voyeuristic-scopophilic looks. There should be three:that of the camera, the spectator, and the characters on the screen--all of which are disregarded in narrative cinema. By creating a passionate detachment between the look of the audience with the camera and the images on screen, she claims that this 'pleasure' will be negated. Unfortunately, her solutions to alter narrative film, looking at this text ten years after its publication, appear to be optomistic and far from occurring. She claims that new technological advances and the fact that cinema is more "artisanal" will help create an alternative type of cinema. If anything, these technological advances have made it easier for spectators to immerse themselves in films-and so voyeuristic/identification scopophilia continues. She also alludes to "monolithic systems" that financed past narrative cinema as perpetuaters of the masculine unconscious;and she naively assumes that alternative cinema will be better financed and filmed differently. Mulvey ends her article with a note of optomism for the future of film, as in a decline of these past conventions, I wonder what her opinion would be today.