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Tracing Utopia: Film, Spectatorship and Desire

Author(s): PETER RUPPERT


Source: Utopian Studies, Vol. 7, No. 2 (1996), pp. 139-152
Published by: Penn State University Press
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Tracing Utopia:
Film,
Spectatorship
and Desire
PETER RUPPERT
In Utopian Studies
4,
No.
2,
Peter
Fitting proposes
a number of
perspectives
and
categories
for
studying Utopian
film.1
Using
a wide
angle approach,
his
"introductory taxonomy" ranges
from mainstream
Hollywood
film to Third
World
cinema,
encompassing
such diverse
genres
as
dystopias, ethnographic
films,
political
documentaries,
pornotopias,
TV
sitcoms,
and fascist films
among
others. As his
survey
makes
clear,
the
primary difficulty facing any inquiry
into
Utopian
film is its
amorphous
nature.
Simply
stated,
Utopian
film confounds
easy
classification because it exceeds the normal bounds of
genre description.
The varied
settings, plots,
narrative and visual
styles
that
may
be identified
as
Utopian
straddle
just
about
every existing genre
and draw on a
variety
of con
ventions and
expectations.
Genre
studies,
as
Fitting
concedes,
generally
set
out to
identify
levels of coherence and
stability
in an
already accepted body
of texts. In the absence of such a
body
of
texts,
Fitting
sets out to
map
this
terra
incognita
with
Sargent's
definition of the
literary utopia
as a "non-exist
ent
society
described in considerable detail." This
approach,
he
says,
"seems
the most fruitful for an
investigation
of the
possibilities
of
Utopian
film"
(1).
But this definition
suggests
that there
might
be no
Utopian
films at all.
Movies,
after
all,
are not known for
projecting
visions of
imaginary
commu
nities,
much less
anticipatory
ones,
and
certainly
not "in considerable
detail." Nor are
they easily
associated with the
Utopian functioning
of criti
cizing
the status
quo,
at least not in the overt
way literary utopias
often are.
As
products
of the entertainment
industry,
movies are
preoccupied
with
images
and
sounds;
they
have to do with
sensations,
moments of
intensity
and
sensuality,
with emotions and visual
pleasure.
More often than
not,
they
set out to thrill or move or amaze us with
breathtaking
and sometimes terri
fying
simulations. And unlike
literary utopias,
movies are not the
product
of
a
single
individual's
vision;
they
are a collective
enterprise, involving
a
variety
of
professionals
and
embodying
diverse interests.
Designed
for mass
consumption,
movies are also a service
industry,
a matter of
financing,
residuals,
spin-offs, promotional campaigns,
and box-office
receipts. They
cannot therefore be
expected
to be
overtly
critical of the industrial and ideo
logical apparatus
on which their existence
depends.
Nor can
they
be
expected
to
promote
the overthrow of
existing
social relations. It is not
surprising
that
Fitting
can find no
examples
of screen
adaptations
of classic
Utopian
novels.2
The kind of radical social
changes
advocated in More's
Utopia,
Morris's
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140 UTOPIAN STUDIES
News From
Nowhere,
or
Huxley's
Pala would not
only
undermine the basis
of an
industry deeply implicated
and determined
by capitalist production
practices,
but their
sanguine
visions of social
harmony
would make for mea
ger
and static movies
indeed,
especially
for audiences conditioned
by
crash
and-collision films like
Speed
and ultra-violent thrillers like
Pulp
Fiction
and Natural Born Killers.
Still,
I
agree
with
Fitting
that
Utopian
scholars have
generally
over
looked the benefits of
studying
film for its
Utopian meanings.
I also think
that the
scarcity
of
Utopian
films and the difficulties of
defining
a
Utopian
film
genre
should not deter us from
interrogating
the cinema from a
Utopian
perspective.3
A
powerful myth-making
machine,
the cinema
provides
a
par
ticularly
dense
system
of
meaning,
one that borrows from different discourses
?narrative,
politics,
fashion,
advertising?and
articulates our social
expe
rience in various
ways.
Not
just
forms of
entertainment,
films also
convey
myths
and
values;
not
just products
of mass
culture,
they
also
project
funda
mental
needs, beliefs,
and
desires,
including Utopian
desires. Their
carefully
orchestrated sounds and
images
are
culturally charged
and
produce
various
effects?physiological,
emotional,
psychological,
intellectual. Few
people
would
argue
with the
premise
that the cinema as an institution
permeates
our dreams and fantasies. The
question
is: how does it
put Utopian
desire
into
play
and
produce Utopian meanings?
In what follows I shall
explore
what I consider the most
productive way
to
negotiate
films for their
Utopian meanings
and to
foreground
the role that
viewers and audiences
play
in
determining
those
meanings.
Unlike
literary
utopias,
films do not set out to
represent
detailed alternatives as "realized"
visions of ideal social
arrangements. Utopian
film,
I will
argue here,
cannot
be defined
by
conventions of
setting, plot, iconography,
codes,
or structural
features. Nor can it be identified as a
specific style?like
film noir or
expres
sionism?by techniques
in
lighting,
camera
work,
or
editing.
Rather,
Utopian
film is better understood in terms of the social attitudes and
assumptions
that
operate
in various film
genres
and in various film
styles;
it is better
gauged
in terms of what a film does: its functions and effects on the audi
ence. Seen this
way,
the
Utopian potential
of film
emerges
in indirect
ways
?in
fleeting
moments of
hope,
a
yearning
for
something
better,
a desire for
other
possibilities.
More absent than
present
in the film
itself,
utopia
is more
like a shadow that haunts our social and
personal psyches.
This is because
the idea of
utopia?the good place
that is also no
place?cannot
be con
veyed
with
precision,
in
fact,
cannot be
represented
at
all;
it can
only
be
evoked or
suggested. Utopia
in
film,
as
Caryl
Flinn
argues,
works
through
processes
of
"displacement
and
disguise,"
and its "effects" need to be
uncovered and activated
through
critical
analysis.4
II
A fruitful method for
extracting Utopian meanings
from
Hollywood
films is
exemplified by
Richard
Dyer's essay
"Entertainment and
Utopia,"
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Tracing Utopia
141
which
Fitting
discusses in detail and which I think offers certain
advantages
over the other
possibilities
he
explores.
First,
Dyer
accounts for how
Utopian
ideas are
actually engendered
in the
fleeting
sensations and sounds
we
experience
in
watching
a film.
Second,
his
analysis
shows how main
stream
Hollywood
films?still the dominant model of
filmmaking
articulat
ing
our culture's
powerful
voice?are not
irredeemably complicit
with
capitalist ideology,
but offer kernels of resistance in the form of
Utopian
fantasies. This retains the
important
notion that
Utopian
ideas are
pervasive,
present
in
many
cultural
forms,
and cannot therefore be
easily
dismissed for
political
reasons.
Thirdly, Dyer argues
that
Utopian
values arise from and
respond
to the
perceived
lacks and deficiencies of a certain
culture,
a dialec
tical
relationship
that
implies
the
important
role of viewers in
shaping
Utopian meanings.
Dyer begins by distinguishing
between
literary
and filmic
utopias,
observing
that "entertainment does not
present
models of
Utopian
worlds,
as
in the classic
utopias
of Sir Thomas
More,
William
Morris,
et al. Rather the
utopianism
is contained in the
feelings
it embodies. It
presents,
head on as
it
were,
what
utopia
would feel like rather than how it would be
organized.
It thus works on the level of
sensibility..." (3).
A crucial factor in
Dyer's
approach
is his notion of the
"non-representational sign."
Such
signs?he
cites
rhythm,
texture, color, movement,
melody,
camerawork?do not have
clear referents or the denotative
power
to
represent utopia
in detail.
They
do
however have a
strong
connotative
power, producing
resonances that
exceed the sum of the film's
denotations, go beyond
its
diegesis. Charged
with cultural
meanings,
these
signs
work
indirectly
and
obliquely, permit
ting
a
greater play
of
signification
and a
greater play
of emotional
meaning.
Focusing
on movie
musicals,
Dyer
shows how
they
articulate both
the actual and the
potential
social relations of a
specific
culture,
taking up
"real needs" and
generating Utopian
solutions to those needs.
Dyer
sets
up
five
"categories
of
Utopian sensibility?energy,
abundance,
intensity,
trans
parency
and
community" (4-5).
These traditional
Utopian
values redress the
inadequacies perceived
in
society, inadequacies
like alienated
labor,
scarcity, debilitating monotony, manipulation
and
fragmentation. Utopia,
in
the sense of a detailed alternative to
existing society,
is never
represented
at
all. What we
get
instead are evocations of social
harmony, glimpses
and
impressions
of
Utopian possibilities
that do not
promote
a
full-fledged
utopia,
but hints or
suggestions
of one.
Dyer acknowledges
that the "enter
tainment
industry" may actually
constrain
utopia
since the sounds- and
images
of
something
better do not
necessarily challenge
the status
quo,
and
may
even end
up reinforcing
its basic values. In
fact,
the
inadequacies
are
usually
defined in such a
way
that
they
can be
fully
satisfied within
prevail
ing
social forms. Thus the
possibilities
of
Utopian
resistance in movies are
limited?displacing political
or social
analysis
with
vague Utopian yearn
ings?even though
the needs
they display
and redress are real
enough.
What
we
finally
end
up with,
according
to
Dyer,
is a sense of what
utopia might
be,
a sense that alternatives are
possible.
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142 UTOPIAN STUDIES
To illustrate his
propositions Dyer
examines three different kinds of
musicals: those that
separate
the musical numbers from the
narrative,
usu
ally
in films about the
staging
of a
musical;
those that
try
to
integrate
them
in various
ways;
and those that
attempt
to "dissolve the distinction between
narrative and
numbers,
thus
implying
that the world of the narrative is also
[already] Utopian" (8). Analyzing
the film version of the
Broadway
show
On the
Town,
Dyer
shows
how,
unlike the
"integrated
musical" which
moves events back in time
[e.g.
the
turn-of-the-century setting
of Meet Me
in St.
Louis],
On the Town is set in a New York in the
present.
Whereas "in
most
musicals,
the narrative
represents things
as
they
are,
to be
escaped
from
...
the narrative of On the Town is about the transformation of New
York into
utopia
...
it shows
people making utopia
rather than
just
show
ing
them from time to time
finding
themselves in it"
(12).
One of the
advantages
of
Dyer's approach,
as I've
indicated,
is that it
allows us to
identify Utopian
moments in a
variety
of cultural forms and
makes it more difficult
simply
to dismiss
Hollywood
films as
numbing
nar
cotics that
manipulate
viewers and
coopt
their
Utopian
desire. This enables
us to
identify Utopian
values even in the most alienated and
degraded
aes
thetic forms. Fredric
Jameson,
who is cited
by Dyer,
has also
argued
that
works of mass
culture?SF, thrillers,
melodrama?function to stimulate
and awaken
repressed hopes (and fears)
before
they
neutralize them with
sanguine
solutions. In this
process,
Jameson
claims,
our
hopes
and fears
must first be
evoked, articulated,
and made
palpable
before
they
can be
"managed"
or "neutralized" or otherwise diverted to serve
existing
social
forms.
Thus,
films
(Hollywood
or
otherwise),
no matter how
ideological
a
function
they
seem to serve in
justifying
the status
quo,
can also be seen to
contain a
Utopian
desire to counter it. As Jameson
puts
it: "Works of mass
culture cannot be
ideological
without at one and the same time
being
implicitly
or
explicitly Utopian
as well:
they
cannot
manipulate
unless
they
offer some
genuine
shred of content as a
fantasy
bribe to the
public
about to
be
manipulated" ("Reification," 144).
Thus,
for
Jameson,
as for
Dyer,
the
cinema articulates both the actual and the
potential
forms of social
relations,
both the
way things
are and the
way they might
be or should be.
Ideology
and
utopia,
in other
words,
exist side
by
side,
co-mingling
in the same
film,
putting Utopian
values on
display
before
constraining
them with solutions
that reinforce the status
quo.
Jameson's
approach repudiates
the
concept
of the closed
utopia?the
womb-like retreat into
regions
of timeless
peace
and
perfect harmony.
In
working
with the
fleeting
sounds and
images
of film it seems more
appro
priate
to
adopt
the
concept
of
utopia
in its strictest sense: an
impossible,
unrepresentable
social form that cannot be
imagined,
much less realized in
practice.
As Jameson writes in Marxism and Form: "The
Utopian
moment
is indeed in one sense
quite impossible
to
imagine, except
as the
unimagin
able;
thus a kind of
allegorical
structure is built in the
very
forward move
ment of the
Utopian impulse
itself,
which
always points
to
something
other,
which can never reveal itself
directly
but must
always speak
in
figures,
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Tracing Utopia
143
which
always
calls out
structurally
for
completion
and
exegesis" (142).
In
his review of Louis Marin's
Utopiques,
Jameson
proposes
that all
Utopian
discourse
may
be
grasped
as a
process,
a creative act rather than a created
object:
"To understand
Utopian
discourse in terms of
neutralization,"
he
writes,
"is indeed
precisely
to
propose
to
grasp
it as a
process,
as
energeia,
enunciation,
productivity,
and
implicitly
or
explicitly
to
repudiate
that
more
traditional and conventional view of
Utopia
as sheer
representation,
as the
'realized' vision of this
or that ideal
society
or social ideal"
("Of
Islands and
Trenches," 80-81).
Whereas the notion of
utopia
as a mental
process
or
activity
may
be difficult to
apply
to
literary utopias?seemingly
so intent
on
establishing
their "existence" within firm boundaries?it
seems
entirely
appropriate
with the
fluctuating
flow of sounds and
images
of film.
Readers of
Utopian
Studies will
recognize
that Jameson's and
Dyer's
methods for
identifying Utopian meanings
has a critical
precedent
in the
work of Ernst Bloch.
(See
the Bloch issue of
Utopian
Studies
1,
No. 2
[1990].)
For
Bloch,
the idea that future "traces"
[Spuren]
are latent in cul
tural forms of the
past
and
present
has a
pivotal place
in his
theory
of
Ungleichzeitigkeit,
nonsynchronous
or uneven
development.
This idea chal
lenges
the conventional Marxist notion that all
superstructural phenomena
are determined
by
the economic
base,
and allows Bloch to
explain
how art
forms endure
beyond
their socio-historical and aesthetic contexts. For Bloch
then,
as for Jameson and
Dyer,
art is both
ideological
and
Utopian:
it
emerges
from the historical
base,
but also exceeds
it,
and in
exceeding
it,
it
has an
anticipatcfiy
or
Utopian potential.
This allows art to be ahead of its
time,
to
anticipate
that which is
"not-yet-conscious."
Traces of
Utopian
longing, according
to
Bloch,
are latent and
can be detected in the incom
pleteness
of the
past
and in the social forms of the
present.
Bloch's residual
Utopian
traces are similar to
Dyer's non-representational signs: they
work
obliquely,
in
disguised
form,
providing
us with
glimpses
of
Utopian possi
bilities. These
glimpses
can then act as a stimulus for future
change.
These methods
may
also be
compared
with the
strategy
of
"reading
against
the
grain."
The
goal
of this
approach,
used since the late 70s
by
fem
inists and culture
critics,
is to
interrogate
cinema's modes of address and to
uncover
potentially progressive
and subversive elements in films and
genres
that
appear
to be within the conf?nes of mainstream
ideologies.
As Janet
Berg
strom and
Mary
Ann Doane
explain: "Reading against
the
grain
as a
feminist,
one could
salvage
texts
previously
thought
to be
entirely complicit....
It is
perceived by
many
as a
way
to
reappropriate
texts and
pleasures
renounced
by
a more
pessimistic
analysis
of
patriarchy's
success.
Reading against
the
grain
is seen as
profoundly
enabling" (20).
This
approach
results in
sympto
matic
readings
that
are attentive
not
only
to dominant structures in the
text,
but also to what is
omitted,
repressed,
or otherwise
marginalized.
Working
from Althusser's
explanation
of how
ideological
structures
represent
"the
imaginary
relationship
of individuals
to their real conditions of existence"
(53),
these critics look at films
as articulations of
our culture's
powerful
voice,
as
it tries to reconcile
our real situation with the
"imaginary"
conditions of
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144 UTOPIAN STUDIES
existence in
society.
This
approach
tries to reveal those contradictions that
ideology normally
conceals,
at the same time that it harnesses a film's unde
niable
pleasure.
In this fashion film critics have uncovered subversive ele
ments in film
noir, musicals, melodrama, SF,
horror and other
genres.5
In
considering
these
strategies
we
should
keep
in mind that
Utopian
thinking
is diverse and that
Utopian
traces are not
necessarily progressive.
Hollywood
movies,
as I've
already
noted,
are not known for their
anticipa
tory
visions,
unless of course
they
are the bleak and
despairing
ones we asso
ciate with
dystopias.
The
great majority
of movies
today?even
SF movies
whose
special
domain,
as Vivian Sobchack has
noted,
is
supposed
to be the
future?look backward.
Nostalgia
is
pervasive
in the current
cinema, appar
ent not
only
in the
urge
to
endlessly recycle
earlier successful
films,
but also
in the
pastiche styles
of Brazil
(1985),
Blade Runner
(1982), Johnny
Mnemonic
(1995), Strange Days (1995)
and others. But even
here,
the nos
talgia
in these films for a lost
golden age
can be read
differently.
We
might
see the conflation of time and of
genres
as a
weakening
of our sense of his
tory
and
argue
that a
utopia
based on the
past
is a false or
regressive utopia,
feeding
on
stagnant
models that
preclude
future
change.
Or,
we
might
read
the
urge
to
pin
our
Utopian hopes
onto earlier moments as evidence that
there is still
something
found
lacking
in the
present, pleasures
and satisfac
tions not available in the culture at hand.
My point
is that different viewers
will see it
differently.
We select and
emphasize
those moments of a film
that relate to our concerns?moments that we
may
deem
Utopian
or not.
Utopias,
in
short,
are not so much created on the
screen,
as
they
are in the
imaginations
of viewers.
Ill
If
Utopias
are not
represented
in the film as
such,
or even in the
trace,
then
they
must
emerge
in the
interplay
between screen and audience. Nei
ther
Fitting
nor
Dyer
addresses the issue of
agency
in the
production
of
Utopian
values. But this issue needs to be addressed since an
image,
a
sign,
or a trace is
Utopian only
to some viewers and not to others. In Strains
of
Utopia:
Gender,
Nostalgia
and the
Hollywood
Musical
Caryl
Flinn
argues
that
Utopian meanings
are not somehow
immanent,
already
in the
text,
but
produced
in
subjective
conditions of
reception:
"Since
interpretation
involves
a
context,
one with
historical, discursive,
and
subjective
dimensions,
ana
lyzing
a text for
Utopian meanings
is not a
'subject-less'
act
any
more than it
can be neutral or
self-effacing" (103).
Flinn
suggests
that films
prompt
Utopian readings
because certain kinds of viewers
project Utopian
functions
onto them. She also raises
questions
of
class,
gender, ethnicity,
sexual dif
ference as
important
contextual factors in the
production
and
consumption
of
Utopian
ideas.
Since the 70s film
theory
has
energetically
debated the issues of
specta
torship
and identification: how viewers are addressed and
subjectivities
formed,
the
pleasures
and satisfactions
we derive from this
experience, why
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Tracing Utopia
145
we
go
to the movies in the first
place.
As Judith
Mayne points
out in Cin
ema and
Spectatorship,
this focus on
audience-effects and on the
processes
of identification
parallels
the shift toward readers in
literary theory
and
toward the
subject
in
philosophy (6).
It is based on some of the earliest
insights
of film
theory
established
by
Eisenstein,
Munsterberg
and others:
images
do not have a life of their
own,
some automatic
imprinting
effect.
Rather,
their
impact depends
to a
large
extent on what we
bring
to
them,
our
values,
our
experience,
our moral
sense,
our sense of limits.
Viewers,
in
other
words,
act
upon films,
just
as films act
upon viewers,
and neither is a
fixed
entity;
we
shape
and are
shaped by
the cinematic
experience.
And if
perception
is never
simply
the
passive registering
of
stimuli,
but the
activity
of a
perceiving subject,
then the identification of
Utopian
sensibilities is
never
entirely predictable.
I want to
emphasize
the
importance
of
spectatorship,
not
just
for
Utopian
film,
but for
Utopian
studies
generally.
Whether we like it or
not,
our
society
is saturated with
signs
and
messages
that form
(some
would
say
deform)
our
consciousness,
both individual and collective.
Deeply
immersed
in the
consumption
and
replication
of
images,
we are not immune to their
effects:
they inevitably
leave behind residual traces and associations that
shape
our fears and fantasies.
Focusing
on
spectatorship
can
help
us to see
more
readily
how media culture forms our
fantasies, manages
and cons
trains our
Utopian hopes, shapes
our sense of
community.
If
Metz, Baudry, Mulvey
and other theorists are
right,
then effects of
spec
tatorship
in the cinema are
intimately
connected with the visual and aural
pleasures
it
organizes
and to which it binds the audience. The
object
of these
pleasures
is not the film
itself,
but the "cinematic
apparatus,"
which is bound
up
with
signification, representation, perception,
and
memory. Broadly speak
ing,
cinematic
apparatus
refers to a number of
interlocking operations
of
production
and
consumption
that constitute the
viewing
situation: the conditions
of
projection,
the technical
base,
the
film-text,
the
activity
of the viewer. For
these theorists the cinema functions as a condensed instance of unconscious
desires and fantasies.
Accompanied by
a sense of release and
separation
from
routine
concerns,
going
to the movies is
basically
a form of
"escapism":
we
sit in a dark theater with others not
easily
visible;
we are immobilized in
comfortable seats as we watch
images vastly
oversized and hear sounds
intensely exaggerated.
Our attention is riveted on the screen. The fact that
the film we are
watching
is a
representation
rather than an unmediated
per
ception
is
deliberately disguised by
the mechanism of the medium. In
repli
cating
our
perception
of actual
sensation,
the
experience
seems "real."
The deliberate
blurring
of the boundaries between the
imaginary
and
the real
is,
for this model of
spectatorship,
at the heart of the cinema
experi
ence.
Representation appears
as
perception;
we feel that
we are
dreaming
the
images
and situations on the screen. The filmed
image
is,
in Metz's
terms,
an
"imaginary signifier," calling up
a
reality
that is
absent,
or
"pres
ent"
only
in our
imagination.
Hence the similarities between
viewing
a film
and
dreaming.
Dreams don't
actually happen
either,
but we
experience
them
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146 UTOPIAN STUDIES
as if
they
did. Like
films,
dreams
express thoughts through images
and nar
rative structures. Often
they
too seem more than real. The darkness of the
theater,
the viewer's
passive
state,
the
hypnotic
effect of
light
and shadows
and
sounds,
in the view of these
theorists,
reproduce
an
artificially regres
sive state that calls
up
unconscious
processes
of the mind. The film
experi
ence takes us back to a
childish,
immature version of
ourselves,
where our
wants and desires dominate over
ethical, social,
contextual considerations.
In
accounting
for how we
identify
with the filmed
image,
Jean-Louis
Baudry
has
emphasized
the
importance
of the
"look,"
the
gaze
of the audi
ence. He
argues
that our fascination with film is not so much with charac
ters or
plots
but with the
image
itself,
based on an earlier "mirror
stage"
in
our
psychic development
when the boundaries between ourselves and the
world were confused. This
image
of ourselves is
illusory,
based on reflec
tions rather than
reality,
and so the
pleasures
we
experience
are
narcissistic,
voyeuristic,
and fetishistic.
This model of
spectatorship springs
from
psychoanalysis
and its classic
conception
of identification as narcissistic
regression.
It assumes that the
film viewer is reducible to the
psychoanalytical "subject"
and that the activ
ity
of film
viewing
is
analogous
with the mirror
stage.
Central to this model
is the cinema's
capacity
to recreate the
dream-state,
thus
making
the uncon
scious the
primary
factor in
shaping
desire. This model can be useful in
helping
us to see how film works to
replicate
structures of desire and
pleas
ure,
how it induces
Utopian
fantasies.
But,
as a number of critics have
rightly
observed,
there are obvious limitations to this model. For one
thing,
it
explores
our involvement with the
image
in unconscious and
presocial
ways,
whereas film is also cultural
experience
that is conscious and social.
For
another,
it makes viewers into
passive voyeurs, positioned entirely by
the film into a state of
regressive withdrawal,
simply absorbing
the film's
messages.
Even the word
"apparatus" suggests
a kind of
overbearing
machine that
totally
dominates our
responses.
The almost exclusive focus
on the
psychic
and
sexual, furthermore,
ignores
such factors as
class, race,
gender, nationality
and others. Not
only
does this model
suspend
our
capac
ity
for critical
intervention,
it is also
unhistorical,
reducing
viewers to mono
lithic
"subjects"
constructed
by
the various
interconnecting
institutions of
the dominant
cinema,
not flesh-and-blood
people
who
go
to movies for vari
ous reasons and
respond
to them in various
ways.
In
short,
this model leaves
undisturbed the view of film as an
instrument of
ideology
that works
through
illusionism and the kind of uncritical identification that Brecht
railed
against
in the theater.
Everyday spectatorship
is of course far more
complex
and
contradictory
than this model allows. A film is not the same
thing
as a dream and cine
matic desire is not
just psychic
and sexual: it is also social and
ideological.
And the
"subject-effects"
of the
cinema,
even of the dominant
cinema,
are
not automatic and
irresistible,
as
anyone
knows who has ever witnessed a
surly
audience that turned on a film with hisses and boos. Viewers have various
reasons for
going
to the
movies,
including
social reasons like contact with
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Tracing Utopia
147
others, communication,
shared
experience,
and so on. In
fact,
going
to the
movies is for most
people
a
group activity,
and as such is not irrelevant to
Utopian
scholars. A model of
spectatorship
based on
Utopian
desire,
I
think,
can offer a more
comprehensive
account of media
spectatorship
than uncon
scious dream-states.
Utopian
desire,
first of
all,
is conscious and social?a
daydream
rather than
a
nightdream?and
therefore more
open
to contradic
tions,
multiple
effects,
diverse
possibilities. Secondly, Utopian
desire
rejects
all forms of
apparatus-like
domination: it
implies emancipatory ways
of
being
rather than
regressive
ones.
Third,
Utopian
desire
projects
human needs that
can be linked more
directly
to
specific
social
groups
and historical commu
nities?working
class, blacks,
women,
gays
and
lesbians?incorporating
the contradictions and
discrepancies
that
identify
these
groups.
By Utopian
desire I mean the
impulse
to "read
against
the
grain,"
the
recurring
human desire to
project
alternatives. This
desire,
whatever form
it
may take?possible
or
impossible,
concrete or
abstract,
technological
or
agrarian?is
always
based on the
interplay
between
fantasy
and
reality,
between the
imaginary
and the "real." In the classic
utopias
of
More,
Mor
ris,
and
Bellamy,
this
interplay
is
prompted by
the two
separate
and distinct
communities
juxtaposed
to reveal
opposing
views on social life and social
values. In More's
Utopia,
for
example,
we find a
description
of an
imaginary
community,
delineated in Book II as "the best state of the
commonwealth,"
and a
description
of a real
or historical
community, dystopian England
of
1516, critically exposed
in Book I as "the worst state of a commonwealth."
If Jameson is
right
about the coexistence of
ideology
and
utopia
in
every
artwork,
then we should find similar structures
operating
in a
great variety
of
texts,
including anti-utopias.
In
Zamyatin's
We and
Huxley's
Brave New
World,
for
example,
we also find
dialectically opposed
communities
sepa
rated
by
a
boundary/barrier:
on one side there is extreme
uniformity,
conform
ity,
alienation
(a corrupted utopia);
on the other side there is extreme
freedom,
non-conformity,
wild
profusion.
Thus,
utopias
and
dystopias,
however incom
patible they may
be in terms of their
underlying ideologies,
achieve their
effect
by drawing
attention to the
gaps
and
discrepancies
between what exists
and what is
possible
in human
relations,
and
thereby prompt Utopian
desire.
But,
since readers and
spectators
are diverse and see films from differ
ent
dialogical angles, Utopian readings
are not automatic. If the twin
poles
of
ideology
and
utopia
are in fact simultaneous and
profoundly interdepend
ent,
as Jameson
claims,
then there is no
simple polarity
between
Utopian
films
and those that are
complicit
with the status
quo, just
as there is no
simple polar
ity
between resistant
(utopian) spectators
and cultural
dupes.
Even
complicit
films are
complex, contradictory,
or,
in Bloch's
terms,
"unevenly developed."
Utopian
desire in the
cinema, then,
depends
on a lot of
things
and can
not be limited to the kind of film
we are
looking
at. The same
images
and
sounds evoke different
meanings
and associations for different viewers.
Thus,
analysis
of
Utopian
moments in film is
always,
to some
extent,
analysis
of
our own fascination and
passions. Spectatorship
in the cinema is relational
and
perception
is embedded in
history:
we can decode
a film for its
Utopian
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148 UTOPIAN STUDIES
meanings only
to the extent that our
experience
and environment
provides
us with a
Utopian
framework for
understanding.
As an
academic and film teacher I am
supposedly
an
informed and crit
ical viewer. But this does not diminish
my pleasure
in
watching
The Lion
King
with
my eight year
old
daughter.
The
story
deals with a
young
male
lion who is reluctant to assume his
rightful position
of
power
and leader
ship. Eventually,
of
course,
he does. In
watching
the film I am
aware,
in the
most
commonplace way,
that the film is a
paean
to
patriarchy.
I am dis
turbed
by
the sexist and racial
stereotypes:
the lionesses are
portrayed
as
helpless
victims whose
only hope
is to find
a male to save
them;
the villain
is an
effeminate lion who
speaks
in
gay clich?s;
the
jive-talking hyenas
evoke
stereotypes
of urban blacks and
ethnics. Equally disturbing
are the
sequences
that recall fascist rallies in
Triumph of
the Will
style.
I see how
the film
perpetuates
male
privilege
and
power,
how it advocates restoration
of the
patriarchal order,
rather than reform or
social
change.
At the same
time, however,
I am aware of how the film evokes
Utopian
fantasies. For the
film also affirms the
importance
of collective
solidarity,
the need for social
integration
and relatedness. At one
point
it even
suggests
that the
young
lion's sense of freedom is
illusory
because it is not
grounded
in bonds of
community. Ideologically,
the film mobilizes our
desire for
community
and
alliance,
it holds out a
Utopian hope
that attracts
us,
at the same time that it
"manages"
our
potentially
more
disruptive Utopian
desires. In Jameson's
terms,
the film both contains and constrains the
Utopian impulse.
To
explain
the
appeal
of the
film, then,
we must look not
only
at how the film
manipu
lates us into
complicity
with
existing
social
forms,
but also at the traces of
Utopian fantasy
that
point beyond
these
forms,
a more
genuine
sense of com
munity
not based on male
privilege
and
power. Glancing
at
my daughter,
I
am aware of the
contradictory
nature of
pleasure
at the cinema: like Bloch's
"uneven
development,"
I find
myself constantly sliding
between fascination
and
awareness,
seduced at times
by
the
power
of the
apparatus?the
charm
of the
story,
the
performance,
the musical numbers?while at other times I
am
politically
distanced, critical,
resistant. We all exist inside
ideology,
and
so even the critical
analyst
can slide
easily
into the cultural
dupe.
Spectators
come to the cinema
psychically disposed
and
historically
conditioned.
They may
not work out
Utopian readings
even when
prompted
to do so.
After
seeing
John
Singleton's
Poetic Justice with
my wife,
a
pro
fessional writer and
novelist,
she
complains
about its
pandering script
and
muddled narrative. An
inner-city
romance and road movie set
among
urban
blacks who live in a
terminally
selfish
dystopia,
the film is
especially
inter
ested in
showing
how the code of male machismo has led to a
total breakdown
of communication: there is constant verbal abuse and relentless
squabbling
between black men and black women. This situation is then
dramatically
contrasted with a remarkable
Utopian
moment about
halfway through
the
film that shows a festive
family picnic.
In
sharp
contrast to the
single parent
family
we see earlier in the
film,
this is a
very large
extended
family?the
Johnson
family?whose
members are seen
cooperating, sharing,
and com
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Tracing Utopia
149
municating freely.
We also hear
Maya Angelou's poetry,
read as voice-over
by
the
heroine,
as a kind of
Utopian counterpoint
that underscores the need
for
change
in sexual roles and
interpersonal
behavior.
My
wife
agrees
that
the
picnic
is one of the better
sequences
in the
film,
but insists that the
poetry
doesn't work and that overall the film is still a
dawdling
mishmash. Most of
the reviews I read
agreed
with her.
They
focused on narrative
plotting
and
the
psychological complexity
of the
characters,
not on its
potential Utopian
meanings. Contrasting existing
human relations with
momentary glimpses
of
Utopian harmony
does not make this a
Utopian
film. And the fact that the
film announces itself as a
Utopian fantasy:
"Once
upon
a time in South-Cen
tral
LA,"
does not
guarantee
that it will be read this
way.
I realize that
my
emphasis
on the
Utopian
moments in the film is
part
of
my
own fascination
and
passion,
not shared
by my
wife. It would be ludicrous of me to insist
that she share
my
view. Viewers come to the cinema with different
priorities
and different
expectations.
The
way they
"see" films
depends
on the cultural
and
political preparation
that
"primes"
them to look for certain
things
and
not others. The effects that a film has cannot be
separated
from the
experi
ences of
historically
situated
viewers,
constituted outside the text
by
class,
race,
gender, sexuality, nationality
and so on.
Utopian
desire is not the same
for the
wealthy
White
investor,
the Latina
maid,
the
unemployed
Black
male,
the Bosnian
refugee.
Even the same ethnic
community may
reflect diverse
Utopian
desires. This does not mean of course that
spectatorship
is
sociologi
cally
or
racially compartmentalized.
Cross-racial, cross-ethnic,
and cross
gender
identification is
always possible. Dyer's "imagined community"
of
the classical musical is
obviously
limited to dominant White
spectators.
But
this does not exclude members from other racial and ethnic communities
from
sharing
in a
deeply
embedded desire for a more
meaningful
"elsewhere."
For
years
we
thought
that
spectatorship
was
something
the film and the
filmmaker
did,
that
meaning
was a function of the film-text and
presumably
would be identified in the same
way regardless
of the
class,
gender,
race,
sexual
orientation,
and
nationality
of the viewer. But there is no such
appa
ratus-like
control,
no
simple polarity
between
complicit
and subversive
films,
and no
simple
division between
compliant
and resistant viewers.
Cinema,
including
Godard's,
Singleton's, Disney's,
and
Spielberg's,
is saturated with
ideology
and
possibility
of
Utopian opposition.
Domination and
liberation,
as Jameson
points
out,
are two sides of the same cultural text and
analysis
requires
both a
negative
and a
positive
hermeneutic. Even the most
fragmented
and alienated aesthetic forms can
yield
constructs of
hope
that raise the
pos
sibility
of
change. Finally
and
ultimately
it is not
only
filmmakers,
textual
signs,
and the institutional
apparatus
that constitute the
meanings
of
films,
but also
we,
the
audience,
who create
Utopian meanings
in the act of
viewing.
Conclusion
Deciphering Utopian
moments in film seems to me a worthwhile activ
ity.
We need to
keep
in mind however that audiences are not locked into a
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150 UTOPIAN STUDIES
programme
of
representation: they
don't
just recognize meanings already
there,
they
make films mean.
Theoretically
this
suggests
that a
great variety
of
readings
are
possible,
but in
practice
we find them limited. Current inter
est in audience
research?reception theory, ethnography,
audience
surveys?
sometimes tries to discredit textual
analysis, claiming
to
approximate
more
closely
how movies are
actually
watched
by
real flesh-and-blood audiences.
But I'm not convinced that audience
surveys
and
analysis
of film reviews
provide
us direct access to the real conditions of
spectatorship.
I am not in
favor of
discarding
textual
analyses
so that we can focus
exclusively
on
socially
formed
practices
and
reading
formations.
However,
I am in favor of
textual
analysis expanding
its horizons
beyond
the individual film-text and
being
more attentive to the
contradictory ways
films function across differ
ent cultural
registers. Foregrounding
moments of
Utopian
subversion in a
film
may require
a more active
viewer,
one who links textual contradictions
to
larger
socio-historical contradictions. But texts still cue viewers to certain
kinds of
responses
and not others.
Audience-oriented
theories,
according
to Janet
Staiger, may
be divided
into those that focus on ideal or
implied
viewers,
those that
emphasize
real
or
empirical
audiences,
and those that focus on contextual or historical fea
tures of the
interpretive experience (34-48).
For the first
group
the
empha
sis is on the
power
of the film. For the second
group
the
emphasis
is on the
power
of the individual to resist or to surrender to the
power
of the film.
Context-oriented theories look at the
social,
political,
and economic condi
tions of the film
experience;
their
emphasis
is on
history.
Whether based on
studies of
perception
and
understanding
or on
empirical
observation of how
individuals
actually respond
to the
cinema,
I think these
approaches
are all
potentially
useful in
analyzing
the
range
of
Utopian meanings
in film. Since
the
1980s,
for
example,
British "cultural studies" has
generated
a
prolifera
tion of work that
digs
out moments of subversion in mass-media texts. In
his influential
essay
"Encoding/Decoding"
Stuart Hall
develops
a
theory
of
preferred readings.
Hall sees texts
(in
this case television
texts)
as
suscep
tible to a
variety
of
readings
based on
ideological
contradictions,
and
posits
three
reading strategies
in relation to the dominant
ideology: 1)
the "domi
nant
reading" produced by
viewers who
acquiesce
to the
subjectivity
it
pro
duces;
2)
the
"negotiated reading" produced by
viewers who
acquiesce
to
the dominant
ideology
to some
extent,
but whose situation
provokes specific
"local" critical
inflections;
and
3)
the "resistant
reading" produced by
those
whose social situations
place
them in
opposition
to the dominant
ideology.
These
strategies
of
reading
make visible what is
transformed,
displaced,
or
otherwise
disguised by ideology.
This
approach,
it seems to
me,
undermines
the
supposed passivity
of the
viewer,
and
suggests
a
potentially productive
practice
for
uncovering Utopian meanings
in film.
Before we set out to claim turf for a
Utopian
film
genre then,
a some
what
arbitrary undertaking anyway,
we should take into account the role
that viewers
play
in the
production
of
Utopian readings. Utopian
film
oper
ates within a network of
meanings?and hopefully
actions?which extends
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Tracing Utopia
151
beyond
the films themselves. Not
only representations,
films
produce
and
enact
ideologies; they
have real
effects,
evoke emotional and behavioral
responses, shape
identities. This raises
important questions
about how audi
ences are
addressed,
subjectivities
formed,
and
meanings produced.
It also
suggests
that we move toward a more interactive model of
genre,
one that
takes into account the
reception
and uses of film.
Finally,
we need to remember that
digging
out
Utopian meanings
in film
implies
a
Utopian
framework of
understanding.
Our
challenge
as
Utopian
scholars is to
develop
a
practice
that will allow us to
identify
those moments
in film that nourish
Utopian hopes
and reinforce the desire for alternatives.
How does a film
generate
dissatisfaction with
everyday
life? How does it
mobilize our desire for
community
and move us toward a more
egalitarian
society?
Is it feasible to
identify
a certain mode of
spectatorship
as
Utopian?
In
trying
to answer these
questions
we should avoid abstract claims about
how all art
provides
us with
glimpses
of
genuinely integrated
social rela
tions and
pious generalizations
about the human
subject
under
capitalism
and
patriarchy.
These terms are reductive and
undynamic.
Nor does the term
"socialism"
automatically
mean
progressive
social
change.
Our focus should
be on
specific,
local
studies,
exploring
the kinetic sensations of
utopia
and
the
competing
claims of
Utopian
desire,
rather than on
large
theories and
totalizing genres
that
try
to account for
everything.
Our
goal
should be a her
meneutics of film that both
heightens
our awareness of the muffled "strains"
of
utopia
in mass media and makes
apparent
the obstacles that
suppress
and
contain them. The
question
of whether there is a
Utopian
film
genre,
in other
words,
is less
important
than the
question
of how to mobilize the critical
potential
of
Utopian
desire in
empowering
directions. Bloch's
"traces,"
Dyer's "non-representational signs,"
and
reading "against
the
grain"
demon
strate the
precariousness
of narrative and of
ideological
hierarchies.
They
also demonstrate the considerable benefits of
directing
our attention to the
way
the cinema stimulates and
"manages"
our
Utopian
desire. In
identifying
the often distorted
Utopian sights
and
sounds,
we not
only expose
and
deconstruct the
manipulations
of
ideology,
we also
propose
and construct
Utopian
alternatives. The use value of
Utopian analysis
of film seems obvi
ous to me: for if the function of cinema is to mediate between our
personal
fantasies and the
public sphere,
then the critical
potential
of
Utopian
desire
is crucial. Without
it,
our isolation and
fragmentation may go
unnoticed as
we sit in enthralled fascination
watching
ever more awesome and ever more
terrifying
simulations.
NOTES
1.
Fitting's essay
is one of four featured articles on
Utopian
film. Other
essays
are
by
Robert
Shelton,
"The
Utopian
Film Genre:
Putting
Shadows on the Silver Screen"
(18-25),
John
Erickson,
"The Ghost in the Machine: Gilliam's Postmodern
Response
in Brazil to the
Orwellian
Dystopia
of Nineteen
Eighty-Four" (26-34),
and
R?gine-Mihal
Friedman,
"'
Capi
tals of Sorrow': From
Metropolis
to Brazil"
(35-43).
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152 UTOPIAN STUDIES
2.
Fitting
does not mention Andrei
Tarkovsky's
Stalker
(1979),
an
adaptation
of the
Strugat
sky
novel Roadside Picnic. His failure to include this
adaptation may
be due to
Tarkovsky's
reduction of this
incomparable
novel to a rather solemn
religious
fable.
3. For discussions of how SF film can be
negotiated
for
Utopian meanings,
see
Ruppert,
"Blade Runner.
"
4. Flinn
proposes
the term
"partial utopias"
to describe
Hollywood
films since
they
do not
offer "a full
escape
so much as the
promise
or
suggestion
of one
(101)."
5. For discussion of how film noir
(Detour)
and melodrama
(Penny Serenade)
illuminate the
connections between
utopia
and film
music,
see Flinn
(118-150).
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