Looking for the fourth look in Cosmos… (by Andrzej Żuławski, 2015)

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.

Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Laura Mulvey

  • The paradox of phallocentrism in all its manifestations is that it depends on the image of the castrated woman to give order and meaning to its world.
  • Woman’s desire is subjected to her image as bearer of the bleeding wound, she can exist only ! in relation to castration and cannot transcend it.
  • Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.
  • The magic of the Hollywood style at its best (and of all the cinema which fell within its sphere of influence) arose, not exclusively, but in one important aspect, from its skilled and satisfying manipulation of visual pleasure

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To Be Outside and In-Between, Ben Goldsmith

  • ‘Looks and frictions’ is an apposite title for a work of cultural studies and film studies scholarship, emphasising the latter’s visual preoccupation, the interest of both in observation, and the former’s fondness for frottage, placing theoretical frameworks over objects of study and tracing the indentations left. Significantly, both terms connote both closeness and distance, and implicitly acknowledge the outsideness of the critic or viewer in their engagement with the object of study.
  • As Morris cogently observes, Willemen’s great legacy and example is his putting of ‘how?’ questions — ‘political questions about particular social aims’ (3) — in to cultural studies.
  • Central to his work is the triad of producer, text, and viewer, considered in such a way that the socio-historical context of the production and the act of viewing (and criticism) are always privileged and foregrounded. His use of ‘inner speech’ and the concept of ‘the fourth look’ (perhaps his most significant contribution to film studies) work to elucidate the ways in which the interplay of the textual and the social involve and interpolate the viewer.

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Film essay notes – group assignment

Me. The Others. You. Us. Them. Freedom. Power. Silence. Fear. Light. Fame. Shame. Difference. Indifference. Work. Travel. Slavery. Lux. Love. Charade. Laughter. Distance. Money. Noise. Black. Good. Evil. Scream. Need. Loyalty. History. Forgiveness. Emptiness. Happiness. Crave. Hunger. Joy. Lack. Futility. Desperation. Calm. Faith. Guns. Gods. Words. Adaptability. Cries. Blindness. Equality. Quality. Debauchery. Dirth. Meaning. Status. Class. Grief. Death. Pain. Birth. Rebirth. Identity. Courage. Lie. Sin. Loss. Loneliness. Crowds. Man. Life. Ideas. Ideals. Illusions. Miracles. Mirages. Memories. Sadness. Knowledge. Future. Unknown. Unspoken. Discontentment. Hope. Unseen. Insecurity. Arrogance. Nowness. Terror. Order. Pleasure. Dreams. Duality. Signification. Anthem. Signs. Paths. Scratches. Scars. Tears. Smiles. Colours. Wounds. Tyrants. Martyrs. Chaos. Children. Innocence. Ferocity. Strenght. Guilt. Passion.

The dog whose leash was longer than his life. We’re tracking meaning, search for identity, fear our limitations. We’ve globalized one’s thoughts. We’re seeing through a pile of different lenses, which are not our own. We don’t have an “own”. We understand difference but don’t accept it. We accept difference but do not understand it. We demand freedom but avoid it. We hear but not listen. We watch but do not see. We scream, forget, and move on. We love and press “enter”. We hate and click “delete”. We shine in our selfies, they die in our factories. She sells her soul, he buys commodity. Some grow apples, some make Apple. Some drown, some swim. Some play, others get played with. Some know the rules, some follow, some change the rules. Some get money, others get diseases. Some want to escape, a few succeed, others are deceived. We don’t see skin, only colours. We don’t wear masks, we own them.

Some scream, some cry, some fight, some sight, some watch, some change the channel.

Identity in the Globalizing World, Zygmunt Bauman

  • ‘identity’ has now become a prism through which other topical aspects of contemporary life are spotted, grasped and examined
  • Established issues of social analysis are being rehashed and refurbished to fit the discourse now rotating around the ‘identity’ axis. For instance, the discussion of justice and equality tends to be conducted in terms of ‘recognition’, culture is debated in terms of individual, group or categorial difference, creolization and hybridity, while the political process is ever more often theorized around the issues of human rights (that is, the right to a separate identity) and of ‘life polities’ (that is, identity construction, negotiation and assertion).

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When I’m walking a dark road, I am a girl who walks alone

I have an uneasy feeling when it comes to heights, but I’ll overcome that pretty fast. I have no problem with bugs, worms or other crawling insects, but I have a severe fear of spiders; an encounter with a veritable representative of their kind might leave me with a discomfort for the next few hours, and I totally hate, from the deep of my soul, public speaking. That exact and inevitable moment, when all the eyes are looking at me, my mind goes blank and all I can remember are 3 sentences learnt in kindergarten, but I’ll manage to successfully survive that.

Not even a crowded conference room, made of glass at an honorable height, and full of crawling spiders won’t scare me as much as darkness. COMPLETE ABSOLUTE SILENT DARKNESS. I’m a night person, I love the mysterious aura of a deep night, of the moon and the stars, the trembling shadows, the exaltation and uncertainty that comes with it, the way my hearing sharpens when I can’t see properly, the fantasies which begin to take shape when the colors and contours begin to fade, the teasing feeling that something’s always there. But I have a visceral fear of complete black, followed by complete silence. Blindness, the lack of any feeble shadow, of any frail trace of light, terrifies me, petrifies me. For me, there is no world without image, and Oedipus’ own punishment is by far the worst punishment I can imagine.

WoW subjectivity in and outside Azeroth

I am a human, a girl, a European, a white Europian girl, a daughter, a friend, a postgraduate, a student, a Romanian student in the United Kingdome, hence an immigrant, a buyer, a reader, a blog writer, a newbie gamer, a cat lover, a person, a Facebook user, a film enthusiast, and the list could continue. I never really encountered any kind of racist manifestation directed towards me.  But then, I’m a white, European, heterosexual, young woman. I speak English, I was absorbed by the pop-culture, therefore I know who Lady Gaga is, I will not ask what on Earth is Suicide Squad, and I will consider MacDonalds if I’m hungry enough . Despite my nationality, it seems that I have totally, but pretty much unknowingly, embraced the American culture, and I did at least once fantasize about a wild adventure on American ground as described in Lana del Rey’s song Ride. What could I actually be accused of? So, I floated undisturbed above racism of any sort because my skin color, my gender, and sexuality can easily fell into the “normality” pattern. I’ve encountered no problems of this sort in World of Warcraft either. But then I’m just another new, individual, anonymous player. I am fully aware of the racism and inequitable distribution of power, control, and status around the world, it just did not cross my mind that all of these could and did pass the barrier of digital games experience.

What I did encounter is a sort of surprise and skepticism from my friends when I first said, pretty enthusiastically, that I began playing World of Warcraft. Is was as they, even though, or better say, because they have known me for such a long time, could not imagine me as a gamer. In some of their eyes I should have been able to find myself better ways of spending time, which is exactly what I’ve been thinking before even considering joining the WoW community. Their surprise increased when I continued with saying that it wasn’t really my own decision, but I’m doing it for an assignment, and I’m not only playing it, but actually read and write about World of Warcraft and my own experience as a young, inexperienced gamer. The association of gaming with the action of reading, immediately elevated the game’s status, and gaming was acceptable as long as it involved something generally related to intellectual activity. The simple term “gamer” brings with itself a series of stereotypes; a gamer must be a male, but not every male, a white male with not much of an education or academic knowledge, addicted to shooting entities in virtual space, instead of reading a book. While we all know that not just any book is worth reading, almost any kind of book seems better than a video game, even though there is more than one type of video game on the wide world web. The activity itself seems to be cursed with a “bad” aura in the eyes of the self announced serious, responsible and smart people. Well, excuse me, I do intend on getting good grades, while still playing World of Warcraft.

Another topic, which I’d like to touch on is the inner game discrimination. And this is how a community which otherwise seems close to ideal, because the game doesn’t reject anyone, is crippled by the players. Even though the possibility of creating a new world from scratch gives the opportunity of “giving birth” to a gender-, race-, and hierarchy-free one, it came as no surprise that every single online community out there will and would have demolished the order of the real world, to built a new order over the ashes of the “real” world’s one, based on more or less the same principles. I am able to state this not because I studied every online community out there, but because of our human need for structure, and due to the fact that we only know the current structure, everything we create will have as a starting point at least one aspect of the structure and order under which we conduct our daily lives. World of Warcraft makes no exception. The whole game is based on a war between races, on establishing a race’s superiority over the other, on trying to subjugate the enemy races, well no novelty there, right? Of course, the races are fictional, but there is still no fiction regarding genders. The “male gaze” defined by Laura Mulvey in the article Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975) is as pregnant as it was in early Hollywood cinema which she was referring to, and as it is in nowadays cinema actually. Pretty much every race’s female representative in WoW is sexualised, some more than others, but nevertheless, are pleasant to the eye. For me, going for a female avatar was instinctual, but after reading Angela Washko’s article Why Talk Feminism in World of Warcraft?, I began to wonder how many female avatars which I’ve passed by in Azure Isles were women behind the screen, and how many of the avatar who saw me, really thought that I was a female. I could’ve also chosen to play with a Draenei male, and while that would have been me “escaping” my own gender through World of Warcraft, facilitated by the anonymity provided in the game, this is not the case with males playing as female characters, as their explanation for doing so is not: I was interested to create and play as a female avatar because of the avatar’s qualities, because I was curious about a female role and Azeroth is the perfect place to experience it, but rather because as Angela Washko quotes in her article: “I’d rather look at a girl’s butt all day in WoW”. 


Meanwhile I actually discovered that I was wrong about the lack of interaction between characters which I was talking about in the previous post, and although I do not have yet access to the to the chatty areas of Azeroth, the “chinese-farmers” case proved me wrong. I still maintain my opinion about the interaction not authentically affecting the plot or the main game lines, but it definitely affects the experience within the game. I did not encounter any generically so-called “chinese-farmer”, and I had no idea that Heilwig herself, and me alongside, could’ve been categorized as one, and attacked by other players if she were a dwarf. Maybe the gold diggers do spoil the pleasure of playing for some gamers, but the issue is not as shallow as that. Actually I find more problematic the fact that people are forced to play WoW in a FOXCONN factory kind of regime, and are accused of spoiling the western guys pleasure. While gamers brag about their chinese-farmers killings, hence purifying Azeroth, they do not seem to have any awareness of the fact that the avatar they just killed might or might as well not be a Chinese, an Asian, a modern slave, who instead of being forced to work on a plantation, is locked in a room full of undeveloped computers. From this point of view I might just state: blood in the mobile, blood in World of Warcraft as well.


Baxter-Webb, J. (2014) ‘Divergent Masculinities in Contemporary Videogame Culture: A Tale of Geeks and Bros’ [online]. available from: <http://www.academia.edu/7731978/Baxter-Webb_J._2014_Divergent_Masculinities_in_Contemporary_Videogame_Culture_A_Tale_of_Geeks_and_Bros_> [29 November 2016]

Nakemura, L. (2012) ‘Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game: The Racialization of Labor in World of Warcraft’. Digital Labor The Internet as Playground and Factory [online]. 188-205. available from: <http://www.tandfebooks.com/action/showBook?doi=10.4324%2F9780203145791&> [27 November 2016]

Pulos, A. (2013) ‘Confronting Heteronormativity in Online Games: A Critical Discourse Analysis of LGBTQ Sexuality in World of Warcraft’. Games and Culture [online] 8 (2). 77-97. available from: http://gac.sagepub.com/content/8/2/77 [30 November 2016]

Washko, A. (2014) ‘Why Talk Feminism in World of Warcraft?’ Creativetimes Reports [online] available from: <http://creativetimereports.org/2014/11/20/angela-washko-feminism-world-of-warcraft-gamergate/> [27 November 2016]