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.




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