I’ve always been curious about what exactly makes cinema trips so enchanting sometimes. Of course there are the fantastical plots, the out-of-this-world adventures, the element of escapism and great acting, but what is it REALLY about cinema that makes people all around the world spend their time and money on sitting in a dark room watching strangers on a screen? I thought I had the answer (well sort of) a couple of years ago after I read an essay by L. Mulvey called ‘Visual Pleasure and narrative cinema’ but then obviously forgot all about it. I was reminded of it again when I went to the ‘Glamour of the Gods’ exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery a few days ago. I really enjoyed the exhibition – there were 90 photo portraits of old Hollywood stars, from Marlene Dietrich to Marilyn Monroe. Of course, the focus was on their iconic status, style and beauty (to think that Photoshop did not exist back then!), however, what the exhibition demonstrated rather clearly was that these frozen images or movie stills were central to firmly embedding the actors and actresses in the public conscience at the time.
There is an inexplicable and obvious link between these images and the films that the actors starred in; what unites them is the process of the audience actively looking and, thus, “owning” the images. Mulvey argues that watching films provides us with the basic voyeuristic pleasure. The darkness in the cinema and the silver screen supply us with the necessary distance to be able to observe the characters’ lives unfold unsuspected. She goes even further by linking this to the Freudian idea of scopophilia, the pleasure of looking at and fascination with the human form, also one of the component instincts of sexuality according to Freud. At this point we, as the audience, take in the people in the films as objects, something to be consumed for purely erotic needs. Apparently, we are all prone to it, the perversion being obsessive voyeurism.
Moreover, cinema also provides us with the possibility of recognising and relating to the central characters and, unavoidably, gaining satisfaction from projecting ourselves onto the film’s protagonists as our idealised versions and, in a way, our ego ideal. Therefore, there is an intricate interplay between image and self-image at hand here.
All this is well and fine, but there is a major problem with this set-up – modern and classical cinema is largely phallocentric. The protagonists are generally male and pro-active, whereas the females are subsidiary to the plot and act mainly as objects to be sexually consumed through sight. Just think of the “normal” sex scenes in movies – the focus is always on the female body and face, even outside these scenes, it is standard to have close-ups of different female body parts in the shot. The audiences then are expected to identify with the male protagonist and see the film through his eyes. Ultimately, woman is always the image and the man is the bearer of the look. Of course there are exceptions such as Daniel Craig emerging from the sea in bright blue swimming trunks but, overall, this trend still applies to most films.
Which brings me back to the exhibition – whilst enjoying the photographs for what they were, I could not shake off the feeling that I was being a bit of a Peeping Tom. Those beautiful women and, to some extent, men seemed to be demi-gods in their lifetime, however, they were massively exploited simultaneously. In the days before internet and paparazzi, a photographed image really was worth a thousand words and a titillating image of a beautiful woman generated millions of dollars for the film studios. This continues today, whether it is pure sexism or just a manifestation of the human subconscious is debatable but here’s to hoping that the objectification will at least become equal in the near future, if it’s not possible to eradicate it altogether.
'Glamour of the Gods' is currently on at the National Portrait Gallery in London until the 23rd October.