Screen Philematology

NOTA BENE: This is a draft paper for discussion. It should not be quoted, cited or reproduced.

LAST UPDATE: September 21, 2010

One of the aim of my current research is to sketch an agenda for a philematology of moving images. Philematology (from philema, the Greek for “kiss”) is the science or the art of kissing, “founded” in 2009 by neuroscientist Wendy Hill of Lafayette College, biologist Helen Fisher of Rutgers University, and psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr. of the University of Albany. Their experiments and books are revealing hidden complexities behind this simple human interaction act. A kiss may trigger a cascade of neural messages and chemicals that transmit tactile sensations, sexual excitement, feelings of closeness, motivation and even euphoria. Once again, the dynamics of human interaction are explained recurring to basic neuro-physiological process. Think of the mirror neurons mechanism: the subject internally reproduces a directed or intentional act (i.e. grasping an object or touching a surface) s/he perceives, as if s/he actually performing that act. Thus, under certain “immersive” conditions, to observe means not only virtually but also actually experience a movement. My thesis on filmic participation is that the spectator experiences the same intentionality s/he expressed in the observed movement. Nevertheless, the moving images experience helps us to conceive a more complex, composite and complete notion of physical and psychic involvement in the experience of the Other and the Self – a motor and emotional participation that does not exclude a cognitive nor a reflexive activity. It is not only a matter of neural activation or mirroring, but rather a stratified and circular interaction of different form of empathy.

A social history of the cinematic kiss
Since its origins, cinema has explored the revolutionary charge of the kiss, its capability to allow the spectator not onluy to attend the events, but also to take part in them. The first known case of a couple kissing in cinematic history was Thomas Edison’s The May-Irwin Kiss in 1896 (30 seconds long and consisted entirely of a man and a woman kissing close up). The first-ever horizontal-position kiss in American film, and the first Hollywood film with an open-mouthed kiss between Greta Garbo and John Gilbert – who were obviously in love in real-life – in Flesh and the Devil (Clarence Brown, 1926/1927). The film with the most kisses is Don Juan (Alan Crosland, 1926) in which John Barrymore and Mary Astor share 127 kisses.

From 1930 to 1967, due to The Production Code of the Motion Picture Industry (or Hays code), scenes of passion were not to be introduced when not essential to the plot and excessive and lustful kissing was to be avoided, along with any other treatment that might stimulate the lower and baser element. For example, the maximum length for a kiss was a few seconds; people kissing in American films could no longer be horizontal; at least one had to be sitting or standing, not lying dow; all on-screen married couples slept in twin beds; and if kissing on one of the beds occurred, at least one of the spouses had to have a foot on the floor. The Hays Code forced studios to resort to many expedients to get around the rules of censorship. Think, for example, of the briefly repeated kiss in Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock, 1946). Polls consistently list the kiss between Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant as one of the sexiest kisses in cinematic history à repeatedly kiss briefly while Grant was answering a telephone call. The kiss seems to go on and on but was never longer than a few seconds. The 1961 film Splendor in the Grass, with Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty, made history for containing Hollywood’s first French kiss. The film with the longest kiss is Andy Warhol’s 1963 Kiss. Note that this is an experimental film. In general, in mainstream cinema, kisses could and should be only sweetened and allusive. Kissing became progressively sensual from the 1970s onwards and today – at least in mainstream narrative cinema – it can be used freely in love scenes and also in sex scenes.

Non-scientific resources of kiss in the history of cinema

I – The phenomenological nature of kiss in narrative cinema

However, I am not interested in the actual kiss itself. I concentrate on the capability of cinema to engage the spectator in desiring experience.

Along with the history of representation of the on-screen kiss, a history of spectator kiss in-front-of the screen should be traced. The darkness and privacy of movie theatre create an intimate and protected place…Protected by darkness in the film-theatre or the living-room, immersed in an intimate contact with the screen, the spectator experiences a sensual relationship with the cinematic bodies. The film experience is not merely a viewing experience, but also and above all a very special kind of inter-subjective relationship with cinematic bodies that move and express a vitality. The core questions are: How does the spectator is involved in the kissing experience? Why does s/he feel attraction or repulsion when s/he  experiences a cinematic kiss? What strategies are put in play in order to elicit desire?

Actually, we would have many theoretical options to answer these questions. A cognitive approach would argue that kissing scenes functions as a narrative strategy of emotional involvement. The kiss represents a turning point in the story, the beginning of a love or sexual relationship. It has a transformative or resolutive role in a narratological perspective, such as the rebirth of the hero, the reawakening of the princess, the conquest and completion of love, the farewell of lovers, and so on. Spectator is aroused by a particular event in the context of a series of past and future events and s/he cognitively works to infer the meaning of the whole series. A psychoanalytic perspective would probably recall incest, or describe the erotic kiss as an attempted return to the security of the mother’s breast . Moreover, by the Lacanian definition, desire is something that necessarily relies on lack. And it would be extremely interesting to recover the anthropological roots of the kiss.

An aesthetic and phenomenological Merleau-Pontyan analysis (think of Vivian Sobchak proposal) would state that eroticism and desire are also “directly” elicited by a bodily sensation embodied in the film’s sensual features. The film incorporates the desire in its own body and expresses itself a vitality experienced by the spectator in a sinaesthetic modality. Let us take into consideration two significant contemporary film kissing scenes: The Reader (by Stephen Daldry, 2008) and Atonement (by Joe Wright, 2007).

In The Reader, a 36-year-old woman (Kate Winslet) seduces and begins an affair with a 15-year-old boy (David Kross). The kiss represent the overture of their sexual relationship. The erotic charge felt by the spectator depends on his/her cognitive activity – s/he suspects or even desire something – since the narrative development and the characters’ behaviour suggest. Nevertheless, most of the desire is elicited by the bodily and sensible features of scene construction. The whole scene is represented with two single, still shots. The woman’s lips are gently kissing the boy’s shoulder. Her hands touch his body, out of frame. Their first physical encounter was initiated by her as she stood behind him and realized his sexual excitement; she bluntly stated: “So that’s why you came back”… We have nudity, skin contact and touch. The reduced distance is not expressed only by bodies’ posture but also by a hidden tactility and, above all, by acoustic elements: the water dripping, the intense breathing, the voices whispering, and the silence in the background.

In Atonement, privileged Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley) and “secret” boyfriend, servant/cook son Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) first physically expressed their unbridled erotic love for each other with passionate kisses and a confession of love. The passionate meeting in the library begins, as does in The Reader, with the nude back of the female character. This case is more complex than the previous, since it presents a combination of shots and camera movements. The trajectories of characters’ gazes direct our gaze to her fleshy, pulsing, half-open lips, at the exact centre of both her face and the frame. She retreats, but the camera advances. Hand-held camera is used, along with out-of-focus, close-up and extreme close-up shots (his hand on her skin, her knee, her foot taking off her shoe). Their intimate contact is embodied through semi-lit lighting that both reveals and hides their faces, the intensification of breathing, and a series of shots focused on body parts in the act of taking something off: his hand taking off her clothes, her foot taking off the shoe, and so on.

In brief, nudity, skin contact, visible or hidden touch, intensification of breathing, softening of voices, sense of taste and smell, characters’ gaze trajectories directed to the lips, out-of-focus close-up, semi-lit lighting, single body parts isolated in extreme close-shot and so on… are part of the bodily mediation of film, an embodiment of elements that directly express a sense of corporality, sensibility, desire in the language of cinematic representation.

An experimental-psychological approach
All these theoretical perspectives are necessary but not sufficient for an exhaustive comprehension of the cinematic kiss. Desire and arousal depends on but are not fully explicable in terms of narrative logic, neuro-physiological reactions, aesthetic embodiment, libido, repressed wishes etc. I propose a further psychological approach. My hypothesis is that, in some effective cases, when watching a kissing scene, we experience a more radical fact. We experience an inter-subjective relationship, a reciprocal dependence between two moving and interacting entities that not necessarily correspond to human bodies. To understand the nature of spectator’s desire we need to analyze the relationship between desiring subjects. Working on this hypothesis, I want to recall two very classic experimental psychology demonstrations that have been proposed in the ’40s.

Psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel demonstration on “social illusion” (1943): a simple film animation in which bidimensional shapes move around and into a box and they asked observers to describe what they saw (the experiment is better described here). The majority of observers did not just see the random movements of shapes; they saw “pursuit”, “planning”, “escaping”, “chasing”: they developed elaborate stories, plots about a big-bad triangle who has a fight with a couple (a circle and a little triangle) in love. This study showed that the movements of basic shapes cause automatic animistic perceptions. The observers spontaneously endowed the geometric figures, on the basis of their motions, with human properties, they are anthropomorphic and they even have emotions.

The tendency to see human elements in non-human forms has been explained in 1946 by psychologist Albert Michotte in a series of experiments on the perception (or attribution) of causality. Michotte devised an elaborate mechanical apparatus that allowed him to manipulate the animation of two abstract shapes on a screen. The observers perceive a cause-effect correlation between the two movements, even though they know that they are separate.

[or see flash animation at this web page]

Although quite rudimental, these pioneeristic experiments prove for the first time anthropomorphism and causality effects of moving images. These effects do not seem to be affected by the nature of the object involved. Even abstract figures and shapes can express “human” behavior and interact as if they were human in a narrative situation. Or rather, in front of mere images, the spectators have an endemic tendency to ascribe human, narrative and intentional features. Humanlikeness and causality mean narrative and relationship.

References and critical resources on perception of causality

Causality of desire
Now, in some particularly effective drama films kissing sequences, the lips condense the whole lived-body vitality, the whole expressive charge of the body in the act loving or desiring. I propose to conceive of the lips as an “outpost” or a “vanguard” of the whole body. We need to get abstract for a moment, and to leave the characters’ whole bodies aside. Try to conceive of the filmic kiss as a scene in which individual body parts (the lips), act as corporeal characters in a bodily, narrative and socially autonomous, local  context that is connected to, but independent from, the global-bodily and global-narrative context.

Back to our examples. Now let us concentrate on the “reciprocal behavior” of the lips. Try to see them as they were the blue and red balls or the small triangle and the circle.

In The Reader, initially, the lips are distant, they seem to see each other at a distance. The same happens when the blue triangle turns and comes very close to the red circle. They behave very differently: the circle is looking and waiting for the triangle, and the triangle is indecisive, doubtful, timorous, embarrassed. After the circle approach, the figures come softly in contact. They re-distance themselves from each other for a while, and then the triangle flings himself upon the circle, attacking it, causing its defensive reaction. After a moment of recharging, there is a new contact, the kiss starts again, now softer. The point is that the reciprocal behaviour of the lips expresses the personality of the characters: the boys’ ingenuity, shyness, embarrassment, impetuosity, curiosity; and the woman’s maturity, intriguing, ambiguity, affliction, orderliness.

Also in Atonement (Joe Wright, 2007) the kiss is “loaded” at a distance, but here occurs with an impetus and suddenly stops. There is a pause, a moment of recharging. Her lips makes three or four moves, closer and closer to him, “inviting” his lips, assenting, and, at the same time, tending toward his lips, preparing a new kiss, now softer, sweeter and longer.

In these (and many other) cases, the lips of the two characters seek each other, slip away from each other, escape, meet, hesitate, get closer and move away. This oscillation between seeking contact and re-distancing, this “sustained undecidability” generates a strong sexual effect in the observer. The lips behave as if they were the lovers, they perform a “courtship dance”, they are protagonist of a “tiny love story”. We feel the desire that such a relationship emanates. We experience this relationship, this reciprocity, the tension that precedes the contact and progressively increases, the nexus of causality between movements we ascribe to entities that behave as human beings. Hence, even in situations in which human bodies interact with each other on the screen, the involvement is obtained by the reciprocal behaviour of “perceived human entities”. Cinematic desire founds its psychological roots in the inadvertent perception of causality and sociality, in the perceived inter-action of two bodies (the lips, as far as we concern), the reciprocal necessity of their existence.

II – The (video) art of kissing

What happens in video art? What happens in a case in which bodily interaction does not obey the logic of narration and psychical realism? That is, in a case in which sensorial and sensible layers of the experience are connected to auto-reflexivity, meta-linguistic discourse, social and ideological denounce? Video art works are counterexamples of the dynamic of generation of cinematic desire experience. Is causality still effective? What if the body disappears? What if the lips are not the fleshly part of the character’s fleshly body anymore?

Let us take into consideration a corpus of significant recent video art works – First Kiss by Costel Chirila and Ioan Pricop (2005), The Kiss by Denise Callender, Neil Hunt and Kye Wilson (2006), and Le baiser/Il bacio by Luca Serasini (2006).

First Kiss (Costel Chirila – Ioan Pricop, 2005)

The video First Kiss (by Costel Chirila and Ioan Pricop, 2005) was presented to a Romanian local exhibition (“Rainbow days”) with subject of non-discrimination and tries to deconstruct the concept of sexuality given by TV and mass-media. The video presents different types of relationship between human beings: male-male, female-female and male-female (in the first two cases, rather than homosexuality we could speak about auto-sexuality, since the two characters are the same person. Or rather, the double: shadow into itself). The body has vanished or hidden into its shadow projected onto a withe sheet. These representational solution has the effect of reducing humanness. The de-corporealization is augmented by the suspension of emotional expression. The physical contact has vanished into the reciprocal and symmetrical going through. Unexpressive shadows pass through unexpressive shadows. These bodies, undressed of their corporeality, negative of themselves, deprived of their material consistency do not actually encounter or embrace each other (in the case of medium shot), nor they kiss each other (in the case of close-up). The co-penetration of vanishing bodies suggests loneliness, incommunicability, indifference, incapability of influencing the other.

The kiss, or what we perceive as such due to the protrusion of lips and their apparent approaching, does not actually happen. There is no increasing tension, no “desire loading”, no contact and discharge of energy, and no re-charging. As it were, the triangles does not actually interact with the circle. They just go through each other and move over, they ignore each other. There is no reciprocal influence, and no perceived causality. Or rather, the spectator experiences a non-causality effect. The failed mutual dependence is anyway perceived in the form of goal-oriented movement that, nevertheless, at the very last moment, lose its goal. The aesthetic experience of an anaesthetic situation. This happens because the body are only shadows, images. In fact, the figure of “nude” shadow immediately refers to the immateriality of images and the cinematic medium, meaning the impossible contact of fictional bodies, the impossibility of an actual involvement. And though, they communicate a reversibility, both in the Merleau-Pontyan and the Gestaltic meaning: it is a moving reversible figure.

The Kiss (Denise Callender – Neil Hunt – Kye Wilson, 2006)

The excerpt The Kiss from the The Kiss series, a set of five 60 second video pieces by Denise Callender, Neil Hunt and Kye Wilson (2006), is inspired by dreams, nightmares and surrealist philosophy. It is explicit the reference to the painting Les amants by René Magritte, which inspires also a passage of the last movie by Agnés Varda Las Plages d’Agnés (2008).

The Kiss explores the theme of love subverting its nature. The kissers’ heads are veiled by white sheets that literally envelope them, not only covering their body, but also hiding their identity, or, rather, neglecting it. (Actually, the sexual identity is revealed by the arms, that are not veiled: we can guess their gender from the form and size of hands and fingers and from the colour of the skin: a male and a female). The veil simultaneously keeps separated and gets in touch two intangible bodies, which frantically seek to catch and grasp each other. Two animated mannequins – two ghosts – are kissing, embraced in a fluid and silky movement. Such a fluidity is heighten by the music and the insistent cross-fade, which in this case is not only evoked, but used as an aesthetic solution. Moreover, this anonymous closeness, the continuity of effusion, the superimposition of vanishing images con-fuses the structure of the kiss. As the two artists affirmed, these are «images that only exist in the darker regions of the subconscious… […] Reason and moral narrative are ignored to allow the work to develop in both the imagination of its creators and of its audience, permitting an absence of conscious moral or aesthetic self-censorship». Even in this case, the presence of a filter, a separation surface depotentiates the sensual nature of the kiss and weakens or even erases both sociality and causality. And nevertheless, at least part of the tension of desire remains in the superimposition, just in the middle of the video, of the two non-human beings approaching, in that coming closer and closer and that re-destancing.

Le baiser/Il bacio (Luca Serasini, 2006)


In the French/Italian video Le baiser/Il bacio by Luca Serasini (2006) a woman and a men alternately kiss with their eyes closed… They apparently do not kiss anyone, since we see their lips pushed onto an invisible surface. We can hypotize they are kissing in two different temporal frames or they are simply imagining to kiss the other. Or rather, they are located in the same temporal and spatial frame, but the action is cut along a vertical section just in the point where their lips. The actor are one in front of the other, and we alternately see the former and the latter. It is the only way the spectator has to clearly see the lips while kissing. In a way, we are those that are kissed, and we are invited to kiss. The actors’ lips “meet” only in the moments of the slow cross fades. The superimposition of lips generates the kiss. The narrative sense of the video is given by the words. We hear a female voice addressed to him while she is kissing, and a male voice addressed to her while he is kissing – love words at the beginning, hate words in the end. But the kiss goes ahead with no relation with the words.

The shadow, the veil, the glass

Free from the narrative and commercial constraints, video art put in play the kiss in order to deconstruct the usual and common concept of private inter-subjective relationships. Shadowing, fading, veiling are concrete representational strategies of weakening or even neglecting of both physical and social humanlikeness. And nevertheless, as we have seen, the spectator does not necessarily need mimetic bodies in order to perceive or infer humanlikess. Nor expression depends only on facial mimic. What actually lacks – what is deliberately denied – is the relational mutual dependence between the kissing or desiring subjects on the screen. Such a lack is based on the infringement of the institutional patterns of spectator involvement (those that, in narrative cinema, succeed in eliciting desire in the spectator). In fact, the elements came to light from the analysis of the two videos have consequences on both attribution of causality and social illusion. What the spectator perceives is the avoiding of a connection between movement and movement, between cause and effect. Bodies do not resist each other and, therefore, do not generate energy. We have going through instead of contact, penetration instead of opposition, con-fusion instead of correlation and an extreme emphasis on time and its de-naturalization. The bodies are displayed together onto the screen, but they do not actually communicate with each other. Rather, fundamental and decisive for the spectator involvement is the opportunity to experience a relationship an inter-subjective relationship, a meaningful contact, a spark shot out of the cinematic kiss. The (video) art of kissing helps us to understand the psychological nature of cinema.