This paper was given at the Special Effects/Special Affects: Technologies of the Screen symposium held at the University of Melbourne, 25/3/2000.

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Confounding the pundits, cinema continues to draw audiences in their millions worldwide. Given the expanding range of choices the consumer is faced with when deciding how to spend his or her entertainment dollar, what is it about film that continues to draw people, especially in the face of stiff competition from increasingly sophisticated alternative multimedia forms?

This paper will consider what it is that makes cinema such a compelling facet of contemporary culture and how certain, specific attributes inflect the enunciation of the human subject in a post-modern world. It’s central tenet is that cinema remains unique amongst contemporary cultural forms in what it offers contemporary subjectivity and the latter’s ongoing enunciation, because it allows the iteration of particular and discrete aspects of the subject that cannot otherwise be activated.

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I was walking home recently when I stumbled across a piece of graffiti that quite literally stopped me in my tracks, because in a weird sort of way it seemed to neatly sum up one view of what cinema is about.

It said: Subjugate thyself to the screen. More real than real.

At first glance, you might think there’s nothing too remarkable about that. But on closer inspection, and in the way that some of the more circumspect pieces of graffiti can, it suggests a range of interpretations. Depending on your particular philosophic or theoretical orientation, you might on the one hand interpret the phrase “more real than real” as a reference to the Lacanian psychoanalytic Real. On the other, it might make more sense to you in terms of the Baudrillardian hyper-real. Or it might remain faintly puzzling and a bit absurd.

I’d like to suggest another interpretation in this paper. This particular graffito, it seems to me, is a clear invitation to participate, to participate in something that according to this statement has an edge over the everyday real we encounter. As it says, it’s more real: it has, in other words, more to offer than the everyday real. But how can “the screen” do this, and, perhaps more significantly, why is that important anyway?

The answer I’m proposing involves a notion of cinema that has little to do with a view of film as either a space of illusion in which spectators are required to suspend their disbelief; or as a place where a passive viewer is situated – or interpellated – according to the precepts of a discursive ideology.

Instead, I want to suggest a view of cinema as one of the most potent mechanisms we have access to for meaning making in this contemporary day and age, a fact that I believe explains cinema’s consistent popularity in the face of an expanding number of competing entertainment choices. Cinema’s most favoured status is demonstrated by the fact that the number of movie theatres per head of population in this country is at an all-time high. Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that in the last decade or so, we have more than doubled the number of screens across the country from 842 in 1981 to over 1600 in 1997. And according to the Australian Film Commission’s1997 publication, Get The Picture, an overwhelming 70% of the population declared that going to the movies was their preferred cultural pastime, over and above any other. (1)

Leaving aside the marketing and advertising muscle of the major movie production and distribution houses, such an staggering preference would seem to suggest that the spectator gets something distinct, compelling and of use from the cinematic experience. I’ve already suggested that the most obvious gain is cinema’s potential to assist in individual and cultural meaning making. But I’d like to take that one step further and suggest that this particular activity of meaning making is also implicated in the ongoing enunciation of contemporary subjectivity: that is, the continual process of iteration and re-iteration of a sense of self.

To illustrate the parameters of such an interaction, I want to suggest a model that I think demonstrates both how such a phenomenon takes place, and why such outcomes have an extraordinary benefit for individuals as well as the broader culture they are part of. I’ll then briefly outline a couple of the possibilities this paradigm suggests and the attendant benefits for the spectator subject. One of the things that I hope such a description will encourage is a view of cinema and its operations that is positive and enabling.

Before doing so though, mention needs to be made of some assumptions that underpin what I’m about to say. One that I’ve already briefly alluded to, is that cinema can operate as a cogent and powerful cultural mechanism for meaning making. In making such an statement, I’m forging a distinction between film theories that view cinema variously as a dreamscape, a space wherein the spectator is passively positioned or ‘sutured’ into the film in response to regimes of power and desire, or those that see film as a space of illusion and consequently de-lusion. While theories such as these obviously do see cinema as a site of meaningful spectatorial interaction, it’s what they conceive these construed meanings to be and what they believe the spectator gains from such interactions, that I think are worthy of review.

In this paper, I’d like to propose a conception of cinema as a site of information exchange. In this, film is almost unparalleled in the possibilities it offers the spectator to establish meanings and make associations from the information obtained. Not only does cinema enable a process of meaning making per se, it also makes it possible for the spectator to activate meaning making processes that are otherwise culturally negated, or made unavailable to specific aspects of subjective enunciation. In this it is unique. Cinema achieves this by bringing worlds to the spectator that might otherwise remain out of reach, whether they be the off-worlds of science fiction, such as the representation of Mars in Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990), or the vision of a bad new future in Bladerunner (Ridley Scott, 1982); or the other worlds of this planet represented via the formats of documentary cinema, such as that in Joe Leahy’s Neighbours (Bob Connelly and Robin Anderson, 1998), which looked at a New Guinean national’s efforts to buy into that country’s coffee economy; or Zhang Yimou’s latest feature, Not One Less (1999), which seems to incorporate a bit of both.

As well as representing other worlds, cinema also allows the spectator to vicariously participate in emotional, intellectual and physical experiences that might not otherwise be experienced. In this regard, the societal microcosm of The Cube (Vincenzo Natali, 1997) and the terrifying madness of the protagonists’ situation comes to mind, as does the chilling representation of a controlled future contained in The Matrix (The Wachowski Brothers, 1999), or the exhilaration of the escapades in Broken Arrow (John Woo, 1996). In availing themselves of such varied sets of experiences, cinematic spectators engage in an ongoing and dynamic perceptual interaction with a film that mirrors their perceptual engagements with the physical world outside the theatre. To do so, spectators actively make choices from amongst the many patterns of information available on the cinematic screen and from within the diegetic worlds displayed there.

As such, the perception and comprehension of films becomes another aspect of human perception and comprehension that is carried out more generally in day-to-day existences. It isn’t a matter of being in a semi-hypnotic state in a darkened theatre. It isn’t a matter of suspending disbelief. It is also not a matter of being “positioned” as a spectator or “sutured” into a text, and it has nothing to do with dreaming. It is instead our perceptual system alternating between two separate but related sets of information: on the one hand, that derived from the reality of the world at large and on the other, the commensurate but surrogate reality of the diegetic worlds on the screen. (2)

The second assumption is that the spectator who sits down to watch a film is obviously already a composite of prior experiences, meanings and knowledges that are unique to that individual. Most importantly, this amalgam is brought to bear in an always-intensive interaction with the diegetic world displayed on the screen. The correlation here is that the spectator subject is not a blank tabula rasa, ready and waiting for the film to inscribe as the latter sees fit. This might seem a rather self evident thing to mention, were it not for the fact that a great deal of still very influential film theory would have us believe that the spectator subject is a somewhat passive and inert entity. Whether it’s a hegemonic, “masculine”, Oedipal spectator who receives an illusory power and coherence from its cinematic subjugation; or a spectator-subject whose voyeuristic-sadistic gaze is the chief organising principle for mainstream cinema, certain film theories argue for a passive spectator. (3) Such an view negates cinema’s intrinsic potential to operate as one of the most important cultural meaning making activities we possess, one which is consequently and irrevocably implicated in the ongoing enunciation of contemporary subjectivity.

What I’d like to outline now, is an alternate model of cinematic spectatorship that assumes a dynamic, active spectator in its explanation of how a sense of self – that is, a sense of who we are, both individually and as part of a larger socio-cultural group – is inflected by the act of going to the movies. To do so, I’m going to turn to the work of American theorist, Daniel Stern. Stern’s work is concerned with examining how subjectivity in its most fundamental sense, comes to be: how, in fact, we come to develop a sense of ourselves and of others that is generally taken to be the cornerstone of the human subject. Stern’s starting point is the newborn baby and the ways in which such an infant comes to terms with the larger world of which it is a part. His thesis is that human subjectivity comes about initially because of the development in infancy of four foundational senses of self. These senses of self continue to grow and develop for the duration of the individual’s life, and are the basis of the ongoing enunciation of each individual’s subjectivity. (4)

Very briefly, Stern’s four senses of self include:

(1) The sense of emergent self, which forms from birth to around two months. This is the bedrock on which the later three organizing principles stand. During this time, infants are concerned with relating diverse experiences: some innately, others quickly learned. Their social capacities are geared towards social interactions that produce affects, perceptions, sensorimotor events, memories and other cognitions. Connectedness forms rapidly and the infant experiences the emergence of organization. The experience of both this process of the emergent self coming into being, as well as its product, is apprehended and experienced as the emergence of networks being integrated. This is the domain of emergent relatedness.

(2) The second sense of self is that of the core self. It forms between the ages of two and six months and is the first organizing subjective perspective. The physical self is experienced as a coherent, wilful, physical entity, with a unique affective life and history that belongs to it, although this experience generally operates outside awareness and is taken for granted. An experiential sense of self that depends on the operation of many interpersonal capacities, when this perspective forms with its concomitant alteration of the subjective social world, interpersonal experience operates in a different domain of core-relatedness. This developmental transformation occurs when infants sense that they and the mother are physically separate, are different agents, have distinct affective experiences and have separate histories.

(3) The third sense of self is that of the subjective self. It forms between the ages of seven and fifteen months. The second organizing subjective perspective, this occurs when infants “discover” that other minds exist as well as their own. Self and other are no longer only core entities of physical presence, action, affect and continuity, but now include subjective mental states – feelings, motives, intentions – that lie behind the physical happenings in the domain of core relatedness. Self and other are now deemed to possess inferable mental states, such as intentions or affects that guide overt behaviour and that now become the subject matter of relating. The resultant sense of a subjective self allows the possibility of inter-subjectivity between infant and parent and operates in a new domain of inter-subjective relatedness. The nature of relatedness is dramatically expanded (mental states can now be “read”) but this domain still occurs outside awareness and without being rendered verbally. This sense of the subjective self and other thus depends on different capacities to those needed for a core self, and include sharing a focus of attention; attributing intentions/motives to others and reading them correctly; attributing states of feeling in others and sensing whether they match one’s own.

(4) The sense of a verbal self is the fourth and last of Stern’s developmental senses of self. This third organizing subjective perspective about self and other occurs around the ages of fifteen to eighteen months, and takes place with the recognition by the infant that self and other have a store of personal world knowledge and experience that can be objectified and rendered symbolically (that is, communicated, shared, or created) by the mutual negotiations of language. Once the infant can create shareable meanings about the world and itself, Stern argues that a sense of a verbal self that operates in the domain of verbal relatedness has formed. This is a qualitatively new domain with expanding, almost limitless possibilities for interpersonal happenings. This new sense of self also depends on a new set of capacities: those needed to objectify the self; to be self reflective; and to comprehend and produce language.

It is Stern’s contention that each self and its attendant domain of relatedness appears as the maturation of capacities in the infant allows new organizing subjective perspectives about self and other. He further argues that the senses of self are not successive phases that replace one another, but that once each one comes “online” as it were, they remain functionally intact and available throughout the subject’s life, all continuing to grow and coexist. If Stern’s senses of self are the organizing perspectives that render the experience of the subjective social world intelligible in particular ways, then their attendant domains of relatedness are where the interpersonal experiences that are now informed by these perspectives, takes place.

The main point to be stressed here is that as these four senses of self and their attendant domains of relatedness are active for the lifespan, they are also always available to interact with each other as they process the information gained in the individual’s daily perceptual interaction with the world at large. If cinema is primarily an informational entity, then the selves and their domains must come into play when the spectator perceptually engages with the diegetic world of the screen-as-information. While their constant interaction helps the spectator to construe meanings that are necessary to comprehend the film perceived, these meanings are also integrated with the continual process of becoming that comprises each human spectator subject.

In summary, Stern’s four senses of self and their attendant domains of relatedness, are not only successive phases: they are also simultaneous domains of self-experience. Once all are present and functioning, there is a fluidity of movement between them that enables the subjective experience of social interactions to occur in all domains of relatedness simultaneously. Once formed, the domains are not lost to adult experience but remain forever as distinct forms of experiencing social life and self, each simply getting more elaborated as the individual continues to perceive and experience informational events. No extraordinary conditions or processes are necessary to allow movement between experiences in different domains or senses of the self.

If Stern is correct – and he presents an impressive body of clinical evidence and observed data, in support of his thesis – and these senses of self and their domains of relatedness are the constituent elements of human subjectivity which, once activated, are operant and available to individuals for the rest of their lives, then these senses of self are also the means by which the spectator interacts with a film, derives meaning from the cinematic experience and incorporates this newly accessed “information” into a re-iterated sense of self (or subjectivity).

There are clear implications for any consideration of the cinematic spectator subject in this interaction between domains of self-experience and senses of self. One example is the muting of the verbal self in the film spectator.

Within his schema, Stern argues that the development of language is ultimately problematic, becoming something of a double-edged sword for the subject. This is because whilst language allows a new sharing of some aspects of experience, it is also constraining in that the meanings themselves and the very language used to describe both the experience and the meaning that accrues therein, must always be at a distance from the event. Language thus drives a wedge between experience as it is lived and experience as it is verbally represented. This means a privileging of the verbally described events over non-verbally described events, such that the former are seen to be what “really” happened. They acquire, in other words, the status of a pre-eminent “truth” or legitimacy that is denied the non-verbal. Such a cultural privileging of the verbal means that the other domains of experience become somewhat alienated as a consequence. Language therefore leads to a split in the experience of the self: it takes relatedness into the abstract and impersonal realms of language, and away from the personal and immediate levels intrinsic to other realms of relatedness.

Although language is obviously present diegetically, and is responded to by the film spectator as verbally encoded meanings, these are not the only sites of potential meaning that are proffered when interacting with a film. Non verbal sites of meaning, such as the soundtrack, the mise en scène, or the various activities situated there, whether they be images of lovemaking, the full-on thrill of a John Woo action sequence, or being ringside at the Cirque du Soleil, are all experienced and – for want of a better word – “processed” through the domains of relatedness and their representative senses of self. At moments such as these where the verbal self is more “muted”, a space is realised for the other, non-verbally realised entities and their domains of relatedness to come to the fore in a way that is not otherwise readily accessible.

At this point, I want to apply Stern’s schema to a filmed performance of Canada’s Cirque du Soleil and briefly indicate the ways in which the senses of self and their domains of relatedness came into play for me. Given what I’ve already stated about cinema as a site of information access, what I am proposing in this analysis, is a sort of surrogate experience of the Cirque du Soleil via a film of its Big Top performances. I couldn’t afford to go to the Cirque du Soleil when they came to perform in the Melbourne. But by viewing this filmed performance, I have access to enough emotional, intellectual and spectatorial information to have a consequent and reasonably factual sense of what it must have been like to be there in real time. More than that though, is the clear perception when watching this filmed performance, that at certain moments we-as-viewers are actually in the Cirque du Soleil Big Top. As with any film, there are many factors that contrive to present this “more real than real” experience to us as spectators. There is for example the driving soundtrack: in this case a blend of orchestral music, up-tempo pop and theatrical sound effects. There are also views of other performers on the margins of the ring. Independent but also ancilliary aspects of the central performance, they form intrinsic elements of the spectacle as a whole, adding to its overall coherence and solidarity. Tying these various elements together are intermittent shots of the audience watching the performance(s) that correspond to those short “glances away” from a main performance that spectators sometimes make in real-time viewing. All these elements work to infuse a strong sense of being present at the performance for the film spectator.

While a number of circus performers are portrayed in this film and you could apply what I’m about to propose to any of their performances, I’m going to concentrate on the female contortionist. Like all the other Cirque du Soleil performers, this was a most extraordinary individual – a fact declared again and again by the numerous camera angles that revealed her acrobatic agility, as they synchronously amplified the impression of being ringside. We were given views of the performer from above and from all sides, from a distance and close-up. We were given intermittent but separate shots of the subsidiary performers that reinforced a sense of viewer presence in the same way that a spectator can sometimes be distracted by peripheral performers, in situ. One of the most potent aspects of the “more real than real” experience, were the close-ups of the contortionist as she balanced on a small block of wood, atop a wobbling, vertical wire. Here, we-as-spectators were given a preeminent and otherwise impossible view of the extraordinary control and versatility of this performer as she struggled to maintain her balance while she bent her body into ever more impossible positions. With a camera directly beneath her, we were party to the effort and the tenacity with which she performed, her arms trembling as they strained to maintain position, her face fixed with total concentration. Because the camera was beneath her, we could also see her hair standing out horizontally from her head, something that would otherwise be inconceivable were it not for the fact that she was upside down and we were looking directly up at her from beneath. In this position, we were also able to observe her extraordinary versatility as she performed amazing feats of balance as the stage slowly revolved. The most awe-inspiring aspect of this performance came as the contortionist suspended herself on one hand and proceeded to bend her legs into a precarious position that was completely antithetical to any a human leg would ordinarily be expected to occupy. This feat was, quite literally, breathtaking. And it occurred in an atmosphere charged visually and aurally with the surreal and magical artifice of the theatre of the circus.

At different moments as I watched her performance, I was aware of myself and of this other woman as discreet physical entities. I was aware of her self-agency, her will and her activation. According to Stern’s schema, these perceptions are all experienced in the domain of core relatedness. At the same time, I was aware that I was also attempting to sense her subjective state through her facial expression, her concentration and her trembling arms as she struggled to maintain her balance, to say nothing of the contorted state of her limbs and the physical sensations these contortions must surely produce. These realisations were experienced in the domain of inter-subjective relatedness.

There were also moments when I found myself absorbed by her face or her “contorted” limbs as if they were momentarily not part of this core other, and unrelated to any mental state. Then her face or limb would again become a part of her. At this moment, Stern would argue that an experience in the domain of emergent relatedness had taken place.

Obviously what I have described here is my own unique interactive experience of this filmic performance. It is a particular set of affective and effective responses brought about by the composite of knowledges, experiences, emotions and thoughts that make up the person – the subjectivity – I was at that particular moment. Any other person watching this film would have a differentially unique response that would be similarly dependent on the composite of knowledges, experiences, emotions and thoughts that comprised that particular spectator subjectivity at that particular moment.

The point remains however that by enabling the senses of self and their domains of relatedness to have an overt and functioning presence – however momentary this can be – cinematic experiences make a differently and more fully integrated subjectivity feasible, than would otherwise be possible. The various integrations of these newly perceived meanings are then available to the spectator subject, both during the cinematic experience and later in the world outside.

Another possibility raised by Stern’s schema is the use of language by the verbal self to transcend lived experience and generate new possibilities in the on-going articulation of subjectivity.

Stern talks of various capacities needed to allow a sharing of meanings that is essential to social interaction, including the capacity to accurately represent things and events done by others that are not yet part of one’s own action schemas; and the ability to create a mental prototype or representation of what we have witnessed someone else do. He argues that these occur in a field of “deferred imitation”, and the parallel with film viewing is clear. When watching a film and experiencing its moments, we can mentally imitate or “try on for size” what we’re perceiving and therefore interacting with on the screen.

To take the filmed contortionist’s performance as exemplar once again, I could never in a million years anticipate ever getting my body to do what the contortionist’s body did. Yet by viewing her performance and through the full play and simultaneous interaction of the four senses of self and their domains of relatedness, I have a resultant sense of what it might be like to do so. In such an insertion into the moment, and through its accessing of the verbal self and its domain of relatedness, going to the movies offers the opportunity to work on one’s interpersonal world knowledge and experience, to integrate, to assess, and to expand it.

Through cinematic experiences then, a mélange of past memories and present realities, as well as the expectation of other subjective states or possibilities can be activated, allowing a re-iteration of the subject that is potentially more expansive and complex than it might otherwise be.

Such a model of cinematic complicity in subjective enunciation as the one I’ve described in this paper and the possibilities that derive from it, merely serve to confirm cinema as one of the most critical sites of cultural and individual meaning making we have access to in the ongoing enunciation of contemporary subjectivity.


  1. In comparison, only 16.6% of the population attended the theatre, 19.3% saw operas or musicals, 38.4% visited libraries, 27.8% went to museums and 22.3% visited an art gallery. Melbournians in particular were representative of this increase in popularity with 69.9% of the population flocking to the movies on a regular basis across a variety of venues in 1997. Figures taken from The Australian Film Commission’s publication, Get The Picture. Australian Film Commission, Sydney, 1997.
  2. Anderson, J. The Reality of Illusion. An Ecological Approach to Cognitive Film Theory, Carbondale, 1996: 48.
  3. Linda Williams contains a cogent critique of such theories in her introduction to Viewing Positions. See Williams, L. (ed.), Viewing Positions. Ways Of Seeing Film, New Brunswick, 1994: 1-22.
  4. For a comprehensive account of his thesis, see Stern, D. The Interpersonal World Of the Infant. A View From Psychoanalysis And Developmental Psychology, New York, 1985.

About The Author

Bronwyn Morkham is a PhD candidate in Cinema Studies at the University of Melbourne.