Friday, March 8, 2013

Camera Obscura: Revealing Occluding Moments in Film

Film, like other arts, has long been male dominated, and that fact has an impact on how women are depicted.  Sexualized, conning, hysterical, and vulnerable -- the most common traits of female film personas.  Art-house films depart from cinematic conventions in many respects, but not these.  Here, however, I want to explore a motif that crops up in various art films and departs from the one central aspect of how women are depicted: the obscured face.  Film has a love affair with beautiful female faces, but in some cinematic moments, these are hidden from view.  This can be a form of objectification (beauty tantalizingly deferred or, even worse, a visual decapitation leaving a willing body freed from the inconvenience of the mind the would normally control it). But facial concealment can also serve other functions.

Beginning with surrealist cinema, consider this still from Man Ray's Etoile de Mer, a film that uses multiple visual metaphors to convey the mystery and inaccessibility of a female object of desire.  In this frame, eyes emerge coquettishly from behind an upside down newspaper.

Another case of surrealist occlusion can be seen in this frame from Cocteau's Blood of a Poet.  The male lead in the film is afflicted by the unwelcome appearance of a mouth on the his palm, transferred from a work of art.  Here we see the poet attempting to silence a classical statue--a silencing that will not succeed.

On the objectification end if the spectrum, consider this frame from Vladimir Moty's White Sun of the Desert.  The Islamic veil is, for many Western audiences, a symbol of oppression, but it can also be used as a tool of orientalist exoticism.  That is the function it serves here in this Russian classic.  It is not so much an erasure as as an envoy to forbidden love.  Moty plays with tropes of powerlessness and powerful women.  There is strength behind those veils.

Power and powerlessness are also a theme in the hypergraphic art-house flesh films of novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet.  The above still does not reflect the sadomasachistic iconography that abounds in his work, but it illustrates the present theme.  It is from The Man Who Lies.

Or consider this still from Marco Ferreri's The Ape Woman, a tragicomedy about a woman who facial hair.  Here she is taken by her boyfriend, fully veiled, to a zoo, where so she can learn some movements for her sideshow act.

Another approach to occlusion can be seen in this still from Yoshishige Yoshida's Flame and Woman.  Yoshida is one of the most inventive and relentless formalist in film history, and here we a bird's eye view of obstructed love.

This next series if frames comes from Georges Franju's art-house horror classic, Eyes Without a Face.  Franju uses multiple tactics for obscuring the female face.  Here we see three: bandages, shadow, and an uncanny mask.   The film itself concerns the question of facelessness.  To be without a face would be a nightmare for anyone, but for a woman, the face is even more linked to one's worth.  In that context, one can ask whether a face is ever anything other than a mask.

More fanciful concealments are presented in the above series from Sergei Parajanov's extraordinary film poem, The Color of Pomegranates. The first two are variations of a theme: actress Sofiko Chiaureli covers her face with lace.  In the final two, we see the same actress in her role as the male poet who is the protagonist of the film.  Cross-dressed and covered, there are cases of double concealment.

For a more disturbing use of facial occlusion, consider this sequence from Jodorowsky's Holy Mountain.  Here two interchangeable blondes have the faces covered by the gloves hands of a menacing priest-like figure, himself concealed. They are then shaved, stripped, and ensnared under the rim of his black hat. 

Antonioni exploits the occlusion motif in the opening part of L'Avventura, his magnum opus.  In this sequence, we see lead actress, Monica Vitti, exploring a barren island with wind whiipping her hair over her face.  Shot after shot, Vitti's features are occluded, and the inhospitable landscape becomes a metaphor for a lost soul.

The examples so far are all from films by male directors.  For contrast, it can be illuminating to look at facial occlusion in films made by women.  The above example comes from Maya Derren's celebrated short, Meshes in the Afternoon.  The image is a cinematic cliche.  A women blocks her face when confronted by a threatening assailant.  But notice the eyes.  We don't see fear here, but a kind of confidence.

This next image comes from a feminist film by a male director: Alexander Kluge's The Indomitable Leni Peickert.  It is one of the most entertaining art-house films I know.  Here concealment turns into a form of power.

The use of concealment as a tool for empowerment has cropped up in other arts as well.  It has been used masterfully by the Guerrilla Girls, as in the poster above, and more recently by Pussy Riot, pictured below.

These examples illustrate the ambiguity of facial concealment in the language of film and art.  Concealment can be a manifestation of objectification, or a comment on it.  It can even be an empowering mask.  In these cases, the unseen face is more visible than the seen.


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