We go to the cinema, or not so much now that the “land of wonders”, the Internet, virtually houses almost anything that we could wish for, and films make no exception. Either way, in the dark of a grand cinema hall, or sheltered by the intimacy of our own private rooms in front of our own laptops, watching a film triggers a voyeuristic pleasure. The pleasure of seeing, of watching, of following without being seen, without our presence being noticed by the ones whom we are following.
The spectator is cast in the role of ‘invisible subject’, identifying itself to the camera as the punctual source of the look which constitutes the image along the lines of a monocular perspective. (Willemen 1994:99)
Like an innocent Peeping Tom, like the rich voyeur who’s watching Fellini’s Casanova defiling a pretended nun, and whose identity remains unknown, we follow, from the comfort of darkness, the characters in their undisturbed actions, pursuing heroic missions, falling in love, making love, trying to cope with daily burdens, descending into madness, reinventing themselves, forgiving, forgetting, moving on, growing up, getting old, dying, being killed or killing, saving lives. As long as our look isn’t acknowledged, we are safe. The film is pre-produced, pre-recorded, it cannot be affected by our reactions, it follows its course without interruption. I, as an individual, am totally aware of these facts. I can stare at a character for as long as I please, I can even pause the film and stare a little more, and the character would not be disturbed in any way, the character would not notice in spite of how insistent and disturbing my look is. This applies to the conventional films [which] tend to suppress all marks of the subject, of the [filmic] uttering (enunciation), so that the spectator may have the impression of being that subject but as an empty and absent subject, reduced to the mere faculty o vision. (Willemen 1994:100)
But what happens then if and when “the film looks back”? When the character turns his or her face to the camera, pierces the screen, and looks straight into the spectators’ eye? When the character hides himself/herself from the camera, in a bashful pose, trying to cover or to hide his/her own naked body, or a broken thing, even though no other human being is present at the scene?
It disturbs the viewer, it makes the viewer aware of the fact that he or she is peeping, it disrupts a little, for a moment, the comfort of the dark cinema hall. […]the viewer has to confront his or her sadistic voyeurism, the presence of the imagined look in the field of the other makes itself increasingly felt, producing a sense of shame at being caught in the act of voyeurism. By this time, the viewing subject has become the exhibitionist. (Willemen 1994:107) It negates the spectator’s privilege of seeing everything, knowing everything, which is nevertheless a privilege only simulated through the look of the camera, and its mastery, and it transforms it into a shared feature of both the viewers and the characters. As if the walls of Dogville would become transparent for the characters too, and they would be able to have the same vision as the spectator. The spectator’s special power of seeing through walls in Dogville, is however, so masterfully built, that the spectator totally ignores the simple fact that he/she is actually on the same level as the characters, as he/she, himself/herself, cannot see Dogville the way its villagers do, until the very end when the film allows its spectators to witness the dog’s “incarnation” and thus gives away only a glimpse of the true shape of Dogville’s universe. Some films don’t even give that glimpse away, one never sees the narrator in Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror, although the characters look at him, interact with him, know him. He is a crucial part of the narrative, yet, the camera’s look, never follow the characters’ look, hence, never satisfies the spectator’s curiosity.
If Laura Mulvey identified three different looks, that of the spectators looking at the screen, that of the camera and the characters’ look (Mulvey 1969), Paul Willemen comes to add a fourth look, the most problematic, which, in contrast to the first three, does not emerge in every film and is not seen by every spectator. The fourth is the film’s look, the film which acknowledges its viewers and thus challenges them. The fourth look arises when the moving images on the screen show taboos, break stereotypes, and by doing so, inhibit, hinder and confuse the spectator (Goldsmith 1998). The film’s look upon its spectator comes with a feeling of uneasiness, with a discomfort. The rupture in the middle of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona is so abrupt that shocks the spectator, by demonstrating that the film itself knows something that should only be known by the spectator, the film knows that it is a construction, “a mechanism”; The film acts upon us, addressing us, viewing us, as we view it, until the film itself becomes a gaze, rather than something to be gazed upon (Dixon 1994:2).
I could find a few other examples out of the films I have watched and considered to “watched” me back, from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Martha to Michael Haneke’s Cache or Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema, but the one I chose for a more detailed analysis is Andrzej Żuławski’s “swan song”, Cosmos. The film, Cosmos, as an entity, as a filmic organism, as a whole, looks back at its spectators, looked back at me. Firstly, as mostly every film out there, the film focuses on a character, the camera sets itself on the main character with whom the spectator is supposed to identify. Witold walking down a pathway through a forest. One sees him and understands, without caring about his name, that this is the individual around whom the narrative is going to weave itself. And even though a feeling of uneasiness is vaguely present from the beginning, the spectator is made to empathize with the main character, by portraying him as a student, who failed an exam, who was forced by his father to study law even though he wanted to become a writer, whose heart had been broken, and comes to clear his head in a bohemian, slightly rustic surrounding by the seaside. His frustration is understandable, his quirkiness is rather odd, but is for sure acceptable when knowing the circumstances. He is an artist after all…
Some strange events befall, a hanged bird appears and disappears, a hanged chicken near the house is remembered being seen a while ago. Events which seem to have a reasonable meaning, which awaits to be discovered. The spectator is thereby tricked into thinking that the main character, with whom he/she had previously empathized is in charge of putting together the pieces and solving the mystery. Nothing more false than this. From a personal point of view, and after watching the whole film and ruminating upon it for a certain period, the odd events’ only purpose is to suggest the idea of being watched by someone or something, whom neither the spectator, from its position nor the characters can see. It instills thus an unpleasant feeling of insecurity. But this is just the prelude of complete discomfort, of complete confusion. The character with whom the viewer is supposed to identify, becomes impossible to follow, understanding and identification are totally excluded, and the viewer is given no other character to identify with. The spectator finds himself/herself, after entering the filmic universe of Cosmos, utterly alone, with no anchor within the film. And the harder he/she tries to find a fulcrum to rely on, the more the film escapes through his/her fingers.
Cosmos does not break some stereotype about the world, does not show some taboo. It breaks the narrative, the logic, the idea of a film being a story, destroys the linear and fluent narrative, while still including short bits of something which might, by far, outline some kind story, and which are almost immediately followed by exaggerated, out of place actions, making the film even more distant.
The film turns its spectator from a voyeur into a part of the film, by confusing him/her until the point he/she asks himself/herself what is the film about, what is its whole purpose, why is he/she watching it, and then totally ignores the viewer. The evolution of the characters in Cosmos does not even raise the question of being or not being aware of the fact that they are being followed by the spectator, or even by the prankster who is hanging birds. The characters simply do not care if they are being watched, because they have an intrinsic world which cannot be deciphered only by looking at it, not even by a theoretical analysis.
The Cosmos’ universe, the film’s world is cryptic, is enclosed, runs by its own rules, is animated by its own reasons, or lack of reasons, and in can only be understood from within, a within which is impossible to touch, to even approach, by far, by the spectator; The difference between the two “worlds” is masterfully suggested through the brusque apparition of the enormous stains of mould which make the walls to shrivel at the corners of the rooms, which surprise the viewer and makes him/her curious about the causes, while the characters, unlike the ones from Dogville which aren’t aware of the sketched walls, observe the stains, but do not even bother to question them. The characters do not have the slightest desire to make themselves approachable, the film leaves no space for intruders, for individuals which do not already know the way things go. Hence, the spectator is not only unable to “step” into the Cosmos’ realm, but he/she is made more than clear that he/she is a total outsider with no chance of getting close, of getting in, leaving him/her feeling the whole, unmediated discomfort, frustration, confusion, and even pain of being forever just an outsider in search of a key which he cannot possibly find because of his own perception of that key.
Dixon, W.W. (1994) It Looks at You. The Returned Gaze of the Cinema. Postmodern Culture. SUNNY series.
Goldsmith, B. (1998) To Be Outside and In-Between. Film-Philosophy. Australia: Griffith University.
Mulvey, L. (1999) “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP. pp. 833-844.
Willemen, P. (1994) Looks and Frictions: Essays in Cultural Studies and Film Theory. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press; London: British Film Institute. ISBN 0-85170-398-4 263 pp.