Lacan and the cinema

When applying Lacan's psychoanalytic theories to cinema, the most obvious point of similarity is that of the screen to the cinema. The subject reacts to the screen in a similar way to the child in the mirror-stage, in that it feels pleasure in its identification with a fictional space, there is similar jouissance. The most obvious difference is that the subject of the cinema does not see his body reflected by the screen as the child does by the mirror. On the other hand, the mirror-stage, for the child, entails receiving information about its existence and about itself from the Other, therefore the mirror-stage is not dependent on the existence of a mirror with which to initiate its processes. The Other exists, for the child, in everything outside itself, (which includes its own image, its Imago) with which it identifies in a bid to create continuity and unified presence as a subject.

The subject as spectator then - a sort of primary identification with itself as a spectator, and a secondary identification with object little a, the activities taking place on the screen.

It could be argued that the subject must identify with a character on the screen for mirror-stage mechanism to be correspondent to the process of viewing film. However, the pleasure in viewing cinematic montage such as Koyaanosqatsi, for example, or the pleasure we receive from the gaze of a camera on geographical scenes of outstanding natural beauty indicate that there is deep pleasure in the viewing itself.

Christian Metz (1982) argues that the ego of the cinematic subject identifies not primarily with the cinematic signifiers, but «with himself as a pure act of perception...» [3] In this way we are like the child in its «sub-motor» state, existing in the realm of the imaginary, which annuls lack by identification with the other in attempt to eradicate division. He says that the nature of the photographic image has similarities with a mirror in that what is seen is at once present and absent, present as a specular image, but with no corporeal reality. The relationship can only ever be cerebral, symbolic.

In an inevitably and almost exclusively quattrocento cinematic world, the spectator is positioned as the bearer of the gaze, so identification with the world of signifiers 'reflected back' at the spectator is equally inevitable. The spectator identifies the image as reflecting himself, his view, as he takes the place of the camera and produces the meaning by his act of perceiving, which as we have discussed is analogous to mirror-stage identification of his specular image, which is accompanied by scopophilic jouissance. This illusion of completeness between spectator and meaning of the film is a reproduction of the mechanism which creates the illusion of unity in the mirror-stage. This is, of course, a mis-recognition, and opens up a discussion on ideology and the cinema, but one which will not be entered into in this essay.

It is of interest and relevance, however, to point out that cinema relies on this misrecognition to ensure a steady and regular supply of consumers in an industry that is an enormous economic resource. The pursuit of object little a is the inevitable result of the lack opened up in the mirror-stage. The mechanism of cinema, which sets up, as discussed earlier, a simultaneous presence and absence, hence feelings of 'lack', has verisimilitude with the subject's pursuit of pleasure in the realm of the symbolic, the subject's specular universe, the 'outside world'.

In the same way that Lacan talks of the Id being like a fortress, a 'paranoiac structure', that must defend itself against all threats to its imaginary unity, cinema takes steps to ensure integrity of structure. It works to maintain the 'unity' of film and spectator, the illusion that is the source of pleasure for the spectator. Mirror-stage plenitude and jouissance turns to lack and uneasiness when (the image of) specular unity is fragmented by the reality of absence from that image. Subject and object (spectator and film) relations are constantly under threat as fiction threatens to give way to reality, for example, in the camera shot, which must continue to 'belong' to a fictional character (which may include the spectator as an illusory presence in the film's dramatic events, even if only as an observer). The spectator does not wish to be torn away from immersion in the imaginary reality of the fiction to be reminded of his reality as a ticket-buying viewer of a technical production, containing actors pretending to do real things. Anything that threatens to expose the artifice of the film is re-appropriated into the unity of the imaginary world. A talented director may often be able to explore the parameters of presence and absence of a film, creating a credibility gap that never quite results in loss of presence. Sergio Leone is one such example, examined in the next section.




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Mann Erudite – Essays on Literary Works