There is a shot in Alexander Payne’s 2004 comedy-drama Sideways that stood out to me when I recently rewatched the film. The main character, Miles, spents a potentially romantic evening on a porch with his love-interest Maya as they talk about their shared passion of wines. At one point Miles expresses his profound love for the Pinot grapes, which prompts Maya to tell her own story of her love of wines. The whole conversation up to this point has been filmed quite neutrally in shot/reverse-shot order, but when Maya starts to tell her story of wines she moves towards Miles and the camera gets in there, right between the two. Therefore we, as an audience, also become the subject of her advances. Maya’s gaze is directed just off of the lens, creating a feeling that she is talking to you.
Right at that moment I almost literally fell in love with her. Phedon Papamichael, the film’s cinematographer, conveys such an utterly romantic and intimate feeling with that shot, it almost breaks you up when Miles chooses to ignore her advances and breaks the romantic spell.
For a while I really decided to write my next blogpost about this shot. It’s beautifully constructed and created a strong emotional response from me, BUT, in a way it also reminded me of another romantic (semi)POV shot, that I could not deny was just a bit more beautiful, just a bit more dramatic and interesting and just a bit more of a classic. So I wanted to shout out to the beauty of Papamichael’s shot in Sideways, but for this blog, it’s a shot that leads the way into the direction of one of the great romantic character-introductions I’ve known; the ‘kiss scene’ from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954).
“Film your murders like love scenes,
and film your love scenes like murders.”
A famous quote of Hitchcock and one of my favorites. It’s such a poignant quote to describe that brilliant way in which Hitchcock could manipulate an audience. When you have such utter control over the language of film as Hitchcock had you can make a gentle love scene feel tense as hell just as a horrible murder can feel like a temptation.
When I studied Film & TV-Sciences in Amsterdam, Hitchcock was one of the favorites to talk about in discussions on film theory. I remember all those articles about his tricks and styles. How he could express the balance of power between two characters by way of framing them against a certain background, how he used a dolly and zoom-lens to convey a sense of vertigo, how he related emotion to the distance between the camera and the subject, etcetera.
Hitchcock’s films are great examples of films who’s background theory is often as interesting to me as the film itself, maybe even more so. The attack of the birds on the school playground is tense when viewed, but it becomes absolutely captivating when you start to analyze the editing, filming and staging of that scene. Hitchcock’s films are often carefully constructed puzzles, or efficient suspense-building machines, and it’s equally as interesting to understand the machine as it is to experience its output.
In a way, when you watch a Hitchcock film, you’re so aware of its author, he almost becomes a character in his own movies, and I’m not talking about his cameos. Take the opening-shot of Rear Window where we pan en tilt across Jeff’s room. The camera carefully scans across relevant objects to describe Jeff’s character en storyline without using words. The camera movement is clearly guiding us, as if we’re on a theme-park’s dark-ride attraction. To me that camera move is so overt I cannot help but imagine that Alfred Hitchcock is controlling the camera (or us), I accept that the creator is a part of his own created world, that he is actively guiding us along the most enthralling route through his story.
That might sound a bit vague, but in most other films, when they are engaging, I do not imagine the director or cinematographer being present in the fictional world. I forget that the camera is actually operated. I just focus completely on the content within the frame. But in Hitchock’s films I never forget that there is a mastermind/storyteller behind it all. Which is neither good nor bad, it’s just the way Hitchcock films work. It’s like being an audience member at a magician’s show. You know you are being manipulated, and you know who is the one manipulating you, and you accept it and enjoy it. It doesn’t break the spell that you know it’s fake, or that you know who is the one that is playing the trick on you. As long as the trick is good, you’ll enjoy the ride.
And Hitchcock’s tricks were very, very, good.
So Grace Kelly’s character Lisa is introduced with a kiss. A kiss she gives to Jeff, but in a way also to us as an audience. And Hitchcock stages it with all the right amounts of romance and, yes, suspense, making it one of the great introductions in film.
At first we see Jeff, sleeping in his chair at night. Slowly a shadow crawls over him, as he continues to sleep. Suspense is rising as Jeff remains asleep and the shadow is rising up on him. It’s a classic suspense-building moment, more often used to announce danger, but yeah ‘film your love scenes like murders’.
Then we see Lisa, before Jeff gets to see her. And we see her in straight point-of-view. Lisa staring almost exactly into the lens. And where Maya, in Sideways, was framed off-center, suggesting the presence of Miles just outside of the frame, here Lisa is filmed head-on, dead-center, which creates such a strong connection between her and us, the audience.
Then when we go back to Jeff’s face he slowly wakes up and stares towards Lisa. When we cut back to Lisa the frame is slightly different. Her face is turned just to the left of the center (from our perspective) and her line-of-sight is more clearly directed off-camera towards Jeff. The connection between the audience and her is less overt, as if we momentarily thought that woman knew us and then her gaze passes by us towards the man she apparently was interested in.
Then comes the kiss, filmed from the side, in slow-motion and silence, save for the sensual sound of parting lips.
But for me the magic is in that one moment where we share a glance with Lisa. As if Hitchcock gives us just a moment to fall in love with her, secretly before Jeff notices. It’s a very sly trick to connect us to her, and even though it kinda breaks the fourth wall, it doesn’t take you out of the picture. Probably because it is Hitchcock we’re talking about. He uses these kinds of tricks and we expect him to. We expect to be played with, personally, directly by mr.Hitchcock. And this is just a wonderful demonstration of the tricks Hitchcock plays with (or on) us.
As a side note, I realize I never once mentioned Robert Burks, the cinematographer of the film (and of most of the films directed by Hitchcock). His work is brilliant throughout the film and this post could have very well been entirely about the way he used the light in Jeff’s apartment to create scenes of romance and suspense, how he used depth in the frames to tell all these interconnected shots, how he used tracking- and dolly-shots to gather all the stories into long takes, etcetera. But my blogpost was focused on Hitchcock’s quirky relationship with the audience and the way this One Shot played so well with that relationship. So this time the focus was not so much about the cinematography as it was about the relationship between a director and his audience.