Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Trapped in One's Own Reflection or Embracing Cinema's Spectatorial Past?

As any good film student will know windows, screens and mirrors in film are never 'just there'. They are, as reflective surfaces, always indicative of some kind of self-reflexive, psychoanalytical or phenomenological, spectatorial meaning. So it is hardly surprising then that I found the film Mirrors (2008) to be jam-packed with psychoanalytic meaning and indentificatory issues (ahem, The Mirror Stage as Formative of the "I", anyone?). What is surprising (or perhaps not to the reader who knows me a little) is that I'm going to argue Mirrors takes this a step further and propose a reading of the film as a wider commentary on the history of spectatorship in film theory. The reading is quite a simple one really, but to find it in a contemporary blockbuster-horror flick is an absolute joy because I have recently found films belonging to this generic category to be rather one-dimensional and subsequently complacent about, or indifferent to, the forms of self-reflexivity and subversion formative films of the genre inherently brought to the screen and their avid cult audiences.

So, Ben Carson (Kiefer Sutherland) is a man who has just about lost everything; suspended from the force and estranged from his wife and kids, sleeping on his sister's couch and addicted to meds that are supposedly helping him kick his alcoholism (poor Carson), takes a job as a security guard, night shift of course, at the burnt-down Mayflower department store in New York City where he begins to see things in its grand old mirrors. In terms of my own reading the fact that this film is a remake of a Korean film and whether or not it is in fact scary is of little significance, it is really only the role of the mirrors and the role of the Carson that are of interest to me. That out of the way, Carson's primary encounters with the mirrors are ones where he sees things that are not physically there in the world around him, although, as the viewer later learns, they did happen in that very place sometime during the past. The psychological process that goes along with this is such that it allows him to understand himself and his own world as separate from that which he sees in the mirror. This process is clearly Lacanian in origin and parallels that of the infant distinguishing between himself and (m)other. Furthermore, this contemporary psychoanalytic process which includes his vision of something past figuratively mirrors the position of Lacan's theories as appearing later than, yet still in acknowledgement to, well established psychoanalytic models that came before, most notably those of Freud. Carson has now accepted this past model and identified himself within the context of both past and present, the importance of context being a significant acknowledgement for film studies in the 1960s.

Later, Carson learns that the Mayflower department store used to be a psychiatric institute where (of course) 'terrible things' happened. Back peddling to the '50s here he tracks down a elderly woman, Anna Esseker, who, now a nun, was supposedly possessed by an evil spirit as a child. Forced to face her demon (quite literally) Anna was strapped to a chair in a room surrounded by mirrors - some kind of supposed identification therapy. Of course, this form of therapy marks several significant moments in film studies whereby theorists such as Christian Metz and Laura Mulvey took spectatorship theory to the next level: from subject-object identification, sharing POV with the cinematic apparatus, the spectator then aligned his POV with the on-screen male gaze. Initially in the film the viewer's gaze is aligned with the camera's POV, opening with an objective view of the previous security guard taking his own life - in a mirror image. Then, once the camera has settled on Carson, and up until this point in the film, the viewer's gaze is aligned with his.

Next in our metaphorical story of cinematic spectatorship, the only way to stop the 'evil force' behind the mirrors from killing himself and his family Carson must bring Anna Esseker back to the Mayflower and to that fateful room. Okay, okay, dramatics aside, once back in the room and forced to re-identify with herself and her past, something really interesting occurs: the viewer becomes entombed in the room of mirrors just like Anna, and faced with an all-encompassing situation which reeks of Kaja Silverman's theorising of cinematic suture whereby the spectator is stitched into the filmic world so that the look of the camera is completely forgotten.

The departure from theories of passive spectatorship paved the way for contemporary film theorists from the 1990s onwards to explore more active and experiential models of spectatorship through phenomenology, cognitivism and haptics. Vivian Sobchack's writing on phenomenology considers spectatorial experience one of embodiment, through corporeal affectivity. Adopting a nonanthropocentric gaze, the focus shifts from the film as authoritative maker of meaning to an essentialist view of its affective reflection as experienced by the spectator. And this is what Mirrors is really about. Evident in the scenes where Carson's family are at home, in danger, the gaze has shifted and it is no longer the person in front of the mirror (the filmmaker, the film itself) that determines the outcome; the 'meaning'. It is that which lies beyond the mirror, behind the screen; it is the spectator for whom the film is a mediated experience, but one in which determinism is something they must embody.

The film also flags up other active modes of spectatorial studies such as cognitivism. Distinct from both psychoanalytic and phenomenological models, Noel Carroll and David Bordwell theorise the spectator as a subject of cognition. After having identified himself, his context and its resolution it is completely up to Carson to 'actively' make meaning out of it all - i.e. that he must reach the conclusion to find Anna Esseker and deduce that she must be brought back to the Mayflower in order for these horrific events to stop. Finally, when Anna re-embodies the demon she expelled many years earlier the mirrors explode and shattered glass fills the frame for a good minute or so. Obsessive framing is used to a point of excess which as Kristin Thompson has us all studiously believing is counter-narrative and operates on a level of materiality so that the spectator simultaneously sees the material nature of the film as well as its underlying structures - that is to say that the pretence is stripped bare and indeed the early spectatorial and Freudian cinematic suggestion that one must disavow is removed in accordance with it. The fragmentation of the mirrors that until this point were so perfectly intact parallels the arrival of that dreaded word, (now rather passe of course) that Cultural Studies has afforded us with; 'postmodernism' meets film theory.

But where Mirrors truly comes alive is right at the end, for even after this fantastic scene of excess violently introducing postmodernism and all its baggage, the final scene reveals something truly spectacular: Carson has made it to the Other side. He has turned the psychoanalytic mirror into a phenomenological window, shattered the restraints of what came before and literally walked through the looking-glass like little Alice did so many years ago. What is on the Other side? Or, are we to think he is trapped within the mirror-world? Either way, this leads to new areas of film studies that are, as I write, being opened up in accordance with Carson's movements: haptics & ethics. Laura Marks's theorising of haptic spectatorship is similar to phenomenology in its emphasis on the cinematic experience and is primarily concerned with sensory impressions, yet it is distinct from phenomenology in its attempt to theorise a proximity to the object, closing the distance between object and subject whilst still allowing a symbolic distance from it. Well now, I'd say going through the mirror, being in one's own reflection is probably about as haptic as it comes. And if turns out to be ethics (should Carson really have sacrificed the life of Anna Esseker for the survival of his own family?) well, his encounter with the Other will surely make for a seriously challenging sequel.