Originally a television series, “Ways of Seeing” is a book on art-theory chiefly written by John Berger (other accredited authors include Sven Blomberg, Chris Fox, Michael Dibb, and Richard Hollis). In it, Berger takes a look at Western aesthetics, beginning with the 18th Century European oil painting and ending with the images presented in modern advertising. While “Ways of Seeing” isn’t a book on cinema, many of the ideas presented can be used to analyze films because as the title describes, “Ways of Seeing” is a book that presents new ways to look at art.
What Berger is interested in is the implicit meaning of images, and so he goes about showcasing these implicit messages through various forms of analysis—historical, sociologically, etc. There are seven essays in the book; some are text-based, others are entirely comprised of images, the meaning of these latter essays derived from the juxtaposition of images.
What I want to do is take a look at one essay and showcase how Berger’s theories can be used to look at cinema, because after all, this is a blog dedicated to the seventh art.
The first piece I want to look at is the second essay in the book: a series of images—advertisements, photographs, and paintings—of women. What these images all have in common is their depiction of women who are eroticized through their poses, appearances, camera angles, and so on. I think what Berger is getting at here is the establishment and proliferation of a certain idea of women in Western art. In Western art—as shown by Berger’s examples, women are made into objects of sexual desire and so consequently, they are debased into figures of lust/figures to be lusted.
What immediately comes to mind when reading Berger’s visual essay, is Laura Mulvey’s own seminal writing, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” In her own essay, Mulvey argues for how cinema is used to present women as being visually pleasurable. This she calls “scopophilia.” Mulvey writes, “The cinema offers a number of possible pleasures. There are circumstances in which looking itself is a source of pleasure, just as, in the reverse formation, there is pleasure in being looked at (3).” A bit forward on, she continues, “But the mass of mainstream film, and the conventions within which it has consciously evolved, portray a hermetically sealed world which unwinds magically, indifferent to the presence of the audience, producing for them a sense of separation and playing on their voyeuristic phantasy (4).” Finally, on bridging just how exactly films present women in an erotic, voyeuristic manner:
“Traditionally, the women displayed has functioned on two levels: as erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium, with a shifting tension between the looks on either side of the screen. For instance, the device of the show-girl allows the two looks to be unified technically without any apparent break in the diegesis. A woman performs within the narrative, the gaze of the spectator and that of the male characters in the film are neatly combined without breaking narrative verisimilitude (4).”
To summarize what Mulvey is saying, within mainstream narrative films, women are made to be objects of visual pleasure for male audiences. This desire for the woman on-screen is brought about by the proxy figure of a male character who the male audience member will project themselves onto. As Mulvey puts it, with the two looks unified, the male audience member can fulfill his desire of the female object.
To dive into a specific example of this male-spectator-audience relationship, I want to bring up the example of Rita Hayworth in Charles Vidor’s “Gilda.” Hayworth plays the titular character of Gilda, and when she is first introduced, she is shown in a manner which subjects to an object of visual pleasure. The male protagonist, Johnny (Glenn Ford) is first seen looking at her, he is enchanted by her singing. Hayworth, as if she was bent over perhaps combing her hair, rises up, her hair in a very gracing maneuver, falling backwards. She then smiles, and her entire figure is made to radiate through a glamour shot. Johnny is then see moving forward, spurred on by her beauty.
Here, Johnny plays the role of the proxy for the male audience member. Rita is then the object of visual desire, and she falls into this role by way of her appearance—glamour shot, body movement, costume, and make-up all work together to make her into this figure.
Now, to finally tie everything together: in his visual essay, Berger is pointing how Western art has created the image of the eroticized woman to be desired. The proliferation of this specific imagery ultimately debases women, because they are only ever seen as such objects. This trend of course continues in cinema and Mulvey points out just exactly how; through a proxy figure, the male audience member can now fulfill his visual desire of wanting a woman onscreen and this can be seen in “Gilda,” where the male audience member’s fantasy is carried out by Johnny. It’s not just the proxy figure who fulfills this desire but also the ways in which cinema presents its female characters. Once again, lighting, angles, and costume all work to present women as objects of desire.
And so this is how Berger’s “Ways of Seeing” can be used to read films. Other examples that could have been chosen are the last essay which takes a look at the implicit fantasies sold by advertisements; this could have been linked to John Carpenter’s “They Live.” Or, the fifth essay where Berger takes a look at painting objects as a way of possessing objects. Here, I’m reminded of Godard’s “Les Carabiners,” where two soldiers return home bringing back their conquests of global glory, i.e., photographs of famous places, people, and objects.