Archive for the ‘The Study of Culture’ tag
The kiss is a risqué subject in the cinematic cultures of India. While nudity, sex and sexual violence might pass as acceptable, it is the kiss, or the ‘smooch’ in Indian English, that is most likely to trigger government agencies to censor films. Particularly Bollywood filmmakers are fully aware of the scandalous implications of kissing scenes and openly compete for pushing the boundaries of what is permissible in visual culture. They produce films that have the longest kissing scene, the most kissing scenes, the first French kissing scene, the first open mouthed kissing scene, the first girl-on-girl kissing scene, and, most recently, the first male gay kissing scene.
All the while, producers appear to utilize the ‘scandal’ associated with the kissing scene in order to promote a film well in advance of its release. In other words, the disclosure of the kiss is a key element in the promotional structures of Indian cinema. Here, censorship is not as much prohibiting certain scenes to be screened, but rather, the existence of an ambiguous and idiosyncratic censorship law is the platform that aides the promotion of a movie.
While Bollywood has discovered that kissing scenes are a key constituent in the economic success of a Hindi language movie, other Indian film cultures based in languages such as Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada, Bengali, Punjabi or Marathi appear to have a more innocent relationship with the kiss. Above scene from the Tamil language film Naadodigal is an example in which censorship guidelines appear to have been carefully obeyed. Despite not actually depicting the kiss in itself, this short scene from Naadodigal represents precisely the complex power relations that are at stake in the cinematic portrayal of the kiss. The innocent and slightly clueless man is lured by the female subject to give her a peck on the cheek. Here, it is clearly the woman who provokes the man into action which reflects an important gender relation in India: in court cases against films transgressing the kissing censorship guidelines, it is most likely the lead female actress that is being sued. In 2006, the Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai was sued for ‘lowering the dignity or women’ by kissing Rai Hrithik in the film Dhoom 2.
The guilty party is, in most cases, not the male actor kissing, or the filmmaker depicting the kiss, but the actress herself for partaking in an activity deemed obscene. At the very end of the scene in Naadodigal, the man is prevented from kissing the woman by his ‘uncle’ who, in relation to Indian culture, represents the patriarchal and goodnatured state that seeks to protect its citizens from trouble. While the ‘nephew’ represents the everyday citizen, the ‘uncle’ represents the state, and by extension, state institutions such as the Ministry of Information and Broadcastings in charge of censorship.
It would be incorrect however to assume some sort of special case in Indian visual culture for the complicated relationship between cinema and representations of the kiss. Giuseppe Tornatore’s classic film Nuovo Cinema Paradiso for instance depicts the widespread censorship of kissing scenes in Italy during the 1940s. The film tells the story of the projectionist Alfredo who is required to cut kissing scenes from American and Italian movies following the insistence of the local Catholic priest in a small town in Sicily. Having collected these censored kissing scenes for a number of decades, the film ends with a touching scene in which Toto, Alfredo’s quasi-adopted son, watches Alfredo’s vast collection of kissing scenes. The kissing scene collection acts as a powerful allegory for Alfredo’s, Toto’s and the viewer’s shared loved for the moving image. In that sense, apart from sexual innuendo, the kiss is moreover a metaphor for the viewer’s passionate relationship with the cinematic apparatus. The various records broken by Indian filmmakers of the new millennium (longest kiss, most kisses etc.) thus represent stages in the maturing relationship between Indian cinema and its increasingly desensitized spectatorship. Despite representing the world’s largest film economy, the kissing scene still constitutes the metaphorical coming-of-age of Indian cinema.
For more on this topic, please read Theorizing World Cinema edited by Lúcia Nagib, Chris Perriam and Rajinder Dudrah.
Advertising for perfumes, particularly perfumes by female celebrities, is produced with amazing visual consistency. A brief glance at a variety of ads shows that there appears to be a formula for celebrity perfume ads in American popular culture: the celebrity is photographically represented alongside the perfume she advertises which is usually shown on the bottom, or more specifically, on the bottom right hand corner of the page. There might be a practical reason for this phenomenon in visual culture since, when flipping through a magazine, the right hand side of the page is, from an advertising perspective, more desirable. By showing the perfume bottle on the right hand corner, the reader encounters the product in the last instance as he or she turns the page. The first visual encounter in the ad is usually with the celebrity herself. In above example its Jennifer Aniston draped in a knitted blanket, sitting on a rock, with the sun setting on a beach. The ocean in the background, Aniston’s implied nudity and her windswept hair are strongly reminiscent of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. The reference to water, a theme running through many perfume ads, also underlines the liquidity of the perfume itself.
Another theme explored in the perfume ad formula is the celebrity returning a gaze back to the spectator over her left shoulder. The pose is strongly suggestive of photographs taken on the red carpet in which the celebrities twist and turn to present their dresses to the assembled photographers. While Kylie Minogue is simply referred to as ‘Sexy Darling’, this emphasis on exhibitionism and a visual encounter with the celebrity is further stressed in Britney Spears’ ad for Curious. A man can be seen in the background to the photograph looking at Spears, while Spears herself is suggestively looking at the spectator. The slogan ‘Do you dare?’ further underlines a sexual element to the representation of gender, as if the spectator is invited to join the subjects into a hypothetical ménage à trois via the gaze.
Halle by Halle Berry and Eva by Eva Longoria also submit to the perfume ad formula of celebrity returning a gaze back to the spectator over the left shoulder. In both cases, the name of the perfume is the first name of the celebrity herself, whereas the name is written in such a way that it looks like the celebrities’ signature. This is an important element in the ad since, as it appears, the perfume is not only endorsed by the celebrity, but rather, it’s created by the celebrity herself. Like the artist signing his artwork, the celebrity signs her creation. I am using the word sign in the semiotic sense – the sign as a signifier. Her the signature signifies the celebrity’s assumed personal affiliation, even creation, of the perfume.
The perfume ad formula, because it is so consistently reproduced, appears to foster a culture in which ads are also copying other ads. Apart from Halle by Halle Berry and Eva by Eva Longoria, this can also be observed in Deseo by Jennifer Lopez and M by Mariah Carey. Both Deseo and M make references to a tropical wilderness in which the female subject appears carefree, ‘swinging’ with the rhythm of nature. The celebrity is represented as Tarzan’s Jane: scantily clad, wild, sexually available. A more historic reference to Jean Honoré Fragonard’s The Swing also suggests that here the swinging also evokes connotations of voyeurism. The alternative use of the word ‘swinging’ clearly situates the ads in a context of promiscuity.
With these many references to sexuality, it is not surprising that another major theme in the perfume ad formula is the bedroom. Jessica Simpson’s head is resting on a pillow while Mariah Carey is reclining on a bed. The skin coloured silk is, in both cases, alluding to the subjects’ nudity in the confines of her bedroom. Here, the perfume ad evokes connotations of the boudoir, or, in other words, an intrinsically private and intimate space. The spectator is invited to join the celebrity to a space that is exclusive, suggesting that the consumption of the perfume also manifests an exclusive relationship with the celebrity.
Despite the many references to an intimate and apparently heterosexual relationship with the celebrity in mass media and culture, it is important to stress that the ads are mostly reproduced in women’s magazines. In other words, the representation of gender in the perfume ad formula ads is designed for a female spectator. The typology of the perfume ad formula thus brings up a visual paradox in feminist visual culture. While the ads are designed for a female spectator, they apparently subscribe to the iconography of voyeurism, the commodification of women, even the visual codes of pornography. Beyonce’s Heat is one such example. What advertisers seeks to tap in here is the female consumer’s assumed desire to obtain a glimpse of the celebrities’ lifestyle in American popular culture. Here it is specifically her scent that might be desired. And having obtained her scent, it is suggested that the consumer becomes equally as desirable as the celebrity herself. However, desirability in the perfume ad formula always hinges on being visually desirable from the cliched perspective of a man. The perfume ad formula, rather than opening up new avenues for independent and successful celebrities, is actually further reproducing a hegemonic image economy that connects the fetishism of the commodity with the commodification and colonization of the female body.
Every year, along with firecrackers, champagne and pouring molten lead, it has become a tradition in Germany to watch a TV show called Dinner for One on New Year’s Eve. Recorded in a small Hamburg theatre in 1963, the sketch, also known as The 90th Birthday (Der. 90. Geburtstag), has become an integral component of the Silvester schedule and German visual culture. The grammatically incorrect catchphrase of the show ‘same procedure than every year’ has been widely adopted into popular discourse. Shown up to twenty times on various public channels at the height of New Year’s festivities, the sketch has emerged as one of the most watched programs in the history of mass media and culture.
Initially written for the theatre by the British playwright Lauri Wylie in the 1930s, the plot of the 18-minute sketch is strikingly simple. Miss Sophie, an upper-class English lady, has invited her old friends Sir Toby, Admiral von Schneider, Mr Pommeroy and Mr Winterbottom for dinner to celebrate her 90th birthday. However, as the announcer informs the viewer at the beginning of the sketch, Miss Sophie has outlived all her friends by twenty years. It is left to the equally aged butler James to make his way around the table and impersonate each of the guests in turn. The menu is accompanied by a different alcoholic drink served by James, who finds himself raising his glass four times per course. Throughout the sketch, James gets increasingly drunk, slurring his words and repeatedly tripping over the head of a tiger skin. The key to the sketch lies in the repetition of James’ dialogue and movement. In a sense, the sketch is deeply self-referential as not only is James performing the same tasks over and over at the dinner, Miss Sophie too insists on this repetition by celebrating her birthday, year after year, in spite of her friends’ absence. The dramatic tension created by this doubled repetition is further increased with the realization that Dinner for One itself is shown year after year on German television.
But why did this particular TV program became so popular amongst German audiences? The popularity of Dinner for One appears even more unusual since the entire sketch, except for the brief announcement at the beginning, is performed in the English language by English actors. While the live theatre audience, and presumably the TV viewer at home, appears amused by James’ and Miss Sophie’s actions, the four absent figures at the table add a subtly tragic twist to the narrative. In the context of postwar Germany, these four absent figures, all of whom are men, can be read as representing Germany’s troubled past and the many lives lost during World War II. James’ brilliant impersonations brings these characters back to life, and with each time he does so, the theatre audience can be heard breaking into laughter. Particularly Admiral von Schneider raising his glass and saying ‘Skol’ while clicking his feet is almost a comic inversion of the stereotypical Prussian military personnel. The absence of Admiral von Schneider at the dinner table signifies the allegorical death of the unknown soldier from World War II. This reading also fits into the chronology that the announcer sets out at the beginning of the sketch: first screened in 1963, Miss Sophie has outlived her friends by twenty years. In other words, the last of Miss Sophie’s friends passed away in 1943 – in the middle of the war. While in the original sketch performed in British seaside resorts, the playwright Lauri Wylie might have referred to the fallen soldier in World War I, this meaning has changed once removed into a German cultural and historical context.
Dinner for One also offers itself to be read from a postcolonial perspective. For instance, Miss Sophie is served a Mulligatawny soup and the interior decoration of her house, such as the tiger skin, is cluttered with references to the British Empire, or more specifically, a British colonial presence in India. But when Dinner for One was first screened on German television, the British Empire was already crumbling under the debt incurred during the war. There is therefore an element of Schadenfreude when the laughter of the German audience captured in the Hamburg theatre erupts every time the butler James trips over the head of the tiger skin. In the geopolitical context of postwar Europe, James’ clumsiness represents the fall of the British Empire. With the wounds of war barely healed, Dinner for One allows the German audience to wholeheartedly mock both the etiquette and the aspirations of upper-class British society in this study of culture.
Throughout the dinner, the viewer also begins to get the impression that Miss Sophie has once entertained a relationship with each of her male guests. Especially Mr Winterbottom, Miss Sophie points out several times, is a ‘very dear friend’. Miss Sophie’s implied promiscuity is later re-affirmed as she asks James for his services after the dinner. A last ‘thumbs up’ to the audience by James signals that, despite being totally drunk, he is expected to serve one last course in the privacy of Miss Sophie’s bedroom. In the context of New Year’s celebration, the ‘thumbs up’ signifies health, agility, potency and joviality for the new year. But ultimately, it is not the content of the show itself, rather than the context in which it is seen, that is important. The watching of Dinner for One therefore becomes about relationships: ‘Who did you watch the show with last year?’ is the overriding question. And maybe that’s why Dinner for One is so popular in the mass media: because it reminds the viewer that despite a quickly changing world, some things, like the company of relatives and the ritualistic behaviour over the holiday season, are not likely going to change in the new year.
To subscribe to this blog, please enter your email address here and check your inbox for the verification email.