The Power of Point of View

Using “Film Clips” to teach Perspective Criticism

514623QANFL-1._AA160_by GARY YAMASAKI   In my two decades of teaching, I have always enjoyed using clips from movies and TV series to illustrate various aspects of my biblical-studies courses. . .a moving picture being worth much more than just a thousand words. And I have found it especially helpful to show clips demonstrating particular cinematic point-of-view moves as a way of illustrating those point-of-view dynamics in biblical narrative passages.

Having my students view clips is often the most effective way to communicate point-of-view concepts to them. So, for example, on the very basic point that point of view in storytelling has to do with the angle from which an audience is led to experience an event, it is useful to show two shots from a movie of the same event, but from differing angles. The Hurricane (1999) is helpful here. This biopic chronicling the exploits of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter includes two shots of Carter (Denzel Washington) being stopped by the police, one early in the movie (8:49 – 8:57) taken from a gas station as his car and the police car pull in, and another later in the movie (45:19 – 45:23) taken from right inside Carter’s car–shots of the same event from two different angles giving the viewers this event from two different points of view.

As mentioned in Why Do We Pull for Jesus?, an effective spatial-plane device for leading an audience to adopt the point of view of a particular character is having the audience follow that character. In theory, it should be easy to demonstrate this dynamic in class simply by showing a movie in which the camera follows a given character throughout the whole movie, such as the treatment of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) in Apocalypse Now (1979). In practice, however, it is simply impractical to invest that much class time to illustrate a single point.

A more practical way to demonstrate this dynamic of following is showing an unbroken tracking shot following a single character over the course of several minutes. I have found just such a shot in the movie Snake Eyes (1998), in which corrupt cop Rick Santoro (Nicholas Cage) is introduced with a tracking shot over five minutes long (2:46 – 7:51) that follows him as he walks what must be nearly a quarter mile through various areas of an Atlantic City casino hosting a prize fight, interacting with several people along the way. Though none of these interactions are particularly significant in and of themselves, the cumulative effect of this relentless following of Santoro succeeds in having the audience come to consider him the point-of-view character of the movie.

The psychological plane of point of view–introduced in this post–involves dynamics difficult to demonstrate through movie clips. This plane has to do with  inside views into a character’s inner life, a device easily accomplished in written works simply with narrator statements such as “She thought that. . .” or “He was distraught.” But how are characters’ thoughts and feelings made clear to a viewing audience? A character voice-over could be used to convey what a character is thinking, but this is obtrusive. A director may try to communicate a character’s feelings by focusing on his or her facial expressions, but the viewers have no way of knowing whether these facial expressions accurately reflect the character’s true feelings, or simply represent a facade hiding totally different feelings.

One type of inner dynamic that is amenable to filming is visual data being received by a character’s brain, in other words, what a character is seeing. Film-making has what is called a “point-of-view shot” which consists of the view being experienced by a character. Usually, point-of-view shots provide only a few seconds of what a character is seeing, although longer shots are not particularly rare. One example is found in A Perfect Murder (1998). In the first half of the movie, Emily (Gwyneth Paltrow) barely survives a vicious murder attempt right in her own home, and the scene of her returning to her home for the first time is presented as an elongated point-of-view shot, with the camera moving forward at her walking pace, capturing what is in her sightline in one part of the house. . .and then another. . .and then another (1:07:42 – 1:08:03). Being placed inside her head to look out through her eyes, the viewers cannot help but witness this experience through her point of view.

Perhaps the most potent device for drawing an audience to adopt the point of view of a character lies on the informational plane of point of view. As outlined in Synching Minds, dynamics on this plane relate to a storyteller’s controlling the amount of information the audience receives, either limiting them to just the information possessed by a given character–thus forcing them to see the story world through that character’s informational point of view–or giving them details of which the character is not privy–thus providing them with an informational point of view different from that of the character.

A movie clip that does a good job of demonstrating the alignment of the viewers’ informational point of view with that of a character is the closing scene of the original Planet of the Apes (1968). The movie chronicles the exploits of astronaut George Taylor (Charlton Heston) who comes out of stasis in the year 3978 after his space craft crash-lands on a planet where apes are the civilized species, and humans are mute, primitive creatures. Taylor is held captive by the apes, and is looked upon with intrigue by two scientists. But when the political leaders discover he is a human who is able to talk, they see him as a threat.

As the viewers watch all of this, they are forced to work, every step of the way, just with the same limited information Taylor possesses. Like Taylor, they don’t know what planet this is. Like Taylor, they don’t understand how it could be possible that apes are the civilized species of the planet. And they share in Taylor’s surprise when, late in the movie, he is confronted with ancient artifacts that reflect advanced human civilization sometime in the past of this planet. However, the strongest sense of alignment with Taylor’s point of view comes in the closing scene of the movie (1:49:23  – 1:51:12).

Taylor has been granted his freedom, and is riding a horse along the shore of a sea, when he is stopped in his tracks by something he sees ahead on the beach, causing him to dismount and fall to his knees. The camera then shift to a shot of the top part of the Statue of Liberty jutting out of the sandy beach, revealing a key piece of information hidden from both Taylor and the viewers throughout the whole movie: that this planet is actually Earth thousands of years in the future.

This post has covered just a fraction of the point-of-view dynamics used in storytelling, and it has isolated just a sampling of the numerous movie clips that could be used to illustrate these few dynamics. But this should suffice to demonstrate the potential of using film in the teaching of Perspective Criticism.

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