Art, cinema and media studies

on the excess (perverse, gross) and smell (odor) re ‘Lucy’ & ‘The Last Angel of History’

Linda Williams’ “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre and Excess” discusses excess in equation with the “gross” and the “perverse,” much like Foucault describes the sex-police’s view of any sexual immorality that does not fulfill reproduction as excessive and therefore perverse. I like Williams’ description of what makes genres such as the melodrama, porn and horror excessive through their added visual and aural effects for the screen.

I’ve often wondered why I avoided genre films that cause an intense bodily experience through added effects–excess effects–and it’s because, much like Mary Ann Doane’s description–I feel like my senses are being “raped” or manipulated by these kinds of films. I hate walking out of a theater with all my senses worked up, which is why I prefer films without a lot of music to “hijack” my emotions, or excessive effects that make me think about driving a fast car all day. Maybe it’s the dishonesty that offends me–walking out feeling like my body has been tricked, or like waking up after a blackout. This is kind of why I found Lucy so unpleasant. Watching something with so many effects early in the morning was overwhelming. It reminds me of the time I went to a matinee screening of Wolf of Wall Street and feeling kind of assaulted for the rest of the day. It also reminds me of the time in college when a roommate was watching The Messenger, so I had to leave the room because I absolutely hated what was going on.

The experience is similar to how Laura Marks describes the synthetic smell of jasmine in “Thinking Multisensory Culture,” and how this deprives one of accessing the real. I like staying present in my being even when watching a film. It’s a more comfortable state for me. The kinds of films that do that for me are often really slow ones, and I like being able to turn my neck in the theater to examine the entire screen to take time and notice the picture in its entirety. But that’s just me. There are plenty of people who can’t stand movies by Apitchatpong Weerasethakul but I dig them.

Williams’ connection of the three genres and how they link to ideas of excess, perverse, and gross is a lot like Marks’ connection to the truffles, the pigs and human perspiration/excrement. I’ve often thought about perfumes and how manufacturers add deer musk to them. This idea of using animal perspiration in order to please human social environments was always interesting and weird for me. It makes a point on how the use of an animal perspiration in order to mask human odor actually blurs the line between what pleases the human olfactory and offends it.

The blurry line between what pleases and offends, and how pleasure and offense are socially acquired concepts also interest me, like how white cultures hated Korean food for so long because it stinks but now they’re all about it. The rise in Korean food’s popularity is in conjunction to the country’s rise as a global economy. That offensive smell of fermented soybeans and cabbage, which was once a huge cause for alarm (there’s a story in 1960s Germany, when Korean students made soybean stew in their dorms, the authorities called fire trucks believing that the sewage pipes had burst), is now a fad, and is now in the realm of acceptable smelly foods like smelly cheeses are (has anyone ever smelled a piece of raclette?).

To critique the film Lucy a bit further, I found this line, “Do you speak English?” coming up again and again really distasteful. Even when they’re in France, the cop asks the gangsters, “Do you speak English?” not “Do you speak French?” It’s this blockbuster preference for English always–no matter what–because that’s the way to sell–and assuming that if a person has an Asian face, the question, “Do you speak English?” must always be asked by default. A language that isn’t English is like a smell that needs to be expunged or covered up with loud images, sounds and effects. These gangsters are speaking a language we don’t understand or care to understand; the audience won’t understand or care to understand. Let’s make a million police cars tumble over one another so that people can forget about their irrelevant language.

Even after Lucy acquires all these new skills, and while knowing full-well that she is in Taipei, she walks around with a gun demanding to speak only to people who speak English. Otherwise, they’re shot to death. So bizarre. Crazy. When I saw that scene in the trailer in theaters, I knew I didn’t want to pay to go see this movie. A scene like that celebrates exceptionalism. How Luc Besson and his producers don’t see the danger in that is depressing to me.

Having Choi Min-sik star in a film that is set in Taipei is also weird. Much like how kimchi and dwenjang are part of white fetishism/fad, the star of Old Boy is now part of the perfume club. But why is there a Korean g sitting around in Taipei? Why not his own country? It’s another one of those–“Oh, they’re all the same–doesn’t matter”–kind of moviemaking pull: “Taiwanese, Korean–same face, same thing.”  There’s no explanation for this displacement. Even while conducting business in Taipei, Choi’s character speaks Korean. He’s linguistically impotent–no Mandarin, no English, no French–just a violent Korean thug. I found this bit distasteful, too, not to mention irresponsible.

If I have to dig for merits to the film, I’d say the effects were really interesting. They were avant-garde, and exploring something we don’t know yet, and imagining a future. I enjoyed the interruption shots of the mouse trap/mouse, and the predator/prey. These random intercuts show the versatility of the moving image as a medium in order to express mood.

These kinds of avant-garde techniques are present in The Last Angel of History. The film reminds me of videos I’ve seen at museums that play with sound and image for a new experience. The film itself is in line with what the black musicians like Sun Ra, George Clinton and others were attempting with futuristic sounds and experiences. This reference to the future as a return to something is infinitely fascinating to me. I think there’s something there to explore with regards to excess, too, and the excess’ history in relation to sci-fi and sensationalism. It’s something I’ll be thinking about.


You Have a Problem With My Voice? Then That’s YOUR Problem: Zizek & Doane on VOICE

Slavoj Zizek’s “Why Does a Letter Always Arrive at Its Destination?” indicates that voice is what allows for a spectator to recognize the object. Mary Ann Doane’s “The Voice in the Cinema: The Articulation of Body and Space” also dwells on voice as a vehicle for recognition. Not only that but voice allows for “unity” and “presence,” thus giving the body a sense of time, space and dimension for the spectator. I especially like how Doane describes voice as a “spatializing” element when it is engaged in dialogue on screen, and then she lists the ways that voice works in film: interior monologue, voice-off, and voice-over. My favorite bit is when Doane describes sound’s ability to pass through walls—giving it an advantage that sight does not have. To Doane, voice and sound are powerful.

Kelly and Donen’s SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN shows how audiences and studio execs are more sensitive to the shrill sound of Lina’s voice–a woman’s voice–more so than men’s. For instance, no one in the film has a problem with the way Don sounds, although the transition from silent films to talkies was a big one for everyone in the industry as well as for audiences, according to cinema history… Lina’s female voice is the problem–not Don’s or any other man’s–and so, Lina’s voice must be replaced by a voice that is less irritating. This industry misogyny is the launching point for the exploitation of Kathy’s voice—the one belonging to a woman of lower social status but also the one that isn’t a high pitched shrill or idiotically, over-the-top sweet.

This hatred for certain female voices reminds me of the topic “vocal fry” that was in the news earlier this year. Many female journalists who primarily did radio were accused of having a voice that audiences couldn’t stand, and the target was always the “vocal fry”—a very slight “frog” drag that can be detected at the end of every sentence. I listened to a podcast episode of “This American Life” earlier this February and heard Ira Glass speak on how he himself has vocal fry but no one ever attacks him for it; people only hear it in women’s voices, and call in to complain about it. Jessica Grose—a podcast host of Slate Magazine—is one victim of these attacks:

The hatred for women’s voices is layered under what the general public would argue as a benign preference for not wanting to hear certain types of voices. A person might just say, “I’m not sexist. I just don’t like that girl’s voice.” But this cloaked misogyny is in some ways more dangerous precisely because it is cloaked. The insidiousness of this hatred for women’s voices on public radio is very telling of how embedded sexism is in our public conscious, and how we would prefer it if women simply didn’t have a voice.

The way women learn to adjust and reconstruct their “undesirable” voices in order to be taken more seriously in their work force is explored in a very recent film directed by Lake Bell entitled In a World (2013).


The film reinforces the idea that women must learn to COMPROMISE their true selves and learn to adjust to the white male patriarch’s conditions in order to survive, and the message is, “Change your voice, ladies, if you want to be listened to seriously, that is.” What was praised by some critics in the industry as an important film that was written and directed by a woman turns out to be a sexist film that reinforces the white male patriarch’s (the studio exec’s)… the one that fits a man’s ideal/fantasy/dream. So the “object”—as referred to by Zizek—is not being recognized here. The Man thinks he has the object recognized, but he ultimately does not because he wants the object in the real world to fit his ideal fantasy of the object that he carries in his mind, which is his preferred type of female voice.

I found it interesting to see SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN and Julie Dash’s ILLUSIONS back-to-back; the exploitation of a lower class woman’s voice for a white female Hollywood star becomes an exploitation of a black woman’s voice for a white female Hollywood star. When Zizek describes the object’s “stain” (Charlie Chaplin as a homeless man) and the spectator’s (the blind woman with a fantasy of a rich man) inability to see the object for exactly what it is because of the illusion or fantasy of what the spectator holds in his/her mind (a rich man who gave her the money to gain sight), Zizek is critiquing the audience’s infantile wish to believe that the world is represented satisfactorily through images of the white male and female Hollywood stars (the world is not sexist, the world is not racist, the world is not classist), but the voice is actually that of a black woman’s, or a lower class white woman’s (and not shrill!) whose talent gets exploited and not credited. Furthermore, as Dash’s film shows, if the audience knew the truth–that behind the curtain a black woman or a lower class woman stands there–the audience will turn their backs on the film (just like the military man no longer pursued Mignon after he finds out that she is actually a black woman passing for white); Zizek challenges the spectator to find recognition through the voice, and reckon with the object’s true identity.

SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN was released in 1959 but set in the 1920s. A famously racist film that was released in 1927 is THE JAZZ SINGER (1927), which is remembered for its use of black face. And before that, there was, of course, THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915); is it possible that SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN attempted to parody some of this shameful Hollywood history, e.g. the appropriation of black bodies and voices without hiring any black actors or crediting their stardom on screen? If so, it ultimately it fails to address any of it because the woman whose voice is exploited in the film is ultimately that of a white woman’s. (The film even has moments where characters use the word “mammy”—not to mention the blackface costumes and appropriation of Spanish culture (could those scenes really have been satirical?? I’m not so certain. I’m almost confused as I write this…)). This bit, when seen through the eyes of Zizek, shows how an attempt at holding a liberal attitude falls short because the spectator’s good intentions are not good enough. Action counts; removing the veil of illusion/fantasy/ideals and looking at the object for what it exactly is a critical step towards progress, and it is not at all an easy step.

And ultimately what kind of movie is SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN? It’s a feel-good musical. It explores the darkness of Hollywood’s exploitative problem in a very shallow way. Chaplin’s CITY LIGHTS (as cited by Zizek), Dash’s film ILLUSIONS and Edward Bland’s THE CRY OF JAZZ all end at such a wonderful point—the point of no resolution—a true starting point—and this point is what Miriam Hansen refers to as the “activation” point, borrowing Alexander Kluge’s words: “A film is successful in that regard if it manages to activate (rather than merely usurp) what Kluge calls ‘the film in the spectator’s head’…” (206). I like this idea a lot better than Doane’s observation of how voice works in narratives and documentaries—treating the spectator as either an “empty space to be filled with knowledge” or the one who “overhears” (573). The spectator has a responsibility. Zizek and Kluge impose this responsibility on the spectator.  

In his essay, I hear Zizek challenging the educated, aware members of the left who have the idealized version of themselves and others as non-sexist, non-racist, non-classist people with good intentions, but when it comes down to the actual action, do we have the guts to act on our ideals? We must ask ourselves this question constantly, and provide an answer to ourselves and to the societies we are a part of.