Issue 10 : Spring 2006






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On the System of the “Suture” in Cinema

by J.M. Magrini

11 Feb 2006

180 degree rule. It is the aim of this essay to elucidate Stephen Heath’s position on the cinematic system of the “suture.” I hope to show that his unique and invaluable contributions to the fields of formal and ideological film theory are not attempts at disproving or overturning the “suture” theories of critics Jean-Pierre Oudart and Daniel Dayan. Rather, as opposed to censuring their work, Heath judiciously and philosophically works to build upon their efforts by offering positive critical “suggestions” for the enrichment, expansion, and continuation of the dialogue concerning the system of “suture” as a valid methodology for “reading” and interpreting filmic meaning.

Suture is a system of filmic grammar and syntax, incorporating the spectator as signifier within a system of “signifiers,” producing meaning while simultaneously instilling and establishing a sense of subject-hood, which is to say, the effect of suture produces the phenomenon of spectator as “subject”. Through identification with the film, the spectator as subject is “spoken,” and therefore “named,” established and fixed within the formal cinematic structure of the film’s discourse. The cinematic model of the “system of the suture” is based on Jacques Lacan’s notion of subject formation and Jacques-Alain Miller’s subsequent work on this topic. Within the article, “On Suture,” Heath responds to the structural and ideological film theorists who argue that “suture” represents the paradigmatic expression of the structural system of cinematic discourse (e.g., Oudart and Dayan). Heath works to properly explicate the concept of suture in hopes of moving beyond their interpretations, to understand what is really at stake within its filmic adaptation and application.

By virtue of its perceptual nature, [the filmic image] conveys a different species of knowledge, which is never literal, or denotative in the linguistic sense; film language emerges in a connotative manner, through the power of analogy and symbol.

The psychological concept of “suture” begins with Lacan and the notion of subject formation, i.e., the psychical “junction” of the symbolic and imaginary realms. This is the pinnacle moment in linguistic discourse when the symbolic (the lacking self) is assuaged and fulfilled through the intervention of the imaginary self (the “I” as ego). As related to the “mirror-stage” in Lacan, it is the point at which the self-image of the child, fostered and nurtured through maternal identification, is disrupted by the unwelcome intrusion of language, as a direct result of the child’s encounter with the paternal (phallic) Other. Nevertheless, this agonizing “disruption,” which exposes the child’s former notion of a unified personality as illusory, is a necessary stage in the process of socialization, with its venerable principles of communication. The moment of discourse creates a distance between child and the social order in a two-fold manner: First, it sets up the distance between the “self” and the mother, and secondly, it sets up the distance between the “self” and society. This event initiates the need for reconciliation; the longing for a reunification with the lost object of its desire is born (which is at root the longing for a complete and consistent self-understanding), and this process requires a bridging of the gap that language creates. This idea is fully articulated by Miller, and it is this interpretation of Lacan that finds its way into film theory: “Suture names the relation of the subject to the chain of its discourse,” writes Miller, “It figures there as the element which is lacking in the form of a stand-in.”

Suture refers to the “logic of the signifier” in cinema that closes the announced system of meaning and at once fixes the subject, that is, creates the subject within the system of the film’s formal structure. Suture is also employed as a term identifying the overarching syntactical structure that determines all instances of “cinematic” meaning. In order for suture to fulfill its function, that of producing a subject via the film’s discourse, the spectator must first experience a sense of absence or loss, which is then “sutured,” or reconciled by way of the structural and stylistic elements of the film. The system of the suture is grounded in a two-shot model (shot/ reverse shot), which the majority of “classic narrative films” utilize when editing for continuity, or so Oudart and Dayan argue it.

The first shot of the suture-sequence interrupts the viewer’s seamless absorption in the film, tearing open the moment of filmic discourse as the Other makes its presence felt. This occurs as the cinematic mechanism is exposed, that is, the camera becomes obtrusive the moment that it frames out the viewing-field within the restrictive parameters of the lens. For example, the first cut/shot within the sequence might reveal the “long-shot” of a landscape or shoreline. This supposedly renders the spectator’s unquestioned possession of the image problematic, initiating the dialogue by forcing the following question: “To whom does this view belong?” There is an “Absent One,” a mysterious presence (in absence) now controlling the image, along with its meaning, and “the pure extent of the spectator’s pleasure now becomes a problem of representation” (Heath). At this point, the spectator is no longer “seeing” the film, but is instead “reading” the film. The second shot, which reverses the field of the first shot, provides a response to the spectator’s question. This important shot “sutures” the spectator’s ruptured viewing experience. For example, the reverse shot might represent a person’s face in close-up who “stands-in” to assume the unofficial role of fictional owner of the “look.” The character on screen appears to own the field of the landscape in the first shot. Although the fictional character does not authentically possess the view, this fact is of no concern, as the spectator’s disturbing uneasiness is settled, assuaged in a satisfactory manner. The spectator now reassumes the “imaginary” relationship with(in) the film. These two shots, working in tandem, represent something of a linguistic exchange, a filmic question and answer of sorts, and it is within this dialogue that the spectator’s relationship to the film, as a “signifier” among many other signifiers, is established and grounded.

For “suture” to function as Heath outlines, it is necessary that the film portray the world in a realistic manner. Incorporating the techniques of so-called “classic” cinema, e.g., optical realism, narrative plot-structure, traditional editing techniques for continuity, and fidelity to the compressed locus of the time-space-continuum, the film attempts to present in replication the external world of reality. The desired suturing effect occurs when the spectator perceives her involvement within the film’s action, as she is drawn into the linear progression of the film’s story. However, whether or not the spectator’s involvement is a conscious participation, as in the surrendering of oneself over to the fiction and illusion of cinema, is unclear, as the theorists tend to disagree on this matter. Despite this, all the critics concur that if the reestablishment of “identification” is to work successfully, that is, if subject-formation is to happen, the suture must somehow bring the spectator back into the film, back into the unfolding of the film’s narrative events, which thus depends on chronology as way of assuring the film’s realistic and believable depiction.

Shot. Robert Bresson. Pickpocket. 1959. Both Oudart and Dayan are interested in revealing and identifying the ideological forces that are behind the processes of the cinema. They are concerned with the forces that are behind the film, the powers that influence the film’s meaning and its appeal by controlling the formal means of its production. Accordingly, it is neither the spectator nor fictional character that legitimately owns the image in the filmic field. Rather, it is The Absent One who lays claim to the image, the enigmatic cipher who is always a haunting, undeniable presence within the film. And for Oudart, the owner of the image is in fact the filmmaker, and by extension her camera, and beyond, the forces of commercial production.

Oudart, writing within the “group” of Cahiers du Cinema, adopts the idea of film as manufactured product within a given socio-politico-economic system, understood as a material commodity, a direct ideological product of capitalism, and not simply a form of creative “cultural” (artistic) expression. To what degree the ideology is “visible” within the film is debatable, nonetheless, all the critics agree that the goal of film critique is to expose the ideology that is “speaking” through the film, and then to attempt to “disrupt or possibly even sever the connection between the cinema and the ideological function” (Carmoli/Naboni). It is the contention of Cahiers du Cinema that all film is influenced by socio-political factors, produced within a given economic system, and this includes the genre of the so-called “art film.” Thus, all filmmaking, to some extent, runs the danger of becoming a “mouth-piece” for the reigning political world-view, establishing the identity of its subjects as it simultaneously contributes to the creation of worldly knowledge along with establishing criteria for assessing truth and its value. While leaving the system is not a feasible option, making filmmakers aware of the variety of ways that their work serves the reigning ideology, may help to open the dialogue between members of Cahier, the filmmakers, and the viewing public – working to eventually free filmmaking from its servitude to ideological forces.

Heath notes several problems with the traditional conceptions of “suture.” For example, Oudart theorizes the idea of cinematic “suture,” a rigorous system for discerning meaning, utilizing evaluative terminology, ignoring the fact that Miller, whose psychological observations inspired the development of suture within film theory, expressed his findings in a descriptive manner. Oudart seeks to specify the logic of the signifier and its relation to the system in terms of the “tragic” experience of pain-cum-pleasure, arguing a system of film discourse in which the spectator-subject vacillates between feelings of unadulterated pleasure and paroxysm, the wrenching emotional pain associated with a devastating loss of being. He suggests that film as discourse is expressed most authentically within the moments of “pleasure” (imaginary/ego) and “reading” (symbolic/self). If film theory attempts to base a legitimate model for the comprehension of cinematic discourse on the notion of “pleasure” in cinema, it is necessary to first establish a definition and system for classifying the various types of filmic pleasure. Since Oudart fails to do this, Heath finds it incomprehensible that a scientific approach to reading film codes should incorporate the evaluative, relative notions of “pleasure” and “pain” within the rules of its grammatology, and limit cinematic interpretation to the understanding of such notions.

Linked to this notion of pleasure is Oudart’s privileging of Lacan’s psychical mode of the “imaginary” within his theory of the suture. Although Heath agrees that the imaginary plays an essential role within all cinematic discourse, he believes that Oudart has misinterpreted its proper function within the spectator-film relationship. Oudart holds to the idea that the viewer’s original relation to cinema (prior to the articulation of discourse) is that of the child in the “mirror-stage,” using such terms as “jubilation,” “totality,” and “imaginary” to define the viewer’s initial identification with the film.

Within Lacan’s psychology, the ego and subject are distinct realms; However, Heath claims that the relationship between the spectator and the film, which includes the intermingling of the imaginary and symbolic realms, is not so easily determined. It is incorrect simply to equate the spectator’s initial absorption in the film with Lacan’s mirror-stage and it is incorrect to equate the process of film discourse with the symbolic-linguistic encounter with the Other as outlined by Lacan. According to Heath, spectatorship, along with the possibility of the suturing effect, is possible only after these “early” developmental stages have been enacted. “The little infant can come to the film,” writes Heath, “ but not come as spectator” (Heath). Rather than harkening to the initial moments of “ego” and “subject” formation, the “seeing” and “reading” of a film occurs as a post-symbolic experience, and involves a process of diffusion of the “subject-ego,” a dispersal that includes the intermingling of functions already active in the individual’s psyche. Heath emphasizes the “play” and free-movement between the symbolic and the imaginative, and seems to resist the notion that these realms are as clearly and rigidly delineated as Oudart wants to suggest.

Lacan's theories become more complex when incorporated into film theory, and Heath insists that any notion of “suturing,” as the production of the spectator as subject, must include in its analysis the consideration of not only the subject’s field of the imaginary, but also the field of the imaginary that is fashioned and created by the film. The fictional involvement of the psychical individual within the film adds a second aspect to the formulation, suggesting a multi-dimensional approach to the imaginary and symbolic. On one level, there exists the transcendent realm of the spectator’s fiction, i.e., the spectator as participant in the cinematic experience; on another level, there exists the corporeal realm, i.e., the spectator as biological entity, as thinking being who comes to the cinema in order to have the experience. When theorizing on the system of the suture, the analysis must include the concept of “the spectator as part of an imaginary production” (Heath). For during the cinematic experience, the phases of the imaginary and symbolic are working simultaneously on two levels.

Most critical work equates suture with a form of filmic “writing,” which is “read” by the spectator, and this is to suggest that filmic images acquire their meaning in much the same way as verbal and written language acquire meaning – by way of an ordered grammatical system with syntax. Thus, as suggested by Dayan, the system of the suture is the privileged expression of filmic discourse as “language,” and consequently holds the potential to express “meaningful” imagery because it simultaneously functions as the overarching “grammatical” structure, i.e., the system of cinematic codes upon which images depend for their meaning are built into the expressions (images and sequences of images). And this is the way in which language functions. To speak or write is to express the content of our thoughts, to say something; it is also an expression, an “enunciation,” or articulation, of the grammatical system upon which the words depend in order to have meaning. It follows from this understanding that filmic images are “words” and filmic sequences are the equivalent of “written” sentences, and this is exactly what certain critics argue. Heath goes against this tendency, and states that the move to equate filmic discourse with a “pure” linguistic model, results from a misunderstanding of exactly how cinematic images function.

Reverse shot. Robert Bresson. Pickpocket. 1959. Cinema is not the equivalent of verbal discourse in that it does not at all times display the system for understanding its content, which is to say, unlike language (words and sentences), cinematic images and sequences of images do not simultaneously reveal the underlying grammatical system needed discerning meaning (“enunciation”) in conjunction with the content of their expression (“subject of enunciation”). It must be noted that when Heath refers to the “subject of enunciation,” he is referring to the content (subject) of the expression, i.e., what the expression is about, which is always the spectator-subject. Within Heath’s analysis, the subject is twice spoken: once as the content of statement, and again as the subject, or product, of ideological manufacture. Film is both a commodity and tool for further ends, that is, its explicit purpose is not to entertain, but rather to manufacture subjects in a predetermined manner. As stated, this occurs by way of their participation within the cinematic discourse that the film initiates and controls.

Heath disagrees with the idea that a sequence of filmic images, as expressed through the “suture-edit,” constitutes a cinematic statement equivalent to language. The cinematic image is always more emotive than either a single word or statement, and far more complex. Beyond any definitive interpretation, the filmic image is a “force of event,” a “being-there-for,” and never the “simple presence of a word” – it is at once, according to Heath, potential and innocence. By virtue of its perceptual nature, it conveys a different species of knowledge, which is never literal, or denotative in the linguistic sense; film language emerges in a connotative manner, through the power of analogy and symbol. We can, with a great deal of accuracy and confidence, discern the meaning of grammatically sound linguistic communication, for example we can affirm or deny propositions in relation to empirical states-of-affairs (objective facts). Likewise, we can perform the analysis and exegesis of poetry and prose. However, when experiencing the celluloid images of film, the ever-elusive play of light and shadow, we are, for the most part, at a loss for accurate, conclusive interpretations (and this is due in great part to the fact that cinema is still an emerging and developing art form), as the symbolization of filmic imagery transcends our logical, discursive ability to grasp them in their totality.

As stated, within Oudart and Dayan, the model for cinema as discourse is restricted to the phenomenon of suture. Cinematic meaning emerges and develops as the images move through a sequence of shots, which is to say, the production of spectator as subject happens as the viewer’s experience shifts between the poles of loss and reconciliation; during these moments, suture is at work. Heath identifies a problem with this restricted framework, as suture reduces “the process of specification” of meaning to a single concept in film – the possibility of meaning hinges on the appearance (non-appearance) of the Absent One, and this notion arises from Oudart’s analysis of a single film, Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc. Within this production, Oudart locates the code of meaning to decipher not only this film, but the system of signification that is at work within the entire tradition of narrative cinema as well. According to Oudart, this film embodies (and initiates) the historical development of “classical cinema” as discourse. Thus, in order to understand the commercial cinema, we must understand the suturing function – the Absent One, and the structure of the two-shot sequence.

Drawing on the work of William Rothman and Barry Salt, Heath addresses this issue. Within the article, “Against the System of the Suture,” Rothman proposes a model for suture in tripartite, while Salt, a film historian, debates the legitimacy of the claim that a majority of classic films incorporate the two-shot sequence. Salt’s findings reveal that only about 30% of classical cinema utilizes the two-shot sequence, and so puts the following question to the reader: if the suture-edit is as integral to cinematic discourse and meaning as the film theorists claim, why is it not used on a more regular basis by the commercial film industry? Ever open to the vast possibilities of suture, Heath is not willing to discount its importance for reading cinema, and grants the likelihood that the two-shot model may in fact represent the “fundamental articulation” of the “suture” phenomenon. However, he suggests that films produce meaning in a variety of ways, and perhaps, suture is but one meaningful expression of formal cinematic discourse within a long list.

Perhaps, if theorists include in their analyses the other ways in which film acquires and produces meaning (e.g., use of sound and music, lighting design, cinematography, the montage edit), a move beyond the single model would occur. Heath attempts to expand suture’s restrictive model along with its traditional pattern of expression, which he describes as “the simple notion of the immediate image, the symbolic apprehension, the imaginary resolution, the consistent and singular figure of the Absent One” (Heath). Concerned with exploring the potential for suture within different contexts, Heath includes in his analysis new and unique structural and stylistic techniques, which filmmaking utilizes when bringing its stories to the screen. Heath grasps the crucial point that cinema is an amalgam of many arts, and so reasons that any attempt to uncover and discern a system of meaning must expand the scope of its inquiry to include the many and varied aspects of the filmmaking process. For example, theorists would do well to explore more thoroughly the potential of merging imagery with sound and music in film as a possible medium for expressing, and hence understanding, the film’s formal discourse. As well, he suggests looking at a variety of stylistic editing techniques, such as “montage,” which vary from the traditional straight match-cut motif.

Analyzing Chantal Akerman’s News for Home, Heath locates a subtle, but no less effective, use of suturing. The closing sequence is a montage of images, over which a dialogue between a mother and daughter takes place. The narrator’s voice (the Mother) is speaking over shots of city scenes, “by letters a mother in Brussels is writing to her far off daughter” (H, 98). Poignantly, the images that melt and flow are held together and linked via the narration, the sounds of the street, and music. As the shots progress from one image to another, from one signifier to another, no hint of teleology exists, that is, until the final images of the film when a boat pulls out of the harbor, and slowly disappears from view as it sails to sea.

According to the theories of Oudart and Dayan, this sequence would not represent an example of the suture, for the viewing field contains nothing to indicate the “look” of ownership, and absent is the paradigmatic sequence of shot / reversal shot – rather, the editing is composed of a series of images that slowly dissolve and fade into the next series, forming a distinctive sequence of images in montage. However, according to Heath, the theorists ignore the importance of moving between images using the soundtrack as a linking device. Although the film appears to lack the all-important moment of suture, it does not, for when it resolves the extended montage of imagery with the narration and music, “it re-finds suture effectively” by working to break the rigid distinction between the symbolic and the imaginary, producing a displacement of these psychical modes. The play between spectator and film merge as “image, voice, noise, duration, rhythm” (Heath) – the very things absent within the theorists’ analyses of suture – work to reformulate the structure, the pattern of our loss and reconciliation, for the spectator assumes from the voice-over and final shot of the ship that the daughter is once more returning home.

Books and articles:

Comolli, Jean-Louis. “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism,” in Cahiers du Cinema: The Politics of Representation, ed. Nick Browne, Harvard University Press: Mass, 1990. (58-67).

Heath, Stephen, Questions of Cinema. Indiana University Press: Indiana, 1985. (76-112).

Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits. W. W. Norton & Company: New York, 1977. (1-7).

Oudart, Jean-Pierre. “Cinema and Suture,” in Cahiers du Cinema: The Politics of Representation, ed. Nick Browne, Harvard University Press: Mass, 1990. (45-57)

Rothman, William, “Against the System of Suture,” Film Quarterly, (Fall 1975) pp.45- 50.