Litsa Mouka 1 I know very well, but all the same… A study of fetishism I know very well, but all the same… A study of fetishism in relation to cinema This dissertation is an exploration into the different ways cinema utilises processes of fetishisation to evoke desire and disavow lack. In all cases it will show how the basic notion of fetishism functions as a symbolic substitution for the lack and as such, how it imposes itself onto the structure of film and the experience of watching/looking.
Furthermore, how commodity (Marxian) fetishism – as an intrinsic value of the socioeconomic structure of capitalism – exists in the context of film, and additionally how film itself poses as a commodity itself; the two are inexorably linked. Drawing on Laura Mulvey’s feminist Freudian analysis, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, in the first case I will show how classical Hollywood narrative depends on the erotic spectacle of the woman’s body; which simultaneously evokes a castration threat and then assuages it through its eroticised fetishisation.
Techniques of camera, lighting, make-up, costume and the narrative’s technique of objectifying the female body through the eyes of the male protagonist (the spectator’s on-screen surrogate) combine to create an effect where the heightened spectacle of the female body substitutes for its lack of a penis and the unconscious threat of castration that is invoked by it. The female body comes to symbolise the phallus.
In the second case, (drawing on Christian Metz’s essay The Imaginary Signifier I will show how, at another level, the whole on-screen image is fetishised; how the absence/presence of the screen image, its illusory nature, where the illusion of an animate threedimensional world is created by the projection of light onto a two-dimensional screen in a darkened room, invokes an absence which is assuaged by an illusory presence. It provides the symbolic substitution for the lack it evokes.
In turn, this evokes – and its nostalgic affect is dependent on – a return to the imaginary (unconscious). Furthermore, in (Jacques Lacan’s) Mirror Stage, the subjective ego is constituted in the recognition of the self in the image of the body by looking in the mirror, whereby identity is projected onto an external reflection, so the self is recognised as an Other. For cinema, the mechanism of illusion is the same, we recognise the on-screen representation of the world and identify it with its referent, the real
Litsa Mouka 2 I know very well, but all the same… A study of fetishism world, which is temporarily absent in cinematic space. This absence/presence re-creates the act of concealment of the absent penis in the mother and in thus doing so the whole screen becomes the fetish. The third case will develop out of the second. It will centre on the co-dependant relationship between classical Hollywood film (in specific) and the consumer aspect of capitalism.
I will show how the fabulous and glamorous world of classical Hollywood cinema presented on-screen, generates material desire for the ideal life sublimated by consumer capitalism. The screen functions as a shop window for all that consumerist society allows. Richard Dyer has demonstrated in his essay Entertainment and Utopia that Hollywood entertainment systematically corresponds to the real needs (or lacks) of its mainstream audience.
In this sense, cinema can be seen as the ultimate consumer fetish in Marxist theory; offering promises of the ‘good life’, generating desire, which is met by the product itself, which, as has been shown, is spectral, illusory. It evokes a lack that is met with a symbolic substitution, which vanishes with the turning on of the house lights. And finally the fourth case will be a discourse on how historically, capitalist consumer societies have replaced the anthropological religious fetish with the consumer fetish, with reference to the Laura Mulvey’s observations in her book Fetishism and Curiosity.
Furthermore, how consumerist culture has harnessed the psycho-erotic power and mechanisms of the fetishising processes in its visual representations which are them-selves consumer fetishes – thereby unifying the fields of theoretical Marxism and psychoanalysis. These representations (cinema, television and advertising) play a vital role in generating desire for the consumer fetish that guarantees and controls consumerism. Furthermore, the cinema acts as a further reinforcement of capitalism, not only through consumer fetishism, that it evokes, but also by fetishising the ideal Oedipal family.
Based on the theoretical foundation of fetishism and lack, I will argue that the European Art Film is distinct from the classical Hollywood film in that its narratives self-consciously and formally feature the processes of erotic fetishisation, that Hollywood’s psychological narratives – based on sexual difference and codes of invisible continuity editing – disavow. I will illustrate these points by referring to Howard Hawk’s The Big Sleep (USA, 1946) and King Kong (USA, 1933) as examples of the Classical Hollywood film; Litsa Mouka 3 I know very well, but all the same… A study of fetishism nd discussing the works of Louis Bunuel in the European Art cinema, with particular emphasis on Cet Obscur Objet du Desir (Sp. 1977) and a small reference to Un Chien Andalou (Fr. 1928). * * * Fetishism as a concept, seems to encapsulate a whole world of meanings and actions, most of which, as it happens, are either irrelevant to fetishism itself as a practice, and therefore a corruption of the term, or branch out to a multitude of related fields, only a fraction of which are useful for the study of fetishism in relation to cinema. There are three types of fetishism: religious fetishism, erotic fetishism and commodity fetishism.
Surprisingly, in Xala (dir. Ousmane Sembene, 1975, Senegal) – the analysis of which I shall return to later – all three instances of fetishism are equally explored and appear to be witnessed by the people in the everyday life in a town in Senegal. This film illustrates – with great humour – the progression from the ritual fetishism, which was practised by the ancient African and American tribes, to the fetishism of commercial products in capitalist society, namely commodity fetishism, through the protagonists journey to overcome the infliction of impotence (a symbolic castration.
In contemporary mainstream culture the term “fetishism” has been corrupted to the point where it bears no real relation to the context of the word at all. Since it is a term that is not really well understood generally, its reference in any text inspires curiosity combined with sexual connotations; and therefore tends to be used widely in advertising and newspaper articles. Everything seems to be a fetish, from a model in an advertising campaign wearing a latex top, to advertising computer games. In actual fact, the word itself is not that old; surprisingly.
Contrary to its practice, it is as old as the discovery of the Americas, since it is there where the Portuguese conquerors encountered for the first time the practice of fetishism. Jean Baudrillard (among many others) explains how the word “fetish” is derived from the Portuguese feitico, which in turn stems from the Latin factitius, the root of the Spanish afeitar meaning to point, to adorn, to embellish, and afeite meaning ‘preparations’, ‘ornamentation’, ‘cosmetics’. Interestingly, Laura Mulvey’s reading of Baudrillard on this subject reveals a homology between the fetishised figure of bodily beauty and the
Litsa Mouka 4 I know very well, but all the same… A study of fetishism fetishism of a commodity. “In both cases, the embellished surface conceals and enables a sliding of connotations from the eroticised feminine to the eroticisation of consumption”. 1 The huge leap, illustrated above, from the type of fetishism practised by primitive tribes, to the type utilised in West consumerist societies is best illustrated by Laura Mulvey’s observations in her book Fetishim and Curiosity, where she breaks down fetishism into three categories: anthropological fetishism, materialist fetishism, and sexual fetishism.
All three types combine very well in the production of desire in the context of film. Fetishism and consumerism are closely linked together and fortified by the patriarchal structure. Although fetishism has a long history from the ancient pagan tribes, the final transformation from religious fetishism to erotic and finally to materialist/consumerist fetishism took its form in the capitalistic/patriarchal society. Ousmane Sembene makes a rather interesting study of the three types of fetishism in his film Xala.
Xala is a parody on the incompatibility between Western and pagan cultures and the various misunderstandings that happen as the result of integrating one with the other. The clash of the two incompatible cultures is underlined by the inappropriate juxtaposing of symbolic objects of the two cultures. The Black—African hero of the film, El Hadji, is made head of the committee replacing the former colonial French official. This is seen as a victory for the locals.
The irony is, that, as a supposed gesture of good will, the French give El Hadji and the other members of the local committee, an attache case filled with money – a symbol of Western culture. El Had subsequently becomes afflicted with impotence and visits the Marabou (witch doctor) to cure him. As a cure he gives him a fetish object, which he must carry with him at all times. The worst humiliation comes when his attache case is confiscated by the other members of the committee and opened to reveal the fetish object. In his humiliation he shouts to the other members: “this is a true fetish, not the fetishism of technology! El Hadji makes use of other types of “fetishes” in the film. His chauffeur washes the car with “Evian” water, a symbol of western 1 Laura Mulvey, Fetishism and Curiosity (Bfi Indiana University Press, 1996) p. 47 Litsa Mouka 5 I know very well, but all the same… A study of fetishism materialism. The most important fetish in this film is his third wife, youthful (a third of his age), pretty and a symbol of his virility and wealth. His gift to her – and therefore the exchange object – is a car, which is paraded in the town just before the wedding.
The car, a status symbol, is paraded in the street and given as a dowry for his third wife, the other status symbol, aiming to bring him a step higher in society. The car and his nubile wife – commodity fetishes – triumph as spectacles. Here the commodities are on display, where their symbolic value is exalted and takes precedence over their function. Everything desirable, from sex to social status, could be transformed into commodities as fetishes on display that held the crowd enthralled even when possession was beyond their reach. In the young wife’ s bedroom there is a poster of her naked – yet another symbol which establishes her as a sexual fetish object, El Hadii’ s impotence has forced him to resort to pagan witchcraft to be cured and thus be able to have control of his new fetish object – his new wife. Unfortunately, he manages to lose everything – his money, status and his wife — and finally, all his fetishes including his “real” one. The fetishised objects are the main subject of the film, either in their religious form or sexual form.
The circulation of European commodities in a society of the kind depicted in Xala caricatures and exaggerates the commodity fetishism inherent in capitalism. Sembene’s aim is to show the futility of materialism and materialist fetishism, the confusion that new values may have on an unprepared society, which is neither consumerist nor materialist. In this film, all west commodities are “worshipped”, treated in the same way, or even regarded more highly than religious fetishes – like deities. Inanimate objects are treated with great care, respect and awe.
And the acquisition of them becomes their one purpose in life, leading them into corruption and theft. In his obsession to own as many status symbols as possible, El Hadji resorts to embezzling public money. Naturally, as a consequence of his greed and corruption, he is forced to submit to the utter humiliation of being spat upon by the beggars, whom he had previously expelled from the town. 2 ibid p. 4 Litsa Mouka 6 I know very well, but all the same… A study of fetishism According to Kenneth Harris, we give objects a special power, which makes them compellingly desirable, and the possession of them provokes an erotic pleasure.
In the process of fetishising them, according to Harris, we disavow the “magical” qualities, which we attribute to them as commodities, and therefore we make them “timeless and eternal”. In doing so, we create a timeless and eternal void which we have to cover. Objects become identified with what they symbolise – whether it be status, erotic pleasure, a sense of well being – rather than what they intrinsically are. * 1. The power of films, what lingers on in our memories, derives from affect and not from cognition — not what we have come to know from watching the film, but what atching the film has made us feel. Often, when a film has ended, what lingers on in our memories is not the satisfaction of what [Lewis] Carroll would call “our curiosity” but rather… “the fetishising gaze, that which has effectively captivated us by what we have seen, so that we have no wish to inquire further, to see more to find out” (Ellis 47). In this captivation resides the power of cinema. 3 The key words here, of course, are fetishistic gaze, which suggest a fixation on a spectacle, an image, an illusion, a suspension of belief.
The realm of Hollywood is a magical, ideal, utopian world built on fantasy, where the spectator can, for a few short hours, be transported into a private world where he can identify with a hero, an idealised “other” of himself, and fix his gaze on an object of desire. Laura Mulvey in her article (rather feminist) Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema explains how classical narrative film is made for the pleasure of the male spectator, gratifying the male gaze, for it is through the erotic spectacle of the woman’ s body he can have the pleasure of indirectly possessing the female.
The Hollywood dream factory, manifested particularly in the classical narrative film – which is characterised by its rigidly formal mise-en-scene – is constructed as a mechanism, that produces desire. * * 3 Kenneth Mark Harris. The Film Fetish (Peter Lang N, 1992) p. 145 Litsa Mouka 7 I know very well, but all the same… A study of fetishism The appeal of Hollywood lies in its “skilled and satisfying manipulation of visual pleasure”. 4 Two important psychological elements arise here in the pleasure of looking.
The First – scopophilia produces sexual stimulation from seeing another person as an object, and the second, which is developed through narcissism and the ego, is a need to identify with the image seen. First, pleasure in looking or, voyeurism/scopophilia; is the looking at the object of desire as the sole means of erotic pleasure. In Freud it is setting one’s controlling and curious gaze on the object. In small children, this is mainly concerned with curiosity about the hidden, secret body parts, the difference between boys and girls.
Later on, the instinct is transferred to others, and in spite of being modified by the ego and other factors, it still continues as the erotic basis for pleasure in looking at another person as object. Woman as an erotic object has always been an essential factor of classical narrative cinema, but the very psychological premise which produced the phenomenon in the first place is in danger of boomeranging, because the female body as (erotic) spectacle evokes the threat of castration. Freud’s definition of the castration complex stems from the moment when the male child observes that his mother possesses no penis.
He believes that she has been castrated as a punishment and her wound forewarns his own castration. The male unconscious makes use of two mechanisms to counteract the castration threat. The first is to reenact the original trauma by robbing the woman of her mystery, and then getting her to atone for her guilt, or belittling her or saving her. The second way is to disavow the very fact of castration by replacing it with a fetish object or turning the female figure into a fetish to disguise its danger and make it look more comforting.
The first mechanism has overtones of sadism, guilt, punishment and assertion of control, and is more compatible with narrative as it causes events to happen, and holds interest; a mechanism used by the “film noir” genre, for example. The second instance – fetishistic scopophilia – where the surface image of a woman is polished to an immaculate sheen – is the mainstay of classical narrative cinema The whole image of woman is dressed up and fetished as a substitute to disavow the lack, to cover up the wound – the site of symbolic 4 Laura Mulvey.
Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (Macmillan London, 1989) p. 16 Litsa Mouka 8 I know very well, but all the same… A study of fetishism castration. The woman’s lack produces the phallus as a symbolic presence, and the whole of her stands in for the phallus, because of her desire to make good the lack that the phallus signifies. Laura Mulvey considers the irony of the paradox that the phallocentcic patriarchal society, reflected in the mainstream film, “should be dependant on the image of the castrated woman to give order and meaning to its world”. In The Big Sleep, fetishism takes a rather longer route than normal, where the star is prepared slightly more attentively than normal. When Howard Hawks was adapting the complicated Raymond Chandler detective novel for the big screen, his first priority was to find a glamorous new young actress to gleam as a spectacle on the screen. And he found her; only there was a small problem – she wasn’t his wife, Slim (Hawks). Slim was tall, striking, with a deep husky voice, well dressed, and most important, for an intelligent man of Hawks’ calibre, she could keep up a good conversation and always answered back with the wittiest remarks.
Betty Bacall (Lauren Bacall’s original name) was transformed into the image of Nancy Gross (Slim), her on-screen substitute. He sent Bacall away to change her high-pitched voice to a more husky, sexy tone; taught her how to talk back to men and be wittily; dressed her and groomed her in the image of Slim. Howard Hawks created his ‘spectacle’ to share with his spectators to provide them with the pleasure they needed. As David Thompson in his discussion on The Big Sleep notices – which is the case with many directors, as with Louis Bunuel as well – “. . the first voyeur is the director – the one who prefers to watch, and has to school the actress’s rapture. ”6 One wonders whether Hawks’s fetishisation of his actresses was a conscious process or whether he was so absorbed in the whole filmmaking process and his position as a powerful and successful mainstream director that he became impervious to the actual mechanisms of such a process. Not only did the actress become his own personal fetish for his own gratification, he also (as a good director does! put himself in the place of the spectator and looked at her as a fetish object on the screen. Thus he spent hours, sometimes days, to perfect her on-screen image – at which position a certain lock of hair may fall, her posture, her pose, her look. Furthermore, the way the plot is structured also affects the way the spectacle is received. Before the 5 ibid p. 14 6 David Thompson. The Big Sleep (Bfi Classics, 1998) p. 28 Litsa Mouka 9 I know very well, but all the same… A study of fetishism ilm was finally released in the US in May 1946, it went through a long process of re-shoots, re-writes and major re-structuring of the plot; which inevitably ended with the ‘loss of the plot’ to aid the commercial success of the film. The detective genre, which covers a substantial collection of ‘B-movies’ is characterised by a tightlyknit plot, whereby the story is restricted the syuzhet (plot) is suppressed, and all is revealed at the end. The detective genre lacks a glamorous spectacle for the male gaze to focus on, which is introduced in the Film Noir as the Femme Fatal.
The Femme Fatale is usually calculating and evil; initially giving the impression that she needs saving, round which premise, the story develops. Finally, her true nature is revealed and hence she gets punished. But then, why ruin a perfectly good object (of desire) by making it evil and then discarding it, when more satisfaction and pleasure can be gained from its possession! Therefore, in The Big Sleep, the twist of the Femme Fatale is eliminated by introducing the evil sister to save the spectators object of desire.
Carmen (Martha Vickers), the attractive evil sister of Vivian (Lauren Bacall) and also a blatant nymphomaniac – is the one who is blamed for all the murders and gets punished. Martha Vickers was also very good-looking, but unfortunately, the audience must not get confused with too many spectacles, as that would distract the attention from the star and her desirability would be diluted. That resulted in many of her scenes being cut and replaced with scenes including Bacall.
This, effectively, did not benefit the plot, and neither did many other alterations that had to be done. Initially, there was an explanation scene at the end of the film, which at the test screening (to a military audience) proved unsuccessful, and thus had to be replaced with a scene involving Bogart and Bacall immaculately dressed resolving their own ‘love-story’. Many other plot points were cut to provide more glitter and spectacle, as this is what the audiences demanded. Inevitably this left many unresolved points in the plot and question-narks about who killed who.
This failure to tie up loose-ends departs from the usual Classical Hollywood convention, but as it turned out this did not seem to unsettle audiences too much and the film proved, finally, a commercial success making three million dollars at the box office in 1946! 2. Litsa Mouka 10 I know very well, but all the same… A study of fetishism Together with scopophilia – pleasure from looking at a person as object – there is a second look. This time, the look is not an instinct, but is concerned with the development of the ego, and is the need to identify with the image on the screen.
In his essay “The Imaginary Signifier”7 Christian Metz describes the cinema as more sensorially “present” than all the other art forms because it has such a variety of perceptions to offer – sight, speech, images, photography, music. However, it is all based on an “absence”, and therefore it is much closer to fantasy from the very start. “ The imaginary, by definition, combined within a certain presence and a certain “absence” in the cinema it is not just the fictional signified, if there is one, that is thus made present in the mode of absence, it is from the outset the signifier. 8 As everything is recorded beforehand, the decor, the location, the actors are not there when the spectator is present. This juxtaposition of “present” and “absent” is very reminiscent of Jacque Lacan’s Mirror Stage in psychoanalysis when the small child catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror. This is an essential part of the development of his ego, his separation form the mother figure, to establish his own identity. However, the child imagines himself to be more physically developed than he really is, so he projects a superior reflected body over his own, and the recognition in the mirror becomes also misrecognition.
Thus, the child, in fact, is absent from the mirror and his identity is recognised as “another”. The mirror stage is crucial for cinema. The screen becomes a mirror where the identity is projected, and the self is recognised as “other”. However, according to Metz, the identification in the mirror is a secondary, not primary, form of cinema identification, as the spectator’s ego has already formed. Primary identification comes when the spectator perceives through the camera – which is absent but is substituted by the projector situated at the back of the spectator’s head “where fantasy locates the focus of all vision. 9 All the apparatus of cinema, which consists of a series of mirror effects organised in a chain, gives the spectator omniscience over what is been shown on the screen. As Metz observes in this essay, the two perceptual drives, which are essential for cinema practice – the desire to see (scopophilia – voyeurism) and the desire to hear (the invocating drive) are sexual drives which 7 Metz, Christian. The Imaginary Signifier. (Indiana University Press, 1986) 8 Stam, Robert & Miller, Tobby. (ed) Film & Theory, an Anthology. (Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 2000) p. 410 9 ibd p. 414 Litsa Mouka 1 I know very well, but all the same… A study of fetishism are different from the others in that they are more dependent on a “lack”, which puts them on the side of the imaginary. Instincts, like hunger, thirst and selfpreservation can only be satisfied by certain, definite objects, and cannot be put off by substitutes. However, sexual drives can be postponed, sublimated or repressed without putting the subject into any danger. But these drives tend to remain unsatisfied even after their object has been gained, and desire is quickly restored and even survives quite independently of the pleasure which was its aim.
The lack is what it wishes to fill, and at the same time what it is always careful to leave gaping, in order to survive as a desire. In the end it has no object, at any rate no real object; through real objects which are all substitutes (and all the more multiple and inter-changeable for that) it pursues an object (a “lost object”) which is its truest object, an object that has always been lost and is always desired as such. 10 Because these two drives – auditory and visual – (invocation and scopic) always maintain a distance from the object of desire, this distance represents the loss or lack of the object. Other desires such as orality and anality – organ pleasure – suggest fusion or contact). It is true that other arts also depend on sight or hearing, such as painting, sculpture, music, opera and theatre, but what cinema offers is that extra something “an extra re-duplication, a supplementary and specific turn of the screw, bolting desire to the lack”11 which is a profusion of richly varied sights and sounds, presented to us and make us aware of their absence. Furthermore, the cinema itself is promoting desire from “elsewhere”, in an inaccessible place always desirable and never atisfied. According to Metz, together with mirror identification, voyeurism (and exhibitionism) one of the unconscious roots of the cinema is fetishism. Inextricably linked with castration fear, fetishism’s mechanisms are uncannily close to those of the cinema in that they both unveil a lack (representing the maternal penis) causing the necessity to double-up a belief (in order to relieve the anxiety) and from that point forever hold two contradictory opinions (proving that there was some truth 10 ibd p. 424 11 ibd p. 422 Litsa Mouka 2 I know very well, but all the same… A study of fetishism in the original perception while disavowing it at the same time). Kenneth Harris believes that there should be no distinction between fetishisation of various screen images and fetishisation of the cinema as a whole. 12 He finds that the basis of all cinematic fetishism is created from the spectators identification with the visual representation of the characters, and therefore this fetishism applies not only to the image in the film, but also to the entire film as such.
Furthermore, this fetishisation leads to a larger fetishisation of the whole cinematic medium and the institution itself. 13 But how can there be no distinction between the image as fetish, film as fetish and the whole cinema as fetish? In my view, there is a substantial difference between the two types of fetishism, mainly on how they become fetishes. The whole cinematic institution itself becomes fetished because all of its components, its equipment and apparatus both emphasise and at the same time disavow the lack on which the whole arrangement is made – absence which is replaced by its reflection.
Christian Metz has shown how the cinema itself, considered in its dominant role as the creator of believable fictions, aims all of its technical prowess at the disavowal of the lack on which it is based – the absence of the object the image the signifier replaces. As we have seen, the whole apparatus of the fiction film aims precisely to cover up this fundamental absence by creating the illusion of presence. Just as the fetish that covers a lack takes on the erotic desirability of the whole love object, so the entire cinematic institution – considered especially in its technical prowess – becomes erotogenic. 4 The eroticisation of the image of Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep, plays a significant role as it is the one the male spectator identifies with. Bogart, as the “hard-boiled” private eye, acquired an on-screen persona which he keeps in all the films as it became very successful. David Thomson comments how masterfully Bogart carried the film in terms of plot as all the story revolves round Bogart’s character – but mainly how he was “generally looking so damn 12 Harris, Kenneth Mark. The Film Fetish (Peter Lang NY, 1992) p. 40 13 ibid p. 147 14 Williams, Linda. Figure of Desire: A Theory and Analysis of Surrealist Film (University of California Press Ltd, 1981) pp. 217-8 Litsa Mouka 13 I know very well, but all the same… A study of fetishism good”15, and this was where the other half of the film’s success lay. In any case the identification with Bogart is necessary, as the development of the story is seen wholly through the detective’s (Phillip Marlowe’s) eyes and is limited by his knowledge, and therefore dictates the sequence of events.
Bogart portrayed Marlow as a “man’s man”, with a laconic, wry humour, with a rather misogynist edge which became a convincing male icon to identify with. 3. The fabulous, glamorous world of Hollywood, the world which temporarily replaces our own and provides us with something we want deeply that our daily lives don’t provide is based on “utopianism” which Richard Dyer explains in his essay “Entertainment and Utopia”. Utopia, or rather, the feeling of what it would be the like to live in Utopia, is the response of Hollywood to the deep-seated needs/lacks of people, created by society.
Where there is fatigue it provides energy, where there is poverty it provides wealth, where there is isolation it provides community, where there is tawdriness it provides glamour, where there is boredom, repetition and futility it provides excitement, variety and meaningful resolution. Unfortunately, the entertainment industry, by and large, according to Dyer, is so devoted to responding to these needs/lacks, that other fundamental needs or sensitive areas, especially those concerning class, sexual inequality and patriarchy, are largely ignored.
All the needs and injustices, which are promised to be resolved turn out to be capitalist ideals (with the possible exception of community) thus the abolition of poverty, for example, by providing wealth, translates into (capitalist) consumerism. The Big Sleep provides the audience with all the necessary factors to create the utopia where the spectator can escape to. It is the ideal world where the criminals get punished and the hero gets the girl. Bacall is immaculately dressed and coiffured, exemplifying wealth and beauty, decorating the scenes.
The sets are dressed in a way to evoke reassurance and comfort without stripping them of realism. The rain on the streets becomes a gloss finish of the sets; the drive in the country roads is accompanied by pleasant scenery; all in all, any disturbing elements that may have been part of the original novel have been 15 David Thompson. The Big Sleep (Bfi Classics, 1998) p. 9 Litsa Mouka 14 I know very well, but all the same… A study of fetishism transformed to an aesthetically pleasing and nonthreatening environment.
There is a certain smoothness, ease and elegance despite the multiple murders dominating the narrative. 4. Laura Mulvey observes in “Fetishism and Curiosity”, that there are three types of fetishism: anthropological fetishism, sexual fetishism (Freudian) and materialist/consumerist fetishism (Marxist). All three types combine perfectly in the production of desire and the desire to possess the object, in the context of film-viewing. “To desire the image, to wish to posses the image, to become the image. 16 In the cinema Marxian consumer fetishism (the misappropriation of the true value of goods – abstraction of goods) and Freud’s sexual fetishism (the eroticisation of nonsexual objects or, parts of the body) co-exist and intertwine, to create the most efficient desiring machine. As a consequence, though, the basic differences between the two types of fetishism affect the way they work together. For Freud, (as mentioned before) the source of fetishism is the mother’s body where castration fear awakes, as the little boy becomes threatened by the absence of the penis on the maternal body.
For Marx, fetishism is created from the denial of the workers’ labour as value. Therefore, in both cases, the concept of fetishism is an attempt to deny, refuse and block the understanding of the symbolic system of values; in the Marxian with the social, and in the Freudian with the psychoanalytic sphere. The differences, thought, rather than the similarities, Laura Mulvey finds more significant. In capitalist society the difficulty in assigning exchange value to objects results in a failure to inscribe sigh value to the object.
The Freudian fetish object, a substitute for the imagined lack, on the other hand, is over-inscribed with value, existing within absence. 17 Mulvey finds the notion of inscription, intrinsic to the pleasure in cinematic spectatorship and necessary for its circulation. There are important differences between the two types of fetishism, that is, the different problems of inscription. But both are central to and articulated with the Hollywood cinema and the studio system. There is logic to harnessing the over-inscribed signifier to the 16 Laura Mulvey, Fetishism and Curiosity (Bfi Indiana University Press, 1996) p. 17 Laura Mulvey, Fetishism and Curiosity (Bfi Indiana University Press, 1996) p. 2 Litsa Mouka 15 I know very well, but all the same… A study of fetishism un-inscribed. The sheer force of rich sight of the spectacle creates a diversion away from inquiry or curiosity. 18 The initial inquiry of the young boy as to why the mother lacks the penis, which creates the threat, no longer lingers as an urge; instead it has been eliminated by the abundance of over-inscribed objects and images loaded with “comforting” connotations disavowing that lack.
The cinema instantly transforms into a “desire-machine”. But it is just that? Is it simply another fetishised commodity, or is it more than that? Fetishism and consumerism are closely linked together and fortified by the patriarchal structure. Although fetishism has a long history from the ancient pagan tribes, the final eventual transformation from religious fetishism to erotic and finally to materialist/consumerist fetishism, took its form in the capitalist/ patriarchal society.
The use of money as a sign of value not only separates itself from the literalness of object exchange, but it facilitates the final obliteration of labour power as the primary source of value. The object referred to then shifts away from the production process towards circulation and the market where it emerges with its own intrinsic value attached. Thus, the product, free from the grease of the machine and the sweat of the worker appears as a seductive, desirable, brand-new, a commodity.
The commodity becomes a spectacle. “Commodity fetishism triumphs as a spectacle. As spectacle, the object becomes image and belief, and is secured by an erotic, rather than a religious aura. ”19 With the same token, the Hollywood cinema industry, itself a commodity, has erased production processes and mechanised parts in favour of spectacle and illusion and just looking. The commodity here for sale is the image and the cinematic illusion has always functioned on the principle of suspension of belief.
The characteristic point of convergence of the two kinds of fetishism (Freudian/Marxist) in the cinema is the eroticed body of the female star producing a perfect streamlined image of femininity, which is both a commodity and a reminder of the Freudian maternal body. According to Felix Guitarri, the cinema is neither a simple erotic machine, which stimulates desire, nor only a political instrument; it is both at the same time, whatever the subject. The power of cinema (or the 18 ibid p. 14 19 ibid p. 4 Litsa Mouka 16 I know very well, but all the same… A study of fetishism epression of cinema, as he prefers to name it) rather than being extracted from obvious erotic images, is the imposition of powerful models which are used to channel and dominate the collective desire of the audience. The films that are more successful and appreciated by the audiences are the ones, which are structured by and around the relations of production within the consumerist capitalist system, and manage very well, to strengthen its foundations and form. 20 One can argue that sexuality is the strongest support of the economy and structure of the patriarchal capitalist system.
First of all, sexuality as a market value ensures the circulation and consumption of consumer products. Secondly, the structure of the family and family values ensure the position, i. e. active presence and dependence of the worker within the system (mortgage, car, children, school, college, work). Therefore, on those two levels sexuality plays a major role. The capitalist system relies on commodity culture, which in all its forms reinforces the system. On one level, all aspects of sexuality are used to stimulate materialist desires.
On another, the patriarchal system relies on the enforcement of the established order. Sexuality is used to maintain the structure of the family, a basic procreative need and also a bond between heterosexual people. Homosexuality still remains a great prejudice and is even illegal in some countries and states. Deviations of sexual behaviour do not aim at the creation and stabilisation of the family and are therefore seen as a threat. Unconventional sex, i. e. perversion, challenges patriarchal systems of capitalistic structures of society, which rely on heterosexual norms of behaviour.
Family and national identity are the strong foundations needed for the smooth running of the system; the basic structure is the Oedipal triangle: daddy-mummy-me. Within this structure, all the conventions of the psychoanalytic strategy are active, and reinforce the systems. In the microscopic way, which is the conventional structure and morality of the family and on a macroscopic way within the state, “father’ is the state, “mother” is the morality of the state and “me” is the citizen. Guattari argues that the dominant class is also is responsible for the creation of lack as a function of market economy.
The lack, taking its role as the leader of consumerism in an already organised system of 20 Guattari, Felix et al. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (The Athlone Press, 1984) pp. 153-154 Litsa Mouka 17 I know very well, but all the same… A study of fetishism production, infiltrates its subjects and creates voids and needs where there was there was no sense of lack before. An urge to fill this void is created, which is to be filled by various substitutes. At the same time, to maintain this constant feeling of lack, and therefore of need, fear of n-fulfilment/dissatisfaction is created. This results in the subject being dependent on a real system of production. 21 A caricature of the commodity fetish as spectacle, and how the economic and socio-economic system works, is shown in the film King-Kong, where a larger than life commodity, a larger than life gorilla, King Kong, is brought into captivity to be exchanged for status and money. King Kong himself is a caricature of a fetish/ commodity symbol, exaggerated in its form to overstate its significance.
In his original environment he was worshipped and protected as a deity. He is then captured by westerners, who retain his value as a worshiped object, and furthermore treated as a commodity fetish. Finally, he is brought to New York and exhibited in a theatre as a unique spectacle. The opening sequence of the film (which at the time of release was banned) depicts the economic situation in the US immediately after the Great Depression. The bread lines and soup kitchens are full of hungry people. A girl is stopped for stealing an apple.
The stall-holder has caught her and a film director who was passing by catches sight of her and stops to rescue her. The point of reference in the opening scene is a small apple, which is stolen by the heroine. Here are made some initial contrasts: poor girl who needs the small apple to live / rich director who wants the girl as a commodity with exchange value. Small apple / big problems, (daily survival); large gorilla / small problems (the maintenance of high status). Human relationships and their outcome gravitate around a tiny stolen apple, a radiating fetishistic centre.
That is the endresult of a socio-economic system in which Marxism sees the fetishism of goods, money and capital taken to an extreme, to the point of caricature. 22 Naturally the director’s intentions are not particularly pure, as he intends to use her as an actress. For the girl this is a new avenue, but for the director she is an 21 Delouze, Gilles et al. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (The Athlone Press, 1984) p. 28 22 Donald, James ed. , Fantasy and the Cinema (Bfi 1989) pp. 44-5 Litsa Mouka 18 I know very well, but all the same… A study of fetishism bject with exchange value. It is not until she joins the rest of the film crew on the ship – on their way to capture the giant gorilla – that her true value as object becomes apparent by the way she is treated. The film crew eventually arrive on the island where the giant beast lives. King Kong is worshipped there by the natives as a deity who occasionally sacrificed a woman to him. When he is brought back he is placed in a theatre in front of a bourgeois audience, who become terribly excited with the spectacle, their faces gleaming and hands clapping with joy.
Happy and content in their position of affluence and good fortune, this audience counterbalances the darkness and misfortune of the people in the opening sequence, where poverty and hunger thrive. King Kong as the ultimate commodity fetish. He is there to re-assure the “privi1eged classes” of their status and position. Together with the young girl he is used as object with a high exchange value. The transition from the natural surroundings of the little island where he was treated as religious fetish to a glittering theatre in New York illustrates the triumph of fetishistic values in capitalist society.
Amid all the suffering brought about by the Depression, the highly fetishised cinema continued to promote its selfsufficiency, concerned simply with image-making, by creating an illusion of well-being, a world above the harsh reality. Although in the 1960s and 1970s there were several attempts to combat the fetishisation of Hollywood cinema – and certainly cinema has fallen behind all the forms of media and influence – advanced capitalism continues to hold sway.
The growth of electronics and the communications industries have left industrial growth behind, and currency speculation seems more profitable than investment in conventional businesses. “These new industries not only have an ever-increasing importance in contemporary capitalism, but spectacle and a diminishing reference are essential to their appeal. ”23 * * * In the European Art film tradition, psychoanalytic mechanisms are used overtly and are often the subject of films. Conscious fetishism can be observed in the works of many filmmakers such as Alain Resnais, 3 Laura Mulvey, Fetishism and Curiosity (Bfi Indiana University Press, 1996) p. 11 Litsa Mouka 19 I know very well, but all the same… A study of fetishism Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, and Louis Bunuel A striking example is Alain Resnais’ L’Annee Derniere a Marienbad, where the structure of the film is so ambiguous that it is impossible for the spectator to construct a coherent story-line and therefore cannot identify with any of the characters. The emphasis is on style rather than story whereby the scenery and the actors are constantly involved in creating the perfect composition in each shot.
As a result the spectator is reassured with consciously fetishising the on-screen image as well as the whole film as such. Delphine Seyring’s (the main lead) image is hugely fetishised -·pro-filmicaly – in fact she is presented as personification of a fetish. In the lush, perfectly constructed settings of the chateau and the formal gardens, she is constantly posing as a threedimentional object. Surrealist films, as part of the European Art film, seem to utilise more unashamedly the psychoanalytic mechanisms of film to purposely disrupt the film processes used by mainstream film.
One of the basic mechanisms of mainstream film is the identification process, which gives the illusion of false unity of self with the image, thus enabling the spectator to believe in the reality of the image. The Surrealist film exposes the viewer’s own misrecognition of the image, while at the same time as in Un Chien Andalu, (Louis Bunuel) evoking castration fear. Surrealist film focuses on the process of identification without reproducing its effect on the spectator.
Rather than simply using the identification process to create an illusion of a fictive time, space and character in the way most fictional films do, surrealist film exposes a fundamental illusion of the film image itself to focus its role in creating the fictive unity of the human subject. It is thus both a visual art-form that takes into account the problematics of the subject’s relation to the image and a very sophisticated attempt to work against the identification process inherent in the relationship. 24 By working against this identification process the fetish is given a clear form and shape in the narrative 24 Williams, Linda.
Figure of Desire: A Theory and Analysis of Surrealist Film (University of California Press Ltd, 1981) p. xvi Litsa Mouka 20 I know very well, but all the same… A study of fetishism and as a result stripped of all qualities and functions. The image becomes ruptured and the cinematic institution as a whole crumbles. The fetish can only function as such when its underlying mechanisms and presence are suppressed. As soon as it is exposed as what it is it can no longer manipulate desire and therefore the cinematic theorem cannot function.
A Freudian essay on castration anxiety and the principles of desire and the imaginary is set out (with a rather humorous tone) in Cet Obscur Objet du Desir. The characters, as in all the films of Louis Bunuel, tend to display the behaviour of psychoanalytic subjects of case studies. From his first film, Un Chien Andalu, to his last, Cet Obscur Objet du Desir, fetishism seems to be the constant theme. The opening sequence of Un Chien Andalu shocks with the slitting of the woman’s eye, which is an assault on the look, the gaze, a termination of the viewer’s attempt to identify through looking.
While most fictional films exploit the imaginary, using original narcissistic identification with an image to draw the spectator into a belief in the diegetic world, surrealist film makes the imaginary identification the very subject of the work. In fact the intention has always been to rupture the mirror stage analogy in film viewing and therefore destroy all identification. While, to accomplish that, Resnais does away completely with any elements of diegesis, Bunuel alters the relation between the diegesis and other elements of the film, like the characters.
Cet Obscur Objet du Desir seems to have all the components of a love story affair, between a man and a woman. In fact, at closer analyses au appears that is not the case at all. The lead female role does not represent a character in the plot, rather it represents simply the object (of desire). Bunuel plays with the notion of the male fantasy of the virgin and the whore, as a dichotomy of male desire. Two different actresses play the same role, interchanging between the virgin and the whore, the two tormentors of male sexuality and desire.
The rupture of sexual difference is more evident in his first film Un Chien Andalu, which does not exhibit any diegetic elements at all, rather goes straight to the point of exposing all the unconscious cinematic devices. The cyclist, who seems to be the erotic counterpart of the female lead, is dressed in frilly feminine clothes. Then his garments appear on the bed, which are treated as fetishes by the woman. Then there is the introduction of the androgyne, who the cyclist peers at through the window. This Litsa Mouka 21 I know very well, but all the same… A study of fetishism ortrayal of absence of sexual difference asserts the fear of castration that the fetish sets out to hide. Un Chien Andalu is actually about sexual desire, and those unconscious oppositions that structure sexual desire, rather than a psychological love affair that either is or not consummated. One of the most explicit and elaborate displays of the function of the imaginary based on the scoptic drive, is displayed in Cet Obscur Objet du Desir. lt is a tale about the torment and frustration produced by the need to control and achieve the object of desire through looking.
Mathieu, the main character in the film, is portrayed as a voyeur, but only in as much as he introduces the scoptic drive at key moments of separation of the subject from the object he wishes to possess. The “obscure object of desire”, thus, is not the heroine, Conchita (Carol Bouquette / Angela Molina), as the title may – intentionally – mislead us to understand. She is only a substitution of Mathieu’s (Fernando Rey) desire. “There are no objects of desire; there are only perpetual substitutions of figures that stand in for the original lack in the subject. 25 Conchita is rather the projection of the absent object, the lack, which takes the figure of the virgin and the whore – two, generally, quite common male obsessions. She represents the essential lack whose subsequent attempt to rectify, by possession of the missing object, results in denial. Furthermore, she is unobtainable because she does not exist. She is part of a fantasy, which exists only in the imagination (or the unconscious) of Mathieu. Mathieu does not desire Conchita herself, but she is rather the projection of his own desire – or rather the misrecognition of his desire.
Conchita is immediately fetishised and becomes a substitute for the lack; she becomes the misrecognition of the lost object of whose desperate possession becomes the raison d’etre of Mathieu. Lacan writes: “In persuading the other that he has that which may complement us, we assume ourselves of being able to continue to misunderstand precisely what we lack”. Thus, Conchita herself is just a figure of desire – an associated stand-in for Mathieu’s lost object And the division she undergoes – (the split between cool French actress Carol Bouquet and sultry Spanish Angela Molina) – is 25 Williams, Linda.
Figure of Desire: A Theory and Analysis of Surrealist Film (University of California Press Ltd, 1981) p. 209 Litsa Mouka 22 I know very well, but all the same… A study of fetishism nothing more than a projection of a more fundamental division with the desiring subject – the objectification of his own divisions with himself. Thus, the patently false unity Mathieu desires and believes in, Conchita, is revealed by the film as the basic misrecognition of all desire. 26 This basic mis-recognition uncannily seems to recall Jaques Lacan’s mirror stage where, as stated above, the reflected image reveals a mistaken unity of self and other.
If the Symbolic desire is never achievable, the basic satisfaction of desire can never be accomplished, and therefore the search for desire becomes constant and persistent. In the Imaginary there is always the illusory mis-recognition of satisfaction where the self can obtain the other, and this is what Mathieu is caught in. He wishes to dominate Conchita so that she can become the submissive toy of his addiction, but unfortunately, it is she who completely controls Mathieu, his actions and reactions. As a result, she is in a position to dominate and as a consequence Mathieu demands his own domination.
He becomes the masochist in constant need of submission. Linda Williams explains how “In masochism, as an infantile state of dependence, pleasure does not involve mastery of the female, but submission to her body and her gaze. This pleasure applies to the infant, the masochist and the film spectator’. 27 Bunuel utilises this relationship in many of his films. In El Francisco, fantasies his masochistic… … desires for Gloria, which are further complicated by paranoid jealousy, a condition, which, in its most extreme form, as here, is sustained, according to Freud, by neurosis born of repressed homosexual desires”. 8 In Cet Obscur Objet du Desir the female becomes an object for possession, not for identification, she is in control, masterful, a controller of the male gaze. Although Conchita plays the part of the female in need of saving by the male protagonist, Bunuel consciously attacks that theory and reverses the rules, 26 ibid p. 198 27 ibid pp. 29-30 28 Evans, Peter William. The Films of Louis Bunuel: subjectivity and Desire (Clarendon Press, 1995) p. 212 Litsa Mouka 23 I know very well, but all the same… A study of fetishism whereby Mathieu is the one who needs saving by Conchita.
The narrative structure twist is applied by the introduction of a very basic psychoanalytic premise: desire exists only because it can never be accomplished. Conchita will never belong to Mathieu. But Mathieu will persist in trying to possess her, and his desire will grow throughout the development of the film. At one point a bizarre sort of morality enters where he tries to suppress his desire because it is “harming him” (yet another reference to bourgeois repression, of the many made in the film starting with the stiff and erect figure of the French Mathieu – the French symbolising the bourgeois in the purest form.
Bunuel’s constant attack on bourgeois culture – due to their alleged sexual repressed state – demands the tortured protagonist to be a member of that society). Naturally, despite all his efforts he cannot but submit to his desires, or as Slavoj Zizek says: he will not compromise his desire! 29 Conchita is deported to her own country, and Mathieu, despite his decision to visit Singapore, ends up in Seville looking for her. There he sees her dancing naked in front of male spectators. He has not actually seen her naked until now, she always would undress in the bathroom.
As the naked dancer she becomes a symbol of male desire. But at the same time she is the trauma of the male ego and a representation of the symbolic (Lacan), as Mathieu now realises that obtaining his lost object again was an illusion. In Spanish culture, and now I am referring to Bunuel himself, the woman is the symbol of male pride, and therefore this display is intended to insult and strip-off all pride. A man without pride, in that culture, is no longer a man, and thus the action of its loss represents castration and the return to the symbolic.
The final attack comes when he believes that he did own her (which she misleads him to believe), and thus offers to buy her a house and support her. This house, though, will act as a cage, to finally entrap and secure his quarry. He has to control and contain his object-metonymic substitute to accomplish the illusion of completeness, of absence of lack, of wholeness. By being obtained in that way she instantly becomes a fetish, not of the type that stimulates erotic desire, but one which masks all 29 Zizek, Slavoj. The Metastasis of Enjoyment: Six Essays on Woman and Casualty (Verso 1994) p. Litsa Mouka 24 I know very well, but all the same… A study of fetishism desire and lack. She will be contained and no longer will she be able to taunt him and evoke castration fear. As a fetish, she exploits her need to be constantly present and as a result controls his sexual desire, making his life impossible without her, unable to find gratification from anything else but her. Once obtained, she must be kept and never lost. Confined in the villa, he believes that the endless chase has now ceased. On the contrary she is now locked inside the villa and denies him entry.
But to compensate for his deprivation he is allowed to indulge in voyeuristic pleasures and look through the gates as she and her young lover perform for him. Eventually he leaves the scene, but his sceptic instinct calls him back. By that time, though, they are both getting dressed and Mathieu momentarily imagines an identification with the young lover indulging in the pleasures he been denied. In this scene, the belief of the subject that the object can provide satisfaction, is portrayed. But in fact, Mathieu was absent and only returned when they where getting dressed.
Furthermore, the audience did not witness anything at all and as conclusion, Conchita denied that anything happened and that she in fact pretended the whole time. When Conchita is not with Mathieu, other objects associated with her take her place. In that way he creates a substitute for the substitute, which in turn is the lack! When they are in a park in Switzerland, she drops her handkerchief for him to keep, and thus allowing him to use it as a fetish. He obeys and proceeds to smell it. But when he finally decides to deny her as a need, he orders her (moist) underwear, shoes and pillow (with her blood on it) to be burned.
At the same time all through the film she, as an idealised fetish object, is constantly being disavowed, being referred to as a sac d’excrement (the expression used by the valet when asked of his position on women). Mathieu, and other passers-by, are seen in the film also carrying a sac d’excrement on a number of occasions, and once it appears resting on a bench. At the end of the film it finally reveals its contents as bloodied garments with a hole in them. A seamstress proceeds to mend, them while Mathieu watches her.
If Conchita is disavowed as a fetish object then the sewing of hole in the bloodied garments must disavow the lack, which she is there to substitute. Like the handkerchief, the woman’s gown is a metonymic stand-in for the absent woman, but if the gown and the handkerchief function as the fetishistic disavowal of lack, then the Litsa Mouka 25 I know very well, but all the same… A study of fetishism bloodied hole in the centre of the dress is the disavowal of disavowal, in the insidious reassertion of the lack or wound in the very fabric of the material which attempts to cover lack… he attempt to mend the tear in the dress is the final metaphor of suture, an attempt to close the gap or division at the very centre of being. 30 At the end of the film Mathieu is walking with Conchita, triumphant, as he has finally achieved her possession. As he sees the bloodied garments from the sack being mended in a shop window he now believes that the lack does not exist. But, of course, it is only disavowed, as Conchita runs away from him in her usual manner. A second later they both fall victims of a terrorist explosion, the same terrorism he so much feared and loathed in the beginning of the film. * * The self-consciousness in the European Art cinema opposes itself to mainstream film in ways that seem to suggest that its products are not part of the same vulgar commercial economy. By producing the already fetished image and declaring it as such, the intention is to disavow the effect of fetishism in the cinema, but by doing so, in its turn it destroys the function of the fetish in the whole institution of cinema. Art film, though, has rather a large audience and therefore it is impossible to be kept apart from the commercial angle.
Furthermore, due to its unveiled fetishism, a new fetishism is created, perhaps even more powerful, since the lack now revealed has doubled, as it includes the lack of the film fetish (the disavowal of disavowal), and will begin to conform to all the mechanisms so far analysed. Therefore, in spite of Art Cinema’s denial of its commercial status through its self-conscious acknowledgement of fetishism, its images and narratives do in fact conform to the processes of fetishisation and therefore they are every bit as much consumer fetishes as Hollywood’s products.
In any case, nearly all Art Film directors are in the habit of using established male and female international stars in their films, therefore succumbing to commercial status. * * * 30 Williams, Linda. Figure of Desire: A Theory and Analysis of Surrealist Film (University of California Press Ltd, 1981) p. 204 Litsa Mouka 26 I know very well, but all the same… A study of fetishism Litsa Mouka 27 I know very well, but all the same… A study of fetishism Bibliography • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • Bataille, Georges. Eroticism (Marion Boyars Publications Ltd, 1987) Baudrillard, Jean.
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