Introduction: gesture in film: Journal for Cultural Research: Vol 19, No 1

Jan 17, 2020 4:23 AM

In his classic study, Gesture, Adam Kendon describes the visible actions that comprise utterances (Kendon, 2004, pp. 1–2). These visible utterances can occur in conjunction with, or independently to, speech. Kendon’s definition of gesture draws attention to it as a deed and a doing. Gesture is an activity, a product of energy and motion. Human gestures occur as a result of particular movements of the body, of the face (such as rolling the eyes, winking), the neck (nodding, shaking the head), the hands (the V sign, waving), the shoulders (shrugging), the knees (genuflecting), the torso (bowing, turning your back on someone), the buttocks (mooning, twerking) or combinations thereof. Many gestures form pictures through specific motions: outlining an absent object’s dimensions or mimicking exploits. David McNeill distinguishes between imagistic and non-imagistic gestures. For him, as Kendon summarises, “imagistic gestures are those in which movements are made that are interpreted as depicting the shape of an object, displaying an action of some kind, or representing some pattern of movement” (Kendon, 2004, pp. 99–100). These kinds of gestures are moving representations of acts or artefacts: motion pictures of a kind. If gestures are often imagistic then connecting gesture and film, as this special issue proposes to do, is an evident, if not unproblematic, move to make.

It is, of course, easy to examine gestures made by actors in films. These frequently form an integral dimension to mise en scène, a bodily contribution to mood. In 12 Angry Men (Dir. Sidney Lumet, USA, 1957), for example, the gestures of each of the jurors play a major role in establishing their character and their shifting positions within the evolving power dynamic in the jury room. The thoughtfulness that an actor and director dedicate to gesture is eloquently attested to by Carol Mayo Jenkins’s coda to the issue. In a beautiful exploration of the actor’s approach to gesture in their craft, Jenkins draws attention to how gestures move beyond words. Visible utterances are frequently carefully choreographed to lend emotional weight to a scene.

The dramatic power of gesture is obvious in Festen (Dir. Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark, 1998), in which the central character Christian, a child abuse survivor, repeatedly, nervously rubs his hands as if endeavouring to remove a stain. Here the actor playing Christian, Ulrich Thomsen, consciously cultivates a physical symptom of trauma, a bodily manifestation of the memory of unspeakable events to communicate psychic distress to the spectator. The gesture, however, is obviously meant to be viewed as an unconscious one. Gestures, as utterances, are not always the product of conscious intent. Some gesticulations emerge unbidden, indexing the agency of the unconscious in bodily communication. Gestures, chattering fingers in Christian’s circumstance, betray repressed memories.

The capacity for bodies to suggest psychic trauma is considered in Nicholas Chare’s “Gesture in Shoah” which, building on his earlier work regarding how gesture as a suggestive form of pressure points towards aspects of psychic life beyond signification (Chare, 2012, pp. 131–176), argues that an analysis of the film that is attentive to its gestural economies enriches understanding. The analysis of Shoah explores the potential, through becoming absorbed in the gestures of another, for sharing another’s mental state.

In his essay “Speech-Gesture Mimicry in Performance”, David McNeill also examines how gesture links bodies on screen with the bodies of spectators. Building on his earlier groundbreaking work on gesture, McNeill develops his ideas on the relationship of hand gestures and thought processes addressing their usefulness in a film and theatre context (McNeill, 1992, 2005). With poise, McNeill traces the dynamic role of mimicry of gestures in ideation and communication across writing, acting and reception, suggesting a triangle links author, actor and audience. On set, in the absence of a live audience, McNeill suggests actors imbue the camera with personality ensuring the triangle is maintained.

The camera in such instances becomes personified. It becomes a pseudo-human. Gestures, however, are not restricted to humans. Animals, as Michael Argyle analyzes, also employ non-verbal communication (Argyle, 1988, pp. 27–48). He discusses the role of gesture in chimpanzee society (pp. 42–43). Barbara Creed examines the visible utterances of chimpanzees in the film Project Nim (Dir. James Marsh, USA, 2011) as part of her essay “Sex, Gestures, Species”, an inspiring analysis of how the continuity between animal and human gestures has been registered in cinema. Creed views gesture as figuring the animal in the human and the human in the animal. At times gestures are neither human nor animal, they are both animal and human, unfixing long-standing beliefs regarding oppositions between species. Creed’s deconstructive manoeuvres permit the free-play of gesture as signifier. Previous scholarship related to animal gestures, in particular, has suggested that visible utterances possess singular meaning. Creed, however, through drawing attention to the role of reception in sense-making in the animal world, queries such notions.

A crisis at the level of visible utterance’s articulation and interpretation undergirds what is currently one of the most influential texts on gesture in relation to cinema, Giorgio Agamben’s “Notes on Gesture” (Agamben, 2000, pp. 49–60). In this idiosyncratic essay, Agamben argues that since the end of the nineteenth-century the Western bourgeoisie have lost their gestures. As part of this thesis, Agamben discusses Gilles de la Tourette’s research suggesting that the shocks suffered by patients with Tourette’s syndrome prevent their being able to gesture:

if they are able to start a movement, this is interrupted and broken up by shocks lacking any coordination and by tremors that give the impression that the whole musculature is engaged in a dance (chorea) that is completely independent of any ambulatory end. (p. 51)

If a gesture is interrupted it remains unfinished, open-ended. Agamben states: “patients can neither start nor complete the simplest of gestures” (p. 51). Here, Tourette’s comes to stand for a situation which impacts on the bourgeoisie as a whole, as is evident from the films of Étienne-Jules Marey and the Lumière brothers, namely that in modernity, “everybody had lost control of their gestures and was walking and gesticulating frantically” (Agamben, 2000, p. 52). Gesture as figured by Agamben signals an inessential communal action which Western society has lost sight of (Chare, 2015, pp. 69–70). Cinema, however, remembers this gesture, a means without ends, pure means. Agamben’s gesture is not a visible utterance, not a specific physical action, but an abstract idea, a trope pointing towards a coming politics that is non-identitarian.

Agamben’s concept of gesture in cinema suggests that the ineluctably cinematic of gesture is not determined by an image, but timeliness in the transience of communication. Gestures constitute a temporality of movement that transforms the photographic into the cinematic, an alteration which demands to be deciphered and yet does not define the meanings that are to be formed. As Elizabeth Cowie notes in her insightful reading of Exotica (Dir. Atom Egoyan, Canada, 1994), although abstract gestures instigate interpretation, they are not germane to meaning. Such gestures, rather, instantiate an ethical stance in the recognition of what is not directly articulated. The mediality of gesture infers exchange and so communicates communicability, a potential that Cowie suggests is invoked and then thwarted. Cowie’s analysis finds that Atom Egoyan’s film stages gestures as invitations to discern meaning whilst confounding the spectator’s attempt to read them as expressive. The ambiguities of sanctioned and improper desire are figured in the actions and expressions of characters through a gestural performance. Cowie argues that the undecided gestures of the film present an ethics of desire.

The political qualities of cinematic gestures are explored by Patricia Pisters through a reading of the video installations in Aernout Mik’s exhibition Communitas. Pisters explores Robert Bresson’s “Notes on the Cinematographer” and Gilles Deleuze on the modern political film to formulate a reading that reaches out to the temporality and movement that unfolds as people visiting the exhibition space encounter the positioning and repetitions of bodies and movements on screen. The mediality of gestures, as a making visible where language or law do not suffice, is the focus of Touch, Rise and Fall in which the “non-place” of airport security consists of the gestures of its officers as they cut and search bags. Pisters reads the instance in which the alarms are activated whilst visitors pass by as a recognition of the endless gestures of control which leave the officers mesmerised by the mechanical repetition of their task. The movement of these disciplined bodies is reminiscent of the cinematographic animation of gestures in silent film yet encountered in a new medium. Pisters finds that the silence of Mik’s video works pervades the collective space of exhibition where bodily movements, which are operative between viewer and screen, emphasise the image itself as gesture.

Gestures can signal the absence of speech, rendering the deeply familiar as strange, calling representation itself into question. The distanciating effect of abstract gestures in Douglas Sirk’s melodrama’s can disturb the cinematic illusion of realism and solicit the spectator’s recognition of the failures of ideologically complicit forms of representation (Mulvey, 1989, 1996; Willemen, 1971). The figure of the mute in 1940s melodrama acts a site of social praxis, as trauma is marked in the deflection of signifying material on to other non-verbal registers such as gesture, music and mise en scène (Doane, 1988, p. 85). In the melodrama The Spiral Staircase (Dir. Robert Siodmak, USA, 1946), Helen Capel stands before her reflection in a mirror, her hand clasped over her mouth in a gesture which embodies the silencing of her voice. From the demarcation of her absence from speech, to the desired invisibility of her labour in the class system of the house and the expressive movements through which she implores assistance under the pursuit of a murderer, her gestures mark the ethical and moral complexities that are staged in melodrama through emotional and psychological fortitude in microcosm of a society.

The interrelations of the cinematic and performance can be traced in the segmentation and animation of bodily movement. Mobilised by Agamben’s note on dance as gesture, Laura Mulvey offers new insight into the interactions of performance and the cinematographic as she re-examines stillness and repetition in Marilyn Monroe’s performance through the use of the slow motion as the reduplication and making visible of the mediality of gesture. The excessive gestures of her dance, like those of the mute in melodrama are operative between movement and image as the articulation of the body leads into the close-up of the female star. The moment of stasis underpins as a signifier the gesture’s relation to meaning, “sometimes excessive or sometimes ineffable” (see Laura Mulvey's article in this journal issue). Mulvey invokes Peter Brooks’ The Melodramatic Imagination (1975/1995) to suggest that such gestures can form a supplement to language or signal imminent meaning. This cinema of delay highlights the ways in which both the gestural quality of Monroe’s performance and her use of the cosmetic as mask and masquerade emphasise artifice and embody the cinematic. Between stillness and movement, performance and the cinematic, Mulvey formulates a compelling analysis of the way in which gestures intimate the close-up as tinged with the mortality of a Bazinian death mask and sexual excess (Mulvey, 2006, p. 66, pp. 172–3). Monroe’s performance exhibits the materiality and rhythm of the cinema machine as it dismantles the naturalised erotic image of woman to reveal the artifice of cinema.

Gestures which disturb the film text also call to the concept of cinematic excess as a paradigm for positions that are considered to deviate from an ideologically complicit system of representation which otherwise produces socially inscribed representations of gendered bodies. The organisation and disruption of this filmic system marks the historical role constructed of woman: “sexuality, its prohibition” (Heath, 1975, p.107). Watkins’ analysis of gesture in Bad Timing (Dir. Nicolas Roeg, Great Britain, 1980) examines ways in which the fragmentary form of the film’s narrative draws the spectator into a process of reading for connections between otherwise disparate images and characters. The work of memory in the desire to make sense of a disassembled narrative form echoes the “history behind things being kept in place in ‘order’” (Freud, 1901/1991, p. 190) within which the fascination of parapraxis, of a misplaced object or of miswriting, is at play. Watkins’ focuses on the transience of gesture and the interrelations of body and language, through which the disquiet of miswriting in narrative, as sequences are repeated and stories altered as they are retold, betray the historical allocation of a disarticulated image of woman as a fate which the film’s heroine eludes. Her desire, silenced in dialogue, is sublimated into her gaze, a displacement of the senses and expression which can be read as a gesture of discontent.

The potential of cinematic gestures to mediate other non-verbal senses in the visual field is explored by Naomi Segal through a specifically filmic figure of a caress. Read through Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the caress diverges from the haptic and is constituted by optical effects such as the blending of two faces, the reflection or refraction of a detail in the composition of a frame. Such images, although figured in the visual field signify mediate kinds of touch. The non-haptic caress, however, differs in using the back of the hand to touch the other, marking a desire to be rather than have. In The Piano (Dir. Jane Campion, Australia, France, 1993) movements such as the brush of Ada’s hand across her beloved piano and as she sweeps her daughter’s hair from her forehead, find touch to be medial of the mute heroine’s voice. Such gestures are medial of desire and a relation to the other as they make visible a caress in the effaced image of surfaces which touch and trace a network of connections between characters and actors who are materially present in a fictive world where the figure of a caress incites the viewer’s imagination.

Cumulatively, the varied approaches to reading and understanding gesture provided in this issue demonstrate the rich potential for film analysis that this topic provides. Gestures frequently inform narrative without being bound to it thereby indicating valuable ways to move beyond traditional modes of interpretation. Delimiting gesture can, however, often be difficult as evidenced by The Remains of the Day (Dir. James Ivory, United Kingdom, 1993). One scene at a bus-stop in this film depicts a last goodbye between the housekeeper Mrs Benn and the butler Mr Stevens, two people in love yet unable to verbally express or physically act on their feelings.

As Mrs. Benn’s bus leaves, their clasped hands are pulled apart. A shared gesture of physical affection rapidly transformed into one of heartfelt loss for the now solitary Stevens. The fingers of his empty hand straighten as the object of his affection moves out of reach. This action would be read as nothing more than a reflex was it not for the subtle, yet certain, retention of this pose. The bare hand becomes gestural in time yet fixing the moment at which the hand transforms into an utterance is not easy. This example demonstrates that the beginnings and ends of gestures are always subject to slippage. Jean Epstein recognised gesture’s refusal to be limited suggesting that “on the screen, the essential quality of a gesture is that it does not come to an end” (Epstein, 1921/2012, p. 273). As the essays that follow each demonstrate, gestures continually provoke new thoughts and point towards fresh directions of enquiry.