The Story of The Last Chrysanthemums


Some time ago, suffering an excruciating pressure through my jaw and cranium, I came to believe that the source of the problem lay in the root of my tongue and the way in which the musculature of my tongue was sitting within its cavity in the pharynx. I thought that if I was able to visualise the structure of the muscles around the epiglottis I could find some way to release them, and to this end I went to the classic anatomy text, Gray’s Anatomy. Here I was instructed to first draw the tongue forward and attach it by a stitch to the nose to establish the optimal stretch for examination, and that then, in order to better demonstrate the fibres of the tongue, the organ should be subjected to prolonged boiling (Gray, 324-325).

At this moment, as I registered in a flash the image of the cadaver superimposed over my own sentient flesh, I felt a sense of alienation, of dismemberment, familiar not only from other encounters with medical discourse, but also reminiscent of reading philosophical and cultural works which putatively offer knowledge of the body but which find no resonance in my own sense of corporeality, of the lived body. Not least among these discourses which seem to evoke dismemberment rather than living bodies are film theory and critical writings on cinema.

The Pasolini scholar, Maurizio Viano, once declared his conviction that “the wish for a scientific film theory was an unfortunate episode in the history of film criticism” (Viano, ix) (1). Nowhere is this debilitating heritage more pertinent than in the grounding of film theory in understandings of the body which derive their principles from anatomy. The insistence on scientific models of the body derived from biomedical discourse and the concomitant occlusion of phenomenological concepts of embodiment, have persistently thwarted the articulation of an aesthetics of embodiment which recognises the full resonance of embodied affect in the experience of cinema spectatorship.

In her early attempts to revive a phenomenological film theory, Vivien Sobchack wrote, in the 1980s, of the reluctance of decades of film theory to deal with experience as a complex affective and embodied process, claiming there had been a collective horror of the concept of experience, which, she argued, had been seen as “a soft, mushy term, a hangover from a sloppy liberal humanism” (Sobchack, xiv). Indeed, it is precisely here, in examining more closely the concept of affective experience, that the historical interlocking of film theory with the foundational metaphors of anatomy is revealed as a shackle to an impoverished and unproductive “scientific” model of embodiment.

Anatomy, which Foucault calls the “techniques of the corpse”, took as its foundation the study of the static structures perceivable on the dissection table, the human body robbed of life, severed from its connection to the lived experience of that body. While the focus on the corpse shifted from centre-stage with the development of physiology, with its study of the body as living and moving systems, the cold shudder of the morgue lingers in the measurement and observation of the living physical body conceived as a separate entity to the subjectivity which inhabits it. Physiology developed alongside anatomy, rather than displacing it, and the foundational principles established through the development of anatomy, with its assumptions of a structural, empirically measurable body, can be read across the subsequent disciplines of physiology and clinical practice.

The core concept of the body which persists from anatomy through to physiology is what the Germans call Körper. Körper refers to “the structural aspects of the body, the objectified body and also the dead body or corpse”. This term, Thomas Ots claims, “views the body as a vessel or container to be filled with the spirit or soul” (Ots, 117). As writers in both phenomenology and medical anthropology have pointed out, in German there is a clear demarcation between this term and another word, Leib, explained by Ots as the “living body, my body with feelings, sensations, perceptions and emotions” (Ots, 116). These two bodies of course are indistinct in the English language. In film theory the erasure of the distinction between these two concepts has masked the implications of the concept of Leib, the experiential potential of Leib as embodied affect, for a cinematic aesthetics of embodiment.


The foundational metaphor of the disembodied eye in decades of so-called gaze theory has been the historical site of the imbrication of film theory with an empiricist psychology of perception and optics. The dismantling of this metaphor has of course been well-rehearsed in cinema studies and debates around visual cultures in the last decade. In these attempts to integrate the body into the conceptual models for understanding vision, however, there is commonly a slide, an elision between the physical body, the subject, and embodiment, in a way that once again erases the distinction between these terms.

click to buy 'Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the 19th Century' at Amazon.comAt the forefront of this re-thinking of vision has been Jonathan Crary, and it is instructive to examine more closely the understanding of embodied vision which he explores. In his treatise on the techniques of the observer, Crary traces the ways in which 18th century models of vision draw on the model of the camera obscura with its basis in the lifeless structures of anatomy. As a pivotal moment in this co-evolution of the two disciplines of anatomy and optics, Crary cites the instruction of Descartes to his readers to “[take] the dead eye of a newly dead person”, to scrape back the outer membranes, and insert it as a lens into the camera obscura (Crary, 45). For Descartes, this eye severed from the subjective interference of the human senses provides the model for understanding optics, and thereby vision.

Crary recounts the shift from this model of optics to a model which derives its principles and claim to authority from physiology. He argues that, by shifting the paradigm of vision from the static anatomy-based model to the physiological model grounded in the observation and measurement of the living body, the groundedness of vision in the body comes to occupy an increasingly central role in 19th century theory and practice of optics. In Crary’s account, the subjective understanding of vision comes to displace sense-receptor-based theories of vision which assume that the eye simply registers information from the external world. He calls this new integration of the subjective ground of vision a “corporeal” concept of vision. However, when Crary describes the integration of the body into the conceptual models for understanding vision, the body he refers to here is Körper—an entity conceived of as physiological.

The paradigm shift which Crary outlines is tied to the epistemological question of where vision occurs—whether the sensations which we perceive as visual derive from external, so-called objective realities, or whether they derive internally, from the subject. He argues that 19th century optics recognised that the product of vision and the process of vision itself can be severed from any external referent—for example, a visual sensation can be produced by electrical stimulation of the retina. This recognition of the “non-objective”, non-referential outcome of vision, its grounding in the subjective processing of information, he argues, redefined the concept of visual perception, with the acknowledgment that vision is grounded in the physiological structures of the body.

In this account, the impact of the physical body on the processes of vision is positional or structural. This is the “thickness of the body”, the carnal density which Crary ascribes to the new understanding of vision. The subjectivity that he evokes here refers to the sense of cognitive inner realities and we need to clearly demarcate the difference between this concept of subjectivity and embodiment. Subjectivity is not coterminous with embodied experience—it is only one component, one narrowly-defined layer of experience, which does not approximate the heterogeneous and conflicting multidimensionality of the lived body. The corporeality of vision which Crary discusses in this way cannot encompass the full register of Leib—the body of feeling, sensation, perception and emotion—and does not open up an exploration of the affective embodied experience of the visual world.

In so far as Crary focuses on vision and the understanding of vision as an artefact of discourse, in so far that is as he derives his analytical model from Foucault—and you could call his study an archaeology of vision—he inherits from Foucault a focus on the body and vision as the product of discursive construction. With this heritage comes both a strength—the illumination of the social/historical grounding of vision and its conceptualisation in particular historical moments—and also the blind spots of this method—the erasure or occlusion of the question of experience. The sociologists Lyon and Barbalet point out this limitation in Foucault’s Birth of the Clinic when they claim that he focuses on the “outcome of social processes” and the body as an artefact of these forces with little attention to the experience of the lived bodies subject to the impact of those forces, or their potential as “an active source of social processes”, not just their object (Lyon, and Barbalet, 49, 54). This critique is taken much further in the context of medical anthropology by Terence Turner who argues that “Foucault’s body has no flesh”: it is “a featureless tabula rasa”, an “inert, subjectless physical object waiting to be animated by discourse with no sensuous potential on its own terms” (Turner, 35-37, 43) (2). It is precisely this “sensuous potential”, and its affective power, that is lacking from Crary’s understanding of the corporeality of vision. And it is a recognition of this sensuous potential that the concept of Leib brings to the “body” of film theory, and to an aesthetics of embodiment.

Just as “medicine’s conquest of the body” as an object of knowledge “required the gradual foreclosure of subjective experience”, as John Wiltshire writes (Wiltshire, 40-41), when we examine the transposition of the physiological understanding of the body and of vision into contemporary film theory, it is the same foreclosure of the full resonance of embodied experience that characterises this disciplinary field, and the physiological metaphor emerges as a regulatory force in its own right within film theory.

While Crary touches only briefly on the impact of physiological optics on cinema and its theorisation, Lisa Cartwright has examined the thorough imbrication of physiological optics and cinema in her study of the physiological cinema. Cartwright explores the introduction of the cinematic apparatus into the laboratories of physiologists such as Étienne-Jules Marey, particularly as an instrument for the recording and study of human motion. She argues particularly that the erasure of subjectivity, which forms a core defining principle of the laboratory techniques under which the cinematographe was integrated into the physiological study of the body, works its way back into the popular cinema in genres which develop the fascination with surveillant looking (3). My own concern here develops at a tangent to Cartwright’s field of study. I am concerned with how the persistence of the physiological concept of the body as Körper, and the resistance to exploring the full implications of Leib, has hindered the development of an aesthetics of embodiment which can address the centrality of embodied affect to understanding cinema spectatorship.

An aesthetics of embodiment can be understood in various ways: Peter Brooks has used this term to describe the theatrical use of the body as site of signification, the recourse to gesture or bodiliness to carry a part of the burden of meaning. While this performing body can contribute to the aesthetics of embodiment which I propose, my focus is not on this body on the screen, but the relationship between the embodied spectator and the screen. Linda Williams has opened up the discussion of this dynamic with her analysis of “body genres”, such as porn and horror, and the potential effects on the spectator of the viewing of bodily excess on the screen. While she does propose a dimension to this experience that goes beyond a simple mimicry of those viewed bodies, her analysis relies for its discussion of embodiment on the presence of the human body on the screen (4). The aesthetics of embodiment which I am proposing, as a primary dimension of spectatorship, does not assume a body on the screen.

As a paradigmatic instance, I’ll take a scene in Mizoguchi’s film, The Story of The Last Chrysanthemums (Mizoguchi Kenji, 1939). This scene shows a number of people sitting at a river carnival waving fans. Narratively, the scene prefigures a turning point in the film—as an aristocratic mother recognises with a jolt the possibility of her son’s furtive romantic interest in the maid—and yet this narrative moment in no way explains the agitation that the scene can produce. The scene follows a long, slow tracking shot, a shot that lasts almost ten minutes in a mesmeric gliding down a street. The film cuts momentarily to black, and then this moment is punctured first by a loud explosion, and then the light of fireworks breaking out in the night sky. As the scene cuts to a group of spectators, the camera remains almost still on the spectators framed within an architectural space composed in depth, of wall panels in muted greys and soft, low contrast lighting. Set against the containment of the shot, the controlled visual stasis of the camera and composition, the chaos of the fireworks is carried over into raucous conversation and ribald laughter. The undercurrent of explosive energy is transmuted visually into the agitation of the fans, multiple points of fluctuating light reflections in the frame as each fan catches the light at a different angle and rhythm. This is an image with no centre, no focal point, as if Mizoguchi had conceived of the surface of the shot on a hundred different planes. Just as the rhythmic juxtapositions can lure and contort the body, the tensions and dynamism of the surface of the image can effect a bodily agitation. Almost invariably when I see this one shot I am thrown suddenly onto another dimension, my viewing body fragmented, dispersed, disoriented. I experience the shot in my stomach, as if my stomach turns over. It’s this other, visceral dimension that, to me, an aesthetics of embodiment has to explain.


The relationship between vision and the body, the role of movement and tactility in that relationship, and the connection of this complex to affective experience must be central terms in the articulation of an aesthetics of embodiment. The understanding of this relationship stems from how the body or embodiment is conceptualised as the existential ground of perception. Two terms—kinetic vision and visual kinaesthesis—form the pivotal points of two vastly different paradigms of visual perception which underpin understandings of cinema based on divergent concepts of embodiment.

Marsyas (sculpture by Adolf Hildebrand)

Both based on an understanding of ambulatory vision, or the visual experience of a person walking or moving through a space, the respective understandings of each of these models differ greatly in the place or the importance which they accord to the body in the process of visual perception. The theory of kinetic vision, or vision-in-motion, developed by 19th century sculptor, Adolf Hildebrand, stems directly from the laboratory of the physiologists and their affiliation with the motion studies of Marey, Muybridge and others. Hildebrand’s model derives from an analysis of the biological mechanics of stereoscopic vision in the perception of an observer moving towards an object. In its application to cinema, the eyes of a beholder or observer moving through space provide the prototype of a perception of motion which is supposedly duplicated by the mobile camera’s ability to simulate or represent perceptual cues of depth and movement. This analogy is extended with the assumption that, just as the camera is equated with the eye of the beholder moving through a physical space, so the spectator in cinema identifies his or her subject position totally with the point of view of the camera (5). As Mary Ann Doane claims, (in another context but very apt in this one), “[t]here is a certain metonymic slippage between vision, the image, the eye and the ‘I’ of subjectivity”, and this slippage has formed the shaky foundation of one of the dominant paradigms of film theory (Doane, 61) (6).

The empiricist fallacy of this model is referred to by the perceptual psychologist, James Gibson as “eyeball optics”, and you can almost hear the chuckle in his writing as he talks about the way movie commentators have read this physiological optics, actually believed it, and applied it to their understanding of cinema (Gibson, 297 ff). The eye, says Gibson, is just an anatomical structure, only one component of the process of vision, and he replaces the model of perception derived from physiological optics with what he terms an ecological approach to perception, one which emphasises the process of visual kinaesthesia. As Gibson puts it, “vision is kinaesthetic in that it registers movements of the body just as much as does the muscle-joint-skin system and the inner-ear system” (Gibson, 183). Vision, he claims, picks up movements of the body or part of the body relative to the ground. (He includes stasis of the body as one form of movement). This information he calls proprioception. “The [inherited] doctrine that vision is exteroceptive, in other words that it obtains ‘external’ information only, is simply false”, he argues: “[v]ision obtains information about both the environment and the self” (Gibson, 183). Theories of motion perspective, he claims, are only “an abstract way of describing the information at a moving point of observation” (Gibson, 183).

By the recognition that visual perception involves both the processes of exteroception and proprioception, Gibson discards the subjective-objective dichotomy in traditional models of perception, and in doing so radically rethinks the notion of the senses. This is the core of his ecological approach to perception: that perception is an environmental process. By this he means that the perceiver constantly locates him or herself in the environment, that what we perceive is not data about the environment out there, but “the significance of surfaces in relation to our body” (7).

Perception here is neither a cognitive process, nor a biological process, as this distinction becomes non-sensical. It involves the positing of oneself as an embodied entity in a meaningful way in relation to the environment and what the environment offers. The philosopher, Sue Cataldi, describes this as the perceiver actually ” ‘inhabiting’ a spectacle” (Cataldi, 96) (8). My own metaphorical understanding of this ecological perception is that it is more akin to a millipede than to a camera or camera obscura—a thousand tentacles feeling their way through a space rather than a single lens taking it in view.

So, what use to us in cinema studies is a doctrine of natural perception? So much of film theory has been either constrained by the mechanical application of such doctrines, or has laboured to emphasise the distinction between natural perception and the viewing of cinema. In so far as traditional models of sense perception have been empirically-based, and have understood visual perception as pre-cultural, this distinction has been mandatory, and the focus on the mediatory role of the apparatus has simply continued this demarcation. And yet, if we focus on the spectator, and what the spectator brings to the cinematic moment, this is not a spectator who leaves behind the embodied ground of their experience (or perception)—embodiment is one of the important culturally or historically-inscribed dispositions that the spectator brings to the cinema.

Gibson’s theory of ecological perception, with its discussion of haptic vision, provides the missing link between the theorisation of vision and of embodiment. As such, he provides a crucial springboard to examine an understanding of emotion as embodied affect (9). While Gibson is not concerned with the question of emotion, Cataldi’s reading extends his argument from the “perception of one’s body in relation to the ground”, to include a discussion of what one’s body is doing or feeling in relation to that ground (10). She takes this model of situation of self in relation to the environment onto the level of emotion, arguing that we are simultaneously placed emotionally in relation to that environment. It is worth quoting Cataldi here at length, as it is this re-working of the understanding of the affective axis of perception that provides the crucial link for our understanding of embodied vision. Cataldi here cites Gibson’s example of cliffs:

[a]t the site/sight of a cliff, we are thought to directly perceive it as a ‘falling off’ place, because ‘one’s body in relation to the ground is what’s getting attention’. But Gibson does not pay sufficient attention to what one’s body may be feeling in relation to that ‘ground’. Gibson’s example tends to ignore the fact that at the site/sight of a cliff, we are simultaneously placed thereby (there bi-placed) evocatively ‘in’ danger and emotionally ‘in’ fear. It is not simply that we passionlessly see cliffs as ‘falling off places’; it is also the case that we sense that cliffs are dangerous and that we are afraid of falling off them . . . Thus I ‘join’ the spectacle of a cliff ‘in a kind of blind recognition which precedes the intellectual working-out and clarification of the meaning’: ‘falling-off place’ (Cataldi, 96-7).

Cataldi emphasises the non-dichotomous aspect of this model of perception—that a subject-object dichotomy becomes inoperable here—and links this perceptual model with the non-dichotomous implications of Merleau-Ponty’s flesh ontology for a theorisation of the emotions. Cataldi calls on Merleau-Ponty’s concepts of “carnal ideality” or “sensible ideas” to elaborate on the felt bodily depth to the living of emotional meanings: she argues that emotions are “neither ‘purely’ mental nor ‘purely’ physical phenomena”, they “cannot be purely ‘subjective experiences’, [seen as] purely ‘inner realities’ as they are felt in the depth of the flesh” (Cataldi, 90 & 114). She argues that “there are at least two ‘sides’ to every affective experience and neither . . . is intelligible apart from the other” (Cataldi, 111) (11). Cataldi claims that a “subjectivist account of emotions . . . which centres these experiences in some closed-off and privately experienced space of subjectivity is false”—emotional experience involves what she calls “communicatively intertwining the bodily flesh that we live with the flesh of the world” (Cataldi, 119).

Cataldi points out that Merleau-Ponty himself did not make the connection between “his view of emotionally ‘blind’ apprehension [and] tactile perception or emotional feeling” (Cataldi, 109). It is this bridge that Cataldi provides between the “haptic vision” of Gibson, the “carnal ideality” of Merleau-Ponty, and a theorisation of the emotions, that offers the most productive nexus for an understanding of affective experience and its relationship to the embodied vision of cinema spectatorship.

Gibson’s perceptual model of inhabiting of a spectacle provides for Cataldi an analogous model for the movement which she sees at the core of emotion—a displacement, a moving away, or moving out from the self, a “radical displacement of oneself”. She describes emotion as, by definition, a crossing and remaking of boundaries between oneself and the world. “The deeper the emotional experience”, she claims, “the more blurred and de-bordered the world-body border becomes, the more we experience ourselves as belonging to or caught up in the Flesh of the world” (Cataldi, 115).

One of the key sources which Cataldi evokes here is Glen Mazis’s work, Emotion and Embodiment (12). Mazis defines emotion here in similar terms: he talks of e-motion—the motion away, moving out from, also an openness to a “moving-out of the world”. In Mazis, emotion is defined by embodiment, by tactility, and movement. He writes:

E-motion is taken up within the body, the body as the affective space . . . and the term feeling points [to this], the etymology in its root in the Icelandic falma means to grope. Through feeling in its emotional sense the body moves forward gropingly into the world, not as self-sufficient . . . but rather as touching things in order to be touched back. The hand in groping is an openness, a gaping waiting for a reciprocal touch from the world . . . (Mazis, 29-30)

In both Cataldi and Mazis, emotional intensity is understood by comparison with tactility—the permeablity of contact and boundaries between the embodied self and world (13).


How can we relate this tactile movement out of oneself to the discussion of cinema spectatorship? The movement of the spectator out of the here and into a somewhere else appears again and again as a motif in the attempt to understand the coalescence of perception and emotion in the embodied intensities which make up spectatorship. Eisenstein in his later work develops the central concept of ecstasy, referring to its etymology in the Greek, ek-stasis, a “movement lifting one out of oneself” (Quoted in Aumont, 59) (14). This ecstasy as he explains it is “an awakening, which puts the spectator’s emotional and intellectual activity into operation to the maximum degree” (Aumont, 59). He seems to struggle towards a non-dichotomous framework for thinking this movement, constrained of course by the conceptual rigours and political demands of dialectical materialism. As Jacques Aumont describes the concept of ecstasy in Eisenstein, there is no contradiction between transcendence and materialism, the spectator is lifted in a frenzy into a union with a transcendental object, in a process which is also material. The pleasure which this engenders is described as a movement to a type of “ecstatic vibration” (Aumont, 60), and again as “a move beyond the rudiments of consciousness to enter the purely passionate sphere of pure feeling, sensation, being” (Aumont, 61). A crucial part of his aesthetic endeavour, as Aumont points out, is the search for ways of using a work of art “capable of producing or mimicking that ecstasy” (Aumont, 50). So what is this transcendence that is also material, this sensation that is also being, this nervous excitation? It seems clearly to be an attempt to conceptualise a sensuous, embodied affect and the potential of cinema to arouse this heightened experience.

Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)

Eisenstein moves from his initial concept of attraction, based on shock and grounded in the desire to produce a predictable effect in the spectator, through a toying with the idea of pathos, conceived in terms of emotion as sentiment, and then onto his later concepts of ecstasy and organicism. Each of these terms contains within it the kernel of a theory of embodiment, and how to engage the spectator in an embodied manner. There is a congruence between the early term, attraction, and a mechanical concept of sensation; there’s a congruence also between pathos and emotion understood as emotional identification; and between his term, ecstasy, and embodied affect. In the later concept, which he calls organicism, we have a formulation of this embodied affect as a non-dichotomous concept of sensory thought, “a carnal idea” (15).

It is precisely this move that film theory needs to make from the concern with sensation or with emotion understood as sentiment organised along the axis of narrative identification, or with desire, to an understanding of embodied affect, in the theorisation of spectatorship. To redress, in other words, what Cataldi has referred to as “an excessively rationalized—maybe even a somatophobic—approach to the emotions” (Cataldi, 127). And in so doing, to address the challenge of reconceptualising embodied vision as an inherently tactile, and thereby simultaneously affective process.

So how do we understand in cinema this movement or displacement of the self which links Merleau-Ponty’s flesh ontology, through Cataldi’s and Mazis’ theories of embodied emotion, to Eisenstein? This movement is not conceived as a physical movement across a physical space: no empirical measurement can discern it, nor can an optical model define it. This is a movement interior to both the gritty materiality of the body’s location in space, and simultaneously to the carnality of an idea or experience. It is a movement of the entire embodied being towards a corporeal appropriation of or immersion in a space, an experience, a moment. It is a movement away from the self, yes, but away from the self conceived as the subject, in so far as this concept is a cognitive or disembodied one—a movement out of the constraints of the definable, knowable—a groping towards a connection, a link-up with the carnality of the idea, the affect of the body, the sensible resonances of experience. It is a movement towards—a movement of the world towards our grasp, or of our beings towards potency. It is an erotics of the image, a dilation of the senses, a nervous excitation—an eye-opening sure—but more than that an opening of the pores, a quickening of the pulse.

It is essential to turn here to Benjamin’s use of the term, aesthetics, (aisthitikos) which Susan Buck-Morss glosses as “the sensory experience of perception”, developed initially as “a discourse of the body” (Buck-Morss, 6) (16). The field of aesthetics, in its original use in the Greek, she says, is “corporeal material nature”. How do we understand this field in cinema? Surely it means that the field of cinema, the field which it engages and which it aims to mobilise, is the corporeality, the embodied responsiveness of the spectator. Cinema is not only about telling a story; it’s about creating an affect, an event, a moment which lodges itself under the skin of the spectator.

Skin is indeed a pivotal concept here. If we take the metaphor of the epidermis as our model for spectatorship, how do we understand it? Is it a container, keeping in the subject and keeping the object out, on the other side? Is the spectator thick-skinned, impervious to the vibrations set up on the screen on all but the most blatant level, or is the skin permeable, a membrane that mediates a contact with the world, a tactile being in the world, that can respond to the flux of textures, of temperatures, can glow, can bristle and tremble, can even relinquish its boundaries in an osmosis of feeling and sensation? (17)

The “palpable sensuous connection between the very body of the perceiver and the perceived”: this is Michael Taussig’s definition of one side of the concept of mimesis, and here we have a mirroring of Gibson’s ecological model of perception (Taussig, 21). Mimesis here is the critical link between this ecological perception, its affective dimension, and its resonance for an understanding of cinema spectatorship. As Taussig elaborates the concept of mimesis, it has two parts: the first, the idea of imitation or copy, as in the capacity to mimic, and the second, the idea of contact, this much more complex visceral experience of a relation, a porousness between one’s self, one’s own body and the objects or images of the world. It is this second aspect of mimesis that I am most interested in. Nitty-gritty is the best way to define this concept: in a film like Microcosmos you may be down there in the mud with the copulating lady-birds—it doesn’t mean that this is identification, an imaginary mimicry. It may be red-and-black-spottedness, or jiggleness that attracts you, just as in watching an aquarium you may not have an anthropomorphic identification with a fish, but a recognition of floatingness or bubbleness. It may contact some place in your self that knows weightless suspension and set up a sympathetic vibration with it. Similarly you may find rollingness in the image of giant wave, spinningness with a windmill, or bristliness with the spiny protuberances on a prickly pear. Shape, colour, texture, protrusions and flourishes all reach out and draw us to them in an affective resonance.

As Taussig writes, this is “not the mind’s eye” that reaches out to grasp or grope the image or space before me—it is my embodied self locating, placing myself in the world which I am viewing (Taussig, 25). “Sentience takes us out of ourselves”, he writes, in explanation of the “visceral bond which connects the perceiver to the perceived in this mimetic process” (Taussig, 38) (18).

It is the heightening of this sentience that gives rise to embodied knowledge. It’s not every dancer that can evoke in a spectator the feeling of the limbs unleashed from their sutures to the spine, of the spine unshackling itself from its bony frame to become molten liquid. The dancer themselves must envisage the body in space, articulate that space, realise its extension, and engage in dialogue with that space. Dancers know the precise mutability of the space around the body. They know the rigorous discipline and precision choreography needed to release the intervertebral spaces, to fill the spinal core with the downward force of gravity or the upward flow of a lift. Vertical, horizontal are not merely directions, dimensions, but energetic impulses which resonate through a space and whose vibrations must be grasped by the body of the spectator.

How does one experience space in this manner? Is it an identification with the psyche of the dancer? An imagined mimicry of their moves? A convergence with presumed notions of aesthetic form or tradition? Or is this corporeal engagement a register of a different order, a kinaesthetic arousal, a mimetic connection with the spatialness of the choreography?

Do we surrender this kinaesthetic pleasure as soon as our experience is mediated by the camera? Surely the reading of a tactile, palpable cinematic image is inscribed with traces of the forces that play around the body in space—a corporeal intensity, an “affective space” (19).

In so far as the mobile camera is implicated in this movement, it is not just constructing a space traversed, drawing the spectator across a space in a mimicry of physical movement or a simulation of motion perspective, but rather a transport, the possibility of the spectator’s dissolution, or loss in the movement. The mobile camera is a tool of choreography, not just of representation or perception.

The Story of The Last Chrysanthemums

To come back to Mizoguchi and his flickering fans. From the very first moment of The Story of The Last Chrysanthemums, he jolts, cajoles, and lures the spectator into waking up the full sensory capacity of the mimetic register. He draws us in, schools us in how we should watch this film, draws us into the space of the film, attunes us to its rhythms, its palpable sensuous textures. This film is often discussed in terms of mise en scène, and Mizoguchi is most often described in terms of mood. He’s often called a director of mood, or a director of the long-take, with the focus on fluidity of the mobile camera. Mizoguchi is definitely a director of mise en scène, but how do we understand mise en scène? Literally, what is put into the scene. Yes—but what is put into the scene? It is so often understood in the most mechanical dogged sense of the objects placed before the camera: décor and costume; in a static understanding of the expressive use of light to shape and sculpt the space of the screen; or in its slightly more animated sense in the use of the mobile camera. But the question remains what is put into the scene here? For it is not just what is put into the frame, but what is put into the moment of experience: how the spectator is drawn into the scene. This must be understood as the evocation of a sympathetic excitation or resonance in the spectator as embodied—how the embodied affect of the spectator is aroused, activated, enhanced, brought into play (20).

This film is commonly written about in terms of a Brechtian distanciation. Mizoguchi in interviews discusses his dislike for what he calls the “tired old psychology of the close-up”, and frames this within his attempt to generate the maximum possible hypnotic intensity through the long take. Affect without relying on sentiment, in other words. David Bordwell has seized on the avoidance of climactic moments to argue for a splitting between melodramatic narrative and detached staging, and thus to incorporate the film within a structure of distanciation. Yet to back off from pathos does not mean detachment—the pathetic or the cognitive are not the only options. The film may move away from one dynamic, but it moves towards another—an intensity, a dramatic charge which is carried not by emotion as sentiment, but by drawing the spectator in on another level, a mimetic one. The rhetoric of distanciation, in so far as it involves a “movement out of oneself”, envisages this movement as a movement into cognition—out of the “embodied self” conceived as passive or habitual and into an analytic reflection on that embodiment—a self-reflexive viewing.

This is the blind spot of this application of Brechtian theory. In Mizoguchi, the movement is one of awakening, yes, but an awakening of the mimetic, an incorporation of a more active process of the senses, one which this film has instigated and enhanced from its first moment. This is the import of mise en scène —an awareness that was there in the critics of the French New Wave, but got waylaid into the question of authorship. It’s there in the mise en scène criticism of Elsaesser’s discussion of colour and excess in melodrama, but takes a detour into the psychoanalytic obsession with desire.

It’s there also in the poetics of Pasolini, with its emphasis on the passionate body, in the visceral panoramas of Glauber Rocha, the gut-wrenching editing of Thelma Schoonmaker in Raging Bull, and Tracey Moffatt’s searing image scapes in Night Cries.

It’s the underside, the suppressed underbelly of film theory, lost for decades in detours about the formal, the signifier, the subject, desire: this is the basis of the pleasures of cinephilia and it is the core of that soft, mushy concept of experience most despised and denigrated by “scientific film theory”.

Mazis writes: “emotions do not lead to rest, to closure, but rather are natural allies of an understanding that never knows where it’s going” (Mazis, 20). Not only should a theory of emotions embrace this open-ended, multi-dimensional aspect of emotion, but as Mazis argues, “a philosophy of emotions must itself be moving, use images and concrete situations to reach the embodied fluid life of its readers” (Mazis, xiii). To translate his argument to cinema, so also should a writing on cinema be enabling, should it embrace and evoke the open-ended affective embodied experience of spectatorship.

You can’t teach someone a mimetic capacity, surely, but just as surely you can teach them to deny, ignore, or devalue it. As long as our thinking on cinema marginalises and delegitimises this capacity for embodied affect, it will be irrelevant to the productive generative process of filmmaking, or worse still, with the increasing academicisation of film training, will work to actively impoverish our film culture.

This article was refereed.

Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Sinead Roarty and Alison Rutherford for critical readings of this paper and invaluable responses to the writing. An earlier version of this essay was first presented as a conference paper at Cinema and the Senses: Visual Culture and Spectatorship, at University of New South Wales in 1998.


Aumont, Jacques, Montage Eisenstein, Bloomington & Indianapolis: BFI London & Indiana University Press, 1987, from Eisenstein’s collected works in six volumes: Izbrannie proizvedeniia v chesti tomakh. Moscow: Izdatielstvo Iskusstvo, 1964 – 71

Bordwell, David, “Mizoguchi and the Evolution of Film Language”, in S. Heath & P. Mellencamp (eds), Cinema and Language, Frederick, MD: University Publications of America, 1983

Brooks, Peter, ‘Melodrama, Body, Revolution’, in J. Bratton et al (eds.), Melodrama: Stage – Picture – Screen, London: BFI, 1994

Buck-Morss, Susan, “Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin’s Artwork Essay Reconsidered”, October 62, Fall, 1992

Cataldi, Sue, Emotion, Depth, and Flesh: A Study of Sensitive Space: Reflections on Merleau-Ponty’s Philosophy of Embodiment, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993

Crary, Jonathan, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the 19th Century, Cambridge, Mass. & London: MIT Press, 1990

Doane, Mary-Ann, “When the direction of the force acting on the body is changed: The moving image”, Wide Angle, 7: 1 & 2, 1985

Gibson, James J., The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, Boston et al: Houghton Mifflin & Co., 1979

Gray, Henry, Gray’s Anatomy: Anatomy, Descriptive and Surgical, Collector’s Edition, ed. T. Pickering Pick & R. Howden, New York: Bounty Books, 1977

Lyon, M.L. and Barbalet, J.M., ‘Society’s body: emotion and the ‘somatization” of social theory’, in Csordas (ed)

Mazis, Glen A., Emotion and Embodiment: A Fragile Ontology. New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc, 1993

Ots, Thomas, ‘The silenced body — the expressive Leib: on the dialectic of mind and life in Chinese cathartic healing’, in Csordas, Thomas (ed.), Embodiment and Experience: The Existential Ground of Culture and Self, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994

Sobchack, Vivien, The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992

Taussig, Michael, Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses, New York & London: Routledge, 1993

Viano, Maurizio, A Certain Realism: Making Use of Pasolini’s Film Theory and Practice, New York & London: University of California Press, Berkeley, 1993

Wiltshire John, ‘The patient writes back’, Hysteric: Body, Medicine, Text 1:1995


  1. Viano refers here particularly to semiotic film theory.
  2. It is instructive here to juxtapose this discursive model of embodiment with that offered by Susan Buck-Morss in her reading of Benjamin: she argues, following Benjamin, that of course the senses can be acculturated, but that “they can also provide a core of resistance” to what she calls domestication. Buck-Morss, Susan, “Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin’s Artwork Essay Reconsidered”, October 62, Fall, 1992, pp. 3-41
  3. See Lisa Cartwright, Screening the Body: Tracing Medicine’s Visual Culture, Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 1995. Giuliana Bruno has also explored the trajectory of anatomy into cinema with her discussion of links between the spectacle of corporeality in anatomy and its inscription as a visual mode of body spectacle within the narrative and scopic registers of popular cinema. See Giuliana Bruno, Steetwalking On a Ruined Map: Cultural Theory and the City Films of Elvira Notari, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993
  4. Linda Williams, “Body Genres”, Film Quarterly 44: 4, Summer, 1991. See also Linda Williams, “Corporealized observers: Visual Pornographies and the ‘Carnal Density of Vision’”, in Patrice Petro (ed.), Fugitive Images, Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995
  5. Hildebrand, Adolf, The Problem of Form in Painting and Sculpture, Translated and revised by Max Meyer and Robert M. Ogden. G. New York: E. Stechert & Co., 1907. For an extended discussion of vision-in-motion, see Anne Rutherford, The Plastic Possible: Force and Signification in the Cinematic Image, unpublished Masters thesis, UTS, 1989
  6. For a pivotal example of this paradigm, see David Bordwell, ‘Camera Movement and Cinematic Space,’ Cinetracts 3, Winter, 1980, pp. 19-25
  7. Sue Cataldi, Emotion, Depth, and Flesh: A Study of Sensitive Space: Reflections on Merleau-Ponty’s Philosophy of Embodiment, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993, p. 112
  8. I am indebted here to Cataldi’s exemplary, in-depth discussion of Gibson.
  9. Lyon & Barbalet also suggest the corrective which Gibson’s work offers to Foucault’s concept of the body as social artefact: “[Gibson’s] work on haptic touch is useful in developing a sense of the agency of the body in both individual and social existence, and may thus contribute to the elaboration of the model of embodied feeling . . .” Lyon & Barbalet, p. 61
  10. Gibson refers to this relationship as an ‘affordance’. See Gibson, p. 36 & 127 ff. for discussion of this term.
  11. For a discussion of Merleau-Ponty and ‘carnal ideas’, see Cataldi, pp. 95 ff., esp. pp. 100 ff.: ‘Emotion as a carnal idea’.
  12. Mazis, Glen A., Emotion and Embodiment: A Fragile Ontology. New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc, 1993
  13. Cataldi writes: “[T]he space of affectivity resembles the space of tactility much more than it does the space of visibility or the space of instrumentality.” Cataldi, p. 118
  14. From Eisenstein’s collected works in six volumes: Izbrannie proizvedeniia v chesti tomakh. Moscow: Izdatielstvo Iskusstvo, 1964 – 71.
  15. For a more detailed discussion of these concepts, which has informed my own, see Aumont, ch. 2, ‘Eisensteinian Concepts,’ especially Pt. II: ‘Attraction/Stimulus/Influence & Pt. IV: ‘Pathos/Ecstasy/ Organicism’
  16. Buck-Morss here quotes Terry Eagleton, Ideology of the Aesthetic London: Basil Blackwell, 1990, p. 13
  17. Cataldi writes of the skin: “[o]ur skin is an organ of perception; and the experienced ambiguities, doublings and reversibilities of touch confuse the sharp distinctions philosophers try to draw between what is ‘internal’ and what is ‘external’”, p. 126
  18. Taussig here refers to Walter Benjamin, in ‘One Way Street’, in Reflections, ed. Peter Demetz, trans. E. Jephcott New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979, p. 68
  19. This term is Cataldi’s, which she gives a slightly different inflection: ‘Let us call the space through which we emotionally apprehend or grasp how we are feeling, affective space‘, p. 130
  20. For an extended discussion of this argument, see Anne Rutherford, “Precarious Boundaries: Affect, Mise en Scene and the Senses”, in Art And The Performance Of Memory: Sounds And Gestures Of Recollection, edited by Richard Candida Smith, New York & London: Routledge, ‘Memory and Narrative’ series, 2002

About The Author

Anne Rutherford is a Senior Lecturer in Cinema Studies in the School of Humanities and Languages at the University of Western Sydney. A key focus of her research is on cinematic affect and mise en scène.