Haptic visuality is a term coined by Canadian media theorist, Laura U. Marks. Taking the idea of haptic perception, the process of recognizing objects through touch, Marks integrates the role of eye-sight as part of a greater sensual experience. She says:
Haptic images can give the impression of seeing for the first time, gradually discovering what is in the image rather than coming to the image already knowing what it is. Several such works represent the point of view of a disoriented traveler unsure how to read the world in which he finds himself. (Marks 178)
The Haptic Image is often grainy and distorted, confusing our ability to perceive. It invokes a process that suggests sensuality by triggering memories of smell, touch and taste. It is not about penetrating or relating to an image, focused instead on its surface values. Marks often evokes the haptic image in relation to video art, as the medium’s distortions and grain, flatten and obscure the image. Most commonly used to refer to experimental works, there are nonetheless narrative filmmakers over the years that have employed it. It is often used in conjunction with the more traditional optical imagery, which works under more common modes of identification and perception. There is usually a significant overlap between the two processes in most works employing the technique.
David Lynch is among contemporary narrative filmmakers who continually employ haptic vision throughout his works. The Haptic image is most obviously demonstrated in Lynch’s work through the use of intermediate mediums like video. Several of his films employ the use of televisions or surveillance footage as a means of enriching the narrative. Lynch extends the limits of haptic vision by applying it to the use of sound, as well as treating the digital medium as a new opportunity to develop cinematic textures. The overall effect of this vision throughout his work is to evoke the sensuousness of the human body and our paranoid relationship with it.
The narrative and conventional framework in which Lynch is working within is built on the expectations of the “American Capitalist ideology” as outlined by Robin Wood in his article, “Ideology, Genre, Auteur”. From his list of eight concepts related to this way of life, perhaps most relevant to his work are the ideas of “Marriage and Family” and “progress and technology” (Wood 85). Robin Wood proposes that ideological and genre studies are interrelated to the study of the auteur. David Lynch’s work as an auteur lies in his interpretation and deconstruction of these ideals, but a greater understanding of genre and ideological frameworks become necessary to understand his vision. In particular, Lynch’s transformation of the cinematic medium through intermediate sources heightens a sense of tension with the ideological structures he is operating within, and as Wood says, “It is only through the medium of the individual that ideological tensions come into particular focus, hence become of aesthetic as well as sociological interest” (Wood 87).
Haptic vision is used throughout Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), as a means of emphasizing the violent undertones that lie below the town’s surface. In Fire Walk with Me, Laura Palmer is haunted by the vision of a mysterious and violent figure called Bob. Along with members of a mysterious lodge, these spirit figures reflect or influence the violent urges of many people in the town.
As the film opens, there is an abstract image of blue lines and blobs dancing along a black background. Their movement is obviously mechanical and as the credits continue to roll and the camera very slowly pans out it becomes apparently static on a television screen. The image is ambiguous for so long because the familiar white noise is missing and the pseudo-romantic score of Angelo Badalamenti is used over the image. It is an engaging image, one of interactive texture, one that cannot be touched but we understand it as moving, almost breathing. The image is at once sensuous and paranoid, as it seems to be equivocated with the human form, albeit in a fragmented way. The video format indicates a sense of voyeurism, which will be further emphasized through surveillance footage and through the course of the film; this particular image suggests a bridge between different plains of existence and perception. This leads to the question as to whether or not this image is transformative or stagnant, what does this image mean to us? The credit sequence ends with an indication of what’s to come, a violent act against this symbol, something which further emphasizes its connection with the human body.
The examination of Theresa Banks’ body by the two FBI agents is our first sense of real violence within the film. Her body wrapped in a black garbage bag which contrasts with her unusually white skin which is dirty, bruised and cut. The discussion of the two agents is shot in a particularly straight-forward way; however this flow is interrupted by cuts to extreme close-ups of parts of Theresa’s face. Though not as overtly haptic as video footage, these shots emphasize the textures and render the familiar in a new way, as if we were seeing them for the first time. Dead and grotesque, we still get a sense of her beauty, which confuses our relationship with the human form. The treatment of her of physicality however, renders her almost monstrous. As Lynch says, “Everything goes in degrees. Just a human face, if you look at it really close, becomes strange. And if you look at it real close, it becomes grotesque, even the most beautiful woman’s face. It’s all in such a tender state, all this flesh and it’s an imperfect world” (Hewitt 31).
There is a third sequence in the film that happens before our introduction to Laura Palmer that takes place at FBI headquarters, that sets up our relationship with Laura’s physicality and the multi-planed perception she has. Agent Dale Cooper is having visions and suspects something strange is arriving, so he situates himself in surveillance footage. The footage is distorted but it also brings new insight into a reality, as it does not seem to reflect the happenings of the “real world”. It is also in this sequence that we first see the inside of the spirit Lodge and introduces us to its inhabitants. The television static continually disrupts and distorts this footage, bringing new textures and energy to the sequence. It emphasizes the power and influence of the lodge, while fusing them to a greater understanding of the human body. Like the sequence with Theresa Banks, we similarly enter the mouth of one of the spirit characters who says “electricity”. The open-mouthed motif returns time and time again as key to the horror of the film, echoing in some sense the words of Francis Bacon as he said, he wanted “to paint the scream more than the horror” (Deleuze x). The particular way that Lynch frames these shots positions the camera within the body, coming out, again blurring the boundaries between the internal and external world of the characters.
These sequences reveal the power of a disturbed vision which skews the vision of small-town American life. As we are introduced to the idealized image of Laura Palmer, there is already a sense of discomfort as our relationship with feminine and youthful beauty has already been distorted. The integration of extreme close-ups, blue light and electrical sounds will continually serve to mask the violence being levelled towards her. Her sexuality is emphasized, but it is paranoid, rather than arousing. Furthermore, the breakdown of this set of conventions is having an emotional effect on Laura. The disturbances in this world view, which reveal her father as being her abuser, is an ideological deconstruction suggesting ingrained violence in the American way of life. In explaining the unnerving energy of the surrealist work The Human Condition (1934) by Rene Magritte, we have a similar disruption in perception as Whitfield explains, “The fidelity of the painting on the easel to what we suppose is behind it turns out to be more disturbing than reassuring” (Whitfield 200). Rather than concealing the truth, these images are now revealing it with uncomfortable, almost self-effacing voyeurism. Haptic images by virtue of evoking a sensuous response are often related to feelings of sexual desire, however in Fire Walk with Me, these haptic qualities become invasive, as if we were entering sacred spaces that were not meant to be travelled.
The sensuousness of these images is refuted by the atmosphere of shame and guilt associated with puritanical and oppressive ideological forms as celebrated by small-town American culture. They do not eliminate the desire; in fact they seem to breed “deviant” sexual behavior like voyeurism and incest. Instead of embracing sexuality, it becomes objectification, and the gaze becomes something violent.
This idea of being watched is taken further in Lynch’s most recent feature length film, Inland Empire (2006), which evokes the entertainment business from the perspective of an ageing actress. Haptic imagery is taken to new extremes through the use of digital film, which invokes a new series of questions and concerns relating to our troubled relationship with the human form in the contemporary world. Lynch’s foray into digital technology is particularly interesting in that he purposefully chooses to not use a high-end digital video, instead “Lynch used a low-resolution domestic quality camera” (Brooks). Why would he do this?
Not since Eraserhead (1977), has David Lynch been as involved with as many stages of production as with Inland Empire (2006). Most importantly, he took charge of distribution and included additional information on his website and DVD to further enhance the experience (Brooks). Though we can never be entirely sure of the full extent of Lynch’s ability to control what happens on the screen, there is little question that in taking control of the final product, he has more authority than most filmmakers. This does not entirely negate the influence of contributors and similar outside factors, but suggests that technological means bring an added dimension to the auteur theory. In his article questioning the validity of the auteur theory, Graham Petrie opens with a quote by John Huston, who says, “No one ever really has final cut, even when you’re the producer. Someone else always owns the picture, and there’s always someone ready to take it away from you and screw it up” (Petrie 110).
Inland Empire functions as a meta-narrative, one that transcends the journey of its character by exploring through the means of digital imagery our changing perception of the human form. There is little desire to hide the pixilation and distortions we equate with digital works, it is in fact emphasized as a means of suggesting a haptic vision. Whereas video and surveillance footage were used intermittingly in Fire Walk with Me as a means of suggesting voyeurism, the whole film has become an agent for watching. The mediatisation between the real self and the digital self have been blurred to the point of oblivion. If celluloid is like human skin, as they say in French “pellicule”, so then what is digital? Is it inhuman? Cyborg? Does it transform, by its very qualities of being computerized, the nature of the human form? Can digital technologies transcend the body?
The discomfort present in Inland Empire has less to do with the idea that we live in a voyeuristic world, but the idea that we do not have control over our image. In particular it is the woman who has the least amount of control and becomes victim of a violent and invasive gaze. The implied sensuality of these images bleeds into the narrative realm, and the divide between the film Lynch is making and the film within a film is continually blurred. These factors contribute to a sense of paranoia and discomfort as the haptic qualities of the image reveal in the viewer an uncomfortable sense of possession over the images that we watch. As Jodie Brooks explains,
One of the most striking features of Inland Empire is its excessive use of facial close-ups in tandem with its shot/reverse shots—two of the most recognisable features of classical Hollywood cinema. But this is striking because of the ways that the film renders both uncanny—in many ways these techniques seem to be saying to the spectator much the same thing that Nikki/Susan says to those that she comes across in her space/time travels: “Look at me and tell me if you’ve known me before” (a request that is usually met with uninterested amusement in those to whom she addresses it) (Brooks).
It is really through the obsession over the values of the surface and the distortion through excessive sensuality that renders these objects new and foreign. One can easily interpret, “look at me and tell if you’ve known me before”, as the echo of a legacy of the female form depicted through the ages in Western art. We sense ourselves in this world and “In the dark cinema our minds intensify the illogical yet inalienable processes of empathy and anthropomorphism and we half-become what we see, while half-remaining what we are” (Durgnat 257).
The image of Laura Dern’s face twisted; maligned and frozen in a scream that emerges late in the film seems to be the most potent fusion of all these ideas. Inspired, no doubt, from the works of Francis Bacon, images like these inspire intense sensation. As Deleuze explains in his seminal work on the painter, “As a spectator, I experience the sensation only by entering the painting, by reaching the unity of sensing and the sensed. […] Color is in the body, sensation is in the body and not in the air” (Deleuze 35). The body is the central motif in the sensual experience but through the lens of Lynch, it becomes an object of paranoia rather than one of desire.
The haptic image as used by David Lynch suggests a means of interpretation that subverts narrative and thematic expectations of traditional generic and ideological forms. Betraying our desire for eroticism, he makes our relationship with the sensual world uncomfortable by highlighting through haptic perception voyeuristic and violent tendencies in our relationship with cinema. His decision to work with digital film emerging as the natural extension of these ideas, one that reflects the reality of a contemporary world where the human body becomes fragmented, existing in simultaneous and contradictory realities.
Brooks, Jodi. “Cinema, Disappearance and Scale in David Lynch’s Inland Empire”. Screening the Past. N.d. Web. April 16, 2012.
Deleuze, Gilles. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. Translated by Daniel W. Smith. London: Continuum, 2004. Print.
Durgnat, Raymond. Sexual Alienation in the Cinema. London: Studio Vista, 1972. Print.
Elder, Bruce R. Body of Vision: Representation of the Body in Recent Film and Poetry. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1998. Print.
Hewitt, Tim. “Is There life after Dune?” David Lynch Interviews. Ed. Richard A. Barney. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009. Print.
Marks, Laura U. The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999. Print.
Petrie, Graham. Alternatives to Auteurs. Auteurs and Authorship: A Film Reader. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2008. 110-118. Print.
Whitfeld, Sarah. “Rene Magritte, La Condition Humaine.” The Folio Society’s 100 Greatest Paintings. Ed. Martin Bailey. London: The Folio Society, 2001. Print.
Wood, Robin. “Ideology, Genre, Auteur.” Auteurs and Authorship: A Film Reader. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2008. 84-93. Print.