Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Intent to Subvert “The Big Other” in Native American Film

The Intent to Subvert “The Big Other” in Native American Film
In his 2001 work “The Fright of Real Tears”, Slavoj Zizek argues that proper film “suturing” is used to reinforce the idea of the Lacanian “big Other” in the minds of audiences. (Zizek, 32) In many of the Native American-helmed films that we have watched (specifically Smoke Signals, The Business of Fancydancing, The Fast Runner, and House Made of Dawn), the suturing is subverted in such a way as to create a subjective experience within the film, rather than the “objective” experience achieved through typical filmic techniques. Through the subversion, Native films have managed to take subconscious steps to distance themselves from “The Great White Father”, an incarnation of the Lacanian Other.

“Suturing”, through film editing techniques, “collapse[s] diverse subjectivities into a singular subject”. (Stam, 137) “Diverse subjectivities” refers to the three different “views” going on at one time: the mechanical gaze of the camera, what the characters see, and finally the view of the audience member herself. A properly sutured film will combine all of these different “subjectivities” in order to create an “objective” point from which to watch the film. “Objective” should not be understood in the sense of total and complete objectivity, but rather “not subjective”, where there is no single character or view from which we are to relate. If successfully sutured and immersed in a film, the audience is to experience it as though it were reading a third-person, semi-omniscient novel. As Todd McGowan quotes Daniel Dayan in his article “Looking for the Gaze: Lacanian Film Theory and Its Vicissitudes”: “The film discourse presents itself as a product without a producer, a discourse without an origin. It speaks. Who speaks? Things speak for themselves and, of course, they tell the truth.” (McGowan, 39)

Naturally Native sutures in a very typical way. Take, for example, the scene in which the sisters are trying to get funding for their business, but are turned away due to a lack of evidence substantiating their claims of “Indian-ness”. There is a shot of the sisters, sitting next to each other, pleading their case to the representative. The mise en scene communicates what it is meant to communicate to the audience, but the problem lies in the fact that the audience cannot see what is occurring outside the frame itself. We see exactly what the camera sees. The suturing occurs when we see the reverse shot, with the representative sitting across the other side of the desk, explaining to the sisters why he cannot give them their loan. We are now given several different “subjectivities” which collapse together and create the objective stance from which we can view the film.

Zizek argues that it is through this technique that we are both shown the existence of the Other in film. (Zizek, 58) In An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, Dylan Evans describes the Lacanian concept of “the Other” as: “designating radical alterity…[it] is the symbolic”. (Evans, 133) Lacan derived most of his theory from Freud, so the Other is usually referred to as a Father figure, a creator of rules. The Other is the symbolic representation of both everything that is not us but also everything that controls us. Zizek believes that the Other only exists because we all agree that it does, and that in a sense it is important in order for us to function as a civilization.

In the context of the Naturally Native example, Zizek would claim that before we are given the reverse shot, we must “passively” watch what is happening. We realize the Other at work through our own inability to perceive more than one angle of the situation. Once the reverse shot occurs, we are given the idea that we can understand what is going on in the entirety of the filmic space in which the scene is taking place. This creates immersion in the film, and the audience happily assumes an objective standpoint away from the characters. To clarify, the point of this objectivity is not to create a cold viewer who is incapable of empathizing with a character. The “subjectivity” and “objectivity” here deals instead with the placement of the viewer within a framework in which the viewer can forget that the film is being helmed by the Other.

In many of the films we have watched, the filmmakers use techniques that effectively “un-suture” the film and reveal what Zizek would call “the fiction of the big Other”. Smoke Signals, for all intents and purposes, sutures itself together pretty typically. The use of the match-on action shot, however, specifically those match-on shots where two temporally distant events are meant to be taking place in the same filmic space act as disruptors to the suturing of the film.

The match-on shot typically links together two different scenes from different times. (Spiegel) In the beginning of the film, when we see Victor from behind as he walks out of his door, then from the front as a child, the door-slam has acted as a link between the present and the past. In another scene, as Suzy is telling Victor a story about his father, past-Arnold rolls the basketball, and Victor picks it up in the future. These techniques effectively suture the film; indeed we are trained to know that flashbacks are just another method used by films to immerse us in their world.

However, there is a specific instance where the film modifies this technique slightly, and that modification acts to subvert our expectations. The technique occurs in the scene in which young Victor is running down the road, then the camera pulls back, and we see the older Victor sitting inside of the bus, looking back at the younger version of himself. Instead of just linking a scene from the past to one in the present, this shot has placed both of them in the same scene at the same time. The match-on ceases at this point to be a just linking shot and instead is buried within a scene that has done away with typical filmic temporality. Since the flashback is taking place inside of Victor’s head, it has been placed in the same timeframe as Victor, who is doing the thinking. We see his memory at the same time that we see him.

A scene becomes properly sutured through the effective placing of the viewer in the same position as the Other. The viewer is therefore not thinking of said Other’s existence. Therefore, a scene in which the audience is treated to a series of images that are presented as existing in the reality of the shot and yet are inside a character’s head limits the viewer to the perspective of one character. There is no collapsing of the different subjectivities, thus the audience separates from its objective immersion.

In The Business of Fancydancing, we are presented with several techniques that un-suture the film in this way. TBOF makes use of a structure that fluctuates between traditional film techniques and monologues, in which the characters stand in front of a black backdrop and tell us how they feel. Using the analogy of a novel again, this sets the movie up as a first-person novel, in which we are able to ally ourselves with the perspective of any one character. This could have been done in a properly sutured manner. In any of the monologues that we are given, the filmmakers could have chosen instead to show a flashback, or a scene that represented what the monologue was trying to convey. In the scene in which Seymour, reciting his poetry in front of an audience, tells the story of the time he came out to his Grandmother, we could have simply been shown this via a flashback. We would have been able to see the scene in a typically sutured way, and in our immersion we would have lost the subjectivity. We are being told this story by Seymour, rather than following by following him around and objectively seeing what happens to him. The subjectivities have not collapsed; the “gaze” of the film is no longer the “objective” one coveted by the Other.

The Business of Fancydancing occasionally interrupts itself with a series of home-made videos in which Aristotle and Mouse get into trouble, one depicting them eating a piece of bread covered in bathroom cleaner, another in which they pull their car over to beat up a stranded white motorist. These sequences interrupt the already irregular flow of the film and change our perspective to strictly that of the handheld camera. Though it occasionally pans to Mouse’s face, it is always under his control. The handheld-camera technique both calls attention to the “gaze” of the camera and to the subjectivity of the man controlling said camera. Thus, objectivity is impossible.

In a similar way, The Fast Runner breaks away from typical objective storytelling by the aesthetic quality of the type of film used. The entire film is shot on digital, a choice made by the filmmakers due to the fact that average film would freeze in subzero temperatures. Though perhaps an unintended consequence, in every sequence of The Fast Runner the audience is jarred out of its immersion by the fact that the cameras being used are typically those found in PBS documentaries. The aesthetic quality of the film itself will always keep the film from becoming completely, properly sutured, because the audience will always be aware of the “eye” of the camera.

Besides improperly suturing, another way of achieving this “subversion of the Other” occurs when a film transcends the ordinary to reach the sublime. The “sublime” in question should not be thought of as the Kantian sublime, or a moment in which a force of nature reveals itself to man, and through that revelation shows man just how small he is. In Lacanian terms, the sublime occurs whenever the “real” becomes the “symbolic”. (Wajcman, online) The Business of Fancydancing, The Doe Boy and House Made of Dawn all contain elements of the sublime, with HMOD actually proving itself to be the most subversive of all the films we’ve watched in relation to the concept of the Other.

The Business of Fancydancing contains many scenes that would be considered sublime by Lacanian standards. After Seymour returns home and sits nervously inside his car, Aristotle comes up to his window and hands him an apple. Seymour gets out of the car, and walks toward the house. When he looks back he sees himself still in the car. The symbolic split within his person, the desire to both run away and be there for his friends and family, are made real to the viewer within the mise en scene, there literally being two different Seymours.

Several instances abound throughout TBOF in which Mouse either gives a monologue or plays a song on his violin. All of these scenes could be considered sublime due to the fact that Mouse is dead, but none more so than when he plays over his own funeral. We are shown Mouse, in front of the same black backdrop against which we’ve seen the other characters, playing his violin. These shots are then contrasted with those of the inside of the funeral home, with the mourners sitting in front of the closed casket, some of them getting up to eulogize him. Zizek gives an example, in his explanation of the sublime, of the final scene in Citizen Kane, in which Welles is both at the podium giving a speech, and portrayed on a giant banner in the background. (Zizek, 58) The contrast between the human emotions he shows and the stoic face on the banner create a moment of sublimity. The scene in question in TBOF parallels this in spirit. We see the concentration and emotion on Mouse’s face as he plays the violin, and that is contrasted with the closed casket. He exists to speak to us through music, though simultaneously he is presented to us as starkly dead. Through this contrast, the film reaches a point of Lacanian sublimity.

In The Doe Boy, the character of Hunter is concerned primarily with his blood, a plot point made clear through the metaphor of his hemophilia. The concern over blood combines with the question of his manhood when, as a child, he accidentally kills a female deer instead of a buck whilst out hunting with his father. In one of the final scenes of the film, Hunter chases a deer through the woods, though we are meant to understand, via the rhythmic chanting soundtrack and the ethereal nature of the shots (the slow motion, coupled with the otherworldly green of the forest), that Hunter is in fact chasing down a “spirit” deer, some outer manifestation of a conflict within the character himself. He finally comes upon the deer, which stares up at him nonchalantly, and chooses not to kill it. The metaphor takes place right in front of the audience’s eyes, and the symbolic is made real on the screen. Hunter is being confronted by his demons, but the demons, to the viewer, are just as “real” as the human characters and the setting. The film transcends at this point into the Lacanian sublime.

House Made of Dawn makes use of both of the techniques listed above, both “un-suturing” and the “sublime”, to create not only a conventionally bad film, but (perhaps unwittingly) to be the most subversive of the films watched this semester. HMOD is not a good film for several reasons, but one of the most prominent is its lack of narrative cohesion. This is a film that is sutured completely incorrectly. Godard, the famous avant garde director, is one of the foremost artists who sutures his films incorrectly, the “jump cut” being at fault. HMOD contains several jump cuts, in which one character is filmed from marginally different angles and then edited together, to give the impression of “jumping”. (Casey, online)
HMOD is completely unconcerned with whether or not the audience is situated in a comfortable temporal position. The film flails about through time, changing the appearances of the characters very little, if at all. A film can be out of temporal sequence and still sutured correctly: the films of Quentin Tarantino are usually out of chronological order. However, the audience is given several signifiers within those films, such as locations, costumes, and dialogue, to situate themselves at the various points on the timeline. HMOD makes no such concessions. The poor filmmaking makes it impossible for the Other to become invisible. The audience becomes painfully aware of the hands at work on the film, through their ineptitude in the editing booth. Once the audience is no longer able to “lose themselves” in a film, they can no longer maintain the objective stance coveted by the Other. Effectively sutured films can disappear into obscurity all the time, but there is a special place in the collective conscious for particularly bad films. They can stick with someone for just as long as a good one, because in the same way that a great film can transcend and leave an impression, the bad films transgress to break down that same “objective” wall.

HMOD also contains elements of the Lacanian sublime. The albino character is a symbol of the Other, incarnate. He is symbolic of the trickster figure, but more importantly he is a stand-in for white society. He taunts Abel so badly that eventually Abel kills him, and then is punished for it with jail time. That fight and the subsequent murder is the symbolic made real, the Indian man fighting against a white society and then dealing with the consequences. Between this symbolism and the lack of competent editing, this film manages to touch both of the bases with regard to Lacanian film theory.

The importance of the subversion of typical film suturing techniques becomes evident when one understands the implications of the big Other for a minority population. In her 1980 article “The Great White Father and the Native American Son”, Victoria O’Donnell explains the problem thusly: “Lacan’s schema explains the white, patriarchal society which determines the depiction of ethnic minorities in most Hollywood films. Oppressed groups in American society are signified by unmarked terms in American cinema. In most Hollywood films, the Native American cannot take the place of the white man. They can only be in the white man’s place, in a mirror image. They are signifiers for the Great White Father, objects rather than subjects of desire.” (O’Donnell, 67)

O’Donnell believes that Native Americans, in the films that are typically produced by this “big Other”, function in a way as “the little other”. The other acts as a mirror to the populous by pretending to be different. It appears to the majority as strange or foreign, but is in fact exactly like them, and proves it through the minor, surface differences. The problem arises when the other is always represented by a certain group, as it has in American cinema since American cinema was invented. It is good to subvert the Other because the Other represents the rules and mores of a society that has oppressed minorities for hundreds of years.
Several of the films viewed this semester have tried to put forth messages that might help to alter the popular consciousness. In a film like Naturally Native, the filmmakers attempt this feat by beating the viewer over the head with a straightforward message. Though proselytizing has its place and can be helpful, the best way to get a message across or to get a minority heard is through subtle shifts in public consciousness. The public is trained to watch films in a certain way, through the act of “suturing” which hides us from the “fiction of the Other”. In many of the films we have seen this semester, the filmmakers (perhaps unintentionally) subvert the conventions of narrative editing, which when combined with the symbolic made “real”, breaks down the audience’s willingness to forget about the symbolic Other.


Casey, Ned. Jump Cut: Godard and the New Wave. 2009. Web. Last accessed 4-27-11.

McGowan, Todd. “Looking for the Gaze: Lacanian Film Theory and Its Vicissitudes”. Cinema Journal 42.3. University of Texas Press. 2003. Web. Last accessed 4-27-11.

O’Donnell, Victoria. “The Great White Father and the Native American Son: An Oedipal Analysis of When the Legends Die.” Journal of the University Film Association. University of Illinois Press. 1980. Web. Last accessed 4-27-11

Stam, Robert. Film Theory: An Introduction. New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2000. Print.

Wajcman, Gerard. “The Object From Below”. Lacan dot com. Web. . Last accessed 4-27-11.

Zizek, Slavoj. The Fright of Real Tears: Krzysztof KieĊ›lowski Between Theory and Post-Theory. London: BFI Publishing, 2001. Print.