The Look # 5: Tilda and Arno overdo it

Orlando (Tilda Swinton) and Shelmerdine (Billy Zane) in the film Orlando Scene 54 Photo by Liam Longman © Adventure Pictures Ltd

I like it when actors break the fourth wall, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this occasional series, but I do think it’s a device that should be used sparingly. It’s clever once, acceptable twice, and more than that can start to seem smug — like the filmmakers are so pleased at coming up with this clever idea, they can’t stop doing it, forgetting that true cleverness usually involves having more than one idea.

One use that irked me slightly was Sally Potter’s film ORLANDO. Tilda Swinton, who plays both male and female in the film, is perfectly cast and perfectly suited to fourth wall breakage, since her presence is often borderline uncanny, especially when she’s not wearing comedy teeth. She knows that we know that she knows… I saw a clip of ORLANDO before I saw the whole thing, and was amused by her look to camera as Billy Zane rescued her from an equestrian accident. The look seemed to say, How can I, an art film character, be caught up in such a corny situation? It perfectly took the curse off the moment, and made me want to see the film.

But Tilda does it all the bloody time. It loses its impact, its humour and its cleverness long before the Zane/horse moment. The fact that Tilda, I believe (it’s been years) also talks to the audience actually helps, since you’re allowed to do that all through a movie — that turns The Look from a spot gag into a full-fledged narrative device. But mostly it’s just the mute look, and it wears out its welcome, rather. If it doesn’t bother you, I say this: imagine how great it would be if s/he just did it three times, evenly spaced. It would pack a wallop each time.

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Image from Eye Contact: Look at the Camera, a whole tumblr dedicated to camera-gazing!

FUNNY GAMES is a movie so repulsively self-satisfied and secure in its Important Message that it would be hard to know where to begin, but for the fact that I’m writing about looking at the camera, not about being an arrogant, not very bright prig who wants to give the audience a hard time. But I shouldn’t really be writing about it at all, since I walked out part way through. Michael “Happy”Haneke, the prig in charge, says that people who walk out don’t “need” the film, apparently believing that if you can’t bear FUNNY GAMES you are already cured of your thirst for celluloid violence. You understand that violence shouldn’t be used as entertainment.

I wouldn’t say that. I definitely felt I didn’t need the film, but I didn’t need it because I felt the idea was a stupid one, and not entertaining. Since I’m fully aware that violence in real life is not fun (for the victim), but I’m further aware that movies are not real life, my attitude to movie violence is neither simplistic condemnation (Haneke) nor simplistic enthusiasm (Tarantino). If it works for the film’s purpose and I approve of the film’s purpose, I’ll be OK with it.

Haneke’s failure to accomplish what he thinks he’s accomplishing (teaching us that violence is bad) extends to the people who like the movie as well as those who don’t. One friend praised it for being a dark thriller that tortures the audience along with the central characters, a tough movie you win points for surviving. Others praise the film’s “purity” since there’s supposedly no actual onscreen violence. Which I think is nonsense — in one moment we see a character blown away by a gunshot, though psycho-killer Arno then rewinds the movie so that didn’t happen. But it did happen, in the sense that we SAW it. And does it matter if a deadly blow happens just outside of frame, or offscreen? Do we class the forcible placing of a bag over a child’s head as a non-violent act simply because it doesn’t involve a blow or a gun-blast? This is a violent movie, about as pure as THE PUBLIC ENEMY, the only difference being we’re not allowed to enjoy it.

Arno Frisch’s looks to camera are designed both to alienate and implicate us, to make us more aware of the act of watching. OK: we get it. It’s perfectly clear, and moderately startling, the first time he winks at us. By the time he’s asking us if we think the good guys will survive, it’s old. And from the film’s wearisome, puritanical attitude, we ought to be able to answer the question confidently. To hell with all filmmakers who want the paying audience to have a lousy time.

Oh, I do think John Landis overdoes it a little in TRADING PLACES. He has too many characters do it too many times. I can allow the two leads their moments, but the guy in the gorilla suit? The real problem with this is not the individual moments, but the fact that evidently Luc Besson was taking notes. All Luc Besson knows about comedy is that if you have the characters look to camera in a very deliberate way, or at each other, you can fool the slower-witted or more indulgent audience members into thinking something amusing just happened. Luc Besson actually makes me angrier than “Happy” Haneke, which is inconsistent of me, since Besson I guess DOES want us to have a good time. My problem with him is he doesn’t want to put in the work or thought to make the fun happen, he just wants to create the hollow appearance of fun.

(Also, he’s a plagiarist.)

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4 Responses to “The Look # 5: Tilda and Arno overdo it”

  1. Haneke says he prefers the American remake to the German-language original.

    As for Tilda it should always be kept in mind that she doesn’t see herself as an actress. Derek taught her to be a filmmaker. In fact she shot the “Te Deum” sequence of War Requiem all by herself. She had the idea, told Derek, he said “go right ahead,” and when it was finished and he saw it he said “Perfect!” it saved him time and above all energy.

    As for Billy Zane, Tilda told me the ripple of his back muscles was utterly breathtaking.

    Looking at the camera is essentially Godardian. Godard was gobmsmacked by Harriet Andersson’s looking right into the camera in Bergman’s Summer with Monica. He had Anna Karina do it over and over again.

  2. Bertrand Blier described Godard’s mission statement, as he understood it (and tried to copy it, in a way), as: to expose the mechanics of cinema but preserve the emotion of cinema. So it’s not Brechtian alienation as such, it tries to achieve emotion while acknowledging what we all know anyway: films are man-made artefacts.

  3. Orlando might be my favourite unadaptable adaptation. Imagine you’d seen it in the right order – if you hadn’t been so charmed by the clip, so your reaction to Orlando’s first silent look to camera as she was about to visit the Queen hadn’t been disappointment. Since the fourth wall’s broken right at the beginning of the film it seems unfair to score every further look to camera as a count against it. Orlando’s alone. We’re her only company. We’re her wing man. These aren’t jokes, they’re looks for reassurance, they know what’s happening is odd. They’re the voice of the book and for me that voice is generous: if film really is a visual medium, looking to camera should be considered at least as valid a form of narration as voiceover, and no one wants Hordern to stop popping up in Barry Lyndon, because that is also lovely.

  4. I might feel different about it if I saw it now. I guess my rule for multiple looks to camera would be, Since you can only REALLY break the fourth wall once (it’s not self-repairing), if you want to look to camera multiple times, each one should have a new significance. If the character conveys something different with each look, then I can’t possibly object. If they’re just looking to show they’re clever, it’s going to get old.

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