Looking, Hearing, Spying

In the latest episode of Mark Cousins’s The Story of Film: An Odyssey, a TV show airing here in the UK at the moment, it was suggested that sight—the fulfillment that comes from seeing something—is one of the key underlying themes of the Hollywood films of the 1920s. More specifically, he notes that the studios briefly and tantalizingly delay the desired object. Ultimately, of course, we do see, and our wish is joyously fulfilled. In a scene in Raoul Walsh’s The Thief of Bagdad (1924), for example, we’re made to want to see the Princess (Julanne Johnston) clearly. It’s a simple and unambiguous pleasure when our desire is satisfied.

Though D.W. Griffith discovered an ambivalence in the action of cinematic viewing years earlier (as in his presentation of the final kiss in True Heart Susie in 1919), it seems that any moral qualms suggested by this particular sort of almost-voyeurism are put on hold, as the studio system moves towards a fully formed method of filmic narration. In this sense, the morals of seeing a story told are tied up with editing: as the cuts become more invisible and the force with which we’re moved through the scenes to certain details increases, the ability to look away—to choose not to gaze at a particular area of the room—becomes devalued.

We need only to play Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) to see enacted literally before us the violence that surrounds an attempt to watch an event from the shadows. The moral ambivalence of spying on people—fictional or otherwise—appears again. The days when we can gaze without shame through the mosquito net of a princess are gone.

Buzzing around cinema from its very beginning, then, is the question of what happens when we watch from the outside. The notion of an audience—a ghostly presence undetected by the objects which it spies upon—is used in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), though the emphasis is shifted from sight to sound. Crucial to this picture is the motif of mishearing: a particular spoken stress missed by the sneaks in the seats allows the narrative to present its ‘ta-dah!’ moment, when we realize that we weren’t listening closely enough. It warns us, perhaps, that we’ve got to be on our guard when we deal only with fragments of experience: a stolen glance or an overheard conversation are never the full story.

In a roundabout way, these paragraphs set up a comparison between Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others (2006) and Coppola’s Conversation. The image of Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) excavating the threads of surveillance that laced his flat immediately brings to mind Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) sitting in his room, playing his saxophone, surrounded by the wreckage he’s made in his pursuit of a planted listening device. The effects of these two set-pieces are different: Dreyman, standing, pulls defiantly at the physical remains of a web of deceit—long dead—that he is now finally removing from his home; Caul, slumped and dejected, can only turn away from the situation and the uncertainty, surrounding himself with notes from his instrument.

These two moments present two differing views of the value of sight: Dreyman’s desire to see a ghost of sorts is fulfilled as he rips the chords from their hiding places. The action is steeped in the physicality of the thing: it’s an emphatic tear as whispers, suspicions and possibilities become corporeal in his hand. But Caul shows the despair that can occur if a hinted-at reality is pursued ad infinitum: surrounded only by wreckage and the invisible presence of his music, he sits as a warning against any hope that what we see is what we get. So, then, should we look through that mosquito net?


When he isn't busy writing about film, for his own blog as well as for the MacGuffin, Mark is currently studying English literature at Oxford University.

You can reach Mark via email, he doesn't have time for Twitter.

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