Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The impossible POV

Yellow Sky: Not in the sights, exactly
There's a shot in Yellow Sky (1948) that immediately distinguishes itself from all others in the film, when we see the male lead (an outlaw named Stretch, played by Gregory Peck) through the barrel of a rifle being aimed by a woman (Mike, played by Anne Baxter) who hasn't yet made up her mind about pulling the trigger. The shot's thick rifle barrel border fills all but the very center of the screen with darkness, a strong contrast to the brightly lit exterior shots of sun-baked desert which dominate the rest of the film. But the most striking thing about this shot is that, for all purposes, it proclaims itself as a point-of-view shot when in fact it is not. The framing of Stretch at the end of a long tube implies an owned specularity, like a shot of the moon as seen through a telescope. We are tricked for a moment into believing that the owner of this view is the shooter, when in fact it belongs to an unseen and unseeing object: the bullet.

The peril of such a trick is that it threatens to expose the camera as the autonomous presenter of the film. While not every shot in a feature film is a point-of-view shot (most are not), when a shot is first disguised as a point-of-view shot, then revealed to be otherwise, there is a noticeable disruption, a perceptual double-take, that hints at the film's construction. This of course works to varying degrees, depending upon the shot and the audience, and by pointing this out I am not suggesting that all shots should conceal the camera's presence as much as possible or that stylized camera work should never be used (if it never were, there would be no Expressionism or film noir, to say the least). Depending upon the type of shot and its context, though, the artifice of such shots can become more noticeable than for others, for better or worse.

Great Expectations: Pip comes to
Another such deception is the simulated "coming to" shot, which shows a blurry figure coming into focus as a character regains consciousness. A perfect example of this can be seen in the David Lean-directed Great Expectations (1946). After visiting Abel Magwitch's death bed, Pip staggers home through London streets and passes out on his bed. The next shot begins in hazy darkness, then slowly brightens and focuses on the shape of Joe Gargery. This appears in every way to be the point-of-view of the recovering Pip, a trick set up by the previous shot, which showed Pip's authentic point-of-view as he pushed through his door and fell into bed. Once Joe is in complete focus, however, we see that he is not looking into Pip's eyes — that is, directly into the camera lens — but rather offscreen. The shot is thus revealed not as Pip's actual point-of-view, but as an ornate fade.

First Men in the Moon: Images captured by a nonexistent camera
I mentioned another example in an earlier post, from the 1964 film First Men in the Moon. At the end there is a scene in which people on Earth watch a television broadcast from the moon, which shows a trio of astronauts escaping from a collapsing underground lunar city. The television broadcast shows three shots from three different camera angles, though no character is present on the moon to operate a camera, let alone three.

Of the three listed here, the rifle barrel shot is probably the most disruptive, due to its obvious gimmickry. I don't know how this shot was achieved, but it screams "special effect." The effect of the simulated "coming to" shot is perhaps a wash if one considers the alternative — it may have been more jarring if Bernard Miles (the actor playing Joe) had looked directly into the lens. (Lean could have presented the awakening with the camera trained on Pip, however, or in a medium two-shot, e.g., to keep the camera more concealed; obviously he and cinematographer Guy Green found value in the simulated POV.) However, like the lunar TV broadcast, this method of suggesting character point-of-view has become common enough that perhaps it is not as noticeable to all viewers.

See also:
Shoot the moon...somehow
Scorsese's Enunciative Presence


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