Offering it up

Curator's Note

Is there such a thing as sexy editing?

We shall do this question the honor of taking it seriously. Some questions stand naked on the floor, meeting your gaze, and it is the essence of every ethics that I care about that those who take such a risk at any time—beings and questions alike—are owed, in response, at minimum, the respect of being considered. Obviously, to laugh under such circumstances would be barbaric.

So, is there such a thing as sexy editing? No less a theorist than Roland Barthes took this matter as a genuine provocation, writing in his eponymous experiment Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes: “the sexiness of a body (which is not its beauty) inheres in the fact that it is possible to discern (to fantasize) in it the erotic practice to which one subjects it in thought (I conceive of this particular practice, specifically, and of no other).”[1] Those bodies, of whom, one can, for example, imagine them, easily, at ease, looking up, from a floor directly facing, knee joint geometry at give or take ninety degrees, cervical spine tilting, drool running lip to clavicle, a postural assemblage discernable even when said bodies remain upright; even when they are in public, declaiming professionally; even when they are solemn, brow-furrowed, at writing. “Similarly,” he continues, “distinguished within the text, one might say that there are sexy sentences: disturbing by their very isolation as if they possessed the promise which is made to us, the readers, by a linguistic practice, as if we were to seek them out by virtue of a pleasure which knows what it wants [en vertu d’une jouissance qui sait ce qu’elle veut].”[2]

Must we merely, then, hunt down a cinematic grammar distinguished by being possessed of some promise “which is made to us” to conclude that there could be such a thing as sexy editing? But would this not risk an immediate translation to some already exhausted formal discourse? What is a promise made to us, after all, other than one account of style?

Not that style is wholly irrelevant here. In the passage immediately preceding the entry on Le sexy, Barthes considers a Projet d’un livre sur la sexualité, imagining “the idea of a book (or of a film) in which there would be, in this way, nothing but secondary sex characteristics (nothing pornographic); in it one would grasp (would try to grasp) the sexual ‘personality’ of each body, which is neither its beauty nor even its ‘sexiness’ but the way in which each sexuality immediately lets itself be read.”[3] La facon dont chaque sexualité s’offre immédiatement à lire:[4] the gesture of complete submission is rather stronger in the French than merely what “lets itself” be read. S’offre: awaits, unfolds, presents itself, opens itself up, offers itself. A slight but crucial distinction: A allows (permits, grants) B’s hand to remain when it grazes the side of A’s thigh in the cinema, versus A, endowed with more than sufficient legroom in their seat, nevertheless shifts to the side, extends and displays the closest limb, even at the cost of a newly uncomfortable position, offering a thigh up to a new proximity to and new possibility in re B’s hand. We have all, probably, done both at different times, and know, I’m sure, the difference.

How does this possibility of a “sexualité lisible”—that lets itself be read; that offers itself up to be read—relate to those sentences possessed of “the promise which is made to us […] as if we were to seek them out by virtue of a pleasure which knows what it wants,” and how might an editing be imagined which offers itself up to be read and could thus be said to be likewise sexy? Crucially, Barthes does not write that there are sexy words—this would be an entirely different discussion. (And would primarily be about those syllables most luscious to velum and jaw; as in, “the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth.”[5]) Le sexy, matter of the sentence, is, rather, a problem of morphology, system, set, structure, involves main and subordinate clauses, consists of, as the Cambridge Dictionary has it, “a group of words, usually containing a verb, that expresses a thought in the form of a statement, question, instruction, or exclamation”—unfurling the further question of whether the pleasure that knows what it wants and offers itself up to be read is most pronounced by group, verb, statement, question, instruction, or exclamation—(one can imagine answering affirmatively for every one, and also for all). Already sensual for the way in which the sentence expresses sense (triplet spawn of sentire), the carnality of Barthes’s sentences is marked twice: for the assertive thought expressed therein and for the secondary declaration that runs: Read me now.

What, grammatically, in cinematic form—of which we are still wondering: could there be a sexy instance thereof—is equivalent to a sentence? This is no simple matter. Whether the linguistic word is a precise equivalent to the cinematic shot, with montage playing the structural role of the sentence, is an enormous debate in the history of film theory. (At stake: whether editing is a question of syntax or of grammar.) Pudovkin: pro. Metz: con. Carroll: wrong question. At minimum, we can proceed from Metz’s general insistence that any linguistic approach adequate to cinematic textuality would need to be one centered on “a wider syntagmatic frame of reference (a phrase, a clause, a sentence)” rather than one whose foundational unit is the lexeme.[6] Grappling with our central question does not require a strict adherence to analogy, only the willingness to consider what in the formal specificity of a case of montage might intimate that pleasure which knows what it wants, which offers itself up.

Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike (2012): consider Channing Tatum’s dance/striptease to “Pony” at the approximate midpoint of the film. But try to set aside all those things I would do to you, bracket the reversal of the desiring/desired protagonists of 1970s feminist gaze theory; focus on editing and editing alone. Brooke ventures to the club where her younger brother has started stripping and heeds the titular Mike’s invitation to stay to watch him perform. The subsequent two-minute set piece is constructed around a strict back-and-forth alternation of shot regimes—system A is Brooke’s watching face in, at first, a medium close-up, in the hazy yellow palette that saturates the film everywhere but on the dancers’ stage; system B is Mike in, at first, long shots, on stage, dancing (rolling, rippling, grinding, flipping, &c.) to Ginuwine, in the metallic blue palette that is affiliated with the performance space (architecturally and, let us say, existentially). Both central figures are often nearly in darkness. The découpage of this sequence is complex, but above all it notates two things: a stark difference between the two shot systems and a mutually-affecting change to both systems over time in relation to rhythm. For the first minute and a half, the exchanges are durationally and compositionally asymmetrical: extremely short (2-3 second) single medium close-up shots of Brooke watching Mike, alternate with significantly longer (25-27 second) sequences of Mike dancing and disrobing in both long shot and, canted from below left or right, medium long shots. This pairing occurs three times. But at the ninety second point, the pattern changes, returning to B (system Mike) for half as long as previously (10 seconds), and then returning to A (system Brooke) for twice as long as previously (now 5-6 seconds) and in the first (and in her case, only) reframing to a tighter close-up on her watching face. From this point on, the shots of Mike will get progressively shorter (10, then 8, then 5 seconds) and the shots of Brooke will get longer (3, then 5, then 6 seconds). The final five shots of the sequence find a rapid-fire durational equality, each alternating shot lasting exactly one second: my notes read, 45.03 A, 45.04 B, 45.05 A, 45.06 B, 45.07 A—and then Brooke leaves both club and frame.

So of course the question is: is this some kind of formal dirty joke? Is editing evoking, suggesting, somatically replicating something sexual? (Though what, precisely, that would be is not entirely clear: some types of sexual practice pick up speed—but some, most assuredly, do not, slowing to a crawl as things get interesting.) Early on, Soderbergh’s film does articulate an entire theory of sex as a theory of thrusting—which is to say as a theory of penetration, which is really to say as a matter of punctuation (in other words, a theory of intervalic form)—in a scene in which Dallas, the club owner, instructs his newest apprentice that stripteasing is waiting, delaying, prolonging, that only when the time is right—you’ll know it, goes his mystical promise—only then, knocking his pelvis forward, “Stick it! That right there is like hitting the G-spot, every single time.” But the editing in the sequence in question is precisely not about a one-time eruption after forms of delay. The syntax of this editing is not climactic so much as accelerative. (Not a narrative arc, but a metrical change. Its interest in variance hews closer to Barthes, “No progress in pleasures, nothing but mutations.”)[7] If evocative of a bodily vacillation, the rapidity of the brief shot exchanges at the end suggests something more akin to the reciprocity of Abramovic and Ulay’s Breathing in / Breathing out (1977): which, kneeling figures, mouths pressed firmly together, nostrils blocked, undoubtedly does not take us out of the realm of the sexual, but nevertheless does not nominate what aspect the montage would be suggestive of beyond a vague sense that sex is involved there somewhere, somehow.

If rhythm is the aesthetic meta-language of sex—and I’m prepared to defend that, if called upon—the erotic, in this sequence in Magic Mike, is manifested not through an analogy between editing’s alternation of parties and some reductive logic of copulation, but in the way in which editing puts in relation multiple rhythmic elements simultaneously—the slowness of Mike’s body rolls against the quickness of his footwork; the asymmetry of the shot lengths and their diagrammatic reversal; the rapid-fire equivalence of durationally-matched alternating shots, &c. Editing exposes itself here formally as the capacity for rhythmic variation, for setting in place patterns and then for the plastic capacity to alter them in as many ways as it wants.

This particular, isolated instance of editing, in other words, presents itself as that which can have read in it the total possibilities for editing in general. It allows itself to have discovered in it (passive voice intentional) something abstractly, aesthetically resonant that might also be abstractly, aesthetically resonant in sexual practice. And yet, it does not overtly declare what that something is or might be. In offering itself up to be read as nothing but a self-showing formal construction, editing here also exposes a demand to consider what, on the level of aesthetic form, could isomorphically suggest something of sexual [practices, pleasures, gestures, rhythms]. Editing thereby poses the same question as Mike’s performances writ large: of any striptease, is this thing that I am watching in any way equivalent to sexual [practices, pleasures, &c.]? Is it like sex (analogous, mimetic, substitutive)? Is it provocative or seductive for sex (instrumental, arousing—e.g., juices flowing down your thigh)? Is it radically divorced from sex (ridiculous, pathetic, anesthetizing, wholly un-erotic)? The dancer’s performance, like cinematic form, is not sex yet offers itself willingly up in order to be read in relation to sex, yet without guaranteeing or assuring any particular reading or any particular pleasure. It has something to do with sex if, of course, what one wants out of sex (at least sometimes) is an aesthetic encounter with as many pleasures as possible despite the fact that their meaning to you—the very you who sought them out in the first place—cannot be fully known in advance. The “promise which is made to us” by way of the particular formal construction of this sequence in Magic Mike is merely that of a maximally visible encounter with editing’s capacity to unconceal varying speeds, durations, changes in emphasis, asymmetries, equivalences—to alter any durational schema it also sets in place—“as if we were to seek them out by virtue of a pleasure which knows what it wants.” (Vulnerability of such a disclosure: there is nowhere to hide.) The form that would offer itself up, that would expose itself to exactly this meditation, letting one discern in it an interest in these aesthetic pleasures even at the cost of all of disclosure’s humiliations: well yes, I do think I would answer, yes, there could be such a thing as sexy editing; yes.


[1] Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes [Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes], translated by Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977) 164.

[2] “De même, distinguées dans le texte, on dirait qu’il y a des phrases sexy: des phrases troublantes par leur isolement même, comme si elles détenaient la promesse qui nous est faite à nous, lecteurs, d’une pratique langagière, comme si nous allions les chercher en vertu d’une jouissance qui sait ce qu’elle veut.” Barthes, Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes (Paris: Seuil, 1975) 167.

[3] Barthes, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, 164.

[4] Barthes, Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, 167.

[5] Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (London: Penguin, 2015 [1955]) 1.

[6] Christian Metz, The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and Cinema I [Le signifiant imaginaire: Psychanalyse et Cinéma], translated by Celia Britton, Ben Brewster, et al. (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1982 [1977]) 214. For a broader discussion, see “The Problem of the Word” (212-228) in Metz, The Imaginary Signifier.

For Metz, the application of the insights of the linguistic turn to cinema named the fundamental difficulty for any theorization of film, writing that it is “constantly ‘haunted’ by the word, as a visible or invisible presence which distorts so many discussions” (Metz, The Imaginary Signifier, 213). In Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema, he is even more emphatic: “A rich message with a poor code, or a rich text with a poor system, the cinematographic image is primarily speech. It is all assertion. The word, which is the unit of language, is missing; the sentence, which is the unit of speech, is supreme. The cinema can speak only in neologisms. Every image is a hapax.” Christian Metz, Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema, trans. Michael Taylor (New York: Oxford, 1974 [1968]) 69.

[7] Barthes, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, 50.

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