Memento, Noir and our fading sense of morality

As we have frequently pointed it out, “Memento” is a classical example of a movie inspired by film noir. I came across a great article written by a German professor, Dr. Robert Hurd, who does a great job identifying film noir, neo-noir and its presence in this particular film ( In the previous post, my classmate also presented us with some great examples of the correlation between the three, but instead of regurgitating what has already been said, I would like to focus on one specific characteristic of noir that is so evident in “Memento”. That feature is the theme of revenge.

Hurd explains that the film of revenge follows a structured pattern where the protagonist is somehow betrayed and having run out of other options, he puts seeking justice into his own hands. Noir and revenge films criticize society and particularly its system of justice which was unable to help the protagonist. The police have closed the case of Leonard Shelby’s wife’s murder without finding the criminals that took away his wife and his memory. Having witnessed the wrongdoing, the viewer oftentimes commiserates with the protagonist blurring his or her ability to sense what kind of justice is morally acceptable. Another characteristic of noir is voice-over narration. We hear the story from Lenny’s perspective, as opposed to an objective one. The argument that I am trying to make is that because of the aforementioned characteristics, revenge films such as “Memento” may alter or more specifically – diminish our ethical judgment. We become possessed by an “eye for an eye” mentality. When researching the film, I came across a review on, which offered a great quote that further explains my point. It stated, “Leonard Shelby is a moral monster – far more sinning that sinned against.” Having empathized with Shelby throughout the entire movie, and seeking truth for his wife’s murder along his side, only to find out at the very end that he has been deceiving himself this whole time, could not surpass the connection and the pity I had for the protagonist. Was I justifying actions I would otherwise never agree with? I am amazed at the sense of revenge and at times even cruelty that this genre was able to awaken in me.

Memento Cartoon

A Distillation Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”

The following is a distillation of key concepts in Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” I hope this helps.

Laura Mulvey, “Narrative Cinema and Visual Pleasure,” 1973.

Mulvey appropriates psychoanalysis as a “political weapon” in order to expose ways in which the “patriarchal unconscious” structures film form and the way we experience it.

Woman is the bearer, not maker of meaning in a patriarchal, phallocentric symbolic order. The paradox of  phallocentrism is in that it depends on woman (as lack) to provide meaning and order, to give symbolic meaning to the phallus (the yin needs its yang) – phallus also signifies threat of castration (woman’s supposed desire to “make good the lack”).

There is no lasting place in phallocentric order for the woman: she exists only to symbolize lack, threat of castration (by lack of phallus, male power) and to bring children into the symbolic order –to reproduce it. In patriarchal culture, woman is only the signifier of the “male other” – of that which the male is not, his binary opposite.

According to Mulvey, psychoanalysis allows a way to interrogate patriarchal order from the inside, “to fight the unconscious structured like a language” – provides a way of understanding the frustrating predicament of woman within the patriarchal order.

The unconscious (shaped by the dominant order) structures looking, visual pleasure; film poses questions about the way this works. Hollywood film coded “the erotic” into language of dominant culture. An alternative to this coding is possible in avant-garde, alternative cinema but as a counterpoint to Hollywood. Mulvey wants to rip apart this coding of beauty, erotic pleasure, to destroy it: “It is said that analyzing pleasure, or beauty destroys it. That is the intention of this article.” She wants, in part, to “conceive new language of desire.” She sees a thrill in this sort of thing.

Two contradictory aspects of pleasure of looking in film: 1) scopophilia, 2) identification.

1) Scopophilia: scopophilic instinct: pleasure in looking at another as sexual object. Audience as voyeurs, isolated from images on screen and one another – audience as looking in on a private world (by way of narrative conventions, etc.). The spectator represses own exhibitionism and projects desire onto screen performer. (This is the separation of subject’s “erotic identity” from object on screen.)

2) Identification: ego libido; related to Lacan’s mirror stage; spectator identifying with an image on screen, gap between image and self-image. Mulvey relates image to first articulation of “I,” subjectivity; constitution of ego, narcissism. (Identification of ego identity w/ object on the screen – subject seeing his/her like.) Paradox: look can be pleasurable in its form but threatening in its content – woman is an active threat of castration is “crystallization” of this (desire born of language and can transcend instinct (scopophilia) and libido (identification), but returns to traumatic source, to the fear of castration).

Active/male; passive/female. Image of woman (passive) is “raw material” for the looking of man (active). Woman as exhibitionist: is simultaneously to be looked at and displayed – coded to connote “to-be-looked-at-ness.” Woman as “alien presence” in many mainstream films – only there to be looked at, breaks diegesis. Woman as erotic object for 1) male characters in the movie and 2) for the spectator – there is a shifting tension between the two looks. Man in the story is the bearer of spectator’s gaze. Lead male character serves as surrogate for spectator’s look – conferring a sense of omnipotence: “so that the power of the male protagonist as he controls events coincides with the active power of the erotic look.” Man as “figure in a landscape” – demanding presence in space, commanding “stage of spatial illusion” while woman is often “cut up,” despatialized (close-ups of body parts, etc.) – not occupying the virtual landscape of the film.

Big problem in the figure of the woman: Since woman de facto signifies sexual difference, a lack of a penis, the threat of castration, “unpleasure, she threatens to destroy unity of the diegesis: “Thus the woman as icon, displayed for the gaze and enjoyment of men, the active controllers of the look, always threatens to evoke the anxiety it originally signified.” (This is also the contradiction inherent in the structures of looking: as is, the image of woman threatens diegesis, imaginary world of the film asn comes off as an “intrusive, static, one dimensional fetish.”) To “escape,” to avoid castration anxiety, to maintain diegesis, the male unconscious can take one of two avenues:

1) voyeurism: going to source of anxiety (“investigating the woman, demystifying her mystery”) combined w/ devaluation, punishment, or saving “the guilty object” This is typical of film noir, she says – has sadistic element in asserting control, judging, punishing.

2) fetishistic scopophilia: disavowing castration altogether by fetishizing the figure of the woman (or substituting fetish object), taming it, making it reassuring, satisfying in itself.

Sternberg’s films with Marlene Dietrich are a good example of fetishistic scopophelia: no identification with male star – all about looking at Dietrich as fetish object. There is little or no mediation of spectator’s gaze through the male character. Male hero does not see, but the spectator does.

Hitchcock’s films, on the other hand, rely on voyeurism quite a bit: viewer essentially sees through the male protagonist, assumes his subjectivity, his looking. In Rear Window, for example, Jimmy Stewart’s “Jeffries is the audience.” Erotic element is in looking; his sexual relationship with Grace Kelly’s Lisa (who is already an exhibitionist) is only re-ignited when she crosses over and becomes the object of his gaze. Hitchcock makes audience voyeurs as much as the lead protagonist: “The audience is absorbed into a voyeuristic situation w/in the screen scene and diegesis that parodies his own in the cinema.” Mulvey offers examples from Marnie and Vertigo as well.

All this business – this structure of pleasure in looking – is not inherent to the film medium but to prevailing film form in its aping of the male unconscious. The camera is an instrument beholden to the neurotic needs of the male ego. Spectator can’t get distance from the image on the screen because fetishization steps in as soon as the erotic image shows up and works to conceal the threat to the “spell of illusion” posed by the unmediated fetish object; the audience look is frozen, fixated.

Reading Mulvey

For Tuesday I’ve asked you to read British film theorist Laura Mulvey‘s hugely important and influential 1975 essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Since the copy we have is all marked up, you can download a clean version from another source here. It’s also available in HTML at the Brown University Wiki.

As I noted in class, this is a very challenging essay. It relies heavily on psychoanalytic theory and can seem confusing at first, but it is logically organized and reasonably argued. While some of the concepts Mulvey works with may be difficult and unfamiliar, a careful, attentive reading will reveal an interesting and provocative argument that makes sense whether or not you agree with it. So go slowly and make note of what you don’t understand, want to discuss, or would like clarified further. You may not totally grasp every idea Mulvey raises right away, but you should be able to get a pretty good sense of her overall argument — enough to give us a lot to talk about in class on Tuesday. This is a well known and controversial essay that has been discussed, debated, refuted and refined by film students, scholars and filmmakers for the last 35 years and now we’re going to join the conversation.

At it’s most basic, Mulvey’s argument is that the perspective of Hollywood films has historically been a male one, predisposing viewers to identify with men onscreen and to see women in the movies merely as passive objects, there to be looked at by by both the male characters and the spectator.  The “gaze” Hollywood films offer, she argues, is a male one so that when we watch a movie, we look with the men, but look at the women.

Grace Kelly and James Stewart in Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954)

I am looking forward to our discussion on Tuesday and to establishing explicit connections between Mulvey’s argument and the films we’ve seen so far, particularly the noirs we’ve been watching for the last two weeks.

If you have questions you’d like to pose before our discussion (or even after), feel free to post them here in a comment.