Film Theory: Gaze–Types of Looks in Cinema

Scopophilia, or sexual pleasure in looking, is activated by the very situation of cinema: the darkened room, the way the gaze of the spectator is controlled by the aperture of first, the camera and second, the projector, the fact that the spectator is watching moving images rather than either : static ones (painting) or live actors (theatre), all help to make the cinematic experience closer to the dream state than is possible in the other arts.

Psychoanalytic critics argue that a kind of regression to the state of early childhood happens in the cinema.

The act of gazing is played upon in dominant cinema, creating the pleasure that, in this argument, has ultimately erotic origins. The gaze is built upon culturally defined notions of sexual difference.

Three Types of Looks:

The basic level for Saussure is that of sounds made by the human voice (i.e. the phonetic level).

Specific items gain their significance only from their relationship to other items in the system, which are signalled by difference.

The level of recognized difference is called the phonemic level.

As Terence Hawkes puts it: “The meaning of each word resides in a structural sense in the difference between its own sounds and those of other words.

The English language has registered the contrast or sense of ‘opposition’ between the sound of /t/ in tin and the sound of /k/ in kin as significant, that is, as capable of generating meaning”

Structuralism and Semiotics. London, Methuen, 1977, pp. 22 3).

Saussure called the two aspects of the linguistic sign concept and sound image, the signified and the signifier.

The signifiers in the language system are phonemes which can be made up into words to represent certain objects in the world, i.e. the signified on the level of denotation.

The sounds r o s e make up the word rose, which is the sign for a flower that looks a certain way. But there is no inherent relationship between this sign and the flower. It is only an arbitrary connection and thus can never be questioned in terms of its fitness or suitability to anything in the sensual world.

All that we can think and know is conditioned by the language system we must use.  Ideas and concepts do not exist outside of the system, but are bounded by it, shaped by what the sign system permits.

Critics thus do not simply use language (discourse) but are positioned in discourse.

The decentering of a hitherto unquestioned, autonomous and individualistic Cartesian “I.”

“I” is the subject in a subject predicate linguistic system. Far from being the central actor, man is controlled by the laws that govern the language system in which he lives.

Such a position clearly undermines the whole tradition of thought introduced by Descartes. This tradition was first questioned in the international Romantic and Post Romantic movements by the thinkers who most influenced the early twentieth century: Rousseau, Darwin, Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud. These thinkers represent a variety of discourses which all, in one way or another, began to question the unproblematic self.  But the full force of their work was not generally felt in the culture until the impact of the First World War made many of their theories suddenly relevant.

Semiology needs to be placed in the line of reaction against nineteenth century humanist habits of thought which remained despite the inroads made by the thinkers named above. The earlier thinkers did not question their own ability (methodologically) to analyze their subject matter “objectively,” and it is this examination of the very tools of analysis (signification) that characterizes semiology and puts the nail in the coffin of the unified self.

(i) Within the film text itself, men gaze at women, who become objects of the gaze;

(ii) The spectator, in turn, is made to identify with this male gaze, and to objectify the women on the screen; and

(iii) The camera’s original “gaze” comes into play in the very act of filming.