MasterBlog: The Cinematic Apparatus

I’ve decided to start posting some of my work as I happily plod my way through the Masters in Cinema & Media Studies program at UCLA. It’ll be a lot of dense theory mixed with my usual manic fangirl stuff. I’ll list all my references, films, TV, etc at the bottom. Enjoy!

At first glance, Christian Metz’s analysis of the cinematic apparatus appears to engage Lacanian psychoanalytic theory in a straightforward way; he begins with the child conceiving of himself (and all that makes him human and corporeal and cognizant) through gazing at his own reflection in a mirror. But the amount of “perceptual wealth” that Metz describes in audiovisual media, particularly film, requires an apparatus with far more nuance than the child’s first mirror. Metz really deconstructs the very nature of watching fiction in “The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and Cinema” – and the important distinction which serves as a jumping-off point is that the viewer (unlike the child) identifies himself as the character, not the spectator. S/he not only views a film as a passive appreciator – like a museum-goer – s/he essentially jumps in, seeing her/himself within the action of the world and seeing him/herself seeing the film. Metz’ audience is hyperaware of filmic fiction’s need for an audience, to function and to be comprehensible. “At every moment, I am in the film by my look’s caress.”

And all of this occurs simultaneously. Metz constructs the cinematic apparatus as a mirror-which-is-more-than-a-mirror: an ever-shifting combination of identification with (and immersion in) projected fiction, and an exercise in self-awareness and visual/psychological positionality. In a way, Metz’ cinematic apparatus is a closed loop of two vantage points, within and without: “chain of many mirrors, the cinema is at once a weak and a robust mechanism: like the human body, like a precision tool, like a social institution.”

It’s worth noting that Metz returns to physicalizing, almost sexualizing, every part of this process: the viewer, the cinema, the apparatus. He even calls the moment of suppressing distance between the subject and object the “orgasm” – a fantasy actively entertained by the watcher with all of his/her sexual drives, who longs to understand and conquer the double-distance between the cinematic world, the camera, and the screen itself. “The cinema is a body, a fetish that can be loved,” Metz writes, contextualizing the voyeurism of watching within a very visceral psychological discourse of desire.

For a filmmaker like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, that give and take between passive voyeurism and active interrogation of subject/object lines forms basic narrative vocabulary. Thomas Elsaesser, in “Primary Identification and Historical Subject: Fassbinder and Germany,” describes the cinematic apparatus as a rubric upon which to build ego and promote self-cognition. He goes a step further than Metz’s fetishes and points out that as audience, we also fetishize the process of looking, synthesizing information, and narcissistic self-identification. Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) isn’t really a love story: it’s a looking story. For his subjects, the Moroccan laborer Ali and the lonely German widow Emmi, the entire world is a camera and an unseen audience, evaluating and appraising their romance with all of its signifiers of racial, economic, and social disruptiveness. The characters are filmed between doorways, around corners, constantly surrounded by a mute and judgemental army of watchful eyes (and even when we don’t see them on the screen, they feel present). Moreover, Elsaesser’s equation of the gaze with desire and narrative momentum is confirmed in the film, when Ali and Emmi are truly alone and “the mutually sustaining gaze is not enough to confer or confirm a sense of identity.” The milieu feels like a nod to George Loane Tucker’s Traffic in Souls (1913), described by Tom Gunning as an urban narrative from a “mole’s-eye view.” Tucker’s is a city “honeycombed with traps,” an empty dialectical “X-ray” that functions like a panopticon, trapping characters in its constant seedy gaze.

When we fast-forward to the era of The Matrix (1999), we encounter a very complicated modern paradigm of viewing and consumption which Henry Jenkins attributes to “media convergence” in “Searching for the Origami Unicorn: The Matrix and Transmedia Storytelling.” Now, the viewer synthesizes their understanding and various practices of identification on many platforms, moving seamlessly between his/her position as audience, storyteller, interpreter, and constantly interacting with the architects of the fictional world to form a kind of circuit. The power of such a many-spoked apparatus becomes clear in Jenkins’ discussion of the modern cult movie, which simply could not be understood, much less enjoyed, without presupposing a certain cultural knowledge base and cinematic mental toolbox from its audience (as if we received the movie in a box of parts but then were free to assemble it creatively). Jenkins also writes on the phenomenon of transmedia “world-building,” a process which involves constructing the construction of the narrative, even beyond the bounds of the script and the box of the camera field. Situating ourselves as both viewers of the world, parts of the world, and creators of the world, we begin to discover that the fan’s axis of power is far-reaching indeed.

This is great news for the Star Trek fan, who has presumably lived and created and interpreted in the Trek universe for many, many episodes before “Amok Time” (1967). This episode provides a concrete example of the small holes in cinema’s fictional fabric that Jenkins says the audience may fill as needed. As viewers, our apparatus contains a certain vocabulary from the outset (Spock has no emotions, Kirk is a pompous haircut, the intergalactic missions of the Starship Enterprise are of utmost importance). By providing Spock with a romance/friendship storyline and creating new emotional avenues and back-story between the main characters, “Amok Time” deliberately makes room for fan analysis and authorial authority over the trajectory of these characters. (Spock does end up having emotion, Kirk’s heart is bigger than his haircut, and there are holes in the narrarive of the Enterprise that allow for unexpected character development and connection). Despite its now-dated style and dialogue, “Amok Time,” like The Matrix, shows an ever-evolving cinematic apparatus that, in time, is becoming more collapsible and invisible.

Media discussed:
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)
Traffic in Souls (1913)
The Matrix (1999)
“Amok Time,” Star Trek (1967)

Christian Metz – The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema.
Thomas Elsaesser – “Primary Identification and Historical Subject: Fassbinder and Germany.”
Tom Gunning – “From the Kaleidoscope to the X-Ray: Urban Spectatorship, Poe, Benjamin, and Traffic in Souls (1913).”
Henry Jenkins – “Searching for the Origami Unicorn: The Matrix and Transmedia Storytelling.”

Leah Steuer
COURSE: Text & Context
QUARTER: Fall 2015


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