A Cinematographic Threesome (REVISED)

A seemingly obvious yet hard to articulate (for those who haven’t studied cinema) pleasure attained from cinema is scopophilia. The very position of the audience member endows them with both an access to the privacy of characters (especially in the case of sexual encounters by these character), as well as a sense of anonymity and security in the very act of watching, a sense of comfort we are not allowed in “reality.” This pleasure, considered a perversion by its very definition, is deeply rooted in our psyche, probably stemming from a general castration anxiety that we experience as humans. In response to this, we overcorrect our own ability to maintain power, fantasizing about those we observe and thereby fetishize those subject. “At the extreme, it can become fixated into a perversion, producing obsessive voyeurs and Peeping Toms, whose only sexual satisfaction can come from watching, in an active controlling sense, an objectified other,” (Mulvey). For the less extreme case, i.e. the film audience member, this perversion is experienced on a smaller scale, putting the audience member in the seat of power (viewer), and the characters on the screen in the position of dominated (viewed).

Hitchcock is very aware of this perversion, and constantly uses it to his advantage. His films often rely on and call out the audiences own need to peek behind the curtain, which gives his audience a front row seat to the going-ons of seemingly every day people and reveals them to be just as twisted, perverted, and sick as the rest of us. However, this relationship of observer and observed doesn’t only reveal every day people to be sick and twisted, it also reveals an ugly characteristic in the audience: we are all Peeping Toms. This cinematic experience goes hand in hand with Psychoanalysic theory, which plays off of our own conscious and unconscious desires, resulting in our own Scopophila. Furthermore, as cinema grew and developed, so did the theory by which experts considered cinema as it relates to psychoanalysis. “One of the major differences between pre- and post-1970s psychoanalytic theory was that the latter saw the cinema as an institution or an apparatus. Whereas early approaches, such as those of Tarratt, concentrated on the film text in relation to its hidden or repressed meanings, 1970s theory, as formulated by Jean-Louis Baudry, Christian Metz, and Laura Mulvey, emphasized the crucial importance of the cinema as an apparatus and as a signifying practice of ideology, the viewer-screen relationship, and the way in which the viewer was ‘constructed’ as transcendental during the spectatorial process.” (Creed) Creed notes, just as Hitchcock and other Filmmakers understand, that, in the newer psychoanalytic theory, cinema creates a feeling of superiority for the audience over those they observe. Truly, we don’t only take pleasure from viewing characters on the screen, we desire it in our every day lives, and cinema satisfies that need.

The corollary to this rule is that we also desire to be watched just as much as we desire to watch. Own own narcissism and ego, as freud sees it, creates another strong desire to have our selves be seen by those around us. Further, we begin to identify, in other people and things, ourselves. Though, as Lacan laments in his examination of the mirror stage, as we identify ourselves in other people, we can never truly see ourselves as we don’t know our true “self.” All of this is true in the cinematic experience: “Similarly, the spectator in the cinema identifies with the larger-than-life, or ideal- ized, characters on the screen. Thus, as Mulvey (1975) later argued, the viewing expe- rience, in which the spectator identifies with the glamorous star, is not unlike a re-enactment of the moment when the child acquires its first sense of selfhood or subjectivity through identificaton with an ideal self,” (Creed).

As we begin to understand the nature of satisfaction when it comes to voyeurism, its opposite pleasure of being watched, and how they relate to the cinematic experience, we can reflect on one quote from Mulvey that summarizes this relationship well: “two contradictory aspects of the pleasurable structures of looking in the conventional cinematic situation. The first, scopophilic, arises from pleasure in using another person as an object of sexual stimulation through sight. The second, developed through narcissism and the constitution of the ego, comes from identification with the image seen. Thus, in film terms, one implies a separation of the erotic identity of the subject from the object on the screen (active scopophilia), the other demands identification of the ego with the object on the screen through the spectator’s fascination with and recognition of his like,” (Mulvey). This seemingly contradictory relationship, though extremely hard to fully grasp or visually represent, can be seen in one specific scene in Hitchcock’s Spellbound. Specifically, it can be seen in the scene where Dr. Peterson and John Ballentyne kiss for the first time. The meticulous camera placement and cuts put us in the perspective not only of Dr. Peterson (the receiver of J.B’s kiss), but also as an anonymous figure, just aside, both partaking and observing the whole thing. Expanding on this, the scene begins at 28:33, when J.B. first stares directly into the camera, talking to Dr. Peterson, thereby establishing us, the audience as her, Dr. Peterson. The scene then goes into a shot-reverse-shot of the conversation, continually coming back to a reverse POV of J.B., but keeping Dr. Peterson’s gaze just off the lens. This creates an interesting observer effect where we become both part of the scene and simply observers. This relationship continues until J.B. leans in for the kiss. When the camera cuts back to our mysterious observer position, the effect of leaning in from J.B’s POV is replicated, insinuating our involvement in this kiss not as J.B. but instead as a sort of anonymous manage a trios member.

Not only are we cinematographically being physically put in the scene, Hitchcock may also be layout out the exact concepts outlined above. In this sequence, the audience is more easily made aware of their own self-idendification within the scene and, therefore, within the characters. While it may not become fully obvious that that very self-identification stems from our voyeuristic drives, the sequence brings forth a cinematic and visual understanding of the psychoanalytic concepts that make cinema so pleasurable.

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