Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 6 No. 21, August 2002

 

 

Latham Hunter

Narrowing the 'Wider Issues' in Fuery's _New Developments in Film Theory_

 

 

 

Patrick Fuery

_New Developments in Film Theory_

London: MacMillan Press, 2000

ISBN 0-333-74490-X HB; 0-333-74491-8 PB

211 pp.

 

In _New Developments in Film Theory_, Patrick Fuery struggles to find a path from 1980s French poststructuralist and postmodernist theory to cultural studies, and regrettably gets lost in the bushes. At the outset, Fuery writes that his goal is 'to turn to . . . wider issues' resonating in cinema (1), and 'to consider how film and the wider issues of critical theory have come to change each other' (2). And here is the sticking point (or at least, as it stuck with me): despite his emphasis on the 'wider issues' at work in our understanding of 'the nature of the cinematic apparatus' (1), his study remains, from beginning to end, tethered to a small number of poststructuralist and postmodernist theorists whose ideas are certainly no longer new. Perhaps it could simply be said that his book was mis-titled, were it not for his recurrent suggestion that he intends to go further, and chart some of those dynamic new disciplines he promises in his Introduction. In 2000 one might expect 'new developments in film theory' to build on the budding discourse of globalized cinema (as the cover art of two Asian women might suggest), tease out the beginnings of eco-critical film theory, or even trace the cinematic depictions of our progression from post- to neo-Fordist systems of production and consumption. If it is Fuery's intention to apply 'the dominant theoretical models of poststructuralism and postmodernism' (1) to the study of film and present this as a new development, then let him say as much in his title, and not attempt to borrow from the dynamical attraction of another theoretical field.

 

Which raises another issue: does Fuery cover new territory? This is a complex question, given that most of work is, indeed, primary. However, much of his writing is derivative all the same, simply rehashing well-worn theories and applying them -- occasionally very perceptively, but more usually bewilderingly -- to specific cinematic texts and processes. An excellent example is his discussion of how we might use Lacan's 'virtual subject' to understand 'the relationships between the spectator and film' (33). What follows is a description and diagram in which 'the concave mirror, the spectator, the filmed real objects, and the processes of ideology (as part of the cinematic apparatus)' are brought together (34). Next, Fuery breezes into the statement that the motivating processes in Lacan's schema 'are primarily twofold: there is the seductive process of self-reflection . . . there are also the forces of desire' (35). The idea, says Fuery, is that if 'desire is both inescapable and beyond satisfaction, this act of constructing the virtual subject, 'inside' a domain of complete and whole objects, presents a playing out of a mirage of satisfied desires' (35). Fuery claims that this model is an 'explication of desire itself' (35), but I find it much less functional in that it fails to investigate the category of pleasure. *This* would have been a 'new development' -- one of the wider cultural issues he claims to be pursuing. It is not enough to say that we, as spectators, find the cinematic image compelling because it allows us to construct 'signification and interpretation through deferring the meanings and producing new ones' (38). If this is the case, why do we perform this construction? Does it give us pleasure, and if so, how and why? Surely film theory has come far enough that we can begin to tackle this largely unexamined category in what is, after all, an entertainment industry.

 

It is not so much that Fuery totally ignores the role of pleasure, but that he acknowledges its relevance and presence and yet passes over it without true analysis. In fact, one might go as far as to say that he recognizes that the category of pleasure has a central role in his study, given that his introduction concludes with a reference to Lacan's Reality and Pleasure Principles, stating that: 'The hallucination of satisfaction that cinema provides allows it to hold contradictions, splits and doubles without necessarily having to attempt to resolve them or even acknowledge the difference' (5). This is a promising line of inquiry that is more often cut off than not. For example, in discussing 'the gaze and the active/passive pleasures involved' (20), Fuery concentrates on Barthes's ideas of the *studium* and *punctum*. But what is it about a shared and fixed understanding of meaning (*studium*) that makes it attractive to an audience? What is it about the disruptive moments, or points, of looking (*punctum*) that make them entertaining, or pleasurable? *Are* they pleasurable? Fuery gives us only a surface explanation of how these structures operate with respect to the gaze, but these explanations leave out the conscious human agency which would have provided the socio-cultural context Fuery promises us in his introduction (2).

 

If there was ever a point in the book when a more socio-cultural analysis of pleasure could have been exercised (and there are several, what with sections on the spectacle, corporeality, and phantasy), it was certainly chapter five, 'The Ideology of Love: Film and Culture'. Writing that its intended focus 'will be on some possibilities for locating cinema within cultural contexts and processes' and the consideration of 'how certain critical movements argue for a type of intertextual exchange between culture and text' (92), Fuery yet again throws out the word 'culture' without explaining how he understands and interprets this gargantuan term, nor how he intends to use it. Perhaps this kind of preparation and focus would have steered the chapter towards its intended goals; as it is, Fuery once again veers into Lacanian theory (this time on the subject of drive) which simply concludes that we are motivated by desire and that subjectivity is formulated by pleasure (96). Again, the evolving standards of cultural studies demand that these kinds of categories and terms be interrogated and investigated to the degree that we may come to understand their ideological *and* democratic roots and functions.

 

That being said, the fifth chapter is also where Fuery reveals a talent for textual analysis in his discussion of how the filmic kiss operates in the social contexts of resistance and conformity as exemplified by certain noir and queer films. Unfortunately, this discussion lapses into the classic cultural studies trap, as exposed so effectively in Meaghan Morris's 'Banality in Cultural Studies': [1] to simply conclude that things are complex and contradictory. And so we are simply and vaguely left with 'the ambiguity of the kiss' and its mysterious 'effects' on the spectator, which are 'part of the positionality of love and its discourses in the relationship between film and culture' (101). A similar lapse occurs in the fourth chapter, when a section on the cinematic depiction of the body and skin -- pierced and sliced -- assembles compelling moments from _Die Hard_, _Mad Max_, _Alien_, _Chinatown_, _Reservoir Dogs_, and _Psycho_ to conclude that . . . things are complex and contradictory. Specifically, Fuery refers to Lyotard's 'idea of the cut' (78) -- it is oppositional, revealing both an interruption and a continuum (or a *punctum* and *studium*). This kind of thinking leads to the chapter's dissatisfying conclusion that film is a body which 'resists and demands, is socialised and resists any social conformity, is disempowered and subversively all powerful' (91). (It should be said that most of the conclusions in this book seem postponed or underworked -- in fact the end of the book wraps up so abruptly that one finds oneself searching for a Conclusion, and finding only Notes and References.) A far more effective argument, to my mind, is the kind in William Warner's essay on the Rambo films, or in Yvonne Tasker's _Spectacular Bodies_. [2] Warner and Tasker explore the contradictions implicit in the cinematic body, and also how these contradictions express, or are related to, their historical and social contexts, and their modes of production and consumption. This brings us to another point: what is the logic behind Fuery's choice of cinematic texts? Is it feasible to use _Psycho_ and _Die Hard_ to express the same point, especially *without* stopping to establish or question their very different socio-historical circumstances? For example, why choose film noir and queer cinema to explain the significance of the kiss? Wouldn't a consideration of romantic comedies and dramas create a more measured, less selective interpretation? As a whole, the book jumps from cinematic text to cinematic text without regard for different audiences, genres, or time periods. (One particularly odd point is when Fuery describes lesbian vampire films as 'popular, mainstream films, even if the audience tended to be almost subcultural' (41) without explaining how he came to this conclusion.) One finds _Battleship Potemkin_, _Triumph of the Will_, and _Barbarella_ cheek by jowl (159); as are _Die Hard with a Vengeance_ and _The Piano_ (142); as are _Wuthering Heights_, _Casablanca_, and _How to Make an American Quilt_ (97), a film which barely registered on critical or commercial scales. This sort of eclectic intermingling can be exhilarating and fresh in the right hands, but here it appears a disorienting ahistorical jumble.

 

Fuery certainly lacks no focus, though, when it comes to summarizing, explaining, and attempting to apply the principal theoretical models of postmodernism and poststructuralism to film in some way. Deleuze, Foucault, Lyotard, Barthes, Kristeva, Lacan, and Derrida are all well-represented here, their greatest hits providing the basic organizing structure of Fuery's work. But it is a quote from Deleuze, used to begin the book, that should act as a caution to the reader: 'A theory of cinema is not 'about' cinema, but about the concepts that cinema gives rise to and which are themselves related to other concepts' (1). [3] For Fuery, it seems that postmodern and poststructuralist theory give rise to cinema, and allow for very little connection to other concepts or contexts.

 

McMaster University

Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. See Meaghan Morris, 'Banality in Cultural Studies', _Discourse_, vol. 10 no. 2, 1988, pp. 3-29.

 

2. See William Warner, 'Spectacular Action: Rambo and the Popular Pleasures of Pain', in Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson and Paula A. Treichler, eds, _Cultural Studies_ (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), pp. 672-688; and Yvonne Tasker, _Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre and the Action Cinema_ (London and New York: Routledge, 1993).

 

3. See Gilles Deleuze, _Cinema 2: The Time Image_, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), p. 280.

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2002

 

Latham Hunter, 'Narrowing the 'Wider Issues' in Fuery's _New Developments in Film Theory_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 6 no. 21, August 2002 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol6-2002/n21hunter>.

 

 

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