This essay was written for, and originally appeared on, www.btchflcks.com
The feminist aspect of Sleeping Beauty (Leigh, 2011) can surely not be underestimated: Leigh’s film is utterly embroiled and entangled with issues of femininity and female sexuality. As such, the film can surely only be understood through a close analysis of its feminist aspect: a feminism that is entirely informed through both narrative, and the nature and manner of the film itself. This essay will attempt to understand and address these issues of feminism and its relation to the look and style of the film itself through utilising ideas and concepts articulated by Stanley Cavell, Gilberto Perez and George Wilson, as well as linking Leigh’s film to the similarly-themed Belle De Jour (Luis Buñuel, 1967). Leigh’s film is both complex and multi-layered, containing a number of multifaceted ideas; ideas that are best understood through a multiple, varied reading, utilising a number of different concepts. This essay will look towards Cavell’s concept of the unknown woman, as well as looking towards Perez’s and Wilson’s idea of character consciousness and what Wilson refers to as ‘reflected subjectivity’ (Wilson: 1992, 87). These concepts, when considered individually may not truly illuminate what is interesting about Sleeping Beauty, but in conjunction work together to truly aid our understanding of the film, in turn informing our understanding of Leigh’s feminist intent.
Leigh, in writing and directing the film, discusses both her inspiration and her intent, referring to what she calls ‘Wonder Cinema’ (Screen Australia and Magic Films Press Kit, 2011: Online). Leigh states that she hoped to create a film which elicited a specific audience response, leading the audience to question what they have viewed: ‘“Did I really see that?” and “Did I really hear that?” and “Can such a thing really exist?”. Holding the breath. Eyes wide. A response of intense wonder rather than shock. Cinema as wunderkammer, wonder-room.’ (Screen Australia and Magic Films Press Kit, 2011: Online) Leigh’s aim then is clearly to inspire her audience, to perhaps invoke her audience towards action.
SOFIA COPPOLA: A FEMINIST DIRECTOR?
When producing an essay that utilises the concept of authorship, an argument for its use in analysis and examination must certainly be addressed. Whilst this essay will not necessarily use the form of authorship in direct analysis, the decision to undertake an investigation of the entirety of a director’s body of work of course invites such a discussion. The use of authorship, after becoming increasingly outmoded, is once again becoming an acceptable means of film analysis. Utilising the concept of authorship as a means not only for examination of each work individually, but also allowing analysis for the director’s films collectively; helpful in developing reflections upon recurrent themes and motifs often specific to a particular director. Sofia Coppola’s body of four feature-length films is not only enhanced by their discussion in relation to one another, but their considerable stylistic and thematic achievements make them ideal for comparative study: ‘Each relies centrally on the evocation of impressions of aching loss and/or need for connection.’ (King, 2010: 49-50) This sense of aching loss is revisited by Coppola across her entire body of work.
Coppola’s direction draws upon a number of aesthetic references, with her experience as a photographer and a music video director prior to her work as a feature-film director often providing the basis for these references. When working on The Virgin Suicides, Coppola looked towards ‘photography [collecting] a lot of photos … there were so many influences’ (Tobias, 2000: Online). These aesthetic references imbue Coppola’s work with a unique dream-like quality, distinctive largely through the scope of Coppola’s knowledge of both photography and fashion. Furthermore to the aesthetic look of the films themselves, it is Coppola’s thematic decisions that further set her work apart, at once unique, but entirely comparable to one another: ‘Coppola’s first three films do lend themselves in some respects to being read interconnected, so much so that they might be (and indeed have been) considered a trilogy … complex variations on a theme’ (Barton Palmer, 2012: 40 – 41). In addition to her first three efforts, Coppola’s latest film, Somewhere (Sofia Coppola, 2010) can undoubtedly be included as a continued rumination upon the same complex themes that Coppola so frequently returns to: her protagonist, whilst male, struggles with similar issues that Coppola’s female protagonists deal with. Her films and their protagonists continually return to the concept of ennui, and a lack of direction often borne out of the wealth of opportunities afforded them (often attracting criticism). Such criticism is superficial: Coppola’s characters, despite their wealth, are worthy of study. Coppola depicts character isolation and alienation, borne out of specific circumstances; these circumstances happen to be of wealth and privilege. Coppola’s characters, often from exclusively privileged backgrounds, struggle with what direction to take purely because there is so much choice for them, a quality that has proven contentious for some: ‘A portrait of the young rich, painted by the young rich’ (Brooks and Barnes, 2010: Online). Such criticism is irrelevant, both to Coppola’s films, and to this essay as a whole: regardless of the issues these characters go through, they are enough to produce a state of utterly directionless ennui. Coppola’s characters are forever seeking some sense of meaning, often disillusioned with the apparent easy life their privilege should afford them. They struggle towards a search for some form of control, hopeful that this will in turn allow them to find direction and meaning to their lives. Through this search for meaning, Coppola’s protagonists are entirely linked with their environment and the space that they both interact with and occupy. Through their torpor, they seek a form of control over the space that they occupy, a space within which they can interact as they choose.
‘In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female.’ (Mulvey, 1975: 837) This statement makes reference to a very specific manner of gendered gaze, in which the male, and in turn the ‘male gaze’, is considered to be active, ‘project[ing] its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly.’ (Mulvey, 1975: 837) Mulvey further argues that through a process of identification, primarily a heterosexual form of identification, the ‘male gaze’ ‘controls the film phantasy’ (Mulvey, 1975: 838). This essay, through an analysis of both Rebecca (Hitchcock, 1940) and The Birds (Hitchcock, 1963), will demonstrate that whilst Mulvey’s claims are certainly valid in aiding our understanding of film, the use of the ‘male gaze’ as an analytic tool is ultimately limiting in creating and developing a greater meaning to film. This essay will introduce and assimilate – through a discussion of identification, spectatorship and representation – a concept of the ‘female gaze’ which, when discussed here, will largely reference a specific form of female desire, be that heterosexual or homosexual. Mulvey’s writings refer to the passive manner that women are reduced to through this active ‘male gaze’; this essay will demonstrate that an active ‘female gaze’ is undeniably present within films, and whilst this ‘female gaze’ may eventually be reduced to passivity in a heterosexual narrative, it is still momentarily present.
These films have been chosen specifically for their clear subversion of this ‘male gaze,’ and in turn their active use of a ‘female gaze’. Certainly a ‘male gaze’ is present within both films, but the films chosen here for analysis demonstrate the need for a rather more multifaceted understanding, largely through the very presence of this ‘female gaze’. Through identifying and understanding this active ‘specifically female desire’ (Modleski, 1988: 2) another level of complexity to the representation of the women featured is presented: ‘The representation of women in film is more complicated than Mulvey’s article allows … some films do allow for the (limited) expression of a specifically female desire’ (Modleski, 1988: 2). In the case of Rebecca and The Birds, it is through the identification of a ‘female gaze’ that an expression of a specifically female desire can be acknowledged, a desire that is not necessarily limited.
This video demonstrates, through adopting a complex reality, moments of conscious reflexivity, encouraging the viewer to actively consider the form of the music video, and film itself. These moments of reflexivity are achieved through a number of stylistic decisions, largely through the addition of freeze-frames, an onstage musical, and the use of a book, the use of which determines the events of the video itself.
The video begins with Björk finding a book in a forest. As she finds the book, she describes through a voice-over the events as they occur. Once the music begins the book itself is frequently shown onscreen, with the writing (correlating to the video’s events) clearly depicted. Allowing the viewer to explicitly view the events of the video in such a manner forces analysis, and thus reflexivity, in turn encouraging the viewer to question the video’s events and even attempt to interpret them. The use of the book breaks down our concept of reality: this reality appears pre-determined.
The later use of the freeze-frames encourages reflexivity in a number of ways: the very function of a freeze-frame encourages close analysis and contemplation, and in turn slows down the video itself, further allowing for moments of reflection. The use of these freeze-frames compels the viewer to consider the individual frame itself, and in turn the manner in which these frames together create the video.
The video’s most obvious moment of reflexivity comes in the form of the on-stage musical, the use of which provides much of the video’s narrative. This onstage musical encourages reflexivity through the obvious manner in which it makes the viewer consider issues of performance, whilst highlighting issues of spectatorship.
Onstage Björk re-enacts the video’s earlier moments: showing these moments effectively decontextualised further emphasises the need for reflexivity, encouraging the viewer to consider the events of the video, ensures that the viewer is encouraged to consider the act of viewing itself. Whilst Björk is seen onstage, the camera frequently focuses upon the musical’s audience, reminding the viewer of the role that they themselves engage within. The musical, when depicting earlier moments of the video, portrays the moment that Björk, upon arriving in the city, meets with a publisher. Depicting this moment further reinforces both reflexivity and the opportunity to reflect upon issues of performance and spectatorship. Thus the publisher’s eventual distaste at witnessing the numerous actors portraying his role onstage highlights the very role we ourselves undertake as viewers, with his reaction seemingly indicating the reaction we ourselves should have.
This video demonstrates a clear relationship between sound and colour, with colour often used to highlight certain aspects of the song. The colour here is not used in relation to animation, nor is it used explicitly, but rather simply serves to enhance certain underlying elements of musicality, enhancing particular aspects of the song.
Depicting a sleeping Björk, the video features multiple versions of the singer in addition to this passive incarnation: an active, awake projection whose face is featured in front of her sleeping counterpart, and a two-dimensional character, shown as part of an onscreen video game.
This enhancement of underlying, less obtuse moments of music is most overtly depicted at the very beginning of the video, but is used numerous times throughout the video’s duration. The camera sways around the sleeping Björk; this movement invests the inert Björk with energy, enabling the video to create a feeling of progression, in spite of Björk’s current passive state and the current slower state of the music itself. As the music takes on another form bright flashes of green and blue appear behind the sleeping singer. These flashes of light function in a number of ways: acting as a visual representation of the music, reflecting the music the viewer hears. It also serves as a visual reminder of the aural aspect: these colours highlight particular aspects of musicality that may have otherwise been overlooked.
Throughout the video there is a clear attempt to highlight both musical and lyrical moments that may not be noticed if it were not for their visual representation, drawing particular attention to these aspects. Thus at one point, as Björk sings, the lyrics refer to particular objects such as ‘cutlery, bottles’. These objects, depicted as drawings, appear across the screen, acting as a clear, obvious visual representation of the lyrics themselves. Seeing this visual representation ensures that the viewer takes particular note of these lyrics, as well as understanding what the lyrics are referring to.
The two-dimensional version of Björk then appears, running across a predominantly blue landscape and cityscape. This incarnation, at a basic level, reminds the viewer of the multi-dimensional aspect of the music itself; simply through demonstrating multi-dimensional versions of the singer herself, it reminds the viewer of the multiple aspects of the music. Simplistically the multiple versions of the singer, including a miniature version, further encourage the viewer to focus upon musical details on a detailed level.
The video’s end again reinforces the concept of focusing on the minute details that in combination culminate in the final musical product. As the video draws to a close, the multiple Björks converge into one solid incarnation, demonstrating the different aspects of the song, which together create the final song itself. The video ends on a final shot of the red lights that have frequently appeared throughout the video, providing a visual link to the rest of the video whilst also focusing on a small specific detail, further emphasising the detail that is implicit within the song’s construction.
This video invests the camera with an anthropomorphic identity: as the camera moves around a room, it focuses on a number of different objects and events, depicting events within a relationship. Here the camera is never static or stable, instead it appears to take on a life of its own, seemingly invested with a human eye or identity. This camera movement creates a destabilising effect, which is then carried across in the video’s use of animation, all of which helps to create an unsettling, surreal experience.
As the camera moves around the room, it focuses on a number of specific spaces; each of these spaces denotes a particular setting, including a patient’s hospital room, a bedroom and a television set. As the narrative of the video conveys, the video is depicting the apparent breakdown of a relationship. The camera focuses upon a number of photographs depicting the couple in happier times, later turning to focus on the ill-health of the woman. Seemingly, the camera, if it is invested with a specific human gaze, appears to be effectively looking back through its own memory, continually returning to particular moments in the relationship. This attention to such specific elements of the relationship reinforces this concept of the camera as a human eye, invested with human emotions.
This sense of the human eye can be seen in the frequent use of visual cues, effectively connecting images through free association. This sense of memory and free association can be seen in the video’s opening: depicting a train set placed on top of a television, the camera focuses in on the imagery displayed on the television itself, depicting a couple on an actual train journey. The camera is seemingly reminded of a train journey through the toy train-set, whilst the use of the television forces the viewer to think reflexively on the form of the video itself. We are reminded of the role of the viewer, and in turn the act of spectatorship, through this overt examination of memory.
The camera never fully settles, focusing briefly to depict a particular moment before moving off to focus on something else, as other memories are sparked off by different visual cues. Further evidence of this idea of visual cues and memory association is demonstrated as the camera moves to show a patient’s hospital room. The woman from the train is lying in bed, but only her head and shoulders are visible, with the rest of her body resembling the board game ‘Operation’, resulting in a surreal, disconcerting effect. The use of the board game also links the viewer to the earlier shot of the toy train set.
This concept of a human gaze depicted through the camera itself is most explicitly demonstrated when the viewer witnesses the couple once again on the television screen. A hand is shown rewinding the couple’s prior movements; another screen is then shown, creating multiple television screens, as if the camera is able to conjure and relive memories at will, reflecting upon the events.
This video, in its depiction of both animate and inanimate objects intermingling, demonstrates a deliberately surreal nature. This creation of the surreal compels the viewer to question the nature of the video itself, the nature of reality, and how reality can be both distorted and manipulated through film.
The decision to shoot the video in black and white removes the opportunity for any clear relationship between colour and sound, instead ensuring that the viewer’s attention remains on the visual element of the video and the surreal manner of these visuals. The video uses visual elements in a number of ways, which, despite their differences, all effectively function in the same manner, creating a sense of the surreal.
The most immediate demonstration of the surreal is shown at the very beginning of the video: a view through a window displays a skewed, clearly manipulated perspective of the cityscape below, indicating that this nature of reality will be maintained throughout the video’s duration. The immediately surreal nature of the video informs the viewer’s expectations: realising this is not our own reality, but is, through the familiar cityscape, not entirely removed from it.
Whilst this moment is clearly the most immediate, taking place at the video’s beginning, it is by no means the most explicit depiction of the surreal. The truly surreal element of the video stems from the animation and reanimation of supposedly-inanimate objects. As Beck enters the room, an animated figure, created to resemble an anthropomorphic building, enters the room. Beck himself then turns into a similarly-animated figure, with the original animated figure metamorphosing into Beck. As these transformations interchange with one another repeatedly, the viewer’s sense of reality and the idea of a stable state are entirely undermined. Here, within the four walls of this room, it would appear that anything is possible.
This anthropomorphism, and in turn metamorphosis, is clearly the focus of the video itself. Aside from the narrative focus, the use of lighting effectively acts as a spotlight upon these animations, highlighting the visual elements, indicating to the viewer that these transformations should be their focus.
The ending of the video, in which the transformations cease, demonstrates an end to the surreal reality that has been created, as well as highlighting its limits. The camera, panning around the room, focuses on the window, then Beck, and then finally the door. Each of these elements focus upon the means through which the animated figures have entered the room: the animated figures enter through the window and the door, whilst Beck himself is subject to physical transformations. Returning to these focal points demonstrates the limitations of this surreal reality: it only exists within these four walls, and whilst animated figures can enter and leave through these exits, they are only animated within the room itself.
This video adopts a synesthetic approach in its use of colour and sound: the use of colour represents or echoes the music itself. This blurred relationship between the two is used to highlight particular aspects of the music. Colour and music are clearly linked throughout, actively interacting with one another in order to create a clear visual representation of the aural aspect.
The video, set in space, achieves this interaction in a number of ways, largely through demonstrating an explicit, direct relationship. Here both the aural and the visual are intrinsically linked, dependent on one another. This dependency is shown overtly throughout the video, most notably so during the video’s opening moments. Showing a planet as the music starts, bright rays of light are shot into craters upon the planet’s surface, filling each crater with pools of yellow light. As the craters fill, the pool appears to reverberate, effectively mimicking the appearance of an audio speaker when music is played. These opening moments operate in a number of ways: firstly each ray of light shoots and lands in time with the music, their landing resembling the beats of music, allowing the colour itself to create its own rhythmic pattern. These rays thus function as a pictorial representation of the music itself, directly enforcing a link between the visual and aural experience. At a more simplistic level, the ‘audio speaker’ appearance the landing of rays create links the viewer to the well-known image of a speaker itself, reinforcing the idea that this is, despite the colours used, ultimately an aural experience.
This relationship between colour and sound is sustained throughout the video, its link carried across in the video’s use of animation. Frequently the video depicts a number of roots growing and moving within the planet’s core; these roots, upon breaking though the surface, emerge as crystals. These roots, whilst still in the conceptual form, rather than the physical crystal form, dance and move in direct correlation to the music. The roots, initially yellow, later become blue, orange and pink. The use of the yellow directly links the imagery to the yellow rays seen during the video’s opening, whilst the introduction of different colours operates both visually and aurally.
The use of a greater range of colours reflects the more complex nature the music itself is undertaking. When the music, as seen at the beginning of the video, is relatively simplistic, only one or two colours are shown. As the music becomes both faster and more complex, a greater range of both colour and visual animation is used. The new colours signal the video’s progression, whilst echoing earlier imagery, creating a rhythmic feel to the visual element of the video.
‘Generally speaking, the cinema does not render stories well.’ (Epstein, 1921: 242) This statement, written at a period in which early theorists writing on film were attempting to cement the power and capabilities of the cinema, is still pertinent today, especially in regards to the work of Terrence Malick. Malick’s films have found themselves the subject of both acclaim and derision, largely due to the same reasoning: a lack of narrative and a precise depiction of nature and man’s place within it. This essay will address Epstein’s claim that ‘The cinema is poetry’s most powerful medium’ (Epstein, 1924: 318), in relation to The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005). The New World depicts this concept of poetry through its facilitation of ‘the moment’, and the embodiment of physical nature, placing its characters into a direct relationship with their natural setting. Looking at the opening of The New World, this essay will show that The New World’s depiction of nature, and thus Epstein’s concept of poetry, is borne out of its characters’ placement within it.
Much of Epstein’s writings largely focus upon his concept of ‘Photogénie … the purest expression of cinema’ (Epstein, 1924: 315); this concept represents the act and use of the camera, dispelling with subjectivity and in turn creating objectivity, creating the very art of cinema: ‘photogénie seeks the essence of cinema. It is an argument for cinema specificity’ (Farmer, 2010: online). For Epstein it is the camera alone that can truly display these moments of ‘photogénie’, as ‘the lens alone can sometimes succeed in revealing the inner nature of things’ (Epstein, 1924: 317). Certainly Epstein recognised that moments of poetry could, and do, appear in a number of films, not simply within a film purposely invested with a poetical nature. Arguably, it is a film such as The New World that both most explicitly imbues Epstein’s theories, and is also best enhanced through an understanding coloured by Epstein’s writings: through Epstein we can understand Malick’s investment and portrayal of nature. Malick invests nature with a life-force of its own, both through its engagement and interaction with the Powhatan tribe and its representation onscreen. The viewer is encouraged to actively engage, largely through close-ups, in admiration for the lush surroundings, in turn, ensuring its depiction is predominantly positive.
Epstein writes, ‘I would describe as photogenic any aspect of things, beings, or souls whose moral character is enhanced by filmic reproduction.’ (Epstein, 1924: 314) Certainly both the depictions of nature and of characters are largely moralistic through their representation onscreen. In The New World, those characters that are most attuned to nature are presented as the purest of spirit; thus our understanding of the characters themselves is aided through the way they interact with nature: simplistically, as nature is moral, so too are they. The film opens with a shot of open water, immediately ensuring nature’s prominence within the narrative. A voice-over is then heard, reciting a prayer to Mother Nature: here nature is to be worshipped, surely an indication of the morality of both nature and the people attuned with it. The viewer is then shown a number of Powhatan people swimming naked, in a natural state themselves: becoming part of nature, existing in harmony, as they swim, fish too swim – there is no disruption for either party, rather they are accepting of one another, this is their life. As Epstein writes, ‘Presentation of characters is pointless; life is extraordinary’ (Epstein, 1921: 242), Malick too finds life extraordinary, with the film’s opening highlighting this – depicting the Powhatan people as they exist within their daily lives. These simple moments of human existence are not just worthy of being shown, but deemed important enough to open the film itself.
Epstein writes of the idea of cinema representing a ‘moment’, capturing a moment of existence, not an entirety of existence: ‘We are not dealing with an evening but evening’ (Epstein, 1921: 243). The New World, especially in the chosen scene, captures this idea of a moment. Certainly a narrative is in place within the film, but there are numerous moments of characters who, whilst existing within the film’s narrative, do not necessarily have any impact upon the narrative. Malick’s direction often retreats from the protagonists to film moments of natural occurrence – a shifting focus of light, a light wind – all is displayed for the viewer, not only further placing the protagonists within nature, but further enhancing nature itself, investing nature with ‘a semblance of life to the objects it defines’ (Epstein, 1924: 316). Thus, the very water, the fish, the trees that Malick awards such prominence to, are invested with life themselves, assuming a role within the film’s narrative, enhancing our understanding of the characters. This helps us engage with the film: as Mark Cousins writes, ‘looking at Malick through the lens of Hume shows that the pre-cognitive experience of engaging sensually with the world is where at least some of the wonder lies’ (Cousins, 2007: 196). Perhaps it is here then that the ‘photogénie’ lies in The New World; certainly much of Malick’s work relies upon a sensual engagement, enforced by the sensual nature of the direction: the camera lingers over moments of nature, as Epstein writes, ‘This eye, remember, sees waves invisible to us’ (Epstein, 1921: 244), the camera thus reveals to us moments that would otherwise remain unseen. It is through engaging with nature in a visual manner, a manner which only the camera can reveal, that the viewer can discover its true wonder.
There is no doubt then that through the application of Epstein’s theories we can hope to better understand a director such as Malick. Malick’s use of ‘the moment’ and his decision to continually invest his films with a physical depiction of nature are enhanced through an understanding of Epstein. His wish for a film ‘in which not so much nothing as nothing very much happens’ (Epstein, 1921: 243), calling for a film with little narrative, whilst retaining moments of drama and emotion, limits the creative process, adopting a rather narrow idea of what film can achieve. Film can be, and is more than, simply a ‘moment’. Audiences expect and desire a concrete conclusion to a narrative-arc; in viewing a ‘moment’ they then wish to see this moment end. In recognising that these moments of poetry could occur in all films, Epstein ensures his theories are not limited to those films adopting a lyrical style. Yet even with this ability to transcend genre, it is not merely through Epstein that our understanding of all film can be truly aided.
Cousins, M. (2007) ‘Praising The New World’, in H. Patterson (ed.) The Cinema of Terrence Malick: Poetic Visions of America, 2nd edn. London: Wallflower Press, pp. 192-199.
Epstein, J. ‘On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie’ in R. Abel (ed.) French Film Theory and Criticism, Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp.314-318.
Epstein, J. ‘The Senses I (b)’ in R. Abel (ed.) French Film Theory and Criticism, Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp.241-246.
Farmer, R. (2010) ‘Jean Epstein’ http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2010/great-directors/jean-epstein/ (5 November 2011)
The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005)