click to buy “Death 24x a Second” at Amazon.comIn the preface to her most recent book, Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image, Laura Mulvey describes and comments on a shift in her own interests: from a feminist declaration of war on Hollywood, using psychoanalysis as a weapon, to what seems to be a more apolitical reflection on cinematic temporality. While her use of the “shifters” then (referring to her work of the early 1970s) and now (2006, more or less) is not meant to indicate a detachment from her former concerns, she does note that her engagement with the cinema of the past has changed “by passing time”, as she calls it (p. 7). Undoubtedly, Death 24x a Second is concerned with the central paradox of cinematic temporality, and its style is far less aggressive (far more poetic) than that of the rebellious “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (Mulvey’s landmark essay written in 1973, published in ’75). This neither means, however, that the shift is marked by a break, nor that Death 24x is politically less engaged. The achievement of Mulvey’s recent work is exactly to point out how time (and its manipulation) can itself be a political tool – an all the more effective one since it is put in the hands of the spectator in the form of a simple remote control. Death 24x is a continuation of Mulvey’s politics of the 1970s with different means – and, perhaps, a different enemy. Nevertheless, this continuation confronts a new paradox in the face of new media.

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A pensive reader may pick up a fragment from the last chapter of Death 24x, in which Mulvey brings “Visual Pleasure” back to life. Quoting from her earlier text, she writes:

This complex interaction of looks is specific to film. The first blow against the monolithic accumulation of traditional film conventions (already undertaken by radical film-makers) is to free the look of the camera into the materiality of time and space and the look of the audience into dialectics and passionate detachment. (p. 190) (1)

The different looks in “Visual Pleasure” not only concern those of the camera and of the audience, but also the gaze of the male protagonist of classical Hollywood cinema. As Mulvey argued in the early ’70s, it is from this last look that the former two stand in need of being freed. As she wrote back in the day, the male look on the screen has a double, interrelated yet often conflicting effect on the spectator: one being a fetishistic scopophilia and the other the identification process through a narcissistic investment of ego libido. The former, the pleasure of looking at objects, turns the women on the screen into erotic spectacles, into passive “raw material” for the active gaze of the male protagonist and, ipso facto, of the spectator. The second effect determines, beyond the woman’s “to-be-looked-at-ness,” how the spectacle should be looked at. This male look, Mulvey argued, tends to subordinate the look of the camera (as it records the pro-filmic event) as well as the look of the spectator. Conventions of narrative film aim, in other words, at elimination of camera presence in the story and at minimising self-awareness of the audience through absorption. Watching a Hollywood film, we do not so much see the male protagonist as we see what and how he sees. He is not an object of scopophilia but of identification, such that his scopophilic pleasure becomes ours. With “Visual Pleasure”, Mulvey set out to destroy this pleasure by analysing it – whereby this pleasure does not indicate visual pleasure per se, but the paradigmatic one dominated by the male gaze, instantiated and sustained by Hollywood. Alternative kinds of visual pleasure, as the fragment quoted above has it, were expected to be brought about by alternative (avant-garde) filmmakers, Mulvey herself included.

The fragment from “Visual Pleasure” already points towards time (and space) as a liberating factor. This factor, however, concerns the camera look, not, or not so much, the look of the audience – in a pre-video era. With the arrival of video in the late ’70s, Mulvey “now” notes, the spectator gains power over what she calls the “existing speed of cinema” (p. 22) – a power that has increased since the more recent arrival of digital media, the DVD in particular. This increased power on the side of the spectator is relevant since, Mulvey argues, the three looks correspond to three different kinds of cinematic time: the camera look corresponds to the past of registration, the male gaze on the screen to the fictional time of the story, and the audience look is equivalent to the present (and remembered) time of viewing. The manipulability of time is a tool, therefore, for the liberation of the looks of the camera and the viewer.

In Death 24x Mulvey relates the existing speed of cinema (or cinema time) to story or narrative time. She notes that the relentless forward movement of film – that is, the unrolling of the film reel in the projector and of images on the screen, and that is, the “ground” or “metric” rhythm of 24 frames per second – “easily merges” with the forward movement of narrative (p. 69). The latter does not imply that narratives should be chronological; however many flash backs and forwards are being used, the story, like the film reel (but unlike the still photograph), necessarily runs towards its own end and has a given length. She further notes that the simultaneity of narrative closure and “The End” of the film stereotypically and dramatically coincide in a freeze frame, showing either the stillness of a tragic death of the hero(es) or the melodramatic kiss, representing marriage (representing, in turn, a return to a place called “home”; Mulvey sees a parallel with Freud’s notion of the death drive here). A freeze frame, however, is no less illusionary in its representation of stillness as the projection of photographs, screened at a rate of 24x a second, is illusionary in its re-presentation of movement; a freeze frame consists of a repetition of the same image, projected at the same speed as all other (moving) images. Mulvey’s point is not, of course, that all films do or should end with such an illusion. Rather, she argues that stereotypical (Hollywood) closures of this kind – of a kind in which movement stilled meets the still in movement – inform us about the paradoxical temporality of film.

This paradoxical character of film’s temporality led Henri Bergson, a dozen years after the birth of cinema, to dismiss the medium as a metaphor for time. He argues in Creative Evolution that movement can always be analysed after the fact, but that it cannot be understood to be built up out of the immobile sections which analysis may detect (2). Likewise, time cannot be understood as an addition of instants that do not themselves endure, even if time can always be measured by such instants. Bergson’s point is not, of course, that anything is wrong with the illusion of movement created by the cinema, but he reveals the paradoxical coexistence of stills and movement in order to warn against the mistake of taking cinema as a model for understanding movement and time in general. While movement and duration are always qualitative, with variable degrees of intensity and expansion, the reproduced movement in the cinema owes its animation to the movement of a mechanical projector – a movement which is always invariably the same.


This relentless, homogeneous movement of the projector accounts for what Mulvey calls the “metric rhythm” of cinema time, epitomised by such films as Mothlight (Stan Brakhage, 1963) or Peter Kubelka’s flicker films. But even without bringing attention to itself, the projector gives to each and every analogue film a sense of an irreversible passing time, especially since, as Babette Mangolte pointed out (3), the emulsion grain of each frame is always random and unique – the absence of which accounts for a missing temporal dimension in films shot with a digital camera.

The sense of passing time in analogue film is the reason, according to Mulvey, why Roland Barthes has a point (a point which Mary Ann Doane sought to undermine in The Emergence of Cinematic Time [4]) in attributing a sense of a continuous present to this medium. This present, Barthes argued, tends to obscure the past-ness with which still photography confronts us. In other words: while analogue film consists of a series of photographs, the time of the recording which is now past – Mulvey calls this “film time”, or “camera time”, or “the time of the index” (p. 30 and p. 173) as distinguished from “cinema time” – tends to be undermined by the passing time of film, just as the male gaze tends to absorb the look of the camera. Likewise, the viewing time in film theatres (and when watching TV – more options for seeing a film were not available until the ’80s) is pre-determined by the duration of the film as it passes, just as the “viewer’s” view is “directed” by what the camera allows him or her to see – the camera view in turn being dominated by the gaze of the male protagonist. This given length of viewing (say, 90-120 minutes as in feature films) is supposed to be forgotten and replaced by the time of the narrative. Mulvey’s main claim in Death 24x is that video and especially DVD liberate both the viewing time and the recorded time from their encapsulated position within cinema time, and that this double temporal liberty equally marks a liberation of both the camera’s and the spectator’s look.

The liberation of the spectator’s time and look is the more obvious one. Not only can the viewer pause the film watched on video or DVD for a restroom or refill break at any moment, but fragments can also be reviewed, both forwards and backwards, both accelerated and (more importantly) decelerated. In this way, textual analysis of film can move from film archives into the living room.

One of the consequences of the possibility to delay the narrative structure of film is that the spectator’s look gains independence. Even if the order of images and series of scenes is determined by the director (thus disregarding the fact that these orders have come within the reach of “fan editors”), the viewer has the power to decide what aspects within these orders s/he will “pay” special attention to. Mulvey states that the additional meaning attributed by the spectator to particular scenes or objects viewed in delay not only continues to inform the rest of the film once a fragment is “put back” into the narrative stream; it also increases possibilities for creating cross-narrative, hybrid constellations of film fragments. In this respect, Mulvey refers to Victor Burgin’s claim that cinematic narratives dissolve in the digital era, like rockets disintegrate in the atmosphere once they have placed their payloads in the orbit (5). This cinematic universe is more difficult to control by a single production system, as Douglas Sirk already foresaw by the end of the 1950s. Sirk’s decision to leave Universal Studios and retire in Switzerland was informed, as Mulvey mentions, by a feeling of the end of the Hollywood studio system, and he proclaimed that the future would lie with independent productions and European New Waves. This prophecy may not, Mulvey comments, have been entirely fulfilled, but in the face of new media technologies she “now” sees more coherence in cinema’s history than a simple opposition between a hegemonic Hollywood and “the” avant-garde than she did in the ’70s.

The other liberation envisioned by Mulvey – that of the camera’s time and look – is at once less obvious and more problematic. In order to arrive at her conclusion, Mulvey rereads (André Bazin and) Barthes’ texts on photography in order to link Charles Peirce’s notion of the index to Sigmund Freud’s conception of the uncanny.

Peirce’s semiotic system, whose relation to photography and cinema was explored by Mulvey’s husband Peter Wollen in 1969, has become all the more important in film theory since the advent of digital media. Since such media (I will avoid here the difficulties related to the use of that term) no longer rely on a photographic basis, they have renewed theoretical interest in the fact that analogue (now “old”) media do. As Peirce himself pointed out, the photograph is an indexical sign, meaning that it is directly caused by an object which is not itself present. This led Lev Manovich to conclude that cinema (meaning analogue film) is the attempt to make art out of a footprint (6). But Barthes remarked, as we have seen above, that the temporalities of photography and cinema differ. While film is undoubtedly as indexical as the still photograph, it absorbs the past-ness of the photographs into the present of its unfolding. Mulvey sees a link between Barthes’ point, according to which a photograph is not so much a “copy” of reality as an emanation of a past reality, and Freud’s notion of the uncanny as the return of the repressed. In an argument I will disregard on this occasion, she challenges Freud’s attack on Ernst Jentsch’s earlier conception of the uncanny as a feeling of unease evoked by the new and unfamiliar. What matters for now is that, according to both psychoanalysts, the uncanny upsets divisions between the organic and the inorganic, between animation and the inanimate, as well as the different combinations of these terms (animate yet inorganic: ghost, or automaton, or cinema). The uncanny, moreover, is unheimlich because of its violation of divisions between past and present. This latter aspect intrigued Barthes with regard to photography: the still photograph returns someone’s or something past (and its present and future) into the present (in relation to which the past’s present and future are now past). This simultaneity of past and present, of the living and the dead, forces Barthes to seek linguistic exile into the use of a past tense in relation to a temporal shifter to express his experience of looking at a photograph: the photograph’s moment, he said, “was now” (7).

In old films, the spectator sees the stars who are known to be dead now, yet absorption in the diegesis of the film’s narrative requires a suspension of disbelief, including an effacement of the relationship to the time of the camera recording. Barthes’ differentiation between photographic and cinematic temporality, then, is based on the simple fact that an object or person “preserved” in the still photograph is not simultaneously an object or person in and of itself, with a time in and of itself out of which it is “now” snapped, and a part of a narrative which equally snaps objects and persons out of their temporal existence but which also, unlike the still, has its own still intact duration. This duration is as present for the viewer in 2006 as it is for the one in 1975 or 2046. It is as present as the relentless passing of the film reel and its projected images are. But both relentless presences can “now” be suspended by a simple push on a button.

Mulvey argues that the pause button, as much as other forms of delaying film, allows the relationship to the past to return. In so doing, the narrative’s protagonist regains his or her extra-diegetic identity, with whom we cannot “now” identify. In this respect, scopophilia (visual pleasure) increases at the expense of ego libido investment. The delayed film allows, moreover, for Barthes’ punctum to find a place in cinematic experience – the punctum being a technical term indicating a detail which first passed unnoticed but then suddenly captures the attention of the viewer, even if (and especially when) it has escaped the attention of the photographer or director of photography (8). The speed of 24x a second no longer necessarily obscures details of specific interest, just as the time of the index is no longer suspended ad infinitum.

This punctum, however, confronts us with a difficulty, for Mulvey, reflecting on film’s central paradox (the simultaneity of movement and stillness), encounters a new paradox with new media. She mentions that the index is a record of a fragment of time fixed in (what is somewhat deceptively called) an instantaneous photograph. What allows for the punctum is a separation, at that very moment of recording, of the eye of the photographer and the eye of the camera. Human perception is always selective, but a camera is indifferent and records whatever appears in front of its eye, without human intervention. This very lack of intervention, or the automatic analogical causation – to use D.N. Rodowick’s term (9) – fuelled debates about the artistic status of analogue media far beyond the years of classic film theory. Barthes, for one, called photography not an art but a magic (10); Jacques Derrida replied that one must choose between art and death (11), meaning that photography may be a work of art but that there is a point at which it ceases to be one. In any case, and beyond aesthetic considerations, Mulvey argued (as we saw) that the moment of the index and the punctum can no longer be denied to film once we watch it with the remote control in the hand. This seems to be at odds with a third liberating moment of digital media, beyond (or between) the moment of camera registration and the moment of watching a film. This is the moment of digital translation – which, at the same time, marks the moment of the return of what Mulvey calls “the human element” (p. 19).

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The digital image is characterised by a break, or at least by a deep attenuation, of the indexical relationship with the pro-filmic object or event. No longer inscribing light automatically onto photosensitive material (celluloid), digital recordings convert their objects into a numerical system. Therefore, the digital, in Mulvey’s words, “finally” swept away “the relation with reality” (p. 18) which is true even without manipulations to which digital images lend themselves so well. This loss of automatic analogical causation (hence “reality”) even affects an originally analogue film by re-releasing it on DVD. It thus eliminates, as Mulvey has it, the indifference and “inhuman nature” of the analogue camera and its ability “to hold time” (p. 58). In other (Barthes’) words: the paradigm Life / Death is no longer reduced to a single click. The paradox of new media, in still other words, should no longer or not only be posed in terms of simultaneity (say, of movement and stillness), but must be put in terms of causality – as Thomas Ruff’s photographic series called Jpeg (2004) brings to attention. His blown up digital images (which are not his photographs, but images found on the web) do not reveal emulsion, as in Thomas’ (now-dead David Hemmings) “evidential” photographs in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966). They rather show symmetrical patterns of squares, whereby each square consists of a single tint on a range between white and black, proving (no doubt) the existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

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In conclusion: Mulvey claims at once that the digitally re-mastered analogue image will import the benefits of photography into film and that it eliminates photography’s inhuman nature. The viewer is supposed to be confronted with an emanation of a past reality at the moment when the relation with reality had finally been broken. The single click on the pause button thus marks a new paradigm. Analogue / Digital at the same time, the old film on the new DVD is both an instrument for political action in terms of what Mulvey calls the feminisation of cinema, and a question which awaits and arouses a new kind of political engagement – as does the digital image in general. This engagement involves the spectator in the living room no less than the United Nations in front of Colin Powell.

Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image, by Laura Mulvey, Reaktion Books, London, 2006.

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  1. This fragment quoted by Mulvey is part of the concluding paragraph of “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” as it originally appeared in Screen, vol. 16, no. 3, 1975, p. 18. That paragraph continues as follows:

    There is no doubt that this destroys the satisfaction, pleasure and privilege of the “invisible guest”, and highlights how film has depended on voyeuristic active/passive mechanisms. Women, whose image has continually been stolen and used for this end, cannot view the decline of the traditional film form with anything much more than sentimental regret.

  2. Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, trans. Arthur Mitchell, Dover Publications, Mineola, NY, 1998. See, in particular, chapter 4 “The Cinematographical Mechanism of Thought and the Mechanistic Illusion”, pp. 260-400. On analysis in relation to intuition, see also Bergson’s 1912 essay “An Introduction to Metaphysics”, in The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics, Dover Books, Mineola, NY, 2007, pp. 159-200.
  3. Babette Mangolte, “Afterward: A matter of Time”, in Richard Allen and Malcolm Turvey (eds), Camera Obscura, Camera Lucida: Essays in Honor of Annette Michelson, University of Amsterdam Press, Amsterdam, 2002, pp. 261-274.
  4. Mary Ann Doane, The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2002.
  5. Victor Burgin, The Remembered Film, Reaktion Books, London, 2002.
  6. Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2001.
  7. Roland Barthes’ French term for the photograph’s moment is “ça a été”, which has been translated in a variety of ways, including “that-has-been” (as in Richard Howard’s translation of Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Farrar, Strauss and Ginoux, NY, 1981; see p. 77 there) and “this was now”. I am following Mulvey’s choice of the translation here; Mulvey herself follows Ann Banfield’s suggestion (cf. Ann Banfield, “L’imparfait de l’objectif: The Imperfect of the Objective Glass” in Camera Obscura, vol. 24, September 1990, pp. 65-87).
  8. In Camera Lucida, Barthes opposes the punctum to the notion of the studium. The latter is an “average affect” caused by a photograph’s appeal to human interest, “a kind of general, enthusiastic commitment, of course, but without special acuity” (Camera Lucida, p. 26). The punctum, on the contrary, strikes the viewer personally and unexpectedly, disrupting the average affect of the studium. Barthes explains his choice for the term “punctum” as follows:

    it is this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me. A Latin word exists to designate this wound, this prick, this mark made by a pointed instrument: the word suits me all the better in that it also refers to the notion of punctuation, and because the photographs I am speaking of are in effect punctuated, sometimes even speckled with those sensitive points. This second element which will disturb the studium I shall therefore call punctum; for punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole – and also the cast of a dice. (Camera Lucida, pp. 26-27)

  9. D.N. Rodowick, Reading the Figural, or, Philosophy after the New Media, Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2001. See also the introductory chapter of his forthcoming book The Virtual Life of Film (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, October 2007).
  10. “The realists, of whom I am one…do not take the photograph for a ‘copy’ of reality, but for an emanation of a past reality: a magic not an art” (Barthes, Camera Lucida, p. 88).
  11. Jacques Derrida, “The Photograph as Copy Archive and Signature”, in David Campany (ed.), Art and Photography, Phaidon Press, London, 2003.