Untitled Film Still 4, Cindy Sherman

Untitled Film Still 63, Cindy Sherman

L'Avventura (1960, Antonioni)

She paces the room dressed in a soft black sweater that plunges into a V in the back, snugly fit over a trim pencil skirt. A pendant hangs below her breasts on a delicate chain; she looks polished in a casual way. Her handsome square jawline frames cream-colored skin dotted by tiny freckles. Tousled, thick locks of hair fall loosely around her face. Her lips are slightly parted. She emanates a bewildered dissatisfaction that feels palpable, as if you could hold and scrutinize it. She stops to gaze out a window, leaning with her head against the glass, as she listens to the muffled sound of people on the other side of the room, to rustling leaves outside, or to the trucks loading and unloading dusty mounds of sand. Her eyes move slowly across the horizon and then down at her shoes, but not directly at anything. She presses her back against a wall, situating herself in a corner where she observes others closely but speaks little. Her words, when she does speak, are blurted out and then trail off: “I feel my eyes tearing up! What should I do with my eyes? What should I watch…” She raises a hand to her mouth to bite a nail, tucks in her chin and stares straight ahead with a look of consternation — but what is the matter? She abruptly leaves to go nowhere, on aimless, wandering paths through city streets and desolate urban sprawl or into labyrinthian buildings with rooms that people don’t seem to notice her pass through. She is somehow part of her environment and alien to it. Objects in the frame are starkly sculpted with clouded industrial shapes and punctured by saturated hues in olive green, primary red and acid yellow.

I yearn to mirror Monica Vitti’s particular, nameless ability to attract. The desire that lies beneath the shadow she unfurls complicates its meaning. Her moody gait, the way she surveys her environment from a distance, never fully involving herself, her laconic manner of speaking. The way she sorts out her feelings by untangling words as they come. But their meaning remains in disarray. Her once-coiffed hair shaped like an orb has gone awry. She appears wild and passive at the same time. It’s as if the way she stands, speaks and occupies space, has cast a spell over me.

I don’t want to possess Vitti or overcome a fear of her, which is described as the intent of a “male gaze.” I marvel at her full lips, but I also want to know what she’s saying, the hidden messages of her obscure statements. I envy the way she shuns appropriate behavior, the way she’s stilted yet alluring, her presence muted until she decides to suddenly say something or walks away without explanation.

Leaving the film, I begin to transition subtly. I first notice it in the ladies’ room of the movie theater. At the sink, I stare at my own reflection to review my features and study my gestures: the way I rinse my hands or how I apply lipstick. I blot my lips with extra care, like an Italian movie star might. Could I be mistaken for one? As in the darkened theater, once again I share a space with strangers. In this bright new interior, my thoughts are absorbed with images of Vitti from the past two hours. Do other women waiting in line beside me, or facing the mirror and looking at themselves, feel like her? Do they see me and think I’m like her? These few minutes in the restroom hold a special place in the ritual of going to see a movie in a theater. They may even challenge the worth of a film: if I want to mull over its imagery and narrative as I linger at the sink, I’ve entered the trance. This opportunity to gaze at my reflection through the lens of Vitti, or another bewitching woman in some other film, creates a fleeting affinity that effects my immediate behavior. If the film is good, in this small window of time, I am both her and me for a moment. A penumbra occurs, blending my shape into hers.

As I leave the theater, I remember scenes of her walking the gritty streets of Ravenna, looking polished in a long green coat with a brooch fastened at the lapel and wearing unpractical short-heeled pumps. I can hear the clack of them on the pavement, but my sneakers are silent. I wish I had something elegant beneath my shabby coat, but I haven’t taken the time. My T-shirt and jeans feel sloppy. So I stand taller to convey a poise and grace like hers. My lips are sealed and my face becomes stoical. Do people see me and think I’m serious and melancholic? I have the notion that I’ll sit in a cafe and stare at my coffee cup, absent-minded while holding a smoldering cigarette. But I don’t smoke while drinking coffee. The fantasy quickly fades.

If I’ve seen the film with somebody else, this is the moment on the street when they inevitably ask me where we should go next or what we should eat, ruining the trance. I’m not ready to be me again. What do you feel like eating? Vitti would stare and mumble something vague. Or not answer at all. In reality, I get excited about food, so I’d naturally answer with gusto. If only I could forget about such mundane habits; the act of eating must be so tiresome to someone like her! The Vitti bubble bursts. The verisimilitude is broken because I can only play the part alone.

Once a voyeur in the theater and then in front of a real mirror, I am faced with my desire to be like Vitti. In film, the experience of watching and wanting mingle. In 1975, Laura Mulvey defined the “male gaze” in cinema in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” and I [as Mulvey later did] wonder what the female equivalent would be. Mulvey described a male viewer’s possessive reaction to an actress, but my female gaze at Vitti represents an alienation from myself. As a woman, what it is about her that I want to emulate? Can I make my lips, my face, my mood morph into hers? Does the mirror in the theater’s restroom reflect a more attractive (but unattainable) version of myself, reminiscent of “the mirror stage” that Mulvey relates to the male gaze in her essay?

The sense of forgetting the world as the ego has subsequently come to perceive it (I forgot who I am and where I was) is nostalgically reminiscent of that pre-subjective moment of image recognition,” Mulvey writes. With the gaze I’m describing, “forgetting the world” has to do with succumbing to the experience of watching cinema, as if the screen itself can present a gigantic, immersive mirror. I can’t say whether this goes back to infancy and a world pre-language, as some psychoanalytic texts like Mulvey’s suggest, but the recognition of Vitti’s beauty and strange persona — and later viewing myself anew in an actual mirror in the restroom of the theater — can fuse. It’s a phenomenon unique to film but it doesn’t feel male.

“Fetishistic scopophilia, on the other hand, can exist outside linear time as the erotic instinct is focussed on the look alone,” Mulvey writes. What I find compelling about Mulvey’s essay many years after it was published is that the “fetishistic scopophilia” raises the possibility of an “erotic instinct” in myself as well as a man’s.  Mine is not sexual in a direct way because it does not aim to possess Vitti’s body but it surely has to do with the image she projects, which combines her impeccable style of dress with her inaccessible thoughts. “Going far beyond highlighting a woman’s to-be-looked-at-ness, cinema builds the way she is to be looked at into the spectacle itself,” Mulvey writes. The female gaze wonders what it would be like to be that kind of woman. It does not manifest as a fetish but does involve a “love of looking,” as scopophilia is described.

These actresses exist as shadowy aspirations. The “me” I know most intimately emerges when I can recognize elements of her that have become my own through minute gestures–without them feeling false. With time, the way I apply lipstick in the mirror will not mimic her anymore, it will simply be the way I do it. Mulvey was concerned that men, “the active controllers of the look,” reduced female movie stars to icons, vehicles of symbolism in film that are not fleshed out characters themselves. She argued that this male gaze needs to overcome its fear of “her,” so that she becomes “reassuring rather than dangerous” and can turn into fetish. I understand this polemic growing out of a misogynistic view of women in films where their role had much to do with their looks and little to do with their person, but the female gaze acts differently. Vitti becoming a fetish would make her a mere object; her complexity would be reduced to sex appeal and a need to possess and overcome it. I may not relate to her way of being, but I recognize its power and my need to mirror it. I’ve created a woman in my head who is Vitti-like but no longer Vitti. Her dangerous, destructive mystery hovers, like an aura, even if only I can see it.

Above stills of Monica Vitti from RED DESERT (1964, Antonioni)

RED DESERT screens at Museum of Moving Image, NY on Friday, June 6