Blowhard, Esq. writes:
Sometimes things don’t happen the way we anticipate and we find a piece of art that helps us make sense of things. In this special guest post, an academic finds himself in an online relationship that takes a depressing turn yet he finds solace in Lang picture.
“Love is like luck. You have to go all the way to find it.” — Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past
By Richard Armstrong
For a year, from December 2013 to December 2014, I had an online relationship with a woman we will call ‘S’. It began innocuously enough with daily chats about work and our mutual interests in culture and art, books and cinema, and eventually expanded into personal and private matters. Through the power of email (sometimes three or four a day) and Skype (two or three times a week), we reached an emotional intimacy and exhibitionism which led us to believe that we had indeed fallen in love with one another. True, there was distance to consider: S lived in Omaha, Nebraska, while I’m in Cambridge in the U.K. But the bond had been formed and plans were made to get together in the flesh.
During the course of all this, S sold her house and moved into an apartment which she transformed into a cozy little love nest for when I’d come and live with her. We spoke about the blissful mornings we’d spend making love, showering together, of gazing into each other’s eyes over breakfast. We believed we had met our match and shared our dreams as well as our misgivings. We talked of pooling our incomes and being there for one another — always. I called her ‘honey,’ she called her bed ‘our bed.’ She longed to introduce me to her parents and her brother. In her off-moments as a part-time waitress, S would write me long letters on the backs of menus which she’d mail to me, along with postcards, books, and even a tee-shirt she’d worn — which I gently mashed under my nose, hoping to draw out her fragrance. Her day job as a kindergarten teacher caused me great worry in the wake of some highly-publicized school shootings in the States. I felt the need to be with her, for her.
When December 2014 rolled around I was able to arrange an extended holiday and flew off for the States. Our hearts and minds were brimming with joyful scenarios. What happened after I arrived, however, was most certainly not part of the plan. There are times when life imitates art, but here life intruded upon art. That our rapport failed to live up to its promise, that our relationship ended a few days after we met, was a wake-up call filled with mutual disappointment and pain. For we discovered ours was a visual relationship far more ‘real’ than the sexual and amorous one we believed we had. As S told me to my face, “it worked online, but not in person…”
Stunned and feeling uneasy and out of place, my mind constantly replayed any number of scenarios with S in a feeble attempt to sort things out, a handful of rose-colored memories of what we once had clashing with sour reality. We both decided to cut the visit short, and I flew home. Staring out the window of the plane, searching for something (anything) to occupy my thoughts, thoughts of The Woman in the Window, the 1944 thriller directed by Fritz Lang, passed through my mind. I remembered an early scene in which the middle-aged academic (played by Edward G. Robinson) gazes through the window of a small gallery at a painting of a woman. As he arbitrarily studies the subject’s face and body, he becomes aware of a presence standing beside him, a mirrored reflection in the window of the woman in the portrait. It was the woman in the window in the flesh (played by Joan Bennett). The similarity between the love-struck professor’s gaze and my online gazing at S, wanting and needing her, was telling. That the professor first ‘meets’ the woman as an image through a glass screen just as I first saw S, and then meets her for real, seemed to mimic the various stages of my relationship with S. That our relationship failed in real life seemed to emulate the disastrous outcome of the professor’s involvement with the woman. But it also echoed, metaphorically at least, the fact that, for the professor, the whole episode turns out to have been a dream from which he’ll awaken feeling uneasy and confused. Just as I was feeling now.
Rifling through these moments in The Woman in the Window, I began to wonder why I so often turned to the movies for answers to real questions, for points of reference to points of my life, and speculated if the cold and abrupt demise of our love somehow had something to do with years of watching movies and the involvement S and I shared on the internet. Was ours merely a ‘looking relationship?’
Back home I made an effort to find out. I tracked down an article by Laura Mulvey in Screen magazine from 1975, a well-known polemical piece entitled Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, in which she wrote: “The magic of the Hollywood style at its best (and of all the cinema which fell within its sphere of influence) arose, not exclusively, but in one important aspect, from its skilled and satisfying manipulation of visual pleasure.” Born respectively in 1967 and 1959, albeit thousands of miles apart, S and I were there to witness and absorb the postwar revival of classic Hollywood films flooding the airwaves on both American and U.K. television, a trend which peaked around the time Mulvey’s article was published.
Mulvey argues that the visual pleasure derived from classical Hollywood cinema and its imitators is informed by the (male) spectator’s scopophilic desire to look and that this looking is organized around a gendered relation in which the spectator admires, and eventually desires, the female love interest via identification with the male protagonist’s desire, a look which is facilitated by the look of the camera, itself driven by the film’s narrative of heterosexual closure. With a little cross referencing, I found this by Susan Hayward in her book, Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts: “In psychoanalytic film theory (in the 1970s) scopophilia was adapted to elucidate the unconscious processes at work when the spectator views the screen.” Originally used by Freud to characterize the infant child’s libidinal drive to pleasurable viewing, scopophilia is described in modern psychiatry as: “the obtaining of sexual pleasure by looking at nude bodies, erotic photography etc.” Meanwhile, Mulvey: “The cinema offers a number of possible pleasures. One is scopophilia. There are circumstances in which looking itself is a source of pleasure, just as, in the reverse formation, there is pleasure in being looked at.” In a very different historical and technological context, this cinematic model of looking relations significantly informs my rapport with S. Acculturated by years of watching Hollywood films, my looking at S conformed to the model’s satisfaction of my deep-seated desire to look, and to see. Meanwhile, S derived pleasure from being seen. Often she would wear make-up; sometimes she would dress especially to ‘meet’ me.
“The conventions of mainstream film focus attention on the human form,” wrote Mulvey. “Scale, space, stories are all anthropomorphic. Here, curiosity and the wish to look intermingle with a fascination with likeness and recognition: the human face, the human body, the relationship between the human form and its surroundings, the visible presence of the person in the world.” Echoing Mulvey, S “so manifestly” wished to show herself. Our Skype sessions rapidly assumed a pattern. We talked — and talked, she glanced down at herself, she moved the camera so that I could see her cleavage, her breasts, hands, fingers… Finally, she’d bring herself to orgasm as I watched. Even the movement of her Skype camera seemed to mimic the camera movement of a film, facilitating my ability to follow the ‘narrative’, to ‘have’ the woman, to realize the heterosexual narrative of desire. As Mulvey observes: “she knows her part is to perform” (my italics).
“In their traditional exhibitionist role,” Mulvey continues: “women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.” Concerning the aesthetic organized around the dichotomy between male activity and female passivity, Mary Ann Doane wrote in her essay, Film and the Masquerade: Theorizing the Female Spectator: “The woman’s beauty, her very desirability, becomes a function of certain practices of imaging — framing, lighting, camera movement, angle.” Taking my ‘direction’, S would lower the camera so that I could see her, the technological medium being manipulated to cater to my desire. For her, just being seen in this way was arousing. Registering my yearning to look at and see her, it simultaneously fuelled her desire to be looked at. In accordance with the relationship between the female spectator and the cinema screen, for S the pleasure came from ‘being’ the image, a form of narcissism driven by her perception of herself as: “that which is there to be seen.” Doane mobilizes the work of French feminist theorist Luce Irigaray to discuss the nature of this close female identification of self with herself: “an autoeroticism based on the embrace of the two lips which allow the woman to touch herself without mediation.” In this regard, it is wholly appropriate that S should have pleasured herself as we talked.
In the orgasms that S experienced which were, importantly, the climax of our Skype pattern, there was also an undeniable echo of the modern film industry’s ‘money shot’. As Jane Mills explains in her book, The Money Shot — Cinema, Sin and Censorship: “Originally mainstream filmmaker’s slang for the image that cost the most money to produce, the phrase was subsequently appropriated by the pornography industry for the male ejaculatory climax, ‘come shot’ or ‘cum shot’, because porno producers paid their male performers extra for it. It’s the shot the punters pay to see.” Given the technological nature of our liaison, was S’s orgasm our own ‘come shot’, the scene S came to experience and I came to see?
“The viewer must not sit either too close or too far from the screen,” Doane says of the proximity between the spectator and what he’s watching. “The result of both would be the same — he would lose the image of his desire.” (Notice the viewer is a he). When I sat at such a distance from my computer monitor to see S opposite me, that is, her head and shoulders, my pose echoed that of the male spectator in the cinema gazing at a classical mid-shot of the heroine on-screen. But if I moved my face closer, her image became fragmented, disparate, unsatisfying, as it would if I moved into too close proximity with the cinema or television screen while watching a film.
As at the cinema, we both desired somebody who was not actually there, an absence which was only exacerbated by the fact that I was in Cambridge and S was thousands of miles away in Omaha. And, as so often at the cinema, even the time on-screen and the time of watching differed owing to the time difference between us. If like the cinema, there was “so much to see,” S was not actually there.