3 October 2019
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen, Volume 16, Issue 3, 1 October 1975, pp. 6 – 18.
“It is said that analyzing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it. That is the intention of this article.”
This landmark essay proposes the possibility of experiencing erotic pleasure while watching a film in ways that lie outside the male-centered patterns established by classic Hollywood cinema. It does not tell readers what to feel. Rather, it seeks to make room for new understandings by showing that the narrative of male dominance is a learned cultural construct and not a biological imperative. Also, this essay does not discard patriarchal tradition wholesale. Instead, it confidently picks it apart with familiar tools: psychoanalysis (Freud, Lacan) and academic explication. Gender and sex are primary themes. Women, feminism and female points-of-view, previously relegated to supporting roles, are now central players.
One important idea is that patriarchy is embedded within language itself (filmic and non-filmic). Patterns of male dominance are reinforced through use of this coded language. One route for dismantling this relationship is to break it down into its component parts and reveal the psychological nuts and bolts behind the mystery. Mulvey makes good on this point through incisive analysis of examples from classic films (Hitchcock, von Sternberg). Her tone is direct, intelligent, and assertive. The essay’s goals and intentions are clearly stated, then achieved. It is powerfully written.
Additional themes: cinema as a system of representation, sexual imbalance, castration threat, phallocentrism, scopophilia, the male gaze, cinematic pleasure, the mirror phase, narcissism, voyeurism, heterosexual division of labor, the Hollywood star system.
This essay remains highly influential in fields beyond film studies. It is important for its contribution to understandings of gender, sex, and the viewer/spectator relationship. Sexuality & Space, for example, contains numerous citations of this essay. (Note: Beatriz Colomina’s understanding of architecture as a "system of representation" parallels Mulvey’s understanding of cinema.)
How does this relate to scenography?
Mulvey discusses production design directly through analysis of the cinematography of the films of von Sternberg and Hitchcock. She argues that shallow pictorial space and framing both limits and emphasizes erotic desire in the films of von Sternberg. In the work of Hitchcock, space and depth are expanded through narrative point-of-view and camera angle. This leads to a more complex erotic association between viewer and film.
I am interested in Mulvey’s discussion of voyeurism in film and its transition via “scale space” and ego to a narcissistic form. I recognize themes and concerns that are present in my understanding of theatrical naturalism and realism. Issues of framing, self-consciousness, void, space and place come to mind.