PRINT Summer 1989


THE “MARVELOUS” SPARKS DESIRE, but the notion of the “marvelous” itself precedes the desire it kindles. Whether it be a person, thing, image, or fact of nature, the “marvelous” object, we like to think, does not depend on being looked at. It needs no justification. It exists, period. But the etymological history of the word “marvelous” tells us a different story. It comes from “marvel,” and “marvel” from mirabilia, mirabilis—that which allows itself to be looked at, that which captures the attention. “Marvel” is related to “admiration"; they too spring from the same etymological root, mirari. The Latin mirari meant simply “to look,” an active act of the first degree, the second degree of which is “to see.” But “to look” implied a contemplation aligned with the seemingly passive act of “exhibition.” Time, sloth, and oblivion, however, have obscured these bonds, stripping them of some of the distinctive powers of their original meanings.

The person who looks assumes the role of subject in relation to an object. The subject looks, but the object must allow itself to be looked at, to lure the gaze, to keep it fixed on itself. Seeing, as the second possible degree of looking, also depends on the object, for the non-"marvelous” object rebuffs the gaze of the subject, actively failing to transform itself into a “sight” and, therefore, into knowledge in the form of a mental image or a memory. For to remain impressed, to leave a sign, the object subjected to seeing must in some way reverse the terms of the relationship. It must impose itself on the subject. Paradoxically, the “marvelous” object is able to dominate its subject, overturning roles and positions because, by definition, that which is “marvelous” demands to be looked at. But at the same time, the absolute locus of desire, of illusion, of dreams, or of delirium—the “marvelous”—eludes possession and consumption; it does not permit itself to be captured or touched. The looker (subject), respecting its rules, becomes passive. The subject becomes the object of his or her own object, and subject and object continually pass through one another. This movement produces in the subject a pleasure that cannot be fixed, a pleasure of continuous circularity and repetition that can never be exhausted. In short, then, within every object there lurks a subject.

But with History—its saturation and surfeit—one has seen so much that one is unable to look any longer. There was perhaps a time when the threshold between subject and object could be sustained merely by the light breezes of ingenuousness and wondering. But wondering no longer suffices; it is too resonant of a primitive stage of openness. We enter the Age of Reason with a sense of the triumphant: wondering is transformed into marveling, but with marvel and marvelous stripped of their original meaning. And marveling has become an obsession, a tic, a disease of overdevelopment, of hyperbulimia.

Our time has nothing in common with the fantastic, extremely perverse, grandiose, and gratuitous detours of the Baroque age. Instead, it is giving us a highly detailed surrogate of the marvelous. Perhaps, in opposition to that threatening marvelous that is marking the arrogant and depressed, boastful and impotent end of this millennium, our surrogate marvelous is comfortably consumable and reassuring.

Cinema is an art perfectly suited to give us a brand of the marvelous that negotiates these two polarities. It offers an illusion of potency at the nth degree, a simulation of reality more real than the real, a familiarization with something beyond our grasp which has become, all the same, via ambiguously indirect paths, part of our own personal experience.

A film is in itself a marvelous object; one that is attended in a state of absolute passivity, of semioneiric regression, while paradoxically it operates out of the combined presence of a subject (the spectator), who disappears in the act of seeing, and an object (the film itself), a packaged, artificial product conceived to be seen and to attract the viewer. Cinema is the art of the marvelous in a free market system, but it almost never exists in a regime of intellectual autonomy we traditionally associate with notions of freedom. In the United States and, more and more, in its satellite countries, cinema unites the visual, the oral, and the anal functions. More than to look at or see a film, the spectator goes to devour it (including its paratextual accessories—from popcorn to Coca-Cola). The devourer can then simultaneously free him- or herself from the film, expelling every conscious memory, liquidating it (with a hasty negative judgment); or take possession of the film anally (retaining it in the privileged places of the mind labeled “culture” or in those unmentionable recesses where we stockpile our “sentimental identifications"). Cinema is the art of substituting viewing for life. In less than two hours of spectacle, it offers a condensation of incredible stories lived or livable by third parties.

But seeing a film involves a double projection. The film is projected so that the spectator can, in the sequence of images that glide before him or her, project other mental images—his or her own. Film syntax and grammar (and with them the entire apparatus of film consumption) cannot forget the spectator for the slightest instant. To try to do so would be like trying to speak without a voice. The paradox, then, of this marvelous object, this construct of artifice and technology, is that it is produced by a collective subject: the film public, which goes in search of illusions, idols, models, fourth-hand emotions, stimuli, amnesia, and low-cost therapies, but never purely and simply for distraction or entertainment. We go to the cinema to see (ourselves).

Of course it is true that, since its inception, cinema has shown us all sorts of goings on. It may also be true that with spiraling levels of circulation of information and the perhaps inevitable transformation of cinema into spectacle, the “wondering” spectator has been rendered as extinct as the dinosaurs after the Great Ice Age.

But if the marvelous has moved beyond the magic perimeter of narrative, of the mise-en-scène, of representation, then it may no longer rely on cinema to produce wonder-inducing images and myths. Maybe that’s why, for some time now, cinema has appeared to be a step behind reality. The cinema machine now plays metalinguistically with itself and, with pyrotechnic convulsions, wheezes and pants in pursuit of a déjà vu. It must resort ever more frequently to incredible make-up jobs, to colossal face lifts, and to quantitative (rather than qualitative) disguises that ultimately hide more than they reveal. The principle seems to be to exhibit without regard to cost and to meaning. Cinema has triumphantly set off on the road of the comics, of the hypercartoon: the overbearing special effects, the unhinging of the geo-temporal frames of reference, horror and science fiction films as the fast food of the here and now—this is the genuinely new historic order. For every Purple Rose of Cairo, 1985, a sage metadiscourse on the essence of the relationship between filmic image and audience astonishment, or for every Brazil, 1985, a wildly imaginative phantasmagoria that simultaneously imitates and lampoons Hollywood’s sci-fi megakit to involve the audience in a subtle game of revelation and self-irony, a thousand Indiana Joneses chase one another across the screens of the global village. In this regard, the best strategy to keep them in their place might be to attack them from a lateral front-row seat: Harrison Ford’s big, oblique face would recede, scornful, into the two-dimensional territory in which it belongs.

But the film hero of the end of the millennium rarely dies; if he does die, he is regenerated; if he is not regenerated, his death is so hyperbolic as to be insignificant. This hero cannot truly die, not because of his heroism, but because he has never had the pleasure of being alive. Unlike the traditional hero (Achilles, to name one), today’s celluloid hero is not born of a collective urgency for representation, but is a readymade of industrial calculation and, even more, of a widespread fear and a detached narcissism. He is not a superman, but a super machine and, at times, a super buffoon (Rambo, Rocky, and their ilk).

More than a model, he is a symbol. He is not to be imitated, he is a sign of. And by no mere chance, in the jumble of a thousand available roles, that symbol comes to coincide more with the face and body of an actor than with the character he plays. The fans love Mickey Rourke, despite his role as Maria the improbable sadist in Adrian Lyne’s 91/2 Weeks, 1986, or as Charles Bukowski’s fat, drunken alter ego in Barfly, 1987; they identify with Kevin Costner despite his about-turn from American patriot to Russian spy in No Way Out, 1987, or despite his role as a bitter-tinged baseball-slinging pedant in Bull Durham, 1988.

The objects of wonder are, therefore, the actors, over and above the products of the sophisticated technological craftsmanship of, say, Carlo Rambaldi, who created E.T., or Chris Walas, who created the 1986 special effects for The Fly. But even in these cases, if the sense of marvel seems to be provoked, it is located less in the special effects themselves than in the empathy felt by the spectator when confronted by an anthropomorphized alien, animal, or freak of nature who at once both threatens and moves him or her. If there is any wonder in the commercial cinema of recent years, there is very little that is new or problematic. There are, however, certain signs and indications, and perhaps a few trends. There is certainly a trend to speak the unutterable and to show what, by definition, cannot be seen; there is a desire to express the ineffable; an impudence to risk being kitsch, and an ingenuousness in trying to do so.

Love/passion seems to be the obligatory object. In Wim Wenders’ aphasic Paris, Texas, 1984, amorous passion is situated at the boundary between life and death; the destruction of the object of love coincides with a kind of self-destruction of the lover/subject. In Wenders’ Wings of Desire, 1988, the fragility of love assumes the excessive, self-persuasive, demonstrative form of a manifesto. Martin Scorsese and Liliana Cavani also attempted in, respectively, his The Last Temptation of Christ, 1988, and her Francesco, 1989, to align the discourse of passion with the discourse of the sacred. These films do not hesitate to question themselves and their audience on the representability of an explicitly individual search. There are also films with high budgets and extensive technological apparatus as well as small, intelligent projects that demonstrate within the narrative form that wonder need not spring from machines, but from a thousand microscopic, imponderable details of style. Matador, 1986, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, 1987, Full Metal Jacket, 1987, Bagdad Café, 1988, and Dead Ringers, 1988, are just a few examples.

Such films suggest that, despite the love of junk and pablum, the average fan may be growing weary of infantile fantasies with their built-in conditioned reflexes. Big is no longer necessarily beautiful, and technological formulas do not automatically engender astonishment and admiration. In a climate permeated by routine, wonder reasserts itself as it slips through the scrim composed of the everythings which are the same as everything else; as that which once again permits subject and object to traverse one another in an active relationship, if for no other reason than that both might be seen.

Maria Nadotti is a writer who lives in New York and Rome. With Giuliana Bruno, she recently coedited Off Screen, published in New York and London by Routledge.

Translated from the Italian by Mayta Munson.