Chapter 5: Cinema as Skin – Body and Touch

Gravity – (Re)turn to the Body – Critique of ‘Oocularcentrism’ – Phenomenology, Synaesthesia, Intermodality – Vivian Sobchack – Avant-Garde Practices – Body and Genre (Linda Williams, Barbara Creed) – Haptic Perception and Skin of Film (Laura Marks) – Crash – Skin and Identity – The New World – Accented Cinema (Hamid Naficy) – Ethnographic Filmmaking – Siegfried Kracauer

GRAVITY: All alone in a horizonless space. Courtesy of Photofest / © Warner Bros.

A body, alone in outer space, drifting isolated through the fathomless expanse beyond the earth’s atmosphere. The astronaut is clothed in a protective spacesuit that allows Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) to survive in an inhospitable habitat, but she has lost the umbilical cord connecting her to the mothership, which in turn linked her to her planet of origin only visible in the distance as a glimmering globe. The drama of Gravity (US 2013, Alfonso Cuarón), ironically announcing in its title what is absent and desperately sought for the duration of the film, is that of a body desolate in a space without limit, trying to find its way back to a place where gravitational laws give us a certainty of orientation (up/down, left/right) and a sense of belonging and ‘grounding.’ The aesthetics of the film tries to replicate the protagonist’s fearful and fascinated exploration of a horizonless world through 3-D cinematography and very long takes, which together induce in the spectator an equally ambivalent sense of disorientation and weightlessness. The reduced narration and the poetic exploration of zero-gravity turns the film into a laboratory of the senses, which brings the spectator close to the bodily experience of floating, drifting, and being suspended in space. Yet it would not be a Hollywood movie, if Dr. Stone did not live up to her name and find a way to sink back to earth, in the process demonstrating how the cinema can symbolically reenact the ontogenesis of the entire human race, from water to land, from amphibian to mammal. Forget the West, Gravity seems to say, it is the human body that remains our final frontier, a lesson that film theory, too, has learned in the meantime. In film theory, almost from the beginning, an ocularcentric paradigm prevailed that took the cinema to be above all a visual experience. This dominance began in the 1920s when Rudolf Arnheim imported so-called ‘Gestalt’ theory into film theory and Béla Balázs emphasised the significance of close-ups. Eisenstein’s constructivist montage theories and Bazin’s conceptualisation of reality as an ambiguous yet indivisible appearance of being whose basic ontological form is cinema also centred on the eye as the organ of visual perception (although, as shown in Chapter 1, Bazin makes equal room for the material trace and the body, with his metaphors of the mummy and the shroud). It was, however, the dominant theories of the 1960s and 1970s, discussed in the two previous chapters, that privileged the act of seeing even more than earlier theories: mirror-reflexivity and then apparatus theory transported ‘visible man’ into Plato’s cave, while feminist film theory made the male gaze the core concept among keywords such as voyeurism, fetishism, and exhibitionism – all associated with vision.

kogonada: Hands of Bresson

Tactility often goes unnoticed in cinema, but Robert Bresson’s films intensely focus on gestures of touching and contact. In this poetic rendering, kogonada has collected and systematized these hands, thereby illustrating how the cinema can be an affectively and somatically charged medium.

Kevin B. Lee: Looking vs. Touching

Examining two films (Lady Chatterley, FR 2006, Pascale Ferran, and En la ciudad de Sylvia / In the City of Sylvia, FR 2007, Jose-Luis Guerin) which deal with erotic attraction, the audiovisual essay explores how film can mediate between looking and touching.

Catherine Grant: Touching the Film Object? On Haptic Criticism

Taking its cue from Laura Marks’ influential theory of “haptic visuality,” the essay mixes quotes from an academic film studies background with excerpts from Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (SE 1966).

Matt Zoller Seitz: All Things Shining. The Films of Terrence Malick, Pt 4: The New World

Malick’s film The New World (US 2005) presents the porousness and permeability between cultures (instead of focusing on the differences, as is so often the case); Zoller Seitz’ essay concentrates on the encounter and relationship of two characters from these different backgrounds and the aesthetic strategies employed in the process.

Jim Emerson: Written in the Flesh. A Crash Course in David Cronenberg (

An auteurist exploration of the work of Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg (up to A History of Violence, US 2005) through a montage of motifs without commentary concentrating on the body horror aspect of Cronenberg’s work.

Elsaesser / Bachmann / Moberg: Bergman’s Bodies: Touch and Skin (

The most carefully composed and choreographed of our three video essays, showing how touch in Bergman runs the entire spectrum from tender caress to violent aggression. The video pays special attention to the volatile combination of ‘hand’ and ‘face’ when it comes to touch and skin, and also deploys sound to render the image ‘tactile.’ For a video essay on Bergman and the cinema-as-dream, see Michael Koresky and Casey Moore’s Bergman’s Dream

The Wind (US, 1928, Victor Sjostrom)

Hiroshima mon amour (FR 1959, Alain Resnais)

Pickpocket (FR 1959, Robert Bresson)

Les Yeux sans visage (FR 1960, Georges Franju, Eyes without a Face)

Goldfinger (GB 1964, Guy Hamilton)

The Singing Detective (GB 1986, Dennis Potter)

The Silence of the Lambs (US 1990, Jonathan Demme)

Crash (US 1995, David Cronenberg)

The Pillow Book (GB/NL 1996, Peter Greenaway)

The English Patient (US 1998, Anthony Minghella)

In the Mood for Love (HK 2000, Wong Kar Wai)

Memento (US 2001, Christopher Nolan)

Gegen die Wand (GE 2003, Fatih Akin, Head-on)

The Human Stain (US/GE/FR 2003, Robert Benton)

La piel que habito (ES 2011, Pedro Almodóvar The Skin I live In)

Leviathan (US 2012, Lucien Castaign-Taylor / Véréna Paravel)

12 Years a Slave (US 2013, Steve McQueen)

Gravity (US 2013, Alfonso Cuarón)

Under the Skin (GB 2013, Jonathan Glazer)