in conversation with Laura Mulvey
Has cinema died? British film theorist and avant-garde filmmaker Laura Mulvey talks to four by three magazine about the ontological shift from celluloid to digital, reality, temporality and truth, addressing how film is caught between stillness and movement and how death is ingrained in the materiality of film.
The work of film theorist and avant-garde filmmaker Laura Mulvey has re-defined our approach to cinema through introducing feminist film theory at a critical moment in time, giving a groundbreaking reading of the male gaze in her essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, written in 1973. Mulvey has drawn on psychoanalysis and feminism to re-evaluate the spectator in terms of a masculine subject position. In her latest book, Death 24 x a Second, Mulvey examines the ontological shift from film to digital at the turn of the century, reading it along the lines of a shift from movement to stillness, thereby illustrating the altered relationship between film and viewer through new technological means, while giving a close reading of works by Alfred Hitchcock, Roberto Rossellini and Abbas Kiarostami.
We spoke with Laura Mulvey about the relationship between film and death, with reference to Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes and Andre Bazin, and its relation to truth, reality and temporality.
What was it about film that captured your interest?
Laura Mulvey: I often wonder about that and think: by what strange freak of fortune has my life, my profession, been so dominated by cinema! It seems accidental in many ways; a constellation of historical, cultural and personal stars, but their roots lie in the 1970s. Film itself was changing then but so were other things: feminism made it possible for me to think about film politically, it was briefly possible to make experimental, theoretical films and ‘film studies’ opened up new professional possibilities. So I was caught within this unexpected, as I said, constellation.
But I had a longstanding film culture. My mother often took to my sister and me to the cinema. Later on as a teenager I would go to the Academy Cinema on Oxford Street. I was very Francophile and watched contemporary, pre New Wave French, films and when I went to Oxford from ‘60 to ‘63, I met a lot of people who had come under the influence of Cahiers du Cinéma, which, of course, meant going to Hollywood films. During the 60s in London, we followed the Cahiers’ politique des auteurs and of course we also went to Paris to see films in the amazing repertory cinemas and at the Cinémathèque. Hence, my film culture is, at least to a certain extent, Francophile and Cahiers du Cinéma influenced. This meant that I had a very good grounding in Hollywood cinema of the Studio System and those other cinemas or directors, such as Rossellini, that Cahiers liked.
We never went to the English neorealist films of the time, rejecting Englishness and English culture, which I think is something that marks that 60s, perhaps particularly leftist, generation. Retrospectively, it seems culturally narrow and politically problematic, but that’s the way it was. An interest in French culture and American popular cinema was typical of the time. There was a parallel interest in jazz, black musical culture. Then gradually the new French ideas, in particular Louis Althusser’s philosophy, started to drift across the Channel, translated by New Left Review and New Left Books and so on. Peter Wollen was a crucial influence – not only did he introduce me to the great Hollywood directors we followed during the 60s but he was also closely involved with NLR and a very early reader of French theory.
From a political perspective, I wasn’t a ‘68 person; I became pregnant during that year and became very absorbed in my child. Hence, the key political shift in my life took place in the early ‘70s – although I should say that as a 1950s teenager, very influenced by my mother, I was a CND/Labour party supporter, first introduced to politics by the Suez crisis and anti-colonialism. But, as for so many others, my life was changed by my encounter with feminism. Well, actually, it wasn’t feminism – my sudden encounter with the Women’s Liberation movement made me look at all the films I loved with completely different eyes. I mean, literally, it was a different look, which I then wrote about in Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.
Speaking about French cinema, the title of your latest book Death 24 x a Second is situated between Jean-Luc Godard's famous definition of cinema as "Truth 24 times a second" and Michael Haneke’s definition “Film is 24 lies per second at the service of truth, or at the service of the attempt to find the truth.” How do you relate to these definitions of cinema?
LM: There are two points here: first of all, one about truth and the other my substitution of death for truth. For both Godard and Haneke, truth seems to be of the essence. I am interested in the presence of reality in cinema but the question of truth seems to me to be more loaded and more subjective. Whose truth? I have tended to think more in semiotic terms, so the idea of the indexical sign runs through Death 24. The index invokes the material relation between an original object and its image as inscribed by light on photosensitive material. While this inscription is a fact or document, how it conveys meaning, its truth value, for instance, depends on other cinematic codes and semiotic signs. Ultimately this materiality, ’the frames per second’, depends on illusion in order to be translated into cinema. This is the play between the materiality of the photographic instant, derived from the camera, and the mechanisms needed to give it a semblance of life, derived from the projector.
This means that one of the fascinating things about the cinematic image is precisely that it’s difficult to pin it down. This is one reason why I have always been very interested in Roberto Rossellini. While he is understood as one of the key directors of neorealism and as a great protagonist of cinema as a realist mode, he also loved the magic of cinema, as something as fantastic as it was realist, and also more fantastic because of the image’s credibility. This is the theme, for instance, in a film like La Macchina Ammazzacattivi and The Machine for Killing Bad People. Rossellini’s constant interest in the miraculous, the irrational in human life, mixed in with the struggle to find certainty through the cinematic image has always fascinated me.
You have put forth an interesting argument concerning the ontological shift from film to digital in your book. Could you elaborate on what is at stake in shifting to the digital in relation to reality?
LM: My argument depends very much on the fact that, in this ontological shift, the spectator is able to explore, to make visible, stillness within the moving image. Beyond the anachronistic memory of the filmstrip’s still frame, the pause itself transforms spectatorship. In terms of reality, as the shift from film to digital enables the stilling of a film, disrupting its narrative flow, another kind of ‘reality’ can emerge onto the screen. (I emphasise ‘can’ here as the process depends very much on the spectator’s imaginative engagement…). To my mind, the pause allows the ‘then’ of the moment of filming to seep into the image so that the pro-filmic staging, its technological accoutrements, the performances, become available, as it were, to the spectator’s consciousness. The repressed of narrative cinema finds presence. So the shift from one technology to another also enables a shift out of narrative diegetic time into the historical moment of a film’s production. For instance, when Lana Turner runs down the steps in the opening sequence of Imitation of Life, the film when subjected to stilled moments and frequent repetition, can be seen as a document, almost a documentary record of Hollywood studio filming, the relation between the movement of star, the movement of the extras, the movement of the camera.
But quite apart from the technological shift, many filmmakers conjured up the moment of stillness within their own films. Raymond Bellour analyses this point in his essay ‘The Pensive Spectator’ (a very important influence on my thinking when I was working on the book). He points out that, in particular, the appearance of a photograph within cinematic narrative disrupts its diegetic world and creates a pause for thought precisely about temporal differences between still and moving images. In Death 24 Frames I end the introductory chapter with an analysis of the use of the stilled frame in the very famous sequence in Man with a Movie Camera.
But on a more abstract level, the shift between technologies enabled a kind of dialogue to come into being across different eras. For me, this relation between old celluloid films and digital spectatorship was always of the essence. I was interested in the clash between eras and the dialogue, or even dialectical relationship emerging from it – and how the past and the present interact.
Is there not something lost in the newly gained liberty to pause, speed up, slow down, etc?
LM: I have always argued that while pausing the flow of narrative and the fragmentation of film into sequences brings with it an element of liberation, it is also an act of violence. It is an act of violence against the integrity of the whole and also an act of violence against the whole concept of collective viewing and the destiny of cinema. It may well be that new forms of spectatorship, not so much my concept of ‘pensive spectatorship’, that is, but today’s habits of watching films distractedly means that the absorbed spectatorship of the old days no longer really exists. Can people who have grown up with these different modes of spectatorship actually watch a film in a darkened cinema in the same way as the spectator who had never experienced anything else? But at the same time I think it is important to point out that cinema still thrives and that people still want to go to the cinema. Cinema itself has far from died! People are still drawn to the experience and the experience continues to fascinate people.
You have spoken about two of the paradoxes in the nature of cinema, namely that it is in the past and the present, in motion and in stillness. Do you feel that death is captured best in the still or the moving image? You could argue that death always unfolds temporally or that death is captured in the freeze frame. How do you relate to this tension?
LM: In Death 24 x a Second I think now that I perhaps gave too much emphasis to the relation between death and the still image. This might be due to the absolute importance of Barthes’ Camera Lucida for my thinking about these issues. But, less theoretically, right from the earliest days there was a sense that the photograph captured, for the human imagination, an image of the persistence of life after death, whether that was the life after the moment at which the photograph had been taken or whether it was the afterlife of the person photographed, after their death, that is. Though the boundaries between these ideas can change and shift, they also reinforce each other.
But perhaps this emphasis on stillness misses something. I was wondering recently whether it’s possible to find a way of conveying that death, as you put it, unfolds temporarily, also as a threshold, a liminal transition. It occurred to me that somewhere between the hard opposition between movement and stillness is a fleeting presence, images that emerge almost imperceptibly before vanishing. An interesting case is Georges Demeny¨, one of the great pioneers of cinema whose Phonoscope pre-existed the Lumières’ Cinématographe. He filmed gestural moments – someone jumping, him signing his name, someone mouthing to camera ‘Je vous aime’. The flickering image, coming into being from nowhere and disappearing into nowhere, is evocative of life’s fleetingness and perhaps even the last sigh of life at the moment of death.
The relationship between death and photography has received early critical reflections from Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes, both of whom believed the photographic image to be a prediction of death. Andre Bazin, in contrast, defined photography as embalming the dead and thereby acting as a preservation against mortality. What are your thoughts on this tension?
LM: That’s a very interesting question. There is a difference between Bazin’s analysis of the photograph as a natural phenomenon, and Barthes’s pervasive sense of the shadow of death. Bazin is concerned, as you point out, with the preservation of life, the photograph ‘stows time neatly in the hold of life’. But he also dwells on the natural beauty of the photograph, which ‘affects us like a phenomenon of nature, like a flower or snowflake whose vegetable and earthly origins are inseparable fro their beauty.’ I quote because I think the ‘Ontology’ essay has a particular emotional resonance. Perhaps this quality seemed sentimental to Barthes, who never mentions Bazin in Camera Lucida in spite of the interesting interaction of their arguments. But perhaps the most important difference is that Bazin’s thoughts lead on to cinema. He extends his argument (in one of the most famous moments in the essay) ‘now for the first time the image of things is the image of their duration, change mummified as it were’. Barthes rejects cinema, which subjects photography to both the ‘domestication’ of fiction and an onward rush of movement that leaves no moment to grasp the punctum, which takes us on to Walter Benjamin. Both Barthes and Benjamin pick up the chance element in the photograph, that is, something the camera machine records that the photographer had not noticed. In a sense, there’s an equivalence and a difference here in relation to Bazin: Bazin emphasises the materiality and the magic of nature, Barthes and Benjamin emphasise the materiality and magic of the machine. But in this way, both Barthes and Benjamin include the later spectator in their argument. Someone, at a later date, has to notice the ‘tiny spark of chance’ (Benjamin) or the punctum (Barthes). For me, this underlines their interest in the complex temporality of photography, which definitely fed into my concern with the relation between, and the interweaving of, ‘then’ and ‘now’ which runs through Death 24 x a Second.
Do you feel that cinema, due to it being a time-based medium, stands in a privileged relationship to death in relation to the other arts?
LM: The starting point for Death 24 was the centenary of cinema in 1995 and the widespread predictions of its death that also coincided with the earliest DVDs. I don’t think that any of the other arts have been so ‘obituarised’, although Paul Delaroche is said to have exclaimed on seeing a daguerreotype: ‘From today, painting is dead!’. But he was wrong. As Bazin pointed out, photography arguably liberated painting from the millstone of realism and it has continued to flourish. Perhaps something similar will happen to cinema…
But thinking about the centenary led me very directly to thinking about the aura of death that cinema captures, especially, to my mind, as time passes. Although Maxim Gorky described cinema as ‘ghostly’ in his comments on the first Lumiere screening, now it is a vast receptacle of the living dead. Or as Chris Petit very elegantly puts it: ‘Cinema is becoming a mausoleum as much as a palace of dreams.’ From this perspective, as cinema captures the illusion of life, its figures (stars or anyone passing in front of the lens) are transformed ultimately into the living dead. These kind of thoughts led on to the more theoretical questions of the relation of the photographic image to death that we have just been discussing.
It seems so striking that this medium, which had played so much with the very notion of life and death and the intermingling of the two, should itself have such a short life! Film has really only lived a hundred years and even then took quite a long time to take off as an industry and as an art. Looking back on it, there is usually something fleeting about cinema’s presence in the human experience. This might of course be very much a thought of this particular moment in history (a Delaroche moment, perhaps). Cinema within the digital era will assert its identity and its history but will also mutate according to human ingenuity and the demands of both popular culture and its ability to act as a ‘thinking machine’. As I said before, my interest has been quite confined to the recent fusion of past and present via the film and digital dialogue. I’m not really able to think about the future.
Laura Mulvey is a British film theorist and avant-garde filmmaker. She is currently professor of Film and Media Studies at Birkbeck, University of London and has previously worked at the British Film Institute. Mulvey is best known for her groundbreaking essay 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' (1973) and is the author of Citizen Kane (1992), Fetishism and Curiosity (1996) and Death 24 x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image (2006).