Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Narrative POV & the Gaze

     While I tend to agree with the professor that Atonement is an unreliable narrative, it is only a partial agreement.  I believe that Atonement, as well as all movies, are only as reliable as you make them.  Films are merely collections of stories and bits of media thrown together to make a new product.  Though Atonement does go in and out of fact and fiction, there are clues in the beginning that let the careful watcher know it is fantasy.  Of course, I’m talking about the non-diegetic sound that kicks in at the very beginning, a typewriter.  The film tricks into believing it is merely an interesting film score.  As a first time viewer we do not realize its alternative function until the surprise interview with grown up Briony sometime later.  I also agree with the professor that there are clues later on, as it was something I noted as well, as Robbie’s story becomes more fantastic as it progresses, until it peaks on the beach—where I wrote, “this must be hell”.
In the end we realize that it is truly an unreliable narrative, in a sense of fact or fiction.  If you ask me, it has been honest as a story and film from the very beginning.  All films are contrived and in their final product an amalgamation of subjective points of view.  In this film we are mostly seeing Briony’s point of view, as well as those of her made up characters.  The film projected to us is made up of multiple points of view; that of the director, cinematographer, composer, and so on.  The final subjective point of view is our own and perhaps the most tricky.  We begin making up our own minds about where it is going from the get-go—we are trained as movie watchers to struggle to make sense of even the most illogical action.  However, each point of consciousness in the audience is its own set of subjective constructs imposing itself on the creative work of fiction before the senses.  Perhaps a movie like Richard Linklater’s Waking Life better illustrates this point.  If you asked the audience what it was about or what they thought a specific scene meant—each might deliver a completely unique response.  The same may be true for Atonement, but I think in this case, director Joe Wright strived to communicate a similar story to each observer individually.
There are several points of view throughout films that are utilized for different types of communication.  The first is the look of the camera, a sort of omnipresent third person narrator.  This look shows the viewer the action happening on set.  These are the sort of mise en scene shots encompassing the larger story in the frame.  Director Stanley Kubrick has many good examples of these types of shots, especially in his use of wide angle shots with long duration—a key part of his style as an auteur.  In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick uses this style technique to allow the story of the apes unfold on screen.  The camera patiently waits as the apes discover tools for survival, in this case a bone as a club used for killing, and suddenly a mysterious monolith appears.  This scene illustrates my point, as with Waking Life, the audience may not understand what is happening on screen as—there is no explanation given either through voice over or montage.  Kubrick has used his camera-pen to lay out a series of events left to our subjective point of view to interpret—and a perfect technique to depict primal urge predating language.
This leads to the second type of look, which I mentioned in the last, the look of the audience.  As I have discussed in three examples already the audience is the final subjective point of view and perhaps most important, as movies are created with an audience in mind.  We watch and impose our own perception on the action, making sense, or complete non-sense, of what unfolds.  This look is not utilized by the director or cinematographer, but it is in the forefront of his mind while making choices and attempting to guide them.  If it were left to these two looks alone, films would probably be totally misunderstood and boring.  Even nature documentaries, where action follows this model, have voice over narration to help lead and draw viewers in.  However, there is a third look film makers utilize, the subjective look of the character.  In between the look of the camera they splice in looks of the character and various other subjective shots to lead the observer and help tell the story.  These shots are the dialogue in books, the stuff that progresses action and keeps the reader reading.  A movie has not successfully pulled off a shot list made up entirely of these “POV” shots—as illustrated by Lady of the Lake.  But I believe we are getting closer with films like Enter the Void, where a large portion of the film is done in the floating POV of a deceased spirit.  Perhaps if virtual reality is ever progressed to a more realistic consumer product we will begin seeing more POV films.
                Now we know who is looking, but not why we are looking and where.  We have discussed in depth during class that the typical gaze of the camera is that of a heterosexual male.  This gaze often objectifies women, displaying them in unrealistic poses and sickly proportions, presents them as helpless impediments to the male hero’s action, and perpetuates idealized role—in a man’s world—of servitude to man.  It is easy to explain the reasons, on the surface at least.  The era in which the film industry developed was dominated by man for generations, both in industry and society; so it was only natural for film to mirror that society and its slow but subsequent progression towards equality.  Upon researching the matter further I found some interesting relations to language itself which strike deeper to the root of this inequality.  Letters, words, and sentences are merely symbols used to point to familiar objects and strung together to represent more complex expressions.  There is a desire to encompass all things in symbols and, therefore, all desires themselves must be represented by a symbol.  This is an inferior process of identification—much like that of Lacan’s mirror stage where a child identifies the false projection of himself in the mirror as proper, but is always a false, inferior projection of the self—and being inferior, sets up an unequal structure in the mind.  It is therefore only natural for that structure to be projected into our physical world as we project so many other psychological scars outward; that is unless we diligently realize and work through them.  I think it is only natural that we have imprinted these same projections on film.  Lacan says that a healthy person thrives on a system of symbols and desires and actually needs the imaginary to stay in touch with the real.  This understanding—though it is mine, subjective, and probably false—spoke to me because my happiness has always had a direct correlation to frequenting the movies.
The gaze began very male, but does it explain the continuation of that same or similar gaze today—even in the work of female artist?  Studies have shown that the one looking most intently is actually the female.  It is more than likely the fault of this male gaze which has trained girls early on to self-analyze.  In some overly demented form of the mirror stage, girls not only identify with the false representation in the mirror, but they project that idealized form into the mirror as presented to them through the gaze found plastered all around them.  Mulvey says, "The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure," and through transitive properties into the minds of little girls.  It comes in many forms, magazines, movies, Disney; but whatever we have done, it has now been perfected.  Statistics show that women spend the money and literally hold the purse strings—so now advertising is directed 90% at women.  A man rarely spends, but when he does it is usually under the influence of a woman.  It is said that the mirror stage is merely a stage for boys to reflect on his path to becoming a man.  He must go out and become a man of action or be left behind, as in a wallflower at the middle school dance.  A woman however can perform her idealized function from that stage and often remains there.  Mulvey talks about how film must challenge and destroy this function.
It is easy to blame and more difficult to take responsibility.  I understand that the system is rigged for most and I speak from a privileged white male perspective, but all the tools to help lift yourself out of these narrow corridors are there if you desire them.  Some films have become more responsible while others seem to get worse as they embrace the consumer culture and try to indoctrinate both male and female children into states of eternal infancy.  Corporations would probably love for us to remain thoughtless sheep continually searching for our next shepherd.  We are like an Arbus photo of teenagers in love, posing as a couple—thrusting ourselves into adult scenarios we are unprepared for where we end up looking like little kids in our parent’s oversized clothing.  In the end I do not think that it is film’s responsibility or fault if we end up this way—it is parents, it is ours.  If we cannot raise our children and guide our society into a more mature, sanely self-aware, and self-sufficient one, than we deserve the bed in which we lay.  At least film will be there as an escape for us all.  I do not think the solution is avoiding those mirror stages but learning to transcend them.  We all need to do a little growing up.