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SCMS Dispatches: First-Year Perspective on SCMS

"Draughtsman Drawing a Recumbent Woman" by Albrecht Dürer

Upon my arrival into Chicago for SCMS’s 2013 conference, I rushed off my plane in the hopes of getting to the next afternoon panel as quickly as possible. After transferring from the metro and finally taking a moment to look out the window of a CTA bus (the best place to direct your gaze in that situation), I noticed lamppost banners announcing “Picasso and Chicago.” Given my love of and appreciation for art, I was more than curious to know what exactly these signs were referring to. I had some vague notions, but was completely unprepared for what I would eventually discover in the Art Institute of Chicago. The Art Institute was the first museum in the United States to exhibit Picasso’s work in 1913, and it currently “celebrates the special 100-year relationship between Picasso and Chicago by bringing together over 250 of the finest examples of the artist’s paintings, sculpture, prints, drawings, and ceramics.” As I wandered through room after room of the exhibit, gazing at works from the artist’s Blue Period (my personal favorite), Rose Period, forays into neoclassicism and surrealism, and so on, I couldn’t help but feel like this was the closest thing I’ve ever had to a sublime experience. The sheer number of works like The Old Guitarist (1903), Mother and Child (1921), and The Red Armchair (1931) appearing side-by-side, one after another was awe-inspiring. Though these elements alone make the exhibition of Picasso’s work worth mentioning, I think that its simultaneity with SCMS helps foreground a question that was raised again and again throughout the conference: How do we approach the relationship between film and art? Between film and painting? Whether mentioned in entire panels, single papers, or individual paragraphs, this question appears to be one that will always preoccupy film scholars. Two scholars—Mary Ann Doane and Dan Morgan—considered the ways in which film and painting present our world to us, engaging in pointed discussions of perspective. Doane in her “The Body of Perspective” and Morgan in his “Style, Irony, and History in Malick’s Recent Films,” both approached the topic through theorizations of single-point perspective. Doane and Morgan specified that they were dealing with a particular notion of perspective—not the type of radical deconstruction found in something like Picasso’s cubism. Doane began her talk by establishing single-point perspective as a system of ordering space and individual subjectivity. This ordering produces a coherent space, a machinic command of the visual field, and provides the theoretical basis for a mathematical calculation of the human body. Doane turned to Albrecht Dürer’s infamous woodcut that depicts a male artist painting a female nude behind a mesh screen in a study of perspective to further ground these claims. The rigid perpendicular lines of the mesh order the female body’s voluminous curves, privileging a disembodied rationality over the irrationality associated with the feminine body. In contrast to the way in which one-point perspective calculates the body, Doane argued that film perspective often problematizes space and conceptions of the body in space. The filmed body can appear as a body transformed into terrain. Her paper ends in what I found one of the most compelling arguments of the conference: This geography of the body refigures the presuppositions of the perspectival system and showcases film as means of rethinking embodied possibilities. Morgan also discussed the transformation of perspective in film through his readings of Terrance Malick’s most recent works as anti-perspectival films. Beginning with Albertian notions of the single, static eye, Morgan established one-point perspective as a mathematical, as opposed to experiential, model of space. Malick’s oeuvre becomes anti-perspectival through the triple assault of voice-over narration, the camerawork’s multiple points of view, and the problem of scale (or what Morgan winkingly refers to as “the dinosaur problem”) in films like Tree of Life (2011). These films then replace a mathematical ordering with emotional presentations of space and an expressive moving through the world. While I think it is tempting to critique both Doane and Morgan for essentializing painting as a single-perspective medium, I think it is important to acknowledge here that they are dealing with specific models of perspective. And more importantly, they are dealing with the way in which this traditional model of painting orders space, the body, and our experiences of the world. Artists like Picasso certainly utilized multi-point perspective techniques in their work, but the mere existence of this style of painting does little to dispute the fact that single-point perspective dominates the way in which Western thought characterizes individual subjectivity. Both scholars dealt with something bigger than film and painting’s medium specificity; they grappled with how Western painting’s single-point perspective orders an individual’s world and how film can rethink and re-present this ordering.