Department of Theatre and Film
Introduction: Cinema and the Politics of Representation
Our Fall 2011 issue of The Projector brings together essays that consider questions about the politics of representation and the cinema. In “Gendering the Acousmêtre, Or ‘There is no such thing as Woman,’” Soumitra Ghosh revisits Michel Chion’s theory of the acousmatic voice in film, the voice on the soundtrack that does not “fully coincide with the representation of its material-objectival cause in the visual domain.” Drawing on the work of both Lacan and Žižeck regarding the formation of subjectivity, she suggests that because the acousmatic voice “simultaneously continues to frustrate and titillate” the film viewer, “for whom the acousmatic voice is always something to-be-had” rather than something that is actualized, it can be understood as analogous to Lacan’s objet petit a, the object/cause of desire that holds out the unrealizable promise of “the fantastic plentitude of the unified subject.” To the extent that both the subject position Woman and the objet petit a are understood within the Lacanian framework to be “fundamental impossibilities . . . that are beyond attainment, Gosh asserts that representations of the acousmatic voice in cinema as that which is also always “nothing but a promise of presence” aligns it with the feminine, so that ultimately “the acousmatic voice par excellence is fundamentally feminine.”
Turning from the ideological positions supported by mainstream cinematic representational practices to the politics that govern the production of films within the U.S. film industry, Arundhati Ghosh examines the hegemonic function of film censorship in “Myth, Genre and Censorship in Hollywood films.” She traces the history of industry-wide, voluntary content regulation from the Production Code Era to the current film ratings system, in order to examine the ways in which “the collusion between different powerful institutions in the U.S. such as religion, education and politics” and the MPPDA/MPAA has facilitated tacit efforts to suppress film content that challenges the cultural hegemony of these institutions, while at the same time encouraging the production of films that perpetuate “certain myths that make these institutions more powerful.” Drawing on Thomas Schatz’s argument concerning the symbolic function of mainstream cinema as myth and Robin Wood’s argument concerning the ideological function of mainstream cinema in promoting hegemonic values, she examines the ways in which “Hollywood operates as the chief medium through which the normalizing ‘myths’ of capitalism, patriarchy, heterosexuality, and family are fed to audiences in a palatable manner.” At the same time, noting that “genre formulas are one of the predominant tropes through which Hollywood presents audiences with a view of the world that maintains the status quo,” she also examines the privileged role of genre films in both promoting and reinforcing the “values and beliefs that have been constructed over time in the U.S to justify mainstream ways of life.”
In “A Second Line in the Sand: Changing Representations of African-American Characters in Film Versions of the Alamo,” Robert Tindol also interrogates the role of representational practices in supporting dominant cultural discourses through a close analysis of the depiction of African-American participants in the Alamo massacre across a number of films on the subject, from Martyrs of the Alamo in 1915 through The Alamo in 2004. Tindol notes that although there have been numerous cinematic retellings of the story of the Alamo, “the representation of African-Americans at the 1836 battle is virtually the only plot element that varies between these films, while the hagiography of the principal figures and the stake of the battle in the future of the United States is left uncontested.” To the extent that representations of the two known African-American participants in the massacre, Sam and Joe who were both documented slaves, appear to “have been adjusted in various film versions of the event to conform to the political winds of the times,” Tindol argues that “Alamo films are a viable means of elaborating on the nuances of changes in dominant cultural discourses surrounding racial difference and African-American identity since World War II, with the varying depictions of the African-American characters in the films providing an inscription point for such discourses.” At the same time, however, he also suggests that while the roles that Sam and Joe play in the narratives of these films may change over time, the meaning that their experiences are invested with in dominant U.S. culture still remains the same across all of the films, with “the Alamo story provid[ing] a shelter for the myth of the ‘Plantation Illusion’ described by Everett Carter, which promotes the idea that slaves were both happier and better off before emancipation.” Ultimately these films demonstrate the ways in which “the various American filmmakers who have addressed the Alamo story are content to alter the facts of the African-American experience for the sake of good storytelling consistent with the times.” The films also reveal that mainstream American filmmakers “are not quite as willing to alter the meaning inscribed on to the story of the Alamo within the dominant American mythos” in order to either confront or contest the oppression of African-Americans under the institution of slavery.
Angenette Spalink’s “Symbolism in the Serpentine: Exploring Loie Fuller’s Dance through a Symbolist Aesthetic” turns from questions of representational politics to a reevaluation of the work of dancer/choreographer Loie Fuller within the context of the aesthetic principles and practices of the Symbolists. Building on recent scholarship on the part of Ann Cooper Albright and Rhonda K. Garelick that argues for the (re)positioning of Fuller’s work within the domain of modern dance, she argues that Fuller’s repertoire, particularly the Serpentine and Mirror dances, also suggest an alignment with Symbolist aesthetics, even if Fuller herself did not identify her work as such. Spalink examines “the ways in which Fuller’s aesthetic manifested Symbolist theatrical ideals regarding light, color, space, the body, and the mind” creating “a synesthetic whole that abstracted her body from conventional ideas of time and space” in ways that resonate with “Symbolist ideals of abstraction, otherworldly images, and an abdication of linear time.” As such, Spalink calls for reconsideration of Fuller’s work as both modernist and Symbolist in order to acknowledge both her alignment with and her contributions to both aesthetics.