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The Tactile Eye. Touch and the Cinematic Experience.

The Tactile Eye. Touch and the Cinematic Experience

Jennifer M. Barker

Berkeley, Los Angeles, CA, London: University of California Press, 2009 208 pp; $ 60, cloth; $ 24.95, paper

In her book The Tactile Eye. Touch and the Cinematic Experience, based on her dissertation in UCLA's Critical Studies program, Jennifer M. Barker relies on both the phenomenolgical approach of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and the concepts of Vivian Sobchack and Laura U. Marks, with the goal of expanding on phenomenological analysis and film theory.

The approach of Merleau-Ponty to film in his essay "The Film and the New Psychology" (1945) in the anthology Sense and Non-Sense (1964) clarifies that the filmic image is both the visible expression of the perception of film and the object of the perception of the spectator; it is understood as an image of increased perception recreating the relation to the world, enabling man to discover himself in the image: "This is why the movies can be so gripping in their presentation of man: they do not give us bis thoughts, as novels have done for so long, but bis conduct or behaviour. They directly present to us that special way of being in the world, of dealing with things and other people, which we can see in the sign language of gesture and gaze and which clearly defines each person we know" (58).

Correspondingly, Sobchack refers to these descriptions of Merleau-Ponty in her phenomenology of film, emphasizing the ability of film to make visible the reversible and chiasmatic structure of human vision, as in Carnal Thoughts. Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (2004): "This structure emerges in the lived body as systematically both a subject and an object, as both visual (seeing) and visible (seen), and as simultaneously productive of both an activity of seeing (a 'viewing view') and an image of the seen (a 'viewed view')" (150).

With her concept, established at length in The Address of the Eye. A Phenomenology of Film Experience (1992), Sobchack defines film as a body that the spectator discovers and locates. The body of film is invisible, pre-personal, and anonymous for the spectator. It is both object and subject of perception and expression, enabling both the experience of intentional behaviour and bodily perception of the other.

In Carnal Thoughts, Sobchack goes further and very closely outlines an approach that highlights the experience of film as a synaesthetic experience: "'We see and comprehend and feel films with our entire bodily being, informed by the full history and carnal knowledge of our acculturated sensorium" (2004, 63). Here, the body of the spectator is understood as responsive and vision is assumed as being tactile: the filmic image touches the spectator who herself touches the filmic image with her own eyes.

There is, according to Laura U. Marks in The Skin of the Film. Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, a "haptic visuality" that emphasizes the way film "signifies through its materiality," through the very contact between the object and the perceiver, between the metaphorical "skin of the film": to think of film as a skin acknowledges "the effect of a work's circulation among different audiences, all of which mark it with their presence"; it makes prominent the "tactile and contagious quality of cinema as something we viewers brush up against like another body" (2000, xi, xii).

With The Tactile Eye, Barker extends this sensual scholarship and explores cinematic tactility as "a general attitude toward the cinema that the human body enacts in particular ways: haptically, at the tender surface of the body; kinaesthetically and muscularly, in the middle dimension of muscles, tendons, and bones that reach toward and through cinematic space; and viscerally, in the murky recesses of the body, where heart, lungs, pulsing fluids, and firing synapses receive, respond to, and reenact the rhythms of cinema" (3).

These specific modes of tactility are claimed to be experienced and expressed "within three locales of the spectator's bodies and the film's bodies: The book begins at the surface and moves on through three regions--skin, musculature, viscera--to end with a kind of immersion and inspiration that traverses all three at once" (2).

In this context, as Barker notes, the film's body "also adopts toward the world a tactile attitude of intimacy and reciprocity that is played out across its nonhuman body: haptically, at the screen's surface, with the caress of shimmering nitrate and the scratch of dust and fiber on celluloid; kinaesthetically, through the contours of on-and off-screen space and of the bodies, both human and mechanical, that inhabit or escape those spaces; and viscerally, with the film's rush through a projector's gate and the 'breathing' of lenses" (3).

Starting with an analysis of scenes from Andrej Tarkovskij's film Mirror (1975) in the introduction headlined "Eye Contact," Barker provides the reader with well-chosen examples from international cinemas and from analog as well as digital film throughout the study. With these examples, the author manages to illustrate her synaesthetic approach in an eloquent manner.

Consider the first chapter, titled "Skin," where she discusses very different works such as the analog Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray, India, 1955) and the digital Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995): "Pather Panchali's images are organic, evoking the feel of sand, dirt, watet, and the elements, of child's play in nature and among simple things; Toy Story recalls sensual memories of a particularly urban, consumer culture. Its texture is completely manufactured and processed, and even if we didn't know that this film was the first feature in history to consist entirely of computer-generated imagery, we would feel it.

This film's skin has no grain to it, no roughness, no messiness: it is as smooth as a plastic Magic Eight Ball. Its giddy Play-Doh colors are manufactured, so rich and bright that they could hardly exist outside toy stores and candy counters: every red is a smooth candy-apple red, and every pink is a squishy bubble-gum pink" (45, 46). These images and these colors evoke tactile memories in their corresponding historical and cultural contexts.

Note what Barker has to say about gesture in the next chapter, "Musculature": "There is room for many kinds of empathy within the film's and viewer's exchange of gestures. Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1981), for example, contains a number of complicated gestures to which we might respond with equally complex gestures of out own. As Shelley Duvall's character searches for her husband in the vast and empty room he has taken for bis writing studio, for example, the camera tracks very slowly alongside her. It gives the impression of searching, and as it passes behind structural posts and partial walls, we may lean to see around those things as we, too, search for something" (80).

Barker draws the attention to the muscular gesture that film encourages in the spectator and analyzes the mimetic and empathetic relationship between film and spectator. Subsequently, the author moves deeper, beneath skin and musculature, as in the third and last chapter, "Viscera," where she turns to an image from the end sequence of Street of Crocodiles (The Quay Brothers, U.K., 1986), for example, in which a watch falls apart and reveals its inner parts that surprisingly consist of raw meat: "Our tactile, visceral body grasps the implication immediately: like the camera itself, our own robust vitality is an illusion, and our vital rhythms mark with every breath the perpetual possibility of stillness and death" (144). In the analysis of this particular scene, the spectator is invited to make meaning out of bodily sense, as she can not make meaning out of textual clues.

Throughout the book, though, the reader is also invited to follow a philosophical reflection on the origin of emotions; she is instructed to scrutinize empathy and apprehension as well as guided to locate eroticism, pleasure, and horror in the film's experience. Moreover, she is taught to understand the embodied and intuitive aspects of the film's experience and learns that the film's experience is not solely a reflective and cognitive one.

In his phenomenology, Merleau-Ponty is interested in film as presenting that "special way of being in the world" to the spectator. In her phenomenology, Barker clearly shares and pursues this interest when she thorough[y establishes her approach that always cares to emphasize the special situation of perception in the movie theater, where the filmic image is both the visible expression of the perception of film and the object of the perception of the spectator, where it is understood as an image of increased perception recreating the relation to the world, enabling man to discover himself in the image, as in the conclusion, titled "Inspiration": "The connection between viewer's body and the film's, and between our human and cinematic bodies and the world at large, is at once intimate and immense, involving surface and depth. It is a mutual inspiration in and of the world" (154).

With such an eloquent ability to describe the film experience and her close attention to detail in its phenomenological description, Barker's study represents an important contribution to studies on the phenomenology of film and informs further research on what Merleau-Ponty termed "gripping" when considering film and the film experience.
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Author:Sternagel, Joerg
Publication:Film Criticism
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2009
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