Monday, April 28, 2008

Sketches on Hoberman, Sylvia, looking and difference. [Part 2]


From: Jennifer Stewart
To: Ryland Walker Knight, Kevin B Lee
Subject: RE: hoberman, sylvia

Kevin and Ryland,

I have just a few comments all inspired by our pre/post film analysis and your fetching essay, Ry. Unfortunately my thoughts are more responsive and fragmented than yours are coherently developed. But I'll let you blogbarians take it from here.

Kevin, while on BART Ry and I spoke more about this phenomenology idea. I think your essay shows, Ry, that the film is more a phenomenology of spectatorship than a phenomenology of thought. What El was doing in the cafe as he looked and sketched, is not what I'd call tantamount to thinking but rather, to fixing a view; really, tantamount to intentionality: he's trying to settle what object his thought is bent on. And his efforts are subject to the interference of occlusion (other heads/objects get in the way), the limits/possibilities of two-dimensional collapse (the 'flat' surface of his sketching page), and the uncanny moment when these objects return his gaze, catch his eye. All goes well with his pursuit of "Sylvia," after all, until she looks back; until they reach the moment when he must account for pursuing her as a cypher for his desire. A moment he calls a disaster never really recovers from.

Two things I don't understand and think analysis of the film should explain:
  • what's significant about El sleeping with that beautiful but weird spaced out/drunk/bad dancer girl?
  • in the last few minutes, through the 'screen' of the train, we see a girl in sunglasses. The entire left side of her face is scared or burned. A few cuts later we see her again, removing her sunglasses to revealno eye (!) on that side. It was pretty gruesome. Kevin, you saw that, right? Ry somehow missed it so please confirm I'm not making this up.

Both these Sylvia dopplegangers (in some sense all the women in the film are) could be read as casualties of El's pursuit. The crevices, lines, and shadows of the scarred woman's disfigurement bears a resemblance to the dark, resistant etchings in El's sketchpad; the consequences of his agenda coming into relief. So we see your point, Ry, about El's fixation on the (absent) avatar of "Sylvia" and his rejection of the (present) abundance of difference. And here I think we add Bunuel's Obscur objet du désir to Kevin's Vertigo reading.

I'm tempted to read the whole film as a cautionary tale about one allegory of film spectatorship: the rich risks of film as fixing its/our gaze on a (lost) object of desire which can never be incarnated. So then we could read Ciudad de Sylvia as loosening this grip (hence my suggestion that it updates the Laura Mulvey thesis) since it refuses to offer an unambiguous object upon which to fix our desiring gaze. Indeed, it offers alternative figures of moving image itself (metaphors of dynamic celluloid frames) and the aesthetic acceptance of occlusion and the uncanny.

One last thing: Kevin, have you read If On A Winter's Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino? En la ciudad de Sylvia could easily be read as a brilliant adaptation of it.

[Note No. 1: You can read my "Part 1" missive by clicking here.]

[Note No. 2: Because the trailer to Bunuel's film and the clip from Hitchcock's were too good to simply link to I'll go ahead and embed them down here. They add to this reading, I think, tremendously.]

[Note No. 3: Kevin's reply can be found by clicking here to his blog. --RWK]


  1. "The entire left side of her face is scarred or burned."

    I've seen Sylvia three times now -- twice last September in Toronto and again last weekend at the Nashville Film Festival. You're right about the woman with the scarred face. (Really? Someone missed her?)

    What most fascinates me about that particular woman and about the final sequence, in general, is how inevitable it feels. I think there's a real bait-and-switch going on in this film. Guerin lures us in by following an impossibly attractive man as he pursues an impossibly attractive woman, but over the course of that pursuit we're given a quick refresher on looking as a (and I'm hesitant to use this word) humanistic act.

    In that final sequence, one of the beautiful women from the cafe makes another appearance, but the other objects of El's gaze are, for lack of a better word, quite ordinary. And yet, by the end of this film, I find them just as intriguing as Ella. (I'll never forget getting on the subway in Toronto after that first screening and finding myself surrounded by absolutely fascinating faces, both male and female.)

    The scarred woman is an extreme example of this. I can only speak for myself, of course, but in each of the three screenings my response has been identical. I don't find her gruesome in the least; rather, hers is another face that I'd gladly contemplate for as long as Guerin is willing to hold it in the frame.

    El's sexual conquest of the dancer is a more problematic sequence for me. I love the music cues in the bar scene, but I'm not sure what function it plays, exactly, other than as a reminder that "the gaze" has a sexual function and that beyond the initial pleasure of looking, it's not an especially fulfilling act. I guess it's no surprise that Guerin elides the sex and, instead, just shows El watching her while she tries to sleep.

  2. First, thanks, Darren for stopping by. Next: yes, I don't know where my mind went for that moment; maybe I was drinking water from my cancerous Nalgene bottle.

    You write: "In that final sequence, one of the beautiful women from the cafe makes another appearance, but the other objects of El's gaze are, for lack of a better word, quite ordinary. And yet, by the end of this film, I find them just as intriguing as Ella. "

    Yeah: this gets to the idea of intentionality in the film, in film in general: how a film guides us to look at specific objects in specific ways, how we are directed by the director, or more simply by the camera, and the film's editing to notice patterns and make those associations that produce a reading (or an understanding). Throughout Sylvia we're presented with faces and objects and it's our familiarity with them, or unfamiliarity, as it may be, that produces a laugh or a shock of recognition. Of course, we're directed through the eyes of El, which narrows the argument and makes it easy to talk about Mulvey and gazes and psychoanalytic stuff like that but that belittles what's on screen, I think. It takes us out of the ordinary, which the film seems to resolutely "about," if you will. As you said, "it's no surprise that Guerin elides the sex and, instead, just shows El watching her while she tries to sleep." I found it shocking to see him laying there staring at the girl but I'm not certain it's meant to indict him so much as complicate his desires, and ours, for a certain kind of resolution. We keep expecting outcomes that never quite show up; except for the brief appearance of "Sylvie" on the train, and even that is denied consummation.

    The real surprise, however, is this reaction (of shock), that Kevin echoes in his reply on his blog, which I began to question later in the evening and today. Is this dude really borderline sociopathic? He seems pretty non-threatening, when you get down to it. It's part of the casting, I'm sure: Xavier Lafitte is groomed to look like, or say echo, Pilar Lopez de Ayala; they wind up an odd pair of mirror images. Think of that iconic shot of their heads next to one another, hydra like. Then, of course, Ayala is echoed by the drunk dancer, who is an echo of herself, too, from earlier in the picture. I will have to see the film again to trace all this out but that's the kind of reading I'd like to work towards; that is, away from Mulvey's Vertigo reading and nearer to, hmn, VF Perkins or Stephen Mulhall (or any of those Brits who contributed to this book (dig that progressive, so to speak, ratio of male-to-female writers there within), which Mulvey actually contributed to as well) and their understanding of style as philosophy. Or, more simply, towards a more generous and less reactionary (oddly politically correct?) posture in relation to the film. We should learn from El's "mistakes" of mis-recognition and proscription/projection, right?

  3. The other thing to say is that I'm jealous you've seen it three times. As Jim Hoberman said, before all this talk, "this film is pure pleasure, start to finish." Not that I'm not interested in checking why that might be the case, clearly.

  4. Wow -- what great discussion on an equally great film. I had the privilege of seeing Sylvia at the Nashville Film Festival a few weeks ago. It was by far my favorite film I saw there and I would love to see it again. I dearly hope it gets a distributor if it doesn't already have one.

    Having only seen it once, any observations I could add would be quite paltry. I was so entranced with the whole film that I didn't even write anything down in my notepad ... a rare occurrence for me. After reading your dialogue on the film, I respect it even more.