Academic journal article CineAction

Of Depth and Surfaces; Notes on Watchmen and Other (Non)reflections on Phenomenological Film Experience

Academic journal article CineAction

Of Depth and Surfaces; Notes on Watchmen and Other (Non)reflections on Phenomenological Film Experience

Article excerpt

A Mirror That Holds No Reflection

While attending school some years ago I came across an "art piece" occupying a large portion of an exposed brown brick wall in the main lobby of the building where most of my studying was conducted. In fact, I had literally crossed this "art piece" almost everyday for months before realizing a failure of vision on my part had concealed from me a most intriguing hermeneutic exercise. One day, while walking alongside this wall, I noticed a caption engraved in black-ink across a ceramic tile bolted eye-level into brown brick. Without reading the caption I sought out the artwork to which it referred. My eyes were drawn to the enormous paintings on each of my immediate sides and to each artwork's respective caption. When I returned to the empty space before me, I explained to myself that the missing artwork must be undergoing some kind of refurbishment or that the artwork was gone and the caption plate had simply not yet been removed (a conclusion with much merit as anyone who has attended a public university will attest matters pertaining to the most basic maintenance can often go ignored). As I began backing away from the empty wall I glanced over to the caption one last time and read the black-ink engraving. I stopped and stood still marveling equally at the bravery and idiocy of the caption, which read: A Mirror That Holds No Reflection.

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At first I was overtaken by a sense of abhorrence toward such an artistic gesture; marking an empty wall with a "clever" caption strikes me as the type of anti-art I have never had much use for. After leaving the vicinity of the wall this initial impression remained with me, but, for whatever reasons, some more obvious than others, the wall and its caption imposed itself upon my imagination for the remainder of that day and it has continued to impose itself upon me. My abhorrence having thawed considerably since that first encounter, today I find the caption and the brown brick wall utterly fascinating, but fascinating only to the limits of a particular negativity. This negativity exerts its pressure within the range of my experience as a student of moving-images and the many fields of thought undergirding its study--but especially, for present purposes, phenomenology. In order to explain precisely how the wall and its caption have come to exert a kind of pressure of negativity upon me regarding my orientation toward certain moving images, a short diversion through some foundational concepts in film studies and phenomenology is necessary.

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Film Experience and Sobchack's Intervention

The publication of Vivian Sobchack's The Address of The Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience in 1992 was something of an anomaly in film studies at a time when postmodern theories of multiplicity and fragmentation competed for discursive dominance with third-wave psychoanalytic thinking. Sobchack not only set her boat against the current among her contemporaries, she sought to unsettle the epistemological waters that had guided thinking about cinema from the beginning of the 20th century.

Sobchack claims that film theory has been dominated by three great metaphors: the picture frame, the window and the mirror. (1) Opening her discussion with an epigraph from Maurice Merleau-Ponty and relying heavily upon his phenomenological work on the experience of embodiment and human perception, Sobchack mobilizes an attack against these three dominant metaphors by calling attention to the way critical activity predicated on these metaphors situates the film object primarily in the position of viewed object while "only indirectly [acknowledging] the dynamic activity of viewing that is engaged in by both the film and the spectator, each as viewing subjects." (2) Sobchack takes her cue from Merleau-Ponty who, writing on the reversibility of embodied perception and expression in The Visible and The Invisible, posits, ". …

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