Trompe-l'oeil is only apparently realistic. It is in fact linked to the self-evidence of the world, with such meticulous likeness that it becomes magical.—Jean Baudrillard, Photographies
I show you my tricks. Would I have done that if I wanted to fool you? I would not. Well, then, why can't you give me credit for being honest?—Madame LaGrange in The Thirteenth Chair
In advancing a critical appraisal of the cinema of Tod Browning, it is difficult to ignore the obvious biographical connection between the director's films and his youthful experience as a magician's assistant and showman in the American carnival sideshow circuit. Browning's films reference the dark interior of such traveling attractions not only in their subject matter (most notably in the director's 1932 film Freaks (US)), but also in their unveiling of a "backstage view" as an implicitly interesting subject for viewers of Hollywood film.1 In films such as The Unholy Three (US, 1925), The Unknown (US, 1927), and The Thirteenth Chair (US, 1929), Browning's characters engage in various deceptive schemes, but in each case the film reveals to the viewer precisely how the deception is accomplished. At such moments, Browning's films can be understood as the very antithesis of the magician's code—always revealing the secret behind the deception. But while it is easy to connect the director's personal history with his films' carnival milieu, very little has been done to theorize the structure and function of Browning's demystifying revelations. In this essay, I draw upon Jacques Lacan's discussion of trompe l'oeil [End Page 60] in order to identify a pervasive motif within the Browning oeuvre, a repetition in which the director gestures beyond the ostensible truth of cinema's costumed realism, confronting viewers with the limitations of his actors' own bodies—limitations that exist both in- and outside the story world of his films. Replicating the leisurely, self-directed pace necessary for a trompe l'oeil painting to have its effect, Browning allows his narratives to momentarily "stall out," calling attention to the one-to-one correspondence between his characters' size, shape and stature, and the undisguisable materiality of his actors' real bodies. The result is a visual paradox. The onscreen appearances of "master of disguise" Lon Chaney, for instance, or of little person Harry Earles (disguised as a two-year-old child in The Unholy Three), captivate audiences not because their costumes succeed in fooling us, but precisely because they immediately and manifestly fail to deceive the eye. In a series of game-like diversions comparable to the pleasures of trompe l'oeil—a hyperrealistic genre of painting, anchored not in the success of mimesis but its failure—the director invites a remarkably self-directed form of enjoyment, permitting viewers to re-deceive themselves in the context of a revealed deception. Browning repeatedly invites his viewers to press beyond the passive acceptance of cinematic realism, instead ensnaring audiences in the convolutions of a "trick"—an inherently reflexive strategy that seduces audiences precisely by making them aware that they are being fooled.
In his 1964 seminar entitled "What is a Picture?" Jacques Lacan addresses the subject's pleasure in trompe l'oeil:
What is it that attracts and satisfies us in trompe l'oeil? When is it that it captures our attention and delights us? At the moment when, by a mere shift of our gaze, we are able to realize that the representation does not move with the gaze and that it is merely a tricking of the eye. For it appears at that moment as something other than it seemed, or rather it now seems to be that something else.2
In encountering an instance of trompe l'oeil, the viewer pauses, in effect mentally "toying" with the self-evident falsity of the image. But whereas such contemplation would seem to undermine a viewer's ability to suspend disbelief (and accept realism), I understand Browning's trompes l'oeil not as subverting, but as in fact stabilizing the viewer's relation to the director's frequently hyperbolic content. Browning's films permit us not...