Carnal Knowledge Seminar Response

Women’s experiences are not exclusive to just women. They are affected by men and the societal pressures that are placed on them to behave a certain way that happens to degrade women. I think that the seminar failed to focus on masculinity and Carnal Knowledge’s commentary on how impossible it is to achieve it in perfect form. The men in the film treat their women the same way Francis Bacon treats the subjects of his paintings. However, there is a delusional expectation that the women will remain both loyal and alive when put through this treatment. This can be applied to Last Tango in Paris (1972) as well, making the Bacon reference more relevant.

Susan was not absent in the second half of the film. That is the point. As it was mentioned in seminar, she is indecisive; she is an act. She has no personality, which the reading also says. The fact that she has no personality is equivalent to her being an object, which leads to her ultimate objectification in that split second in Jonathan’s slideshow. She is just a concept to both Jonathan and Sandy even in the beginning. She is a concept and a factor to their level of masculinity.

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I think as film-viewers, we should remember that film characters do not have to be three-dimensional to be successful in invoking something. They can be symbolic of something and they can just be concepts. Jonathan symbolizes society. In other words, he is the rule-maker. Sandy is the conformist. Everything else to them is just tools to making them reach the peak of happiness and relief. This, to them, means the relief of knowing they are masculine.

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Objectification in Film

Ann Kaplan suggested, in response to Laura Mulvey, that objectification is necessary for full intimacy between both parties, that sex, as a primitive act, does require objectification. After all, we are not defined by our bodies, but our bodies are defined by us and therefore are an extension of who we are. Looking at cinema we can find a certain intimacy between the film and spectator when exposed to the aesthetics that is the human body. There is, though, this assumption that spectators are passive and merely vessels to what they are exposed to, that cinema is lead by what has been socially and historically constructed in our world and we as inhabitants robotically consume it. There also seems to be this belief that to be selfish during a sexual experience, even with a film, is to degrade your partner. There should be an awareness that selfish is selfless. To find pleasure in something simultaneously gives pleasure to our partner. The audience should not be underestimated; their abilities should not be in consideration. The film should do its part and the audience does its part. We have this tendency to see situations negatively for a certain party because we only look at it from the dominant perspective. From that, sexuality is taken away. We do not realize the mutuality that is required in a relationship to have a fully intimate experience.

What this essay intends to do is examine how objectification can benefit a sexual experience rather than negatively impact it. By discussing how the audience is an active, critical audience and not a passive one, how sexual pleasure is a process of reciprocity, and how we must stray away from only limiting ourselves to looking through the dominant perspective, we will identify how objectification is sometimes a necessary aspect to an erotic experience.

Before discussing passivity, we must clarify what consent is in terms of a film experience. When we decide to watch a film, it is accepting a film’s initial effects on us. This is where the seed of intimacy is planted and has the potential to fully blossom depending on its degree of influence. It does not end there. We have the ability to stop when we feel the intimacy is lost or was not there to begin with. There are the options of getting up and leaving or just stopping the film depending on the circumstances. With that in mind, the concept of passivity becomes complex and the line between it and being engulfed by a film is blurred. Is the audience engulfed by the film based on relatability, connectivity, and, as a result, intimacy, or do they just lack any critical sense of analyzing what they are being exposed to? What this definition of consent shows is that the audience is not underestimated; the respect they have for themselves is not underestimated. They are capable of rejecting the film whenever they feel necessary.

It is incorrect to think like MacKinnon, as Nussbaum stated, “[that] objectification is bad because it cuts women off from full self-expression and self-determination – from, in effect, their humanity.” (2000, p. 250) This is an assumption that women are passive and are merely vessels to what they are exposed to, that the audience is just a portal to feed information to. To a certain degree we have power in choosing what we are exposed to, the rest is in the fault of the exposer. When watching a David Lynch film, for example, whether we are a part of the fantasy objectification of his female leads or feel immense discomfort for them, we have the option to choose what we do with that information because we are aware of who we are and what we stand for.

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Patricia Arquette in David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997)

What seems to be unclear is the concept of intimacy. Marino uses an example of a man asking his wife, a skilled typist, to type his manuscript. She cannot say no because it would hurt his feelings but she does not want to say yes because she finds typing tedious. Marino concludes this with, “being in relationships puts complicated demands on the participants, demands that are sometimes welcome and sometimes not.” She continues, “Consent is even murkier and harder to understand than in contexts involving strangers.” (2008, p, 350) However, if there were a sense of obligation in this so-called relationship, then what they have between them would not be considered fully intimate. Full intimacy is a familiarity with one another that involves a constant give-and-take. Intimacy is when being attentive to our partner’s desires comes naturally to us even in a non-sexual context that there is no concern on becoming harmfully instinctive during a sexual experience. It should not feel like an obligation. An example of this is joining the army to fight in a war. A person would do this for the love of their country, but they certainly would not find pleasure in it. This is not a form of obligation; it is a form of patriotism, a different kind of intimacy. In terms of human intimacy though, the awareness that they are human beings and have lived a life like you have, respecting that provides intimacy, and understanding for both parties. Therefore there can be desire without narrative history, which explains prostitution and even pornography. Films follow that same procedure. Films are similar to prostitution. Film viewing is considered to be based on voyeuristic pleasures and being a film viewer means objectifying the film image, the aesthetics of its body. However respect is still part of this procedure. Audiences tend to develop empathetic relationships with the characters in the film and therefore become encapsulated by the film as a whole. This brings us back to the point that to find pleasure in something simultaneously give pleasure to the other partner. To quote Gasper Noe’s Irréversible (2002), when Alex tries to explain to her ex-boyfriend why he was not a satisfying partner sexually she says, “your problem is you focus on your partner’s pleasure. You have to let yourself go.” To some extent to be selfish in an intimate experience, like in a sexual one or when watching a film, is to be selfless. The film should focus on relaying its message and invoking responses out of the viewer and the viewer should let go of any tension with their senses, so they can fully experience the film.

What we should understand is that we must not only look from the dominant perspective but also the repressed perspective to fully comprehend where the power resides. From that, we will realize that objectification can bring power to the objectified as well as the objectifier. A film example of this is Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoeven, 1992) where we can argue that Tramell used her sexuality to get what she wants, in the form of power. As mentioned before a person is not defined by their body but their body is defined by them and Tramell’s physical appearance and how she treats this appearance is reflective of this. The body after all is a person’s temple and it represents whoever that person is. This can be understood through fashion. Whatever a person is wearing represents who they are. In short, desiring a body is like desiring a person and that is where the power comes from. The person whose body is being desired is being give something and not, as it is usually understood, having something taken away. In terms of an intimate relationship between two people, respect is required, respect of autonomy as Marino calls it. With that there should not be any question of who possesses more power because at that point power is subjective. To use what Nussbaum said, “the lover is intensely focused on the moods and wishes of that one person, whose states mean so much for his or her own.” In this example, there is no respect here, for oneself or for the other, there is only an unhealthy devotion to one person’s pleasure resulting in an imbalance of power.

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Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct (1992)

In Basic Instinct, we might think that since she is being interrogated, the men are in power. They have the questions and they get to decide on whether she is a primary suspect or not. She only has herself and her alibi to depend on. Another possibility is that her queerness only exists for the male gaze. However, we should consider it from her perspective. She does not do it for the male gaze and does not do it to please others. She does it because she finds pleasure in it and there is consent amongst the other characters and with the viewers as well.

To conclude this, consent is present in a film experience because film as an art, a medium of creativity does not consider its viewers passive and uncritical of what they are taking in. There is choice. The viewer is aware of when the intimacy is lost, when the film’s influence is no longer there. However when there is intimacy with a film and there is a certain sense of relatability then that is when we are fully voyeurs because we have involved ourselves in that particular experience. That moment is where we let go. In connection to sex and how it can purely be physical and intimate at the same time and when it is treated that way, it is liberating. Of course, it can only be treated that way with a partner that you have mutual respect of autonomy for. To summarize, as voyeurs and as critical thinkers, objectification only aids us in our awakening for the unknown.

Animation & Realism

The way I perceive it is that classical cinema was the world’s way of communicating emotions through visuals, the same way literature put feelings into words. However, now cinema communicates ideas and thoughts into visuals. It examines the realm of imagination and tests its limitations constantly, and I think this reflects our time. We are, after all, part of the computer age and everything has been affected. Consider noise pollution and how we have become a part of that, in-sync with it even. It has become a part of our daily lives – how we communicate, how we travel, the music that we listen to, and the films we watch. The music we listen to incorporates sounds that have become familiar to us. An example of this would be like techno music. This can be used to discuss the “participatory” effect. The argument here is that we require something else for a “sense of perceptual richness or immediate involvement in the image” in the technological era. How can we be completely encapsulated by this moving reality, when we are a people that experience things differently?

THE KRAKEN CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981)

When Metz says, “that still photography is condemned to a perceptual past tense (‘This has been there’), while the movie spectator becomes absorbed by ‘a sense of There it is’,” I disagree. Pastness can be identified when not “with the times” thus affecting the participatory effect. Nostalgia can be considered here except that makes it another type of participation with an awareness of pastness. An example of this can be Clash of the Titans (1981). People at the time could have felt that they were completely part of the film, feeling afraid when Perseus did and feeling victorious when he would overcome each obstacle in the film. Now, when we watch a film like that, we watch it for different reasons, not for the realism but simply for the story, to know what happens.

In short, we must realize that reality means different things in different times. Just because we require different things to achieve the same sense of realism that others did before us, does not mean we have lost the art within it.

Sobchack & Carnal Knowledge

Reading Sobchack made me realize that film theory has been focusing more and more on two things. First, there is the individual experience in relation to what psychoanalytic film theorists have done which were focused more on the collective and cultural representations in film. This is why Sobchack can sometimes be considered vague in that it is a theory based on individual experience. Secondly it focuses on in-the-moment experiences as opposed to the consciously processed film. Now, writing about individualistic and in-the-moment experiences is difficult in that it can seem non-empirical and inarticulate. In Sobchack’s case it is individualistic in that it is about carnal knowledge, which can be, both subjective and objective. Epistemology is much easier to talk about whereas ontology has a specific language to it. Putting our feelings into words, as a result, makes us numb and kills the initial effect of the film. The film just becomes a reference to how we feel about it when we have had time to process it as a whole.

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I think it starts a whole new and necessary discussion about carnal knowledge, something that I did not know how to put into words. Movies like Clockwork Orange and Videodrome (the 80s Clockwork Orange as Andy Warhol called it) made it seem like their messages could not be relayed anyway else other than to be explicit and almost vulgar in order to cause some discomfort for the viewers. There are also films that provide some sort of ambiance. A film like Nine and a Half Weeks, with the colour tones of black and white, the soft music, the soft touches and extra care every character gives to an object or person, and just the whole minimalistic atmosphere of the film, when leaving the film you cannot help but walk and handle things with extra care and ease. Experiences like that have never been looked at and researched and I agree with Sobchack that it is usually ignored by theorists but it is essential in understanding the film viewer’s experience and their engulfment by the film.

Cinema as Memory

I’m realizing more and more that we are in an era of visual culture and that seems to have affected our objective perception of things or rather our collective subjectivity. An image in memory is what comes up when one of our senses is triggered. Like Ronald Bogue said, “when we remember, we figuratively leap from the actual present into a virtual past, find a virtual memory-image, and then bring it into the actual present.” It’s like when we smell an odor that reminds us of a certain time in our lives and makes us feel like we are the person we were then. I think this is what is used in cinema in the form of nostalgia. Cinema acts like the symbol for survival and therefore it signifies a certain kind of hope and with that comes desire, which is “oriented toward the future” as mentioned in the Kilbourn’s Cinema, Memory, Modernity. As a result we watch and keep watching because of desire, because of nostalgia. There is a comfort that comes with it that involves the reassurance of the self.

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Bordwell & Prince: Post-Theory

There was only one point that I thought was necessary to share regarding Stephen Prince’s article on Psychoanalytic Theory which is that while I agree that psychoanalytic film theory does generalize, I do not think it was all too bad as a beginning theory that examined spectatorship. Think of feminism. Women are badly affected by classical cinema and it is important to generalize to show the severity of the issue. We have to see how people are affected collectively in order to start examining them individually. To start examining anything, we have to generalize and exaggerate which is what psychoanalytic film scholars did.

While reading David Bordwell’s article on contemporary film studies, I had the idea of placement in mind and whether the viewer is aware of it or not. He mentions a few times that viewers understand films and he uses the analogy of driving down the highway and seeing a man opening the trunk of a car and immediately assuming that the man is the driver of the car and is getting a tool from the trunk. We do not suspect anything else. He says that if we see that in a film, we would assume the same thing. This is where I asked myself if there is a difference in how we view real-life and film. Would we not be aware of placement in films? Should we not suspect some relevance of the man to the film’s story? Bordwell says that you would have to be an experienced movie-goer who has learned the stylistic and writing conventions of a certain genre. From that I realized that even though we are active viewers rather than passive, we are still encapsulated by film and therefore we treat it like anything that happens in our everyday lives.

One difference between life and films though is that films have the ability to seem objective with things like narration. Emphasis on seems. Narration can act like the voice of God sometimes and as Bordwell said, “every narration harbors secrets.” This is how the filmmaker leads us to believe certain things in certain moments. Like in Mildred Pierce, we begin the film believing Mildred is the killer then Bert and then Mildred but then again she is in love with Monte. In short, film is an illusion of objectivity that real life is not.

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Shifting Racism

I approached Diawara’s Black Spectatorship: Problems of Identification and Resistance and Hooks’ The Oppositional Gaze with the question of where the line between representing reality and protesting against reality should be in cinema. As Hooks said, “Black films were. . . subject to critical interrogation. . . Critical, interrogating black looks were mainly concerned with issues of race. . . They were rarely concerned with gender.” We see this in Boyz n the Hood and She’s Gotta Have it. The black male and his desires are ultimately what matter. The movies have denied “the body of the black female. . . [and] the woman to be looked at and desired is ‘white.’” In She’s Gotta Have It, Greer says he should date a white girl as if she would be a better and classier choice. We have seen this with other races as well. In The Godfather, Connie gets kicked around by her brothers and her husband and is expected to be inferior to them. This is where my question comes in. The Godfather and certainly She’s Gotta Have It and Boyz n the Hood, all represent a reality where women do get treated like props rather than human beings.

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Still from Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It (1986)

Now, the trouble and difficulty with attempting to represent reality is the resulting condemnation of a group collectively as something, does not matter if it is good or bad, just something as a whole. The result of which can be reproducing another kind of reality. We see this with what Hooks wrote on identifying with the character Sapphire from Amos ‘n’ Andy. So the line between representing reality and protesting against it is a line of where we need to stop and remind ourselves to be critical of what we are consuming, thus becoming a resisting spectator.

Another thing we should be aware of is that the repressing of a group shifts to another. This awareness is essential because, as Hooks said, the whole point of this is to “enable us to discover who we are.” Diawara, analyzing The Birth of a Nation, said, “the black experience is rendered absent in the text.” Many Hollywood films render many experiences as absent to this day like Kathryn Bigelow’s Hurt Locker that seemed to make sure to show that the only victims of the Iraq war were the Americans and no one else. So, as a conclusion, yes the resisting spectator is necessary but the resisting spectator is not aware enough. We must recognize Hollywood’s incessant need to have an object, representing the American dream, in disguise with all the power. We need to take that on as a whole, and resist that. If we only resist portions of it, it will shift to another group.

Readings: http://blogs.iac.gatech.edu/film2015/files/2015/04/Screen-1988-Diawara-66-79.pdf