Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.

Film Students are slowly beginning to return to university or beginning their courses and at around this time, ten years ago, I began my MA in Screen Studies at the University of Manchester. Setting aside the nostalgia implications, a bit, I've decided to celebrate by creating a series of posts highlighting some of my favourite pieces of film related academia.

We begin with Laura Mulvey's essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, a pdf of which is available here.

Mulvey is a feminist theorist who's currently professor of film and media studies at Birkbeck, University of London but for many years worked at the BFI. This seminal essay published in 1975, took a psychoanalytical approach to the representation of women in cinema as objects of desire, encapsulated in the concept of "the male gaze".

At its most basic level this amounts to a moment in a film when a shot lingers on a female form, then cuts to a man enjoying said form then cuts back, and the notion is that through editing we've been trained to appreciate the woman in a particular way.

Here's a video filled with examples that seems to have been gathered by a student for class project on just this topic:

At university I was tasked with writing about this in relation to particular films on a couple of occasions and posted the first, about The Breakfast Club here focusing on the "Allison reveal" scene, which through modern eyes, as with all minor pygmaliona, looks utterly wrong.  Andrew should accept her for who she is.

The problem, as Mulvey identified forty years ago, is that it utterly destroys the agency of the female character because it becomes about her appearance rather than her existence as a human being.  It's about what she can do visually for the man rather than her own autonomy.

This is even true when a male character isn't in the scene, since the use of camera angles puts the viewer in that position (with the potential to suggest that a male camera operator, director and cinematographer are also fulfilling this requirement).  Here's another video with plenty of example of the toe to head shot.

Whilst this kind of photography is still prevalent, the trend seems to be that if a film has a solid female protagonist, this kind of shot does not exist. I don't remember seeing it in Jurassic World, for example, or Max Max: Fury Road.  I don't think Paul Feig uses it much either.

When they do occur, in MARVEL films for example, they tend to be counterbalanced in the opposite direction (Thor), though it's important to note that the implications of the female gaze and also how all of this works within queer theory are also markedly different.

But it's so ingrained in the language of cinema now it hasn't gone and is still in use, partly because we as viewers have become trained to expect it.  There's an argument that the reason there was a negative reaction from some about Bryce Dallas Howard's character in Jurassic World is because the film didn't (again as far as I can remember) have Chris Pratt ogling her.

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