Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Tactile Eye: Touch and the Cinematic Experience.
By Jennifer M. Barker.

Berkeley: University of California Press, June 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-0520258402, $60; paper: ISBN 978-0-520-25842-6, $24.95. 208 pages.

Review by Henrike Lehnguth, University of Maryland

With the The Tactile Eye: Touch and the Cinematic Experience Jennifer Barker approaches what she calls “the sensual dimension of the cinematic experience.” Barker systematically follows her initial hunch that we not simply watch a film but are intimately entangled with it through our bodies. To her, viewing a film is, in other words, a fully embodied experience.

The Tactile Eye applies phenomenological insights to the cinematic realm. Barker draws heavily from the philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty to flesh out a relationship between the viewer and the cinema that neither relies solely on the notion of an ideal (objective) nor an empirical (subjective) spectator but collapses both into one. Her viewing position thus presumes an interdependent relationship between the viewer’s and the film’s bodies.

Barker guides us through these bodies chapter by chapter—from the skin, through the musculature, to the visceral. Her section on the skin addresses our haptic sense in relation to the texture and materiality of the film. She explores the contact zone between film and viewer, where we as viewers are not afforded a distant—penetrating or clinical—gaze but are pushed “too close to comfort” to the film’s surface. This proximity to what Barker calls the film’s skin, where we lack orientation and visual control over the film space, is unsettling and, ultimately, envelopes us emotionally in the film. We, as she points out, do not see a film with emotional distance but feel it.

Her section on the musculature explores our kinesthetic sense in relation to film space. Barker takes Linda Williams’s seminal essay “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess” as a point of departure to argue that our mimetic relationship to film far exceeds what Williams limits to particular film genres. According to Williams we mimic the premises of genres such as horror, pornography, and “weepies,” when we, respectively, tense up, are sexually excited, and saddened. Barker argues instead that we mimic films through kinesthetic engagement. Our musculature converges with the film so that we lose our sense of being in space. We are neither completely in the filmic space nor in our chairs in the cinema. Rather, we resemble the Warner Brother’s cartoon character Coyote, who seamlessly floats in mid-air until he becomes conscious of his impossible state and falls. We float similarly in the filmic space until our attention returns to the reality of our bodies in the movie theater.

Her final section focuses on the visceral quality of our relationship to the temporal qualities of film. Early cinematic technologies, such as the mutoscope, directly relied on the human spectator as a handler of the machine to produce the illusion of motion. The spectator could slow down and stop the machine to get a better peek. Experimental film like the Wallace and Gromit shorts leave human traces on the modeling material with every move Wallace and Gromit make. Barker here ultimately suggests that these cinematic experiences remind us of what it means to be a body in time—a body that moves, a body that is still, and a body that will never move again.

Overall, The Tactile Eye systematically complicates our relationship to film in what is, yet, only an emerging field of studies in affect and embodiment in film theory. She importantly expands the works of film scholars with similar research interests such as Vivian Sobchack and Laura Marks. Barker’s book is a jewel for all, who may long have shared her hunch that film theories like “suture” and a widespread interest in visual literacy may not give sufficient justice to the cinematic experience as an experience.

However, although Barker presumes that her theory of embodied cinematic experience be applicable to the film-spectator relationship-at-large, her book would benefit from specifically addressing this applicability issue. This question arises the more because of her somewhat eclectic selection of films. Individual works that she engages with include, for instance, Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. as much as Soviet filmmaker Andrey Tarkovsky’s Mirror, Annabelle Serpentine Dance from early cinema, and the more mainstream Toy Story by director John Lasseter. However, Barker approaches these films with different goals. She, for instance, discusses a scene from Sherlock, Jr. as a trope for our kinesthetic sense of being at two places at once--“here” in the movie theatre and “there” in the space of the film. In her inquiry into Carolee Schneemann’s Fuses she, in contrast, theorizes the film’s skin and the spectator’s entanglement with it. The film, as Barker suggests, provides a rich visual texture that our eyes gently explore at the surface. Her use of film for different purposes presents a challenge to readers and their understanding of the larger applicability of her otherwise engaging theory.

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