We watch films with a certain security. The events that occur, however violent, however immersive, and however uncomfortable, are never as frightening as they should seem. We know that these apparitions cannot harm us, for not only are they unaware of our existence as an omniscient spectator to their various plights, but they have no means of reacting anyhow. But sometimes, as we cower behind the refuge of the fourth wall, we find the characters staring back at us. And from this set of eyes gazing back, we are immediately made to form entirely different ideals, about the characters, ourselves, and the society that encapsulates us all.
Now that these characters know who we are and that we are watching, we are stripped of our sanctity. In Ex Machina, programmer Caleb hides behind a glass box as he converses with the world’s first proper artificial intelligence. He praises her linguistic skills and eventually comes to trust her and her naive innocence. But the android, concealing a semblance of duplicity, does not feel the same. Similarly, the important question for films of this nature does not pertain to how we feel about them but rather how they feel about us. Normally, we exist outside of this glass box that shields us from the entities within, but as the characters become aware of our presence, a sort of shift occurs. We become trapped. Although it would be simple to escape, to get up and leave or send the images on the screen to a quick cut black, we never do, for the confrontation is a fascinating one. It allows us to peer into our own innate emotions from the scope of characters who are technically fictional but real in all other ways.
Sometimes, the characters trust us; they treat the audience as a confidante or a voice in their head. In the Woody Allen cinematic canon, we see the fourth wall broken primarily to allow us to peer further into the protagonist’s head. Annie Hall begins as such: Alvy Singer stands in front of a white backdrop and summarizes his life and romance with the titular woman. This opening scene, while adding layers to his neurosis and allowing us to understand his motives a bit better, bestows upon the audience a level of intimacy. He talks in an amicable way, as if he were telling a story to a long lost friend. Because of this, we are able to side with Singer (although he is a bit crabby and domineering in his relationships) as we would any close friend; and because of this, we feel personally connected to the story. This is problematic but necessary, essentially blinding us to Singer’s faults but allowing us to overlook them enough to enjoy the movie.
Then see Stephen Frear’s High Fidelity, in which record store owner Rob Gordon begs us to answer why his relationships keep deteriorating. See Mary Harron’s American Psycho, a film that appears to stand on one side of humanity’s moral spectrum, yet perceive us on the other. It immortalizes serial killer Patrick Bateman who begs us to understand and condone his actions with a sort of desperation, as if our acceptance of his bloodlust was all he needed to continue with his killings with a clear conscience.
All three of these aforementioned characters, who either speak directly to the audience or recognize our presence, demand our empathy with this metacinematic ploy. Gordon and Singer are narcissistic, self-absorbed in their inability to discover their inefficiencies. Bateman is easier to despise. He is a psychopathic murderer with a six-figure paycheck and an apartment in the second-most expensive part of New York City. Yet when Hall eventually breaks up with Singer to move to California and Gordon’s girlfriend walks out on him again, both in answer to their respective flaws, we somehow pity them.
Perhaps this is a celebration of human loyalty or a metacinematic representation of its folly, but the characters’ perceptions remain unchanged: The collective audience is a good person; the collective audience is the answer to their crumbling self-esteem and the myriad of life’s other problems. While these characters see the good in humanity, others don’t. Sometimes the characters insult us. They expose us for our inherent perversions as movie-watchers. In Michael Haneke’s original Funny Games, a family on vacation at a beach house is taken hostage by a pair of delinquents who derive pleasure from their pain. The familial unit, the father, the mother, and their young son, are psychologically and physically tortured.
In one scene, the two kidnappers makes a bet with his hostages: if they’re still alive in 12 hours time, they win the bet. He then glances at the camera and tells us that he knows that we are there and rooting for the small suburban unit, revealing us to be his captives as well. In another scene about fifty minutes into the film, they leave the family, seemingly forever, offering them a window for escape and a time to mourn over the ones lost in the incident. When hope is finally replenished, the two killers come back: “We’re not nearly at feature-film length,” they proclaim, as if their only motives are to satisfy a sick audience embodied by our continuance in watching the film. We become stripped of the security of passive spectatorship, thrust into and out of the blameless role of captivity, and forced into a position of active culpability. We are no longer innocent audience members in a cinema.
Even in a film as old as 8 ½ do evasive ideas of society come to fruition. In it, a director with writer’s block finds himself tied down by what’s expected of him. In an opening dream sequence, filmmaker Guido Anselmi finds himself literally tethered to the ground, a kite on a string being held by his producers who wish to satisfy the public’s interests by making an accessible but bland film. The same perception of a cohesive audience-derived parasitism can also be found in Being John Malkovich, in which a portal to the actor’s brain is found and, promptly afterwards, turned into a spectacle for paying customers. These films condemn us. They recognize that we are choosing to spend time indulging in the lives of others rather than our own, intruding in these character’s lives in a way that is less curious than meddlesome.
And every so often we have a film that challenges us while maintaining its integrity and refusing to entertain the audience’s symptoms. Irreversible by director Gaspar Noé plays in reverse. It begins at the end, with a brutal beating at a nightclub after a long, drawn out, and painful to watch rape. In doing so, it ends at the beginning, in a time of idyllic happiness, where the main characters, still alive and well, enjoy life before being thrust into a world of chaos. Noe denies us any justified violence. He makes it impossible for us to enjoy the opening, unjustified and brutal, and in turn vilifies the violence that so often finds itself the centerpiece of cinema. The climax of the film is a scene of beauty and peace, as it truly should be. What does it say about us when everything is a buildup to more violence?
Sometimes this audacity proves easy bait for criticism. For example, prominent French film critic Jacques Rivette called Funny Games “vile” and “a piece of shit.” I am inclined to disagree. For that film and all films that intimately slander us have the bravery to force us as an audience to confront our own sicknesses in such a way that makes us answer for it, if only so that we may appease our own self-consciousness. Because of these locked eyes on the camera, gazing into the windows of our souls, what we are watching no longer remains mere social commentary, but rather, an indictment, a pointed finger, personal and caustic. Perhaps this is what makes the film’s antagonists so terrifying. They serve no purpose but to entertain that dark portion of our subconscious that we yearn to keep clandestine.
In an essence, Allen is the antithesis to Haneke; Singer and Hall are foil to the home-invaders George and Peter, and we are both puppet-master and puppet to all. What the latter sees as a fault of its audience, the former observes as a redeeming quality. By staring into the camera and trusting us, despite all of the trust issues, Singer is bringing to light the good in us as an audience. To him, our fascination with the plights of the characters isn’t a deviance or perversion so much as it is a sign that we actually care enough to spend two hours of our time playing pseudo-therapy. By staring into the camera and playing coy with us, George and Peter condemn us. We justify their actions, and we are terrible people.
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain ends with the director speaking into the camera, the film’s cast and crew surrounding him. They all turn to look at the camera. The director, who portrays the film’s primary character declares, “This is a film.” But you know it is not just a film, it transcends that sentiment with that simple aforementioned disclosure. The reality is what you learn from the film and what you do with that wisdom.
So the next time you watch a film and are inexplicably referenced, think of meta-cinema and how exactly our inclusion into the film’s universe becomes a reflection of how we are as individuals and a society. Ask whether or not these characters think of us as friends or freaks and how exactly they imagine our presence on the other side of the screen. Because sometimes, when you fixate your gaze on the lives of others, you may feel a pair of eyes staring right back.