The Most Dangerous Signifier

In “The Film-Work, 2,” Thierry Kuntzel analyzes Pichel and Shoedsack’s The Most Dangerous Game in excruciating detail, closely reading the text of the film along the lines of the process of dream analysis spelled out in Freud’s On Dreams and The Interpretation of Dreams. Kuntzel’s reading turns largely around the axes of overdetermination: many key events in the plot are overdetermined by their narrative repetition and/or allusions to them that precede or follow the events themselves. This overdetermination is in contrast to a certain underdetermination, that of the film’s opening image of the door-knocker as well as that of the signifier “game.” The necessity of probing this underdetermined signifier is insisted upon by the very title of the film: “The title thus superlativizes (The Most) something that is both risky (Dangerous) and ill-defined (Game), something unnameable. And this opens a disturbing hermeneutic: what (or who) is the most dangerous?” (Kuntzel 18) The signifier “game” is tied to the image of the door-knocker not only by the fact that the title of the film appears over this image, but also by the fact that the knocker and the word overlap in their polysemy, the idea of “game” manifesting itself in the image at least in its cynegetic and sexual interpretations. More importantly, the ideas are linked by the very fact of their polysemy; they operate as the shared site of a problematic of ambiguity, of compositeness, that the film will probe and ultimately dispel: “The whole itinerary of The Most Dangerous Game serves to render the initial figure legible; to progressively reassure the subject plunged ex abrupto into the uncertainty of this first image.” (Kuntzel 24)

The narrative of The Most Dangerous Game thus serves to purge itself of this threat of the composite, the polysemous, by dispelling the figures within the film who serve as its incarnations. Chief among them is, of course, Ivan, whose physical resemblance to the centaur figure is self-evident; but more interesting is the case of Zaroff, whose animalistic qualities are far less foregrounded – if anything, he is “civilized” to a forceful extent, particularly in contrast to the likes of Martin. Zaroff is nonetheless hybrid (if anything, more so than Ivan) insofar as he has one foot so far in the realm of civilization while still advocating against its tenets. This is perhaps most prominent in his ambiguous Scot-Slavic accent, and the heritage of unplaceable Otherness which it suggests. Zaroff – not unlike Kurtz – figures the savagery of civilization itself, operating in a different (more dangerous) paradigm than that of Ivan, who is more easily located alongside Zaroff’s other beasts and minions. What Kuntzel does not explicitly state in his essay is that the imperative of The Most Dangerous Game is not to subvert a paradigm of multiplicity created by the text but to disavow the multiplicity that characterizes the social order by creating – and promptly expunging – a figure constructed as the embodiment of this multiplicity.

The parallels to Apocalypse Now thus abound: both films construct an obscene hybrid figure who highlights the fundamentally savage nature of civilization, and situate the viewer such that they identify with the comparatively neutral (and thus comparatively coherent) protagonist charged with the task of terminating this figure with extreme prejudice in order to reassert an ostensibly coherent paradigm. However, both texts are also marked by a troubling of the coherence of the paradigm that they seek to reassert insofar as their protagonists are made to resemble the obscene figures they’re charged with eliminating, precisely because the process of this elimination is itself murderous. Nowhere is the resemblance clearer than in the two films’ closing scenes: having cast out the obscene figure, the two protagonists take to boats (the same vehicles by which they arrived), presumably now free to return to the land of coherence, a space which, pointedly, neither film portrays. The difference lies in that The Most Dangerous Game makes a great effort to close its narrative – Kuntzel writes about the extensive use of doors opening and closing, bookending the film and thus turning cyclical volumen into linear codex (11) – while Apocalpyse Now thematizes the cyclicality of its own narrative. To whatever extent that The Most Dangerous Game succeeds in assuring the viewer of its hermetic nature, it thus more successfully reasserts the dominant, coherent, western paradigm of civilization that Rainsford defends. But Apocalypse Now displays a knowledge of that which The Most Dangerous Game disavows: that this heterogeneity already characterizes the idea of civilization, born out of the primal parricide and thus always-already infected with violence and ambivalence. Zaroff’s danger consists only in the fact that he is aware of this heterogeneity, that he does not seek to purge it from the idea of civilization but rather understands it as its founding principle.

Apocalypse Now

The Most Dangerous Game

Apocalypse and the Now

Writing about the relationship between Apocalypse Now and “Totem and Taboo” is daunting for the very uncanniness with which the two works fit together; it seems impossible that the film should have been made without reference on the writing staff’s part to Freud’s article, which articulates the themes of the film several decades in advance of its production. Apocalypse Now is, in a word, the story of an atavistic descent out of civilization which, like Slavoj Žižek’s reading of Kafka’s The Trial, finds as its terminus a form of civilization at its most literal, which is to say, its most obscene. “The structure here, of course, is that of the Moebius strip: if we progress far enough in our descent to the social underground, we find ourselves suddenly on the other side, in the middle of the sublime and noble law.” (“The Obscene Object of Postmodernity”) This parallel is no coincidence: the two texts in question share a philosophy of civilization, of the Law, as an essentially obscene, punitive force; a Law whose Other is incoherent.

Here we find the link to “Totem and Taboo,” which posits the primal parricide as the birth of civilization. Freud suggests that, like Cronus banding together with his Titan brothers to overthrow the father-ruler Uranus, civilization begins with a “band of brothers” who come together to overthrow their own father-ruler, who they see as having grown too powerful. The decision to overthrow the father stems directly from the first Law of civilization, the Law from which civilization comes to exist as such, namely, the prohibition of incest; this first non du père is that which inspires the brothers to rise up against the father. Traditions of totemic cultures – most prominently, the communal eating of the totem animal – affirm this etiology of civilization in their continued reenactment of the ambivalence that characterized the original father/son relationship. The totem animal comes to represent the father, and thus the act of consuming it (prohibited on one’s own but validated in the context of communality) and atoning for this consumption reenacts the ambivalence of killing the father who the band of brothers nonetheless loved, and whose death, at their own hands, they grieved. Freud locates this original parricide as the site of the birth of civilization but also that of the Oedipus complex; the two are thus inseparable, one being the guiding principle of the other. That the Other of this Law should thus prove to be incoherent is no surprise; the psychical principle that most fundamentally characterizes civilization is ambivalence, specifically the ambivalence on the subject’s part towards the totem-father, the figure (and the guiding principle) of the Law.

Kurtz’s cult in Apocalypse Now thus represents civilization at its most literal insofar as it’s civilization at its most reductive, returned to its original form as elaborated in “Totem and Taboo.” This is, of course, made its most clear in the sequence in which Kurtz’s followers violently sacrifice an animal in a clearly ritualistic context, a scene drawn more or less from the text of “Totem and Taboo.” That this sequence plays out while cross-cutting to and from Willard’s own murder of Kurtz makes the line all the clearer, underscoring the relationship not only between the sacrifice of the totemic animal and the original parricide, but also that between the text of Apocalypse Now and “Totem and Taboo.”

In fact, this Moebius strip structure, as informed by our reading of Apocalypse Now in relation to “Totem and Taboo” dogs the text of Apocalypse Now at large: from the very start of the film we are working in a temporal framework whose linearity is upset. The use of The Door’s “The End” at both the start and end of the film underscores this cyclicality, suggesting the narrative of the film not as a closed segment but rather an unending circuit. This is a particularly haunting thought in light of the consequences of such a cyclical temporality outside of the atavistic milieu of Coppola’s Vietnam. What Apocalypse Now insists upon is that Kurtz’s cult is not the exception of civilization, but rather the rule. The only thing that sets Kurtz apart from the U.S. military is his own declaration of independence, his refusal to be subordinate to the Law; it is, after all, the military itself that sends Willard on his mission to assassinate Kurtz. Thus, what “Totem and Taboo” tells us about Apocalypse Now – and about our world – is that civilization in all its forms is bound to repeat this parricide, and all the bloodlust and savagery that surrounds it, ad infinitum; that the closing of one door only opens another in the endless repetition compulsion that is the death drive.


The double entendre writ into Moonlight‘s title (Merriam Webster: “to hold a second job in addition to a regular one”) adds a rich layer to our understanding of the film. From the film’s first discussion of the word it takes for a title – Juan’s anecdote of the Cuban woman telling him “in moonlight, black boys look blue” – the phrase is imbued with a transformative power, particularly one happening along lines of identity and through the eyes and mouths of others. Likewise, the film establishes a link between moonlight and the ocean, with a number of sequences of Chiron visiting the ocean at night (most poignantly, its closing shot), creating a metonymic chain between the ocean, with its myriad Jungian associations of cleansing and transformation, and nighttime, with its implications of liminality and otherness. The signifier “moonlight” is thus the site where all of these ideas overlap: a liminal space in which one sheds their usual persona in order to temporarily adopt one secondary to it. That this transformation is associated with the external imposition of identity suggests that whatever moonlighting may occur in the film is not undertaken willingly per se on the part of the moonlighter, that it is a role they are more or less forced into (or out of) by the eyes and mouths of others.

It is tempting – our discussion in class being particularly telling to this end – to thus attempt a reading of Moonlight as the story of an externally normatively masculine black man who only occasionally allows himself to moonlight as queer, or, conversely, a queer black man forced into constantly moonlighting (“daylighting” might be more appropriate) as straight in order to survive in a hypermasculine social order. The stakes of this effort toward assimilation are increased by Chiron’s surroundings; drawing on Kara Keeling’s discussion of Set It Off in “Reflections on the Black Femme’s Role in the Reproduction of Cinematic Realitv,” Chiron is forced to navigate a “ghettocentric reality (which valorizes a virulently heterosexual masculinity)” (Keeling 142) despite not falling into the normative definition of this heterosexual masculinity that his peers valorize. These readings – the second more so than the first – are not without evidence in the text, but each is ultimately insufficient in the “regular” identity it ascribes to Chiron. Chiron eludes identification as such; this is made clear from even the image used to advertise the film, reproduced on the case of the DVD (and at the bottom of this blog post). There is no one consistent Chiron; whatever point he occupies in his life (and whatever name he chooses to go by – I’ve used Chiron for the purposes of this post, but the choice was essentially arbitrary), he is at once Little, Chiron, and Black. It would thus be insufficient to ascribe to Chiron/Little/Black the label of straight, queer, gay, what have you, as each of these terms would ignore what is Moonlight‘s most essential lesson: the transitivity of identity. Whatever “primary” identity the interpretations discussed above would ascribe to Chiron would be as put-on, as insufficient, as the secondary identity he moonlights as – such is the nature of identity at large.

Freud’s “Observations on Transference Love” also touches on the idea of transitive identity in its claim that transference love “exhibits not a single new feature arising from the present situation, but is entirely composed of repetitions and copies of earlier reactions” (384), particularly in conjunction with the following (some would say rhetorical) question: “can we truly say that the state of being in love which comes manifest in analytic treatment is not a real one?” (385). What Freud is suggesting here is that love at large might well always be transferential, and what more, might thus just be a reenactment ad infinitum of primal relationships, of attachments and reactions felt with whomever preceded the current love object. In framing those of Chiron’s relationships that might be qualified as loving as themselves marked by this transferential, would-be psychoanalytic quality (Juan’s endless efforts to get Little to speak, Kevin’s asking Chiron what he cries about), Moonlight opens the door to understand “real love” as itself possessing a certain transferential nature – one which does not invalidate its status as real. The issues of transitivity that this raises are clear; Kevin seems to be filling a role first inhabited by Juan, feasibly inhabited by someone else before him, and able to be inhabited by anyone who happens to exhibit the right characteristics after Kevin. One might thus call Freud’s philosophy of love more than a little bit bleak – the scene from Freud: The Secret Passion wherein an upset Martha asks Freud, “What about us? Are we only reflections of others in our past?” comes readily to mind. One might say the same of Moonlight, and in neither case would one necessarily be wrong. But what makes Moonlight so poignant is its success in showing the beauty of those fleeting moments when two people’s trajectories overlap, even for a split second; when they’re able to call to mind whatever images from one another’s past they need in order to share some sort of transference, however incompatible with what might follow. Moonlight finds beauty in Chiron’s transitivity, in the myriad selves he occupies over the course of the text, precisely for those fleeting moments he shares when his and someone else’s (the ambiguity of that term being exactly the point) paths cross like ships in the (moonlit) night.

Cat People and the Anxiety of Co-Presence

Deborah Linderman begins her article “Cinematic Abreaction: Tourneur’s Cat People” by identifying “two strictly oppositional paradigms that regulate the play of the text; one such paradigm, which we shall refer to as Paradigm A… is a paradigm of psychoanalysis insofar as it establishes a matched set of exorcising male figures which function to probe the central hermeneutic of the narrative, the mystery of the cat woman, and to demystify that hermeneutic. The other, the B paradigm… has to do with the construction of the cat fantasy itself, linked in ways that will be specified below to cinematic production and representing a teratology of the feminine and of evil.” (73) The combatting ideologies aligned with the respective paradigms are, upon first reading, in turn aligned with characters in the text along strictly gendered lines, with the central male figures – Oliver and Dr. Judd – serving as mouthpieces for Paradigm A, and the predominant female figure, Irena, serving to interrupt their masculine, western, rational sphere by attempting to inject the ideology of Paradigm B into it. This reading – admittedly, my own after having first read Linderman’s essay – quickly finds its limits in the undeniably central figure of Alice, in whom these paradigms seem to be co-present. If anything, Alice is in fact more readily aligned with the A paradigm, insofar as she shares Oliver and Judd’s rational convictions as to the nature of Irena’s affliction, and moreover is shown to occupy the masculine/rational sphere in hers and Oliver’s shared interest in model ships, with, of course, the important exception that she is a woman.

This opens the door to reframe our understanding of Cat People not as an interplay of clearly distinguished ideological factions, but rather the interplay of these ideologies within single characters – indicatively Alice, but, more compellingly, Irena too. To this end, Linderman describes Irena in terms of a subject existentially split between these two seemingly unassimilable ideologies: “admixed, heterogeneous, a composite body,” (76) and later, “both trash and exorcist, excluded object and would-be excluder.” (77) Put succinctly, “Irena’s wish to ‘be good,’ or to put it otherwise, to assimilate, locates the textual split between good and evil intrapsychically. The good Irena situates herself in the masculine paradigm as one of its collaborators… The text constructs her much more insistently, however, as excluded and indeed phobic object” (77-78). The disparity in the insistence with which Irena is constructed as masculine collaborator vs. feminine cast-aside accounts for the cursory misread of the film as one of good men vs. bad Irena, but also speaks to a need on the text’s part to insist on Irena’s very badness. Equally telling is the lack of issue made of Alice’s composite nature; her reinforcement of the dominant, masculinized ideology seems not to be at odds with her own status as woman, or so the film would like to have us think.

While the film on the one hand seems to discourage the viewer from interpreting it as a tale of two competing, gendered ideologies, one might still take a step back from this reading and see a philosophy of gender nonetheless present in the film’s insistence on the heterogeneity that marks Irena. This heterogeneity – indeed, this compositeness – is, pointedly, only available to the female characters in the text; Oliver and Judd are content in their homogeneous occupation of only the A paradigm (content, that is, until they are forced into confrontation with the composite figure, when Judd is mauled and the panther freed). The anxiety surrounding Irena is not strictly an anxiety of the feminine, since it is one in which Alice shares and one which Oliver doesn’t exhibit towards Alice despite her femininity; it is better understood as an anxiety of co-presence, of the composite, of the abject as that within each of us which threatens to interrupt our own supposed coherence of identity (homogeneity). Thus we seem, in a way, to have returned to my initial misinterpretation of the text as one of masculine versus feminine, but only insofar as the feminine is itself heterogeneous in Cat People. The essential difference between Alice and Irena is the extent to which each of them has succeeded in disavowing or abjecting that part of herself which fails to cohere: Irena understands it to be always co-present even with her “good” form who “situates herself in the masculine paradigm,” while Alice unabashedly occupies this male paradigm, seemingly successful in casting out the heterogeneity that structures her as female subject. This adoption of male ideology on the part of the female subject calls to mind Mary Ann Doane’s metaphor of the transvestite: “Thus, while the male is locked into sexual identity, the female can at least pretend that she is other – in fact, sexual mobility would seem to be a distinguishing feature of femininity in its cultural construction. Hence, transvestism would be fully recuperable. The idea seems to be this: it is understandable that women would want to be men, for everyone wants to be elsewhere than in the feminine position.” (“Film and the Masquerade: Theorising the Female Spectator,” 81) With this quote in mind, we might thus understand Cat People as presenting two models of femininity: the “good” and the “bad” female; the woman who comfortably slips into masculine ideology, and the woman in whom female subjectivity persists, co-present with her attempted occupation of the masculine order.

Transvestism and the Masquerade in The Silence of the Lambs

In “Film and the Masquerade: Theorising the Female Spectator,” Mary Ann Doane cites Joan Riviere’s concept of the masquerade of femininity, in which femininity “could be assumed and worn as a mask, both to hide the possession of masculinity and to avert the reprisals expected if [the woman] was found to possess it” (Riviere, “Womanliness as a Masquerade”). What Doane sees as crucial in Riviere’s theory is the power of the masquerade, “in flaunting femininity, [to hold] it at a distance,” (81), to simulate the missing gap with which woman is aligned, “to manufacture a lack in the form of a certain distance between oneself and one’s image.” (82) This missing gap is associated with the power of re-vision attributed to the male subject. Doane cites the section of Freud’s “Some Psychological Consequences of the Anatomical Differences Between the Sexes” in which Freud claims the little girl “makes her judgment and her decision in a flash” upon seeing the penis for the first time, in stark contrast to the male subject, in whom a gap occurs between sight and knowledge in making sense of the cis female genitals, this gap ultimately “[preparing] the ground for fetishism” (80) as well as the distance requisite to a mastery over images and signifying systems. To masquerade, to flaunt one’s own femininity, is thus to recreate this gap with whose lack the female subject is associated, granting the female subject access (or a simulation thereof) to the male structure of fetishistic, controlling, distant viewing, at least as concerns her own image.

The Silence of the Lambs‘s Jame Gumb conducts a feminine masquerade of his own, with greater parallels to the process delineated by Riviere and Doane than one might expect. Essential to our understanding of Gumb’s psyche (and essential to the grain of salt with which one is to take the film’s politic of queerness) is Lecter’s claim that “Billy is not a real transsexual… Billy hates his own identity, you see, and he thinks that makes him a transsexual. But his pathology is a thousand times more savage and more terrifying.” That Gumb should attempt to alter his own image in responding to this pathology is the commonality between Doane’s woman and Gumb: both simulate a gap between themselves as subject/active/seeing and as object/passive/being seen in order to gain mastery over their own image. Gumb does so in response to self-hatred, while Doane’s woman does so in response to a patriarchal overdetermination of woman as image.

Their motivation, however, seems to be irrelevant, insofar as the process is essentially in the same in each (at least, as Marcus Aurelius would see it, “in itself”). However, this alignment is arguably the site of a failing of Doane’s argument: the gender politic on which it relies is, in its binary essentialism, already complicit in reinforcing the equation of femininity with objecthood which the text seems to be chastising. While this equation is, on the one hand, somewhat self-evident in our culture (and, moreover, our culture’s films), the restrictiveness of Doane’s theory seems only to perpetuate that problematic, in the face of a host of options that might well contradict or subvert it.

What does he do, this man you seek?

– He kills women.

No. That is incidental. What is the first thing he does? What needs does he serve by killing?

– Anger. Social acceptance. Sexual frustrations.

No. He covets. That is his nature. And how do we begin to covet, Clarice? Do we seek out things to covet? Make an effort to answer now.

– No. We just…

No, we begin by coveting what we see every day. Don’t you feel eyes moving over your body, Clarice? And don’t your eyes seek out the things you want?

The locus of Gumb’s relationship to women is a covetous desire, one established principally by the traditional Mulveyan scopic regime of male/seeing and female/being seen. In attempting the masquerade, then, Gumb is already lending credence to this regime, operating under the equation of femininity and image – an image whose distance from his masculine self-concept is helpful, but perhaps incidental. That Doane’s masquerade differs in no meaningful way other than the gender identity of the subject involved thus already assumes, on the part of the female subject, an acceptance of this same regime.

Doane summarizes her argument in her final paragraph: “Above and beyond a simple adoption of the masculine position in relation to the cinematic sign, the female spectator is given two options: the masochism of over-identification or the narcissism entailed in becoming one’s own object of desire, in assuming the image in the most radical way. The effectivity of masquerade lies precisely in its potential to manufacture a distance from the image, to generate a problematic within which the image is manipulable, producible, and readable by the woman.” (87) The masquerade is thus presented in contrast to this adoption of the masculine position, what she calls a “transvestism” of spectatorship in the case of the female subject. However, I would argue that this masquerade, insofar as it already assumes the equation of woman and image, is itself another form of “transvestism,” though a more circuitous one: it is precisely in flaunting her own femininity that the female subject falls into this masculine position with regards to her own image, in that the motivation of this flaunt presupposes that the position she will find herself in, having successfully simulated the distance associated with the masculine viewing subject, is already indicatively male.

Alien and the Crack in the Symbolic

An essential feature of the Real (and one subject to a common misconception) is that it only comes into being following the subject’s entrance into the symbolic. Rather than predating the symbolic order, it is created as a result of the symbolic order’s fundamental insufficiency, as that which always necessarily escapes symbolization and signification – in Slavoj Žižek’s words, “the Real – the Thing – is not so much the inert presence which curves the symbolic space… but, rather, an effect of these gaps and inconsistencies” (“Troubles with the Real: Lacan as a Viewer of Alien“). Žižek cites the alien from Ridley Scott’s Alien as an example of the Lacanian Real, specifically in the form of what Lacan dubs the “lamella,” or the hommelette. The lamella is the archetypal example of Freud’s idea of the autonomous partial object: “a thin flat scale, membrane, or layer” (Merriam Webster) which was initially part of a whole on which it ought to depend, but which disturbingly finds the ability to outlive its host, and to outlive even its deadness; it is “undead in the sense this term has in horror fiction.” As Žižek points out, there is no better analogy for this lamella than that of Alien: it begins quite literally as the “something [that] flies off” of the broken membrane of the egg, and proceeds to “[go] everywhere,” “[survive] any division,” and, perhaps most uncannily, “come and envelop” Kane’s face. Lamella evokes the Real in its resistance to any effort to impose the signifying order upon it; in its “infinite plasticity,” it changes form too rapidly to be sufficiently restrained by a signifier or set thereof. While this might thus push it into the realm of the imaginary, Žižek argues that it is nonetheless “a kind of limit-image: the image to cancel all images, the image that endeavors to stretch the imagination to the very border of the irrepresentable.” Alien makes manifest the idea of this limit-image in the seeming unrepresentability of the alien itself (at least once it has taken on its larger, more monstrous form), the camera unwilling or unable to proffer to the viewer an image of it that isn’t somehow marred or disfigured by extreme distance or extreme close-up, rapid montage, pipes, steam, or some other visual obstacle designed to maintain at a distance the obscene too-much-ness for which the alien stands.

Of equal import is the alien’s evasion of the symbolic. Despite being the title of the film, the word “alien” appears only twice within its dialogue, and its first utterance (Kane, on board the alien vessel that initially sent the warning message: “Alien life form. It looks like it’s been dead a long time. Fossilised.”) is in reference to a different alien altogether than the one that terrorizes the Nostromo. Alien‘s characters seem to prefer the signifier “it” (perhaps all the more apt for its very ambiguity) when referring to their unwelcome guest on board, illustrating the failure of the symbolic in accommodating the obscenity of lamella. This failure of the symbolic is illustrated all the more robustly in one of the film’s final sequences, in which Ripley, having braved the horror of the death of all of her crewmates and the destruction of the ship only to find that her guest has joined her in her escape plan, starts singing to herself almost incomprehensibly. The utter nonsense of what she is singing – “you are my lucky star” – seems to me not some sort of re-imposition of the logic of the symbolic order at the moment that she succeeds in at last disposing of the obscene object, but rather an insistence upon the nonsense that already characterizes the symbolic order: having encountered the traumatic kernel of the Real, there is no signifier that can impose logic once more (such a signifier could, in fact, never have existed). In a sense, Ripley’s song is another figuration of Kurtz’s manifesto in Apocalypse Now: a signifying chain without even the mirage of a signified.

This failure seems at first to contrast with the ways in which the symbolic operates at the start of the film, characterized in part by the borderline-farcical sci-fi jargon that Ash and the other bearers of phallogocentric authority recite in its earlier sequences – “Ascension: Six minutes, 20 seconds. Declination: 39 degrees, two seconds” – which seems, in its authority, to cohere well enough. However, the crucial point of Alien (and, moreover, that of Lacan) is that there is no fundamental difference between this use of signifiers and Ripley’s song; each bears an equally untenable relationship to the impossible signified. The scientific precision of the language employed in the film’s earlier sequences is reminiscent of Freud’s dream of Irma’s injection: in Žižek’s words, “language deprived of the wealth of its human sense, transformed into the Real of a meaningless formula.” Ash provides something of a meaningless formula when he says of the alien, “I have confirmed that he’s got an outer layer of protein polysaccharides. He has a funny habit of shedding his cells and replacing them with polarised silicone, which gives him a prolonged resistance to adverse environmental conditions. Is that enough?” The ambivalence writ into Ripley’s response seems to mirror that of the subject’s response to the symbolic order at large, necessitating that it cohere, assuring themself that it contains some signified, though they’re not quite sure what it is: “That’s plenty. What does it mean?”

Peeping Tom and the Auditory Real

The camera and the filmic medium at large have a propensity to trouble the three orders – symbolic, imaginary, Real – defined by Lacan. The camera hovers between symbolic and imaginary, at once reproducing images outside of language and creating its own language in so doing, as well as relying to a large degree upon traditional spoken or written language to supplement its imaginary creations. This ambivalence of the camera is subject to no small spillage of ink, notably that of Christian Metz’s “The Imaginary Signifier,” but all too often one crucial component of the cinematic arrangement is conspicuously absent: the audio-track. Metz makes reference to the role of the “audio” in audiovisual only infrequently and parenthetically via extrapolations of the scopic arrangement, making little allowance for the fundamentally different relationship between the “spectator” (even his choice of words here is telling) and the audio-track. After describing voyeurism’s dependence on lack, Metz writes:

The same could be said, making the necessary modifications of course, about the invocatory (auditory) drive, less closely studied by psychoanalysis hitherto, with the exception of writers like Lacan and Guy Rosolato. I shall merely recall that of all hallucinations – and what reveals the dissociation of desire and real object better than the hallucination? – the main ones by far are visual and auditory hallucinations, those of the senses at a distance (this is also true of the dream, another form of hallucination). (60)

While Metz perhaps acknowledges the need for “necessary modifications” in schematizing the role of the audio-track in his model of the cinematic arrangement, such modifications are nowhere to be found in his essay.

This oversight (pardon the expression) is rather glaring in light of the relationship between sound and image put forward in Peeping Tom. The film makes for a unique structuring of the symbolic/imaginary distinction in its narrative insertion of the camera into the Oedipal structure: on the one hand, the camera is aligned with the father who wielded it at and gifted it to Mark; on the other, it is aligned with the mother by its substitutively maternal role insofar as it is gifted to Mark on the occasion of his father’s remarriage and thus his mother’s death. As Kaja Silverman points out, Mark also bears a would-be dyadic, imaginary, mother-infant relationship to the camera in which he sees it nearly as an extension of himself, afraid to leave the house without it and pressing it desirously to his body. To complicate things further, Mark’s father’s relationship to the camera is troubled in the scene in which he is seen giving it to Mark: as soon as he steps into the frame the shot becomes blurry; if he is on the side of the camera’s system of representation, he is yet unable to be reproduced by it. (Of note here in some capacity is the fact that Michael Powell, whose name appears prominently over a close-up of the camera in the opening credits, plays the role of Mark’s father.)

What helps to resolve this complicated model is the alignment of vocality and textuality with the father. The textual link is clear – the walls of Mark’s (father’s) apartment are lined with his prolific father’s books, the mother having no such claim to literariness. The vocal arrangement is less cut and dry. We hear the father’s voice at three key moments in the film: first when Mark shows Helen the footage his father recorded of him as a child, then when Helen reads the opening of one of Mark’s father’s books, and lastly at the very close of the film, when Mark’s library of tape recordings sounds in an atemporal chorus of screams and voices. Each of these utterances is, to borrow from Chion, acousmatic, and as such bears an ambiguous relationship to the diegesis of the film, the first having no ostensible narrative source and not seeming to be heard by the characters, the second understood to be the voiceover of text Helen is reading and thus not really “occurring” as such, the third seemingly heard by the police officer onscreen at the time but troubled by its already having occurred verbatim more or less outside of the diegetic world. The audio-track – specifically here, the voice of the father – thus plays a privileged role with respect to the image, liberated from the gaze of which the audience-member is the sole producer, thus, per Metz, “making” the image they are at once receiving. The audience’s agency is null as concerns the audio-track, shy of sticking their fingers in their ears, they are powerless to its presence. Peeping Tom narrativizes this split between audio and image-track to no small degree; as Silverman notes, Mark’s “auditory drive” – linked again to the father insofar as it is Dr. Lewis who installed the system of audio surveillance found in the house – only surfaces at the climax of the film, being subject to a far greater repression than his scoptophilic fetish.

The order of the camera thus bifurcated along imaginary and symbolic lines, the realm of the auditory – that which is outside of the camera’s representation – and the father with which it is aligned might thus belong to the order of the Real; this alignment coming into being only in response to the ambivalent bifurcation that already characterizes the film’s visual-representational order. This idea of the audio-Real is in fact all too intuitive a takeaway from Peeping Tom; from the film’s very opening sequence sound is made issue of as that which escapes the realm of symbolic/imaginary visual representation when the opening sequence replays in the credits with a substitutive soundtrack taking the place of its original, “real” sound. The most characteristically Real of these sounds is, naturally, the woman’s scream at the end of the sequence; screams exemplify the idea of the Real by coming into being through the same apparatus as spoken language and yet remaining utterly outside of it. With this in mind, thinking of the audio-Real in relation to Dr. Lewis likewise only makes sense: his studies, after all, involve eliciting screams from his own son through such horrific experiments as throwing a lizard in his bed and waking him up, camera at the ready.

That this audio-Real should be subject to so great a repression in Mark’s psyche and thus in the text itself of Peeping Tom might thus be read as narrativizing the repression of this audio-Real in mainstream cinema itself. Peeping Tom insists upon the coherence of the visual-representational even when pointedly critiquing its exploitations at the hands of contemporary filmmakers. Only in its eleventh hour does the conceit of this insistence reveal itself as an oversight, when the Real (the horror) missing from its system of representation is made issue of as Mark reveals the system of tapes. Peeping Tom thus displays a keen awareness not only of narrative cinema’s snuff-like relation to the objects it films, but also of the haphazard, disinterested treatment of sound in the audio-visual, and thus an awareness of the disavowal of the horrific Real that the auditory gives access to in response to the very insufficiency of the visual-representational.

Above: Michael Powell as Dr. A. N. Lewis, keeper of the Real, keeping one foot outside of the symbolic order even as he’s inscribed into it.

Persona(e) and the Fantasy of Wholeness

One of the most striking shots in Bergman’s confounding opening sequence to Persona is that of the young boy reaching out and attempting to touch the blurry image of a female face. Framed by sequences that leave no doubt as to the meta-cinematic nature of the film – first and foremost, the shots of the projector and the reel of film – this image also functions meta-cinematically, commenting on the very medium which is producing it. It thus posits a figuration of the cinematic apparatus in which the viewer is, or desires to be, in an imaginary relationship to the image, paralleling the original, imaginary, dyadic relationship between child and m/other, all the more literal in that the boy is credited as Elisabet’s son. The very mediation of the cinematic medium – here, the screen within the screen toward which the boy is reaching – is exactly what prevents this contact from ever occurring as such, operating as the non du père interrupting the imaginary and dyadic relationship, bringing the child into the restrictive matrix that is the symbolic, and placing cinematic representation in the order of the symbolic. On the one hand, this only makes sense – cinematic representation, is, after all, representation, and thus belongs to the world of language. At the same time, however, cinematic representation is here the only thing that presents to the child the imaginary image of its mother, imbuing the image with the capability to proffer to the viewer that desired state to which the viewer cannot return. This simultaneous presence and absence is a fundamental component of Christian Metz’s figuration of the cinematic arrangement in his essay, “The Imaginary Signifier,” in which he resolves the tension of this presence/absence with the following formulation:

The Law is what permits desire: the cinematic equipment is the instance thanks to which the imaginary turns into the symbolic, thanks to which the lost object (the absence of what is filmed) becomes the law and the principle of a specific and instituted signifier, which it is legitimate to desire. (76)

Persona, however, makes for a complicated case in applying Metz’s model, insofar as it goes to such great lengths to underscore the failings of its own representation, drawing conspicuous awareness to itself as medium and also to the myriad threats that trouble specifically cinematic representation – the burning and tearing of the film reel being perhaps the best example. Persona knows very well the impossibility of representation that constitutes its very being as a film, and makes the viewer aware of it as well, discouraging the disavowal necessary to partake in – identify with – conventional narrative cinema, “je sais bien, mais quand même.” The effect of discouraging this disavowal is not merely one of Brechtian distanciation, however. In showing us the impossible desire that structures our position as viewer, in underlining the irretrievability of the lost object of our desire, Persona raises the question of what desire we are attempting to satisfy by watching it – a question that, in a sense, it answers almost immediately in the above shot. More than just a film about film, Persona is, in many ways, a film about the fracturing of identity that constitutes our very being as subjects, a theme elaborated across the seemingly infinite number of more or less equally (in)valid ways of conceiving of Alma and Elisabet’s relationship – they both are and are not lovers, sisters, the same person, so on and so forth. The uncharacterizability of Alma and Elisabet’s relationship simply allegorizes that of our relationship to ourselves: an asymptotic effort to close the fracture between the two I’s who come into being in the wake of the mirror stage, an endeavor naturally fraught with dangerous projections and disavowals. What we (and what Alma and Elisabet) really desire is to be made whole – a desire elaborated as impossible in the shot of Elisabet’s son, the impossibility of their conjunction as impossible as the exodus from the symbolic order that such a return to the imaginary would entail. We might say therefore that the viewer’s presumed desire – at the least, curiosity – surrounding the potentially sexual nature of Alma and Elisabet’s relationship is an allegory (perhaps, even, a projection) of the desire to reconcile this split in personality. Scenes of intense eroticism, most notably that of Alma’s recounting of her orgy, are of no small import here; they invite the viewer to wish (project) upon them this conjunction with all the more fervor. However, the film ultimately shows us the result of such a conjunction, always-already failed, and its effect is, undeniably, one of horror.

To return to “The Imaginary Signifier,” Metz writes, “To fill in this distance [between voyeur and object] would threaten to overwhelm the subject, to lead him to consume the object (the object which is now too close so that he cannot see it any more), to bring him to orgasm… Orgasm is the object rediscovered in a state of momentarily illusion; it is the phantasy suppression of the gap between object and subject” (60). What Bergman presents here is exactly this phantasy suppression, Alma and Elisabet fused together in a grotesque janus-like image reminiscent of Frankenstein’s monster. The filling in of the distance between Alma and Elisabet stands in for the filling in of the distance between Alma/Elisabet and the film’s spectator, who voyeuristically desires this closure of the distance between them (a distance underscored by the shadow that serves as seam – and therefore tear – between the two, evoking the torn photograph and film reel seen earlier in the film and thus the mediation of the symbolic order). The horror with which Bergman renders this sequence is arguably Persona at its most poignant: a forceful, didactic, almost punitive display of the real object of our (voyeuristic) desire (the suppression of the gap between Alma and Elisabet), at the same time as a mournful commentary on its own portrayal and on the act of cinema at large, marring the cinematic fantasy by insisting not only on its horror, but also its utter impossibility, injecting the symbolic into the imaginary at the moment we think we truly behold what escapes the symbolic.

The Imaginary Signifier and the Collapse of Voyeuristic Desire

One of Metz’s many claims about the essential nature of the cinema is that insofar as cinema as a recording inscribes the fundamental absence of that which is shown (by way of the necessary spatial and temporal distance between production and projection), cinematic representation is the perfect titillation (which is not to say the fulfillment) of the voyeuristic desire of the “perceiving drive,” which depends upon exactly this distance achieved via the inscription of the object’s lack. In Metz’s words, “as opposed to other drives, the ‘perceiving drive’… concretely represents the absence of its object in the distance at which it maintains it and which is part of its very definition: distance of the look, distance of listening.” (59) This distance is crucial for the voyeur: “his look fastens the object at the right distance… represent[ing] in space the fracture which forever separates him from the object; he represents his very dissatisfaction (which is precisely what he needs as a voyeur), and thus also his ‘satisfaction’ insofar as it is of a specifically voyeuristic type. To fill in this distance would threaten to overwhelm the subject, to lead him to consume the object (the object which is now too close so that he cannot see it anymore)” (60). If the fundamental ingredient of this distance is the spatial-temporal separation of spectator and film, the collapse of this distance – the appearance of the spectator in the represented world – would thus “overwhelm” the spectator. While the spectator can never appear as such in the world of the film’s diegesis, there are a number of ways that the film can interpolate the spectator, troubling – if not collapsing – the distance between them.

One way of interpolating the spectator is to turn the gaze of a character within the film onto the camera, troubling this distance in that the spectator’s gaze (which is also that of the camera, with which the spectator identifies) meets that of the character, breaking down the otherwise one-sided structure of viewing (“I take no part in the perceived, on the contrary, I am all-perceiving” (Metz 48)). A famous example of this is, of course, the scene in Rear Window in which Mr. Thorwald realizes he is being watched and turns his gaze towards Jefferies’ apartment, locking eyes with the spectator who, like Jefferies, has been watching Thorwald through an apparatus. The relationship between this scene and Metz’s theory of the cinema is rather self-evident: the spectator is, to say the least, overwhelmed. The fracture which separates Jefferies (and thus the viewer) from his object has been removed, and his voyeuristic pleasure is unseated (pun intended) by a fear of punishment from Thorwald, who soon comes into Jeff’s salle obscure, nearly killing him. But this example is a charged one, insofar as this breach of perceived-perceiver is itself woven into the narrative, and thus bears consequences for Jeff, with whom we are (secondarily) identified. In counterpoint to Rear Window would be an interpolation of the spectator without narrative thrust, such as in Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou, when Ferdinand turns suddenly to face the camera, complaining in cinematic apostrophe of his seatmate, Marianne:

Ferdinand: Vous voyez? Elle ne pense qu’à rigoler.
Marianne: A qui tu parles?
Ferdinand: Au spectateur.

Marianne here turns toward the camera, “ah”-ing in approval. The spectator has been interpolated perhaps even more deliberately than in Rear Window; the spectator’s gaze has been met by that of two characters, who verbally acknowledge and even address the spectator directly. Like Rear Window, this elicits a strong response in the spectator, though it is not one of horror; if anything, it is playful, comedic even. Perhaps this ambiguity of response is writ into Metz’s characterization of this filling of distance; to continue the passage quoted earlier, “To fill in this distance would threaten to overwhelm the subject… to bring him to orgasm and the pleasure of his own body, hence to the exercise of other drives, mobilising the senses of contact and putting an end to scopic arrangement… Orgasm is the object rediscovered in a state of momentary illusion; it is the phantasy suppression of the gap between object and subject” (60). It is exactly this quality of the breach of perceiver-perceived that gives Thorwald’s gaze such thrust in Rear Window; insofar as the spectator is, momentarily, both the caster and the receiver of the gaze (both components of which are of his own creation – “it is I who make the film” (Metz 48)), the gap between object and subject is suppressed. The same can be said of Pierrot; while Rear Window makes a larger issue of this breach by imbuing it with narrative consequence (and, moreover, by rooting it in the subjective point of view of a character with whom we are secondarily identified), the dual role of the spectator as caster and receiver of the gaze nonetheless allows for a “phantasy suppression of the gap between object and subject.” The difference in affect might be chalked up to the ambiguity of affect in orgasm itself (referring both to Metz’s word choice and the physical sensation it describes). Rear Window might well exemplify the time-honored French euphemism, “la petite mort”; Pierrot‘s breach is one closer to the realm of playfulness and titillation.

Metz continues, “In [the looking drive] we do not find that illusion, however brief, of a lack filled, of a non-imaginary, of a full relation to the object… If it is true of all desire that it depends on the infinite pursuit of its absent object, voyeuristic desire… is the only desire whose principle of distance symbolically and spatially evokes this fundamental rent.” (60) This does not undermine the petite mort the spectator experiences in watching Rear Window; if anything, it explains its gravitas insofar as Thorwald’s gaze violently interrupts a precept of this looking drive. It also, however, gives us a hint as to Godard’s motivation in including his version of the spectatorial rupture; this scene, in its staunch absence of narrative import, serves only to underscore the irreality of Ferdinand and Marianne insofar as they are solely cinematic figments of our/Godard’s imagination. To interpolate the spectator here is thus something of a game with the spectator on Godard’s part, a taunting reminder that what we are watching, what we are enjoying, does not exist, and whatever jouissance we are getting out of it is as illusory and fleeting as the suppression of the gap between object and subject that orgasm promises. In this sense, it’s perhaps the perfect elaboration of Metz’s definition of the cinema as a “perfected strip-tease” (77), constantly dressing and undressing the spaces it depicts, toying with the spectator by withholding that which we think we want, precisely because it knows better.

Pierrot le fou (Godard, 1965)

Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1954)

Eye’s Bayou and the Primal Cinema

One of the recurring questions in our discussion of Eve’s Bayou (as, indeed, has been recurrent throughout this course) was that of the possibility of a female gaze, cf. Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” which, as we know, leaves this issue to the side. Eve’s Bayou presents a pattern of viewing largely novel in our consideration of issues of psychoanalysis and cinema, via the black femme seer figures who help the spectator (as well as characters within in the film) make sense of sequences that don’t easily lend themselves to interpretation. In “Reflections on Black Femme,” Keeling describes these sequences in terms of Deleuze’s concept of the “‘any-space-whatever’ wherein viewers (and Eve and Mozelle) see what Deleuze has identified as cinematic time, a present that passes and a past which is preserved” (Keeling 152). This impossible temporality afforded by cinema is exactly the temporality that characterizes Eve’s Bayou, both the place and the eponymous film: in the vein of the original totemic clan’s internalization and endless repetition of the original Oedipal sin and the guilt that results in Freud’s “Totem and Taboo,” Eve’s Bayou is too gripped by a psyche-like determining structure across generations, one which stems from the original primal scene between Eve and Jean Batiste. The narrative of the film posits an inescapable compulsion for all of “Eve’s children” to repeat this ambiguously described, quasi-incestuous primal scene throughout the history of Eve’s Bayou, the repetition of which necessarily reenacts the enslavement that preceded the original act: like Deleuze’s cinematic time, the present passing, the past eternally preserved.

Keeling identifies two different logics at play in the film – the one, that of bourgeois sociality, of paternal order, embodied chiefly by Louis and his socially recognized success and rejection of alternative systems of logic; and the other, that of precisely these alternative systems of logic that Louis rejects, most notably voodoo, embodied chiefly by Mozelle and her wisdom that runs counter to Louis’s “common sense”. The two primary registers of viewing in the film, then – that of linear, narrative time and that of the “any-space-whatever” of Eve and Mozelle’s visions – run parallel to these two logics at play. The relationship between the two is, as Keeling points out, “inimical” (151): Eve and Mozelle’s visions “are the images frequently called forth to provide bourgeois sociality with an irrational ‘other'” (151) against which their systems of logic are defined and upheld. Accordingly, Eve’s Bayou presents us with an opportunity to conceive of a female gaze via exactly these “any-spaces-whatever,” whose sole producers and interpreters – seers – are female, and whose logic diametrically opposes that of the masculine order of conventional cinema. Keeling doesn’t identify the pattern of viewing that Eve and Mozelle exhibit as that of the female gaze, however; while femininity is an essential component of their identity concerning their seer abilities, Keeling foregrounds their race alongside their femininity, writing of their role in upholding the “black femme function” of pointing to the out-of-frame: “With one foot in an aporia and one foot in the set of what appears, the black femme currently is a reminder that the set of what appears is never perfectly closed… the black femme, while a product of [what appears], also might be a portal to a reality that does not operate according to the dictates of the visible and the epistemological, ethical, and political logics of visibility” (143).

Returning to Mulvey, we might say that Eve and Mozelle’s black femme function, particularly as expressed via the recurrent pattern of vision followed by narration (without which latter the former would be unintelligible) is the closest thing to a constitutively female gaze offered by our studies thus far; it’s a pattern of viewing completely unavailable to the male figures in the film, and one which exists in diametrical, “inimical” opposition to the bourgeois sociality with which these male figures are associated. However, just as Eve’s Bayou “is not capable of setting into motion another form of sociality” (158) insofar as it relies on common sense patterns of narrative closure which necessarily restrict the alternative sociality towards which the black femme motions, this female gaze is born out of the dominant cinematic structure that constitutes the bulk of the film and upon which the spectator relies to make sense of it. In this sense, Eve’s Bayou‘s effort to create an alternative cinema is itself a repetition of the “primal cinema” from which it descends; like the black femme, it must have one foot in each space, gesturing towards the out-of-frame but doing so already from halfway within, and thus reenacting the norms of cinematic hegemony from which it seeks in some degree to deviate. The parallel might be drawn thus to the very relationship between Eve and Louis’ narrative and that of Eve and Jean Batiste: in consummating the Oedipal-qua-murderous desire to kill the father and break free of his rule, the filmmakers, like Eve, find themselves in the perennial “now what” on which the film closes, ultimately upholding the father’s rule via both the grief Eve and Cisely exhibit for their father (which, if “Totem and Taboo” is any indication, is itself bound to be repeated for infinite generations to come, and is itself only a repetition of the band of brothers’ original parricide), and the return to dominant cinematic norms which characterizes this ending. Eve’s Bayou‘s model of the female gaze thus has “one foot in” the dominant and thus associatively male patterns of cinematic construction on which the film ultimately relies, raising the question of the extent to which the female gaze might ever succeed in a rupture from the primal cinema, and whether the past that is this dominant cinema might nevertheless be “eternally preserved” in whatever offshoots it begets.