A Book Review by Dávid Szőke.
Author Seth Barry Watter discusses four interlocking, yet separate modes of looking: the natural, the pictorial, the institutional, and the fictional. Each comprises a specific way of seeing, explains the author, whereby we select and assign different concepts to our constructions of knowledge, meaning, and the truth….”
In Crowds and Power (1960), Elias Canetti writes about the “enchanter” character as an absolute ruler whose survival lies in his in his ability to remain impenetrable. His is the invisible eye with a gaze upon others without being observed, and he and succeeds in keeping his pursuits in the shadow. Although Seth Barry Watter’s The Human Figure on Film (SUNY Press, 2023) does not elaborate on the socioculturally understood surveilling nature of the power like Canetti or Michel Foucault, the book offers some novel approaches to the interpretations of the cinematic body and the gaze. Four interlocking, yet separate modes of looking are discussed here: the natural, the pictorial, the institutional, and the fictional. Each comprises a specific way of seeing, explains the author, whereby we select and assign different concepts to our constructions of knowledge, meaning, and the truth in our cognitive-sensorial relation to the human figure. These concepts are tied to different schools: the natural to Ray L. Birdwhistell’s use of body and movement in film for his theory on kinesics, the pictorial to Victor O. Freeburg’s photoplay composition, the institutional to Hortense Powdermaker’s ethnographic theory on the control Hollywood studio executives over the creative process of filmmaking, and the fictional to V. F. Perkins’ theory on the aesthetics of feature films.
In chapter one, while discussing Birdwhistell’s kinesics, i.e., his views on our corporeal experiences as a means of social knowledge, Watter broadly explains why film was a problematic, yet a suitable art form for behavioral research. Films of social interaction were of particular importance for Birdwhistell, since they preserved how movement of human figures invalidate or add multiple layers to the way characters talk to one another. Instead of interpreting meaning, Birdwhistell’s clinical approach addresses the way human figures in motion, in context of every other movement, interact with and echo one another, one by one, spatially and temporally confined with one another. As the author suggests, this raises the question whether the human personality should be seen as compositional, always in its encounters with others, while organism and environment become inextricably one as in “the Doris film,” a 10-minute long ethnographic take by Gregory Bateson on family dynamics. Here, perception is of specific importance since it reveals what “interactional dances” are performed in a series of fully framed takes.
Victor O. Freeburg’s conceptualization of pictorial beauty on screen is the subject of chapter two. Freeburg’s contribution to film aesthetics remain less recognized in current debates, even though his theory on photoplay could offer some fruitful propositions for contemporary approaches to the multimediality of visual culture. The book never mentions Plato’s name, yet there are passages where Freeburg’s views on the perception of and the satisfaction by pictorial beauty, whereby photoplay should fulfill cognitive prerequisites of the beautiful, owes much to the classical aesthetic theory. Watter regularly underscores Freeburg’s notion that film as an art form seeks aesthetic sensation, whereby unity, balance, emphasis and rhythm – the three aspects of beauty – are seen as fundamental principles of cinematic composition. Yet, as Watter argues, Freeburg seems in conflict with the moving images, for he sees harmony as disrupted by movement, and pictorial unity as surrendered to the vanity of the movie star.
The author explains that the paradoxes between presence and absence, movement and mere existence, the authentic and the unreal, are further complicated by motion capture technology’s pursuit of virtual manipulability by creating digital characters while recording the movements and performances of human actors.”
Hollywood studios as institutions that seek to satisfy human needs by exposing and exploiting human figures, on- (and behind the) screen, remain central to Hortense Powdermaker’s anthropological theory on the film industry. In chapter three, Watter discusses Powdermaker’s acclaimed book Hollywood, the Dream Factory (1950) which examines how offscreen hegemonic conditions control what film audiences perceive as the onscreen human character. According to Watter, Powdermaker’s theory goes far beyond Birdwhistell’s concept of the natural, as it considers not only the body as it is framed by the camera, but also the way it is shaped, controlled, and destroyed by forces external to the frame. One heartbreaking example for this treatment is Judy Garland, whose final film for MGM, Summer Stock (1950) allows for an institutional reading about the tortures she suffered at the hand of studio executives to look behind her changing physical appearance on the film. The movie camera remains key to this power struggle. Indeed, by endlessly seizing and correcting the human figure, the camera serves as an agent of power, and Powdermaker cannot observe actors without much empathy for their vulnerability to offscreen workers like the cameraman, the director, or the producer. Star biographies and films such as The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) remain valuable not merely for the sensationalism and spectacle they often provide, but for their insight into how institutional power shapes the performance captured by the film camera.
Chapter Four reveals the concentric circles through which actors feed the viewer’s imagination to construct an alternative and fictional world. By using V. F. Perkins’ Film as Film: Understanding and Judging Movies (1972), Watter discusses how exterior spaces such as filmic designs allow the audience to reach out to the inner spaces of fictional characters. He notes that, although Perkins always rejected literary influences, he nevertheless admits that fiction films share many qualities with the novel in the fictional unit between characters and settings. As Watter argues, in this fictional reading, characters exist in a world solidly patterned and framed around them. Décor, the use of lighting effects as a means of subtraction, or the insertion of objects to which creator and spectator render meanings, are all part of this artistic struggle for credibility, as films like Joseph Losey’s The Criminal (1960), Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), Johnny Guitar (1954), or Carmen Jones (1954; see top image) attest. In this sense, says Watter, the tie between the external and the internal, the character and the design of the fictional and alternative world, exists so deep that it is absorbed by the force of significance.
Watter’s conclusion is that Birdwhistell, Freeburg, Powdermaker, and Perkins speak in their distinctive voice about the onscreen human figure as composite, marked out by its social interactions, visual aesthetics, the power struggles surrounding the creative process, and our fictional reading. Yet, as Watter reminds his reader, beyond these theories, several other concepts are worthy of consideration, since they give further layers of how the ontological status of the human figure on film should be reassessed. Chief among them is method acting, a way of building a character by experiencing rather than representing, by creating corporeality through vocal training, physical exercise, and a less controllable emotional-memory practice. Thus, method acting disrupts all simple explanations, since the phases of becoming one with the character press the actor between the two peripheries, being-there and not-being-there. Accordingly, relationships between the holders and the objects of the gaze, the offscreen audience and the onscreen human figure, become troubled once continuity gets dismantled in the actors’ quests for finding real emotions.
As Watter argues, the natural, the pictorial, the institutional, and the fictional modes of looking call for a certain continuity of human presence, a unity between the organism and its social environment, the figure with its image, or unity found in the power dynamics in the film industry, or between the characters and the hyperreality provided by the film settings. These modes presume a total presence of the human figure, something the author finds problematic in the Method’s “being-there-yet-being-absent” approach. The author explains that the paradoxes between presence and absence, movement and mere existence, the authentic and the unreal, are further complicated by motion capture technology’s pursuit of virtual manipulability by creating digital characters while recording the movements and performances of human actors. The book’s ultimate reasoning, that the dramatic takeover of the digital necessitates a reassessment of the natural, pictorial, institutional, and fictional status of the human figure on film, reveals much about the challenges posed by the posthuman dimensions of AI-technologies. Since posthuman digital technologies rearrange the ontological order of power and form, the gaze and the object of the gaze, the book’s focus on the presence and the continuity of the filmic human figure is as startling as it is fascinating.
 Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power (New York: Continuum, 1981), p. 292.
Dávid Szőke holds a PhD from the University in Szeged in Hungary. He is currently researching counter narratives to antigypsyism in literature and culture at the Heidelberg University, Germany.