Presentation of Cinematic Pleasure

By Hasnat Ahmad

Singer mentions in her paper Toward a Phenomenology of Cinematic Scopophilia that she believes that cinema is a product of capitalism, that it’s a pleasure we treat ourselves to only due to technological advancements we have been able to make as a society. She mentions that psychoanalytic theory is the study of personality organization and the dynamics of personality development. She argues that instead of focusing so much on how our mind reacts to what we see as psychoanalytical theorists have done in the past, we should focus more on the pleasure we get from simply going to see a movie, no matter how good it ends up being, truly “pleasure emerges as a surplus of process over product.”

Singer goes on to explain that movie theaters put is in a certain mindset which prepares us to completely focus on what’s being shown, an “atmosphere of perceptual quietism, serenity, and comfort.” She also argues that we don’t receive pleasure as voyeurs when we watch a movie, but instead due to the contagion effect of being in a room filled with other strangers who laugh when we laugh

I’m going to focus on what Singer calls the “Presentation of Cinematic Pleasure” and the three different films which she mentions in this section of her argument.


Casablanca is a 1942 film by American-Hungarian film director Michael Curtiz which depicts, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), who owns a nightclub in Casablanca, discovering his old flame Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) is in town with her husband, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid). Laszlo is a famed rebel, and with Germans on his tail, Ilsa knows Rick can help them get out of the country. The film won an Academy Award for Best Picture.

Singer claims that “Every time I see Casablanca, for example, I have the sense of being in a particular place, and it is being in that place that I (and the rest of the cult that surrounds this film) seek in these occasions of reviewing. It is this quality of being or being in the mood of Casablanca that motivates and compels our interest long after we know, all too well, how the story comes out” (59).

This clip from Casablanca shows the first introduction to Rick’s Café, which is in fact a nightclub of sorts.

Singer continues to say that “Part of what is distinctive in cinematic experience is that the filmic situation seems in some sense to preserve and sustain an affective continuity that can still compel even when it is no longer new for us.” This continuity is what leads us to repeatedly watch many of our favorite movies, even if we’ve witnessed the ending countless times. We are not so much attached with how great the film is or what elements are used by the director as opposed to our addiction to the mood which the film puts us in, exactly why it doesn’t matter if we are surprised or not by the story line.

There is a claim by Singer which I don’t completely understand: “Because the camera is an invention designed by humans to extend their powers of vision, it is capable of generating images which appear to the spectator as ‘the inside of the outside and the outside of the inside.’” What is the outside and what is the inside?

Considering a camera as Singer puts it “an invention designed by humans to extend their powers of vision” and “the invention of a desiring eye…capable of generating those sites of visual abundance which emerge as responses to the eye’s sense of its own lack,” she seems to denigrate its status as an artistic tool to communicate ideas, instead relegating it to a tool used to fix a handicap in vision. She almost implies that we created cameras out of our own insecurity as humans, is she correct?

Days of Heaven

Days of Heaven is a 1978 film by director Terrence Malick which also won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography. It is a screen poem about life in America at the turn of the century, a story of love and murder told through the voice of a child and expressive images of nature in 1916. This all plays out when a steelworker flees Chicago after a fight with his boss; he takes his little sister and girlfriend with him.

The opening scene from Days of Heaven which depicts, just as Singer mentions, a beautiful backdrop of scenery and images which stretch the viewer’s gaze all the way across the screen.

Singer emphasizes that such as in this particular scene of Days of Heaven, “we witness a panoramic landscape where neither depth nor breadth seems to be sacrificed and where both foreground and background remain focused.” This certainly seems to be the case as one watches the clip, however it is not as apparent whether it was an intentional decision by the director to use a wider film or simply a coincidence of the equipment which happened to be used.

Singer’s answer to these previous questions is that “This is because the camera, with its stance of neutrality, is not forced to choose a point of focus, as the human eye must. The shape and dimension of the wide-angle lens allow for a maximal digestion of the scene which can then be projected before us as a vast and variegated topography that retains its stability and power within the frame.” In her view, the viewing experience if the movie had not been shot with wide angled lens would have been completely different, and much more weaker in its impact on the viewer.

Later on, when comparing wide-angle and zoom shots, Singer says that “Both the wide angle and zoom lenses are often employed in conjunction with a high camera position that rises above the scene, exerting a certain formal or compositional control over it. The effect is similar to that of the God’s eye view simulated by the system of Renaissance perspective, but in cinema this effect is even more pronounced, in part because the camera moves and so seems to be capable inserting or intruding itself, free from resistance by the objects it aims at. Such vision speaks to a vision with fantasies of visual abundance, free from the force of things” (60).

Singer also continues to claim when talking about visual perspective and camera zoom that “As spectators we function as voyeurs to the extent that we identify with the photographic gaze and take ourselves to be in possession of its objects through this imaginative affinity with the camera’s mode of possession. In order to take pleasure in looking in the active sense of voyeurism, we must, in some sense, take the desires actualized by the apparatus and mistake them for, or make them, our own” (61). What do you guys think of her point of view? She seems to argue that when viewing film with different visual perspectives such as close up zoom, we as humans are just desperately trying to satisfy some type of primal craving. In simple words, do you really think it’s that deep?

Swept Away

Swept Away is a 2002 film depicting a young soldier (Adriano Giannini) who is cast adrift on an island with his employer, a rich, self-centered woman who is used to having her own way. Cut off from society, he reverses their roles, stripping her of pride and vanity and controlling her completely. Until, that is, she falls in love with him.

Singer claims that “In this film, the intensification of blue as a background for the play of warm Mediterranean light serves as a chromatic barometer, reflecting shifts in the discourse of desire as the story unfolds” (58).

How important do you really think the background is? What if there was no focus on it, but only on them two? Are human emotions and love not enough to set a tone for the movie, is the blue Mediterranean sky absolutely necessary to create the mood?

Singer also mentions that “The light which in the initial stages of their fascination bleaches the wrinkles from their faces and fills the sea with a pattern of rippling energy has by the end turned into a harsh glare which shows their wrinkles and flaws” (58).

Do you notice the difference which she mentions?

Singer explains that “In this situation, the manipulation of chromatic value functions, as color does in painting, to produce an iconographic significance, reflecting the deeper dynamics of the scene. In cinema, however, such intensification also produces a surplus effect with the power to fill the distance between spectator and screen with an atmospheric intensity” (59). What do you think of her comparison of film with paintings? Do you agree?

Singer continues to say that “I remember first seeing this film and leaving the theater feeling as if I could face the December winds outside because I had somehow had a respite in a warmer place. In this case, the chromatic intensification, that warm light against the blue, produced a surplus affect capable of not only representing the warmth within the frame, but also capable of filling the room with the force of its atmosphere” (59). Singer claims that she observes a physical effect from watching a film, indicating the strength what we watch can have on how our mind perceives the world, which seems to also be one of her main themes of the paper.

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