Assignment 5: What is Reality? (Revised)

Introduction 

In introduction to his film ‘Hypernormalisation’, Adam Curtis says the following:

“We live in a time of great uncertainty and confusion. Events keep happening that seem inexplicable and out of control. Donald Trump, Brexit, the War in Syria, the endless migrant crisis, random bomb attacks. And those who are supposed to be in power are paralysed – they have no idea what to do. 

…what has happened is that all of us in the West – not just the politicians and the journalists and the experts, but we ourselves – have retreated into a simplified, and often completely fake version of the world. But because it is all around us we accept it as normal.” (Curtis, 2016)

Curtis’ style of filmmaking is to assemble footage from a wide variety of sources: news programmes, interviews, popular culture, in order to illustrate the unashamedly subjective story he is trying to tell. In approaching this assignment, I take this as inspiration, using current visual culture I will attempt to demonstrate the conflicting nature that faces us from the relentless media noise of modern society. In doing this I see many parallels with Guy Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle’ – although first published in 1967 this work appears both prescient and relevant to our image saturated, late capitalist consumer driven world. Debord saw the spectacle as the “everyday manifestation of capitalist driven phenomena: advertising, television, film and celebrity.” (Morgan and Purje, 2016) Using Debord’s text and examples recent examples from visual culture I aim to demonstrate this prescience.

Advertising 

“The spectacle presents itself as something enormously positive, indisputable and inaccessible. It says nothing more than “that which appears is good, that which is good appears. The attitude which it demands in principle is passive acceptance which in fact it already obtained by its manner of appearing without reply, by its monopoly of appearance.” (Debord, 2009: 4)

“The spectacle is capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image.” (Debord, 2009:10)

In ‘No Logo’ (2000), Naomi Klein describes how from the cultural influence (and astronomical growth in wealth) of multinational corporations can be traced back to a management idea from the 1980s: “successful corporations must primarily produce brands as opposed to products.” (Klein, 2000: 3) For ‘pioneering’ businesses like Nike, Microsoft, Tommy Hilfiger and Intel producing goods became only an incidental part of their operations:

“What these companies produced primarily were not things…but images of their brands. Their real work lay not in manufacturing but in marketing.” (Klein, 2000: 4)

In frequently saturated market places, current advertising exists to establish, perpetuate and consolidate brand identity. Often it is a lifestyle that is sold rather than the product itself. An example of this is Coca-Cola – a product that has existed since the late 19th century, has consistently led the way in brand development and was rated the fourth most valuable brand in the world in 2016. (Badenhausen, 2016)

For their 2016 advertising campaign ‘Taste the Feeling’, Coca-Cola used fashion photographers Guy Aroch and Nacho Ricci to create slick image that appear both genuine and aspirational, described as “Norman Rockwell meets Instagram” a style which aspires to capture an authenticity that appears to feature unscripted moments in a contemporary way. (Nudd, 2016) These adverts present images that are youthful, fun, cool, diverse and sexy while all the time emphasising the positive effect the product is having on the lives and friendships of the people depicted through the omnipresence of the bottle of Coke each of the models are holding. The insinuation is blatantly simple: drinking Coke is the way to share this lifestyle.

News 

“In a world which really is topsy-turvy, the true is a moment of the false.” (Debord, 2009: 4)

“We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.” (Baudrillard, 1995: 79)

2016 proved a most divisive and controversial year for news and current affairs where assumptions about the power of the media seemed to be both confirmed and refuted. Two high profile ‘shocks’ that were widely touted as not going to happen, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, have led to much analysis of why the mainstream media appear to have got it so wrong. Much has been made of the impact of social media, fake news and a distrust of mainstream media outlets and politicians. The US election for example is now thought of as a rejection against the status quo – it appears that Hilary Clinton’s professionalism, credentials for office and carefully managed image are major reasons why she was not elected with a section of the electorate viewing her as the representation of the establishment and not representing them. Despite multiple scandals throughout the campaign concerning his views and previous misdeeds, outlandish pledges and an image that was frequently lampooned as ridiculous (comb over hair, orange complexion, badly fitting suits) Donald Trump projected an image of the ‘man on the street’, despite being anything but – one of the richest men in America. Attempts to dismiss his statements made with questionable basis on truth were attacked as conspiracies by the liberal media. Trump’s campaign actively capitalised on a distrust of politicians and the establishment as well as the uncertainty about what is true and what is not.

If it is true that image is all then how can the success of politicians such as Trump, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage be explained?

In the UK concerns about immigration have been a major area of debate for some time, increasing in prominence over the last few years due to the worsening global; refugee crisis. In August 2015 David Cameron described a “swarm of migrants” coming across the channel for in search of a better life. While the comments drew much criticism for the way they dehumanised migrants and seemed to appeal to fear of the ‘Other’, there were also voices of support with newspapers such as the Daily Mail providing front pages with photographs purporting to prove that immigration was out of control. In September 2015, however, a shocking image of a dead child lying on a beach having died trying to flee the war in Syria was widely reported and another picture took the headlines and the mood suddenly changed to demands for intervention in the refugee crisis with many calling for Prime Minister David Cameron to intervene and grant immigrant’s asylum.

By October another picture made the front pages purporting to be of a potential child refugee seeking asylum who appeared to be an adult. Although there was much debate about the authenticity of the image with reports both that the pictured man was actually an interpreter and not an asylum seeker, the implication was clear – it important to support migrants only if they fall into the

category of deserving support and we must be constantly vigilant of those who wish to abuse our hospitality and trick their way in. The truth of the issue became less important than the ideological stance taken by various news outlets.

It appears that much of the current affairs reporting that is presented to us is both contradictory and unable to offer suggestions about what the correct course of action is. Confusion reigns with the ideological stand points of organisations displayed blatantly – the effect of which has been described as post truth.

Social media 

“The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” (Debord, 2009: 2)

“Here’s me outside the palace of ME! 

Construct a self and psychosis 

Meanwhile the people are dead in their droves 

But nobody noticed 

Well actually 

Some of them noticed. 

You could tell by the emoji they posted.” (Tempest, 2016: 22)

In an essay about the legacy of ‘Society of the Spectacle’, John Harris asserts Debord’s prescience:

“the book is full of sentences that describe something simple, but profound: the way that just about everything that we consume and, if we’re not careful, most of what we do – embodies a mixture of distraction and reinforcement that serves to reproduce the mode of society and economy that has taken the idea of the spectacle to an almost surreal extreme.” (Harris, 2012)

The way social media has entered our lives, and it could be argued, has replaced experiencing life directly could be classed as this “surreal extreme.” Instagram, twitter, Facebook and the selfie all form part of how many of us project ourselves onto the wider world. In ‘Nosedive’, an episode from the anthology series ‘Black Mirror’, the logical progression of our society continuing to be obsessed by social media is satirised. In the apparently near future, ‘likes’ have become currency, a means of providing societal hierarchy and enabling conformity. In order to gain access (and importantly to continue to be able to use) services approval ratings must be maintained. Failure to do this means affects where you can live and work and who you can socialise with.

Some aspects of celebrity culture have embraced the selfie as a means of projecting their self image. A strata of celebrity who seems to be famous for being famous have emerged. Australian comedian Celeste Barber demonstrates the often ridiculous nature of these celebrity selfies through her Instagram account which shows how the pictures may have looked if made by a real person. It seems that image and images will only gain in currency going forward, compounding the need to live through the prism of technology rather than real lived experience.

Conclusion 

When challenged about whether he simplifies complex reality to support his subjective world view, Adam Curtis replied:

All reality is incredibly complex and chaotic. To make sense of it we have to tell stories about it – which inevitably simplifies. And that is what politicians – and journalists – do. What I try to do is to find new facts and data, things you haven’t thought about, and turn them into new stories. My aim is to use those stories to try and make the complexity and chaos intelligible.” (MacInnes, 2015)

When faced with the question what is reality? I find Curtis’ explanations here reassuring and positive – perhaps the only way to combat and possibly explain the complexity of the modern world is by engaging with it through art be it satire, social commentary or merely playful. The most dangerous thing we can do is believe there is only ever one reality and we also should not be too wedded to our own beliefs.

Bibliography: 

Baudrillard, J. (1995) Simulacra and Simulation. Michigan: University of Michigan Press.

Baudrillard, J. (2004) The Gulf War did not Take Place. Sydney: Power Publications.

Badenhausen, K. (Ed.) (2016) The world’s most valuable brands. In: Forbes [online] Available at: http://www.forbes.com/powerful-brands/ [Accessed December 2016]

Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin.

Blade Runner (1982) Dir: Ridley Scott. USA/Hong Kong/UK: Warner Brothers

Curtis, A. (2016) HYPERNORMALISATION. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/adamcurtis/entries/02d9ed3c-d71b-4232-ae17-67da423b5df5#comments [Accessed December 2016]

Debord, G. (2009) The Society of the Spectacle. Eastbourne: Soul Bay Press

Ex Machina (2015) Dir: Alex Garland. UK: UPI/Film4/DNA films

Harris, J (2012) Guy Debord predicted our distracted society. The Guardian, 30th March 2012. Available at:

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/mar/30/guy-debord-society-spectacle [accessed January 2017]

Her (2013) Dir: Spike Jonze. USA: Annapurna Pictures

Hypernormalisation (2016) Dir: Adam Curtis. UK: BBC

Klein, N (2000) No Logo. London: Flamingo

Lo and behold, reveries of the connected world (2016) Dir: Werner Herzog. USA: Saville Productions

MacInnes, P. (2015) ‘Adam Curtis: “I try to make the complexity and chaos intelligible.” The Guardian, 24th January 2015. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2015/jan/24/adam-curtis-bitter-lake [Accessed December 2016]

The Matrix (1999) Dir: The Wachowski Brothers. USA: Warner Bros.

Morgan, T. and Purje, L. (2016) An illustrated guide to Guy Debord’s “the society of the spectacle”. Available at: http://hyperallergic.com/313435/an-illustrated-guide-to-guy-debords-the-society-of-the-spectacle/ [Accessed December 2016]

Nosedive (2016) Black Mirror, series 3 episode 1. Dir: Joe Wright. USA: Netflix

Nudd, T. (2016) Here are 25 sweet, simple ads from coca-cola’s big new ‘taste the feeling’ campaign. Available at: http://www.adweek.com/creativity/here-are-25-sweet-simple-ads-coca-colas-big-new-taste-feeling-campaign-169075/ [Accessed January 2017]

Shore, S. (2007) The nature of photographs: A Primer. (2nd ed.) New York: Phaidon Press.

Tempest, K. (2016) Let them eat chaos. London: Picador.

Assignment 5: Response to tutor feedback

Unfortunately, the feedback for this assignment confirmed my fear that I had strayed too far from the brief and my submission did not meet the required criteria. While Pauline found the work interesting, she recommends changing the format into either a conventional illustrated essay or extended annotations. She also points out correctly that I do not meet the 2000 word guidance. On a positive note, she found the choice of images interesting and the themed groupings clear. She also understands my rationale for wanting to produce something different because of the amount of reading in the course, however, I did not mean this as a criticism of the material – if anything I have become too involved in the reading and the course has certainly whet my appetite for further study of cultural theory. My motivation for producing a visual essay was simply to experiment and attempt something different. I also wanted to pay homage to the visual essays in Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’ which perplexed me when I first encountered them in the course but began to appeal more as I progressed. Pauline makes two points about this that I do not fully consider – Berger presents his visual essays in the context of his book and television series and without this they are quite unsatisfactory – I had not really thought that it was Berger at fault rather than me. In hindsight, I was too preoccupied with not wanting to lead and influence how the images are read by the viewer (even to the point of not fully explaining my rationale) and clearly this was a mistake as the approach fails to demonstrate my learning – as Pauline rightly asserts, Berger was presenting his book without the need to be assessed as a degree student! She also felt that leaving the various quotes unattributed strayed too far from academic convention.

Although Pauline thinks the rationale I included with the images was clearly expressed, she felt this could provide an introduction to the images. She also points out that I do not fully explain my reason for choosing the style of font I used which was intended to evoke the computer age while simultaneously having a retro feel, it is a strange paradox that it is necessary to take this retro approach in order to signify the digital age. She mentions that there is mileage in exploring how computers have developed over the past 20 years and the relationship between this and the increased digital noise we face in modern life – a key point I wanted to make. Another reason for using this font was as an homage to Stephen Shore’s ‘The Nature of Photographs’ which I cite as an influence. The font used in the book resembles a typewriter font which gives the text accompanying the photographs a particular, distinctive feel. Pauline also quite rightly points out that Shore has chosen images that have a particular author/photographer and this influences the way we read the book (even if we are not entirely familiar with the photographers featured by the very nature of their inclusion we are aware they are important.) The anonymous/uncredited pictures I have chosen do not share this.

Suggested possibilities: 

Keep the groups of images and write accompanying text relating to the material covered in section 5.

Focus on one group of images – are so many needed? Are there overlaps/duplication?

Use Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle’ (as I indicated this had particularly influenced me) perhaps using this as a further text to comment on the quotations or tease out ideas concerning reality.

Decide on a route to pursue: essay or annotations.

Although it is disappointing that I have missed the mark on this occasion I have again found Pauline’s feedback invaluable in being able to pick out what I need to do to improve and point me in the right direction. The clarity of expression in Pauline’s writing inspires me to practice and improve my writing style – through all of the feedback I have received I have found thoughts expressed that I have shared or have wanted to present myself and have not been able to. This ability is something that has not only helped me develop through the course but also provides inspiration for the future.

Assignment 4: Visualising the ‘Other’ through ‘Taxi Driver’ (revised)

Introduction 

In her essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Laura Mulvey uses examples from films of the 1930s-1950s to illustrate her argument that patriarchal society is reinforced by Hollywood cinema which, geared towards male viewing pleasure in turn relates directly to the construction of the male psyche. The paper is a polemic with the intent of redressing gender imbalance as identified by Mulvey:

“[the essay] takes as its starting point the way film reflects, reveals and even plays on the straight, socially established interpretation of sexual difference which controls images, erotic ways of looking and spectacle.” (Jones, 2010: 57)

Mulvey acknowledges the changing landscape at the time she is writing and anticipates that the “monolithic system based on large capital investment” can be subsumed by an emerging alternative cinema which is becoming possible due to technological advancement:

“The alternative cinema provides a space for the birth of a cinema which is radical in both a political and aesthetic sense and challenges the assumptions of the mainstream film. This is not to reject the latter moralistically, but to highlight the way in which its formal preoccupations reflect the physical obsession of the society which produced it and further, to stress that the alternative cinema must start specifically by reacting against these obsessions and assumptions. A politically and aesthetically avant-garde cinema is now possible, but it can only exist as a counterpoint.” (Jones, 2010:58)

To explore these assertions, I have chosen the film ‘Taxi Driver’, a first-person narrative exploring themes of masculinity, violence and alienation amongst other things. The film was also made around the time that Mulvey wrote her essay and I am interested on whether it confirms or confounds Mulvey’s argument along with how far it can be analysed using the psycohanalytic framework of her paper, specifically Freudian and Lacanian notions of the male Gaze (and the dichotomy between active male and passive female), scopophillia, voyeurism, narcissism and fetishism as well as patriarchal hegemony.

Scorsese is also of the new generation of directors that began to emerge in the 1970s that were steeped in the films of the past and referenced earlier works in their films, a key influence being Hitchcock which is most explicitly demonstrated in the use of his long-time collaborator Bernard Herrmann for the score to ‘Taxi Driver’. A postmodern reading of ‘Taxi Driver’ would emphasise the need of the requirement of the viewer to be able to recognise these references and appropriations in order to make a full reading of the text. Mulvey posits that the gaze in cinema is implicitly male, this is certainly true of ‘Taxi Driver’ as (virtually) all of the film is presented through the eyes of protagonist Travis

Bickle. And yet, although he is a man Travis possesses no power – in fact his masculinity is a prison which traps him in a spiral of loneliness, alienation, self-destruction and delusion.

Taxi Driver and authorship 

“The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture” (Barthes, 1977: 146)

Scorsese became synonymous with the ‘movie brat’ generation of directors that came to prominence in the 1970s who had grown up with a love of film and used these as touchstones in their own work. It can be argued that film proved the defining element of Scorsese’s development as frequent childhood illnesses “detached Scorsese from participating fully in the life of the streets but increased his opportunities for observing it.” (Cousins, 2011:339) He gained most of his experience not from directly lived experience but from films.

Conversely, Paul Schrader based the screenplay for ‘Taxi Driver’ on what he termed the low point of his life: in 1972 at twenty-six he was divorced and unemployed, living in his car and drinking heavily. When he was hospitalised with a gastric ulcer he realised he had not spoken to anyone for weeks. During his recuperation, he read about the attempted assassination of Alabama Governor George Wallace by Arthur Bremer. Bremer was an undereducated, lower middle-class man designated as a psychopath by the newspapers who ran extracts from his diary that provided the inspiration for the voice over of the film. Bremer believed that the only way he could achieve the attention he craved and found was lacking was to assassinate a famous politician, he settled on Wallace after failing to penetrate Nixon’s security. It is the combining of Schrader and Scorsese that makes ‘Taxi Driver’ – the brutal realism and authenticity of Schrader’s screenplay combined with the cinematic knowledge and referencing of Scorsese. (Taubin, 2000: 9-10) The vérité style of Schrader’s later directorial effort ‘Blue Collar’ (1978) suggest that ‘Taxi Driver’ would have been a much different film if he had directed. It could be argued that Travis is the surrogate imaging of how Schrader’s life could have easily gone following this experience with the added complexity that Scorsese is only able to articulate the narrative using the references from a life of film study rather than experiences in the real world.

The main two stylistic influences on ‘Taxi Driver’ are film noir and the French New Wave showing Scorsese’s bridging of both the avant-garde and mainstream. Tropes from film noir such as first-person voice over narration, expressionist camera angles and movements, moody jazz inflected score are all present. Film noir is also rooted in post war trauma; for ‘Taxi Driver’ this is Vietnam rather than WWII. Scorsese appropriates some of the stylistic innovations of New Wave directors such as Godard, for example, the jump cut which he uses to emphasise Travis’ fractured psychosis. Early in the film we watch Travis walking toward us on a street, a dissolve makes Travis appear to disappear then reappear in the shot. Usually this type of cut would be used to advance the passage of time in a narrative, here, with Travis only moving slightly closer to the camera, the amount of time that has passed is minimal. The effect is to emphasise early in the film Travis’s fractured state of mind and can be read in reference to Lacan’s notions of the three orders: the imaginary, the symbolic and the real – the small nudges forward are disconcerting and emphasises Travis’ discontinuity.

Taxi Driver - walk

While it is not necessary to have knowledge of all of the references that Scorsese employs in ‘Taxi Driver’, it could be argued that doing so increases our understanding. Taubin (2010: 37) describes this as “hybrid iconography”, for example the western genre is an influence on ‘Taxi Driver’. (The scene detailed above is a reference to the 1952 western ‘Shane’) With the theme of masculinity being perhaps the most prevalent in the film referencing this most macho of genres adds further layers to Taxi Driver. The alienation and lack of purpose that Travis experiences is in contrast to the convention of the western hero who always has a sense of purpose. Like these heroes Travis also strives to bring order to the lawless, hell on earth he experiences around himself, although ambiguity about whether he is on the right course is prevalent. The change here from hero to anti-hero can be explained in the context of America at the time as it moves away from the trusted order of earlier times to the climate of the late 1970s with the rise of racial and feminist politics and discourse that questioned the status quo.

Taxi Driver and the look 

“Looking is powerful. To look is to assert power, to control, to challenge authority.” (D’Alleva, 2012: 104)

Mulvey discusses the notion of the male Gaze in ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ arguing that there is an imbalance in looking that is split between active/male and passive/female. The male is a controlling figure of the film’s narrative and the bearer of the spectators look with whom they can identify. This suggests that power is inherent in the main protagonist, something that Travis is almost completely lacking. For the majority of the film’s running time, Travis is a passive observer of the world around him. His taxi acts as a barrier between himself and the outside world which he views with disdain, a metal coffin on wheels symbolising urban isolation. (Taubin, 2000:10) The view the Travis experiences is literally using his Taxi as a window on the world, a distancing strategy that he combines with viewing his passengers in the rear-view mirror. Using the ideology Mulvey presents in her essay, as a white male Travis should possess a great deal of power in society. This is not the case in the film however, Travis has no power, even African Americans seem to have more agency than him. This perhaps goes some way to explaining his rage. Another reading however is that far from representing a critique of patriarchal order ‘Taxi Driver’ reaffirms this: Travis is a flawed representation of masculinity and he lacks agency due to the non adherence to masculine norms.

Frequently we are made to share Travis’ viewpoint throughout the film, from the opening sequence which uses stylistic strategies more associated with the horror genre to emphasise Travis’s world view of New York as hell on earth to the infamous ‘you talkin’ to me?’ scene in which Travis practices drawing his gun and how he might react in a violent situation. He does this into the mirror and directly to his reflection, so although we see him on the screen the implication is we are looking directly through his eyes. The most powerful aspect of ‘Taxi Driver’ is that the film makes us view the world through the eyes of Travis, what we see is twisted by his pathology and yet we also become complicit, gaining empathy for him despite everything we see.

The ‘you talkin’ to me?’ scene is a key way to understand both the film and the character of Travis. Lacan’s notion of the mirror phase is present here – Travis is literally using his reflection to bolster his self-image, we have frequently seen him unable to interact with other people on a one to basis, a reality at odds with delusional self-narrative he gives us in voiceover. Even here he needs to practice over and over to get his speech right, the camera cutting to edit out his mistakes. Taubin (2000: 22) makes the point that the scene makes it difficult to distinguish between Travis and his reflection, between self and other:

“It is as if Travis implicates us in his paranoid confusion of self and other and of projection and reflection. If we are his mirror, then he is ours.” (Taubin, 2000: 22)

Taxi Driver - you talkin to me

In another scene Travis is watching a film in a porn theatre, the camera watches him move his middle finger up and down over his eyes, breaking his field of vision. By deliberately preventing himself from looking at the screen through this gesture he is intensifying his voyeuristic pleasure, repeatedly enforcing and breaking the prohibition against looking.

taxi driver - theatre

Travis Bickle and the ‘Other’ 

“The Other refers to that which is understood as the symbolic opposite of the normative category. The slave is other to the master; the woman other to the man, the black person to the white person…” (Sturken and cartwright, 2009: 451)

Travis’s relationship with the ‘Other’ can perhaps be encompassed by his interactions with everybody he comes into contact with – he is completely alienated. The lack of respect that is given to him by the female encounters demonstrates that his maleness in itself does not entitle him to a higher social status. The first woman he encounters is the cinema attendant who quickly shows she is in control by threatening Travis’s mild flirtations with eviction by the manager. Betsy is a professional woman with a good job and higher educational level than Travis, clearly out of his league. Despite this she is intrigued by Travis and agrees to go on a date with him. Taking Betsy to a porn film shows Travis to be both socially inept and wilful in his self-loathing – it is like he is desperate to show demonstrate his deviance? Even Iris, the pre-teen runaway prostitute merely humours Travis and shows a higher level of maturity and awareness of herself and the world in the scene they share in the diner.

African Americans represent the one group that Travis can feel superior to and his blatant racism demonstrates this. Sitting with his fellow cabbies in the all-night diner, he can barely conceal his hostility towards the one black man at the table. Travis’s gaze then switches to a group of flamboyantly dressed pimps on

the tables opposite. We see the pimps through his eyes, the camera moves in slow motion towards them emphasising his hatred which seems directed at there very blackness rather than what they do for a business. As he leaves the black cabbie says “see you later killer”, closing one eye and pointing his finger toward Travis as if it is a gun. It is a telling and humiliating moment for Travis where he is mocked, albeit gently, by a black man and also shows that his cabbie colleague has seen the violence inside Travis while foretelling what is to come.

That these two themes of race and gender difference are so overt in the narrative is an indication of the political landscape of mid 1970s America – a time where the optimism of the post war years has given way to counter culture and tension between major segments of society through the civil rights and feminist movements. The Vietnam war is also another important touchstone which has since become synonymous with the decay of ideals that were projected through earlier mythologising genres such as the western.

Psychoanalytical readings of Taxi Driver 

“it is the birth of the long love affair/despair between image and self-image which has found such intensity of expression in film and such joyous recognition in the cinema audience.” (Jones, 2010: 60)

Since ‘Taxi Driver’ is clearly both a character study and an examination of personality disorder it is not difficult to apply psychoanalysis to readings of the film. Throughout the difference between the real and imaginary are displayed through the use of voiceover juxtaposed with reality: Travis shows narcissistic tendencies which prove to be unfounded by what we see and how we see others react to him. He craves company and yet is unable to connect with others due to his social awkwardness and his lack of self-awareness transfers this failure onto others. His inability to connect with women for example can be read as a symptom of his inherent identity being under pressure from both feminism and the civil rights movements. Travis’s inner voice has “paranoid delusions of grandeur, contradictory assessments of self and others…pathological narcissism.” (Taubin, 2000: 38)

Travis shows a sexual repression that displays a clear castration anxiety. Despite his frequent visits to the porn theatre there is no suggestion that he is gaining an erotic charge from this, rather, he goes there because this is what he believes he is expected to do as an expression of masculinity. He makes no attempt to consummate his relationship with the two females he comes into contact with throughout the film, although he is also deeply confused about what to do. Betsy is the Madonna he wants to turn into a whore, showing her the darkness within him by taking her on a date to the porn theatre. Taubin (2000: 18) sees this as “a violation, a psychological rape.” Conversely, Iris is the pre-teen whore he wants to save.

Travis only begins to gain agency within the narrative when he decides to buy guns in a scene which is blatant both in its fetish and phallic connotations. Clearly the guns represent Travis’s castration anxiety and serve both as an antidote to this and a way to exact revenge on those who threaten his masculinity. Throughout the film Travis is like a bottle under pressure that you know will explode once the top is removed. The final, violent scenes of the film represent Travis’ release, yet also show his impotence demonstrated by his failure to commit suicide. In a final ironic twist however, the final scenes of the film show Travis hailed as a hero for rescuing Iris and taking out the gangsters, an action he only took because of his failed assassination attempt on Senator Palantine.

Taxi Driver - guns

An interesting comparison can be made with the later film ‘Falling Down’ (1993) in which the protagonist snaps under the pressure of modernity and begins a vengeful journey across Los Angeles. Unlike Travis, the Michael Douglas character in this film is played as an everyman who we are encouraged to empathise with, a victim of circumstances and an anti-hero we can identify with. Comparing the structure of both films is the most telling comparison, ‘Falling Down’ has a clear, linear narrative and definite denouement. ‘Taxi Driver’ is open ended and we are left with both uncertainty and a sense of foreboding as the credits arrive.

Conclusion 

It is difficult to argue that ‘Taxi Driver’ restores any sort of gender balance as it is difficult to imagine a film that deals with issues of maleness in more detail. The principal creators of the film are all men and there are very few women featured, however, this is hardly a celebration of patriarchy. Travis Bickle is a damaged man, possibly as a result of the war in Vietnam which is a symptom of late capitalism and used as a symbol of the decline of the American dream in the film. He is alienated in both the literal and Marxist sense and is unable to find his place in society as either a man or a citizen. Although the film can hardly be held as a positive portrayal of masculinity it seems to be suggesting that the psychosis Travis experiences is a symptom of the society which appears to be breaking down, by extension this leads us to ponder what the alternative would be – something new or a return to what has come before? ‘Taxi Driver’ is a complex portrayal of an anti-hero it is difficult to like and yet we are able to identify with the extreme feelings of loneliness, lack of connection and alienation Travis feels and experiences. If we are honest with ourselves the extreme narcissism, deluded sense of self and fear of the ‘Other’ are all parts of the human psyche that we experience to one degree or another. In the end, it shows that texts can have both multiple contradictory meanings and a hateful world view can be expressed without meaning that is shared by the creators. At the films denouement, we are left with a feeling of foreboding about what is to come, the final shot of Travis’s eyes in close up, looking into the rear view mirror for something it appears only he can see, echoes a shot in the opening sequence. The suggestion is that the cycle will begin again and there is nothing we can do about it.

Taxi driver - ending

Bibliography: 

Barthes R. The death of the author in pps. 142-148 Barthes, R. (1977) Image, Music, Text. London: Fontana Press.

Cousins, M. (2011) The story of film. London: Pavilion Books

D’Alleva, A (2012) Methods and Theories of Art History (2nd Ed.) London: Laurence King Publishing

Freud, S. (1991) On Sexuality: Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and Other Works. London: Penguin.

Lapsley, R. and Westlake, M. (2006) Film theory: An introduction. (2nd ed.) Manchester: Palgrave.

Mulvey, L (1975) Visual pleasure and narrative cinema

pps. 57-65 Jones, A. (ed) (2010) The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader (2nd edition). London: Routledge

The Pervert’s Guide To Cinema (2006) Dir: Sophie Fiennes. UK/Austria/Netherlands: Amoeba Film/Kasander Film Company

The Pervert’s Guide To Ideology (2012) Dir: Sophie Fiennes. UK/Ireland: BFI/Blinder Films/Film4

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Taubin, A. (2000) Taxi driver. London: BFI Publishing.

Taxi Driver (1976) Dir: Martin Scorsese. USA: Columbia Pictures

Williams, L. (ed.). (1994) Viewing positions: Ways of seeing film. London: Continuum International Publishing Group

Zizek, S. (2006) How to Read Lacan. London: Granta.

Assignment 4: response to tutor feedback

My immediate response to Pauline’s feedback was admiration for the clarity of her writing and her ability to seemingly effortlessly articulate ideas I shared but had somehow not been able to express in my essay. The indication that my submission is solid and that the choice of ‘Taxi Driver’ works well as an examination of visual performance and conflicted masculinity is reassuring. As is the reassurance that my summation of Mulvey’s position of how patriarchal society is aligned with Hollywood cinema.

Pauline is direct in emphasising her frustration that I submitted assignments 4 and 5 together which makes any recommendations she may make towards the fifth assignment redundant. At the time, I did this I felt driven by the simple pragmatism that the final assignment needed to be submitted at a certain point for me to hit my deadline. The reality of the situation however was that assignment four sat virtually completed quite a while before the final date and I can only explain my failure to submit earlier to be based on a lack of confidence in what I had produced and feeling that by taking some more time I would be able to improve the essay. This lack of certainty is something I need to be very mindful of as I progress in my studies as I now recognise how much of a barrier to my progression it has become.

The main piece of criticism Pauline offers is that the areas of theory I am referring to could be more clearly demonstrated, particularly in the introduction. Below is a summary of the recommendations Pauline makes:

  • Would be helpful to provide images as alluded to in the assignment brief.

This is not something I had considered at all but something that makes perfect sense as soon as it was mentioned. I must admit to not picking up on this suggestion when I read the brief.

  • Make the introduction clearer as to which areas of theory covered in the unit are incorporated in the essay. For example – Freud and Lacan, fetishism, narcissism, the mirror phase, the real and the imaginary, postmodernism (i.e. the way Scorsese references other films/genres – a postmodern conceit and require a viewer who understands such pointers), gendered looking and the male gaze (that Bickle is an anti-hero and flawed example of masculinity)

These are all points that I felt I had covered in the essay. Going back and reviewing however I realised that I was not explicit enough with this referencing. The points about post modernism and the reading of Bickle’s flawed masculinity being the issue rather than a critique of masculinity itself are both points that I totally missed in my writing and would be useful to include.

  • The effect of first person narrative in film could be discussed – could tie in with Lacanian theory.

I agree with this but worry it could lead to too much digression.

  • May be some mileage in exploring how the film may be autobiographical with Bickle being a surrogate for Scorsese. Another layer of complexity is added if Scorsese is creating narratives more from other films than from lived experience.

The inspiration for the film was something I originally included but ended up editing out as it felt too biographical and moving away from the theoretical basis of the assignment. The notion of Scorsese creating narratives from films rather than lived experience is an interesting one particular when combined with the way screen writer Paul Schrader based Bickle on a combined imagining of himself at a very dark time in his life and the attempted assassination of Alabama governor George Wallace by Arthur Bremer in 1972. Schrader had recently gone through a marriage break up, was out of work, living in his car and drinking heavily. When he became hospitalised with a gastric ulcer he realised he had not spoken to anyone for weeks. His recovery coincided with coverage of Bremer following the assassination attempt, and his imagination was captured. Like him, Bremer had been living out of his car and had become convinced that killing a politician was the surest way to get the attention he felt starved of – when he failed to penetrate Nixon’s security he turned his attention to Wallace. Segments of Bremer’s diary were published in the papers and Schrader was fascinated by the way this undereducated, lower middle class, Midwestern psychopath would talk to himself in his diary – this became the basis for the use of voice over in ‘Taxi Driver.’ (Taubin, 2000: 10)

Where this becomes particularly interesting is in combination with the way Scorsese takes Schrader’s screenplay, what appears to be a deeply personal self-meditation, and adds the stylistic elements to the film which come from his own limited experience of life – films. Another telling scene in ‘Taxi Driver’ is the scene where Scorsese features as one of Travis’ customers. Sitting in the cab he describes in lurid, misogynist and racist terms how he will punish his wife and her lover’s infidelity. Scorsese says his decision to play the scene was pragmatic after the actor booked dropped out – budget and time constraints meant recasting was not an option. This feels disingenuous to me, Scorsese would have been well aware of how his self-inclusion in this most controversial scene would have been read and assertions of the reasoning are likely to be to distance himself from what the character says. Another scene has Scorsese witnessing Travis walks past him as he approaches to pick up Betsy from her office. This is both a direct reference to Hitchcock’s cameos in his own films and something more – Scorsese’s gaze never flickers from Bickle, his head following his movement across the frame so there is no doubt he is watching him. It is as if he is telling us as the viewers we need to keep a close watch on Travis.

  • Film could be placed in the context of America and the Vietnam war.

I felt I had done this but reviewing the essay again realised I could be more explicit about this as clearly the context is very important to ‘Taxi Driver’ is an important consideration of how the film finally looks.

  • Lacan could be referenced in relation to the early scene in the film which is orchestrated to stylistically represent Bickle’s state of mind in a visual way – this would bring account back to its theoretical base.

I assume that Pauline is referring to Lacan’s notion of the three orders: the imaginary, the symbolic and the real. The scene shows Travis walking towards the camera, first in an extreme long shot which then dissolves into a medium shot before again dissolving into a close up. The street is deserted except for Travis and the effect of the dissolves is that he appears and reappears before our eyes which is one of the first clues towards his disturbed psyche. Usually, cuts represent the passage of time, and while this is true of this scene, the small nudges forward are disconcerting which emphasises the technique and Travis’ discontinuity above all else.

  • There are two films which make interesting comparisons:

‘Rear Window’ – there are comparisons to be made with the theme of voyeurism and the spectacle, the way James Stewart has his view confined can be compared to the barrier that is made by Travis’ taxi, and, the link of the way Scorsese references Hitchcock in ‘Taxi Driver’.

‘Falling Down’ has the effect of drawing the viewer into the merging of self and the damaged persona – although most viewers would totally understand the psychological disintegration represented in this film whereas ‘Taxi Driver’ is much more ambivalent.

‘Rear Window’ was certainly a film I had thought about in relation to ‘Taxi Driver’, particularly as it is also cited by Mulvey in her essay. ‘Falling Down’ does have many similarities with ‘Taxi Driver’ but the character’s breakdown is presented in a much more simplistic and superficial way that I would not want to make comparisons. I thought about referencing other films in my essay but was worried about becoming side tracked – it seemed important to retain focus on ‘Taxi Driver’ as the main text.

  • Demonstration of racism can be explored in relation to cultural norms in America at the time – the civil rights and feminist movements were at the fore at the time of making.

Again, the cultural context of the time was in my mind and it is only on rereading that I realised I had not made as much of this as I thought I had.

  • Revise use of the word ‘blacks’ which is fine as a direct quote but otherwise not.

I agonised over my use of this term, which I intended to be used in the sense that this is the term that Travis would have used, if not something worse and more derogatory. (The terms spooks and niggers are used in the film, for me the whole point of their inclusion is that to leave them out would have been unrealistic – they emphasise a casual racism and demonstrate the racial tension of the time.) Pauline’s comments take me back to my worries about a lack of suitable alternative terminology that I felt when I wrote my essay. I have chosen the term ‘African American’ as a replacement but I must confess it is the best of a group of terms that I find are all unsatisfactory. (For example, coloured, people of colour, dark

skinned.) All of these terms seem to be loaded with liberal apologism, perhaps it is only right however that I feel uncomfortable using these terms as a white man.

Assignment 4: Visualising the ‘Other’ through ‘Taxi Driver’

Introduction

In her essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Laura Mulvey uses examples from films of the 1930s-1950s to illustrate her argument that patriarchal society is reinforced by Hollywood cinema which, geared towards male viewing pleasure in turn relates directly to the construction of the male psyche. The paper is a polemic with the intent of redressing gender imbalance as identified by Mulvey:

“[the essay] takes as its staring point the way film reflects, reveals and even plays on the straight, socially established interpretation of sexual difference which controls images, erotic ways of looking and spectacle.” (Jones, 2010: 57)

Mulvey acknowledges the changing landscape at the time she is writing and anticipates that the “monolithic system based on large capital investment” can be subsumed by an emerging alternative cinema which is becoming possible due to technological advancement:

“The alternative cinema provides a space for the birth of a cinema which is radical in both a political and aesthetic sense and challenges the assumptions of the mainstream film. This is not to reject the latter moralistically, but to highlight the way in which its formal preoccupations reflect the physical obsession of the society which produced it and further, to stress that the alternative cinema must start specifically by reacting against these obsessions and assumptions. A politically and aesthetically avant-garde cinema is now possible, but it can only exist as a counterpoint.” (Jones, 2010:58)

To explore these assertions I have chosen the film Taxi Driver, a first person narrative exploring themes of masculinity, violence and alienation amongst other things. The film was also made around the time that Mulvey wrote her essay and I am interested on whether it confirms or confounds Mulvey’s argument along with how far it can be analysed using the psycohanalytic framework of her paper. Scorsese is also of the new generation of directors that began to emerge in the 1970s that were steeped in the films of the past and referenced earlier works in their films, a key influence being Hitchcock which is most explicitly demonstrated in the use of his long time collaborator Bernard Herrmann for the score to Taxi Driver. Mulvey posits that the gaze in cinema is implicitly male, this is certainly true of Taxi Driver as (virtually) all of the film is presented through the eyes of protagonist Travis Bickle. And yet, although he is a man Travis possesses no power – in fact his masculinity is a prison which traps him in a spiral of loneliness, alienation, self destruction and delusion.

Taxi Driver and authorship

“The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture” (Barthes, 1977: 146)

Scorsese became synonymous with the ‘movie brat’ generation of directors that came to prominence in the 1970s who had grown up with a love of film and used these as touchstones in their own work. It can be argued that film proved the defining element of Scorsese’s development as frequent childhood illnesses “detached Scorsese from participating fully in the life of the streets but increased his opportunities for observing it.” (Cousins, 2011:339) He gained most of his experience not from directly lived experience but from films.

The main two stylistic influences on Taxi Driver are film noir and the French New Wave showing Scorsese’s bridging of both the avant-garde and mainstream. Tropes from film noir such as first person voice over narration, expressionist camera angles and movements, moody jazz inflected score are all present. Film noir is also rooted in post war trauma, for Taxi Driver this is Vietnam rather than WWII. From New Wave directors such as Godard, Scorsese appropriates some of stylistic innovations such as the jump cut which he uses to emphasise Travis’s psychosis. Early in the film we watch Travis walking toward us on a street, a dissolve makes Travis appear to disappear then reappear in the shot. Usually this type of cut would be used to advance the passage of time in a narrative, here, with Travis only moving slightly closer to the camera, the amount of time that has passed is minimal. The effect is to emphasise early in the film Travis’s fractured state of mind.

While it is not necessary to have knowledge of all of the references that Scorsese employs in Taxi Driver, it could be argued that doing so increases our understanding. Taubin (2010: 37) describes this as “hybrid iconography”, for example the western genre is an influence on Taxi Driver. (The scene detailed above is a reference to the 1952 western Shane) With the theme of masculinity being perhaps the most prevalent in the film referencing this most macho of genres adds further layers to Taxi Driver.  The alienation and lack of purpose that Travis experiences is in contrast to the convention of the western hero who always has a sense of purpose. Like these heroes Travis also strives to bring order to the lawless, hell on earth he experiences around himself, although ambiguity about whether he is on the right course is prevalent.

Taxi Driver and the look

“Looking is powerful. To look is to assert power, to control, to challenge authority.” (D’Alleva, 2012: 104)

Mulvey discusses the notion of the male Gaze in ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ arguing that there is an imbalance in looking that is split between active/male and passive/female. The male is a controlling figure of the film’s narrative and the bearer of the spectators look with whom they can identify. This suggests that power is inherent in the main protagonist, something that Travis is almost completely lacking. For the majority of the film’s running time, Travis is a passive observer of the world around him. His taxi acts as a barrier between himself and the outside world which he views with disdain, a metal coffin on wheels symbolising urban isolation. (Taubin, 2000:10) The view the Travis experiences is literally using his Taxi as a window on the world, a distancing strategy that he combines with viewing his passengers in the rear view mirror. Using the ideology Mulvey presents in her essay, as a white male Travis should possess a great deal of power in society. This is not the case in the film however, Travis has no power, even the blacks seem to have more agency than him. This perhaps goes some way to explaining his rage.

Frequently we are made to share Travis’s viewpoint throughout the film, from the opening sequence which uses stylistic strategies more associated with the horror genre to emphasise Travis’s world view of New York as hell on earth to the infamous ‘you talkin’ to me?’ scene in which Travis practices drawing his gun and how he might react in a violent situation. He does this into the mirror and directly to his reflection, so although we see him on the screen the implication is we are looking directly through his eyes. The most powerful aspect of Taxi Driver is that the film makes us view the world through the eyes of Travis, what we see is twisted by his pathology and yet we also become complicit, gaining empathy for him despite everything we see.

The ‘you talkin’ to me?’ scene is a key way to understand both the film and the character of Travis. Lacan’s notion of the mirror phase is present here – Travis is literally using his reflection to bolster his self image, we have frequently seen him unable to interact with other people on a one to basis, a reality at odds with delusional self narrative he gives us in voiceover. Even here he needs to practice over and over to get his speech right, the camera cutting to edit out his mistakes. Taubin (2000: 22) makes the point that the scene makes it difficult to distinguish between Travis and his reflection, between self and other:

“It is as if Travis implicates us in his paranoid confusion of self and other and of projection and reflection. If we are his mirror, then he is ours.”

In another scene Travis is watching a film in a porn theatre, the camera watches him move his middle finger up and down over his eyes, breaking his field of vision. By deliberately preventing himself from looking at the screen through this gesture he is intensifying his voyeuristic pleasure, repeatedly enforcing and breaking the prohibition against looking.

Travis Bickle and the ‘Other’

“The Other refers to that which is understood as the symbolic opposite of the normative category. The slave is other to the master; the woman other to the man, the black person to the white person…” (Sturken and cartwright, 2009: 451)

Travis’s relationship with the ‘Other’ can perhaps be encompassed by his interactions with everybody else he comes into contact with – he is so completely alienated. The lack of respect that is given to him by the female encounters demonstrates that his maleness in itself does not entitle him to a higher social status. The first woman he encounters is the cinema attendant who quickly shows she is in control by threatening Travis’s mild flirtations with eviction by the manager. Betsy is a professional woman with a good job and higher educational level than Travis, clearly out of his league. Despite this she is intrigued by Travis and agrees to go on a date with him. Taking Betsy to a porn film shows Travis to be both socially inept and wilful in his self loathing – it is like he is desperate to show demonstrate his deviance.  Even Iris, the pre-teen runaway prostitute merely humours Travis and shows a higher level of maturity and awareness of herself and the world in the scene they share in the diner.

Blacks represent the one group that Travis can feel superior to and his blatant racism demonstrates this. Sitting with his fellow cabbies in the all night diner, he can barely conceal his hostility towards the one black man at the table. Travis’s gaze then switches to a group of flamboyantly dressed black pimps on the tables opposite. We see the pimps through his eyes, the camera moves in slow motion towards them emphasising his hatred which seems directed at there very blackness rather than what they do for a business. As he leaves the black cabbie says “see you later killer”, closing one eye and pointing his finger toward Travis as if it is a gun. It is a telling and humiliating moment for Travis where he is mocked, albeit gently, by a black man and also shows that his cabbie colleague has seen the violence inside Travis while foretelling what is to come.

Psychoanalytical readings of Taxi Driver

“it is the birth of the long love affair/despair between image and self-image which has found such intensity of expression in film and such joyous recognition in the cinema audience.” (Jones, 2010: 60)

Since Taxi Driver is clearly both a character study and an examination of personality disorder it is not difficult to apply psychoanalysis to readings of the film. Throughout the difference between the real and imaginary are displayed through the use of voiceover juxtaposed with reality: Travis shows narcissistic tendencies which prove to be unfounded by what we see and how we see others react to him. He craves company and yet is unable to connect with others due to his social awkwardness and through his lack of self awareness transfers this failure onto others. His inability to connect with women for example can be read as a symptom of his inherent identity being under pressure from both feminism and the civil rights movements. Travis’s inner voice has “paranoid delusions of grandeur, contradictory assessments of self and others…pathological narcissism.” (Taubin, 2000: 38)

Travis shows a sexual repression that displays a clear castration anxiety. Despite his frequent visits to the porn theatre there is no suggestion that he is gaining an erotic charge from this, rather, he goes there because this is what he believes he is expected to do as an expression of masculinity. He makes no attempt to consummate his relationship with the two females he comes into contact with throughout the film, although he is deeply confused about what to do. Betsy is the Madonna he wants to turn into a whore by showing her the darkness within him by taking her on a date to the porn theatre, Taubin (2000: 18) sees this as “a violation, a psychological rape.” On the other side, Iris is the pre-teen whore he wants to save.

Travis only begins to gain agency within the narrative when he decides to buy guns in a scene which is blatant both in its fetishism and phallic connotations. Clearly the guns represent Travis’s castration anxiety and serve both as an antidote to this and to exact revenge on those that have made him feel less of a man. Throughout the film Travis is like a bottle under pressure that you know will explode once the top is removed. The final, violent scenes of the film represent Travis’s release, yet he shows himself to still be impotent through his failure to commit suicide at the very end. In a final ironic twist however, Travis is shown as being held up as a hero for rescuing Iris and taking out the gangsters, an action he only took because of his failed assassination attempt on Senator Palantine.

Conclusion

It is difficult to argue that Taxi Driver restores any sort of gender balance as it is difficult to imagine a film that deals with issues of maleness in more detail. The principal creators of the film are all men and there are very few women featured, however, this is hardly a celebration of patriarchy. Travis Bickle is a damaged man, possibly as a result of the war in Vietnam which is a symptom of late capitalism. He is alienated in both the literal and Marxist sense and is unable to find his place in society as either a man or a citizen. Although the film can hardly be held as a positive portrayal of masculinity it seems to be suggesting that the psychosis Travis experiences is a symptom of the society which appears to be breaking down, by extension this leads us to ponder what the alternative would be – something new or a return to what has come before? Taxi Driver is a complex portrayal of an anti hero it is difficult to like and yet manages to get the viewer to empathise with Travis. In the end it shows that texts can have both multiple contradictory meanings and a hateful world view can be expressed without meaning that is shared by the creators. At the end we are left with a feeling of foreboding about what is to come, the final shot of Travis’s eyes in close up, looking into the rear view mirror for something it appears only he can see, echoes a shot in the opening sequence. The suggestion is that the cycle will begin again and there is nothing we can do about it.

Bibliography:

Barthes R. The death of the author pps. 142-148 Barthes, R. (1977) Image, Music, Text. London: Fontana Press.

Cousins, M. (2011) The story of film. London: Pavilion Books

D’Alleva, A (2012) Methods and Theories of Art History (2nd Ed.) London: Laurence King Publishing

Freud, S. (1991) On Sexuality: Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and Other Works. London:  Penguin.

Lapsley, R. and Westlake, M. (2006) Film theory: An introduction. (2nd ed.) Manchester: Palgrave.

Mulvey, L (1975) Visual pleasure and narrative cinema in pps. 57-65  Jones, A. (ed) (2010) The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader (2nd edition). London: Routledge

The Pervert’s Guide To Cinema (2006) Dir: Sophie Fiennes. UK/Austria/Netherlands: Amoeba Film/Kasander Film Company

The Pervert’s Guide To Ideology (2012) Dir: Sophie Fiennes. UK/Ireland: BFI/Blinder Films/Film4

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Taubin, A. (2000) Taxi driver. London: BFI Publishing.

Taxi Driver (1976) Dir: Martin Scorsese. USA: Columbia Pictures

Williams, L. (ed.). (1994) Viewing positions: Ways of seeing film. London: Continuum International Publishing Group

Zizek, S. (2006) How to Read Lacan. London: Granta.

 

 

Assignment 3: Response to tutor feedback

Completion of my third assignment was motivated by the need to complete in order to gain an extension for the course. This resulted in me submitting an essay with which I was not entirely happy which cut through my usual worries about my submission – I replaced this with a pragmatism that I could rewrite the assignment if necessary. My feedback from Pauline is better than I expected although this has not resulted in a more favourable self-appraisal of my work. A number of points are raised that I was probably aware of at the time I pressed the send button but the general response that I have provided a well-argued piece is pleasing.

I began my response to feedback with going back and redrafting the essay, but have stopped myself. The reality of my situation is that I have an extra 6 months to complete UVC and it has already taken 2 years to reach this point in the course. Rewriting the assignment will take time that I can ill afford and may not succeed in articulating everything on my mind. With this in mind I have decided to write here about what I would do differently and what I need to focus on for the final two sections of the course.

The main feedback from Pauline is about the end of the essay – my question of whether there is anything inherently wrong with the advert, that is it is just a piece of harmless information was meant to be provocative and lead to thoughts about whether this is true. The act of asking the question in itself was intended to be rhetorical in the sense it could be read in multiple ways, I realise now however that for the purposes of the assignment I should have provided a clear viewpoint. Pauline is strong in her use of terminology, describing advertising as “propaganda designed entirely to encourage us to spend money.” Although also accepted as a part of capitalist society. This is the view I share but felt was one that was too strong to express in these terms. Ironically, my motivation for choosing this advert was my opposition to the way the viewer is subtly interpellated into the ideology that John Lewis wants to represent – the way to happy family relations is through spending money. If the child protagonist in the advert was one of my children I would have preferred more agreeable behaviour in the lead up to Christmas than them only being able to show their love for me through consumerist behaviour.

Assignment 3: Decoding Advertisements

Choose a current advertisement or advertising campaign, and, drawing on the work of Barthes and others analyse it to show how it derives and conveys its meaning to its intended audience.

In his essay, ‘The Rhetoric of the Image’, Barthes chooses an advertisement for pasta sauce to analyse because, “in advertising the signification of the image is undoubtedly intentional; the signifieds of the advertising message are formed a priori by certain attributes of the product and these signifieds have to be transmitted as clearly as possible.” (Evans and Hall: 33) Although twenty-first century advertising is on the surface more sophisticated and diverse than Barthes would have recognised, I believe this remains as true now as it was in the 1960s. The simple truth remains: adverts exist solely to sell things. To illustrate this, I have chosen to study the Christmas advertising campaigns of the department store chain John Lewis which have somehow become as much of an indicator of the Christmas season as selection boxes being on sale in the supermarket.

Until 2007, John Lewis did not advertise at all on television, and although the Christmas advert that they put out that year displayed some of the signatures that subsequent campaigns would become known for, it is a pretty conventional piece. The following Christmas however, they began developing tropes that would become their signature style: high production values, a narrative arc strong in seasonal sentimentality, a quirky, stripped down cover version of a familiar song. With the 2011 campaign, ‘The Long Wait’, the adverts had become embedded in the national consciousness and became to be seen as an annual event. (Stone, 2013) With this in mind this is the advert I have chosen to study in depth as it also represents the year that John Lewis stopped directly promoting specific products, or even their own stores and as a tangible shopping experience and instead began tapping into our cultural knowledge and aspirations and linking this with the brand. Despite this seemingly bold move, subsequent Christmas ads have continued in this vein and are credited as making a significant impact to John Lewis sales over the critical seasonal period which is so key to retailers.

The synopsis of ‘The Long Wait’ is as follows: a young boy is impatiently waiting for Christmas to arrive. The passage of time is shown through the use of quick cuts of similar scenes unified by our protagonists frustrated facial expression. We know it is the lead up to Christmas because we see the boy eating chocolate from his advent calendar, looking out of a window with a Christmas tree behind him, and, at one point he is dressed in a Shepherds’ costume apparently having starred in a school nativity play. The imminent arrival of the big day is signified by a family meal during which the boy hurriedly eats before jumping from the table and rushing to his room and climbing into bed, pulling the covers tight up to his neck and squeezing his eyes shut. We see the child waking the next morning, his eyes open and he realises it is the day he has been waiting for – Christmas. He jumps out of bed, but instead of rushing to the stocking that is at the bottom he goes to his cupboard and brings out a present. The wrapping is poor in comparison to the presents at the bottom of his bed – the suggestion being he has wrapped this himself. The camera cuts to the parents’ bedroom, seemingly alerted to the boy’s presence the adults wake bleary eyed – from their point of view we see the boy holding a present in his hands with a broad smile on his face and the caption: “For gifts you can’t wait to give. John Lewis. Instore, online, mobile.”

This reading of the scene is possible through our ability to decode a number of signs in quick succession and relies greatly on our cultural knowledge as well as our understanding of cinematic conventions such as rapid editing and showing the passage of time through subtle changes such as changes in clothing and weather conditions. There is no dialogue with the only soundtrack being a cover version of The Smiths “Please, please, please, let me get what I want”, a song with a melancholy air and a sentiment that leads us to the false belief that the child is driven purely by impatient selfishness about the gifts he will receive. The success of the ad is that our reading turns out to be incorrect – the boy is not selfish at all; in fact, his impatience is based on wanting to give his parents a gift – the gifts he receives himself are secondary to this. This confounding of our expectations not only make the advert memorable but is shamelessly designed to appeal to the viewer – specifically the parents of young children. More importantly however, multiple audiences would be able to identify with the narrative because of the sense of realism that is portrayed and that despite the specifics of the people featured in the advert it is sufficiently general to allow us to recognise the family depicted have a lifestyle that is desirable and values we share.

In ‘Rhetoric of the Image’, Barthes described three messages contained within a text: linguistic, coded iconic and non-coded iconic. The linguistic message is easy to decipher from the text, as it is here in the John Lewis advert, the timing and choice of words are interesting in this instance however. By placing the caption at the end of the advertisement we are more likely to remember that this is an ad for John Lewis, if we have enjoyed the narrative we have been shown then it could be argued we share the ideology being presented and are interpellated by the assertion that giving gifts at Christmas is a way to show our love to those close to us. The non-coded and coded iconic messages are difficult to separate. The non-coded iconic message works on the level of denotation and is partly shown in the synopsis I have given above while the coded iconic message works on the level of connotation and is essential to our ability to understand what is happening. For example, we can learn a great deal about the people being depicted in the advert, and can therefore deduce who the target audience are, by analysing the denoted and connoted signs that are presented. Everything in the advert is carefully chosen to be ‘average’ and ‘normal’ so the viewer can identify with what they are watching: a suburban semi-detached house with a small garden; a nuclear family consisting of a man, woman and two children, all of white race; parents who seem neither too young or old – all indicators of an nice, average, middle class, conventional family. While many adverts appeal through the presentation of aspirational lifestyles, glamorous people, celebrities and exotic locations, the success of ‘The Long Wait’ relies on our ability to identify with what we are seeing as a representation of our own lives.

If we consider ‘The Long Wait’ to be a successful advert then we must also recognise this is because it succeeds on an ideological level, our understanding relying on what Barthes referred to as what “goes without saying” in his essay ‘Myth Today’ (Evans and Hall, 1999: 58) The normalcy of the family unit and the way they celebrate Christmas through the exchange of gifts works on the level of myth: if something goes without saying suggests bourgeois assumptions and the product of history rather than nature. (Howells and Negreiros, 2011: 125) The characters in the advert, particularly the boy, are empty vessels, robbed of their individuality and history: “A signifier is an empty vessel until it is filled with meaning in order to signify. The less specific we are about the signifier therefore, the greater its potential to signify exactly as we wish.” (Howells and Negreiros, 2011: 129) With this in mind what is the message contained within ‘The Long Wait’? I would argue there are multiple readings: John Lewis can be trusted to provide the gifts that your family will love at Christmas and lead to domestic bliss; John Lewis will help transform your selfish brats to loving children who will show their love through the giving of gifts; the way to happiness is through gaining commodities; John Lewis shares your family values and is not interested in the sole, crass pursuit of profit. Another reading of course would be that the advert is nothing more than a ‘spectacle’ as described by Debord, a metaphor for society through which we no longer live life directly and where living has become representation: “The spectacle presents itself as something enormously positive, indisputable and inaccessible. It says nothing more than ‘that which appears is good, that which is good appears.'” (Evans and Hall, 1999: 96) Read through the prism of Debord, ‘The Long Wait’ represents a reified vision of the world with capitalism subsuming us through the fetishisation of commodities. I suspect Barthes too would have much to say against the glorification of capitalism that the advertisement represents, but once a Marxist reading is undertaken this can cloud judgement as strongly as the ideology it purports to be against – maybe it is nothing more than an advert to promote a department store which happens to do this in an entertaining and way while making the viewer remember what is good about Christmas. What is so wrong with that?

Bibliography:

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