BY Melissa Gronlund in Reviews | 17 MAR 06
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Issue 97

Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image

BY Melissa Gronlund in Reviews | 17 MAR 06

In this deeply optimistic work of scholarship, Birkbeck College film professor Laura Mulvey adds new terms to the lexicon of film theory: alongside ‘male gaze’ now find ‘delayed cinema’, the ‘fetishistic spectator’ and her younger sibling the ‘pensive spectator’. Weaving together an analysis of new viewing technology – VCRs and DVDs – and the ageing of film, Mulvey proposes a new mode of watching film that fundamentally alters the experience of cinema itself.

Over the past decade there has been a move in film scholarship – most notably from Mary Ann Doane and Philip Rosen – to privilege the idea of film’s indexicality over considerations of how it is organized or functions. This alternative history usually begins by linking André Bazin, the realist film critic, and Roland Barthes in the later stage of his career. Both Bazin and Barthes focus on film and photography’s ability to record reality, and the subsequent readings heavily stress their fixations with temporality and mortality. Death 24x a Second clearly situates itself within the same themes, but goes further in its suggestion of a new era of cinematic viewing – one different from the time of Barthes and Bazin, but which nevertheless bears out their once iconoclastic interpretations. Film spectatorship, Mulvey argues, is about to undergo a substantial reorganization, and it is through changed modes of spectatorship that film’s latent indexicality will come to the fore.

The argument explicitly revises Mulvey’s ground-breaking account of the male gaze in her essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1978). In what she describes as the current ‘delayed cinema’, rather than the male spectator’s voyeuristic look and male protagonists driving the narrative momentum forward, film is opened up to a non-linear, feminine aesthetic of ‘fetishistic’ spectatorship, which lingers on pose, detail and cinematic style.
First, Mulvey suggests that VCRs and DVD players – which allow the viewer to pause, rewind and replay a film at will – trade the momentum of narrative for the pensive contemplation of isolated details. Second, she considers the experience of watching old movies, where the fascination lies in watching film as a record of an actual past. The viewer’s knowledge that Lana Turner is now dead, for example, vies for attention with the narrative within which she acts. While narrative time has always overshadowed event time, the dynamic is now reversed. The ability to pause the screen, to take Turner further out of the narrative, compounds this knowledge and returns film to its material origin: a strip of static shots.

Mulvey’s redeployment of gender terms seems almost a rhetorical strategy, as she moves through them towards her ideal, and gender-neutral, ‘pensive spectator’. Such a spectator is he/she who registers the index alongside the iconographic and symbolic, the static photogram alongside the mobile strip, the detail alongside the narrative, and the ‘then’ alongside the ‘now’ – a feat that doubly enriches the experience of viewing film.

Melissa Gronlund is a writer based in Abu Dhabi, UAE.