Academic journal article Philosophy Today

As the Lights Go On

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

As the Lights Go On

Article excerpt

The credits roll; the lights go on; the spectators rise to their feet and file out of the cinema. Film endings are an important part of the spectator's experience, but the phenomenology of film endings is rarely discussed in film theory. Roland Barthes' brief essay "Upon Leaving the Movie Theater" is a rare exception.(1) In the following essay I undertake an examination of some features of the spectator's experience of film endings.

Psychoanalytic film theory supposes that film spectators passively identify with the point of view of the camera. This identification is said to provide a false but comforting illusion of having a secure and integrated experience. If we assume that, despite its overly universalized claims, psychoanalytic film theory has captured something important about the filmgoers experience, we are left with a puzzle. What happens to the spectator when the film ends? In beginning to answer this question, I examine parallels between Martin Heidegger's concept of inauthenticity, and the psychoanalytic account of the spectator's passive identification with the camera. Heidegger's account of achieving authentic unity provides a model for one way a study of film endings may proceed. Ultimately, however, both psychoanalytically influenced film theory and Heidegger will be criticized for eliding issues about the spectator's social location and network of relationships.

The Look, The Mirror-Stage, Suture: Psychoanalytic Film Theory

After Metz and Baudry, it is a commonplace of film theory to regard the spectator's identification with the camera, or "the look", as the primary cinematic identification, that which is presupposed by any further identification with characters, objects in the film, or actors. The allure of "the look" is said to lie in the spectator's identification with a more complete and capable self(2) or with a "unified and coherent ego."(3) What is the source of this appeal? Why should identification with a camera provide a sense of coherence and completeness?

Christian Metz writes that the spectator's identification with the camera is simultaneously an identification with "himself" as a "pure act of perception . . . as the possibility of the perceived and hence as a kind of transcendental subject which comes before everything there is."(4) Just as the Kantian transcendental subject is the condition for the possibility of experience (and is itself not found within experience), the camera is the condition for the possibility of experience for the duration of the film. Like the transcendental subject, the camera is that which accompanies and makes possible every particular experience, without appearing within that experience. Jean-Louis Baudry will also liken the identification with the camera to an identification with the transcendental self.(5)

In seeking to explain the appeal of this identification, Baudry and Metz liken the identification with the camera to Lacan's analysis of the mirror-stage. According to Lacan (who offers three different analyses of this stage) at some point between six and eighteen months of age the infant enters into the mirror-stage. The child is still relatively physically immobile but perceptually advanced. It first obtains a sense of itself as a separate entity by recognizing another person in the act of recognizing (an image of) the child. Typically this is presented as occurring when the child is in the arms of its mother. The infant looks in the mirror and sees the mother looking at the child. In Feminism and Psychoanalysis: A Critical Dictionary, the following account is offered: The mirror stage introduces a sense of identity and of separateness from the maternal body and the world of others. It provides a border or boundary defined by the child's skin. But the identity and unity offered by the mirror stage and Imaginary identifications (in which the self is defined through its identifications with the image of others) are precarious: the identity of the subject is always modeled on an other with whom it confuses itself, the ego being set up as an alter ego. …

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