The Power of Point of View

Synching Minds: “Butch Cassidy” and the Informational Plane of Point of View

Butch Cassidyby GARY YAMASAKI   The classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid makes for an intriguing study in  point-of-view crafting. Such a study could explore any of the three planes of point of view developed in earlier posts, but it is the informational plane that will be the focus of this post. The Oct 25/2012 post laid out the basics of the functioning of point of view on this plane. It spoke of how a narrator’s control over what information gets supplied to an audience contributes to whether or not the audience ends up merging with a character, with the key distinction being between the audience being limited just to the information possessed by the character (resulting in a merging, and thus, a sense of empathy for the character), and the audience being given information not possessed by the character (preventing a merging).

Point-of-view crafting on this plane is central to a lengthy chase sequence in our film. Butch and Sundance — notorious bank and train robbers of the Wild West of the 1890s — have one of their train heists interrupted by the appearance of a posse, initiating a chase that goes on for twenty-five minutes (nearly one-quarter of the whole movie). The feature of this sequence most pertinent to the informational plane of point of view is the way in which the six members of the posse are depicted. Their introduction into the story line is set up with the arrival of a single-car train, with the six of them bursting out of the car on horseback to begin the pursuit (35:03-35:08). Their emergence from the car is covered by four short low-level shots which, at first glance, appear completely unremarkable. But a closer look at these shots reveals that all four deprive the viewers of a good look at any of the riders’ faces.

As the chase gets going (35:09-36:26), the camera alternates between shots of Butch, Sundance and their men trying to escape, and shots of the posse going after them. In all, there are eight shots of the posse — from varying distances and angles — and yet, again, not one of them provides a clear view of the riders’ faces.

This is followed by a variety of shots of Butch and Sundance riding across wilderness terrain, with the posse nowhere in sight (36:27-38:10). As day turns to night, there is a scene (38:1-41:54) involving the two arriving in a town and setting up a scheme to give the posse the impression Butch and Sundance have just left, to induce them to keep going. The scheme does get the posse members to keep going, but not for long as they return less than a minute later. Their entire presence in the town is covered by one shot of them arriving, and one shot of them returning, and both are taken from an upper-level window behind them, thus hiding their faces.

And so goes the remaining sixteen minutes of the chase sequence as well, with the posse either not in sight at all, or in sight but unidentifiable because of distance. Further, Butch and Sundance begin wondering out loud, “Who are those guys?” which becomes a refrain as they fail time and time again to shake their pursuers.

Director George Roy Hill’s informational-plane strategy is clear. His filming of the posse members prevents their identities from becoming a part of the viewers’ information database. And since their identities are also missing from the information database of Butch and Sundance, there is a convergence of databases. Of course, director Hill did not need to film the posse members in this way. He could easily have alternated between having the camera with Butch and Sundance and having it in the midst of the posse members, giving them actual identities. But Hill does not do this, instead leaving them as identity-less characters, and in so doing, synchronizing the viewers’ information database with that of Butch and Sundance.

Actually, Butch and Sundance do eventually figure out the identities of two of the posse members (52:05-52:50 and 54:38-55:17), but the filming of their coming to realize these identities is done in such a way as to have the viewers add these identities to their database only as Butch and Sundance are adding them to their database, thus maintaining the convergence of databases. And as the Oct 25/2012 post pointed out, maintaining a convergence between the information database of audience and character contributes toward the audience coming to merge with the character, and thus, feel empathy for the character, to the point of siding with the character in whatever they do.

This helps to explain the climax of this chase sequence. Butch and Sundance end up trapped on a ledge, a hundred feet above a river (58:11). They are outlaws — the “bad guys” — and so one might expect the viewers would think this is a good thing, for the law enforcement officers — the “good guys”– are now able to capture them. However, the viewers are not thinking this is a good thing. Rather, they are thinking, “How can Butch and Sundance possibly escape this?” And it is the convergence of information databases, probably more than any other factor, that produces this sense of empathy for Butch and Sundance among the viewers. Such is the power of point of view on the informational plane.

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Categorised in: featured posts, point of view on SCREEN

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