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’SUBCONSCIOUS CRUELTY was something that was traumatizing me since I was 15 years old,’ says Canadian underground film director Karim Hussain (Offscreen, 2000). ‘I had been doing a Super-8 version of SUBCONSCIOUS CRUELTY over a period of many years. I started in a very bad place called Ottawa, a very conservative city in Canada where I grew up. I was doing little odd jobs, since about 7, and I would buy Super-8 and shoot film. The Super-8 version had taken a few years, and eventually I came to Montreal where I met Mitch at a film festival. We were interested in the same films, and he was also making short films. So we got together, I helped him out on one of his short films, and afterwards I came to Montreal again to shoot a chunk of the Super-8 SUBCONSCIOUS CRUELTY.’ Karim Hussain and Mitch Davis are two radical visionaries of independent cinema. Among their very rare projects, mostly made over a long period of time, are the apocalyptic compilation-film SUBCONSCIOUS CRUELTY and the intense psychological drama DIVIDED INTO ZERO. Both films have earned reputations of legend on the international festival circuits, but neither have been easily available for viewers to encounter on video…

‘I would rather see people have a film experience that they will hate, but never be able to forget…’ is an artistic  credo of Mitch Davis. DIVIDED INTO ZERO and SUBCONSCIOUS CRUELTY keep this promise. Karim Hussain, a filmmaker specializing in art-house, fantasy and genre cinema, has been making films since seven years of age, starting in Super-8mm and then moving up his first feature film. He has Co-Written the screenplay for the Spanish film BLOODLINE to be shot by Nacho Cerda, Co-Wrote, Co-Produced and Photographed the 35mm short film LA DERNIÈRE VOIX.. His 2nd feature film, the 35mm ASCENSION, he wrote, directed and photographed. His films were shown at many festivals worldwide and were awarded equally often. Very similar reads the biography of Mitch Davis: The Haunted Mansion of Disneyland left a lasting impression on him when he was only six years old. Ever since, the iconography of horror had an iron grip on him. His filmmaking abilities were acquired autodidactly by the extensive study of his favorite films, particularly George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, MARTIN and Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA. ‘I’ve always been a sort of celluloid masochist’, he said in an interview with the :Ikonen: magazine, ‘I really love the films that flood my emotions and make me feel haunted for hours or even days. I love films that hurt me.’ Since 1997 he could go on a quest for such works, as he became a co-director of Montreal’s  FanTasia film festival, where he collaborated with Hussain for many years. He writes for many film publications and has contributed chapters to such books as EYEBALL and ART OF DARKNESS. Davis has also produced RICK TREMBLES’ GOOPY SPASMS LIVE CARTOON SHOW (2004), is Associate Producer of Phillippe Spurrell’s 35mm feature THE DESCENDANT (2005) and is now completing his new film GOD’S LITTLE GIRL (2005), about a woman’s hallucinatory crisis in faith following the cribdeath of her baby.

 

Looking on Davis’ own cinematic efforts, you will observe, that he has fulfilled his wish for a ‘hurting cinema’ himself: Particularly DIVIDED INTO ZERO cultivates a bizarre visual world that spares no unpleasant detail. This is even more staggering as the movie touches multiple taboos at a single blow: Reclusion and isolation, masochism and sadism, age and pauperization, and last but not least, child abuse – one of the greatest taboos of the western industrial society. In pithy sequences, all these topics are being transformed into highly symbolic arrangements of images and sound, sometimes disconnecting themselves during the film’s 30 minutes of running time from all narrative coherence and evoking a cinema of immediate moments: Davis’ films thus work like a happening, a performance that is eager to raise a direct sensual affect in the viewer. Neither DIVIDED INTO ZERO nor SUBCONSCIOUS CRUELTY are about a coherent story in the sense of commercial cinema. Both films rather work as collages of desire, fear, of rage and desperation. Human crises are not played down or euphemized by ways of overflowing estheticization – which distincts Davis from his idols Bava and Argento – but are virtually exaggerated into the unbearable. This transforms the short film DIVIDED INTO ZERO, which actually portrays the subjective psychogramme of a dangerous and neurotic killer, also into a ‘cry for help’. The film drives its audience into an ambivalence of agonizing empathy and absolute disgust. Even though the short culminates in the murder of a young girl, it doesn’t solely portray the way of a killer that is paved with anonymous corpses, but also grants some respectful space for the victim. The images of the staring girl, who is already badly wounded, fade just as little as the haunting moments showing the degeneration of the killer’s aging body. DIVIDED INTO ZERO has screened at countless film festivals and museums, including Sitges, Fantasporto and the Warhol Museum. It won the Jury prize at the 1999 Chicago Underground Film Festival.

 

SUBCONSCIOUS CRUELTY extends a comparably dramatic concept to feature length. Karim Hussain took on the director’s duties this time, worked on the film for five years. The movie depicts man’s (disturbed) relationship with his environment in three main episodes. In an expressively illuminated introduction, the viewer is prompted to destroy his left, rational half of the brain and to obey to the right, the instinctive hemisphere. The film works on this level: associative, instinctive, animalistic. After a short overture – the ovarian eyeball episode – we slither head over heels into ‘Human Larvae”, the story of a love-hate relationship between a man and his pregnant sister that ends with a dramatic birthing sequence. ‘Rebirth”, the second – less narrative – episode portrays a pagan ceremony, the orgiastic-sexual worship of nature. Naked bodies, soil and trees merge into an archaic celebration of life. The film’s climax and end is ‘The Right Brain / Martydom’, the destructive episode of the movie. Here we take part in the Hieronymus-Bosch-inspired voyage of a man who experiences the violent disintegration of his body and a crucifixion. The individual stations and themes already imply that this film is less about suspenseful story-telling, but rather about the ritualistically structured staging of a shamanistic death vision. ‘It was structured like a fever dream,’ says Hussain in Fangoria (2000), ‘there is not necessarily one consistent narrative. Sometimes it will go off in a very comprehensive tangent and then sometimes it will go completely surrealistic and stream of consciousness. Which is why there are narrative segments in the film, and sometimes valleys, almost like strange commercial pauses in-between the full-on narratives. […] In fact the film is also inspired by education films from the National Film Board of Canada, especially at the beginning, with the very cold and dry explanations about the right brain.’

 

Hussain’s and Davis’ vision of cinema is that of a deliberate crossing of boundaries. Thereby, the mis-en-scene consciously seeks after niches that allow for a deeper penetration into viewer’s mind. In that respect, they achieve in their own way the cinematic vision of a ‘Theatre of Cruelty”, as conceived by theater-theoretician and actor Antonin Artaud at the beginning of the 20th century. Artaud intended a comprehensive expansion of the audience’s consciousness by all means of the theater. His intention wasn’t necessarily the depiction of violence – admittedly that was also part of it – but the ‘cruelty’ of the mis-en-scene for the viewer. Even before, the Parisian ‘Theatre of Grand Guignol’ presented violent spectacles during which shocking scenes and other sensual motives produced similar effects.

 

On the other hand, cinema in the likes of Hussain and Davis would not be conceivable without the ever newly defined social boundaries and taboos that are meant to be broken by art. The French philosopher Georges Bataille deemed the artistic crossing of boundaries, the ‘transgression”, the only way to advance to an essence of being, to the ‘sacred’ itself. What Bataille sees as the ’sacred’, manifests itself in a deeply personal existential experience that he expresses in his theory of eroticism. Eroticism in its transcendental quality can only be lived within the realms of a ‘crossing of boundaries”, during which the excess energies are to be ‘wasted” in an orgiastic way. The self-determined existence of man can only unfold in these acts of crossing and the abandonment of an ‘ostracized part” of the self. Thus, Bataille’s theories are of great value for the interpretation of works of art that reside in the irrational. SUBCONSCIOUS CRUELTY may be regarded in its very own way as a version of border-crossing, transgressive cinema. Hussain and Davis are seeking after an absolute, final truth beyond the banal experience of the ordinary. In their terrifying, oftentimes taboo-breaking visions of sexuality, decay and death, they are approaching the ‘sacred’ that Bataille talks about. For this purpose, they disintegrate rational and narrative references more and more, concentrating entirely on the unsettling ‘dream play’ that originates from the ‘right half of the brain’ (as it is said in the film).

Marcus Stiglegger

Beyond Good and Evil?

Sadomasochism and politics in the cinema of the 1970ies Paper held February 9th, 2007, at FU Berlin conference ‘Performing and Queering Sadomasochism’

1. The 1970ies proved to be an extremely productive decade for many nation’s cinemas: the seed of former revolutionary years began to grow and brought forth astounding film productions in America (New Hollywood), Germany (New German Film) and in Japan (New Wave). Together with this new progressive tendency and the simultaneous relaxing of censorship came an enormous wave of exploitation films, which began to push the boundaries of the portrayable in the direction of sensationalist entertainment. This exploitative trend did not even shy away from the holocaust theme: The pornographers Robert Lee Frost and Don Edmonds brought the so called Sadiconazista-films to the cinema with the Canadian productions Love Camp 7 (1969) and Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS (1974). These films which, following a trivial structure, take a voyeuristic look into the concentration camp brothel and a pseudo-medical experimentation centre. Although this exploitative use of holocaust motifs caused a huge scandal, these films are still extremely successful in the form of home media. The Ilsa film starring playboy model Dyanne Thorn even gave birth to a number of direct and indirect sequels. Italian cinema did also experiment with the connections between sexuality, politics and history, albeit on an artistically higher level. In her psychodrama The Night Porter (1973) the former documentary filmmaker Liliana Cavani further develops some realisations from her previous documentary series on the third Reich, and tells the story of the fatal reunion of a SS man (Dirk Bogard) and his former victim (Charlotte Rampling) in the form of an amour fou. As the couple re-start the destructive relationship under now different circumstances, they land on the execution list of a group of SS veterans, who wish to remove all witnesses to un-pleasantries, in order to erase the past and, in so doing, their own guilt. Cavani’s film is both the representation of the continuing Nazi mentality, even after the war was finished and (arguably) an attempt at a psycho-sexual adaptation of the concentration camp system. Lina Wertmüller’s Pasqualino Settebellezze / Seven Beauties (1975) takes a more satirical slant: a Sicilian macho man falls into the hands of an female SS-thug, who makes him her ‘sex toy’. The split level narrative in Wertmüller’s film takes it to a level well above that of the Sadiconazista-motifs, and it develops through its fragmented montage a kind of ‘baroque world theatre’ on the screen. Although Pier Paolo Pasolini’s modernised Marquis-de-Sade adaptation Salò/120 Days of Sodom (1975) is rather a film about the fascist tendencies in Italy of the present day – as Pasolini stated –, it is still true that in this apocalyptic scenario the filmmaker has constructed an oppressive microcosm of the concentration camp system, which was only really understood for the first time when the film was recently re-shown in cinemas. Here the mechanisms of power and production have liberated themselves and are running amok in the collapsing fascist republic of Salò. The scandalous success of these three films also inspired the production of a series of concentration camp sex-films in Italy. It seems evident that all films mentioned in one way or the other develop a sadomasochistic model based on the principles of totalitarian politics and hierarchies. At first sight they seem to take the simple and wrong equation of sadomasochism and fascistic politics as a fact.

2. This phenomenon of mingling politics and sadomasochistic sexuality has sometimes been referred to as ‚il sadiconazista’. This term derives from the Italian pulp fiction of the 1960ies, where sexuality, cruelty and politics mingled to an exploitative and pornographic entertainment fare. It seems useful to transfer this term to the medium film, especially as the exploitative films in the wake of The Night Porter expanded on the unhistorical equation of sadomasochism and totalitarian politics. This also marks the huge difference between the reflected arthouse film of Cavani, Wertmüller, and Pasolini compared to the exploitation films of Sergio Garrone, Cesare Canevari, Bruno Mattei and the like. These exploitation films cash in on the same basic model to simply skip the reflective aspect of the forerunners. The English term exploitation already marks this technique of simply ‘exploiting’ a serious topic such as the holocaust, the inquisition, the slavery system, the prostitution or simply life in prison to reduce it to its sexual and violent content. Especially in the late 1960ies – when the rules of censorship were handled more liberally worldwide – there was a wave of exploitative films, many of them combining sexuality and violence in a way in which they provided a semi-sadomasochistic psychodrama. In many cases we can find a very popular and honourable forerunner being copied afterwards on a cheaper production level. Between 1968 and 1982 not only certain film directors specialized in making exploitation films, but production companies focussed on the ever growing market: Fulvia and S.E.F.I. Cinematografica in Italy, Eurocine in France and Erwin C. Dietrich in Swizerland, to name a few. All of them became involved in making women-in-prison movies, sometimes also dealing with Sadiconazista-elements. Most of the Sadiconazista-exploitation-films were not shown in cinema or on video in Germany, but some of them turned up as main examples in the British video-nasties-debate of the early 1980ies. In Phil Hardys ‘Encyclopedia of Horror films’ (1992, S. 315) he takes Sergio Garrone’s SS Camp 5 – Women’s Hell / Lager SS 5- l’inferno delle donne as a stand in for all the Sadiconazista-films of the time: ‘The box-office-success of Liliana Cavani’s picture about the pleasures of being tortured in a Nazi concentration camp, The Night Porter (1974) and, in America, the repulsively adolescent and racist torture-camp movies of Don Edmonds (Ilsa – She-Wolf of the SS, 1974), triggered the nostalgic fantasies of explicit as well as crypto fascists, spawning a filmic equivalent of the established literary porn sub-genre, ‘il sadiconazista’. Garrone contributed two filmic atrocities to this variation on the woman’s prison movies, SS Experiment Camp / Lager SSadi Kastrat Kommandantur (1976) and the one from 1974 which simply exploits ‘entertaining’ thrills such as Jewish women being undressed and divided into prostitutes and victims of medical atrocities. There is the obligatory Nazi lesbian, a crude abortion scene and a hefty smattering of assorted tortures. […]’.

3. The term ‚pornographic’ is a problematic one – especially in this context, on the borderline between exploitation and hardcore cinema. It seems more accurate call most of the Sadiconazista-films ‘sexploitation’, while a serious film like Saló is actually closer to Susan Sontag’s definition of pornography as a convention within the arts, which she outlined in her essay ‘The Pornographic Imagination’ (1969). Films and novels ‘qualify as pornographic texts insofar as their theme is an all-engrossing sexual quest that annihilates every consideration of persons extraneous to their roles in the sexual dramaturgy, and the fulfillment of this quest is depicted graphically.’ As in Georges Bataille’s transgressive prose (like ‘The Story of the Eye’ / ‘Histore de l’oeil’) – Sontag stresses out – the true obscene in artistic pornography will always show an affection towards death. In this sense she points out the special meaning of sacred rituals, the rite of passage and the sacrifice within pornographical contexts. Pornography therefor has a ritualistic structure. Concerning the exploitative Sadiconazista-phenomenon one can state that these films neither carry a political message nor do they represent real pornography or even violent pornography – therefor I think Phil Hardy is going too far in his opinion on the target audience. These films simply try to reduce their artistic forerunners The Night Porter, Seven Beauties, Salò, and Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (1969) to a sadomasochistic fantasy in order to gain entertainment out of a pure imaginative destruction drive. Historical elements as well as true sadomasochistic dialectics are abused here and transformed for this aim.

4. Susan Sontag has also reflected extensively on the fetishising of Nazi symbolism and iconography in sadomasochistic rituals in her essay ‘Fascinating Fascism II’: ‘In pornographic literature, films, and gadgetry throughout the world, especially in the United States, England, France, Japan, Scandinavia, Holland, and Germany, the SS has become a referent of sexual adventurism. Much of the imagery of far-out sex has been placed under the sign of Nazism. Boots, leather, chains, Iron Crosses on gleaming torsos, swastikas, along with meat hooks and heavy motorcycles, have become the secret and most lucrative paraphernalia of eroticism. […] But why? Why has Nazi Germany, which was a sexually repressive society, become erotic?’ Sontag writes this – taking in consideration a militaria book called ‘SS-Regalia’ – to reflect further on the erotic attraction of the SS uniform. It is a well-known fact that military uniforms are handled as a sexual fetish. In her book ‘Fetish’ (1996) Valerie Steele states: ‘Military Uniforms are probably the most popular prototype for the fetishist uniform because they signify hierarchy (some command, others obey), as well as membership in what was traditionally an all-male group whose function involves the legitimate use of physical violence.’ The uniform seems to be an abstraction of the martial in the form of fashion. It symbolizes the belonging to an elite and embodies dominance and attraction. Especially the black service tunic of the SS can be seen as the ambitious trial to combine eccentric chic, elitist elegance, and death symbolism. But as Susan Sontag remarks: ‘[…] uniforms are not the same thing as photographs of uniforms – which are erotic material and photographs of SS uniforms are the units of a particularly powerful and widespread sexual fantasy.’ Although her essay discusses a military antiques fact-book this idea is also true for the appearance of SS-uniforms in the cinema of the 1970ies. In the context of entertainment the presence of SS-uniforms in fiction films has its own rules of reception – in contrast to the documentary for example. Sontag suspects that the dramatic pathos of the SS-uniform serves as the basis of this presumed effect: ‘SS uniforms were stylish, well-cut, with a touch (but not too much) of eccentricity’. Not only Sadiconazista-films refer to the dramatic effect of the SS-uniform. There are also plenty examples of different genres making use of the sexually charged appeal of these elements: Star Wars (1976) by George Lucas, Ken Russell’s biopic Mahler (1976), Alan Parkers Pink Floyd – The Wall (1981), Richard Loncraines film of Shakespeare’s Richard III (1995), Paul Verhoeven’s SciFi-Satire Starship Troopers (1997) or the Casablanca-parody Barb Wire (1995) by David Hogan, to name a few.

5. The works within the Sadiconazista-complex can be divided by their motivations into various directions: – films that try to create some basic assumptions about fascist systems; – films that chose the totalitarian compulsory system as a radical and frightening historical background, on which rather interpersonal obsessions are played out: In Night Porter by Liliana Cavanis the director tells the story of a passionate relationship, marged by dominance and repression, this relationship is emotionally charged by the historical background, heavily loaded by the recipient’s knowledge; – films that push forward the totalitarian compulsory system as a dramaturgical justification, in order to wallow in widely acted sadomasochistic excesses: Sergio Garrone, the Italian old hand director of Lager SS 5 has stated in an interview that it is only possible to justify the drasticality of the pictured cruelty if one is basing it on that historical background (the national socialism). What all films have in common is the connection between sexual contexts and stereotyped pictures of the national socialism. The relationship between the executioner and the victim is being sadomasochistically transfigured and transferred on a level of sexual passion. The result is a cultivation of un-politicizing and un-historizing the phenomenon of national socialism. It is therefore possible to turn the picture of national socialism by laws of popculture into a toy of popaesthetics. What especially strikes here is the annihilation of time-levels in some of the discussed works: Lina Wertmüllers Seven Beauties as well as Cavanis The Night Porter and her later film The Berlin Affair (1985) are told in intricate convoluted flashbacks; the historical component is being transferred to the subjective and therefore “obtional” world of remembrance of the single protagonist, thus it reaches a nearly mythical quality which doesn’t allow an approach towards the historical phenomenon anymore. The concentration camps in Seven Beauties and The Night Porter look like dantesque limbos, filled with existential and sexual nightmares. As far away as the exploitative scenarios of the Sadiconazisto-Genre may be from the National socialist reality, it may still be possible to recognize a sequence of standardized situations based on the documented scenes of that time, this can be found in all thematically relevant films: the arrival of the concentration camp prisoners and the selection on the platform; the roll call out on the free places between the barracks; the actions in the brothel camps; the disastrous punishments and tortures (it is here where some critics observe the sadomasochistic appeal); executions; medical experiments; the massacre. By a comparative study it seems astounding that those elements appear as well in artistic ambitious as in exploitative films.

6. I would like to prove these theses by using Cavanis The Night Porter: When the young wife of a conductor , Lucia, recognizes the night porter Max as a SS-officer to whom she was a slave to back in the concentration camp, this incident breaks up her marriage. Her husband leaves for Frankfurt and she rebounds with Max after some agitated doubts. Because some other former Nazis recognize in her a cumbrous witness from the past, they force Max to kill Lucia, an order which he refuses to follow. Instead he withdraws with her to the loneliness of his small apartment and they turn in isolation from the environment. His former comrades besiege the house and threaten Lucia. After a time full of privation the as-good-as-dead-couple leaves the apartment and they are shot at dawn on a Donau bridge. It seems that the way of lovers can only lead up to their common death, just following the tradition of amour fou, this unconditional crazy love which has a long history in the conventions of European cinema – and both of them devote themselves in complete stylisation (him in his black fancy uniform, her in her childhoodlike-dress). It is the place of death – a lonely steelbridge at dawn – which bears the characterization as a rite of passage. Cavani seems to suggest that there is a world for lovers, but it it’s not ours. It is also the camera that departs from the action, right at that moment. The place of action turns into something stage-like, the protagonists to small figures who fit right into the outlines of their surroundings. It seems less important to the director to develop a political microcosm as to design a plausible mechanism for an unconditional desire. Every step of the encounter between Max and Lucia takes the role of a key scene, and far more drastical than usual in the genre of melodrama. Many actions and incidents grow to be allegoric and mythisized. It’s the desire that seems to be unconditional and, in the end, brings the surrender. It seems consequent that even destructive acts of love serve as loving proof, the best example being the split up between Lucia and her husband, when she recognises the hopelessness of her desire. Only one experience of pain seems to be appropriate when it comes to the intensity of her feelings: When Max enters the hotel room for the first time, he slaps Lucia in the face, the coming-to-be-love-nest full of broken glass is just a drastic symbolization for their frenzy. When Max visits his former lover Bert, who is gay, this meeting culminates into a strange sort of ballet at the beginning of the film. Max – using a single haunting spotlight – is lighting up the silent gestures of the dancer, who – although grown old by now – still seems fragile and even kind of young. Whereas Max acts like a puppeteer, spooky surrounded by the shadows, it is Bert who seems to dedicate all of his elegant gestures devotedly to him. This homoerotic ballet seems to take the same position as we can find in a comparable scene of vision in a portrait of Nietzsche which Cavani made in 1976, Beyond Good and Evil, in which Nietzsche is watching a homoerotic ballet of two persons. We also find here the clear isolation of characters, who can only embody their own cosmos. It is an isolation of characters based on relativisation of their social relationships; they are – even in The Night Porter – reduced to pragmatical relationships (mainly professional) and they lack an emotional ground which is then violently claimed back within the amour fou. The relationship between Max and Bert, the homosexual, is also affected by a vague gentle compassion which contrasts the established circumstances and can therefore only flourish secretly. When those relationships come out in the open the result is a chain reaction which can only bring a downfall. The film gives a hint that Bert may shoot the couple simply out of jealousy.

7. To sum it up it can be said that the Italian Exploitationfilm of the Seventies is the one which prosecuted and boosted up the stereotyping of pictures from national socialism and the Holocaust, even when it only got lukewarm support. The American film Ilsa – She Wolf of the SS became emblematic for the Sadiconazista-Genre. It fulfils all formerly described categories, has been released on DVD and is even to be distributed as a print on a T-Shirt. There is no debate whether or not those stereotypes have made an impact, because they certainly did: I have formerly been saying that even Steven Spielberg has pointed out to these mechanisms in Schindler’s List. So Sadiconazista may be – as a drift – a curiosity out of the off-limiting Seventies but the sexualisation of the picture of the Nazi-torturer has positioned itself deeply within the contemporary and popcultural consciousness in Europe, Japan and America. To conclude I want to use a polemic comment by Michèl Foucault in 1976 about the Sadiconazista-phenomenon: “This is a massive misapprehension about history. Nazism was not brought upon by the crazy folk of Eros in the 20th century, instead it was brought upon by those bourgeois people, and by that I mean the nastiest, stiffest and most disgusting ones that one can imagine. Himmler was some sort of a farmer who married a nurse. One has to considerate that the idea of the concentration camps was a result from the fantasies of the shared illusions of a nurse and a hen-breeder. Millions of people have been killed there, so I’m not saying that in order to devitalise the accuses which have to be made against this operation but rather to disenchant it from its erotic values one combines it with.” Or, as Martin Büsser is saying: “The occidental society has taken de Sade in by such an amount that they can only imagine it now as the last form of lose sexual freedom in the form of the faschistic tortures und murders. How indigent is our supply on education!” On the other hand there are few films depicting sadomasochistic sexuality which manage to be so fatally convincing in creating such a microcosm besides Liliana Cavanis The Night Porter. After its scandal is long forgotten it may be the right time to re-discover this great and multilayered melodrama, a film truly located ‘beyond good and evil’. Translation: Kathrin Zeitz

Excerpt from the book Ritual & Verführung. Schaulust, Spektakel & Sinnlichkeit im Film, Berlin: Bertz + Fischer, 2007, revised by the author. Authorized final version, 24 February 2007

Marcus Stiglegger, Dr. phil. habil., born 1971, is working as a lecturer for film studies at the University of Mainz (Germany) and has published several books on film history, film theory and film aesthetics both as a writer and as an editor. His publications include books on Ritual & Seduction on film (2006), Western (2003), Pop and cinema (2004), the cinema of extremes (2002), and Abel Ferrara (2000) among others; regularly contributes to film conferences national and international (Chile in 2001, Japan in 2002); member of the FIPRESCI and regular contributor for the German magazines Filmdienst, Testcard, Splatting Image and editor of :Ikonen: magazine. International articles appeared in Kinoeye (USA) and Eyeball (UK). Contact: ikonenmagazin [at] hotmail com.

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Seduction … becomes the metaphor for how meaning is always figured as a beyond in this theorising of film. We are seduced towards a sense of meaning, only to be drawn elsewhere. That is to say, that no matter how much we might try to resolve, what remains in both cinema and theory is the seduction towards another point.
Patrick Fuery, New Developments in Film Theory

Manipulation – Suggestion – Seduction?

The concept of seduction has accompanied the analysis of the film medium ever since the debate about the cinema began in the 1920s. To proceed from the assumption that cinema has a seductive quality is apparently a matter of course—why otherwise has it enjoyed such lasting success? Why else has the media of film been repeatedly exposed to moralistic attacks charging it with having a “corrupting quality” linked with its power of seduction? Even if André Bazin, Siegfried Kracauer, Rudolf Arnheim or Béla Balázs were not explicitly preoccupied with this concept , the descriptions and definitions they developed constantly revolve around the phenomenon of completely absorbing the audience, even of transporting the spectators from a supposedly fixed position A to the not initially considered position B. The seductive strategies of the cinema start out on three levels: firstly, the intention of the cinema is to captivate and enthral moviegoers using all means possible, ultimately enticing them into indulging in the film itself; secondly, a film contains a message that is to be conveyed explicitly in and through the production, and thus seduces us into taking in special kinds of information (such as in manipulative and ideological propaganda films); and thirdly, all means available in directing and dramatizing a film are used by the cinema to create a seductive construct that ultimately intends to seduce us into receiving information found on the meta-level, which is not discernable at first sight.

An important point in defining the medium of film as a medium of seduction is the phantom-like quality of the cinematic projection. This ghostly presence was even observed by the philosopher Hugo Münsterberg in 1916 when he defined his theory of film in terms of the aesthetic illusion of the nineteenth century:
The massive outer world has lost its weight, it has been freed from space, time, and causality, and it has been clothed in the forms of our own consciousness. The mind has triumphed over matter and the pictures roll on with the ease of musical tones. It is a superb enjoyment which no other art can furnish us.
Several elements that Balázs and Kracauer also dealt with can already be found in this quotation: firstly, the relationship of the cinematically reproduced or re-orchestrated world to social reality, as well as the comparison of these levels; secondly, the ability of film to resolve the space-time continuum; thirdly, the connection between producing a film, perceiving a film and human consciousness; fourthly, the fleeting “ease” of cinematic events; fifthly, the musical quality of cinematic orchestration and montage; and finally, the voyeuristic “superb enjoyment” that this medium furnishes its audience.

From the early period of film theory up to the present the relationship of film to reality has again and again been subjected to examination. Kracauer, for example, in those writings in which he is critical of ideologies, diagnoses the film medium as a “seismograph” of societal trends and changes. In his book Der sichtbare Mensch (The Visible Man, 1924) Béla Balázs sees the development and realization of a completely new way of viewing the human being—in particular through the close-up shot, which turns the human face into a landscape reflecting a host of experiences and conveying deep meaning, creating a profound intensity using those tools specific to the cinema. The polished “image gestures” (Balázs) thus sharpen our look at social reality. And it is primarily in the camera perspective and in film editing where Rudolf Arnheim defines the cinematic artefact’s independence in space and time.

Although Adorno and Horkheimer do not explicitly mention the concept of seduction in their work Dialektik der Aufklärung (Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1947) in connection with the film medium, they nevertheless see the—at times fatal—quality of film instead in its “power to manipulate”, with which the “culture industry” (in this case the reference is to Hollywood) affirms the social status quo. This manipulative power makes film an attractive instrument of control and propaganda in carrying out social policy—a thesis that particularly the latest developments in American mainstream cinema can once again confirm. Moreover, the medium of film works primarily with a mythical view of the world, which reduces historical events to the level of supra-historical and apolitical fables. In the sense of the dialectic of enlightenment, mythical thinking can be viewed as a counter-movement against universally called-for enlightenment, a circumstance that, however, benefits precisely the efforts of the culture industry to bring about conformity. What Adorno and Horkheimer fail to take into consideration is the constant presence of subversive movements in the mainstream, which result in phenomena in which the cinema’s manipulative power (and hence its seductive energy) is directed against the system itself. Such trends can be clearly observed in the films of Robert Aldrich or more recently in those of Oliver Stone. It remains doubtful, however, whether these efforts are ultimately important for idea of “enlightenment” as outlined by Adorno and Horkheimer. The concept of seduction inherent in the Dialektik der Aufklärung, it must be noted, is associated with a negative definition that judges the commercial feature film as a form with tendencies of a “propaganda film”.

Although the notion of “seduction” has only been applied specifically to the media of film in current film theory, it is worth taking a look at these earlier approaches, which make use of other concepts but nevertheless deal with the same phenomenon.

Perspective, Seduction and Propaganda

In his early work Film als Kunst (Film as Art) Rudolf Arnheim never uses the concept of seduction; in several passages, however, he attests to that very quality of the film medium to absorb the look of the audience, “to force the audience to enter the perspective of the medium”. He assumes that for human beings the faculty of seeing is only of trivial significance: Man makes use of this sense merely as a “means of orientation”. We see selectively, as when wearing blinkers, and just enough to act correctly in a pragmatic sense towards objects in our environment. Even of his fellow human beings the “ordinary human” only perceives those details that appear beneficial to him for the purpose of interaction. “It is indeed an exceptional situation when—apart from aesthetically inclined and trained people—suddenly someone loses himself in pure contemplation.” Thus, our everyday view of reality perceives the world; the cinematic view can, however, expand this quality. In the cinematic image it is no longer important simply to discern an object as such, but rather in addition to ascertain its specific qualities. “How the massiveness of a figure is accentuated by shooting with the camera from below upwards.” Arnheim refers strongly to the great significance of the camera perspective, to the significance attached to the image/object. Here he emphasizes—in a last step—the propagandistic quality of film: “There are tricks to force the viewer to enter such a perspective.” In this way he is made “to view something well known to him as something new” and is only then able to grasp the actual message of the film. Out of the necessity of working with a two-dimensional representation (as opposed to three-dimensional reality) here the film artist makes a virtue: He directs our view with such intensity at the object he wants to focus on that this causes a hyper-reality to emerge. The object as represented in the media appears more real to us than it does in the feeling of reality we have.

Arnheim repeatedly devotes particular attention to the audience-friendly “ready-made film”, which may correspond to today’s blockbuster or to what simply would be referred to as mainstream cinema—films that attract audiences by affirming their needs: “In film everything happens in such a way as it would happen in reality if it happened in a way that seems just and beautiful to us.” Just for economic reasons the “ready-made film” is forced to make concessions, which according to Arnheim is what distinguishes it from the artistically ambitious film.
In his two works on film theory, From Caligari to Hitler (1947) and Theory of Film (1960), Siegfried Kracauer goes one significant step further. Especially in his Caligari book his idea of the seduction of the audience corresponds quite clearly to the propagandistic motivation, particularly of the cinema during the period of the Weimar Republic. With Gertrud Koch we can assume that this book is an attempt “from (1) formal qualities of films (2) to gain mental patterns that are then (3) interpreted in a social-psychological way”. On the formal level of cinematic production Kracauer develops theses on the superordinate social relevance of the German films during those years. He thus notes that there was a striking increase in the number of doppelgänger motifs during the second decade of the twentieth century. The doppelgänger motif is repeatedly also taken up again later when the point is to portray a conscious or unconscious splitting-off of the condemnable, abject aspects of someone’s personality. At the same time this “Mr. Hyde” can indulge in all of what the person of integrity would never dare. The character with a split personality feels morally above his rejected double. What we are confronted with here is a clear depiction of seduction towards that which is evil or rather morally unacceptable. This quality is particularly evident in Fritz Lang’s early paranoia thriller The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, which at the same time was viewed as a criticism of the totalitarian rule of the National Socialists, and which also developed a huge fascination for the mysterious figure of Mabuse, the super villain whose name appears in the film’s title.

In his Theory of Film, which is often wrongly viewed as being reduced to the attempt at the “Redemption of Physical Reality”, Kracauer undertakes several tasks including an attempt to develop an analysis of the effect of film. Although the writer confesses that an examination of this effect cannot be generalized without exception, it is precisely here that we make important observations that later will become of great value. Like Arnheim he also differentiates those “effects” that captivate the audience. In particular it is movement that appears important to him as a primary motif in film:

Movement is the alpha and omega of the medium. Now the sight of it seems to have a “resonance effect,” provoking in the spectator such kinaesthetic responses as muscular reflexes, motor impulses, or the like. In any case, objective movement acts as a physiological stimulus.… It is our sense organs which are called into play.

Thus, there is apparently a sensual seduction brought about by means of the cinematic depiction of movement, whose effects are seen right up to the physical reactions of the audience. In this regard, the cinematic image acquires a special quality—in contrast to, for example, viewing a theatre play: The camera “takes the eyes of the viewer along with it” (Balázs), it “forces” the audience to identify involuntarily with what is shown on the screen. The total absorption of the audience using cinematic mechanisms controls their senses and weakened consciousness. The medium opens the viewer up, making him susceptible to receiving motifs and messages (audience’s expectation), which at first may possibly be unwanted but are usually desirable nonetheless. It is here that we find the first attempt at an explanation of how a film can succeed in taking an essentially “steadfast” spectator from the moral standpoint A to an unexpected standpoint B, which initially appears inconceivable and foreign to him. Kracauer goes so far as to see this quality of the medium taking on an existence of its own:

…what they [the spectators] really crave is for once to be released from the grip of consciousness, lose their identity in the dark, and let sink in, with their senses ready to absorb them, the images as they happen to follow each other on the screen.

Kracauer goes one step further and views the cinema as a medium of hypnosis. The spectator is spellbound by the luminous rectangle and succumbs to the suggestions “that invade the blank of his mind”.

A generally accepted opinion views the cinema of Hollywood as a “dream factory”. Also Kracauer subscribes to this position and analyses film quite generally as a “play of dreams”. Once film has lowered the consciousness of the audience, it then invites them to dream. The reception of a film itself becomes a condition halfway between being awake and sleeping, and the spectator finds himself abiding somewhere between reason and irrationality. It is particularly for this reason that the cinema has also become a domain of myths, which for their part have settled between the poles of consciousness. “Myth lies at the heart of cinema” is how Jean Baudrillard will later put it. In discussing this cinematic play of dreams Kracauer distinguishes between “manufactured dreams” and “stark reality”. The “ready-made cinema” (Arnheim) produced in Hollywood makes films that correspond to the utopian dreams of the audience: “…otherwise expressed, the events on the screen can be supposed to bear, somehow, on actual dream patterns, thereby encouraging identifications.” Of course, the reverse may be true, namely that from the cinematic staging of the audience’s dreams we can draw conclusions about the condition of the film-producing country and the film-viewing country. However, Kracauer plays down this superficial game with people’s wishful dreams: “Much as they may be relevant as indices of subterranean social trends, they offer little interest aesthetically.” What appears interesting to the writer is the moment in which documentary shots of “naked reality” attain a dream-like quality. And once again it is the specific camera perspective that counts, as well as the relationship between sound and image. Thus, the cinematic reproduction of life apparently changes life’s conditions. A visual impression in reality can have a totally different effect when the same impression is captured on film.

Perhaps films look most like dreams when they overwhelm us with the crude and un-negotiated presence of natural objects—as if the camera had just now extricated them from the womb of physical existence and as if the umbilical cord between image and actuality had not yet been severed.

This allegorical description again points to an intermediate world between image and reality—between sleeping and being awake. Kracauer thus sees this “simulation of authority” as a further quality of film, in particular for those in modern society who can no longer cling to common notions of belief, moral valued or a clearly comprehensible political system. For the moment in which the film is viewed, the complexities and ambiguities of the cinema cease to be in effect and they open our eyes to a transparent system, a world that (apparently) is easier to control. Film as a play of dreams and reservoir of myths continues to serve the modern individual as a valuable way to escape: Not only are wishes and dreams fulfilled here; we also find here fixed frames of reference, which make is easy to orientate oneself in life.

On the Spirit and Magic of Film

For the film theorist and film practitioner Béla Balázs, film has “taken over the role which myths, legends and folk-tales used to play.” He is not, though, referring here to film as a “reservoir of myths”, but rather as the form for the production of new myths. In the process he would like to view film as far away from literature as possible, because in contrast to abstract literary works, or rather to text that has its basis in printed writing, the main focus in film is on a new way of looking at the human body: “the visible man”.

Balázs thus views the cinema first of all as the anthropocentric cinema of the body, whereby to the cinematic image of the body are added expressive gestures: Cinema is a sign language. According to Balázs it is the “subtlety and power of the images and the gestures that constitute the art of film.” Because it was not yet possible for the silent film actor to express himself verbally, the writer emphatically points to the equally important gestures accompanying spoken language, which may resemble those of a dancer but nevertheless are not the same. Balázs was one of the first film theorists who did not shy away from acknowledging the “superficial beauty” of film. In the beauty of film lies at times even its power of expression:

There is nothing “purely” external about film and no “empty” decorativeness. This is just because everything inside can be recognized by one external thing, and for this reason one thing inside is also recognizable by everything external. Even by beauty. In film the beauty of facial features appears as a physiognomic expression.

Indeed the writer goes considerably further than media theorists later dare to do: Since the medium can rely exclusively on externalisation, every visual gesture (also independent of the performers) must become an expression—and only in this way can it be grasped by the audience. This “complex superficiality” thus makes use of beauty (just as it also does of ugliness) as a conscious expression that should also not be underestimated. Balázs’s thesis, which at first sight is so simple, proves to be amazingly radical and up to date, yet he specifically avoids allowing himself to be “dazzled” by beauty.

Within the framework of cinematic forms of expression Balázs regards the close-up as the most important, because it allows the spectators and the performers to display the art of using facial expressions and subtle body movements. Thus, “each little wrinkle in a person’s face can become a determinative feature of character.” The close-up is the “magnifying glass of the cinematographer”. The long shot may serve the purpose of creating spatial orientation in a scene, but the essential aspect of a film always occurs in the close-up shot, which is that form of composing the cinematic image that is most likely able to captivate and direct the perspective of the audience. Using the camera “the director can guide our eyes”.

At the same time the cinema, even more than the theatre, is in a position to overwhelm the spectators by presenting simulations of immense size and monumentality. It can create crowd scenes of absorbing intensity, melt together human bodies into “surging masses of people” and stimulate the imagination to additionally enhance the size of objects, that is, ultimately to visualize images that no screen could display. Up to the present day the mainstream cinema has been built on the all-engrossing power of this effect to overwhelm the audience, and this trend extends from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) to the computer-generated crowd scenes in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: Two Towers (2002) and The Matrix: Reloaded (2002) by the Wachowski brothers. In this connection the medium of film becomes also for Balázs a play about dreams and visions, which in hardly any other art form can be materialized with such intensity.

A further quality of the medium lies, according to Balázs, in the way velocity is staged on the screen, especially when the camera accompanies a vehicle or someone running and conveys to us from a subjective perspective the feeling of speed. This results in sensational and spectacular effects, which the audience can hardly escape from for the very reason that they can experience the illusion of danger from a safe position. According to Balázs, this staging of sensations achieves artistic expression when it involves an “accent of the most extreme intensification”. In particular in the American mainstream cinema as well as in the cinema of Hong Kong we find to this day such strategies that are used to give inner nuances expression in a spectacular way (the films of Tsui Hark and John Woo or even James Cameron’s melodramatic disaster movie Titanic , for example, come to mind). It is precisely the inviolability of the audience that seductively indulges in the cinematographic display of heighten moments of danger, and yet the spectators react to what happens on the screen as if it were actually taking place. To intensify this effect, the cinema makes use of the slow build-up of tension, which presages the “disaster”, truly “sees it coming”, but cannot and will not avoid it. The camera not only becomes the viewpoint of the audience; it subjugates and holds them spellbound, as it were, in moments of suspense—as Alfred Hitchcock repeatedly defined it.

In The Spirit of Film, another work on film theory written by Béla Balázs and published in 1930, he again takes up central theses and, taking into consideration new developments (sound film), modifies and revises them. In his opinion, film has in the meantime become a “new organ” of man, through which he can experience the world in a new, or rather different way .
The most radical device used in camerawork continues to be the distance-reducing close-up shot, which makes it possible to see feelings and thoughts, that which “does not exist in space”. Balázs’s idea of film is in every respect anthropocentric: The main focus is on the human being, and the filmed image of the face becomes a reflection of a person’s psyche, which as a “micro-physiognomy” can make visible nothing short of the subconscious. He talks about the “invisibly clear” expression. Since the enormous enlargement capability of the close-up causes the slightest nuances to come to the fore, the spectacle is, as a logical consequence, transformed from the theatrical overacting characteristic of the silent film era to the more subtle psychological realism of the perfectly engineered sound film.
The essential elements of the medium are, according to The Spirit of Film, the guided look and the resulting power of film to force the spectators to identify with events or figures on the screen. Balázs sees in this power both the specific style (the “type of image”) and at the same time the propagandistic quality of film:
The composition of the images is a reflection of the director’s attitude towards the object—his tenderness, his hatred, his pathos or his ridicule. This is what is meant by the propagandistic power of film, because it does not have to prove any standpoint—it causes us to hold this standpoint visually ourselves.

The writer sees the power of the cinematic image literally in a personified form: “The entire image makes one gesture. The gesture of ecstasy” is how he illustrates an allegorical shot from the film The Battleship Potemkin.

The last chapter of The Spirit of Film deals with the ideology that can be affirmed or criticized using the medium of film. Here the cinema’s formal forms of expression converge at a sometimes propagandistic but in any event seductive meta-level, which seeks expression beyond the narrative dimensions of the work. These theses are, however, not seeking out an “elitist” form of art, but rather are associated with the medium of film as a popular art form:

Film is the art of seeing. Its inner inclination is thus to reveal and expose. Despite the fact that is provides the most powerful illusions, it is by nature the art of opened eyes.

The theses of Béla Balázs revolve again and again around Dziga Vertov’s “cinema eye”: the journey to an “unknown vicinity” using the medium of film, which generates a mind-expanding look at what is only apparently familiar. In his epilogue to The Spirit of Film, Hanno Loewy sums up that Balázs’s primary motif, the “physiognomy” in film, i.e., that point of transition between the eye and the screen, between viewer and image, is “the passionate dizziness with opened eyes that no other art form would be in a position to induce, the feeling of dizziness aroused by letting yourself fall into an ‘approximate danger’.” How, according to Balázs, the audience is “opened” for the seduction of the medium can hardly be more concisely outlined.

Gaze, Desire, Taboo, Dream

To the present day the psychoanalytic model of analysis as developed by Sigmund Freund, or rather later by Jacques Lacan, has continued to be an important instrument in appreciating works of art. The cinema appears here apparently as a “male-constructed” art form in which the image of the woman at the same time represents a threat of castration, a personified flaw that needs to be fetishized. In the fetishizing stage the image of the woman in turn becomes a phallus-like object, which detaches itself from the original female identity and can be fixated (= captured) with voyeuristic or rather fetishistic mechanisms (Mulvey, Kaplan, Brauerhoch). Already here we discern the mechanism of the exclusion of the other, the division into subject and abject that Julia Kristeva develops in her literary analysis Pouvoirs de l’horreur (Powers of Horror, 1980). This section intends to present an overview of these aspects of psychoanalytical concepts. Any possible abridgements will be explained in more detail and expanded on later. The key psychoanalytical concepts in this analysis of film as a seductive construct include the look, the desire, the other, the mirror and finally dream and taboo.

In L’être et le néant (Being and Nothingness, 1943) Sartre summarizes the close connection between self-definition and the distribution of power by means of the look:

If we assume that our first revelation of the other occurs as a look, we have to acknowledge that we experience our unascertainable being-for-others in the form of being possessed. I am being possessed; the look of the other person forms my body in its nakedness, causes it to arise, sculptures it, creates it as it is, sees it as I will never see it.

The look, in Sartre’s opinion, thus lies between the subject and the other, but at the same time it is also the means by which we take possession of the person we interact with. Film is basically a medium in which the line of sight first of all seems to proceed in one direction, namely from the eyes of the spectators to the play of lights—the moving picture—reflected on the screen. The projected images convey to the spectator the illusion of power over the displayed objects. That which is depicted is “captured on the screen”. At the same time, however, the cinematic image appears as “the other”, who looks back at the observer. This can occur as a calculated part of the production—so to speak, meta-cinematically—or it can come completely as something fundamental, when the film succeeds or fails to meet the expectations of the audience. In that moment, when one becomes conscious of whether an expectation has been met or not, the cinematic image itself can be described as being a kind of other. This cinematic image viewed as the other reflects as such the look of the observer and “casts” this look back, exercising on its part power over the observer. If we pursue this thought further, we can say that in the moment of becoming aware of this, the cinematic image creates intimacy and at the same time draws boundaries of demarcation—it confirms the expectation, defines the subject and distances itself—eternally a fugitive and incomprehensible—from the observer. This reflection precedes Laura Mulvey’s thesis about the mainly male perspective of the cinema. Thus, the look proves itself to be power and subjugation at the same time. The active look wants to gain power over the object being perceived, while on the other hand identifying itself as the subject. The experience of being looked at, though, results in unexpectedly being subjugated by the look.

A central concept of Freud’s classic model of psychoanalysis is wish (Wunsch): He uses this term to indicate an instinctive inner craving that arises from the existential needs of childhood. Jacques Lacan translated Freud’s concept with the French word désir, which on the other hand means desire and in many aspects is a more discriminating concept that wish. The term wish appears very goal-orientated and singular, but desire also involves a continuous force, a motivation. According to the literary scholar Vladimir Biti the term desire also evokes Hegel’s notion of lust or longing (Begierde), and as a result becomes more abstract and theoretically more prolific. Desire, in Lacan’s sense of the term, always remains unconscious and becomes the motivation behind action and bodily movement. Lacan places desire somewhere between striving for satisfaction and craving for love: It is “the difference that arises when the former is subtracted from the latter.” It is thus not primarily a biological instinct, but rather an articulated craving that hungers for reciprocation. Desire wants to be acknowledged and reciprocated; ultimately, it is “the desire for the desire of the other” (Lacan). The interrelationship between the film and the spectator outlined above is reflected again here. Especially those moments are felt by the potential audience to be particularly disturbing when the film 1) refuses to satisfy desire—and thus also its need for acknowledgement—in the development of the story, and 2) the film looks back at the observer, appearing also to demand something from him. We encounter gazes like these in, for example, the films of Stanley Kubrick: in 2001 – A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1970) or The Shining (1980). That complex process we regard as seduction unfolds in this gap between the film and the observer: It encompasses far more than the purely suggestive element of a production that Balázs and Kracauer already observed; seduction is the result of a reciprocal “activity” between medium and recipient, whose desire at times becomes the playing field of the seductive strategies of cinematic production.

Film As a Modern Reservoir of Myths

That the cinema quite soon became the reservoir of myths of the modern age has already been observed in early writings on film. The definition of myth on which these writings, however, are based—for, as is generally known, there are a great number of them—has, though, not yet been clarified.

According to a basic assumption that is rooted in the field of ethnology, a myth is understood to mean a story handed down orally, in writing or in any other form with sacral content. In his book Patterns in Comparative Religion (1958), Mircea Eliade listed various elements that are contained in myth: 1) Myths relate in the final analysis a “true” story; this can perhaps also mean such an elementary, undeniable “truth” as birth or death. 2) The mythical fable is sacred, which means its content is detached from the domain of the profane. 3) Myth is always assigned to the time of origin or creation; this origin need not belong to an earlier time, but rather can denote every form of the new beginning. Consequently, the experienced myth is a time in which “all times fall into one”. 4) Myth contains the reason and basis for rituals; thus myth has morally binding and normative power. 5) The protagonists of mythical fables are “superhuman” beings. In this respect myth denotes the incursion of that which is sacred into everyday existence—or also vice-versa, the moment of everyday existence in that which is sacred. Myth and life are closely linked and are particularly suited for a structuralist analysis in the context of regional and social peculiarities (as Claude Lévi Strauss has shown in his Structural Anthropology). At the same time a “statement” is formulated and condensed—this corresponds to Roland Barthes’s definition of myths in his work Mythologies. At the core of myth there can be the creation of the world, of man or also of culture; it always concerns elementary truths that are condensed and made tangible in myth, even if it involves “modern myths” of “everyday life” (Barthes), which often revolve around cultural (self-) images.

A further step in the theory of myths becomes important here: Ernst Cassirer in Mythisches Denken (1925) (Mythical Thought, 1953-57) and Claude Lévi-Strauss in La Pensée sauvage (1962) (The Savage Mind, 1966) view myth additionally as a conceived idea, as a way of comprehending the world. In doing so, that omnipresence of mythical happenings are again brought to bear; mythical thought is laid out in cycles, and using ritual structures it works towards a repetition of the key event. The medium of film also has taken on this cyclical form: in Western cinema—but even more so in the cinema of Asia (for example, in Japan)—it is always the same fables that are specifically varied and reproduced, as if it were necessary to grant permanent presence to the sacred myth. This goes so far that the audience even expects the familiar, but also that which forever moves us anew, to return in cycles.

The medium of film works either with classical myths, or rather mythological motifs (Orpheus, Oedipus, the Fall of Man, etc.), or it creates its own myths and cults—often through charismatic protagonists such as James Dean, Bruce Lee, Marilyn Monroe or Romy Schneider. Precisely those movie stars who die either early or under mysterious circumstances lend themselves to being turned into myths, since from them it is only the image, the cinematic phantom, that remains, and like a fetish this can be worshipped—for example, by watching their films again and again—much like attending a ritual. The protagonists (heroes) of myths are often described as beings of supernatural origin. If, however, we take the social complexity of myth for granted, then in these mythical creatures we can only recognize the projection of the qualities of being human in a religious (or sacred) form. And again the “larger-than-life” quality of Hollywood shows itself to be suitable for the development of myths: In the heroic figures that have long since become idols, such as those brought to life by John Wayne, Bruce Willis, Clint Eastwood or Sylvester Stallone, we admire and worship precisely that quality that transcends the human and profane scope of experience. Films in which these “mythical” qualities are destroyed and dismantled have, on the other hand, far fewer chances. The audience sees in this dismantling the betrayal of its latent longing for a semblance of the “otherworldly” and the divine. The brokenness of the hero himself, though, does not always contradict his mythical functions: In Gladiator and Unforgiven, for example, myth itself becomes the subject of discourse. Even though these films treat their subject-matter in a less naïve way than the basic genres typical of each of these films, the epic film and the classical Western of the 1950s respectively, they nevertheless allow the hero to reach his objective and fulfil his violent mission.
Thus, film creates its own myths and summons up its own “superhuman” protagonists. Just for this reason it is suitable as a carrier of myths, because it can always be experienced in relatively present time: By seeing the film anew as if it were a ritual (the phenomenon of the cult film in particular comes to mind here), it becomes for the audience a genuine, present-day experience. At the same time the myth in film revolves around elementary and existential motifs: birth, life, death, sexuality, violence, fear, joy, hate, happiness, etc. Film and myth are in any event tightly interwoven. It is, in fact, rather the question of whether the intention of a cinematic artefact is to rob the spectators of their freedom and ability to judge clearly and rationally as adult human beings and to manipulate them, or even to work productively with myth. In particular the enormous appeal of the manipulative American mainstream cinema is built on the mythical qualities created by Hollywood, which even replaces ideology and awareness of history with generally more accessible mythical models. The concept of myth is thus important when we go about examining the seductive power of film, because this concept can appear in film as subtext (for example, in Apocalypse Now, Gladiator or Titanic).

Seduction as Subversion

In the scope of the cinematic reproduction of life, the laws governing life can be changed and rendered invalid. The depiction in film of a particular plot must occur according to its own rules and strategies of cinematic production, which are different from those affecting the real model it is based on, because the audiovisual reception of one and same story does not necessarily produce the same effect. In order to stimulate the desired sensual emotion in the observer and to truly “seduce” the audience, specific cinematic rituals have developed that are designed to provoke the desired emotional reaction on the basis of a strictly codified set of surrogate stories and simulations. The complex notions of sensual seduction, seduction as a strategy of cinematic production and the dramatized appeal to desire serve as an orientation in this film-archaeological search for these kinds of cinematic strategies and rituals.
Thus, if we view the cinema basically as a seductive system, it seems reasonable to conclude the following: Watching a film means, in certain respects, being “seduced” by it. In doing so, the observer reads his own subjective desires, illusions and obsessions into the film and reconstructs it into his own individual way of receiving it. The seductive quality of film, however, can be seen on various levels, whether they be of an external nature (movement, corporeality, sensuality) of a dramaturgical (fable, drama) or of an ethical-moral kind (inner conflict, ambivalence). These strategies are all the more effective the more hidden they operate and the more they want to seduce the observer into not discovering himself—Fuery calls these “seductive signs”—but rather into discovering something different, located somewhere on a meta-level—for Fuery these are “signs of seduction”. These “seductive signs” can be understood to mean both the obvious constructions in ideological propaganda films as well as the iconic presentations of film stars in the classic sense (Marilyn Monroe, Tyrone Power, Greta Garbo, etc.). “Signs of seduction”, on the other hand, do not display their seductive character openly, but rather appear first as “something different”. They function as subversion within the cinematic production.

The further development of the seduction theory of film presented here makes it therefore possible—it would be hoped—to take a deep look into the “fine mechanics” of cinematic productions and to analyse a work internally, disregarding to a large extent the time it was made and the genre of film, thus ultimately understanding its system of manipulation and suggestion by examining our delight in looking, the role of spectacle and also sensuality.

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