I recently had the pleasure of hosting a special film screening of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). This is a great film and afterwards had the opportunity to discuss it with cinephiles, educators, and various filmgoers of all ages. Soon the discussion turned to other Hitchcock films, and ultimately, Rear Window (1954). I brought up film theorist Christian Metz and was astounded that most didn't know to whom I was referring.
Christian Metz was one of the most important film theorists of the Twentieth Century. He was instrumental in the expansion of film apparatus theory, in which film can be understood as a mirror or window into the unconscious mind of the viewer. In his book, The Imaginary Signifier, Metz further developed the psychoanalytical theories and concepts initiated by Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan. Metz builds upon these theories in regards to how we think about film within the concepts of desire, the body, the unconscious, power, and cultural taboos. He distinguished film from other forms of art in that the perceptual nature of film was both visual and auditory. Other forms of art, such as literature, painting, sculpture, and photography, are all perceived visually alone. Music is perceived solely aurally, with any visual stimulus absent. In contrast, cinema encompasses all forms of perception. That is why Metz points out that the cinema can be offered as a "synthesis of all the arts."
According to apparatus theory, as Metz explains, the so-called apparatus is comprised of the camera capturing the image, the projector relaying that image, the screen, and then the image being projected onto the screen. The filmgoer viewing the image, just as the camera recorded the film initially, can also be seen as part of this apparatus in that they are acting as a camera capturing the image being relayed onto the screen, recording the image once again onto the recesses of one's brain; a little confusing, I know. As opposed to projection, this is referred to as introjection. The viewer has introjected the image perceived and recorded it onto their internal screen, or memory. Referring to the viewer and the image in this way, Metz remarks, "Releasing it, I am the projector, receiving it, I am the screen; in both these figures together, I am the camera, which points and yet which records." For our purposes, to illustrate Metzian theory, the actor in the film will be referred to as the character viewing the action; while the spectator is the audience member, both participating in the voyeuristic celebration that is the cinema. Still with me?
Through apparatus theory, Metz considers that we enjoy the cinema through our passions for perceiving. The desire to see and to hear is a drive we all possess. As such, the cinema is comprehended through a number of psychoanalytical bases in our unconscious, such as mirror identification, voyeurism and exhibitionism, and that of fetishism. Via voyeurism, our desire to look is satiated. When there are multiple characters in a scene looking at one another, often one will look at another that is briefly unseen, out-of-frame as it were. The framing of the scene matches precisely to the angle from which the out-of-frame character is looking on the screen. The off-screen character's look is now being supported by the subjective nature of the image depicted. It is from their point of view that the spectator is watching, and the spectator is aware of this truth. It is in this way that the identification with what's on the screen can be seen, as Metz puts it, as being twice relayed. This goes to the heart of apparatus theory, with the spectator's need to perceive being satisfied through this voyeuristic act of looking.
Metz's theory is best evident in Alfred Hitchcock's suspense film, Rear Window (1954). In the film, L.B. "Jeff" Jefferies (James Stewart) is a thrill-seeking photojournalist, wheelchair bound after getting too close to his subject matter. He is adored by the high-class model and socialite, Lisa Carol Fremont (Grace Kelly), and looked after daily by insurance company nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter). Jeff spends his days watching out the rear window of his apartment, spying at the apartments and the lives of his fellow residents. After witnessing some suspicious activity, Jeff becomes convinced that one of his neighbors, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) has killed his wife. He then spends the rest of the film trying to convince others that this has indeed happened.
To illustrate Metz's theory, we can take a short sequence from a scene in Rear Window. This sequence, near the end of the film, finds Lisa and Stella trying to prove Jeff's theory by looking for the missing wife's remains buried underneath a rose bush located in the courtyard down below Jeff's apartment. The action is told through a series of shot/reverse shots between Jeff and Lisa. The sequence opens with Jeff in close up, remaining so throughout. He is facing frame left, looking out of the window down to the courtyard. He is peering through a 35mm camera with a long telephoto lens. The room is dark but Jeff can be well seen, as if naturally lit from exterior lights. He sets the camera down below frame, slumps slightly in his chair, and closes his eyes; he is concerned. He then rolls his eyes as he begins to think. He grits his teeth and purses his lips as things evidently did not go as planned. The evidence was not found to solidify his case against Lars. The camera straight cuts to a reverse shot of the courtyard, from Jeff's point-of-view. It's a long high-angle two shot of Lisa and Stella in the courtyard having just dug up a portion of the rose garden. Low-key lighting from the far top right of frame leaves the area encased in shadows. The off-screen diegetic music of a composer's rehearsal in a nearby apartment can be heard. Lisa leans over to Stella, as if to inform her that she has an idea. After a quick look at each other, Stella looks up towards the screen, towards Jeff. Lisa steps away from Stella into the background as she simultaneously looks up at Jeff and raises her arm to point towards what can only be Lars' apartment. She then hurries off towards the building located behind her. Stella places the shovel in the ground and hurries off to catch up. The camera pans slightly to the left to follow them. Lisa jumps on the fire escape and begins to climb up. The camera tilts up to follow briefly before cutting back to Jeff. He whispers in a panicked tone, "Lisa, what are you do.. don't do...." He quickly scans to his left into the courtyard to see if anyone is watching, before returning his gaze onto Lisa. Cut back as the camera continues to tilt up slowly to follow Lisa up the fire escape ladder. Stella is on the ground looking up towards the screen, towards Jeff; she can't stop Lisa. Stella quickly scans around the courtyard herself before running into the foreground and disappearing out of frame. The camera continues to slowly tilt up following Lisa's ascension. Cut back to Jeff to find he is visibly concerned. His mouth is opened in shock, eyes wide in disbelief, brow furrowed in apprehension. He tries to say something and quickly realizes it would be for nothing. Jeff sits back into his chair, relegated back to his function as voyeur.
The camera cuts back to Lisa, still in long shot. The view is still tilting slightly up to what is perceived to be Jeff's eye-level as we follow Lisa as she reaches the apartment landing. The apartment is well lit with natural lighting from two lamps visible in the sitting room, as well as unseen lighting in the kitchen and entry way. Lisa makes her way over the railing and steps quickly around some flower pots set about the landing and finds the nearest window secured. With her back to us, she does a double-take as she looks out to her right and notices the sitting room windows open. Quick cut back to Jeff, "Lisa, what are you doing, don't go...." Quick cut as we see Lisa climbing back over the railing of the landing and carefully attempting to step into the window, and then into the sitting room. She is successful and disappears from sight into the room. She is now in the apartment of the suspected murderer, Lars Thorwald. Cut back to Jeff as we see he is worried, he tries to speak her name but quickly realizes it would do no good. Jeff throws his right hand up in frustration as he once again is forced to sit back into his chair and roll his head around to get a better look. The look of frustration and concern continue to fill his face. His eyes grow wide again and his mouth hangs open.
The camera cuts back to Jeff's point-of-view as we see Lisa emerge from behind a curtain as the camera pans to the right, following her from the sitting room into the bedroom. Cut back to Jeff, eyes still wide, as he pulls the camera with the long telephoto lens up from below frame and looks into it. Cut to Jeff's point-of-view through the camera lens where we see Lisa in medium close-up. She is in the bedroom with her back to the camera. She appears to be looking into a suitcase that is lying on the bed. She pulls something out and quickly turns around towards the camera and at Jeff. She has found the missing wife's purse! Lisa holds it up with both hands along her right side as she smiles back at Jeff. She quickly turns to her right and delves into the purse. In profile, a look of disappointment comes over her face. She turns back towards Jeff. She winces with a disappointed look on her face, holding the purse upside down so that Jeff, watching from afar, can see that there is nothing inside. The scene continues with more point-of-view shots from Jeff to Lisa, and his reactions as she continues to search the apartment and is eventually caught by Lars, leaving Jeff to frantically call the police to try to rescue her from whatever fate Lars might inflict upon her. However, we only need to see the aforementioned shots to see how Metzian theory applies.
Initially, we notice that all the subjective shots in the sequence are eyeline matched from Jeff's point-of-view. The shots depicting Jeff are objective and not necessarily from Lisa's viewpoint. This is important in that it signifies Jeff as what Metz would refer to as the "all-perceiving subject." Jeff watches and akin to looking at a mirror, identifies all that he perceives with himself, even though he cannot see himself in his mirror-like perceptions. Lisa becomes an extension of Jeff's voyeurism, satisfying his scopophilic passion for perceiving; a passion which Metz might say is evident in Jeff's manipulation of the large telephoto lens, with its phallic undertones.
As Metz explained, as Lisa is looked at by Jeff, who is not in frame, Lisa is also being looked at, or perceived by the spectator in his newly assumed role as the eyes of the character. The spectator is seeing the framed action in place of the actual character, Jeff, and has now become the character as well. If this perspective is taken, then the out-of-frame character's viewpoint would be assumed by the spectator; the viewpoint of Jeff. This is what Metz refers to as being twice relayed. The viewer as spectator is watching the film in the place of the out-of-frame character, Jeff, with regards to viewpoint. At the same time, the viewer is aware of this and is also watching the film in his role as spectator. Being twice relayed as it were brings the viewer closer to Jeff as the viewer is, in effect, watching the scene through Jeff's eyes. The viewer’s gratification of the experience is heightened; he is part of the film, fully integrated as part of the apparatus of cinema.
Through apparatus theory, everything seen from outside of frame can be thought of as bringing the spectator closer to the film. The out-of-frame character and the spectator have this in common; they are both looking at the same point on the screen. In Rear Window, an interesting effect occurs as Jeff also assumes the role of spectator in his perceptions of all that surrounds him. Each small window that he peers into with his camera, binoculars, or with his naked eyes, can be seen as a film screen introjecting its image back at Jeff, working to further bring him closer to his subjects as well. The characters' need to look has been satisfied; so too has the voyeuristic nature of the filmgoer. Both have watched but safely maintained their distance from the object being perceived.