Film: It all depends on your POV

With `Psycho' set for re-release, Steve Gough recalls what scared him first time round - the power of the `subjective camera'
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The Independent Culture
I first saw Psycho as an impressionable teenager back in the Sixties. Or rather, I saw part of it - the first twenty minutes - before I took flight in panic. Over the next few years I made several more valiant attempts; but I confess I was nearing twenty when I finally mustered the courage to watch the entire movie. What had so terrified me? Not the infamous shower scene; nor that nightmarish moment when poor Arboghast climbs Bates' ominously twisting staircase towards mummy's gleaming knife ...

My emotions were confounded much earlier on. It was during that first escape sequence, as Janet Leigh's Marian drives through night and rain towards the Bates motel, when I froze. What did so much damage to my tender young psyche? The sight of Marian's eyes, smiling macabrely, staring right into mine ...

When I saw Elem Klimov's acclaimed Come And See in the mid-eighties, I felt that I had not just watched, but been seared by, his grim Second World War film. Yet the single image which has haunted me since is not one of obvious violence or suffering, but that of the film's hero, a young Partisan, staring in close-up as if right out of the film.

Hitchcock and Klimov broke that golden rule of amateur movie-makers: "don't let anyone look at the camera!" But "looking at the camera" has been a weapon in the film-maker's armoury since the days of Griffith and Eisenstein. Who can forget the moment in Battleship Potemkin when the old lady with the pince-nez is slashed by a soldier's sabre? Eisenstein makes her stare right at the camera through bits of broken glass and blood.

"Subjective-camera" is the technical term for the experience; in fact the phrase describes two separate devices. In the first, a character's direct gaze at the camera can make us feel as if we are inside the film's fictional world. A powerful dramatic tool, it has been exploited over the years mostly by the more manipulative film-maker, such as Hitchcock, Bergman - and, more recently, Francis Coppola, David Lynch, Oliver Stone and Kathryn Bigelow.

The second type is less strident but more ubiquitous. It is that moment when the camera-view becomes a direct rendering of a character's point of view (POV). The POV-shot might have seemed shocking long ago, but it is a commonplace in today's film language. The goal is almost invariably a special intensity of emotional connection, a binding of the audience to the film. However, there is more to subjective-camera than merely squeezing out more emotion and intimacy. The fictional envelope is broken; and the audience seems to intrude directly into the substance of the film. What exactly is involved in this curious experience?

As theorists remind us, cinema shares with theatre that quality of "suspension of disbelief": we might weep real tears over the death of a hero, but we are not inclined to rush out of the cinema for the family doctor. Film, however, adds two unique elements. First, the vividness and plasticity of the brightly-lit images, which provide a powerful impetus for us to lose ourselves.Secondly, there is the size and lucidity of the projected image which approaches us uncompromisingly as individuals, separated from our neighbours by the darkness of the auditorium.

We are not simply passive victims when we go to the movies. In fact we are working constantly as the film progresses. Above all, it is our act of perception which seems tireless: seeing and hearing in a heightened, almost god-like way. We are superhuman in another important sense: we may see all we want, and more - but no one ever seems to see us. Like some virtuoso prowler or hi-tech voyeur, we have a perfect view of any number of intimate situations, but not one of the characters we watch is empowered to "see us back". Consequently, we are never observed, never judged.

In the type of subjective-camera in Psycho and Come and See, the eye of the character suddenly breaks all the rules by staring right back at us. The fictional world advances directly upon the audience. It is easy to see why this subjective-camera device is the less popular of the two: audiences don't always take kindly to being put on the spot.

A case in point is Lady In The Lake(1946), in which Robert Montgomery employed subjective-camera as no other had ever done before - requiring his audience to watch the entire movie through the eyes of Marlowe. Not surprisingly, the film was a flop at the box-office; and no one seems to have risked taking subjectivity to such extremes since. However, film-makers often like to dabble in issues of voyeurism, pointing up the audience's uneasy position as night-prowler par excellence. Powell's Peeping Tom is an acknowledged masterpiece in the genre; as is Coppola's The Conversation, with its eerie crabbing camera-movements which are not quite POVs, but not quite objective viewpoints either.

In the last couple of years Kathryn Bigelow has entered the fray with her visually-stunning sci-fi film, Strange Days, in which she offers up a clutch of dazzling POV sequences, achieved thanks to specially-constructed lightweight steadicams designed to replicate the action of the human eye. We are put inside the head of a heist-gang member falling to his death after a chaotic chase across high-rise roofs, for instance, following his final plummet to the ground.

It seems the right moment to return to the maestro. What exactly is going on early in Psycho as we feel more and more trapped inside Hitchcock's psychological landscape? Janet Leigh's Marian is no virginal innocent when she races out of Phoenix, desperate to escape the consequences of her past. Indeed Hitchcock has spent most of the first 20 minutes of the film accumulating Marian's various small-town venalities: lust, deception, greed, envy, desire for revenge and personal gain. Suddenly we are alone with her as she tries to run away from herself and her crime. In a low-key shot which seems to go on forever, we watch her driving through darkness and rain, as her voice-over meditations move from self-soothing rationalisations, through mounting anxiety, towards something neurotic, manic even. As this happens, Marian's large, glittering eyes drift up, towards ours ... She gazes, she smiles macabrely ...

Marian is embracing us as co-conspirators in her experience. Subjective camera makes us part and parcel of that descent through moral failure into fear and insanity. Not many minutes later comes the shower murder, now as much our Nemesis as hers.

There is another kind of film which offers direct-to-camera performance of a rather different kind, again linked to the character and meaning of the gaze. Inspired by Shakespearean asides - or maybe by music hall repartee - the film-maker allows his character to step out of the fictional space. An obvious example is Alfie, where Michael Caine's hero cheerfully addresses us, like some compulsive Master of Ceremonies. Kubrick's Clockwork Orange and last year's television dramatisation of Tom Jones work the same way. Interestingly, all three are literary adaptations, sharing a form of stagey complicity. Working outside the film's fictional envelope, this device rarely challenges the audience.

Nonetheless, impromptu Richard IIIs seem to be proliferating. Wales's youngest-ever feature director, 24-year-old Justin Kerrigan, is in post-production on his youth-culture film, made for BBC Wales, which will boast no less than four characters striding up to address the camera in the first ten minutes.

Kerrigan's brand of hectic music hall banter is a long way from the likes of Hitchcock and Klimov. To gauge the sources of their powerfully charged subjectivity we need to go further back even than Shakespeare. From Biblical times, the direct gaze of the godhead has been symbolic of His omnipotence and omniscience. In paintings and frescoes over centuries, Jehovah, Christ and other divine representatives are depicted staring right at and through us, while lesser mortals are more often composed in profile, or looking away.

The Medieval icon relies on this power above all else: the eyes of the Divine seem to drive to the heart of us and all we are. Is it not surprising that families placed this, their most important sacred object, with a candle burning, where it can always see and be seen? Wherever sons and daughters might wander, they turned and found God's eyes, following after.

We hardly need reminding that images of staring eyes continue to exert a profound effect today: witness General Kitchener's recruitment poster. Fast-forwarding to the late Nineties, we might recall last year's demonic red eyes. Suffice to say that the impact of showing human eyes in close- up is not just a momentary thrill but also something ancient, primordial.

One of the most powerful and morally challenging moments of subjectivity I know comes in Claude Goretta's The Lacemaker. At the end of this seemingly innocent story, as the camera tracks in on Isabella Huppert's Beatrice, Goretta's spiritually destroyed young heroine, as it has done so many times before - we are suddenly confounded by Beatrice's face, turning to us for the first time, staring out with anger, despair, accusation. "Yes," she seems to be saying, "you have enjoyed watching the miseries of my life; now you think you can just pity me, leave the film, and get away with it." It is a stark moment, in what was, moments before, an engaging, undemanding film. Goretta turns everything around and points the finger at us.

Eye-contact in the movies does not always mean extremities of pain and sadness, though. I recall seeing Tarkovsky's Mirror for the first time. There was a moment shortly before the end, when, quite unaccountably, I found myself crying uncontrollably. Although I had been much moved by the film, I didn't expect this. I left the cinema embarrassed and confused.

It was only later that I began to understand what had produced the tears. Tarkovsky ends his film with an extended montage, depicting the quietness of family life, yet embroidered by a rich soundtrack, part of Bach's St John Passion. During this sequence, however, Margarita Terekhova's heroine turns suddenly towards us - and smiles briefly and seemingly for no earthly reason. The moment is gone almost as soon as it has come - yet the effect is transforming. Why does it hold such force? I finally realised that it was not simply that Tarkovsky was recognising my presence within the film experience - but that he was somehow including me in all the poetry and magic of what has taken place in this most spiritual of films. It was as if I was suddenly welcomed inside the dream his genius had created. Hardly surprisingly, my tears were not of sadness, but of joy.

And so, just occasionally, a film-maker uses subjective camera not to implicate or terrorise the audience, but to offer up a magical connection between viewer and viewed. I am sure this knowledge will help me confront bravely the sharp new 35mm print of Psycho, refurbished for the big screen where it belongs. For if tricks of subjectivity can take us to the muddy depths of ourselves, maybe sometimes they can also take us up to heaven.

`Psycho' will be re-released on 31 July. Copyright Steve Gough 1998. Steve Gough is a writer/director and tutor at Cardiff University's Centre For Film Production Studies