June 20, 2013
On Ambiguity and the Camera’s Ability to Mislead
I grew up hearing that the camera never lies. That was a very long time ago, of course, long before digital cameras could add words or backgrounds to pictures, long before there were websites devoted to the theories that the moon landing was faked and that the now infamous photo of Lee Harvey Oswald holding a shotgun was doctored. My first real taste of things to come was John Berger’s documentary miniseries Ways of Seeing, which I saw for the first time in a film appreciation class at San Francisco State University in 1992. Berger’s documentary featured a segment not on how photos could be faked but on how they could be altered to shape one’s perception of an event – people could be de-emphasized, angles could be shifted, what had been in the background could be made to appear in the foreground. The possibilities were seemingly endless. Now I suppose they truly are.
Movies, on the other hand, have never been completely honest with us. Whether it was D.W. Griffith presenting a distorted version of history in Birth of a Nation, Leni Reifenstahl making it appear that Adolf Hitler was admiring some birds in Triumph of the Will, or one of the many documentaries that have been made for the sole purpose of establishing reasonable doubt about a criminal conviction, films have always been shaped or edited with a particular effect in mind.
The most simplistic form of camera trick is the flashback, for all a director has to do is present a story in a linear fashion and then simply roll back the clock to clear up certain events, and often the events shown in flashbacks are to be trusted as fact. For example, in Jonathan Kaplan’s 1988 film The Accused, audiences don’t hear the words of the prosecution’s key witness. Rather, they see them, and by using this approach, the director is sending the audience an unmistakable message: This is what really happened. Would mere words have been less convincing? This approach is much more problematic in Oliver Stone’s JFK, in which flashbacks reveal a version of reality that is filled with theories, innuendos, and unsubstantiated rumors. I imagine that there were many viewers who took what they saw as fact just because of how ingeniously it was presented on screen. Or take a more recent example, Joe Wright’s 2007 film, Atonement, in which we learn that most of what we have seen through flashbacks in the latter half of the film has been one woman’s fabrication. A surprise to be sure, but a pleasant one? It could have been worse, I suppose. At least, it wasn’t an entire dream like Boxing Helena or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
A camera is of course a controlled instrument, doing the bidding of a combination of people, from a writer who seeks to tell a story and the director who wishes to show that story as interestingly as possible to movie studio executives and producers, the wishes of whom are fairly obvious. It goes without saying that both the writer and the director know the ins and outs of their product. Orson Welles knew what Rosebud was, George Lucas knew from the opening scene in Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope who Luke Skywalker’s father was, and Lain Softley knew whether Kevin Spacey’s character was an alien or not in his 2001 science fiction film, K-Pax. These movies all involved the discovery of these facts, and I doubt audiences felt that their creators used unnecessary tricks to keep them in suspense.
This is not necessarily the case with movies about magicians or thieves. Movies about magicians often conceal the truth from viewers until it can be revealed at a pivotal moment, and movies about thieves often involve heists that inevitably employ the old “switcharoo” technique. And invariably, towards the end, most of these films employ flashbacks to reveal just how the tricks were pulled off. The problem comes when those so-called “ah ha” moments elicit looks of confusion or incredulity. Think of the ending of The Heist, when Gene Hackman checks on the gold bars in the back of his pick-up truck, Ben Kingsley opening the empty briefcase toward the end of Sneakers, or Paul Giamatti realizing that Edward Norton used illusion to frame an innocent, albeit ruthless man for murder in The Illusionist. In all of these films, the camera was part of the con or the trick, always positioned in just the wrong place so that the audience was not in on the secret.
Perhaps there is no genre of film that uses the camera as an instrument of deception so well and so often as the supernatural thriller. Think of the scene in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense in which Haley Joel Osment returns home to find his mother, played by Toni Collette, sitting across from Bruce Willis. In the scene, Willis and Collette do not speak a word to each other or acknowledge the other’s presence, and yet their silence is completely believable in the moment. Only later might one wonder what they were doing before the kid got home. Did Willis’s character even try to have a conversation with her?
For the first part of A Beautiful Mind, more of a drama than a film about the supernatural, we see events from John Nash’s perspective, and then we watch as the people Nash has come to rely on are devastatingly revealed to have been hallucinations. Was the film intending to mislead audiences? In this case, the answer is no, for if you watch closely, you’ll notice a brief view of Nash on the roof of a building apparently talking to no one. This is the view from the ground, the outsider’s view. Moments earlier, when the camera was showing Nash’s perspective, closer shots were employed, and it is in these shots that Paul Bettany can be seen. The technique continues to be effective upon repeat viewings. The same cannot be said for David Fincher’s Fight Club or Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects, both of which lead viewers to believe one thing and then shatter those beliefs in two of the most unconvincing fashions imaginable.
I recently sat down to watch Jack Clayton’s 1961 film The Innocents, and before I talk about it here, let me present you with a scenario. Let’s say you are a director, and the script you are filming is about a woman who may or may not be seeing things. In one particular scene, this character looks out a window, thinks she sees a shadowy, ghostly figure, and screams. Just how would you film this? One possibility would be to film a long shot of the woman turning toward the window, reacting to something she sees, and screaming. However – and here’s the catch – the camera would not reveal what – if anything – she had actually seen. The advantage of such a scene would be that the audience would be open to multiple possibilities. If, later in the film, it was revealed that the woman had indeed seen a ghost, audiences would readily accept it, yet because they had not seen a ghost earlier, the audience would also be able to accept that it had all been in her head. Part of the intrigue of the rest of the film would be discovering the truth.
In The Innocents, we see the woman turn to the window, and then the camera suddenly shows her perspective. Therefore, staring out the window with her, the audience sees what she thinks she sees, a ghostly, ragged looking man who inspires a sense of dread. The effect is instantaneous. The audience right away gets the impression that the woman lives in a reality in which ghosts are real and houses can be haunted. This is a fine tactic for a standard horror film, yet The Innocents is not that kind of film. It is a film that wants viewers to decide for themselves whether the house is truly haunted or the women is going mad. However, isn’t the audience’s ambiguity removed by showing it the eerie specter? Hasn’t the audience been conditioned to trust what the camera shows them?
The sequel to The Blair Witch Project used a similar technique to cast doubt on everything that the audience had seen up until the film’s closing scene, and tellingly, the instrument it used to convey this impression was a video camera. As the sole survivor screams, “Someone doctored the tape!” to a rather dismissive detective, we can’t help but think, “It must have been the witch!” This, I believe, was the point of the sequel: to enhance the legend of the Blair Witch, not provide resolution to the events in the first film. However, judging from the audience’s reactions to the film, they didn’t appreciate its ambiguity. They wanted resolution. Without it, negative buzz spread, and a much-rumored third film never materialized. Our loss.
My point is this. Some movies require much more of their audience than blind acceptance. They ask them to be open to the possibility that what they are seeing on the screen may not be real, that the camera may in effect be lying to them. This may seem like a betrayal of sorts, but keeping it in mind will enhance the moviegoing experience, even if the techniques used to conceal the truth from audiences are sometimes questionable and intentionally misleading.