JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

51: One of Aidan’s creepy prescient drawings of Samara, completed approximately one week before Katy died from tape exposure.

52: Samara resembles a Holbeinian blur — and perhaps a VHS cassette?

 

53: In The Birds, Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) fights off Hitchcock’s harbingers of an unarticulatable doom.

54: Laura Mulvey’s reading of Vertigo remains foundational, but is Madeleine (Kim Novak) really any less captivating if you watch her with the lights on?

55: When the back of your entertainment system looks like this, perhaps it is time to ask what all those connections mean.

56: VHS and the horror of illegitimate reproduction

57: The modern DVD as it approaches the two-dimensional

58: Every time Samara comes back to kill someone, she demonstrates that ghosts offer a balm to our fears of mortality and thus cannot simply represent it.

59: The best horror has no face.

60: The videotape has finally reached its destination.

 

The medium is the message:
from movie to cassette

Neither Samara nor her trauma tape truly embodies the “inert presence” that gives The Ring its psychotic stain, however; that honor belongs solely to the videocassettes. Like the birds in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, the videocassette does not make sense as a direct metaphor for mortality or reproduction, nor even an embodiment of them. Rather, as Žižek explains,

“the birds do not ‘signify’ the maternal superego, they do not ‘symbolize’ blocked sexual relations, the ‘possessive’ mother and so on; they are, rather, the making present in the real, the objectivization, the incarnation of the fact that, on the symbolizing level, something ‘has not worked out’” (Looking 104).
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The birds signify a refusal of the reductive. Their excessive existence is symptomatic of another excess or failure in the Symbolic, such that they point to something’s being off, but not to any one thing in particular (Fig. 53). The videocassette is likewise neither a clear-cut symbol for the uncanniness of reproduction nor a direct signifier of human mortality; rather it offers an opportunity to “make present” a previous repression to indicate that “something has not worked out.” Hence in keeping with its containing nature, the videotape holds a certain anxiety for us. It is pregnant with a reminder that, despite our cherished beliefs, we are all going to die someday.

Yet even if we are prepared to believe in this videotape as a psychotic stain, we may still wonder why Samara chooses to express her anger, and our mortality, through a videocassette. Psychoanalytic theory provides one explanation of how Samara’s medium of choice scares us but it cannot — and should not — tell us why her videocassette is uncanny to its audience:

"In order to avoid the danger of the so-called “psychoanalytic interpretation of art” which lurks here… one has to accomplish the properly dialectical reversal of the explanans into explanandum: [in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, for example,] the point is to not to interpret the unfathomable “acousmatique” voice as the maternal superego, but rather its opposite, i.e. to explain the very logic of the maternal superego by means of this vocal stain." (Žižek Looking 104)

So the real question is not why The Ring is about a videocassette or why that videocassette is uncanny, but rather what our reaction to the tape as an avatar of the uncanny tells us about home video.

Film and video theory seem obvious places to begin researching these formal/format concerns, yet even the briefest survey of the fields will show that they lack almost any coordinated investigation into video spectatorship, either in its rivalry with cinematic apparatus or its unique relationship to television and the domestic screening space. Psychoanalytic film theories routinely ground their accounts of viewers’ experiences in theatrical projection. Beginning with Christian Metz, spectatorship theorists have regularly assumed that films only appear (and can only be understood) through projectors and screens:

"I know that I am really perceiving, that my sense organs are physically affected, that I am not fantasizing, that the fourth wall of the auditorium (the screen) is really different from the other three, that there is a projector facing it (and thus it is not I who am projecting, or at least not all alone), and I also know that it is I who am perceiving all this, that this perceived-imaginary material is deposited in me as if on a second screen." (48)

This theatrical presupposition permeates Metz’ work and dominates his much-lauded theory of spectatorship and primary identification. Granted, Metz developed his theory of spectatorship in the early 1970s, long before the price war between BETA and VHS made VCRs affordable to the majority of French or U.S. households (Klopfenstein 24-25). We cannot condemn an otherwise inspired film critic for not being psychic — although cinema films did appear on television when Metz was writing and had ever since 1956 (“History of Television”). The problem is that in following in Metz’s tradition, contemporary spectatorship theorists often remain oblivious to the simple fact that the automatic equation of movies with theatrical projection was an historical phase, one that ended twenty years ago. While theatrical movie-going certainly has not stopped, it has ceased to define the average film-viewer’s average film-viewing experience (Wasser 4).

Sadly, psychoanalytic film criticism is not the only tradition to overlook this distributive development; feminist film theory also exhibits a frustrating insistence on cinema spectatorship. For example, many feminist film critics continue to locate their work in relationship to Laura Mulvey’s ground-breaking analysis of movie women’s “to-be-looked-at-ness” (19) which relies on a definition of voyeurism that presupposes theatrical viewing conditions:

"The extreme contrast between the darkness in the auditorium (which isolates the spectators from one another) and the brilliance of the shifting patterns of light and shade on the screen helps promote the illusion of voyeuristic separation… Among other things, the position of the spectators in the cinema is blatantly one of repression of their exhibitionism and projection of their repressed desire onto the performer." (17)

Mulvey’s argument may hold true for video spectatorship, if one believes that home theater viewers also frequently turn out the lights (perhaps to facilitate their voyeuristic absorption into the film), but adopting the theory of one medium to cover another fails to address the exciting new challenge of defining spectatorship now that “film has lost medium specificity” (Wasser 198) (Fig. 54).

Some more recent theorists of video and televisuality have begun to address this challenge by arguing that VHS spectatorship possesses a unique relationship to fetishism that cannot simply incorporate old understandings of cinema or photography. Amelia Jones proposes that the specific version of distance contained in the television screen breaks down the viewer’s belief that she can control its images, or that the bodies contained therein were placed there for his enjoyment (84-86). Unfortunately, Jones limits her argument to video art, and her decision not to address commercially released televisual flesh (the most poignant example being perhaps Cronenberg’s Videodrome) leaves the reader to wonder how video formats intervene in theatrically released models of fetishism.

Anne Friedberg does study commercial video specifically, however, and within a psychoanalytic tradition, but her most sustained analysis focuses on the there-and-thenness (as opposed to television’s here-and-nowness) of the VCR:

“One can literally ‘rent’ another space and time when one borrows a videotape to watch on a VCR” (Window 141). 

Friedberg draws this conclusion from the work of Paul Virilio, who argues,

“the machine, the VCR, allows man to organize a time which is not his own” (Friedberg Window 141). 

However, in their emphasis on reading video through Barthes’ punctum and the historically-oriented or death-derived otherness of the recorded image causes Friedberg and Virilio to lose something of the viewer’s relationship to the format.  Friedberg does note that “the videocassette transforms the size and accessibility of the film experience, markets it as a book-sized, readily available commodity,” but the astuteness of her observation nonetheless leaves the reader unsure what effect Friedberg thinks this fetishization has on the spectator, on her experience of the movie contained therein (Window 139). 

Fortunately, Friedberg more than compensates for this oversight in her subsequent article, “The End of Cinema: Multimedia and Technological Change,” in which she initiates the first rigorous examination of video as a temporal condition:

“our assumptions about ‘spectatorship’ have lost their theoretical pinions as screens have changed, as have our relations to them” (450). 

For example, Friedberg observes that time-shifting alters the viewer’s experience of lived time:

“Now that ‘time’ is so easily electronically ‘deferred’ or ‘shifted’ one can ask: has the VCR produced a new temporality, one that has dramatically affected our concept of history and our access to the past?  The VCR treats films or videotapes as objects of knowledge to be explored, investigated, deconstructed as if they were events of the past to be studied.” (“End” 444)

Furthermore, Friedberg’s most recent work addresses screen or format fetishization directly and examines how “as screens have changed, so have our relationships to them” (Virtual 178).  She finds the VCR to be the turning point in changes in spectatorship still too new to be diagnosed:

"The VCR, I argue, was the first technology to begin to erode the historical differences between television and film, altering as it did the terms of electronic and cinematic viewing.  In addition, the technologies which transformed the media environment of the 1980s—the VCR, cable television and the television remote—not only changed our concept of film-going and television-viewing, but also prepared us for another ‘convergence’: the television and computer screen." (Friedberg “CD” 31)

In addition to Friedberg, Charles Tashiro also stands out as one of the few film or video scholars specifically concerned with video spectatorship. Tashiro premises his studies on an observation that “an art form developed for the exhibition realities of the early twentieth century bears only partial relationship to the realities of consumption in the late twentieth century” (“Home Video” 63). Noting that even media education and film appreciation classes now commonly screen “video reproductions of film titles,” Tashiro challenges his colleagues to critique their own failure to observe their subject’s form by asking,

“if film and video viewing are identical, if no reshaping of the text occurs, why does the latter medium exist?” (“Home Video” 58).

For as Tashiro goes on to demonstrate at length, video recordings cannot capture celluloid’s range of color saturation or brightness, not to mention the complexity of a theatrical sound mix, so if it is true that there is more to a film that its narrative, then it must also be true that video changes its films in ways that standard variations in film projection could not anticipate — it is no longer that the film might change, but that it must undergo translation.

Thus “you can wait for it on video, but ‘it,’ like Godot, will never arrive,” because the video you see will have been adjusted in frame size through either P&S editing or letterboxing and modified in its contrast, color density, and audio frequency to reflect differences in the technical abilities of movie theaters and TV-VCRs (“Videophilia” 16, 13-14, 8). Tashiro also reflects on how the video spectator’s very control of her VCR mediates her viewing experience: “This physical interaction involves the proletarianization of the video viewer, forcing him/her to become, in effect, a projectionist” (“Videophilia” 11). The spectator now has less reason to sit through boring, offensive, or otherwise challenging scenes in her videos given the “flexibility” of fast-forward control: “what we once might have endured, we now resent… whether we like it or not, home video turns us all into critics” and fundamentally alters our passive relationships to film (“Videophilia” 15).

Tashiro’s emphasis on the physical labor of home theater viewing deserves to be crucial to video spectatorship theory, because this push-button power changed how films were viewed and privileged in the United States after 1980:

"VCR and DVD technology spawned an entirely new way of viewing movies on prerecorded cassettes or discs that could be rented or purchased at video shops. Despite the fears of the motion-picture industry, the new technology did not contribute to a decline in movie theater attendance. Instead, it fostered a much wider experience of movies for viewers who sought entertainment more frequently at home than in public settings. The consequences were numerous: the history of motion pictures, in addition to recent films, became available to the home viewer; cassette and disc rental and sales earned new revenue for motion-picture companies — in some cases, more than the theatrical release; and advance sales of video rights enabled small production companies to finance the creation of low-budget films." (Sklar 1)

Today a film’s home theater gross may nearly triple its box office receipts, and yet there is still very little theoretically rigorous criticism of films on video, not to mention films about video (Lieberman 1). Criticism of The Ring has been minimal to date, with the exception of one article on Salon.com that failed to recognize video as the cursed technology in The Ring or to come up with the names of any of the postmodern philosophers the critic felt pretty sure the film was citing (Stone 3, 7).

Television studies has also declined to embrace any discussions of home theater (with the exception of recent interest in TV-DVD box sets) due to its effort to champion television as more than a domestic delivery system for theatrical films. Ruth Lorand thus introduces her book Television: Aesthetic Reflections in part by asking, “In what ways is TV more than a limited home cinema?” — the answer appears to be that it also features news, live broadcasting, and music videos (13). Television aesthetics has focused on programming, in other words, not technology, and so the field has yet to consider the umbilical cable cords trailing out of our TVs that transform them into so many little fetuses (Fig. 55).

Yet if television refuses to consider its formal relationship to video, and film theory likewise cannot bear to contemplate home theater, then one loses any chance to investigate the effects of medium on spectatorship now that the same film can be transmitted through the air (theater projectors, traditional broadcasting), fed via umbilical cord (cable television), or delivered in a small black box (videocassette — we’ll get to DVD soon). Without the ability to study a movie across its multiple media, it is no longer possible to fully theorize a viewer’s reaction to a given film.

For example, if a viewer were to watch George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead in the theater, she might face the anxiety of leaving the voyeuristic control room of the auditorium to re-enter the outside world (perhaps even a mid-mall multiplex) that she has just been assured is over-run with the undead. Yet if our viewer were to watch Dawn of the Dead on television, she would presumably turn off the television after the film, and the “window” would close, thereby limiting her fear of future attacks either to the TV reconnecting with the television signal it previously channeled or to the zombies somehow wriggling through the umbilical-cable cord and back to her. Yet fortunately for her, and despite the extent to which Poltergeist troubles the notion of televisions ever being entirely open or closed, even the “TV people” never manage to turn the TV on or off by themselves; they merely change the channel.[5] [open endnotes in new window]

Only The Ring shows its TVs opening the window by themselves, but by then Rachel and company have a bigger problem, namely the black box in the corner. For if our viewer were to watch Dawn of the Dead on VHS, she could either leave the tape in the VCR or rewind it and put it back in its box, but either way, the unseen inner cavity would still be in the room. That cavity contains zombies (as she very well knows — she just saw them on TV) and the zombies are still in there, waiting to come out the next time another viewer decides to play midwife and “help [the film] be born, help it to live” (Metz 93). Our viewer remains all too aware that she just saw the undead on television, and now here in the room lies a small casket, the same one out of which the undead so recently emerged, yet its inner cavity (like the uterus) cannot be opened. Even if our viewer could open it, it would not contain any answers, as Rachel learns when she breaks open her cursed cassette to reveal nothing but tape, which she destroys, only to immediately discover… another concealing videocassette (Fig. 56).

To the extent that the videocassette thus stands alone as the only container format of contemporary film viewing, and to the extent that its unenterable cavity is also the key source of the videocassette’s uncanniness in The Ring, a specific tendency in film theory to partition inside from outside in reference to film’s hermetic closure may explain why the cassette’s uncanniness remained unarticulatable before 2002. Christian Metz begins this metaphor by describing a movie’s self-sufficiency as a disavowal of its exhibitionism that has the effect of

“making [film] (at best) a beautiful closed object which must remain unaware of the pleasure it gives us (literally, over its dead body), an object whose contours remain intact and which cannot therefore be torn open into an inside and an outside” (94).

Metz’s descent into material language is both problematic and telling, because it creates a seamless equation between hermetic closure and physical insideness and outsideness — an analogy that, strictly speaking, does not apply to the film reel yet perfectly describes a videocassette. More recently, Barbara Creed has reinterpreted the physical inside/ outsideness of film as a question of psychic alienation, or abjection:

"The concept of inside/outside suggests two surfaces that fold in on each other; the task of separating inside from outside seems impossible as each surface constitutes the ‘other’ side of its opposite. The implication is that the abject can never be completely banished; if ‘inside,’ the abject substance forms a lining for the outside; if ‘outside,’ it forms a skin for the inside. The womb represents the utmost in abjection for it contains a new life form which will pass from inside to outside bringing with it traces of its contamination — blood, afterbirth, faeces" (49).

Returning to Metz’s birth metaphor for film projection, what I would like to suggest is that the videocassette always possessed this stain of potential abjection, the pregnant cavity that could contain who knows what, but that the abject horror of insideness/outsideness was never extended to the videotape before 2002 because the home-theater market had no other viable alternative to champion once its Pandora’s Box was identified as such. The Ring was therefore the first film to be able to reveal (revel in) the horror of the videocassette, because it was the first produced after the rise of DVD, the new, impotent way to bring movies home.

Home alone?
the future of DVD

DVD, or digital video disc, was not the first threat to VHS’s monopoly of the home-theater market, but unlike Laserdisc, VHS’s previous competitor, DVD actually appears to have conquered the North American market place, thanks in no small part to its considerable corporate backing.[6] DVD players first went on sale in the U.S. in November, 1996, but as of 1997, only twenty-five percent of new VHS titles were simultaneously released on DVD (“DVD Technical Guide,” Equinox). In October, 1999, Blockbuster, the largest video rental chain in the U.S., announced that it would “introduce Digital Video Disc (DVD) to almost 3,800 of its U.S. corporate stores by year’s end,” which at that time constituted more than half of its 6,500 stores internationally (“Company Profile,” “Blockbuster® Announces”). In the accompanying press release, Blockbuster revealed that its support of DVD was based on analysts’ predictions that DVD

“should be in more than four million American households by the end of 1999 and in 50 million households by the year 2007” (“Blockbuster® Announces”).[7]

Blockbuster also acknowledged that its reorientation to the DVD format was based on

“plans to capitalize on the long-term profitability associated with the high margin DVD rental market… due to the lower cost of DVDs” (“Blockbuster® Accelerates”).

By November 2001, Blockbuster officials announced,

“DVD is the fastest-adopted new consumer entertainment format in history and continues to gain popularity” (“Blockbuster® Rolls Out”).

And as of January, 2006, DVD was in over 80% of U.S. households, 82 million to be exact, which is over sixty percent more than Blockbuster predicted back in 1998.

The DVD format also possesses other, aesthetic advantages over VHS, namely “the use of MPEG-2 video compression [which] has been shown to give superlative results, far better than VHS and better than Laserdisc,” not to mention a variety of attractive in-disk bonuses, such as alternate endings, deleted scenes, bloopers, and director’s commentaries (“CD-ROM/DVD”). Furthermore, DVD brings with it a certain heterosexist simplicity, for although it may have a hole, DVD does not have a womb. As its relentlessly shiny surface demonstrates, the DVD is defined by its lack of interiority, its approximation of the two dimensional images it will create (Fig. 57).

In fact, DVD was designed to be non-reproductive:

“The stand-alone DVD player was introduced to the consumer market as a successor to the VCR, a smaller more efficient laser-disc player to play back pre-recorded films.  In this regard, its playback features were developed well before its recording capacities, the reverse of VCR development” (Friedberg “CD” 35). 

Thus the DVD, the phallus that has no interior, that wears its images on its sleeve, exposes the videocassette as uterine by contrast. Our current gender and sexuality vocabularies depend on binaries and pairs to create meaning — there is no feminine without masculine, there is no heterosexual without homosexual — and so we cannot alienate one technology without creating for it a supposed opposite. Perhaps the studios could not afford to admit how damned eerie the videocassette was until they possessed another way to sell old movies to home viewers. [8]

Yet as opposed to Ringu, which premiered in 1998, just as DVD began its climb, and was written and produced even earlier, The Ring was conceived during the ascendancy of the DVD, yet neither a single DVD nor reference to DVD-technology appears anywhere in the film: it is a VHS world, and VHS is dying (or killing, as the case may be). It is this cultural context, the immanent (economic) demise of the videocassette that allows it to be “elevated to the level of the Thing” in The Ring:

"This moment is the moment of death and sublimation: when the subject’s [i.e. the videocassette’s] presence is exposed outside the symbolic support, he “dies” as a member of the symbolic community, his being is no longer determined by a place in the symbolic network, it materializes the pure Nothingness of the hole, the void in the Other (the symbolic order), the void designated, in Lacan, by the German word das Ding, the Thing, the pure substance of enjoyment resisting symbolization." (Žižek Enjoy 75, 8)

Although the videocassette appears closely tied into the “symbolic network” of The Ring, it is precisely that connection that establishes The Ring as a fiction, since for today’s video viewer, the videocassette has in essence become a “dead man walking.” The “sublime object” (of horror) in The Ring therefore must be the videocassette, and not the ghost, because (the monopoly of) the videocassette is mortal, just as the viewer himself is mortal, whereas the whole premise of the ghost is that it never really died. A ghost cannot truly represent human mortality, in other words, because ghosts essentially argue for the other side: you may “die,” but you won’t have to leave (Fig. 58).

In recognizing the videocassette as the true object of horror in The Ring, moreover, we may have uncovered the reason for the film’s enormous popularity despite its generic nonconformity. The Ring constructs itself around a poor excuse for a ghost in order to expose that ghost as a screen for another anxiety-producer, the videocassette. Thus it is no accident that The Ring undermines Samara’s initial creepiness by allowing her to speak on screen and even to show the camera her whole face (Fig. 59):

"In both cases, unveiling either his voice, or his body and face, has the effect of breaking the spell, re-assigning the character to an ordinary fate, taking away his mythic powers… the unveiling of the voice bring a reversal and the character’s 'fall' to a common destiny." (Chion 100)

Samara is at her most terrifying, in other words, when she is silent and when the viewer cannot see inside her, past the black wall of hair that hangs over her face. This silence and its accompanying black veil — the same effects that offer Samara an uncanny resemblance to the blot from Holbein’s Ambassadors — also reveal the root of Samara’s horror, her videotape, by bringing her as close as a human being can get to the state of a videocassette: silent, shrouded in black, containing who knows what underneath or inside (see Fig. 52). Hence Samara’s most explicit incarnation of the video threat, her jerky, jump-cut pursuit of Noah, is also her coup de grâce.

If Samara is at her scariest when she most resembles a videocassette, and if the videocassette is in turn its scariest when it is most feminine, then the ultimate goal of The Ring’s matrilineal arrangement of horror may be to unveil the videocassette as the latest incarnation of “the monstrous feminine,” Barbara Creed’s phrase to designate how the female monster always “emphasizes the importance of gender in her monstrosity” (3). The videocassette thus becomes a technological means of metaphorizing a longstanding cultural preoccupation with the uncanny, inaccessible womb and the inexplicable power of reproduction it bestows upon women. This is not to say that we ought to read The Ring as a straight-forward allegory for either our fear of young girls and their reproductive potential (which we reaffirm by desiring them) or the rise of the DVD over the sexually ambiguous VHS cassette. The Ring cannot or will not bear out such readings, either in its plot or in its symbolism, for this film simply is not a metaphor any more than a stain is simply a signifier. Like Žižek’s psychotic Birds, it deserves to be read as a

“making present… of the fact that, on the symbolizing level, something ‘has not worked out’” (Looking 104).

In order to elevate its videocassette to the level of “das Ding, the Thing,” in other words, The Ring had to accept a certain elision of logic or causal reasoning from its horror narrative, for “the Thing, the pure substance of enjoyment resisting symbolization” — here understood as that certain pleasure masquerading as displeasure that keeps scary movies in production — cannot exist within an allegorical framework (Žižek Enjoy 8). This little dead girl and her videocassette do not make sense — where did she come from? why is she evil? why a videotape? — because it is precisely our heroines’ failure to articulate their meaning that allows The Ring to tell its viewers what it feels like to watch a tape.  In short, the videocassette has finally reached its destination (Fig. 60).

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