Corporeality, Sensation, History, and Spectatorship

Even from the beginning, film has evoked a visceral response from its audiences. Tom Gunning puts early films, during the era of the “cinema of attractions” before the dawn of narrative films, in their proper historical context, relating them to the magic theater and other demonstrations of illusion that aimed to shock and astonish the viewers. This shock had nothing to do with tricking the audience into thinking the images were real (the audience was always consciously aware of the artifice and the spectacle), but was more about the novelty of the medium and the shock of seeing movement where it was previously never experienced. Many of these early films involved a controlled sense of danger, raising the viewers anxiety, questioning their knowledge of the world while also providing pleasure and satisfying a “lust to know.” These early films also provided a distraction from “a modern loss of fulfilling experience” which accompanied the turn of the century by continually assaulting the senses in a variety of ways. The cinema could provide the viewer only with a shadow of the real world and with cheap thrills, but the public was hungry for the illusion, I guess perpetuating a lack of fulfilling experience.

Linda Williams discusses the ability of certain “body” genres of film to provoke an uncontrolled physical response in us. It is important for Williams that these genres be “low” genres that are seen as less meaningful because they don’t fit into the Classical Hollywood Style and allow for a deeper exploration of the power of cinema to affect us physically. These genres include pornography, horror, and melodrama which assault our senses with an excess of sex, violence and emotion, respectively. Theses excesses are usually embodied by a female character and the body of the spectator is caught up in an involuntary mimicry. In pornography, the emphasis is on the female orgasm; in horror, the victims are often female and the villain usually male; in melodrama, the sobbing woman is the focus of the emotional overhaul. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, which leads Williams to believe that the distinctions between these genres are not as clearly cut in terms of sadism and masochism as we would like to think. There has been a rise in bisexual and homosexual pornography recently. In addition, the villain in a horror film is often destroyed by an empowered woman (who is still denied her sexuality). In melodrama, there have more recently been films that involved the emotional development of men, although I would argue that Douglas Sirk’s Written On the Wind depicts the emotional upheaval of men possibly even more so than that of women. These films differ from Classical Hollywood by abandoning the idea of a proper distance between the spectator and the film. The spectator becomes over-involved in the sensations depicted on screen and becomes susceptible to feeling them him/herself. Williams says that these can be a useful way to work out the problems of sexual identity in society by making use of fantasy. Pornography focuses on the seduction fantasy; horror focuses on the castration fantasy; melodrama focuses on the fantasy of family romance.

Vivian Sobchack discusses the viewer as a “cinesthetic” subject whose primary response to a film is unconscious and sensuous. This primary response creates meaning for the viewer before his/her brain has a chance to catch up and reflect on what was just seen or experienced. This sensuous response includes all of our senses, not just sight. Sobchack discusses the body’s ability to smell, feel and taste things that it sees on screen. This sort of synaesthesia enhances our experience of the cinema allowing us to experience the movie both viscerally and cognitively, and create a richer, fuller understanding of the meaning of the experience. This leads to a kind of displacement of the viewer, split between his/her actual experience of sitting in the theater watching and the simultaneous experience shared with the characters on the screen. But what we feel from what we see on screen only partially fulfills us and our bodies turn inward seeking additional fulfillment. Sobchack argues that this reversibility causes our bodies to become even more aware and sensitized to what we see on screen and allows us to not only touch what we see but also to be touched by it.

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