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A theory of agitation, or: Getting off in the cinema

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Beginning from an observation about the narrative structure of some recent works within the film festival and art-house phenomenon of ‘contemplative cinema’, this essay proceeds to ask: is there a model of tension and release, not reducible to a crudely masculine stereotype, that can be hypothesized as essential to the functioning of the cinematic apparatus? The discussion questions certain emphases in the current theorization of ‘cinesexuality’ in order to propose that a structure of psychic agitation, to be effectively erotic, must occur at the most bedrock, material levels of film – not merely at its surface, representational levels. This conception of a ‘psychic matrix’ in cinematic spectatorship, derived from a largely overlooked essay by Elsaesser, is tracked back archaeologically through the writings of Eizykman, Baudry, and Mauerhofer. The continuing usefulness of such a ‘metapsychology of the apparatus’ approach is argued for. The essay concludes with brief analyses of select moments, elements, and formal structures from two Paul Thomas Anderson films, Punch-Drunk Love (2002) and There Will Be Blood (2007).

What is common to the psychical, cinematic and social apparatuses is the exchange of forces, of energies … Any object is a disposition of forces. And the congruence of each of these apparatuses comes from their functioning as conservers of force: by displacement, by transit, by accumulation, withdrawal, inversion of energy, etc.

Within this énergétique, the accent is no longer placed upon references, contents, motivations or significations, but on processes, forces, operations, adjustments, and the assemblages which modulate them: we research the functioning of all this.

– Claudine Eizykman, La jouissance-cinéma (1976, 13; my translation)

In cinema, that art that fixes rhythms, substances, forms, figures and all kinds of other things onto a single support, the signifier can sit anywhere.

– Michel Chion (2002, 38)
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: English, Communications and Performance Studies, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia

Publication date: 2012-08-01

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