Free Film School #84: POV

Professor Witney Seibold points out how 'Point of View' shots aren't just interesting visually, but also unlock the most profound notions of cinema itself. 

Witney Seiboldby Witney Seibold

I know that my ramblings on film philosophy and film theory tend to garner less interest than, say, articles on Badass Movies, but I feel these are important and vital notions. This week's lecture, I implore your indulgence, as I will be talking about notions of POV, and how they reveal the very primordial structure of film. Let's do some mental calisthenics, shall we?

Imagine this: you're watching a movie, and you've come to a scene with two people in it. They converse. The topic could be anything from “I love you” to “Where's the bomb?” The camera will cut back and forth between two closeups of the two characters. I've talked about the back-and-forth, over-the-shoulder technique of conversational filming in my lecture on spacial continuity, here in the hallowed pages of CraveOnline's Free Film School. The camera will hew closely to the axis of action. The room will be “covered” by various camera angles. We'll see the two characters in a “two shot.” If the filmmaker (and cameraperson, and editor) is reasonably competent, the scene's dialogue will be scintillating, and the audience will hardly notice the edits at all. Then one character will leave the scene, and the other will be left all alone. We will begin to feel the solitude, the tension, the joys, and the anxieties that accompany being alone.

But they're not alone. You're watching them. What's more, there is still, at the very least, a cameraman in the room filming it. If you think about this notion for long enough – that no character in a movie, and indeed no film-viewer, is ever truly alone – then you begin to ponder a very basic principle involved in filmmaking; one so basic, we rarely even think of it. The notion of Point of View. Who is watching the action? Who is the storyteller in this story? Who is the narrator? Who is watching that person when they are alone? If we are watching them, are they alone? Are we? This is one of the basic tenets of the very philosophy of film (and yes, I do believe film does have a certain philosophy to it).

Consider this comparison: novels are typically told from one of two perspectives. Either the book will be narrated in the first person from a character within the book, who refers to themselves as “I,” and was, presumably, a witness to the action within the story. Or it will be narrated in the third person by the author themselves, often referred to literarily as “the omniscient narrator,” who will never refer to themselves, who will refer to all the characters as “he” or “she,” and who will have a kind of godlike access to all the secret and private events in the story. Indeed, the omniscient narrator will even have access to the characters' deepest inner thoughts. There will be three people who will, at all times, have access to the main thoughts of a novel's main character: the narrator/author, the character themselves, and the reader. The holy trinity of novel-reading.

Film, by comparison, is necessarily more visual (well less verbal anyway), and notions of point of view (or POV as it is often referred to) are more tricky to nail down. We will not, for instance, have access to the inner thoughts of the main character. Unless the film is given a voice-over narration (which is cinema's version of the novel's first-person narrator), we, the audience, will only see them. We may be alone with them, but we're still part of a cinematic holy trinity. The character, the author, and the viewer. “The author” in this case can refer to the film's director, the film's screenwriter, or even the film's cameraman. I think, more specifically, though, the camera itself is the third component in that equation.

As the audience, we're typically not aware of all three points of view of any given scene. We're usually too wrapped up in the drama of the constructed moment. It's likely that filmmakers may not be toying with these notions either; they are too fundamental to muck with openly. Only very occasionally will the POV in any movie change.

The POV shot is a well-worn and frequently-used cinematic trope that I think we're all familiar with. As early as The Great Train Robbery (from 1903) actors would interact directly with the camera, which is the audience's avatar on a set. A thief pointed a gun directly at the camera lens and fired. For the first time, a mass audience could see what it would look like to be murdered by a thief at point-blank range. Imagine the fear. Imagine the thrill. This simple shot revealed so much about what power film has. All of a sudden, in a single shocking moment, audiences could not only experience the exciting violence in a new way, but they found that a camera could place them anywhere. The audience, in a way, now had a much more intimate point of view than any of the characters. Film audiences, it can now be said, had the same private handshake with the filmmaker as readers of novels did with authors. In that one bullet, so much philosophy was exchanged between an audience and a screen.

It has been said numerous times before, but films make us into voyeurs. Hitchcock was a master at pointing out the voyeurism of film, and many master filmmakers since have expertly and subtly called attention to the notion that the audience is actually a vital part of the the film itself; the film is not playing passively and scientifically in an objective universe somewhere. In the case of Hitchcock, the film would only be complete once an audience was there to be implicated in the proceedings. The audience is, in short, part of the movie. Film, it can be and has been argued, is wholly subject. The audience did not write the film, they did not direct it, and they don't necessarily know the characters or the stories, but they are still, eventually, the all-seeing eye that lingers over the characters. In a way, the audience becomes the all-seeing eye of God. We are granted visual access to everything by the filmmakers. And once the filmmakers are done making the movie, they become a sort-of invisible partner in our film-viewing experience. They made it, but it's in our eyes now.

But at the same time, the characters still seem to have their own universe. They may still be unreadable, ineffable humans. We can see it all, but we can't necessarily know it all. We can't know what the characters in The Master are thinking. We can only observe them. This is the complex interplay that is going on all the time in cinema. Whose eye do we have? Can we have any eye other than our own as an audience, or can we have proper mental avatars for a few flickering moments? I think this is what some people refer to when they say of a great film that they “forgot they were watching a movie.” They were so caught up in the film, that they temporarily, ecstatically lost track of their own POV, substituting the POV of one of the characters. For a moment, in a very profound way, the movie took the place of their conscious mind. Filmmakers are doing more than manipulating emotions. They are manipulating the very way your mind operates. Often unwittingly.

Films are almost always told in the third person. We are almost always going to be voyeurs to the action. The camera will be the silent third partner in any two-person scene. The camera will be the audience's eye. Occasionally, you'll have a film like Gaspar Noé's 2009 masterpiece Enter the Void, which is told entirely from within the very eyeballs of the main character. When the character blinks, the screen goes black for a split second. When the character thinks, we hear their thoughts vaguely echoing in their heads. And when the character dies, we see a bizarre, free-floating dream reality gradually constructing itself around his dead soul. There was a 1947 film called Lady in the Lake which was the first feature film to use the first-person POV to tell its story.

And, of course, there are plenty of films to have used the first-person POV briefly. Ever since 1960's Peeping Tom (which I have mentioned endlessly in the Free Film School), killers' POVs have been used by many, many filmmakers. Consider many of Italian horror master Dario Argento's serial killer movies. Often, the victims are seen through the eyes of the killer, and we tend to see the killer's hands doing the dirty work. Or the opening shot of John Carpenter's 1978 classic Halloween. The first several minutes of that film showed someone spying on a young woman, putting on a mask, and stabbing her with a kitchen knife. Heck, even Predator gave us dozens of shots from the killer alien's point of view.

It's odd how often POV shots are used to put the audience in the head of someone doing violence. My postulation: The killer POV is used either to give a kind of vicarious transgressive thrill to the audience, fulfilling any sort of violent fantasies they might have, or they're used to keep the audience off-balance, forcing them into the position of being the killer. By watching, you become the murderer. See what I mean about some films calling attention to the notion of audience-as-voyeur? By watching, you are changing it. Your eye alters the action. The world has changed by your mere presence. It's the quantum measuring version of aesthetics. There is an excellent 2005 Michael Haneke film called Caché, which is about a man who is being filmed by an unseen camera, and who receives the tapes on a regular basis. His behavior is drastically altered just by the fact that he knows he is being watched by a camera.

Much of the recent “found footage” films (from Paranormal Activity to Cloverfield) employ a similar notion in that all the action is going to be seen from the POV of a camera that is being used within the action itself. In the cases of first-person POV, the audience is invited to live in the head of the main character, or to more immediately experience what the main character is experiencing moment by moment. But the first-person POV is the exception to the rule. For the most part, the audience will be presented the position of a bizarre, disembodied consciousness who views the proceedings with a detached air.

Seeing the film's action from the POV of the main character is becoming increasingly common. Thanks to the popular genre of so-called First-Person Shooter video games, the notion of seeing all the action from within the main character's eyeballs is now a common part of visual film/video language. It could be argued that the first-person POV shot will be the inevitable result of film itself. Don't just put us in the scene. Put us in a brain. There was a single-take POV shot in the movie version of Doom that emulated the game perfectly. Strangely, it was the most dynamic shot in an otherwise awful flick. 

Sorry if I'm sounding a bit abstract in this lecture, but the notion of POV is right where the cinematography of a film intersects directly with the abstract notions of cinema. Where you place the camera goes deeper than just aesthetics and narrative. It also means you are moving the audience around the screen.

So the next time you watch a movie – any movie – pay attention to where the camera is. The filmmakers did that deliberately. They're not just setting up a shot and placing a camera in a certain place. They are moving you, the audience, physically around the room. With a smallish machine, they are pulling your eye into the film itself. You are now part of the cognitive space of the movie. Since the film camera behave so much like a human eye, film is unique in the way it draws in the audience to a special headspace. We are living someone else's dream.

Homework for the Week:

Watch Caché, or Enter the Void, or any of the films I listed. When you watch a movie, how “into it” do you get? Do you consider yourself part of the film? How important is the audience in dictating a POV? Do you feel the camera represents your eye, or the eye of a separate narrator? What kind of mental headspace are you in when you watch a film? When the camera stands in for a character's POV, do you feel more drawn in, or more pushed out? How do you relate to a first-person POV shot?

Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and co-star of The Trailer Hitch. You can read his weekly articles B-Movies ExtendedFree Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.