Saturday, September 27, 2008

"All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm Ready for My Close-up."

As I reviewed another textbook for potential use in my classroom, I came across a line that rubbed me the wrong way. However, I couldn't help but wonder if I was reading too much into it, particularly given that, on the whole, I quite like this particular textbook. My negative reaction stemmed from one single caption that accompanied four images of Nicole Kidman as Anna in Birth (Glazer 2004).
Since I don't own the DVD, I can't visually recreate the images used in the textbook; instead, I'll briefly describe the four virtually identical soft-focus close-ups. In the first, her lips are parted, her head titled and her right eyebrow arched; in the second, her lips are closed and her head no longer titled; in the third, her eyes are dewy and her lip is turned up as she seemingly tries to hold back tears; in the fourth, her eyes are closed and her lips parted just slightly. The subtle changes in the tilt of her head, her mouth, and her eyes testify to the character's level of emotional involvement as she becomes increasingly absorbed in a piece of music.

The content of the images is actually beside the point. What I find somewhat problematic is the caption that accompanies them. Intended to explain the film's use of close-ups and long takes, it begins with the following clause: "Great cinematographers love great female beauty, as demonstrated by these four images from Jonathan Glazer's Birth (2004)." I could provide a diatribe explaining my objections, but I'm going to hold off for now. I'll simply say that that little clause got my hackles up. But I can't help but wonder if I'm overreacting. Am I making a mountain out of a molehill?

7 comments:

Erin Hoagland said...

Forgive my confusion, but I'm not sure what is offensive about that sentence. Could you explain why you find it so? The only thing that bothers me about it is that I don't personally find Nicole Kidman to be all that attractive so to call her a "great female beauty" seems anathema to me...

mzbitca said...

I think is issue is female beauty is consistently being portrayed as soft and vulnerable. instead of strong and assertive. That is my impression at least I can't speak for the author.

Dove said...

What I find offensive is the implied equation between great cinematographers and great female beauty (GFB). Implied is that a mediocre cinematographer won't appreciate GFB; or that if you protest when you think some "great artist" is objectifying the female, it shows that you just don't understand (i.e., are deficient). Why can't GFB be appreciated by the average Jane or Joe? Why can't a great cinematographer appreciate Plain Jane? Of course, I'm overstating my case -- I know the clause isn't actually saying this -- but it's the assumption that I'd accept this as an artistically viable statement (after all, what counts is the WAY an artist looks something, not WHAT s/he looks at) that riles me most.

AD Miller said...

Don't get me wrong: I realize this is simply one small clause within a rather large book. However, I do expect an author publishing a book for use in the Film Studies classroom to be sensitive to one of the most often-discussed branches of feminist film theory. He should recognize, even in the smallest statement, when his words seem to uncritically endorse Hollywood's problematic fascination with woman-as-beautiful-object. Laura Mulvey, in her often-cited (and often-amended) essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" explains that in classical cinema, the desire to look—scopophilia— relies on highly gendered binary oppositions: it establishes the male character as the active agent whose actions and gaze move the narrative forward; and it positions the female character as the passive object of desire for the male character. Many critics have since nuanced this theory (or attempted to overthrow it entirely), arguing that the camera can also represent women’s desire, that women’s role in the cinema— behind or in front of the camera, as a spectator—need not be passive. And I certainly believe that one needs to ascribe greater agency to the female spectator and the female subject who is being filmed. However, I also believe this textbook caption reproduces (albeit subtly) the system Mulvey describes. It suggests that the successful cinematographer must replicate this opposition between passive and active and that the cinematographer’s preferred subject—beauty—is necessarily female. As Dove points out, what of the cinematographer who chooses to film that which might be deemed ugly? What of the cinematographer who elects not to film the female subject at all? I realize I’m making a great deal out of a few simply words. However, I can’t help but be very sensitive to such issues when I read yet another textbook that relegates feminist film theory to a half-page column and mentions, briefly, only 3 or 4 female directors.

Brianna J said...

Strangely enough, my reaction was, "Who cares". The phrase, "Great cinematographers love great female beauty,.." sounds like nothing more than a trite, empty platitude. I don't find it to be very offensive, just pointless and stupid. As in, "Yeah, I like to look at beautiful women too."

On the other hand, if the textbook gives the impression that GFB is somehow an especially proper subject of the cinematographer, that is problematic. Art can, and should, consist of nearly anything.

aviva said...

What I don't get is why the writer didn't just write "great beauty." Why does it have to be female beauty...

Dr. Jay SW said...

It sounds like a rather stupidly gratuitous and pointless caption, that implies far more about its apparently horny author than the "great cinematographers" in question. So, I guess my first question would be "what is this ridiculous fluff, doing in a college level textbook?"