A new look at cinema

Author Patricia MacCormack discusses her latest work on film theory.

by Jennie Kermode

Cinesexuality - a new work which explores the deep relationship we have with the silver screen.

Cinesexuality - a new work which explores the deep relationship we have with the silver screen.

Patricia MacCormack has just released a new book, Cinesexuality, which examines our changing relationship with cinema. Eye For Film's Jennie Kermode caught up with her to ask a few questions, beginning with exactly what the book is about.

Patricia MacCormack: Cinesexuality is a word I formulated to describe the unique and peculiar relationship we as spectators have with cinematic images. Film theory, aesthetics theory and theories of sexuality have most frequently been structured around either object choice (hetero/homo etc), act (perverse or ‘normal’) or the enunciation of identity. The encounter between a person and art – here cinema – to me is an event which exceeds and confounds any established structures of desire.

In addition it exceeds structures of art theory in that it celebrates this desire without the need to ‘recognise’ images – what they mean, how they function and the precise nature of the pleasure they offer. The book then experiments with ways of thinking of the spectatorial relationship as a kind of ecstasy beyond sexual dialectics and the reading of images. And this element should be emphasised: the ideas are experiments more than theories.

Perhaps the most important part of the book is a question which is increasingly underpinning studies in post modernity, which is, how do we think of these experiences beyond signification and structure as ethical experiences? At the most basic level, Cinesexuality describes that ‘filmy’ feeling when you watch something and think ‘wow’ but not because of what it shows, more how it shows. Cinema makes the ordinary extraordinary, it makes the world shine and the known become unimaginable.

Jennie Kermode: What inspired you to approach this topic and to develop these ideas?

PM: Love. By that I mean a deep desire for and pleasure in cinematic images. But I say love because this was always in excess – of how I could describe the images, what they did to me and how they were experienced as like nothing else in the world. So, like love, the desire and pleasure are indescribable, unable to be vindicated, enrapturing but without reason. Almost like when we fall in love and think ‘this is the only time anyone has ever loved, this is a feeling like nothing else’. When I experience cinematic pleasure it is the ‘like nothing else’ element which is enhanced. I come from a Classics background, and wrote considerably on ancient tragedy which is a great love of mine.

I always perceived tragedy as a kind of horror film through its emphasis on the body, and also perverse through its gender renegotiation. Theatre particularly emphasizes the gestural elements of performance and the poetic affects of tragedy. These elements were always more important to me than any concept of catharsis or morality and I, as many others have done, would argue against those two elements being the main functions of tragedy. Greek epic also included elements of the fantastic, a creative, metamorphic and hybridic world. These led me to my fascination for horror films – not violent films but those that deal with the poetic nature of the body, perversion, saturation of colour, strange sounds and other things which are impossible to experience in ‘real life’.

So in a way I wanted to write a love poem to cinema, while also addressing crucial philosophical issues of gender and ethics which emphasise why spectatorship is not only challenging but important as an act of philosophy, activism and desire. I also, like most others, found I loved certain actors/actresses, then realized it was what cinema did to their faces, then what cinema does to everything, so objects in space (nouns) moving in time (acts, narrative) were less important than saturation of colour, timbre and rhythm of sound, gesture, the twitch of a muscle, and so on. These things cannot be good/bad, beautiful/ugly, they resist binaries and evaluations and so potentially our pleasure is contagious to the extent that, put simply, we resist binarising pleasure, objects and so forth outside of spectatorship.

JK: All this will no doubt sound very complicated to a lot of our readers. Would you say that your book is a good introduction to the subject, or is a certain level of pre-existing knowlege necessary to understand it?

PM: Because the book deals with an idea that is a deviation from much film theory, it is accessible to people familiar with film theory but also people who are interested in the way we watch – the only criterion would be the reader must love to be a spectator! Equally it deals with negotiations of gender theory, queer theory and Continental philosophy. But the book is structured like a CD, an anthology, a short story collection. Each chapter is both part of the whole but also independent so readers can just dive into any chapter, skim what they wish etc. It’s assumed readers don’t need to be intimately familiar with ideas because the book is interdisciplinary. I think most readers would be able to negotiate most of the book, but the point is less whether readers understand it and more what they can do with it in reference to how new and creative thoughts on spectatorship could come about in their own relations of love with cinema.

JK: Are there any other books you could recommend for readers interested in this area?

PM: There are a number of excellent books which have inspired me. These come from film theory, gender studies, philosophy etc. Beyond these of course is a world of amazing books, far too many to mention, and without wanting to limit suggestions, but less as offering a base knowledge and more perhaps things that could be read in tandem with Cinesexuality could include:

Blau, Herb. (1990), The Audience (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins). Braidotti, Rosi. (2002), Metamorphoses (Cambridge: Polity). Grosz, E. (ed.) (1999) Becomings: Explorations In Time, Memory And Futures. (New York: Cornell University Press). Shaviro, Steven. (1993), The Cinematic Body (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).

JK: Do you feel that the development of cinema as a dominant art form reflects or has brought about a change in the nature of human spectatorship?

PM: More I would say art has brought about a change in the category of the human itself. Many of the philosophers I explore in Cinesexuality point out that art makes us inhuman, a-human or post-human. What is meant here is that ‘being’ a human, or a particular type of human, is identifying, describing and thus limiting the self. When catalysts make us rethink ourselves we enter into a relation with strange affects and experiences that adamantly don’t fit with our identity. Instead of knowing what art is through referring its meaning to something we already know, art makes us think as creation and so the self that thinks also transforms. In response to your question this means that because cinema is dominant it is perhaps the most important kind of art to rethink as it is ubiquitous, global, simultaneously capitalist and artistic. If the dominant art form can make the category of the human less dominant, it has become true art.

JK: What sort of films do you consider in your book and which individual films interest you most in this regard?

PM: The films are quite eclectic. Certainly they do not represent any cinema ‘canons’ – be it canons of art film, respectable in film departments, or Hollywood film. The films are generally what most people would consider marginal or extreme for a variety of reasons. They often show spectacles of gore and the opened body. They show perverse forms of desire and sexuality. Or they may just confound. The films represent a very personal choice to me in many senses.

Cinesexuality is so very explicitly about what each person desires and is enraptured by. So these films mean something for me but additionally, as many people will be unfamiliar with dealing with such images as pleasurable or even coherent, they may also emphasise the challenges of cinemasochism, one of the central ideas of the book which refers to the nature of cinematic pleasure as often difficult, excruciating and nonetheless wonderful. There are also those, of course, who would call the films ‘trash’. Some of the films foregrounded are The Beyond, Flesh For Frankenstein, Beyond The Darkness, Possession, Suspiria, Nosferatu, Dimensions Of Dialogue, Hellraiser and a number of other films are mentioned. However four of the eight chapters don’t mention any films, rather ideas about how desire and pleasure work through us and images, so the reader is encouraged – indeed expected! – to think their own desire.

JK: Would you say that different genres of film require or solicit a different type of spectator experience?

PM: Perhaps because I tend to invoke horror films, particularly Italian horror films, frequently, I would say films which challenge us are particularly apt. I also look at films where the characters’ desires are ‘perverted’ – queer, necrophilic, love for monsters, masochism and so forth. The pleasures afforded by horror films and those which offer perverse desire aren’t necessarily easily understood or experienced. Similarly abstract films, films that are difficult to ‘get’ also challenge our capacity to take them as an object of desire. These films make us hurt – what I call cinemasochism. But this hurt is precisely how we lose ourselves because the pleasures can only be detrimental if we remain obstinately who we (think we) are. Instead of asking ‘why’ or ‘what’ they could turn the question to ‘why do I ask’ and if we let go of the ‘I’ we can dissipate into the pleasures without reason or limit. So through cinemasochism we lose ourselves, what I have termed ‘cinecstasy’. I should emphasise that the horror films I experiment with are not violent or misogynistic. If they were they would tend more toward affirming traditional sexual and power structures and social relations. Similarly the perversions are neither transgressive for their own sake, nor aggressive/oppressive. These films are gory, their desires are odd, yes, but in a kind of weird, spectacular way.

At the same time, as half of the chapters mention no films I would imagine each reader could substitute the other chapters with their own cinesexual experiences. Because queer cinesexual pleasures are available and found in all images. The question is not ‘which films are challenging’ but ‘which paradigms are challenged’?

JK: Are you, or do you expect to be, undertaking further specific research into film related subjects in the near future? If so, what?

PM: I am increasingly writing on other issues. I have published on a variety of things – ancient tragedy, body modification, philosophy, feminism, perversion, performance art and animal rights. I am planning a book on post-human ethics which will cover many of these ideas.

In reference to cinema though I have a co-edited anthology out next month called Deleuze And The Schizoanalysis Of Cinema. It includes a variety of excellent essays by film scholars, and a new chapter of mine on ecosophical spectatorship. My publications on cinema seem to be the stuff people know. I would like to pursue writing on spectatorship as an ethic and this is where Cinesexuality leaves off. I also contribute to journals which, while theoretically sophisticated, are not purely academic, such as the wonderful Senses Of Cinema (www.sensesofcinema.com). Writing in places like this allows me a bit more freedom to take risks which perhaps might not be in place in more traditional film journals. I am likely to contribute more to these as experimental writing on film interests me. I am also very pleased to have been asked to contribute to a forthcoming book on the work of HP Lovecraft on Film.

JK: How can readers get hold of your book?

PM: Ashgate.com Also Amazon and selected bookstores.

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