Final thesis proposal … well, pretty much.
Although there is significant academic literature on the cinema of Darren Aronofsky, the predominant tendency has been to observe his films through a psychoanalytic and formalist lens. Such perspectives have often scrutinised a single film (as opposed to his entire body of feature films) against a theoretical backdrop of psychoanalytic theories with little regard to the physical experience of the embodied spectator. For a good example of this, see Paul Eisenstein’s Devouring Holes: Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream and the Tectonics of Psychoanalysis (2007), whereby he gives an account of Requiem for a Dream as a reflection of a world ‘unmoored from the cut of the Signifier in which one lives at the mercy of the Others pervasive jouissance.’ However, in looking at Aronofsky’s entire body of feature films, the phenomenological perspective has garnered substantially less academic attention. Perhaps Steen Christiansen (see Body Refractions: Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2011)) best bridges the gap between the psychoanalytical and phenomenological approach with his account of Black Swan’s protagonist, Nina, and her transformative state. Black Swan lends itself easily to a psychoanalytic reading, and Christiansen lays the groundwork to view Nina in these terms (specifically the Oedipal trajectory and scopophilia). Whilst finding valid assertions, Christiansen concludes that the best way to understanding Black Swan is through the ‘affective image’. Christiansen illustrates this with the final scene where Nina oversteps ‘mere representation and fantasy and instead becomes the Black Swan in a moment of affective desire, a moment also meant to transgress the boundary between screen and spectator. We as spectators are clearly meant to be not simply shocked and startled by Nina’s physical transformation but also to be elated by Nina’s virtuoso performance.’
In this thesis, I will attempt to demonstrate how phenomenology, when applied to the cinema of Aronofsky, brings forth an understanding of his films that is different, and perhaps more effective, than if it were to be viewed from other established film theories such as auteurist, formalist, or psychoanalytical. The methodological importance of phenomenology as an approach to films (and its frequently understated nature) is aptly highlighted by Vivian Sobchack in her chapter from the Australian online journal Senses of Cinema (see http://sensesofcinema.com/2000/5/fingers/); ‘Nearly every time I read a movie review in a newspaper or popular magazine, I am struck once again by the gap that exists between our actual experience of the cinema and the theory that we academic film scholars write to explain it-or, perhaps more aptly, to explain it away.’
A cinema (or film-making) that can leave an impression on the spectator, and/or trigger thought processes that may be transformative, is the kind of film experience that film phenomenologists describe as vital to the understanding of cinema as embodied response on the part of the spectator. An investigation into the experience of cinema poses a number of further questions which need to be explored and answered. Notably, what is phenomenology and how does this approach advantage a reading of the cinema of Aronofsky? Indeed, what does it mean to talk about a film (or a body of films as will be the case in this thesis) with a phenomenological approach, as opposed to a sociological or psychological approach?
Phenomenology is an emergent scholarly research field generating interest and there have been concerted efforts recently to rethink phenomenology across the social sciences and humanities, as witnessed in the recent U.K. Conference, Conditions of Mediation (http://conditionsofmediation.wordpress.com).
I will begin by basing my definition of phenomenology (described by Daniel Frampton) as: ‘the philosophy of experience – the study of consciousness and the phenomena (objects/appearance) of direct experience. That is, it attempts to describe our experience of things (the experience of things to us), marking out phenomenal states – also known as sensations, sense data, or qualia.’ (“Qualia” is a key term in consciousness studies. It refers to the specific nature of our subjective experience of sense perceptions that arise from the stimulation of the senses by phenomena. Specifically, qualia relates to the kind of experience that is ineffable, intrinsic, private, and directly apprehensible to consciousness). Phenomenology, according to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, explains the fundamental role that perception plays in the understanding of the world. Strongly influenced by the German philosophers Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty emphasised the body as the primary site of knowing the world. This was a corrective to existing theories that placed consciousness as the primary site for knowing the world. For Merleau-Ponty, phenomenology ‘tries to give a direct description of our experience as it is, without taking into account of its psychological origin and the causal explanations which the scientist, the historian or sociologist may be able to provide.’ Specifically, phenomenology insists on beginning with the film, and then the experience of it.
I believe that the cinema of Aronofsky lends itself to a phenomenological reading due to the visceral nature of his films. They offer an opportunity to study a concise body of work that is deeply concerned with its physicality. Indeed, Director Darren Aronofsky appears to make a conscious effort to bring the spectator towards the sensory experience of the protagonist, specifically so that the spectator experiences the physicality of his cinema (see http://archive.dailycal.org/article/22403/interview_with_darren_aronofsky). Through a close textual analysis and deconstruction of Aronofsky’s films, I wish to explore the extent to which his cinema can be defined as a work of ‘bodily intent’, that is, a work that attempts to evoke bodily responses in the spectator with the intention of using these as a vehicle to convey the text’s meaning. I hypothesise that it is Aronofsky’s intent to locate a significant amount of the films’ meanings within the embodied experience of the spectator at a phenomenological level.