Towards the end of Pedro Almodóvar’s Broken Embraces (Los abrazos rotos, 2009) – his sad, playful, colour-saturated tribute to his own and so many others’ films – Harry Caine/Mateo Blanco (Lluís Homar) caresses the screen upon which images from a surreptitiously shot surveillance video play. The images are of Harry and Lena (Penélope Cruz) exchanging a kiss in their car moments before a truck hits them, killing Lena and blinding Harry. Harry is “watching” the scene, seeing it and, literally, touching it. Harry doesn’t remember the kiss. The son of his former production assistant, Diego (Tamar Novas), assures him that the kiss is one of those unremarkable gestures exchanged by lovers as a greeting, a moment that passes unnoticed. Harry’s hands seem to reach past the surface of the screen into the car itself as he asks Diego to run the scene frame by frame to make it last longer.
If an argument could be made for the ways we touch and are touched by the cinema, and for the cinema to share the corporeality of those who watch it – to share, in fact, a separate skin, musculature and viscera, as Jennifer M. Barker would have it in The Tactile Eye: Touch and the Cinematic Experience – Almodóvar has made it. In fact, he makes it more elegantly than Barker, who teaches in the Department of Communication at Georgia State University in Atlanta, and whose book demands that the reader take much on faith. Similar demands hamstring Carl Plantinga’s Moving Viewers: American Film and the Spectator’s Experience, a meandering journey through so many kinds of psychology and interpretation of emotions and film that a vast chasm yawns. Not so much between him and the reader, but between the reader and the reason many will want to read his and Barker’s books: to understand what filmmakers try to do between the first outline, storyboard and screen test, to opening night and first reviews. Interpretation is big business and academic film programs draw hordes of eager students. How ironic that both books place us farther from the image on the wall than we envisioned. Blind as he is, Harry Caine sees more, feels more, by touching darkness than we do after finishing these fascinating, but ultimately disappointing, books, which no doubt will be included in course after university course, challenging students to think and feel about – but not necessarily understand – films in new ways.
On the back of Barker’s book are blurbs from film scholars Laura Marks and Elena del Río, who praise Barker for illuminating the ongoing discourse on embodiment in cinema. Both Marks and del Río are quoted in Barker’s book, a common practice. After all, publishers must find those familiar with the field in which the author works so the blurbs make sense. But would we really expect either one to be critical of Barker’s work? Marks jump-starts the book when Barker refers to Marks’ concept of “haptic visuality” (p. 35), a kind of looking that lingers on the surface. Eroticism comes into play here as well. But it’s the reciprocity that Marks mentions which informs much of Barker’s work. In fact, it is the clearest, most solidly articulated thread in Barker’s book. You can forget the skin, the muscles and the viscera, each of which gets its own chapter. That Barker so elegantly – and frequently – relies on a wealth of opposites and juxtapositions saves her book from becoming just another theory of the month. Whether she’s describing scenes from Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) or Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955), or providing introductory comments on Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror (Zerkalo, 1975), Barker relies to good effect on polarities that illustrate and illuminate: “As Repulsion [Roman Polanski, 1965] and Eraserhead [David Lynch, 1976] have shown, the skin conceals and reveals, protects and exposes not only our innards but also our emotional states and our personal histories.” (p. 56) Even the language of descriptions is welcoming: “Like Repulsion, Eraserhead plays with and violates the notion of skin as a boundary between inside and outside as well as between human and nonhuman.” (p. 52) Barker continues her playful seriousness in a passage about Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. (1924), a mirror scene that reflects and reminds us of the famous mirror scene in Leo McCarey’s Duck Soup (1933):
This moment of his [Keaton’s] stepping through that empty space is both a contradiction in terms and a picture-perfect image of the relationship between film and viewer, for it is a moment of pronounced difference and sameness at the same time. The image we had been led to imagine in that space is simultaneously not him (i.e., it is not the reflection of him we’d expected to see) and profoundly him (where the image of Keaton should be, Keaton himself now is). (pp. 70-1)
The film’s body existed from the earliest days of motion pictures, long before French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (her muse), yet Barker finds in them more gold: Annabelle Serpentine Dance (1895) “reminds us of our own tenuousness, bringing us with it as it teeters on the precipice between life and death, movement and stillness. The experience is ambivalent to say the least, at once titillating and terrifying.” (p. 135)
Yes, we can be stimulated physically, emotionally. Our skin can crawl. We can get goosebumps and breathe raggedly, pant and huff and puff. But the film? Well, it too has a body, as Barker writes of The Mirror: “As the therapist speaks of tension, kinetic forces, bodily movements, and flowing speech, the film’s body itself enacts these, leaving us to wonder whether she is addressing the boy or the film itself.” (p. 7) Why not both? Later, Barker writes that the film draws us toward and away, to and from the “familiar and the strange, elusive and palpably present at the same time.” (p. 14) Her reliance on phenomenology is palpable – “phenomenological film analysis approaches the film and the viewer as acting together, correlationally” (p. 18) – but Barker draws too often from the well. Hardly a moment passes without a mention of Merleau-Ponty or his phenomenological disciples. One wonders where Barker (and her argument) would be without them. In fact, I wondered as much in a brief passage in which she invokes the ethnographic filmmaker David MacDougall and the anthropologist Michael Taussig. Impressive research and scholarship, but how does it help me see films better? “What about Barker?” I wrote in the margin.
Carl Plantinga touches on touch, but then he touches on much in Moving Viewers: American Film and the Spectator’s Experience. Plantinga, who teaches Film Studies at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, ranges widely – perhaps too widely – from this to that, brushing up against everything from emotion and affect to cognitive play and something he calls “concern-based construals” (p. 9). He even fits in a few references to some Hollywood films, James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) among them. An author has the responsibility to define his terms and the right to generate as many as he sees fit, but Plantinga goes too far. He frequently invents phrases like “concern-based construals”, but to what end? This is confusing and diverts us from his points, some of which are valuable in understanding the films he examines, such as Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954). Another problem with his book is that he dwells too much on psychology and not enough on film. The phrase “as I said” appears so often that I wondered about his confidence in his work. His paragraphs and chapters are laced with such references and remind the reader of the old description of the term paper: tell them what you’re going to tell them; tell them; and tell them what you told them. So much emphasis is placed on what Plantinga names something that the reader finds himself or herself adrift. “Any felt bodily state” is an affect (p. 57). Concern-based construals are emotions. “While emotions typically have reasons, moods have causes,” he writes (p. 60). But don’t emotions have causes, too, and moods reasons? If I experience joy at receiving that perfect gift from a friend, isn’t the cause of that emotion the demonstration of fondness by the friend in selecting a gift that has meaning to me? If I’m in a rotten mood after getting a letter from the Internal Revenue Service, doesn’t the reason have to do with the fact that there is never good news from the IRS? Besides, what has any of this to do with movies and their effect on the viewer?
Fortunately for the reader, Plantinga summarises in his last chapter what he was trying to say in the previous 220 pages. But even the second time around his writing and reasoning are fuzzy. Nonetheless, one purpose of the book, he writes, is “to free the notions of pleasure, desire and fantasy from the conceptual constraints that are an after-effect of the once-dominant influence of psychoanalytic film theory in film studies.” (p. 223) The second purpose is to develop a cognitive-perceptual theory of spectator affect, while the third purpose “is to begin to explore the implications of this cognitive-perceptual theory of film for cultural issues that extend beyond the experience of film viewing and speculate on its broader experience.” (p. 225) In addition to these dulling and hard to understand summations, Plantinga shares such gems as: “I am convinced that a wide range of emotions elicited in film have a strong persuasive impact, even if the nature and causality of that impact is as yet poorly understood.” (p. 219) This is news?
Some American colleges and universities that offer little else are fond of advertising the “(name of the college) experience,” as if an education were not possible inside its walls. I wonder what the “spectator’s experience” (in Plantinga’s book) and the “cinematic experience” (in Barker’s) really are. Hundreds of pages later and I’m no closer to the films they discuss than I was after seeing them myself. Susan Sontag said it best, in her essay “The Decay of Cinema”: “To be kidnapped, you have to be in a movie theater, seated in the dark among anonymous strangers.” (1) There is no body, no skin, no innards. And no experience. Just you and the image before you, overwhelming you by its physical presence. Even Harry Caine knows that. And he couldn’t even see.
The Tactile Eye: Touch and the Cinematic Experience, by Jennifer M. Barker, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2009.
Moving Viewers: American Film and the Spectator’s Experience, by Carl Plantinga, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2009.
- Susan Sontag, “The Decay of Cinema”, The New York Times, 25 February, 1996.