Mulvey, Laura

Assigned: Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1954-65). Also read the editors’ introduction (1952-54).

“Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975)

I. Introduction

(A) A Political Use of Psychoanalysis

1. On 1954-56 (“This paper intends to use…”), how does Laura Mulvey describe the basic purpose, promise, and limitations of the analysis she is about to undertake?  She also offers a summary of the feminist-adapted psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan (Leitch 1105-37). What role for female characters in film does that theory posit, as Mulvey inflects the Lacanian viewpoint? In what way does the female in cinema relate to the male-centered “castration complex”?

(B) Destruction of Pleasure as a Radical Weapon

2. On 1956 (“As an advanced representation system…”), how does Mulvey describe the change she sees taking root in 1970s “artisanal” films as opposed to the “monolithic system” Hollywood movie studios constituted in previous decades? How much hope does she invest in the newer sort of films as a way to generate more pro-feminist perspectives? Regarding her own analysis, she writes as follows: “It is said that analysing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it. That is the intention of this article.” What does she expect will be the net benefit from the accomplishment of that goal?

II. Pleasure in Looking/Fascination with the Human Form

(A, B, C)

3. On 1957 (“The cinema offers a number of…”), how does Mulvey describe the sexual instinct that Sigmund Freud labeled “scopophilia”? What does a certain perversion of this instinct, voyeurism, have to do with the experience of the male spectator at a film theater? What factors lead to the creation of an “illusion” whereby the spectator projects himself (his exhibitionistic desires, that is) onto the relevant performer?

4. On 1957-58 (“The cinema satisfies a primordial wish…”), how does Mulvey relate “scopophilia” to Jacques Lacan’s account of the “mirror phase” that a child goes through in his or her very early development? How, in turn, does she characterize the movie-going experience in terms of this earlier “mirror phase” (see Leitch 1111-17) in the development of a child’s subjectivity, or identity? To what extent might this link, in Mulvey’s view, account for the fascinating and compelling effect of watching a Hollywood movie, at least of a certain type?

5. On 1958-59 (“Sections A and B have set out…”), how does Mulvey describe the complexity of the act of “looking” at another person’s image projected onto the big screen? What “contradictory aspects” (1958) govern this moment of looking at another in film, again from a Lacanian theoretical perspective? In spite of any “possibility of transcending the instinctual and the imaginary” (1959) through the movement of desire, how does desire nonetheless end up returning to the ominous unconscious male preoccupation with “the castration complex” (1959)?

III. Woman as Image, Man as Bearer of the Look

(A, B, C, C2)

6. On 1959-60 (“A. In a world ordered by sexual imbalance…”), how does Mulvey describe the basic mechanics of “pleasure in looking” (1959) in terms of gender? How is it that a woman’s presence in mainstream Hollywood films, according to Mulvey, “tends to work against the development of a story-line” and “freeze the flow of action…” (1959)?

7. On 1960-61 (“B. An active/passive heterosexual division…”), how does the tendency Mulvey described in the previous question, aided by sophisticated filmic techniques, cater to the male characters in mainstream Hollywood films as well as the male audience watching them? When the woman becomes an “icon” (1960), what advantage accrues to the male protagonist?

8. On 1961-62 (“C1. Sections III A and B have set out…”), Mulvey concentrates on the threatening aspect, in Freudian/Lacanian terms, of the female as object of the male movie-goer’s (and male protagonist’s) gaze. In sum, the female character provokes the male anxiety of the “castration complex.” What “two avenues of escape” (1961) does Mulvey indicate are available to the male psyche once this unconscious threat occurs? Describe these in some detail, and include a sense of the kind of movie-watching experience each seems to imply.

9. On 1962 (“C2. Sternberg once said he would welcome…”), how does Mulvey characterize the films of Josef von Sternberg as an example of the male escape route she has just called “[f]etishistic scopophilia” (1962)? What aspects of his films lead her to describe Sternberg’s work this way?

10. On 1962-64 (“In Hitchcock, by contrast, the male hero…”), how, according to Mulvey, are Alfred Hitchcock’s films more complex even than Sternberg’s in terms of how they structure the significance of the male gaze? How do films such as Vertigo, in particular, end up implicating the male viewer in the voyeuristic attitude of the male protagonist, so that the viewer “finds himself exposed as complicit, caught in the moral ambiguity of looking” (1964)?

IV. Summary

11. On 1964-65 (“The psychoanalytic background that has…”), why, according to Mulvey, is film such an apt staging-ground for the male psychological tensions and contradictions she has been analyzing? What technological and other factors make film capable of “producing an illusion cut to the measure of desire” (1965)? What “three different looks” (1965) belong to cinema, and how does narrative convention generally result in the repression of the first two in favor of maintaining a reality-effect in the viewing of a film, one that panders to “the neurotic needs of the male ego” (1965)?

12. On 1965 (“This complex interaction of looks…”), how, according to Mulvey, have the “radical film-makers” of the mid-70s supposedly begun to break down and destroy the kind of pleasure that has long structured mainstream Hollywood films? How, in her view, should women regard the decline of such mainstream films, which she says have “stolen” their image to suit male desire?

13. General question: In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey launches what she calls an attempt to destroy the patriarchal, sexist pleasure that classic cinema encourages. The essay, very important in its time, is now more than four decades old. How do you assess the current state of American cinema in feminist terms? Has what Mulvey calls the patriarchal way of representing female characters as objectifiable for the male gaze changed to any significant degree? If it has changed, what evidence can you point to that would indicate such change? If it hasn’t, what steps would most likely make a difference?

14. General question: In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey views American cinema from a strong feminist perspective. She has at times been criticized for concentrating so intently on cinema as a male-constructed phenomenon, made mostly by men for men, so that at least in this 1975 piece, she doesn’t have much to say about the perspective and pleasure (or unpleasure) of female film-goers (of whom there are millions), or LGBTQ+ film-goers (also many). Do you think that is a fair criticism, or do you think she is justified in taking the perspective she does for the purpose announced? Explain.

15. General question: In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey’s 1975 analysis deals with film as a big-screen phenomenon—the small-screen ways to watch film around the end of the second decade of the 2000s would no doubt astonish people living in the mid-1970s (VHS tapes came out in 1976, DVDs appeared around 1997, and the “smart phone” experience with movies goes back to perhaps 2012). Mulvey relies on the older technology in developing her commentary; see, for example, page 1957, the paragraph beginning, “At first glance, the cinema would seem….” How does the dated quality of some of Mulvey’s analysis affect your view of its validity? Or is it relatively easy to make adjustments for this sort of thing? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake