Seduktionstheorie des Films III

Marcus Stiglegger

Rituals of Seduction
Seductive Strategies of the Cinema

Excerpt from the book Ritual & Verführung. Schaulust, Spektakel & Sinnlichkeit im Film, Berlin: Bertz + Fischer, 2007, revised by the author. Authorized final version, 24 February 2007

Marcus Stiglegger, Dr. phil. habil., born 1971, is working as a lecturer for film studies at the University of Mainz (Germany) and has published several books on film history, film theory and film aesthetics both as a writer and as an editor. His publications include books on Ritual & Seduction on film (2006), Western (2003), Pop and cinema (2004), the cinema of extremes (2002), and Abel Ferrara (2000) among others; regularly contributes to film conferences national and international (Chile in 2001, Japan in 2002); member of the FIPRESCI and regular contributor for the German magazines Filmdienst, Testcard, Splatting Image and editor of :Ikonen: magazine. International articles appeared in Kinoeye (USA) and Eyeball (UK). Contact: ikonenmagazin [at] hotmail com.


Seduction ... becomes the metaphor for how meaning is always figured as a beyond in this theorising of film. We are seduced towards a sense of meaning, only to be drawn elsewhere. That is to say, that no matter how much we might try to resolve, what remains in both cinema and theory is the seduction towards another point.
Patrick Fuery, New Developments in Film Theory

Manipulation – Suggestion – Seduction?

The concept of seduction has accompanied the analysis of the film medium ever since the debate about the cinema began in the 1920s. To proceed from the assumption that cinema has a seductive quality is apparently a matter of course—why otherwise has it enjoyed such lasting success? Why else has the media of film been repeatedly exposed to moralistic attacks charging it with having a “corrupting quality” linked with its power of seduction? Even if André Bazin, Siegfried Kracauer, Rudolf Arnheim or Béla Balázs were not explicitly preoccupied with this concept , the descriptions and definitions they developed constantly revolve around the phenomenon of completely absorbing the audience, even of transporting the spectators from a supposedly fixed position A to the not initially considered position B. The seductive strategies of the cinema start out on three levels: firstly, the intention of the cinema is to captivate and enthral moviegoers using all means possible, ultimately enticing them into indulging in the film itself; secondly, a film contains a message that is to be conveyed explicitly in and through the production, and thus seduces us into taking in special kinds of information (such as in manipulative and ideological propaganda films); and thirdly, all means available in directing and dramatizing a film are used by the cinema to create a seductive construct that ultimately intends to seduce us into receiving information found on the meta-level, which is not discernable at first sight.

An important point in defining the medium of film as a medium of seduction is the phantom-like quality of the cinematic projection. This ghostly presence was even observed by the philosopher Hugo Münsterberg in 1916 when he defined his theory of film in terms of the aesthetic illusion of the nineteenth century:
The massive outer world has lost its weight, it has been freed from space, time, and causality, and it has been clothed in the forms of our own consciousness. The mind has triumphed over matter and the pictures roll on with the ease of musical tones. It is a superb enjoyment which no other art can furnish us.
Several elements that Balázs and Kracauer also dealt with can already be found in this quotation: firstly, the relationship of the cinematically reproduced or re-orchestrated world to social reality, as well as the comparison of these levels; secondly, the ability of film to resolve the space-time continuum; thirdly, the connection between producing a film, perceiving a film and human consciousness; fourthly, the fleeting “ease” of cinematic events; fifthly, the musical quality of cinematic orchestration and montage; and finally, the voyeuristic “superb enjoyment” that this medium furnishes its audience.

From the early period of film theory up to the present the relationship of film to reality has again and again been subjected to examination. Kracauer, for example, in those writings in which he is critical of ideologies, diagnoses the film medium as a “seismograph” of societal trends and changes. In his book Der sichtbare Mensch (The Visible Man, 1924) Béla Balázs sees the development and realization of a completely new way of viewing the human being—in particular through the close-up shot, which turns the human face into a landscape reflecting a host of experiences and conveying deep meaning, creating a profound intensity using those tools specific to the cinema. The polished “image gestures” (Balázs) thus sharpen our look at social reality. And it is primarily in the camera perspective and in film editing where Rudolf Arnheim defines the cinematic artefact’s independence in space and time.

Although Adorno and Horkheimer do not explicitly mention the concept of seduction in their work Dialektik der Aufklärung (Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1947) in connection with the film medium, they nevertheless see the—at times fatal—quality of film instead in its “power to manipulate”, with which the “culture industry” (in this case the reference is to Hollywood) affirms the social status quo. This manipulative power makes film an attractive instrument of control and propaganda in carrying out social policy—a thesis that particularly the latest developments in American mainstream cinema can once again confirm. Moreover, the medium of film works primarily with a mythical view of the world, which reduces historical events to the level of supra-historical and apolitical fables. In the sense of the dialectic of enlightenment, mythical thinking can be viewed as a counter-movement against universally called-for enlightenment, a circumstance that, however, benefits precisely the efforts of the culture industry to bring about conformity. What Adorno and Horkheimer fail to take into consideration is the constant presence of subversive movements in the mainstream, which result in phenomena in which the cinema’s manipulative power (and hence its seductive energy) is directed against the system itself. Such trends can be clearly observed in the films of Robert Aldrich or more recently in those of Oliver Stone. It remains doubtful, however, whether these efforts are ultimately important for idea of “enlightenment” as outlined by Adorno and Horkheimer. The concept of seduction inherent in the Dialektik der Aufklärung, it must be noted, is associated with a negative definition that judges the commercial feature film as a form with tendencies of a “propaganda film”.

Although the notion of “seduction” has only been applied specifically to the media of film in current film theory, it is worth taking a look at these earlier approaches, which make use of other concepts but nevertheless deal with the same phenomenon.

Perspective, Seduction and Propaganda

In his early work Film als Kunst (Film as Art) Rudolf Arnheim never uses the concept of seduction; in several passages, however, he attests to that very quality of the film medium to absorb the look of the audience, “to force the audience to enter the perspective of the medium”. He assumes that for human beings the faculty of seeing is only of trivial significance: Man makes use of this sense merely as a “means of orientation”. We see selectively, as when wearing blinkers, and just enough to act correctly in a pragmatic sense towards objects in our environment. Even of his fellow human beings the “ordinary human” only perceives those details that appear beneficial to him for the purpose of interaction. “It is indeed an exceptional situation when—apart from aesthetically inclined and trained people—suddenly someone loses himself in pure contemplation.” Thus, our everyday view of reality perceives the world; the cinematic view can, however, expand this quality. In the cinematic image it is no longer important simply to discern an object as such, but rather in addition to ascertain its specific qualities. “How the massiveness of a figure is accentuated by shooting with the camera from below upwards.” Arnheim refers strongly to the great significance of the camera perspective, to the significance attached to the image/object. Here he emphasizes—in a last step—the propagandistic quality of film: “There are tricks to force the viewer to enter such a perspective.” In this way he is made “to view something well known to him as something new” and is only then able to grasp the actual message of the film. Out of the necessity of working with a two-dimensional representation (as opposed to three-dimensional reality) here the film artist makes a virtue: He directs our view with such intensity at the object he wants to focus on that this causes a hyper-reality to emerge. The object as represented in the media appears more real to us than it does in the feeling of reality we have.

Arnheim repeatedly devotes particular attention to the audience-friendly “ready-made film”, which may correspond to today’s blockbuster or to what simply would be referred to as mainstream cinema—films that attract audiences by affirming their needs: “In film everything happens in such a way as it would happen in reality if it happened in a way that seems just and beautiful to us.” Just for economic reasons the “ready-made film” is forced to make concessions, which according to Arnheim is what distinguishes it from the artistically ambitious film.
In his two works on film theory, From Caligari to Hitler (1947) and Theory of Film (1960), Siegfried Kracauer goes one significant step further. Especially in his Caligari book his idea of the seduction of the audience corresponds quite clearly to the propagandistic motivation, particularly of the cinema during the period of the Weimar Republic. With Gertrud Koch we can assume that this book is an attempt “from (1) formal qualities of films (2) to gain mental patterns that are then (3) interpreted in a social-psychological way”. On the formal level of cinematic production Kracauer develops theses on the superordinate social relevance of the German films during those years. He thus notes that there was a striking increase in the number of doppelgänger motifs during the second decade of the twentieth century. The doppelgänger motif is repeatedly also taken up again later when the point is to portray a conscious or unconscious splitting-off of the condemnable, abject aspects of someone’s personality. At the same time this “Mr. Hyde” can indulge in all of what the person of integrity would never dare. The character with a split personality feels morally above his rejected double. What we are confronted with here is a clear depiction of seduction towards that which is evil or rather morally unacceptable. This quality is particularly evident in Fritz Lang’s early paranoia thriller The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, which at the same time was viewed as a criticism of the totalitarian rule of the National Socialists, and which also developed a huge fascination for the mysterious figure of Mabuse, the super villain whose name appears in the film’s title.

In his Theory of Film, which is often wrongly viewed as being reduced to the attempt at the “Redemption of Physical Reality”, Kracauer undertakes several tasks including an attempt to develop an analysis of the effect of film. Although the writer confesses that an examination of this effect cannot be generalized without exception, it is precisely here that we make important observations that later will become of great value. Like Arnheim he also differentiates those “effects” that captivate the audience. In particular it is movement that appears important to him as a primary motif in film:

Movement is the alpha and omega of the medium. Now the sight of it seems to have a “resonance effect,” provoking in the spectator such kinaesthetic responses as muscular reflexes, motor impulses, or the like. In any case, objective movement acts as a physiological stimulus.… It is our sense organs which are called into play.

Thus, there is apparently a sensual seduction brought about by means of the cinematic depiction of movement, whose effects are seen right up to the physical reactions of the audience. In this regard, the cinematic image acquires a special quality—in contrast to, for example, viewing a theatre play: The camera “takes the eyes of the viewer along with it” (Balázs), it “forces” the audience to identify involuntarily with what is shown on the screen. The total absorption of the audience using cinematic mechanisms controls their senses and weakened consciousness. The medium opens the viewer up, making him susceptible to receiving motifs and messages (audience’s expectation), which at first may possibly be unwanted but are usually desirable nonetheless. It is here that we find the first attempt at an explanation of how a film can succeed in taking an essentially “steadfast” spectator from the moral standpoint A to an unexpected standpoint B, which initially appears inconceivable and foreign to him. Kracauer goes so far as to see this quality of the medium taking on an existence of its own:

…what they [the spectators] really crave is for once to be released from the grip of consciousness, lose their identity in the dark, and let sink in, with their senses ready to absorb them, the images as they happen to follow each other on the screen.

Kracauer goes one step further and views the cinema as a medium of hypnosis. The spectator is spellbound by the luminous rectangle and succumbs to the suggestions “that invade the blank of his mind”.

A generally accepted opinion views the cinema of Hollywood as a “dream factory”. Also Kracauer subscribes to this position and analyses film quite generally as a “play of dreams”. Once film has lowered the consciousness of the audience, it then invites them to dream. The reception of a film itself becomes a condition halfway between being awake and sleeping, and the spectator finds himself abiding somewhere between reason and irrationality. It is particularly for this reason that the cinema has also become a domain of myths, which for their part have settled between the poles of consciousness. “Myth lies at the heart of cinema” is how Jean Baudrillard will later put it. In discussing this cinematic play of dreams Kracauer distinguishes between “manufactured dreams” and “stark reality”. The “ready-made cinema” (Arnheim) produced in Hollywood makes films that correspond to the utopian dreams of the audience: “…otherwise expressed, the events on the screen can be supposed to bear, somehow, on actual dream patterns, thereby encouraging identifications.” Of course, the reverse may be true, namely that from the cinematic staging of the audience’s dreams we can draw conclusions about the condition of the film-producing country and the film-viewing country. However, Kracauer plays down this superficial game with people’s wishful dreams: “Much as they may be relevant as indices of subterranean social trends, they offer little interest aesthetically.” What appears interesting to the writer is the moment in which documentary shots of “naked reality” attain a dream-like quality. And once again it is the specific camera perspective that counts, as well as the relationship between sound and image. Thus, the cinematic reproduction of life apparently changes life’s conditions. A visual impression in reality can have a totally different effect when the same impression is captured on film.

Perhaps films look most like dreams when they overwhelm us with the crude and un-negotiated presence of natural objects—as if the camera had just now extricated them from the womb of physical existence and as if the umbilical cord between image and actuality had not yet been severed.

This allegorical description again points to an intermediate world between image and reality—between sleeping and being awake. Kracauer thus sees this “simulation of authority” as a further quality of film, in particular for those in modern society who can no longer cling to common notions of belief, moral valued or a clearly comprehensible political system. For the moment in which the film is viewed, the complexities and ambiguities of the cinema cease to be in effect and they open our eyes to a transparent system, a world that (apparently) is easier to control. Film as a play of dreams and reservoir of myths continues to serve the modern individual as a valuable way to escape: Not only are wishes and dreams fulfilled here; we also find here fixed frames of reference, which make is easy to orientate oneself in life.

On the Spirit and Magic of Film

For the film theorist and film practitioner Béla Balázs, film has “taken over the role which myths, legends and folk-tales used to play.” He is not, though, referring here to film as a “reservoir of myths”, but rather as the form for the production of new myths. In the process he would like to view film as far away from literature as possible, because in contrast to abstract literary works, or rather to text that has its basis in printed writing, the main focus in film is on a new way of looking at the human body: “the visible man”.

Balázs thus views the cinema first of all as the anthropocentric cinema of the body, whereby to the cinematic image of the body are added expressive gestures: Cinema is a sign language. According to Balázs it is the “subtlety and power of the images and the gestures that constitute the art of film.” Because it was not yet possible for the silent film actor to express himself verbally, the writer emphatically points to the equally important gestures accompanying spoken language, which may resemble those of a dancer but nevertheless are not the same. Balázs was one of the first film theorists who did not shy away from acknowledging the “superficial beauty” of film. In the beauty of film lies at times even its power of expression:

There is nothing “purely” external about film and no “empty” decorativeness. This is just because everything inside can be recognized by one external thing, and for this reason one thing inside is also recognizable by everything external. Even by beauty. In film the beauty of facial features appears as a physiognomic expression.

Indeed the writer goes considerably further than media theorists later dare to do: Since the medium can rely exclusively on externalisation, every visual gesture (also independent of the performers) must become an expression—and only in this way can it be grasped by the audience. This “complex superficiality” thus makes use of beauty (just as it also does of ugliness) as a conscious expression that should also not be underestimated. Balázs’s thesis, which at first sight is so simple, proves to be amazingly radical and up to date, yet he specifically avoids allowing himself to be “dazzled” by beauty.

Within the framework of cinematic forms of expression Balázs regards the close-up as the most important, because it allows the spectators and the performers to display the art of using facial expressions and subtle body movements. Thus, “each little wrinkle in a person’s face can become a determinative feature of character.” The close-up is the “magnifying glass of the cinematographer”. The long shot may serve the purpose of creating spatial orientation in a scene, but the essential aspect of a film always occurs in the close-up shot, which is that form of composing the cinematic image that is most likely able to captivate and direct the perspective of the audience. Using the camera “the director can guide our eyes”.

At the same time the cinema, even more than the theatre, is in a position to overwhelm the spectators by presenting simulations of immense size and monumentality. It can create crowd scenes of absorbing intensity, melt together human bodies into “surging masses of people” and stimulate the imagination to additionally enhance the size of objects, that is, ultimately to visualize images that no screen could display. Up to the present day the mainstream cinema has been built on the all-engrossing power of this effect to overwhelm the audience, and this trend extends from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) to the computer-generated crowd scenes in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: Two Towers (2002) and The Matrix: Reloaded (2002) by the Wachowski brothers. In this connection the medium of film becomes also for Balázs a play about dreams and visions, which in hardly any other art form can be materialized with such intensity.

A further quality of the medium lies, according to Balázs, in the way velocity is staged on the screen, especially when the camera accompanies a vehicle or someone running and conveys to us from a subjective perspective the feeling of speed. This results in sensational and spectacular effects, which the audience can hardly escape from for the very reason that they can experience the illusion of danger from a safe position. According to Balázs, this staging of sensations achieves artistic expression when it involves an “accent of the most extreme intensification”. In particular in the American mainstream cinema as well as in the cinema of Hong Kong we find to this day such strategies that are used to give inner nuances expression in a spectacular way (the films of Tsui Hark and John Woo or even James Cameron’s melodramatic disaster movie Titanic , for example, come to mind). It is precisely the inviolability of the audience that seductively indulges in the cinematographic display of heighten moments of danger, and yet the spectators react to what happens on the screen as if it were actually taking place. To intensify this effect, the cinema makes use of the slow build-up of tension, which presages the “disaster”, truly “sees it coming”, but cannot and will not avoid it. The camera not only becomes the viewpoint of the audience; it subjugates and holds them spellbound, as it were, in moments of suspense—as Alfred Hitchcock repeatedly defined it.

In The Spirit of Film, another work on film theory written by Béla Balázs and published in 1930, he again takes up central theses and, taking into consideration new developments (sound film), modifies and revises them. In his opinion, film has in the meantime become a “new organ” of man, through which he can experience the world in a new, or rather different way .
The most radical device used in camerawork continues to be the distance-reducing close-up shot, which makes it possible to see feelings and thoughts, that which “does not exist in space”. Balázs’s idea of film is in every respect anthropocentric: The main focus is on the human being, and the filmed image of the face becomes a reflection of a person’s psyche, which as a “micro-physiognomy” can make visible nothing short of the subconscious. He talks about the “invisibly clear” expression. Since the enormous enlargement capability of the close-up causes the slightest nuances to come to the fore, the spectacle is, as a logical consequence, transformed from the theatrical overacting characteristic of the silent film era to the more subtle psychological realism of the perfectly engineered sound film.
The essential elements of the medium are, according to The Spirit of Film, the guided look and the resulting power of film to force the spectators to identify with events or figures on the screen. Balázs sees in this power both the specific style (the “type of image”) and at the same time the propagandistic quality of film:
The composition of the images is a reflection of the director’s attitude towards the object—his tenderness, his hatred, his pathos or his ridicule. This is what is meant by the propagandistic power of film, because it does not have to prove any standpoint—it causes us to hold this standpoint visually ourselves.

The writer sees the power of the cinematic image literally in a personified form: “The entire image makes one gesture. The gesture of ecstasy” is how he illustrates an allegorical shot from the film The Battleship Potemkin.

The last chapter of The Spirit of Film deals with the ideology that can be affirmed or criticized using the medium of film. Here the cinema’s formal forms of expression converge at a sometimes propagandistic but in any event seductive meta-level, which seeks expression beyond the narrative dimensions of the work. These theses are, however, not seeking out an “elitist” form of art, but rather are associated with the medium of film as a popular art form:

Film is the art of seeing. Its inner inclination is thus to reveal and expose. Despite the fact that is provides the most powerful illusions, it is by nature the art of opened eyes.

The theses of Béla Balázs revolve again and again around Dziga Vertov’s “cinema eye”: the journey to an “unknown vicinity” using the medium of film, which generates a mind-expanding look at what is only apparently familiar. In his epilogue to The Spirit of Film, Hanno Loewy sums up that Balázs’s primary motif, the “physiognomy” in film, i.e., that point of transition between the eye and the screen, between viewer and image, is “the passionate dizziness with opened eyes that no other art form would be in a position to induce, the feeling of dizziness aroused by letting yourself fall into an ‘approximate danger’.” How, according to Balázs, the audience is “opened” for the seduction of the medium can hardly be more concisely outlined.

Gaze, Desire, Taboo, Dream

To the present day the psychoanalytic model of analysis as developed by Sigmund Freund, or rather later by Jacques Lacan, has continued to be an important instrument in appreciating works of art. The cinema appears here apparently as a “male-constructed” art form in which the image of the woman at the same time represents a threat of castration, a personified flaw that needs to be fetishized. In the fetishizing stage the image of the woman in turn becomes a phallus-like object, which detaches itself from the original female identity and can be fixated (= captured) with voyeuristic or rather fetishistic mechanisms (Mulvey, Kaplan, Brauerhoch). Already here we discern the mechanism of the exclusion of the other, the division into subject and abject that Julia Kristeva develops in her literary analysis Pouvoirs de l’horreur (Powers of Horror, 1980). This section intends to present an overview of these aspects of psychoanalytical concepts. Any possible abridgements will be explained in more detail and expanded on later. The key psychoanalytical concepts in this analysis of film as a seductive construct include the look, the desire, the other, the mirror and finally dream and taboo.

In L’être et le néant (Being and Nothingness, 1943) Sartre summarizes the close connection between self-definition and the distribution of power by means of the look:

If we assume that our first revelation of the other occurs as a look, we have to acknowledge that we experience our unascertainable being-for-others in the form of being possessed. I am being possessed; the look of the other person forms my body in its nakedness, causes it to arise, sculptures it, creates it as it is, sees it as I will never see it.

The look, in Sartre’s opinion, thus lies between the subject and the other, but at the same time it is also the means by which we take possession of the person we interact with. Film is basically a medium in which the line of sight first of all seems to proceed in one direction, namely from the eyes of the spectators to the play of lights—the moving picture—reflected on the screen. The projected images convey to the spectator the illusion of power over the displayed objects. That which is depicted is “captured on the screen”. At the same time, however, the cinematic image appears as “the other”, who looks back at the observer. This can occur as a calculated part of the production—so to speak, meta-cinematically—or it can come completely as something fundamental, when the film succeeds or fails to meet the expectations of the audience. In that moment, when one becomes conscious of whether an expectation has been met or not, the cinematic image itself can be described as being a kind of other. This cinematic image viewed as the other reflects as such the look of the observer and “casts” this look back, exercising on its part power over the observer. If we pursue this thought further, we can say that in the moment of becoming aware of this, the cinematic image creates intimacy and at the same time draws boundaries of demarcation—it confirms the expectation, defines the subject and distances itself—eternally a fugitive and incomprehensible—from the observer. This reflection precedes Laura Mulvey’s thesis about the mainly male perspective of the cinema. Thus, the look proves itself to be power and subjugation at the same time. The active look wants to gain power over the object being perceived, while on the other hand identifying itself as the subject. The experience of being looked at, though, results in unexpectedly being subjugated by the look.

A central concept of Freud’s classic model of psychoanalysis is wish (Wunsch): He uses this term to indicate an instinctive inner craving that arises from the existential needs of childhood. Jacques Lacan translated Freud’s concept with the French word désir, which on the other hand means desire and in many aspects is a more discriminating concept that wish. The term wish appears very goal-orientated and singular, but desire also involves a continuous force, a motivation. According to the literary scholar Vladimir Biti the term desire also evokes Hegel’s notion of lust or longing (Begierde), and as a result becomes more abstract and theoretically more prolific. Desire, in Lacan’s sense of the term, always remains unconscious and becomes the motivation behind action and bodily movement. Lacan places desire somewhere between striving for satisfaction and craving for love: It is “the difference that arises when the former is subtracted from the latter.” It is thus not primarily a biological instinct, but rather an articulated craving that hungers for reciprocation. Desire wants to be acknowledged and reciprocated; ultimately, it is “the desire for the desire of the other” (Lacan). The interrelationship between the film and the spectator outlined above is reflected again here. Especially those moments are felt by the potential audience to be particularly disturbing when the film 1) refuses to satisfy desire—and thus also its need for acknowledgement—in the development of the story, and 2) the film looks back at the observer, appearing also to demand something from him. We encounter gazes like these in, for example, the films of Stanley Kubrick: in 2001 – A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1970) or The Shining (1980). That complex process we regard as seduction unfolds in this gap between the film and the observer: It encompasses far more than the purely suggestive element of a production that Balázs and Kracauer already observed; seduction is the result of a reciprocal “activity” between medium and recipient, whose desire at times becomes the playing field of the seductive strategies of cinematic production.

Film As a Modern Reservoir of Myths

That the cinema quite soon became the reservoir of myths of the modern age has already been observed in early writings on film. The definition of myth on which these writings, however, are based—for, as is generally known, there are a great number of them—has, though, not yet been clarified.

According to a basic assumption that is rooted in the field of ethnology, a myth is understood to mean a story handed down orally, in writing or in any other form with sacral content. In his book Patterns in Comparative Religion (1958), Mircea Eliade listed various elements that are contained in myth: 1) Myths relate in the final analysis a “true” story; this can perhaps also mean such an elementary, undeniable “truth” as birth or death. 2) The mythical fable is sacred, which means its content is detached from the domain of the profane. 3) Myth is always assigned to the time of origin or creation; this origin need not belong to an earlier time, but rather can denote every form of the new beginning. Consequently, the experienced myth is a time in which “all times fall into one”. 4) Myth contains the reason and basis for rituals; thus myth has morally binding and normative power. 5) The protagonists of mythical fables are “superhuman” beings. In this respect myth denotes the incursion of that which is sacred into everyday existence—or also vice-versa, the moment of everyday existence in that which is sacred. Myth and life are closely linked and are particularly suited for a structuralist analysis in the context of regional and social peculiarities (as Claude Lévi Strauss has shown in his Structural Anthropology). At the same time a “statement” is formulated and condensed—this corresponds to Roland Barthes’s definition of myths in his work Mythologies. At the core of myth there can be the creation of the world, of man or also of culture; it always concerns elementary truths that are condensed and made tangible in myth, even if it involves “modern myths” of “everyday life” (Barthes), which often revolve around cultural (self-) images.

A further step in the theory of myths becomes important here: Ernst Cassirer in Mythisches Denken (1925) (Mythical Thought, 1953-57) and Claude Lévi-Strauss in La Pensée sauvage (1962) (The Savage Mind, 1966) view myth additionally as a conceived idea, as a way of comprehending the world. In doing so, that omnipresence of mythical happenings are again brought to bear; mythical thought is laid out in cycles, and using ritual structures it works towards a repetition of the key event. The medium of film also has taken on this cyclical form: in Western cinema—but even more so in the cinema of Asia (for example, in Japan)—it is always the same fables that are specifically varied and reproduced, as if it were necessary to grant permanent presence to the sacred myth. This goes so far that the audience even expects the familiar, but also that which forever moves us anew, to return in cycles.

The medium of film works either with classical myths, or rather mythological motifs (Orpheus, Oedipus, the Fall of Man, etc.), or it creates its own myths and cults—often through charismatic protagonists such as James Dean, Bruce Lee, Marilyn Monroe or Romy Schneider. Precisely those movie stars who die either early or under mysterious circumstances lend themselves to being turned into myths, since from them it is only the image, the cinematic phantom, that remains, and like a fetish this can be worshipped—for example, by watching their films again and again—much like attending a ritual. The protagonists (heroes) of myths are often described as beings of supernatural origin. If, however, we take the social complexity of myth for granted, then in these mythical creatures we can only recognize the projection of the qualities of being human in a religious (or sacred) form. And again the “larger-than-life” quality of Hollywood shows itself to be suitable for the development of myths: In the heroic figures that have long since become idols, such as those brought to life by John Wayne, Bruce Willis, Clint Eastwood or Sylvester Stallone, we admire and worship precisely that quality that transcends the human and profane scope of experience. Films in which these “mythical” qualities are destroyed and dismantled have, on the other hand, far fewer chances. The audience sees in this dismantling the betrayal of its latent longing for a semblance of the “otherworldly” and the divine. The brokenness of the hero himself, though, does not always contradict his mythical functions: In Gladiator and Unforgiven, for example, myth itself becomes the subject of discourse. Even though these films treat their subject-matter in a less naïve way than the basic genres typical of each of these films, the epic film and the classical Western of the 1950s respectively, they nevertheless allow the hero to reach his objective and fulfil his violent mission.
Thus, film creates its own myths and summons up its own “superhuman” protagonists. Just for this reason it is suitable as a carrier of myths, because it can always be experienced in relatively present time: By seeing the film anew as if it were a ritual (the phenomenon of the cult film in particular comes to mind here), it becomes for the audience a genuine, present-day experience. At the same time the myth in film revolves around elementary and existential motifs: birth, life, death, sexuality, violence, fear, joy, hate, happiness, etc. Film and myth are in any event tightly interwoven. It is, in fact, rather the question of whether the intention of a cinematic artefact is to rob the spectators of their freedom and ability to judge clearly and rationally as adult human beings and to manipulate them, or even to work productively with myth. In particular the enormous appeal of the manipulative American mainstream cinema is built on the mythical qualities created by Hollywood, which even replaces ideology and awareness of history with generally more accessible mythical models. The concept of myth is thus important when we go about examining the seductive power of film, because this concept can appear in film as subtext (for example, in Apocalypse Now, Gladiator or Titanic).

Seduction as Subversion

In the scope of the cinematic reproduction of life, the laws governing life can be changed and rendered invalid. The depiction in film of a particular plot must occur according to its own rules and strategies of cinematic production, which are different from those affecting the real model it is based on, because the audiovisual reception of one and same story does not necessarily produce the same effect. In order to stimulate the desired sensual emotion in the observer and to truly “seduce” the audience, specific cinematic rituals have developed that are designed to provoke the desired emotional reaction on the basis of a strictly codified set of surrogate stories and simulations. The complex notions of sensual seduction, seduction as a strategy of cinematic production and the dramatized appeal to desire serve as an orientation in this film-archaeological search for these kinds of cinematic strategies and rituals.
Thus, if we view the cinema basically as a seductive system, it seems reasonable to conclude the following: Watching a film means, in certain respects, being “seduced” by it. In doing so, the observer reads his own subjective desires, illusions and obsessions into the film and reconstructs it into his own individual way of receiving it. The seductive quality of film, however, can be seen on various levels, whether they be of an external nature (movement, corporeality, sensuality) of a dramaturgical (fable, drama) or of an ethical-moral kind (inner conflict, ambivalence). These strategies are all the more effective the more hidden they operate and the more they want to seduce the observer into not discovering himself—Fuery calls these “seductive signs”—but rather into discovering something different, located somewhere on a meta-level—for Fuery these are “signs of seduction”. These “seductive signs” can be understood to mean both the obvious constructions in ideological propaganda films as well as the iconic presentations of film stars in the classic sense (Marilyn Monroe, Tyrone Power, Greta Garbo, etc.). “Signs of seduction”, on the other hand, do not display their seductive character openly, but rather appear first as “something different”. They function as subversion within the cinematic production.

The further development of the seduction theory of film presented here makes it therefore possible—it would be hoped—to take a deep look into the “fine mechanics” of cinematic productions and to analyse a work internally, disregarding to a large extent the time it was made and the genre of film, thus ultimately understanding its system of manipulation and suggestion by examining our delight in looking, the role of spectacle and also sensuality.

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