Fixing the Viewer




I’m thinking of films that feature a character fixing the viewer with a gaze.  There seems to be intent on the filmmakers’ part to be inclusive of viewers.  To make viewers part of the experience of the film in an intellectual or emotional way beyond voyeurism or escapism.

This is distinct from POV shots where one character is looking at another character who is represented by the camera for a moment.  Hitchcock frequently used that POV shot (e.g. Kim Novak’s Judy emerging from the bathroom in her Madeleine dress and hairdo, looking directly at Scottie/the camera — but not really at the viewer in any deliberately challenging, accusatory, or inclusive way).

In 12 Years a Slave, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Soloman Northup at one point surveys the night horizon in despair.  And his gaze at one point (unless I’m mistaken) meets our gaze as we watch him.  He is not looking at a character.  He is looking out at us as part of that horizon.  Is director Steve McQueen using the shot to help us understand just how alone Northup is, or just how culpable we are as a society, how barbaric the human race can be to its own?  To me, that’s the very emotional center of the film, the point that indicts us and dares us to look away.

In Chris Marker’s La Jetee, “the woman” (Hélène Chatelain) sleeps in a series of dim still photographs.  Just as we are lulled into calm sleep ourselves, the film slips in a still photo of Chatelain with eyes open, looking directly at us.  It’s possible that she is indeed looking at “the man” (Davos Hanich) whose memory we are viewing, but I think it’s more likely that her gaze is meant to show the viewer something about the magic and fallibility of memory.  That the film comprises only still photographs* seems to support this.  Memory is subjective and subject to fixed images and sensibilities.  *The one exception to the reliance on still photographs is a startling moment.  Just as we are looking at Chatelain’s eyes in that dim light, when she had just a moment before been sleeping, when we are fully sold on the idea that we’ll only being viewing still photographs, she blinks at us in real time.  She blinks.  I got a chill from it.  That moment underscores our involvement in the interaction.

In Marker’s San Soleil, the camera persona fixes several people in the center of the frame in close-up or medium shot, and practically dares them to stare back.  One strikingly beautiful woman does so, at first shyly, and then gradually more boldly.  The narrator remarks on the woman’s transformation.  We form a relationship with her in those moments.  She is not looking at a character, except that the camera may be the main character of the film.  But the camera means to be the viewer’s proxy.  The film is not exactly fiction, but it’s not exactly documentary either.  It’s a visual essay that encourages us to make connections and see the human face as more than a front.

In Bergman’s Persona, the camera fixes on silent Elisabet (Liv Ullmann) as she listens and reacts to the accusations of her nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson).  For nearly ten minutes, we see only Elisabet’s face and hear only Alma’s voice.  And then, remarkably, the scene is replayed from start to finish, this time with the camera fixed upon Alma’s face.  In those shots, Elisabet looks at Alma, and Alma at Elisabet, and so the camera is subjective.  But then the two women’s faces are abruptly sliced in half and matched together along the line of the nose.  The left side is Alma’s face; the right is Elisabet’s.  It’s an arresting shot, and the resulting face meld is at once grotesque and fascinatingly coherent as a single face.  The women are not twins in appearance, but with their hair pulled behind them and their complexions normalized in black and white they could pass for clones.  And that is part of the point.  One woman (the talker) loses herself in the interaction with the other woman (the listener, the actress who has made a life of siphoning identities).  In that melding shot, both women look at us, the viewer, and not at each other.  We are looking at the loss and gain of persona.



American Hustle and Breathless (thumbnail reviews)

Seberg & Belmondo; Adams and Bale

Adams and Bale


Seberg and Belmondo










Adams and Bale negotiate in pure heat and desperation.  Physically counter-intuitive as a couple, yet they come from similar psychic places.  They play by others’ rules grudgingly but turn the game on its head until they’re back on top.  The losers in this film are not the ones you might predict.

Belmondo & Seberg negotiate in crosstalk, jibes, & dry kisses.  He smokes, makes faces.  She smiles radiantly at him, at the camera.  It’s a Star-crossed love story.  He just happens to be on the run from the law and infatuated with American gangsterism.

Three quick reviews

teresa wright & dana andrews - the best years of our lives 1946The Best Years of Our Lives– I finally saw this one after having it on my obligation list.  I had it in my head that it would be insufferable war propaganda, like some Capra movies.  But almost immediately I knew it is much more than that because Frederic March is so droll and because Myrna Loy’s obvious devotion to him means that he MUST be deserving of her.  And it turns out he is.  Dana Andrews is the center, and just as in Laura he’s solid playing a compellingly flawed man.  Teresa Wright’s character Peggy saves Andrews’ Fred when his ill-conceived marriage ends (or maybe she helps it end).  When Peggy comforts Fred through his PTSD nightmare, I think I loved her, too.  Hoagy Carmichael’s character Uncle Butch is fun.

Osaka Elegy– my first Kenji Mizoguchi film.  I loved the camera movement.  I can appreciate that it was probably revolutionary for its time because of the way the camera stalked the characters and moved with them and abandoned them.  The story didn’t exactly captivate.

Sweet Smell of Success — Burt Lancaster is despicable, riveting, and (it turns out) creepy.  Tony Curtis is compelling as a man who compromises what little integrity he had to begin with.  Bottom line: I found it hard to root for anyone here.  My loss, maybe.

Four Movie Reviews for the end of July, 2013


Master and Commander (r)-- 4 1/2 Stars; Paul Bettany as the naturalist / doctor who keeps us from taking the sailors’ macho act too seriously — you just can’t go wrong with Bettany!  Russell Crowe is perfect as “Lucky Jack.”  So many other strong performances: Max Pirkis, James D’Arcy, Max Benitz, Lee Ingleby. . .

The French Connection (r)– 4 Stars. . .; Hackman and Scheider are great together.  The chase scene is impressive (even more so when you hear how they filmed it — watch the interview with director Friedkin).  The editing is crisp.  The ending is a thumb in the audience’s eye, but it’s also so iconic–it was the only possible ending!  Otherwise, it’s Lethal Weapon.  My go-to film writer David Thomson argues that the movie’s flaw is that Hackman’s character Popeye Doyle (a fascinating, stubborn lout) doesn’t change or grow.  In fact, no one changes or grows, really.  The bad guy gets away, the “good” guy goes off half-cocked. . .no resolution.  Is it about how we can’t have satisfying endings?  Is it about how police work corrupts the police–how the good guys sometimes are even bigger thugs than the bad guys?  How about going back to Ebert. . .what happened to me?  I moved that much further away from getting cheap thrills from syrupy endings.

The Impossible — 4 1/2 Stars — These characters I cared about.  They changed from beginning to end.  My heart and lungs were in my throat for much of the movie.  In the hands of a hack, the movie could have been maudlin.  It wasn’t.  The actors playing the three sons are wonderfully real (and very well directed).  I loved how the tsunami was treated as a plot point — both as it happened (disorienting and brutal) and in flashback/dream (expressionistic).  Most affecting are the interactions between the oldest son and his mother.  The movie works its magic with economy, too.  It doesn’t give you anything more than you need.

The River– (giving stars to a Renoir film seems silly–he’s one of the masters).  A beautiful film.  What happened to me while I watched?  I gained an appreciation for amateur actors: when they’re given real emotions and compelling problems, it doesn’t matter if they don’t manage the subtle gesture.  I think I found the ultimate color movie.  The flowers, the clothes, the bales of jute, the trees, Harriet’s hair, Melanie’s eyes, the dark river itself!  Also loved: little Victoria’s adorable one-liners, obviously fed to her just before the shot by the dialogue coach.  The physical oddities: Capt. John’s leg, father’s wall-eyedness, Melanie’s father’s crooked teeth.  The name “Bogey” for the boy.  The interlude of napping before the tragedy–reminded me of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.  The interspersing of documentary-like footage.  Capt. John’s kiss on Harriet’s forehead that he intends as big-brotherly but that she takes as possibly an opening.  The boats going this way and that.  It makes one want to spend a few hours pushing a boat along a river and then take a nap in the grass.  One more gem: Rumer Godden (on whose book the film is based) said of her husband, “I had been carried away by Lawrence’s charm.  And I have mistrusted charm ever since.”

Ebert and Antonioni

Monica Vitti and Gabriele Ferzetti

Monica Vitti and Gabriele Ferzetti

I’m reading Roger Ebert’s memoir Life Itself.  It’s reminding me of Russell Baker’s Good Times (and if you haven’t read Good Times and its prequel Growing Up, put them on your list.  Both are witty and evocative of the 40s and 50s).  Ebert and Baker have in common that understated wit and also an economical prose style.  Mostly, though, its the newspaper lore that brought Baker to mind.  With Ebert’s book I was expecting a tale of lifelong infatuation with movies, but it’s more about the life of a newspaper man.  In fact, when first offered (or, more accurately, handed) the job of movie reviewer for the Chicago Sun-Times, Ebert had to give himself a crash course in movies.  He’d always liked movies, but he didn’t have anything close to an encyclopedic appreciation for them.  He says it was useful for him to hear that Dwight Macdonald (critic for Esquire) and Pauline Kael (for the New Yorker) did this: (quoting Kael) “I go into the movie, I watch it, and I ask myself what happened to me.”  Well, that cuts through the pressure of having to bring the entire history of cinema into the screening room with you.

How can I apply that?  Almost immediately I think of movies that have stuck in my head for reasons I can’t easily explain.

Last year, I watched Antonioni’s Monica Vitti trilogy of L’Avventura, La Notte, and L’Eclisse.  I enjoyed the complicated and compelling characters, and the ballet of movement in some of the scenes.  But particularly with the 2nd and 3rd films, I felt pressured to process everything I saw as an artistic statement.  That made watching them more like homework than anything else.  What happened to me after each one, though?  Well, for a while, I chewed on the relationships, certainly.  L’Avventura’s ending is both an affirmation of love and a realization that love inflicts wounds.  Vitti’s character forgives Ferzetti’s character?  Really?  If it’s not forgiveness, is it resignation and a desire to forgive?  In some ways, the ending is not a resolution as much as those two characters reaching a low point and having to figure out if they’re going to come out of it together or separately.  They may not last, but separation at that particular point doesn’t seem in the cards.  If they do last, it will be the result of significant maturation and self-understanding.

With La Notte, I thought about marriage.  How could a viewer not?  If courtship is one novel or one movie, marriage is a body of work.  At the end of La Notte, the husband and wife are about as individualized as they can be–you wonder how they were ever a couple.  Her blunt certainty that the marriage is over is both admirable and deeply depressing.  I felt terrible for her having to try to convince him of the truth.  And he seems to know it, too, but he won’t admit it.  He can’t admit it.  Their physical activity in the grass right then and there is the opposite of love-making.  How can you see that and not say to yourself, “this is what the end of a marriage feels like”?

L’Eclisse still baffles me as a big picture–as plot.  But none of the three movies in the trilogy can be described in terms of plot anyway.  So what happened to me?  I was fan-infatuated with Vitti for good.  I loved the images of Alain Delon moving around the trading floor and interacting with his car.  I wanted to reach a point of being able to cheer for Vitti and Delon as a couple.  But they didn’t seem like they were getting anywhere.  There was physical attraction and some comfortable patter.  But they didn’t connect like movie stars in movies do.  Relationships are hard!  Plus there’s the documentary montage at the end that seems to want us to question our desire for these two characters to find a comfortable arrangement.  The problems of two people don’t amount to a hill o’ beans in this crazy world.

Also, strictly as images, the three movies are beautiful to look at.  Maybe that’s enough by itself.

Ebert also writes something interesting about the kind of movie he most enjoyed (he died just this past April): those about good people (whether or not those people do good things or meet happy ends).  That’s just about the most accessible criterion I’ve ever heard.  And he admits at one point that watching movies was for him partially a sort of avoidance of a real romantic relationship.  Tough thing for a film critic to admit.

Thank you, Roger Ebert.

Bloomsday, 2013

Andrews & TierneyToday, Father’s Day, I treated myself to a walk while listening to nearly 3 episodes of ‘re-Joyce’ — a podcast by Frank Delaney wherein he picks apart the puzzles, allusions, and regional meanings of Joyce’s Ulysses.  We’re nearing the end of the Proteus chapter, chapter 3 (of 18).  He spends each 12-20 minute podcast on just a few sentences of the text — that’s how rich it is.  I also recently enjoyed a recorded lecture (from the “Great Courses” recorded lecture series) on Ulysses by Arnold Weinstein.  Where Delaney glories in the particular — every word parsed and derived and even giggled about, Weinstein makes broad observations about Steven D. (stand-in for Joyce, serious, immature, agonizing, searching) and Bloom (a cuckold trying hard not to think of his wife with her lover, a patient and generously observant man whom Weinstein says possesses one of the most creative imaginations in all of literature) and then shows us examples of those traits.  I think a reader of Ulysses should listen to Weinstein first, then follow along the text with Delaney (but beware that Delaney is only near the end of chapter 3 — at his pace, he won’t reach the end of the book for decades–he admits as much.

Films watched in the last few weeks:

(5 Stars is exemplary, unforgettable, a classic. . .; “r” = repeat viewing)

  • Laura — four stars; beautiful and well acted; Vincent Price is a true professional and completely natural as a sniveling man-child; Clifton Webb is the most fun, but one can see how he was typecast by this film forevermore; Gene Tierney is lovely and compelling–most effectively in the interrogation scene; but it’s Dana Andrews’ film.  He’s the root and the most interesting character.  I didn’t expect the ending.  I expected ambiguity and. . .well, more noir.
  • Life of Pi — four stars; so beautiful and creatively executed.  Superb acting by the main actors.  Most compelling was the actor playing the adult Pi.  A very close second was the teenaged version; a close third was the actor playing the interviewer.  I had it in my head that the film would be G-rated adventure along the lines of Swiss Family Robinson, but it was dark.  Animals (presumably CGI animals) are harmed.  It’s also an enchanting story with a twist at the end that makes the viewer question everything that came before.  Highly recommend it (and my rating may go up after another viewing).
  • Hitchcock — three stars; very well-acted, interesting interpretation of Psycho-era Hitch and Alma; but ultimately the story feels like a soap-opera–conventional, predictable, trite.  The fault goes to the writer(s) and producer, I suppose.  Maybe the poor director had no creative control of the story.

To watch in the near future:

  • The River
  • Note by Note (r)
  • Kiss Me Deadly (r)
  • A Room with a View (r — though I wasn’t entirely conscious when I saw it before, two decades ago)
  • Sweet Smell of Success
  • The Arbor

Night of the Hunter

NightoftheHunter4David Thomson writes in Have you Seen. . .? that when he showed Night of the Hunter to “Americans” (presumably his students) a bunch of years ago, the young viewers loved it (and were scared by it).  The adults found it silly and couldn’t understand the hype.  Well, I was with those adults for the first half of the film.  The 2nd half, though, I bought it. The turn may have come during the haunting underwater shot of dead Willa, sitting pinned in the passenger seat of the Ford open car, her hair floating laterally across her face.

Then it gets weird and enchanting in equal measure.  The basement scene when the kids lock Mitchum in and get away epitomizes the weird.  Slapstick, really.  The river escape sequence: the enchanting.  And the flat horizon shot of Mitchum passing on a horse (really a little person on a pony, so the documentary tells us)–you can’t believe the simple brilliance of it.  Pearl’s (dubbed) boat song (“Pretty Fly”) gives me the shivers.  And then during the last act with Ms. Cooper (Lilian Gish), I couldn’t wait to see what happened next.  Gish may be the best acting asset of the film.  She’s so compelling and emotionally present.  And I’m not sure she was meant to be more than a fairy godmother type.

I learned in the included documentary that Charles Laughton (now one of my favorite directors–on the basis of this, his one and only, film) meant the film as a commentary on religious hypocrisy, on the zealotry and closed-mindedness that condemned him to a life of closeted homosexuality.  That adds layers that I’ll look forward to pulling apart in repeated viewings.

If I judged the film only on the first half (upon the Shelly Winters character (pitiful — meant to be sacrificed, I suppose), the Peter Graves’ character (too quickly drawn–shallow), and the shrill and two-dimensional Icey Spoon), I don’t know that I could say much for it.  I’m lucky I stuck with it.

One more thing I loved: the duet between Gish (holding the rifle!) and Mitchum (in the rifle’s sight!).  “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”  (Iris Dement’s version is playing in my head as I type).