Mysterious Skin: Male Bodies in Contemporary Cinema
Edited by Santiago Fouz-Hernández. New York: I.B. Tauris, May 2009. Paper: ISBN 978-1845118310, $32.50. 272 pages.
Review by Nathan G. Tipton, University of Tennessee Health Science Center, Memphis
Ever since Laura Mulvey famously declared, in her groundbreaking 1975 Screen article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” that in narrative film the woman is consistently represented as the passive object of the active male gaze, various critics have been quick to challenge the fixed male-female binarism inherent in Mulvey’s argument. Film theorists Richard Dyer, Corey Creekmur, Steve Neale, and Peter Lehman, for example, have demonstrated that masculinity cannot be equated uniformly with activity or dominance precisely because, in terms of cinema spectatorship, there are always multiple gazes in play including, importantly, males gazing at males and male bodies. However, the potential for the male body to become a “spectacle” for other men, even within the safe confines of simple curiosity ostensibly extant in the viewing mechanisms of heterosexual men, almost immediately provokes profound anxiety, repression and, oftentimes, outright homophobia. After all, the very act of males gazing at other males presents a constant threat to the secure, comfortable “norm” of masculinity.
In his edited collection Mysterious Skin: Male Bodies in Contemporary Cinema, Santiago Fouz-Hernández has gathered together a multinational array of contemporary film theorists who explore not only the complex mechanics of the male gaze, but also show how cinematic representations of the gazed-at male body communicate and engage with inbuilt national identity anxieties surrounding race/ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. Although Fouz-Hernández notes that the collection makes “no claims to global coverage” (4), Mysterious Skin nonetheless has an impressive reach, with contributors presenting interpretations of male bodies that are variously (and literally) “put on display” in non-Westernized cinemas of Francophone Africa, China, Vietnam, Taiwan, and India, as well as in films from Western countries such as Australia, Germany, Great Britain, Mexico, and Spain. This emphasis on the male body, along with Fouz-Hernández’s global disavowal, serves the collection well, as it effectively backgrounds the myriad cultural differences existing among these disparate countries in favor of emphasizing the more universalized “crisis of masculinity” and its attendant anxiety over the “looked at” male body.
Mysterious Skin is divided into three thematic sections: the body and ethnic/national identities; dissections/textures/close-ups (or what Fouz-Hernández eloquently calls “the body as cinematic canvas”); and sex/sexuality, which explores the vulnerability and versatility of gendered identities typically associated with masculinity. At first glance these groupings seem logical in terms of compartmentalizing the articles, but there is also considerable overlap that is perhaps unavoidable given the collection’s overarching (inter)national focus. For instance, Heidi Schlipphacke’s “Fragmented Bodies: Masculinity and Nation in Contemporary German Cinema,” which appears in the collection’s first section on national bodies/national identities, is concerned mainly with exploring contemporary German cinema’s linkage of masculinity to the formulation of a more average qua “normal” national identity. Schlipphacke explains that this “new normal” nationality was formulated as part of an overarching governmental mandate that sought to mitigate Germany’s tortured history, and especially its psychic connection to the fervent neoclassical nationalism and patriotism appropriated and perversely applied by the Nazis.
The author, however, dovetails from her discussion of this fundamentally redefined German normality (what Schlipphacke refers to as “Neue Unbefangenheit”/new unselfconsciousness) into a fascinating exploration of the almost schizophrenic fragmentation this normalization provoked among German males. As Schlipphacke notes, not only does this schizophrenic identity signify a psychic split between past and present conceptions of what it means to be German, but it also becomes the locus for a body undergoing literal fragmentation by way of dissection. This occurs particularly in the film Der freie Wille/The Free Will (2006) where Theo, the movie’s ostensible protagonist (ostensible because although he is a rapist, his overarching desire is simply to be normal), recognizes the futility of trying to reconcile his split selves and, ultimately, slits his wrists with a razor blade.
Indeed, the motif of fragmentation appears in various physical and/or psychical permutations throughout Mysterious Skin, thus providing a further commonality binding together the collection’s chapters. An outstanding example of this fragmentation occurring on both mental and bodily levels is highlighted in Aparna Sharma’s “The Square Circle: Problematising the National Masculine Body in Indian Cinema.” Sharma discusses the Indian film Daayara/The Square Circle (1996) by focusing on unpacking the shifting identities undergone by the film’s unnamed transvestite protagonist. What makes this chapter so successful is Sharma’s application of Judith Butler’s notion of performativity as it relates to what Sharma calls the transvestite’s “prerogative for migration” (94). This migration is multi-faceted, as the transvestite—who is portrayed as a rural, nomadic figure wandering from village to village—not only crosses and re-crosses gender lines but also traverses class, religious, socio-historic, and regional boundaries. Sharma ultimately views the transvestite figure as a representative critique of India’s carefully constructed, if entirely imagined, traditional value system that overtly emphasizes heterosexuality (which is, by definition, indicative of modernity, technological/industrial mobility, and national superiority). Thus the transvestite, through “his” muddying of socio-sexual conventions and national norms, effectively confronts and de-legitimates the hegemonic frameworks set up to police and regulate any and all boundary crossings.
These affective, transgressive border crossings, both physical and psychical, are foregrounded in varying degrees in all the entries in Mysterious Skin, but some chapters succeed better than others at conveying how these crossings are deployed cinematically. D. Cuong O’Neill’s exploration of homosexual cruising in Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang’s film Bu san/Goodbye, Dragon Inn, for example, is strangely complex and disjointed. This is perhaps partly due to the disconnectedness inherent in the film Bu san, which utilizes a film-within-a-film approach in order to combine a cinematic homage to the martial arts genre (in this case, the martial arts classic Long men ke zhan/Dragon Gate Inn) with the concept of the “moving body” exemplified by the homosexual men who cruise the dilapidated theatre in which the film is being screened. Yet throughout his chapter, O’Neill never seems to be sure how or where to focus his discussion until he arrives, late in the entry, at what appears to be the argumentative crux. O’Neill notes that the moving bodies displayed both on-screen (in Dragon Gate Inn) and “on screen” (the men cruising the theatre) represent “a contested terrain of competing identities” and “a world shaped by another form of mobility… where sexuality becomes not a type of identity but a type of loss of identity” (203-204).
While O’Neill’s cogent observation occurs within the context of an otherwise cumbersome chapter, it nevertheless neatly encapsulates the larger theoretical ethos that informs the collection and makes Mysterious Skin a continual delight. Fouz-Hernández and his coterie of international film theorists have provided an important, fascinating, and welcome addition to studies of masculinity, gender, and extra-Hollywood cinema. Despite its limitations—including some overly complicated and heavily theoretical entries—Mysterious Skin ultimately proves successful at not only showcasing the various permutations of gazed-at male bodies deployed in contemporary films, but also exploring how these incarnations provoke and promote negotiations over how these bodies define or defy international conceptions of masculinity.