Monday, 18 June 2012

Morvern Callar's "world beneath the waves" - Film and Phenomenology

In this post, I will approach the themes in Lynne Ramsay's Morvern Callar (2002) through a subjective embodied experience of film viewing, in order to better understand it as a sensually interactive experience. The cinematic dimension of interactivity lies in what Vivian Sobchack describes as “a shared space of being, of seeing, hearing and bodily and reflective movement performed and experienced by the film and viewer”. The film and viewer interact on one another in this space, mingling their experiences. As Sobchack argues, “A film is an act of seeing that makes itself seen, an act of hearing that makes itself heard, an act of physical and reflective movement that makes itself reflexively felt and understood”. The experience of watching Morvern Callar is like this: the film caresses your senses, and at the same time lets you feel it to get under its surface. A performative phenomenological reading gives agency back to the film viewer, allowing responsibility for making sense of what they have thought and felt. Our embodied experience of the film gains validity and authority from the fecundity of a tactile, sensual reading of its surfaces.

In the essay Phenomenology of Eros, Emmanuel Levinas characterises “the feminine” as an intangible cipher that slips out of the grasp of understanding. From a feminist standpoint this is problematic, but it is interesting to see whether this notion applies to the predominantly mute and enigmatic Morvern Callar of the film's title, who makes sense of the world around her through her sense of touch. Morvern's character is like an avatar for the film's audience: we feel through her touch, while Morvern herself is eroticised by the caress of the camera. Her body is often seen in close-up bathed in diffuse red light, her figure soft-edged like the blurry view of a lover's body during sex. This red light recurs throughout the film, connecting Morvern's eroticised body and lit-up face to the stain of her boyfriend's blood.

Although Morvern is eroticised by this treatment, it does not objectify her: her image cannot be grasped, but only caressed as Levinas proposes: “what the caress seeks is not situated in a perspective and in the light of the graspable”. Although we receive a sense of Morvern's experiences via our immersion into the film and a sensory sympathy with her, we cannot fully grasp who she is and what she thinks: she remains out of reach of objectification, an enigma beyond our comprehension. Like the cinema itself, in a phrase of Virginia Woolf's, Morvern communicates with “some secret language which we feel and see, but never speak”.

The rich sensuality and sharp sadness of the film cling to the viewer: the memory of its music swims around us, playing in our heads long after the credits have concluded. In her review of the film, Linda Williams wonderfully illustrates her embodied reaction to it: “her amalgamations of the image and sound are quite unforgettable, in the sense that their effects won't easily fade, like a sore throat that refuses to heal...they stick inside you like shrapnel, like repressed thoughts that are never quite gone”. In the light of this experience, any reading of Morvern Callar as simply an aspirational tale of working-class-girl-made-good (going from poverty to a large cheque and book deal) seems massively misplaced.

Many film reviewers have commented on the subtext of Morvern's apparent desire for escape, most often putting her wish to “get away” down to the fact of her being poor. For example, Justine Ashbury's essay on Morvern Callar in British Women's Cinema refers to the “bleakness” of Morvern's flat with its dingy “cheap Christmas lights”. But to see her economic situation as the sole cause of Morvern's malaise seems a projection of middle-class distaste for working-class existence. The scenes in which we see Morvern sat on a furry rug, warmed by a glowing electric fire, unwrapping Christmas presents - or feet-up on the coffee table in her pants, smoking a cigarette and listening to music - express her comfort, pleasure and security, and not desperate destitution. But in order to to grasp the intentions of the film fully, without being obstructed by prejudice, the viewer must be open to the reactions of the body. As Merleau-Ponty suggests, we must “try to see how a thing or a being begins to exist for us through desire or love” in order to “understand better how things can exist in general.” it is our intentional, phenomenological experience that leads the way to critical or philosophical reflection.

At the start of the film the viewer is submerged into a warm room. Red lights pulse while the camera pulls dreamily in and out of focus, gliding and hovering over the intimate embrace of two bodies. It is acutely startling when the eye becomes aware of what has happened to the figure being caressed, but although the scene shocks and confuses it is not in itself stark or unpleasant to look at. Morvern's gentle caresses of a corpse yoke uncomfortably the taboos of intimacy and death, destabilising our visual enjoyment of this lush-textured scene. As Morvern moves her body away from her partner's, she tilts her head back so that her face and neck are lit up, bathed by the orangey glow of the fairy lights, standing out vulnerably against the hardness of the dark wooden floorboards. The gesture provokes a desire to protect this fragile person, and is perhaps our first pull of empathy towards Morvern. Her opened eyes seem to express a jolt of incomplete realisation of her situation; but like the fairy lights flashing on and off, Morvern is still half in the dark.

Virginia Woolf says of the cinema "We are beholding a world which has gone beneath the waves" and Morvern's character is like this. We do not know who she was before her boyfriend's suicide, but her detachment afterwards expresses her submersion into herself. Her reaching out and touching the world is her way of lifting herself out from under the waves, to reconnect with reality.

A basic reading gathered from the events of the film will tell you that its themes are: the death of a boyfriend, escaping the harsh realities of poverty, and the British rave scene and drug culture of the 90's and early 2000's. This however would be a limiting analysis. In her otherwise sensitive review for Sight and Sound, Linda Williams seems to revel in the film's accurate portrayals of drug use and clubbing, positing that its highest achievement is its authentic depiction of a time and place in British history that apparently excites her. What most interests Williams is Morvern's escape to Spain for sun, sex and clubbing; but for most of her time in Spain Morvern seeks separation from her fellow holidaymakers, finding solace on her hotel balcony or getting away from the resort altogether in a taxi that takes her to a remote village (much to the displeasure of her friend Lana, who is much more the working-class “party animal” stereotype both Williams and Justine Ashbury assume Morvern to be). It is these moments that Morvern relishes: looking out at the desert, holding her arms out of the car window to feel the sun warm her hands, letting hot dry soil pass through her fingers. Morvern's erotic engagement with her natural surroundings all but eclipses her engagement with the Spanish club scene.

Ashbury's reading of the film's first scene is startlingly reductive: “Morvern doesn't report his death, but instead vamps up and embarks on an alcohol and ecstasy-fuelled night of partying”. This rather insulting simplification disregards the long episode where Morvern lays caressing her boyfriend's body, while the “vamping up” begins with Morvern lying in a bath, eyes wide and blank with shock or trauma. She submerges herself into the water, and emerges rubbing her face and gasping desperately for air. The action of submersion seems to be cleansing gesture, an attempt to wash off the bad memory; finding she cannot, Morvern curls up foetus-style, letting the water envelope her.

During the rest of her supposed “vamping up”, Morvern applies make-up in a disconnected way, looking blankly at her reflection in the mirror. In the process of “putting her face on”, Morvern is disappearing and receding deeper into herself. When she holds up her freshly painted nails it is not to observe them, but to stare at her hand as it goes in and out of focus, checking she is still there. As her hand blurs, the orange-and-red light seeping in from the next room (where we realise her boyfriend is still lying) comes sharply into focus. This switch of focus demands attention: Morvern cannot ignore the existence of the body.

All of this happens before Morvern even leaves the house. It is only through denial and repression that she is able to go out and face the world, blankly, as if nothing has happened. Ashbury's reading seems more concerned with her stereotyped perception of the “ecstasy-fuelled” antics of the young working-classes: she overlooks the integrity of the film's characters, and misses the thoughtfulness and sensitivity with which the film portrays them.

As she does not articulate her thoughts and feelings verbally, we do not have easy access to Morvern's emotional state. During a period of loss and shock, one may not form coherent responses that can be formatted for cinema, expressible via the device of an interior monologue or staged dialogue. Our way of knowing Morvern, or at least getting a sense of the person she might be, is by our alignment with her sensory experiences. Our insight into her emotions comes from the sensations of the objects she touches.

In Classless: Recent-Essays British FilmCarl Neville observes that “everything [Morvern] touches in Scotland is redolent of death. She strokes the dead leaves at Lana's grandmothers house, pokes at the maggot writhing in the carrot in the supermarket where she works”. Our guts squirm during these scenes, as the stain of death hangs over these actions: we are horribly reminded of the corpse of Morvern's boyfriend lying abandoned on the kitchen floor. Neville continues: “It is only after she has buried her boyfriend that she begins to intuit a new sensual relation to the world, stroking the buds on a bush, immersing in the thaw water, touching grubs that are struggling back to life from below the surface of the ice and cold”. As the film bursts out of the close heat of the womb-like flat that has become a tomb, the change of scenery provides a sensation of release – literally, a breath of fresh air. Morvern's throwing herself into nature, up and down hills, dancing with hands outstretched, gives expression to the relief the audience feels at the film's change in mood. In touching the world around her, the icy water that chills her skin, the roughness of the bush, Morvern reaffirms that she and her body are also in the world.

For Merleau-Ponty, the affirmation of worldly embodiment is fundamental to authentic experience “We have relearned to feel our body; we have found underneath the objective and detached knowledge of the body that other knowledge which we have of it in virtue of its always being with us and of the fact that we are our body. In the same way we shall need to reawaken our experience of the world as it appears to us in so far as we are in the world through our body, and in so far as we perceive the world with our body”. It is her embodied experience that anchors Morvern to the world in the midst of her emotional detachment, and indeed it is not long after this scene that Morvern is off to Spain, ready for new perceptions and sensations.

Cinema lets us caress something we remain unable to grasp, and experience thoughts and feelings for which we do not have a ready conception: as Woolf puts it, “the likeness of the thought is for some reason more beautiful, more comprehensible, more available, than the thought itself”. Cinema's perspectives can make new and exciting what was before banal, and phenomenological reflection on those perspectives can reinvigorate the viewer to break down the thresholds that separate the film and the viewer. To borrow Laura U. Marks's book title, we get inside “the skin of the film”, so that it allows its space, experience and perceptions to be shared.The character of Morvern behaves very much like the cinema itself: the spectacle of her desire to touch and to connect herself with her surroundings allows us also to feel new connections. Through the erotics of her touch, we brush up against sensations and experiences that are not our own. When we caress the thresholds of Morvern's pleasure and her grief, blending them together in the complex whole of our cinematic experience, we experience an erotic flourishing, in Irigaray's words, “thanks to an intimacy that keeps unfolding itself more and more, opening and reopening the pathway to the mystery of the other”.

2 comments:

  1. Really interesting reading of the film. I agree with the haptic sensuality of the film and it bears a close reading alongside Marks, Sobchack et al. I'm currently writing (trying to...) a PhD thesis on the haptic landscapes of contemporary British film and Morvern is a bold addition to the haptic canon. I also agree with your criticisms of reviewers who see Morvern as yet another hedonistic club-warrior. Did you notice the film's focus on the cell-like holiday apartment blocks? They are redolent of many tower blocks (see Red Road and Fish Tank for example) and in a way the 18-30 clubbers aren't escaping anything. They hurl toilet rolls and other objects across balconies to each other whilst Morvern looks on: this is not her milieu and it is no wonder she escapes to the hinterlands in search of a new haptic sensuality.
    Best wishes
    Lance Hanson

    ReplyDelete
  2. Really interesting reading of the film. I agree with the haptic sensuality of the film and it bears a close reading alongside Marks, Sobchack et al. I'm currently writing (trying to...) a PhD thesis on the haptic landscapes of contemporary British film and Morvern is a bold addition to the haptic canon. I also agree with your criticisms of reviewers who see Morvern as yet another hedonistic club-warrior. Did you notice the film's focus on the cell-like holiday apartment blocks? They are redolent of many tower blocks (see Red Road and Fish Tank for example) and in a way the 18-30 clubbers aren't escaping anything. They hurl toilet rolls and other objects across balconies to each other whilst Morvern looks on: this is not her milieu and it is no wonder she escapes to the hinterlands in search of a new haptic sensuality.
    Best wishes
    Lance Hanson

    ReplyDelete