Feminism, in the broadest sense, refers to a political movement directed towards the emancipation of women from cultural stereotypes which have always served to denigrate and disparage them. This movement is furthermore concerned with the exploration of how femininity (or better still, womanhood) might be reconceived once these stereotypes have been abolished. Much progress has been made over the course of the past two centuries, but much more work still needs to be done.
At present, this feminist work is being carried out in two separate but related areas. The first area is that of political activism. Here, feminists continue to lobby for the personal and professional rights and recognition historically denied them. Some of the rights and recognition feminists are demanding include equal employment opportunities at high corporate and institutional levels, equal wages, and public acknowledgment for the important contributions of heretofore neglected women in history.
The second area of feminist work--the one that will concern us more directly in this discussion--is the area of scholarly critique. In this context, feminists focus on the ways women have been portrayed in various regions of cultural representation, chiefly in the regions of art, literature, and film. We will here focus our attention on feminist film theory in order to determine what insights it can yield for our present study of Chris Marker's La Jetée.
By way of introducing the topic of feminist film theory, I will draw upon the work of Laura Mulvey, whose seminal essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," set the highest standards of academic rigor for all subsequent work in this field. In this essay, Mulvey demonstrates that the visual pleasure (i.e., the joy of watching) that audiences derive from classic Hollywood cinema is simply an extension of the way our culture has joyfully envisioned the relationship of men to women in general. According to Mulvey, our current habits of watching and the visual pleasure we derive from them are largely the result of a certain stereotypical view which assigns to Men the active, voyeuristic role of looking, and to Women the passive, exhibitionistic role of being-looked-at. Thus men are culturally programmed to find enjoyment in the act of looking at women, and women are likewise programmed to take pleasure in the act of displaying themselves to men. This is definitely NOT to say that all men are Peeping-Toms and that all women are shameless vamps. Rather what Mulvey is pointing out here is a dominant tendency in our culture, a tendency that is whole-heartedly embraced by some, resisted by others, and partially adopted by most of us.
Classic Hollywood cinema, Mulvey effectively demonstrates, forcefully incorporates--and so helps to perpetuate--this tendency. It does so by way of proffering the image on an eye-catchingly beautiful, female star. The beautiful star has been, and still is, a mainstay of Hollywood cinema. From Marlene Dietrich to Anne Bancroft to Salma Hayek, her role in Hollywood is ever the same: to provide an erotic spectacle for the audience to visually caress. And yet, as central as she is, the beautiful star has always posed a certain problem for the films that showcase her. The problem is that the visual pleasure she affords tends to disrupt the flow of the film-narrative. Suddenly, in the flash of a thigh, the audience loses its concentration, and perhaps even its interest, in the unfolding storyline. Here visual pleasure upstages and so disrupts narrative coherence, threatening to reduce the film to an instance of mere soft-core pornography, a veritable peep-show. Hollywood was quick to realize this risk and immediately found a workable solution, a solution that has become as much a mainstay of classic cinema as the beautiful star. The solution involved finding some way to incorporate the audience's visual pleasure INTO the film-narrative. This incorporation was effectively brought about by way of portraying a male protagonist gazing pleasurably at the erotic spectacle of the beautiful star. Through a variety of techniques (POV shots, reaction shots, tracking shots following the movements of the male lead, etc.), Hollywood manipulated audiences into identifying with the male protagonist. Henceforth, the visual pleasure audiences derived from watching the beautiful star could be ascribed to the male protagonist, who acted as a sort of narrative surrogate or alibi for the audience. Our visual pleasure becomes his visual pleasure as we come to stare at the beautiful star through his eyes.
Thus Hollywood effectively married visual pleasure to narrative coherence at the very dawn of classic cinema. But in solving this formal problem, Hollywood unwittingly created a new, political problem, one which would only be grasped in the second half of the 20th Century with the emergence of feminist film theory and the experimental films this theory helped to shape. Namely, in retaining the element of visual pleasure centered on the spectacle of the beautiful star, and in folding it neatly into the narrative under the alias of the male protagonist who watches her for us, classic cinema implicitly endorsed the stereotypes of the active, voyeuristic male and the passive, exhibitionistic female. As cinema rose to become by far the most popular medium of public entertainment, reaching audiences in the millions, it became the agency chiefly responsible for perpetuating these stereotypes.
In "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Mulvey bluntly states: "analyzing a pleasure, or beauty, destroys it. That is the intention of this article." What she means here is that she intends to disrupt her own audience's ability to go on enjoying the kind of visual pleasure classic cinema proffers, blissfully ignorant of its anti-feminist stereotypes. However, it is far from Mulvey's intention to rob us of all pleasure we might take from cinema. In compensation for that pleasure she seeks to destroy, Mulvey offers us another kind of pleasure--the pleasure of understanding, of understanding how cultural stereotypes are formed and perpetuated, and of understanding how we might recognize and resist them. In the remainder of this discussion, I will address the way in which Chris Marker's La Jetée similarly offers us this kind of cognitive (rather than visual) pleasure.
|At first glance, La Jetée seems very much to follow the example of classic cinema. Despite its apparent avant-gardism (its use of photo-montage, its brooding existentialist commentary), the entire film is organized around a scene of good, old-fashioned visual pleasure--the pleasure that the male protagonist of the film, and through him the audience, takes in the evoked image of a beautiful star (Hélène Chatelain). The whole narrative centers on the male protagonist's ability to see her (in his memory) and subsequently to possess her. The beautiful star, by contrast, remains passive, awaiting his gaze. She plays no active part in the time travel experiment, serving only as a focal point of visual pleasure to lure the gaze of the audience through the circuit of the male protagonist.||
But Marker adds another remarkable twist to this familiar scenario. He adds the image of the directors of the experiment. By way of their mind-reading abilities and their visual-memory technology, they too are privy to the image of the beautiful star that the protagonist carries in his mind. Thus, through the (mind's) eye of the male protagonist, the directors gain access to his visual pleasure, in effect seeing and enjoying everything he sees and enjoys. Ultimately, they too are able to zero in on the focal point of his-their-our visual pleasure in the film, and thereby to locate and terminate the male protagonist. What we confront in the image of the sadistically perverse directors of the experiment is accordingly our own reflection. By virtue of their presence in the film, we are not able plainly and simply to identify with the male protagonist (as per classic cinema). Here the film-narrative makes it abundantly clear that the watcher (male protagonist) is himself watched. And the only way that we in the audience can escape the malignant gaze of the directors is to dis-identify ourselves with the male protagonist, and to re-align our gaze with that of the directors themselves--watching the male protagonist as he watches the beautiful star.
And yet, this alignment yields a palpable sensation of un-pleasure. After all, these directors are quite obviously the oppressors in this regime of visual power and captivation. Their presence is a guilty reminder of the perverse pleasure we too share whenever we blithely assume their role and derive visual pleasure through another's eyes. The pleasure that we ultimately derive in watching La Jetée arises from our sudden refusal to align our gaze with that of the directors. Or rather, this pleasure arises as we are suddenly released from the un-pleasure of that alignment, and we gain new perspective on them and ourselves, and the perverse nature of visual pleasure. And this feels pretty good.