Thrill of the still: How an image from Wong Kar-wai's art-house hit keeps you gazing

But a still photograph taken from a movie (or more likely on a movie set) can engrave itself in the consciousness—collective or personal—long after the film it touts has become a blur. David Thomson has written of Marilyn Monroe being "funnier, sexier, more mysterious and protected against being" in stills than on film. "And still pictures may yet triumph over movies in the history of the media. For stills are more available to the imagination." But memorable movie stills have been few and far between over the decades, perhaps because they counter the illusion of movement and, therefore, the oneiric spirit of cinema: You cannot freeze-frame a dream.

Unlike in moving pictures, however, the stasis in stills leaves the beholder to do all the work, as Bernardo Bertolucci recognized when he had the young Parisian movie buff Theo (Louis Garrel) masturbate over the Dietrich still in The Dreamers. The sight of that epochal image glistening with semen was sacrilegious, though not so far from the likely use of the Lola Lola postcards passed around by Professor Rath's students in The Blue Angel. In any case, it caught the inviolability of Dietrich's sublime indifference and the sadomasochistic passivity of Theo and Emil Jannings's repressed Rath. Not that Dietrich herself thought much of the still. "Those pictures of me sitting on that barrel—they sell them all over the place and everybody's mad about it and all the rest," she groused in Maximilian Schell's 1984 documentary Marlene.

The tension between disdain and come-on in the Zhang still crystallizes not only the film's vision of her but also the irresolvable theoretical debate about images of beautiful women in movies that arose after Mulvey disparaged the patriarchal system's promotion of the male gaze in her polemical 1975 paper "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." She argued that the objectified female's lack of a penis implied "a threat of castration and hence unpleasure" for the male viewer: "Thus the woman as icon, displayed for the gaze and enjoyment of men . . . always threatens to evoke the anxiety it originally signified."

Ziyi Zhang as Bai Ling in 2046
photo: Wing Shya/courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Ziyi Zhang as Bai Ling in 2046

Mulvey added that the male unconscious deals with this anxiety either by demystifying the woman's mystery, which "has associations with sadism: pleasure lies in ascertaining guilt . . . asserting control and subjecting the guilty person through punishment or forgiveness," or through "fetishistic scopophilia, which builds up the physical beauty of the object, transforming it into something satisfying in itself" (and explains the cult of the movie star). Although this thesis has been challenged for not taking into account female or gay spectatorship, "fetishistic scopophilia" is very clearly a tool of both Sternberg (who turned Dietrich into "the ultimate fetish . . . in direct erotic rapport with the spectator") and Wong, who in 2046 offers the voyeuristic Chow as an identification figure for male viewers gazing on Zhang as she preens solipsistically in her room prior to receiving her punishment through heartbreak.

But this is to talk about the movies, not the stills, which despite their fixity are as slippery as morals. Dietrich may seem pliant reclining on the keg, but she's looking up and out of the frame at the unseen figure of the simpering Rath, whose humiliation and death she will inspire. Her sexual independence is not prideful, merely insouciant. Zhang, on the other hand, oozes sexual arrogance, but it's a pose: Chow knows she has the emotional integrity of a kitten. The irony is that Dietrich's Lola Lola, for all her tawdry lingerie, wears the pants (and the top hat); three-quarters of a century on, Zhang's Bai Ling is an evolutionary throwback and a feminist's nightmare— but still worth a look.

Graham Fuller is Sunday arts editor at the Daily News and film columnist for Interview .

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