Jennifer M. Barker


On her book The Tactile Eye: Touch and the Cinematic Experience

Cover Interview of December 10, 2009

In a nutshell

In Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep (2006), Gael García Bernal plays a frustrated artist with a penchant for quirky handmade objects and stop-motion animation who falls in love with an artsy woman.  He explains, “I love her because she makes things with her hands. It’s as if her synapses were married directly to her fingers. Like this,” he says, staring at his own waggling fingers in amazement, “in this way.”

That line perfectly describes the spectator—not just of this film but also of moving pictures in general.  I argue that synapses and fingers are married (as are mind and body, and vision and touch more generally) in the experience of cinema.  I also argue that to think, to speak, to feel, to love, to perceive the world and to express one’s perception of that world are not solely cognitive or emotional acts taken up by viewers and films, but always already embodied ones that are enabled, inflected, and shaped by an intimate, tactile engagement with and orientation toward others—things, bodies, objects, subjects—in the world.  If these things are married in the experience of cinema, then this book describes exactly how so: “like this, in this way.”

That the film experience is a tactile one is without doubt; one need only chat up one’s fellow audience members to hear an action film described as a “visceral rush,” or an art film described as “lush” or “sensuous.”  But how does one reconcile sensuous film experience with film theory?  My answer was to design a book that is itself a tactile experience.  I employ a descriptive vocabulary and method, infused with the sensuousness of the everyday, embodied film experience, in a study organized not around historical periods, genres, or modes of production, but around bodily dimensions, sensations, rhythms, and gestures.

Throughout the project, I describe “touch” in a way that extends beyond the fingers and the skin.  The book’s three central chapters explore three locales that I argue are lived both humanly and cinematically: the skin, the musculature, and the viscera.  These categories guide us through a complicated terrain, but their boundaries are pliable and permeable.  Sensations and behaviors constantly bleed, vibrate, dissolve, spread, cut, or muscle their way from one dimension into the next.

I explore these dimensions of tactility through a series of brief but detailed readings of specific films, which I call “textural” (rather than “textual”) analyses.  I cover a wide range of genres, nations, and directors, juxtaposed in unpredictable ways—Buster Keaton and Wile E. Coyote share the space of a few pages, as do Eraserhead and Toy Story—that elicit underlying haptic, muscular, and visceral patterns shared by film and viewer and that offer a useful approach for the study of other film experiences.