A voyeuristic cinema

Cinema is indeed an art form. But this observation does not exclude another somehow unpleasant truth—cinema is inherently voyeuristic. As Stanley Cavell points out, the cinema enables us to be wrapped in a cloak of invisibility, allowing us to be present and not present at the same time—a viewer with no responsibility except to view. Although this situation leads to something definitely lower than the aesthetic experience that Kant and Schopenhauer promoted, it is not without its charming innocence. A child, embraced by the mother, or lying safely on bed, protected by the quilt, often insists on hearing a story before fall in sleep. Is not there something common between the demand of the child and a spectator in a movie theater, who is riveted to his seat by the catastrophe taking place in front of him and yet knows perfectly well that he is perfectly safe?

Voyeurism allows us to experience without taking the consequence, to excite in front of horrible events without feeling the real pain. For this purpose, the event presented on the screen has to be “real” to build the necessary conviction; yet it also has to be absolutely unreal to qualify for a spectacle, since the condition of this pleasure is at least partly derived from the knowledge that all this is not true, that it has happened (as in documentary) or is only reproduced by stunts, special effects, etc. In other words, the disaster of bringing the real King Kong to a Broadway theater is a doomed one since the pleasure of the spectacle prescribes that the real danger is not to be present. Instead of the real animal, what Denham and his crew should bring to the theater is the picture, which is indeed what they set out to capture—Peter Jackson succeeds exactly where Denham fails.

In fact, the voyeuristic aspects of cinema is so prominent that it would be hard to give a counterexample where voyeuristic pleasure is completely absent. The “disaster spectacle” discussed above is only one possibility among many (think about horror, adventure, western, gangster, action, where strong physical danger is present). The pleasure of looking at the female body (or the male body, to a lesser extent) is another prevalent application of this notion[1]. Like the previous category, this sexual pleasure is triggered by a visual and physical presence of events or objects and corresponds to concrete physiological phenomena. The secretion of adrenaline, for instance, corresponds to “thrill”; the secretion of hormones, “attraction”. In this sense, although the spectator in a movie theater is completely immobile during the screening, something physical is always taking place inside his/her body; otherwise the film will be perceived as “boring”.

So what about melodrama? In principle, the hidden mechanism of melodrama is no different than that of horror (which functions almost entirely on a set of clichés) and it relies on a limited repertory of spectator-reactions to arrive its ends.

Although a cinematic experience aims to simulate and will considerably evoke, if artistically successful, our experiences in real life, there is a considerable difference in their strength and latitude. Again, a cinematic experience approaches life, yet it will never reaches there—and it never intends to.

[1] Some feminists, with their habitual naivety, “discover” this and mold in a great haste a purely psychological observation to weapons of ideological critique.


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