I begin this writing asking two questions.
1. What are we doing when we are watching a film?
2. How do we read a film?
It is true that these are not new questions. But what I am raising here are other questions that are linked to those two questions. One such question that arises in is that whether the reality portrayed in cinema is a representation of reality. Or is it something that varies according to the cultural context? The question arises as to where the spectator is in relation to a film.
Critic Christian Metz seeks answers to these questions using psycho analysis. In his book Imaginary Signifier, he builds a very broad dialogue about this. Metz’s approach is theoretical approach based on Jaque Lacan’s teachings. He admits that the cinema’s signifier is highly perpetual to the spectator. But we have to admit that cinema is different from other visual arts (drama, opera, art etc.).The difference is that cinema is more perpetual than other visual arts. However, in cinema, spectator and spectacle do not share the same space. Nothing we see in a movie is really happening in a movie theatre.
They are all pre recorded. That is one of the features of cinema is the presence and absence of something. Metz likens the movie screen to a mirror, combining Lacanian interpretations. However cinema is a special kind of mirror. According to psychoanalysis the mirror acts as a metaphor in building the subject’s ego. That is, a small child sees himself in the mirror for the first time and identifies with the image he sees there. Someone tells the image he sees in the mirror is he. Then he identifies with him but he is not there and it is only an image of him. It is at this point that the subject first learns what loss means.
The spectator also sees in a mirror which is called the movie screen. Then he is where the camera is. If the film is a mirror, he tries to identify with its protagonist. Eventually it becomes identification with the camera. By setting out the location of the camera to the spectator, Metz defines the spectator as a voyeur. There are even movies themed on voyeurism. You may remember how Norman in Hitchcock’s movie Psycho watches the Marian bath scene through a small hole.
Here the film operates as a signifier and its subject is the spectator. One can question how spectator becomes a subject. Psychoanalyst film critics introduce a concept called suture. It’s a term used in medicine. Suture means to sew a wound as well as a seam.
Jaque Allen Miller defines suture as follows:
“It’s a procedure, by means of which cinematic texts confer subjectivity upon their viewers.”
This means that the film is a signifier and the spectator subject. This subjectivity is conferred upon him by the concept of suture. It’s something that belongs to psychoanalysis.
We do not watch a film with an empty mind. An audience with various social connections is sitting in front of the cinema screen. In front of us a mirror called a movie screen. If it is a mirror, what function a mirror performs?
In fact we see ourselves in a mirror. The first thing we learn about ourselves is through a mirror. For Lacan we have to be gone through a mirror stage. This is, at the age of eighteen months we see ourselves in a mirror. This is known as the child’s imaginary stage. This means that he has not yet entered the culture. Knowing that the child sees his own image is an imaginative study of him. And it is narcissistic.
The movie screen is a mirror to the spectator of a movie, but he is not an eighteen month old baby. He is the one who has built his life in symbolic register. He is not in an imaginary stage. This spectator carries some kind of thought structure. This is why the screen takes on a special form of being a mirror to him.
To better understand these points, we need to talk more about Lacanian theoretical readings on the mirror stage. I mentioned above that a child has gone through a period called mirror stage and that is referred to as the imaginary stage in Lacanian theoretical teachings. Attempt to identify the subject itself in the mirror stage described by Lacan is the process of ego building. In the mirror stage, the child engages in a primary identification with himself, in the same way that in symbolic order secondary identification takes place.
The relationship a child makes with his or her own image in a mirror is imaginary. This imaginations influence all the subsequent developments in him. The child sees himself as a gestalt in a mirror. Until now, he was dependent on others and did not see his body as a whole. Thus it is narcissistic for him to perceive his body
The child has so far had a heterogeneous disorganized understanding of himself. That is he did not yet have a consistent understanding of his body or coordination of his senses. Seeing himself in mirror, he shifts from heterogeneity to homogeneity and it gives him an organized perception.
How does the child in front of a mirror accept his image? He thinks he sees a real image. The so-called true image is an Other to him. (Here the term Other does not refer simply to “other people”. As Dylan Evans concisely explains, the Other is both another subject, in his radical alterity and inassimilable uniqueness, and also the symbolic order which mediates the relationship with that other subject.)The child identifies with this Other. So the Other in the mirror is an illusion. He then realizes that the image he sees is not a real image but only a reflection. In this context, he understands it as his own image, but realizes that it is fictional.
However, this is how the child becomes identified with the whole body instead of being identified as a fragmented body in the mirror stage. This process is very important for the future mental development of the child. A person who has not passed the mirror stage properly will have to face the problem of not being able to identify as a whole body throughout his life. Violence is associated with that problem and it is a temptation to oppose that imaginary image (Re ad the Death Drive by R.B. Buthbi) .
For Lacan , the longing to dismember the body is the desire to return to the state it was in before it was imagined. This is present in any subject and is self destructive. The desire to have one’s body dismembered is fulfilled by other substitutes. That is, instead of destroying oneself one destroys something external. There are times when this is accomplished even in dream
You may see in dream that your body will disintegrate and float in the sky. This mental motive can be identified in the tendency to make violent films as well as to watch them. When we see people being torn to pieces in film, violent acts are shown in which, we are satisfied with the desire to return to the pre-imaginary stage. Lacan describes the paintings of fifteenth-century artist Joreme Bosch and explains that such a state of mind is evident in the paintings
So far we have been talking about the role that the mirror plays in building our subjectivity. We discussed at the outset that the cinematic spectatorship we are talking about is similar to building subjectivity. This means that the spectator sees himself in the movie screen just as a child sees himself in a mirror. Although he is not physically on screen, it does happen by identifying with a certain character in the film. In brief, on screen he sees his own desire.
We find an opportunity to make the above point clear in the Harry Potter stories. The first book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (which was made into a film as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone), reads about an amazing mirror called the Mirror of Erised at Hogwarts school of magic. Harry Potter stood in front of this mirror and stared at it for hours. There he sees his dead parents and he sees himself with his parents. Surprised, Harry Potter takes his friend Ron and makes him to see it. But Ron sees in the mirror that he has won the trophy at the school’s magical game quidditch. Ron is also seen in the mirror as the school’s head prefect. Ron sees it as a prelude to the realization of his dreams.
They raise the issue with Dumbledore, the school’s principal. Dumbledore explains that what they are seeing there is nothing but illusion. In fact Harry Potter as well as Ron sees their own fantasies in the mirror. That are, the mirror reveals the desire of both of them. The reality of taking the cinema screen as a mirror is same. Thus the cinema screen is the opportunity for the spectator to see his own desire.
The simple fact here is that the cinema screen itself is not a realistic phenomenon. It is a representation of reality. Acting of actors’ as well as actresses’ is not a live experience for us. Dialogue and music is a recorded secondary expression. In brief a cinematic experience is an illusion. On this juncture, for more detailed commentary, let me turn to base this discussion on Asoka Handagama’s cinematic usage
Asoka Handagama is a prominent film maker in Sri Lankan cinema. His debut effort in cinema was Chanda Kinnarie (Moon Lady) and it is said that he made the third revolution in Sri Lankan cinema with his second film Me Mage Sandayi (This is My Moon).Then he made Flying with One Wing (2002) which supposed to be that identity politics is addressed for the first time by the Sri Lankan cinema.
His most controversial film, however, was Aksharaya (Letter of Fire) and has been banned virtually in Sri Lanka by the Public performance Board for withdrawing its original permission on technical ground. However this banned movie in Sri Lanka found its way to the You Tube where it has been watched by more than three million people.
Then he directed his next film Vidu and it was considered by critics to be his setback. Many people thought that this setback was due to the difficulties he had to face in result of making the film Aksharaya (Letter of Fire).One critic who had highly admired his earlier works such as Letter of Fire said that Handagama had distorted the Sri Lankan social reality through his film Vidu. For another such critic Handagama broke away from classical art and entered popular art through the creation of Vidu. In furthering of this criticism one other gentleman had considered Vidu as an expression of popular art in the guise of art classical nature. However, nobody was considered the fact that Hanadagama’s Vidu is in genre a children’s film.
True. Handagama’s children’s film making is different from previous films made in that genre in Sri Lanka. Earlier we saw children’s film made for adults. Handagama reversed it and made an adult movie for children. It means that Letter of Fire has been re-created in the label of Vidu. His socio -political reading portrayed through the Letter of Fire has not changed in the slightest. The Letter of Fire reads about the relationship between mother and child. The child in the film does not know about society but about his mother’s body. Consequently, the child is in the midst of many crises and the mother’s intervention in her child’s crisis ends in tragedy. The movie Vidu is also woven around a mother and child. But Vidu is a child who has left his mother’s body and became socially attached to other substitutes or rather signifiers. Because of this the society is not a problem for him but the society is getting into trouble because of him.
Isn’t Vidu realistic as certain critics had said? Handagama believes that the cinema screen is like a mirror. Earlier we read a description of the magic mirror in Harry Potter’s school of magic. Now we have a logical back ground to ask what Handagama’s cinematic mirror is. In fact, Handagama’s mirror is the same mirror in front of Harry Potter. In that mirror he sees not his own image but his own desire within himself. Accordingly Handagama summons the spectator’s desire on to the mirror called cinema screen. Then the screen reflects many of the desires of the child spectator, such as small child speaking English fluently, taking to the social stage and engaging in oration.
But they are not the true form of desire, but its virtual expression. He is looking for his lost mother. Human life is the desire to pursue that lost object. But he is satisfied with substitutes instead of the real object. English language, clothing, vehicles etc., express the desire for his mother that has been deprived him by the society. The spectator identifies with those desires that are reflected on the screen because they also are his own desires. Those desires are a reality. This is the reality that Handagama sees, which is not seen by anyone who says that it is irrational for a child of a woman pick pocket to enter the social stage.
What is the politics that could be elicited in reading of film Vidu? The mother of the Letter of Fire is a lady judge who upholds the rule of law. She is tempted to do anything to save her child who is involved in a crime. But Vidu’s mother goes against the law and maintains her child with the money she earns as a pick pocket. The lady judge in the film letter of Fire smashes artifacts in a museum, metaphorically, revolts against her own past. It’s realistic because it shows the spectator’s fantasy on the screen. Some opposed the letter of Fire because Handhagama reflected their own unconscious on the screen.
Vidu’s mother goes to the politician’s house and demanded her son back. The struggle demanding her son ends with she become arrested by the police. The museum watcher of the film the Letter of Fire has transformed into the politician of the film Vidu. It is not coincidence that the same actor (Saumya Liyanage) is used to play both the characters. The politician keeps the child locked up in his house for his own benefit. The watcher in the movie the Letter of Fire keeps the child in his house for the money he gets for it. Then both the politician and watcher become one.
There is no difference between the judge mother in the movie the Letter of Fire and the pick pocket mother in Vidu. Both are tempted to to do anything for their child who is part of their body. What has happened is that Handagama has chosen a pick pocket instead of a judge.
However this writing is not an analysis of Handagama’s cinematic practice. After Vidu he created Ini Avan, Ege Esa aga(Let Her Cry)and Asandhhimitta. His film Vidu is here discussed to explain how the film screen becomes a mirror to the spectator. Here we realize that the spectator’s desire is projected on the cinema screen and, in fact, we are not watching a movie but reading our selves.