Friday, June 9, 2017

Wonder Woman

My review format has become stagnant. I've been repeating myself over and over again. I observe a moment or two from the film, represent those moments as representative of the rest of the film, or so tonally opposite as to be from a different film entirely. The reason for this, I think, is because of my enduring love for Roland Barthes' book on photography, Camera Lucida, published just before his tragic death. While Barthes himself wasn't a photographer (nor was Sontag, but that didn't stop her), his contribution to my understanding of photography was absolute, almost oppressive in its totality. Not the sum total of the book itself, but its methodology, its approach to understanding how photography works with the viewer. Combined with Mulvey's understanding of the gaze, complicated by her later work, Death 24x a Second, Camera Lucida represents the key methodology for my viewing practices.

Camera Lucida concerns itself, through personal narrative on the death of the author's mother, with the effect of photography on the spectator. Barthes argues, laterally from his usual "Death of the Author" thinking, that photography affects both the mind and the body. This is literal and figurative: the emotions photography can elicit are biochemical reactions, physiological changes within the body. Photography does this with two elements: the studium and the punctum. The studium is the literal subject of the photo, the cultural, political, sociological, contextual, aesthetic aspect of the photo: its framing, its composition, its "hailing" of the viewer, the signifier and the signified.

The punctum, on the other hand, is the detail in the photo which establishes an immediate, intimate relationship with the viewer, one that wounds the viewer, hence the name. Where the studium is that which the viewer looks for, the punctum operates on its own terms. Barthes writes:
This time it is not I who seek it out (as I invest the field of the studium with my sovereign consciousness) , it is this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me. (26)
This element, the tiny pricks which pierce, is the punctum, the inescapable, highly personal detail. It's also highly subjective. It relates to the subject personally, emotionally, physiologically. Barthes continues, "A photograph's punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)" (27). It would be Barthes' stratagem to disguise the usefulness of the idea within an parenthetical phrase, of course; the punctum is useful for describing poignancy. Or, poignancy is easily described using the punctum.

Hence, we have the theoretical scaffolding for my own personal viewing habits. My habits aren't unique to myself, obviously. Many other viewers find themselves struck by a detail, a moment, an image, a thing which arrests the viewer, unfolds the envelope of immersion and pierces the illusory bubble. My spectatorship is own built of moments and I can't help myself from focusing on these puncta. I can no more unfocus on the pain and poignancy than a fish can breathe the air. I am drawn to these moments as they are sharp. I prick myself on the knife; I touch the plate I'm warned is hot. I feel these moments because I must feel the moments. If Barthes' technique in Camera Lucida is that of sentimentality, so is mine, for better or for worse.

Wonder Woman, then, if I must eventually reach the subject of this piece, calls to me with one singular moment, a moment of such quiet poignancy as to be supremely painful, a moment of beauty so exquisite as to be terrifying. I speak of the moment Chris Pine's Steve Trevor follows Gal Gadot's Diana into the hotel room and quietly shuts the door behind him. The camera stares into his face on the right side of the frame, while on the left, in near distance, his arm closes the door. He maintains his gaze on Diana, and it is Pine's facial expression which I found to be the most punctum of puncta in recent film.

Pine, a charismatic if underutilized actor, conveys a tempestuous miasma of affect with but his face. His eyes are searching, eager almost, for the pleasures of the flesh with what he perceives to be one of the most beautiful women in the world. At the same time, those open, moist eyes telegraph a sorrow, a sadness so holistic. Diana's optimism, he knows, will be crushed under the machinery of war. All this lays in the future. For the moment, his eyes glisten of painful joining and sweet partings. His mouth is grimly taut, yet slightly agape. He has just been dangerously close to her and his lips wait for hers to touch.

Does this speak to Pine's skill as an actor? To Patty Jenkins' forceful direction of actors? To her credit she would instruct her DoP to capture this moment? Whether this is intentional is beside the point, really. Barthes would have you believe the most effective puncta are unintentional, accidental. He writes:
Hence the detail which interests me is not, or at least is not strictly, intentional, and probably must not be so; it occurs in the field of the photographed thing like a supplement that is at once inevitable and delightful; it does not necessarily attest to the photographer's art; it says only that the photographer was there, or else, still more simply, that he could not not photograph the partial object at the same as the total object. (47)
The moment in Wonder Woman, regardless of its intent, "arouses great sympathy in me, almost a kind of tenderness" (43), as Barthes puts it. Since seeing the film three days ago, I haven't been able to forget his eyes, the slightly parting lips, the soft slump of his shoulders. I can't shake the delicate dance of misery and hope in his face. The moment is metonymic. When speaking of the punctum as metonym, Barthes, again, coyly puts his point aside in an parenthetical phrase. He writes:
(here, the photograph really transcends itself: is this not the sole proof of its art? To annihilate itself as medium, to be no longer a sign but the thing itself?) (45)
That delicate dance I spoke of in the previous paragraph speaks to the whole text's strenuous, if not altogether successful, attempt at balancing the brutality and drama of combat for entertainment and the inspirational pablum of the film's superficial feminism. The moment works better because it is a punctum than the studium works as a text.

Of course, my citation of Barthes and Camera Lucida for this film is no accident. The film begins with a photograph, allegedly the original photograph of Diana, Steve, and the rest of the crew which Bruce stumbles across in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Wonder Woman opens with Diana receiving the original and this, like a Proustian madeleine, triggers her memory of the studium, the events which lead her to life among the humans. The rest of the film doesn't adequately capture the complex mix of emotions she feels at the photo, but it certainly tries.

Similarly, my two short paragraphs of the moment itself can't convince my reader of its poignancy or power. Indeed, as the punctum is so subjective, it's practically impossible to convey with words the degree by which the moment affected me. Another person, even a person enjoying the film more than I did, might not even have responded to Pine's eyes as I did. This piece, this clumsy attempt at capturing in words how a facial expression shook me, is a simply an effort to explain why I continue to signal these moments in my reviews. Why the puncta persists in pricking me.

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