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  • The Effects of Viewing: Caravaggio, Bacon, and The Ring
  • Davide Panagia

The mind is a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance; pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations.

David Hume1

“A blurred shadow. What we have here is the persistence of vision. And as you watch, don’t you get an incredible sense of immediacy, as if you’re actually a participant in the scene?” This is the conclusion Ryuji reaches after viewing the cryptic and disturbing series of images in Koji Suzuki’s novel The Ring that is the basis for the hugely successful Japanese Ringu trilogy as well as it’s American counterparts, The Ring and The Ring Two.2 Ryuji continues: “There are things we see with our eyes, but there are also scenes we conjure up in our minds. And since these don’t pass through the retina, there’s no blinking involved. But when we actually look with our eyes the images are formed according to the strength of the light that hits the retina. And to keep the retina from drying out, we blink, unconsciously. The black curtain is the instant when the eyes shut.”3

The explanation comes at a crucial moment in the novel when Ryuji and Asakawa (the main character, investigative journalist, and father whose wife and child have also seen the tape) begin to understand that the film they have been exposed to, and hence the virus that has infected them and that will kill them within a week’s time, is not simply a camera recording. Indeed, as Ryuji insists in a thoroughly Humean fashion, what they’ve viewed and become participant in through this viewing is a mental image imprinted on the filmic patina. The crucial component in this discovery, then, is not the progression of images at all but “the black curtain” made noticeable when the film is slowed down and its successive stream interrupted. The black curtain is the blink, an irrational cut made palpable when the eyes shut.4 It is this crucial insight (the pun is unavoidable) that shocks the main characters to the point of nausea. What they are viewing is not so much a succession of images but the process of celluloid impression as it occurs in the mind of the film maker. It is a moment of haptic visuality that differs in important ways from mere ‘seeing.’

The novel’s cinematic auteur, it turns out, is a young woman (Sadako Yamamura) who was raped and murdered by the last man in Japan to have been exposed to the smallpox virus; after raping her, he disposes of her by throwing her in a well.5 The combination of the shock of the rape, the moment of death, the moment of viral infection, and the documented telekinetic powers of Sadako combine in a instance of release (one could even say of birth) so violent and fantastical that the last things that pass through her mind become impressed on the “pestilential videotape.”6 It might seem, then, that the point of the novel and subsequently the first movie (The Ring) is to unveil, witness to, and recount this event of impression. After all, the narrative appears to be a sub-genre of the detective fiction. But this conclusion could be true if and only if we were to remain in a regime of visuality governed by an allegorical reading of the plot. Yet the themes of filmic exposure and viral infection through viewing — and, indeed, the fact that what “cures” the curse is not the discovery of and witnessing to murder but rather the reproduction and dissemination of the film — complicate if not negate entirely the allegorical reading. Asakawa is explicit about this: “No video camera recorded those images,” he explains. “Those images are things that Sadako saw with her eyes and things she imagined in her head, fragments presented one after another with nothing to contextualize them.”7 It’s almost as if the narrative of investigative journalism (the sub-genre of the detective fiction in question) is being trumped in the novel and films by insisting on what Louis...

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