Eden in the Bayou

The Lasting Magic of Eve's Bayou

In “Reflections on the Black Femme’s Role in the (Re)Production of Cinematic Reality,” Kara Keeling hypothesizes the locus of discomfort as it relates to the Black Femme. The Black Femme, she writes, worked to hold together the tenuous social fabric of the enslaved family, and in doing so she was un-gendered. Look no further than the catalyzing event of “Eve’s Bayou,” a film entirely interested in the many iterations of the Black Femme. The film begins with extra-diegetic narration: Žižek’s “voice without a bearer.” An adult Eve recounts, with a certain reverence, the tale of her namesake, the original (well — not that original) Eve.

The White soldier frees the Black woman. Perhaps (perhaps!) in gratitude, she bears him sixteen children. So it is here that we are given our first glimpse of incest in “Eve’s Bayou,” no matter how much it may crop up later. Although the “real” relationship between Eve and John Batiste has the same ambiguous flavor of the many relationships that populate the rest of the film, contemporaneously it would have been regarded as such, in innumerability. There is, of course, the insidious function of slaveowner as Father, with his slaves bearing his own surname (that great signifier). But though the slaveowner might figure himself as Father, Keely sees the Black Femme as excluded from the Oedipal construction. Her domestic labor, not done for the profit of the White man, deviates so entirely from the “normative” mother role so as to become…monstrous?

The Black Femme function is first helmed by Roz Batiste, Eve’s mother. After a vision from her sister-in-law, Mozelle, of one of her children involved in a traffic accident, she locks the house down. This act of overprotection is seen as downright tyrannical by the eldest daughter, Cisely, who sneaks out to get her hair done — in much the same style as her mother, I might add. And this lockdown does nothing to hem in the philandering urges of her husband, Dr. Batiste, who is never, it seems, ever home. In this way the Father is excluded from the engulfing behavior of the Black Femme Mother.

And then there is Eve herself. We see in her aunt Mozelle what Sight does to a woman, what the Sight could do to Eve. After losing three husbands, Mozelle has deemed herself cursed; a Black Widow. But while in one figuration, the Black Widow is monstrous, nefarious, poisonous, in another, it is simply an animal — evolved to exist within a competitive food chain. The Sight is a curse, perhaps, but then Keely characterizes it as a gift:

Gifted with “sight,” Eve frames the disintegration of the form of sociality set in motion by her ancestors Eve and Jean Paul and creates the sensory-motor pathways that support a form of sociality in which she, her sister, her Aunt Mozelle, and mother Roz might survive. Orchestrating her father’s death and rejecting the written Law of the Father in favor of the wisdom of sensuous visions, Eve at the end of the film seems to have made possible a new community, one in which seers, though still fettered to the mechanisms whereby cinematic reality and its hellish cycles are reproduced, are capable nonetheless of acting and surviving (Keely, 155).

This gift of sight marks Eve and Mozelle as different, as unnatural — but with it Eve sees a way to protect her mother, aunt, and sister. In the final shot, Eve has drowned her father’s letter (“rejecting the written Law of the Father”), trusting instead her “sight” — that which we cannot see, or truly know. This is another feature of the Black Femme function, this complete, out-of-field unknowability which protects the interests not of the Father, but the affective family. The final shot of the film is of the two sisters, close as ever. A crane buoys the camera up and away, a blissful nature scene coming into frame. Within the bayou, at least, Eve has created a new mode of sociality, one that is existent beyond the realm of the Father. She has purged all phallic authority — quite literally — in favor of an unseen (unseeable) jouissance. Living this way, contained and out of frame, Eve as seer can exercise the Black Femme function, encircling the women in her family in her own marshy Eden.

Eve's Bayou | Louisiana Travel

Enjoying Your Nothing

The old masters used to populate their paintings with still more paintings, nesting within them layers upon layers of mise-en-abyme. It is in this way that they could flex their artistry; a victory lap, you could say, of a runner who has already reached the finish line.

In “Bad Education,” Pedro Almodóvar has much the same idea. There is La Visita, the autobiographical short story authored by the character of Ignacio. There is Enrique’s cinematic treatment of the story, told proleptically as the director envisions a future version of the film. Then there is Father Manolo, now Berenguer, narrating the text of La Visita. Step back once more and we see Almodóvar, writing and directing this clearly personal film, a story about a writer/director who writes and directs because there is no other way to parse the reality (“reality”) in which he finds himself.

These layers of textuality, applied thickly on top of one another, can produce a somewhat claustrophobic effect. What is diagetic? What is objective truth? Who (who!) is Ignacio? With all these coats of symbolically signified “reality,” we are buoyed above, and away, from the thing the film never quite lets us see.

The void, the black screen, the nothing. A zero.

The first time we approach this forbidden absence, Ignacio’s face has split in two. And thus the zero divides the Child. But lest we be fooled into thinking that we could ever really approach this nothing (or, to put it another way, the Real), the face of Father Manolo appears (well, the actor that plays Manolo in Enrique’s cinematic treatment).

In “Learning Nothing,” this moment is characterized as not only a glimpse into Ignacio’s first attempted sodomization at the hands of the Father, but a slightly discomforting acknowledgment of the Child’s own jouissance. Here, the Child has learned to equate jouissance with the zero, with nothing. As far as the symbolic order is concerned, however, this is a bad education. In fact, it’s terrible. Father Manolo, an educator in all of that term’s redundancy (a priest, a teacher, and Ignacio’s personal mentor), has done what no “good” educator should ever do — he has introduced the zero. And so the Child is set on the death drive, mounting the mechanized motorbike that will lead to his total unbeing.

The aspect ratio shifts; the film is constituted by this black frame. We do not linger on zero, if only because it does not exist. Zero is an ontological construction that exists to constitute the one. There can be no Being without Nonbeing, just as there can be no Adult without the Child. Apply this exclusion to any other ontological category: Blackness, Queerness, Womanness — it makes no difference.

So we are volleyed back to the symbolic, and the game starts again. Learning about zero only constitutes a one.

Enjoying Your Symptom

One full hour of “Silence of the Lambs” passes until Hannibal Lecter has claimed his first on-screen victim. This is not to say that his cannibalism was some kind of secret — he is framed, for audience-conduit and FBI trainee Clarice Starling, as someone worth fearing; as if to underline this, Chilton produces a crime scene photograph. Although we never see the image itself, the photo captures (as explained by Chilton) one of Hannibal’s victims, mauled to death. This unnamed woman, signifier-less and face-less, calls to mind some of Doane’s musings on the censorship of the female gaze.

In Un Regarde Oblique, the male gaze cuts across the photograph, finding its terminal in the ornately framed nude; an epitomization, perhaps, of male fetish. But the female gaze cannot be so accounted for, and thus frames Doane’s reading of the picture:

Indeed, as a subject of the gaze, the woman looks intently. But not only is the object of her look concealed from the spectator, her gaze is encased by the two poles defining the masculine axis of vision. Fascinated by nothing visible — a blankness or void for the spectator… the female gaze is left free-floating, vulnerable to subjection. (Doane, 85).

Clarice looks at the photograph; Chilton looks at Clarice. This is a test, and Clarice is determined to pass it. Desperate to be taken seriously, she can display no visible reaction to the photographed gore. But her attempt to subsume the male position only ratifies Doane’s conceptualization of the feminine “mask.” Call it the Joan of Arc model: while there is a broad societal understanding, even quasi-acceptance, of this gender masquerade (of course a woman would want to be anything but), the Woman (capital W in the Lacanian sense) is still firmly planted within the field of the male gaze. Clarice looks at the photograph, Chilton looks at Clarice. 

As the pair move through the bowels of the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, of which Chilton serves as director, the dichotomous relationship between law and criminality seems to be altogether conflated with that of sanity and insanity. Which is to say, the first is entirely predicated on the existence of the second. 

“Is this an ambush? Are you sent here to ruin my evening? And possibly my entire life?”: femininity as parasite in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread”

The first phantom of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread” is not a shred of sewing material, as the title suggests, but an entirely conventional ghost. Suddenly we see Reynolds’ mother, come to him in the hallucinogenic height of his poison-fueled illness. He sees her in the wedding dress he had once so lovingly sewed for her, he sees her as the Woman, the Mother, he constructed in tandem with the garment.

Are you here? Are you always here? I miss you. I think about you all the time. I hear your voice say my name when I dream and when I wake up, there are tears streaming down my face. I just miss you, it’s as simple as that. I want to tell you everything. I don’t understand what you’re saying. I can’t hear your voice.

Reynolds’ relation to his mother calls to mind that of Oedipus and his mother, but perhaps there is another figure we might map him onto, another denizen of Greek tragedy: Orpheus, reunited with his beloved Eurydice. She trails behind him, as they leave an otherworldly realm, but in return he can bear no confirmation of her presence. If he cannot look, hear, touch her, it seems he might as well not have her at all. Reynolds’ mother, lost to death, occupies the same position, incarnates the identical taboo of forbidden desire. We do not remember our total incorporation into the maternal term, but still we lack it. Like Orpheus, Reynolds is locked into a state of relentless absence. This thing (per Freud, das Ding) appears to be “present,” in fact standing at the foot of his bed, but of course we will never be the recipients of our own personal Objet petit a. “I don’t understand what you’re saying,” cries Reynolds. “I can’t hear your voice.”

Reynolds substitutes for this fundamental lack a series of fetish-objects. The dresses, of course. What better way to construct Woman (capital-W) than by tailoring her to your exact specifications? Enter Alma, who at first appears a prime candidate for the kind of “Pygmalion” game Reynolds wants to play. Falling in love with a statue, it seems, is not very far off from falling in love with a muse. And neither are very far off from falling in love with a Woman (capital-W), for as Zupančič writes,

Preachers of traditional values usually propagate the political exclusion of women precisely by evoking their (specific) identity. They believe that Woman exists, and they need Her to exist… Once again: this exclusion is not an exclusion of female identity; on the contrary, the mythology of female identity is precisely what has made this exclusion possible, and what sustains it.

Woman is mythic; hence she is phantasmic. Which brings us to Alma. In the final paragraph of last week’s post, I had this to say about Jacque Tourneur’s “Cat People:”

What separates human from animal? The soul? The mind? Well, it is Irena’s soul that is troubled, as she tells Dr. Judd, muddled up with that of a feline’s. It is for this reason that she cannot control her own libido, cannot disavow it. After all — for all her doe-eyed looks, her neatly-tailored dresses, her marriage to the all-American Oliver, Irena cannot shake her accent, that remnant of Eastern origin, of gothic fairy tales and witchy women. As Linderman writes, Irena is split in two, and her marked inability to fully assimilate, to disavow her basic self and abide by the norms of the symbolic order, leave her stuck — and stricken — in panther form.

There is something of Irena in Alma, something that has yet to be disavowed. Alma possesses a certain indefinability (the kind of indefinability, in fact, that must exist in order to conceptualize the very symbolic order), what Lacan would probably call feminine jouissance. Then, of course, there is the vaguely Othered accent. Alma, like Irena, conjures up a distinctly ethnic origin. She harvests mushrooms in the nearby forest, all gothic fairy tale and witchy woman.

phantom thread, 2017 – olga inoue

Why is it that Alma begins to poison Reynolds? Perhaps it is her jealousy, or her desire for control — if you believe those two things are in any way different. Like an invasive organism (say, a fungus), she has extended roots into his life, taken up a room within his home. She butters her toast too loudly; the sound pierces his eardrums. Thus she penetrates the house of Woodcock. Throughout much of “Phantom Thread,” Reynolds appears to separately adore and resent this fact, and the film is interested in this very interplay between pain and pleasure. At his most inflamed, Reynolds barrages Alma about possessing some secret gun.

phantom thread out of context on Twitter: "https://t.co/QNidSjWYX1" /  Twitter

There is no other explanation, in his unhinged figuration, for her wormed-in presence in his life, his home, his mind. The phantom gun of Reynolds’ imagination, the one that Alma conceals from him so cleverly, serves a twofold purpose: it is both phallic and destructive, both pleasure-giving and pleasure-revoking.

Reynolds submits to her omelette-making game; at her hands he will either live or die.

The natural has encroached on the mechanized; as Reynolds ingests the mushrooms, he is thus feminized. Lacan theorizes sexual difference as an ontological problem. “Woman” is not an entity but a position, a fantastical construction. In Ancient Rome, anal sex between two male figures was not figured as “homosexual” but as a power structure; not male-male but Penetrator-Penetrateé. In submitting himself for penetration, Reynolds has abandoned his role as male subject — if ever he was one.

The Kiss of the Panther-Woman: marriage as domestication in “Marnie” and “Cat People”

Cat People (1942 film) - Wikipedia

When I first began this week’s selection, Jacque Tourneur’s “Cat People,” I had the strange feeling I was watching a gender-swapped “Peeping Tom.” Both were midcentury horror films, for one, featuring vaguely European antiheroes. But once Irena and Oliver were safely married, it became entirely clear: “Cat People” was not female “Peeping Tom,” but Serbian “Marnie.”

“Marnie,” at some core, is a film about domestication. Marnie’s criminal tendencies are revealed from the outset; she entreats Mark, in fact, not to pursue her. But Mark fancies himself an amateur zoologist, and sets out to tame the un-tame-able, to catch the thief — and keep it for himself. Although Mark wears many dominative hats in “Marnie,” including boss, psychoanalyst, and, in one particularly difficult scene, rapist, it is in his role as husband that he finds he can exercise the maximum phallic authority. Once the papers are signed, Marnie is his wife. He has caged the beast.

Sophie, Mark’s “trained” jaguarandi
Marnie, Mark’s untrained wife

“Cat People,” too, is a film about domestication. Irena and Oliver first cross paths at a zoo — is there any more apt metaphor for man’s attempted enunciative mastery of nature than the practice of catching, caging, and charging crowds to ogle at wild animals in a profit-churning venue? Thus commences their courtship, and though Oliver’s pursuance of Irena may not be quite as dogged as Mark’s of Marnie, it is true that he is intent on making her his wife. Here we find Irena, much like Marnie, attempting to warn Oliver off of doing so. Irena’s cathood (or at least the anxiety produced by the possibility of her cathood) is entirely analagous to Marnie’s criminality. Both women carry a silent shame; what Linderman describes in “Cinematic Abreaction” as tantamount to a satanic mark. Though it manifests in separate forms, Marnie and Irena are markedly different from the normative women featured in each film: Lil in “Marnie,” Alice in “Cat People.”

In the patriarchal order, femininity exists only in its relation to the phallus. Lil and Alice, then, represent the basic failure of Marnie and Irena. Lil and Alice are transformed by their professed love (Lil’s for Mark, Alice’s for Oliver), but they do not become cats; no, instead they become “Cool Girls” (as immortalized in Amy Dunne’s monologue from David Fincher’s “Gone Girl”). In her love-declaration, Alice declares that she will take Oliver “as he is” — a 1942 version, perhaps, of this “Gone Girl” tidbit:

Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.

Though Marnie and Irena have long-shirked phallic authority (they are, we should note, fatherless), that organizational force that will sort them as acquiescent subjects in a binary system, they each encounter a love interest intent on assimilating (or, say, domesticating) them into social life — that is to say, the symbolic order. It is here that all parties discover that marriage, much like psychoanalysis, is interminable. These men may have speared the beast, but it still won’t let them pet her. Suddenly anxious about their own potential lack, both men turn to science, in fact to psychoanalysis — Oliver to Dr. Judd; Mark content to play Freud himself — in a desperate attempt to reinstate it, with abysmal results. In one particularly soapy moment, Mark unearths the kernel of Marnie’s trauma, but nothing changes. She is still desperately unhappy; she still recoils at his very touch. As for Dr. Judd? In a moment of deeply misguided counter-transference, he leans in to kiss Irena, and… well, Linderman put it best:

The moment of contact is deadly, fatal: lest the point be missed, the analyst is terminated by the film text as a sign of the fact that Irena’s analysis would otherwise be of the interminable sort.

Abandoning Marnie for a moment — Irena knew this to be true. She knew, for example, that psychoanalysis would not cure her (“I don’t feel you can help me. You’re very wise, you know a great deal, yet when you speak of the soul, you mean the mind, and it is not my mind that is troubled”), just as she knew that her marriage would fail. In the film, the interminability of both of these undertakings are due to her cat persona; metaphorically, she possesses a libido, a level of jouissance, that everyone around her has long disavowed. There is a supreme discomfort among the comfortably assimilated Western white in the presence of an uncaged wild animal, because of its direct connection to the primal horde. What separates human from animal? The soul? The mind? Well, it is Irena’s soul that is troubled, as she tells Dr. Judd, muddled up with that of a feline’s. It is for this reason that she cannot control her own libido, cannot disavow it. After all — for all her doe-eyed looks, her neatly-tailored dresses, her marriage to the all-American Oliver, Irena cannot shake her accent, that remnant of Eastern origin, of gothic fairy tales and witchy women. As Linderman writes, Irena is split in two, and her marked inability to fully assimilate, to disavow her basic self and abide by the norms of the symbolic order, leave her stuck — and stricken — in panther form.

The Twin Fantasy of a Utopian Wakanda

When prodigal son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) alights on the virtual cover that conceals his homeland, he can’t help but smile as the “real” Wakanda is unveiled. “Ah,” he says. “This never gets old.” A vision of third-world Africa dissipates to reveal a glimmering Afrofuturistic creation. Wakanda: the fantasy beneath the fantasy.

Black Panther (2018) dir. Ryan Coogler | Black panther 2018, Black panther,  Ryan coogler

Žižek identifies the surface fantasy as the digestible of the two, a celebration of Black culture, and indeed Black power, by way of pop cultural inclusion. This fantasy iterates a neoliberal framework that is made starkly clear by the end of the film: Wakanda must open its borders, joining a neoliberal framework of international relations, and T’Challa must cooperate with Agent Ross, himself a proxy for the dogmatic agenda of the United States. Then, of course, there is Žižek’s second fantasy, obfuscated by the first. This is the fantasy of Africa as “Dark Continent,” that unknowable, un-penetrable primordial land. Last week, Pressure Point illustrated in no uncertain terms how xenophobic ideologies are best cloaked in orientalizing fantasy; a literalized version of what Hook dubs the racism of jouissance. The Other belongs to a world both loathsome and envy-inducing; thus The Other must be dominated. The first fantasy, Žižek’s posits, provides the alibi by which the white Western audience can enjoy the second.

“The West is still in charge of conceiving and mediating a fantasy of Africa. Grosrichard, Said, and Mudimbe all speak about the West’s inability to conceive Africa without fantasmic support.Africa is always excess… an overabundance to all our senses, therefore unbearable without fantastic cloaking.(Thakur, 148)

This twin fantasy, as conceived in the context of a white audience, is not the only fantasy operating underneath the Vibranium-powered sheen of Wakanda. There is another, a cousin, if you will, to the first: the African-American conceptualization of Africa as home. If Africa is home, that would make Africa the “motherland,” the “mother” in this portmanteau derivative of the figure in the first of Lacan’s famous stages. In the imaginary order, Africa (mother) and African-American (child) are united, one. Neither need anything else; everything they need can be found within the other. But this imagined tether, Lacan theorizes, is severed with the father’s “No,” the realization, as it were, that there is another (Absent) One competing for the mother’s care. Would it be too far of a stretch to posit that the father’s “No,” is entirely analagous to the forced displacement at the hands of the colonial patriarch? Historically, literally, the African-American is separated from the mother, shoved out of the imaginary order, and forced to take up new residence in the symbolic. In the symbolic, everything suggests, signifies, evokes the mother — Africa most of all.

Oedipus Redux: racism and the primordial horde

Hubert Cornfield’s “Pressure Point” provides a nice sequitur to last week’s “Peeping Tom,” with both films begging one fundamental question: how might psychopathy form? The answer to this question, unsurprisingly, is Freudian in nature, and hearkens back to a theory the psychoanalyst details in “Totem and Taboo.” Both films feature what Freud might call a primordial father, or what Silverman might call an “Enunciator.” The father in “Peeping Tom” is a scientist-turned-documentarian, performing enunciation in all of its redundancy. But one does not need to be a scientist or a filmmaker to torment one’s son, it seems — the father in “Pressure Point,” is instead a butcher by trade. He pounds, slices, and dices meat for his customers, exercising over this animal flesh the same dominative authority he affects in his relationships with women.

In “Peeping Tom,” Mark is handed a camera by his father; a mechanical phallus, the apparatus with which he will spend his life attempting to suture the phantom nature of his lack. In “Pressure Point,”the camera becomes a knife; his father’s knife, in fact, which Bobby Darin’s character can only stand to wield within the scope of his imagination. He dominates his imaginary friend, aping the father that he at once loathes and deeply, deeply envies.

The patient’s father is a handler of flesh, an act which he derives enjoyment from, a certain jouissance which his son feels he has been denied — in part because he has denied it from himself. This is what Žižek identified as the projection of jouissance onto an Other, which in turn produces a sense of theft. A theft of enjoyment.

What, then, is the factor that renders different cultures (or rather, ways of life in the rich complexity of their daily practices) incompatible, what is the obstacle that prevents their fusion, or, at least, their harmoniously indifferent co-existence? The psychoanalytic answer is jouissance… different modes of jouissance are incongruous with each other, without a ocmmon measure. [In inter-cultural contact] the subject projects… its jouissance onto an Other, attributing this Other full access to a consistent jouissance. Such a constellation cannot but give rise to jealousy: in jealousy, the subject creates or imagines a paradise (a utopia of full jouissance) from which he is excluded. (Hook, 3-4).

Žižek wades into Lacanian discourse to posit that jealousy is a fantasy — the fantasy of what the Other gets up to when you are not there. In “Pressure Point,” Bobby Darin’s patient fantasizes incessantly about this Other Place, full of Other People, doing Other Things. These inventions are numerous: there is the time, for example, when he goes to pick up an unnamed Jewish woman for their scheduled date, never making it further than the her front door — leaving him instead to wonder, to fantasize, about the world tucked away behind it, and inducing (as the film suggests) his subsequent involvement in American Nazism. Then there is his old childhood dream, in which he plays king in an Orientalist fantasy. Despite his childish, slightly pudgy frame, he stands tall above his subjects — only in dreams, it seems, racist, racist dreams, can he supplant the patriarch of the primordial horde.

P.S. I know this is not entirely related to class, but I recently watched Shia LaBeouf’s semi-autobiographical film, “Honey Boy,” and it was an interesting companion to this series of films about fathers and sons. There is one peculiar scene in “Honey Boy,” in which the father (played by LaBeouf himself, in some sort of meta-therapeutic exercise), taunts his son for having a weak stream when he urinates, then has him stand back and listen to how it’s done. This specific brand of masculine torment (especially with regards to phallic size!) felt somewhat analogous to the “meat room” scene in “Pressure Point.” Few — if any — of the films we have watched so far have approached these themes from a paternal perspective. Is it possible that on the flip side of that Oedipal urge to supplant the father, there is a converse impulse to defend oneself from being overtaken by the son?

The Absent One: father as Enunciator in Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom”

There is a moment, in Michael Powell’s horror-film-about-why-we-love horror-films, where freelance cinematographer (and full-time serial killer) Mark, looks directly into the camera. (I find it interesting that this — this look, a kind of visual penetration of the camera itself — is the only way to reach the spectator, that is, us, but that’s a whole other blog post right there) There is of course something jarring about a fourth-wall break, no matter how gimmicky they have become in modern media. Traditional cinema is an illusory construction; a magician’s trick at best. Its conventions (meticulous mise-en-scène, the ever-reassuring shot-reverse-shot) are intended to soothe, in fact to suture. Step into (or, rather, step back and look up at) the fantasy. Doesn’t it look real?

“Peeping Tom,” however, rejects the naturalizing suture — disavows Kaja Silverman’s “disavowal.” Silverman’s discourse is a re-contextualization of Freud’s: the young male child (not “male,” necessarily, but certainly, the “object”) peers over at the female child (that is, the “subject”) and in doing so comes to the terrifying realization that she has a certain phallic lack. A new anxiety is introduced: the looming threat of castration. Once consumed by this possibility, there are two avenues of defensive reaction. The first is disavowal; projection of this anxiety onto the subject (the genesis, perhaps, of societal discontent). The second mode is all but spelled out in the title of Powell’s film; “Peeping Tom” being the colloquial reference to voyeurism that it is. The lack is sutured by the fetish, or, as Silverman writes:

“He substitutes for the missing penis an adjacent object, something which was part of the original ‘picture’ and makes woman fit for male desire.”

The camera, as Helen so charmingly points out, functions as Mark’s “third limb:” not a leg, per se, but a penis. He produces pornography (professionally and, shall we say, recreationally) via a mechanical phallus: his camera.

His camera that was, in fact, handed down to him by his father. Could it be that this man of science, with his attempted mastery (experiments) over nature (his son), represents the base nature of the male condition? This eternal, unflagging effort to suture the lack and (in the most Oedipal sense of things) supplant the father? Here we see Silverman’s “Absent One:” Mark’s father the filmmaker, played by Powell himself, standing just out of field. His voice echoing in Mark’s head, creating an almost omniscient effect. The film provides no clarity as to whether this sound, Žižek’s “voice without a bearer,” is diegetic or extra-diegetic. The “Voice of God,” it’s sometimes called in cinema. The Enunciator. Cinematography, that great phallic art, rife with male auteurs determined to perform the gaze as penetrative action.

P.S. Even writing Michael Powell’s name (Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom”) felt bizarre. Enunciation everywhere!

Cinema as Fetish: Žižek lifts the veil on projected reality

Orpheus and Eurydice
Orpheus and Eurydice, Sir Edward John Poynter

There comes a moment, as Slavoj Žižek writes in The Undergrowth of Enjoyment, where our existence as we know it may splinter apart into two separate pieces. There is, of course, “reality,” as we understand it, as we have been indoctrinated into. There is no escape from this “reality,” because we have already adopted language; there will be no way out. But, occasionally, it seems, we may have a peak behind the veil, to something “realer” than reality itself: the Lacanian Real.

A Pervert’s Guide to Cinema places no practical limits as to where its host can appear. Žižek, the septuagenarian scholar from Slovenia, seems to have achieved what the young boy at the beginning of Persona can only reach out and yearn for: he has entered the film, in fact penetrated the screen. Žižek can do this because he is not a spectator (like us), but an actor, a guide, an omnipresent narrational figure. He can run his fingers across Blue Velvet; set up shop in Norman Bates’ basement. Broadcasting his words, his theory, from these reproduced sets, these duplicated environments, Žižek signifies the signifier. To me, Žižek’s journey (from The Birds to Mulholland Drive; from Alien to The Wizard of Oz), represents a sort of juvenile wish fulfillment. As a child, I dreamed often of slipping into the pages of my favorite books, or waking up one day as a character in one of my favorite movies — and I can’t say, all these years later, that that feeling has necessarily disappeared. But there lies a danger in wish fulfillment: sometimes, you travel all the way to Oz only to realize what you have been looking for all this time (your lack, Lacan’s objet petit a) is an old man, hunched behind a curtain.

Žižek touches on this dissonance in The Undergrowth of Enjoyment. He uses, as reference, the sci-fi story The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag. In the story, Teddy Randall and his wife roll a car window down to reveal a terrible, gray, nothing-ness (which is entirely comparable, according to Žižek, to the Lacanian Real).

Anyone who has ever been inside a car has experienced precisely this phenomenological sense of discord or disproportion between interior and exterior. Though from the outside the car looks small, but from the inside it looks all of a sudden far larger; we feel quite comfortable. The price paid for that adjustment is the decisive loss of any continuity between inside and outside. To those sitting inside a car, the outside world appears at a ceratin distance, separated from them by a barrier or screen symbolized by the windows. They percieve everything outside the car as a mode of reality which is discontinuous with the reality inside. While they remain safely behind the closed windows, however, external objects are as if fundamentally unreal, their reality suspended in parentheses: a kind of cinematic reality, in effect, projected on to the screen of the window. (Žižek, 13).

Here we can finally identify the “pervert” of A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology: us. To gaze out a car window (in fact, to sit in front of a large cinema screen) is to fetishize. We yearn, rather voyeuristically, for something we both want and should never have — all the while situated “safely behind the closed windows.” As long as we accept a fundamental compromise (“the decisive loss of continuity between inside” — reality — “and outside” — The Real), we are free to enjoy the projected fantasy of the symbolic world. But roll the window down (as, might I add, the titular Hoag specifically instructed Randall and his wife not to do), and the screen will stop working. The projector will break, the record will skip. You lack the lack, and, if you are anything like the various characters we have studied thus far — Cecily from Freud, Elisabet from Persona, the titular Marnie — you go a little mad.

Here is the moment where an industrial-grade light falls on Truman’s head, or perhaps (more fundamentally), when Orpheus turns to look at Eurydice. The veil lifts, for a brief, fleeting moment… before falling back into place. The fantasy resumes.

“She’d Felt a Sudden Urge To Laugh:” reclaiming desire in Bergman’s “Persona”

“It is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built up upon a renunciation of instinct, how much it presupposes precisely the non-satisfaction (by suppression, repression, or some other means?) of powerful instincts. This ‘cultural frustration’ dominates the large field of social relationships between human beings. As we already know, it is the cause of hostility against which all civilizations have to struggle.” (Freud, “Civilization and its Discontents”)

Society, Jean-Jacques Rousseau once posited, is but a series of tacitly agreed-to social contracts. In one portion of Freud’s great treatise, “Civilization and its Discontent,” he appears to take this a step further: in return for societal integration, we sign away our animal instincts, we renounce the stirrings of desire. Through “suppression, repression, or some other means,” we perform the social, the appropriate. This results in a frustration, a tension, one responsible — if you are to believe Freud — for the trauma and anxieties of the human experience.

So: “Persona.” Here is a film about masks, about roles. Elisabet may be the actress, but Alma is no stranger to performance. She dons an apron; she plays the nurse. She goes home to Karl-Henrik; she plays domestic. Seated at the sickbed of Elisabet, the silent celebrity, she performs: spinning a heady yarn about orgies and abortions. At the summer home, the pair are removed from society, from the upright rhythms of the hospital; the “real world.” But as Lacan would have us know, the “real world” is not the real, but the “symbolic” — the fantasy. The good nurse Alma, once confident in that very fantasy, begins to slowly crack. She feels an almost erotic thrill at admitting to the orgy, the abortion, her dalliance with the taboo. What happens when you acknowledge the performance, the sheer deceit of “reality”? In Bergman’s film… you laugh.

In breaking the taboo — daring to laugh — artifice begins to fall away. The machinations of “reality” are exposed, and one is relieved from the very act of performance. The cinematic techniques of Bergman’s film strive to manufacture illusion — and then rip it to shreds. Elisabet and Alma become Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson. The camera crew, in fact Bergman himself, appears. A boy reaches out; he wants to touch the screen. Suddenly, everything becomes clear: actor, spectator, lens, and screen, all painfully and obviously disconnected from each other. Not “reality,” but the “real.”