Academic journal article West Virginia University Philological Papers

Neither Noir

Academic journal article West Virginia University Philological Papers

Neither Noir

Article excerpt

"Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," (1) Laura Mulvey's account of how the patriarchal unconscious structures film and its reception, has achieved such a stature in the twenty-five years since its publication that many of its most polemical assertions have come to be widely held and even more widely known. Today, discussions of the political economy of the gaze occur, almost as a matter of course, in film, literature, popular culture, and video production classes, and knowing references to the gaze may be seen in the movies, postmodern novels, television and magazine ads, and music videos such classes study. As Mulvey's work has disseminated inside and outside of the academy, however, its emphasis on man as bearer of the look/woman as image has increasingly been elevated above its shared emphasis on narrative. Such a development is not surprising, given the extent to which women have historically been represented as both the site of fascination and the lack thereof, but it is at odds with the essay itself, since Mulvey conceives of spectacle and narrative as interdependent. My aim here is to reiterate the centrality of narrative to Mulvey's seminal essay (2) so that I might take issue with how she characterizes the relations of authority, both visual and narratorial, in noir films. What follows should be understood, therefore, neither as merely a critique of Mulvey's work nor an application of its ideas but rather as part of a trend in cinema studies to rethink audience reception. Towards these ends, I discuss several studio noirs in passing before focusing on Murder, My Sweet (1945), a film in which "the fully realized noir look first appears," (3) and Whispering City (1947), a little-discussed noir that puts a woman in the role of detective-protagonist.

I.

Mulvey characterizes classical Hollywood cinema, aptly and repeatedly, as the conjunction of spectacle and narrative. In her terms, its films position women on the side of spectacle. Women's primary function is to be exhibitionistically displayed, for other characters and the audience, and eventually to be joined in marriage to appropriate Oedipal figures. In this respect, women are largely peripheral to plot until its resolution in marriage or death. More than being peripheral, women are at odds with narrative time, since, when filmed in all of their spectacular glory, they arrest diegesis by "freez[ing] the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation" (19). By contrast, classical Hollywood cinema positions men as agents who actively advance the plot by what they say and do. While male film stars are visually pleasing, their appeal is secondary to their characters' authority: "The man controls the film phantasy and also emerges as the representative of power in a further sense; as the bearer of the loo k of the spectator, transferring it behind the screen to neutralise the extra-diegetic tendencies represented by woman as spectacle" (20). Functionally at odds with women, men in film nevertheless look at them and, aroused by such intradiegetic looking, use that energy to make things happen. Events as different as a close-up of a heroine's body and dances in a John Ford western energize conflicts between male characters, in effect making the action active. Audiences respond to the unfolding of narrative by alternately identifying with these idealized males and giving themselves over to the fetishism incumbent upon viewing itself Hence classical Hollywood cinema reiterates what Mulvey terms the broader "active/passive heterosexual division of labour" (ibid.) governing narrative, subjectivity, and sociality.

The interplay of spectacle and narrative points to a problem women traditionally have when watching films that have been produced by a masculine point of view for, it is widely held, masculine viewers. Such films enable only two kinds of response, Mulvey asserts, both of which are temporary. In the first of these, the masculine point of view imposed by film alienates a female member of the audience, causing her to remain unfascinated by what she sees--a response, for instance, that any number of action films starring Bruce Willis might be expected to elicit. …

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