Film Studies: Didn't you know it's rude to stare?

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The Independent Culture

Am I alone in looking at posters for The Matrix Reloaded and feeling a frisson at the fascism of black leather and six dark glasses in a row? Yes, I know, the "look" and attitude of this movie is half-camp – and not to be taken seriously. But then I can't help noting the special appeal of the Matrix films to that age zone that wants to give every sign of not registering anything said by older people, and I wonder if fascism isn't always fascism, no matter the camp. And I remember my mother's counsel – that it's rude to talk to people if you're wearing dark glasses.

Am I alone in looking at posters for The Matrix Reloaded and feeling a frisson at the fascism of black leather and six dark glasses in a row? Yes, I know, the "look" and attitude of this movie is half-camp – and not to be taken seriously. But then I can't help noting the special appeal of the Matrix films to that age zone that wants to give every sign of not registering anything said by older people, and I wonder if fascism isn't always fascism, no matter the camp. And I remember my mother's counsel – that it's rude to talk to people if you're wearing dark glasses.

Once upon a simpler time, characters wearing dark glasses in the movies were up to no good. The whole ethos of the medium was see and be seen. Even blind people in movies were expected to be wide-eyed for sympathy and emotional candour. In Johnny Belinda, nothing got in the way of Jane Wyman's staring vulnerability, or the melodrama of trusting eyes that cannot see the rapist's design – yet we see it, and tremble for her! In Wait Until Dark, was the movie going to do a single thing to block the eloquent eyes of Audrey Hepburn – no matter the training she'd done in order to think and feel like a blind person? But when the villain appears in that film – the horribly sadistic Alan Arkin – he's wearing dark glasses, not just to suggest that he's super cool, nor even to provide the hint that he is hiding, but to mock Audrey's handicap (or disadvantage, if you prefer).

Wait Until Dark is such a good title: it carries the promise of the evil that Arkin represents, and also the chance of some equal terms under which Audrey can compete with him. It reminds us that the light in movies is never casual. It is the mechanism that makes the whole thing possible. You can't have darkness in the movies without a projector bulb. That's one reason why in the glory days of Hollywood, night was always "day for night" – it was shot in the daytime, with sunlight and shadows, but the image was heavily filtered, leaving the effect of some fevered moonlight. Whereas real night – I mean night in the middle of nowhere, without moonlight – that still doesn't photograph.

I wonder, what was the first significant use of dark glasses in the movies? I throw the question open. (Not plain glasses – that's Harold Lloyd, I think, but don't forget von Stroheim's monocle.) I would have guessed that Fritz Lang's archetypal villain, Dr Mabuse, who goes back to the early Twenties, might have been a pioneer. But on research, I don't think that Mabuse wore shades until The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse, which was made in 1960. But Mabuse was a model for seeing in perverse ways – ostensibly blind, yet possessed by inner visions (technological or occult, but all sinister).

In Clouzot's eternal shocker, Diaboliques (1955), the man pretends to be drowned by wearing contact lenses that show his pupils rolled back in his head. Then he comes back to life and pops out the grisly lenses. That kind of ocular subterfuge always portends evil, and I think it has to do with the lingering superstition that to wear glasses of any kind is a sign of weakness or unattractiveness. The stories of actually short-sighted actors (who could not see another face even if they were kissing it) are legion, but to this day, is there anyone, male or female, who has attempted to convey attractiveness while wearing glasses?

Of course, a sub-genre of romance follows from that – the moment when a pretty girl takes off her glasses and men start making passes. I am reminded of Howard Hawks's The Big Sleep, and its two bookstore scenes. In one, Bogart goes into a rare book shop sleuthing. He pushes up his hat brim, affects a lisp and puts on a pair of dark glasses (to be swish – every detective has them, they come with the handcuffs). But then he goes next door to find the luscious Dorothy Malone temporarily and provocatively withheld from man's favourite sport by having her hair up and her glasses on. Until Bogey makes a wordless gesture, she smiles and an openness takes over that requires shutting up shop.

Well, sure, that's pretty sexist or anti optical aids – and for many of us, looking at movies and writing about them has boosted the prescription every year or two. But I still flinch at going to bed in dark glasses – and I wish Jack wouldn't use them at the Oscars. I know he's cool and the show is fake. I just want to see his eyes.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

'The Matrix Reloaded' (15) is released on Wednesday

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