This essay was originally published in Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis (Routledge, New York, 1991), and appears here thanks to the kind permission of the author.
The images in Leslie Thornton’s 1983 film, Adynata, are lush and one consistently gets the sense of an overwhelming surplus of the signifier: a rippling piece of bright red silk which fills the frame; jewelry, ornamentation, and clothing designed to connote the Otherness of the “Oriental”; exotic flowers and grasses in lavish botanical gardens; a close-up of bright blue, undulating waves of water; silk slippers against wicker edged by peacock feathers and deep green leaves of tropical plants. The colors are extremely vivid and work to amplify what at first glance appears to be an unruly fetishism of the exotic object. There is too much for the eye—the film seemingly capitulates to the seductive force of visual pleasure. But this richness of the image is somewhat deceptive. It is itself already a second-order signifier of an exoticism associated with the discourse of Orientalism which is both quoted and criticized by the film. And, for Thornton, the discourse of Orientalism is precisely a discourse of excess, of hyperbole, of the absurd. In Adynata she investigates the mise-en-scène of Orientalism—the conglomeration of sounds and images which connote the Orient for a Western viewer/auditor.
Here, Thornton’s work converges with the theoretical explorations of such figures as Edward Said (Orientalism), Roland Barthes (Empire of Signs), and Julia Kristeva (About Chinese Women). The film’s organizing image is a formal portrait of a Chinese Mandarin and his wife taken in 1861, its fascination a function of both its age and its evocation of the faraway, the inaccessible. The portrait seems to authorize a sustained meditation on the iconography and the morphology of Orientalism. The obsessive and seductive “That has been” which Barthes associates with the photograph is translated into the inescapable “Here it is” of the cinematic image when Thornton herself assumes the position, pose, and dress of first the Mandarin’s wife and then the Mandarin. The cinematic image mimes the photographic image and acts out the perverted analogical gesture of Orientalism whereby the Orient comes to mirror the underside of the Western subject’s own desire. Putting herself in the picture, Thornton embodies identificatory procedures by means of which the lure of representation is revealed to reside in its relation to the subject rather than to the referent. Orientalism functions both to insure the coherent, cohesive identity of the Western subject and to sustain desire in representation. Adynata delineates the various ways in which desire converges on the Other.
In the film, the excesses of Orientalism are even more visible/audible in the soundtrack than in the image. Rare ethnographic recordings of Chinese opera from the 1920s are combined with the “Hartz Mountain Canary Orchestra,” recurrent “pings” associated with an Oriental musical instrument, old 78 RPM love songs and blues, TV-style background music which connotes “Pacific island-ness” and the suspense associated with police dramas, microphone hum (the “noise” of the apparatus), “nature” sounds including crickets, birds, thunderstorms, and dialogue from a Korean soap opera. The relation of sound to image is often contentious rather than supplementary, producing ruptures and disjunctive moments which force the discourse of Orientalism to stutter and falter. When rock and roll music accompanies a television image of an Oriental wedding dance, the absurdity of the Western desire to grasp (in the sense of both holding or fixing and understanding) the Orient through representation is foregrounded. In an age of satellite communications, television technology brings the exotic and the “faraway” closer, but it cannot reduce the inevitable distance from the referent entailed in all representation. The words of the rock song are, “I am a TV savage.” In its insistence upon problematizing the relation of sound to image, Adynata finds its greatest affinity with Barthes’s approach in Empire of Signs. In a short prologue to the series of essays which constitute the book, Barthes explains the alignment or misalignment of text with photographs, paintings, and drawings:
The text does not “gloss” the images, which do not “illustrate” the text. For me, each has been no more than the onset of a kind of visual uncertainty, analogous perhaps to that loss of meaning Zen calls a satori. Text and image, interlacing, seek to ensure the circulation and exchange of these signifiers: body, face, writing; and in them to read the retreat of signs. (1)
For Thornton as well, the cinematic sign is dismantled through the mismatch, the asynchronism of sound and image.
But in many crucial respects, Thornton’s project differs markedly from that of Barthes. If the sign “retreats” in Adynata, it does not get very far. Barthes, on the other hand, would like “to ‘entertain’ the idea of an unheard-of symbolic system, one altogether detached from our own.” (2) Barthes’s writing about his trip to Japan is evidence of an impossible desire for absolute and irreducible otherness—with no point of contact with the West. One gets the sense that he finds the Western episteme constraining, if not suffocating, in its insistence upon the ideological hold and closure of meaning. Barthes’s search is therefore for an “outside”—and the Japanese “text” seems to offer him a material order of signifiers which never coagulate in the production of a signified. What he looks for is, in effect, something pre-Symbolic. Barthes travels to Japan in some sense to experience the originary. In contrast, there is nothing originary in Adynata, everything articulated about the Orient has already been respoken. The film delineates a representation of the Orient which flaunts its own inadequacy, its status as cliché. As Jonathan Rosenbaum points out, spectatorial engagement with such a discourse reveals “all sorts of ideological positions and forms of ignorance about the Orient” demonstrating that “one’s misconceptions and uncertainties about what one sees and hears are not a distraction from the film’s focus but part of its subject. . . .” (3) Orientalism is hence a kind of continuous misreading which does not, however, presuppose a “correct” or “accurate” reading. Rather, the discourse of Orientalism is a perpetual deviation without a norm. Its desire to escape or avoid signification is exemplified by Barthes’s attraction to languages (particularly tonal ones) which he does not understand: “The murmuring mass of an unknown language constitutes a delicious protection, envelops the foreigner … in an auditory film which halts at his ears all the alienations of the mother tongue. . . .” (4) In one section of Adynata, some pinkish found footage, which is reminiscent of a faded technicolor 1950s science fiction film about either creatures from outer space or irradiated monsters on earth, depicts a man with a headset listening intently and looking somewhat perplexed. The soundtrack which is rather violently appended to this image is dialogue in an Oriental language, apparently taken from the soundtrack of either a film or TV show. The man thus appears to be perplexed (in a strange evocation of the Kuleshov effect) by his inability to decipher the dialogue. Such a juxtaposition seems to produce a direct (and mocking) commentary on Barthes’s dream of an unknown language and his celebration of its opacity to the Western auditor. For Thornton, opacity is opacity—it has no deeper implications.
This thwarting of the invocatory drive is paralleled by a scene which aligns Orientalism with scopophilia or a desire to see which is similarly blocked. A figure in an ornate red robe (echoing Thornton’s “reproduction” earlier, of the subjects of the photograph) is glimpsed at the edge of the frame, at a point just prior to its movement out of frame, in a “walking” point-of-view shot through a sculptured Oriental garden. The image is fogged and the point of view always fails to “catch up” with its object, to achieve a secure and stable relation with it. Any fixing of the object is quite literally its death, and it is clear that the film’s project entails an investigation of the murderous tendencies of representation. Toward the end of Adynata, there is a long section which is constituted by a distorted refilming of the final scene of Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960). The images are almost illegible—a shaky camera traces the movements of pencil-thin dark figures, themselves out-of-focus, against a blurry and snowy background. The most recognizable image in this context is that of the dead woman’s face toward the end of the scene, accompanied by the familiar gesture of closing the eyes of the dead. The original subtitle of Adynata was “Murder Is Not A Story”—death is more compatible with the still image (e.g. the photograph of the Mandarin and his wife and, later, the stiff poses of the entire family) than with the narrative procedures of Truffaut’s film. Here, photography becomes a form of murder (in line with both Bazin’s and Barthes’s theories of the relation between photography and death), particularly when it concerns the representation of the woman. In a description of the formal portrait of the Mandarin and his wife, Thornton points out that “. . . while the man appears wholesome and animated, the woman seems quite lifeless by comparison, her features made up in the stylized manner of a ‘china doll.’” (5)
Hence, one of the most prominent aims of Adynata is comparable to that of Sally Potter’s Thriller (1979)—to investigate the determinants of the woman’s murder in/through representation. Part of that endeavor involves the examination of the “deathly” discomfort of the pose. In front of an expanse of silver cloth which fills the frame, two hands join, clasp, fidget, and rejoin, unable to find and maintain a comfortable position. Their maneuvers are accompanied by a strained and off-key humming. The thick white make-up, ornate headwear, beads and jewelry which constitute the costume of German filmmaker Karen Luner (who also masquerades as the Mandarin’s wife) clearly inhibit movement. The fact that she is seated in front of a movie light establishes her position as, precisely, a pose. In a walking point-of-view shot of the ground, “bound” feet in Oriental slippers shuffle in and out of the frame. In its Western representation, the Oriental body displays a perpetual awkwardness and lack of fluidity. It is constrained, constricted, regulated—the bound foot is its most telling image. Eroticism is the rigidly ornate. The pose—“being” for the camera—forcefully orchestrates and arranges the body just as the botanical garden organizes and controls the vicissitudes of nature for the purposes of aestheticization.
It is not surprising that the “otherness” of Orientalism would be aligned by Thornton with the culturally determined otherness of femininity. Both partake of the exotic, both function to stabilize the identity of the Western male subject. (6) The mechanism of the construction of beauty or eroticism coincides with that by means of which otherness becomes desirable as a deviant reflection of the same. There is a kind of morpho-logic at work here through which shapes or forms achieve value (become obsessional) through the mere fact of their repetition, recall, re-echoing of other shapes or forms. One scene in Adynata involves a speeded-up perusal of a book on the “art” of foot-binding in which the body is deformed in order to produce a shape reminiscent of the perfection and delicacy of a flower petal. And the next shot is exactly that of a languid, exquisitely shaped flower which picks up and repeats the outline of the bound foot. The perfect woman is a copy of nature but nature, in Adynata, is largely constituted by the hyper-order of “man”-made botanical gardens. As Barthes points out, “beauty cannot assert itself save in the form of a citation . . . left on its own, deprived of any anterior code, beauty would be mute.” (7) At points, the discursive moves of Adynata play out all the permutations of a sustained meditation on the function of analogy as the sometimes concealed mechanism of representation. This can be seen not only in the reiteration of comparisons between the bound and fetishized foot and flowers but also in the constant return to a process of “miming” the figures in the photograph as well as in the construction of a metonymic chain which traces a recurrent form in various objects—slippers, hands, petals. Interspersed between shots of hands wearing slippers posing in front of a wicker chair and shots of bare hands assuming the shape of those slippers as they slide into frame over lush green grass are images of a naked female torso pinned beneath a male arm. Citations of “beauty,” of perfect form, circumscribe the representation of the female body.
This kind of “morpho-logic” is even more explicit in an excerpt from Thornton’s Peggy and Fred in Hell (1985). A close-up of vibrating vocal cords is accompanied by Handel’s opera, “Rinaldo” (a bricolage of earlier operatic pieces), superimposed over pop-Latin music by Yma Sumac from Peru (alias Amy Camus from Brooklyn), known for the range of her voice (seven octaves). The black and white image of quivering vocal cords is from a (1950s?) science film and, taken out of context, it is almost unrecognizable. The vocal cords’ resemblance to female genitalia is inescapable and one gets the strange sense that we are witness to the body producing speech—a singing vulva. It is difficult to avoid a reference here to the work of Luce Irigaray, particularly her two essays, “When Our Lips Speak Together” and “This Sex Which Is Not One.” (8) Irigaray’s project is the extended development of a morpho-logic whereby a psychical sexuality mimics a bodily sexuality and in which the phallus is no longer the supreme arbiter of sexual difference. In Thornton’s film, documentary is investigated as a site for the “scientific” dissection and analysis of the voice in its minutest bodily movements. Fragments of intertitles relating pitch to the rapidity of movement underline the fact that this is a discourse which strives to be scientific.
Yet, it is a “science” which constantly returns us to questions of sexual difference, the cultural construction of femininity and masculinity. In her film work, Thornton has consistently been interested in elaborating the way in which sexual difference is a matter of sound as well as image. In an early film, Jennifer, Where Are You? (1981), a man’s voice, incessantly repeating the film’s title in various tones and inflections, with connotations of appeal, command, and anger, accompanies an image of a little girl playing with lipstick and matches. His voice is all the more terrorizing insofar as he remains unseen. (9) She is all image; he is all voice. In the excerpt from Peggy and Fred in Hell, an image of the lower half of a television set is presented along with a voice which is reminiscent of “educational” voices associated with “learning by rote.” The voice tells us: “Listen to the two voices which follow and decide which is the higher in pitch.” The sentence produced by the two voices whose pitch we are to decide is: “The pitch most people prefer for the female voice is about A flat below middle C.” Later, the multiple choice test activates a male voice which informs us, “The pitch most people prefer for the male voice is around low C.” The second, “preferable” male voice is recognizable as the overly familiar “neutral” voice-over of the documentary—the voice which inhabits that space outside the image, a space of reserve, authority, transcendental Otherness, in short—knowledge. In Thornton’s work one often gets the sense that the most oppressive site of patriarchal authority is the soundtrack rather than the image. In Adynata, “maleness” on the soundtrack is evidenced not in a voice but as heavy measured footsteps which contrast with the image of simultaneous deformation and delicacy associated with the bound female foot.
Thornton’s obsession with found footage usually linked with the documentary or “science film” is partially prompted by the fact that the genre of the scientific film purports to be most neutral—or perhaps more accurately, neuter—with respect to its inscription of subjectivity. It is nature which appears to speak to us when Adynata presents time-lapse photography of emerging seedlings, shots of swaying underwater flowers blooming or pinkish shots of the earth taken from space. Other images taken from the science film or documentary include a slow track in to a spinning globe at the beginning of the film and a shot of a NASA technician monitoring communications during an early John Glenn space flight (which, interestingly, I initially misrecognized as a shot taken from a 1950s science fiction film—see above), as well as the entire section on pitch in Peggy and Fred. Recontextualizing this found footage, however, effects a defamiliarization of the scientific discourse and its claim to provide an objective norm for cinematic language. I am again reminded of Irigaray’s work on the concealed “subject of science” and her parodies of the allegedly “voice-less” examination question: “The female child develops, according to a certain number of observations, at a more rapid pace than the male child. In particular, she talks at an earlier stage and her social skills are more advanced. Yes? No? Verifiable? Falsifiable? Are those fundamental skills employed by her to become a more desirable object for others? Hence her regression? True? False? Support your answer.” (10) Similarly, Thornton’s mimicking, through reinscription, of scientific genres works toward the revelation that these are, indeed, science fictions. The scientific film strives to connote, ironically, pure denotation and is evidence of the strength of the desire for a neutral linguistic norm, an evacuation of all subjectivity. Thornton’s films remind us that all discourse—from Orientalism to the science film—involves desire.
In the dystopia of Peggy and Fred in Hell, the subjects are overwhelmed by a kind of technological clutter and a mise-en-scène of dysfunctional objects, out of place. In one fairly sustained shot of a TV set, wires fall from the ceiling and eventually fill the space in front of the television. Before the eyes of the spectator, the cinematic image is disemboweled, its technological substrate exposed. The only interiority, however, is a technological one. In both Peggy and Fred and Adynata, the misalignment of sound and image and the forced juxtaposition of images or objects totally alien to one another indicate the failure of any reasonable syntax. Indeed, “Adynata” is a rhetorical term meaning “A stringing together of impossibilities; sometimes a confession that words fail us.” Note that “we” do the confessing but it is words that fail. And there is ultimately little to confess since the words are not “us.” The topology of Thornton’s filmmaking evinces a concern with surface rather than interiority—meaning spreads, it does not deepen. Words fail us, not because they are inadequate for the expression of a full interiority, but because meaning leaks out, cannot be contained by a logic of morphemes; it contaminates the gaps and absences language depends upon for the very differentiating power of their emptiness. On the soundtrack of the early X-Tracts (1975), Thornton cuts language differently, producing alternative minimal units and hence different differences. One is tempted to compare her endeavor to Kristeva’s emphasis upon echolalia or Barthes’s “grain of the voice” (both pointing toward the otherness which inhabits language). These are theories of asignification or, perhaps more accurately, the signification which escapes the constraints of socio-symbolic ordering. Yet, Thornton’s choice of sounds and images often has less to do with any otherness in relation to the symbolic than with an over- or hyper-codification (e.g. Truffaut’s film refilmed and combined with the soundtracks of a Betty Boop cartoon, The Bride of Frankenstein , and a TV cop show). Readability is diminished through a surplus of codification. The “marriage” of sound and image is often an unlikely juxtaposition of two heavily regulated discourses and it is clear that what is at stake is not a dream of getting beyond codification. In Peggy and Fred, language speaks through the two children who chant limericks, folk songs, and a version of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” What is involved here is not Barthes’s dream of an unknown language but the nightmare of a language which is overly familiar. Thornton seeks to explore its interstices.
- Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982) xi.
- Barthes 3.
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, Film: The Front Line 1983 (Denver: Arden. 1983) 206.
- Barthes 9.
- Quoted in Rosenbaum 206.
- For an intriguing examination of the relation between feminine and Oriental “otherness” see Lisa Lowe, “The Figuration of the Orient as Woman in Flaubert’s Salammbo, Voyage en Orient, and Correspondance,” Comparative Literature Studies 38.2 (Spring 1986).
- Roland Barthes, S/Z: An Essay, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974) 33
- Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985) 23-33, 205-18.
- For a provocative analysis of Jennifer, Where Are You? see Su Friedrich’s essay in The Downtown Review (Fall/Winter/Spring 1981/82).
- Luce Irigaray, “Is the Subject of Science Sexed?,” Cultural Critique l (Fall 1985) 76.