Look closely – What looks can tell us about films

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)  by Ana Lily Armipour is a modern western and a vampire film with a female lead. We will use a section of the film to find out how important the act of looking is for the critical understanding of films.

The pimp Saeed is confidently walking along a dark road when suddenly a woman* passes him by and shoots him a look. Shortly after, he stops, confused. We see his back; he feels like he’s being watched and turns around. Behind him the nameless protagonist stands and stares at him. He gets all up in her face, looking at her directly, but she holds his gaze. Misjudging from her makeup and the late hour, Saeed thinks the unknown woman* must be a sexworker. He invites her to come back to his place. But we, the audience, know better: the woman* has been watching Saeed the day before when he used violence against a sexworker. The nameless person stared at him in a threatening way, like a dark shadow. Then she magically disappeared. But Saeed doesn’t recognise her.

Scenes like this one grip us, we imagine ourselves as being part of the action and identify with the woman* as well as with Saeed. This is how cinema influences us during the film but sometimes also days later. It institutes a power that should not be underestimated. Especially because cinema is part of our reality and makes statements about current society. No matter how surreal the plot, many things will still remind us of reality. In films there are always power relations and imbalances that also shape our own lives – for example when women*s roles depend on the male protagonists.

So, watching films critically and thinking about what kind of society they portray is well worth our time. In doing this, the plot and characters are important, but cinema is also a very visual medium. That’s why we also need to address the way everything is portrayed, like feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey and others. Among other things, they realised that looking is an important concept in film analysis and built a whole theory around it. What a look – or rather several looks – in cinema can tell us, will be explained using another segment of our film. The protagonist has followed Saeed into his flat, but she keeps standing on a higher level near the entrance, while the playboy is snorting coke off the coffee table one level below. Saeed has turned his back to his companion, not letting on that he’s irritated by the supposed sex worker’s standoffishness. We watch the scene as if from the perspective of a third person. Saeed gets more and more unsettled; he jumps up and distracts himself. Finally, he invites the woman* to join him at the table but she declines. Again and again we see how the nameless person fixates him, then we watch Saeed’s vulnerable back from the woman*s perspective. We look down on him like a predator on its prey.

What looks can be discerned here? Who looks at whom? The looks the characters cast through the world of the film are most obvious. Sometimes we even take on their perspective as if in an ego shooter game. Which brings us to the second category of looks, namely the looks cast by us, the viewers. We look at the screen from a save distance forgetting our surroundings. The third kind of look mediates between our perspective and that of the characters. It’s the viewpoint of the camera. After all, we see what the camera has recorded. If these three kinds of looking are used in the right way, something powerful happens: we identify with the film’s characters and we feel as if we’re part of the plot. This magic is strongest when the looks coincide, meaning that we see the same thing as the protagonists. We experience a first person perspective. We look right through the screen, so to say, and into the film’s world, looking through the character’s eyes. Through this identification we also share their power in the film.

This link between looks and power can now be analysed. In a film, looking at people makes you powerful and active, being looked at makes you weak and passive. Thus, power relations between characters are conveyed via looks. And, because films are embedded in society, well known patterns occur: we watch the film from the perspective of the male protagonist who actively shapes the plot, while female characters are looked at and depend on the actions of the protagonist. Oftentimes, women* are just ornamental, just the trigger for men*s actions or maybe even the reward. This is why the look in films is mostly characterised by males. But sex/gender isn’t the only basis for injustice, skin colour, class, and other categories also play a role. But the filmscape is ever changing and each film needs to be analysed on its own. So, what power relations can be drawn from the looks in our case?

There is a discrepancy between Saeed’s relaxed attitude and the look the silent woman* gives him: Saeed is sure of his power because he seems physically stronger than her and he’s certain that the woman* will obey his wishes. But it’s the protagonist who keeps watching him, even behind his back. Her elevated position in the flat makes the actual power relations even more obvious. She’s superior to him and it’s her game and her rules. Saeed interprets this power play as a sort of seduction and keeps trying to meet her gaze. At last he touches her and the unknown woman* seems to be into it, because she opens her mouth in a sensual way. But suddenly, the secret is unveiled: she shows her vampire teeth – surprise! Saeed still thinks it’s a game and sticks a finger in her mouth, which seems to seal his fate. Indeed, the vampire bites off Saeed’s finger while looking at him with an expression of hatred. He sinks to the ground, the woman* hovering over him. Now she sticks his severed finger in his own mouth, then she drinks his blood. The situation has changed radically.

So the short intimacy was only the vampire’s trap to make Saeed throw caution to the wind. By analysing the looks, we already knew who had the actual power in the room. The woman* viewing Saeed’s back from above was the crucial camera setting. At the same time that’s also the last instance in which our point of view coincides with the point of view of one of the characters. We see as the woman*. The scene we have looked at is appealing because it plays with societal norms and partly breaks with them. Instead of the trick, the protagonist is powerful here.

In conclusion, we can say that films are political and therefore need to be critically analysed. While plot is important, the pictorial design is also crucial. So, let’s look more closely, let’s identify the oppression of women* in films – and let’s also stress exceptions!

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