N. 49: “BODY”

Reflections on the relationship between body and mind, body and perception as well as body and identity have characterized most of the theoretical debates concerning film studies. Especially since the phenomenological positions that recall Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s philosophical perspective, there is an attention around the emotional and affective aspects of film in reference to the spectator body, understood as an experiential body. The body assumes the central role of perception and knowledge, a sentient and affective network, as well as an object of observation. Moving beyond an oculocentric approach, the phenomenological perspective focuses on the bodily-material essence of the spectator, understood as a "kinesthetic" essence. Cinema is seen as a radically embodied experience, allowing the viewer to assimilate films somatically, with his or her whole body. The cinematic experience is tactile, haptic, the skin is an organ of perception and communication, a symbolic surface interposed between the self and the external world (Sobchack; Marks; Wahlber; Barker; Malavasi; Chamarette). The role of the viewer’s corporeality as both subject and object of emotion is also central to Linda Williams’ study of body genres that are characterized by breaking the distance between viewer and object in seeking excesses that provoke overt physical reactions, weeping in melodrama, screaming in horror, and sexual pleasure in porn (Williams).

The viewer as a bodily entity, not a passive essence of optical information, turns out to be more and more central with media and perceptual technological innovations that lead the embodied experience itself to evolve at the sensory-motor, somatic and acoustic levels, from Dolby to VR. The technological innovations, such as brain imaging or the discovery of mirror neurons, have also, inevitably, broadened the study of neural arrangements in reference to the film experience in cognitivist reflections, to understand what happens in the viewer’s brain as specific film excerpts are experienced. Cognitive sciences are opening up toward a "phenomenological cognitivism", focusing on both the constitutive aspects of the body and the environment, action and technologies of inquiry, enriching reflections around the emotional dimension of film experience (Shimamura; Nannicelli and Paul Taberham; D'Aloia, Eugeni; Grabowski; Guerra, Gallese).

However, in addition to the theoretical level concerning the film experience, as a perceptual surface, the body naturally plays a central role in the processes of elaboration and self-expression. Cinema, as well as visual arts (Ravesi), from the representation of the body has departed to reflect on gender identity and sexuality, from the performative and political dimension (Butler) to masculinity/ femininity (Bruzzi; Rigoletto; Reich, Catherine O'Rawe; Malavasi; Albert, Carluccio, Muggeo, Pizzo), as a symbol of crisis of identity as well as of the subject (De Gaetano; La Polla). From this theoretical framework, some directions can be identified, as examples only, toward which reflections on the subject can be directed.

Body and Aesthetics of the Flesh. Considered a subgenre of horror, body horror shows the human body in a crude manner, often exposing an abject body (Kristeva) that has lost integrity and form as a result of aberrations and abominations, alterations, mutilation, dejections, decay and death, released waste and bodily secretions. We can think, of course, of Cronenberg’s cinema, whose fluidity of bodies in constant transformation and disintegration is seen by Shaviro as a visual fascination dictated by a masochistic dynamic.  In showing the body in its "primal materiality," in a direct and visceral manner, both the unity of the subject and the distant relationship between viewer and image of abjection are questioned. Passing through New French Extremity and cinema du corp, extreme violence apt to shock and disturb the spectatorial experience also returns powerfully in contemporary trends of prestige horror (Dudenhoeffer; West; Huckvale). From Cronenberg’s cinema, the idea of a postmodern biology emerges, in which new technologies heighten bodily experience, from Videodrome (1983) to The Fly and Crimes of the Future (2022). The body is pervaded by new technologies. The monstrous intersection of physiological and technological aspects is at the center of numerous other films from Akira (Ōtomo, 1988) and Tetsuo: The Iron Man (Tsukamoto, 1989) to Titane (Ducournau, 2021), arriving at subjectivities that reformulate gender relations, a post-gender, post-human dimension, such as the body-machine and the cyborg (Haraway; Braidotti).

Militarized body/traumatized body. Robert Burgoyne speaks of the soldier’s body as "a medium of sensory experience" and "body at risk," referring to the first-person experience of conflict shown in the documentary Restrepo (Hetherington, 2010). The stories and memories of the conflict are directly inscribed on the bodies of soldiers as well as the traumatic traces of the experience, see also the figure of the veteran, from neorealism onward (Schoonover), recalling on a figurative level pictorial representation such as Picasso’s Guernica (1937) or Goya’s The Disasters of the Earth (1810-1820). Although warfare has radically changed in nature in modern times, primarily with the introduction of remotely piloted aircraft, cinema continues to reflect on "haptic geography," attempting to restore the somatic experience of armed conflict. The soldier’s body remains at the center of the narrative in both documentary and fictional cinema, the embodied experience of war, the adrenaline-fueled intensity of confrontation. Moreover, as Andreescu states, the soldier’s body is often a militarized body, a different body from the one that experiences everyday life, a body-machine enhanced by weapons and visors that acquires different capabilities.

 Body and sexuality. The body is also an object of analysis in the theoretical perspectives of research on masculinity in cinema (Neale; Silverman). Beginning with film genres, particularly masculine ones, from noir to adventure from war movie to action, scholars have reflected on how cinema can reformulate and rearticulate certain perspectives on masculinity, also exploring cross-cutting, political and social scenarios, both hegemonic masculine subjectivities and non-normative representations (Abbott; Grønstad; Ralph Donald, Karen MacDonald; Gates). If since especially the American blockbuster from 1980s, action cinema has focused on the sculptural bodies of its characters, from Sylvester Stallone to Arnold Schwarzenegger, in recent years, some films develop the female body by making it masculine, disengaging from a gender stereotype of men as the sole bearers of a trained and muscular body. For example, Yvonne Tasker coins the term "musculinity," a fusion of muscularity and masculinity, referring to films such as G.I Jane (Scott, 1997), Charlie’s Angels (Munday, 2000) or Tomb Raider (West, 2001).

In addition, feminist theory scholars have extensively explored embodied cultural identities in multiple forms, in line with a phenomenological and post-structuralist approach, by going to dwell on the female body as a material, political and cultural entity, indivisible from symbolic and discursive structures (Del Rio; Ince; Lindner; Kroll).

Body/mask. From Italian comedy in the era of the economic boom, in which urbanized, modern and technological man faces an existential crisis brought on by industrial capitalism, Italian cinema is enriched by characters reduced to masks, caricatured figures marked by an untethered drive from desire, "by a swallowing up of easy myths" (Roberti). Far from the athletic vigor as an index of eroticism, which distinguished the characters of the comedy of the 1950s, the bodies of this roundup of social monsters change connotations, heading for deformation, subjected to unstoppable and primal urges, caught in neurotic traits, tics, gestures of irony, which result in fits of rage and violence. The social body deflagrates in the form of a mimetic or idiosyncratic mask (De Gaetano). Bodies affected by hysteria and neuroses, a symbol of the fragility of the subject in its relationship with the world, continue to spread in Italian cinema, from the body-mask of the 1960s to the grotesque epic of Ciprì and Maresco’s freaks, where the sub-human body mutates into the monstrous.