Abbas Kiarostami’s Shirin (2008) has a crystalline simplicity: we’re watching an audience watching a film. The audience is made up exclusively of women, mostly Persian intermingled with a few interlopers, including Juliette Binoche, and the film is a version of the classic Persian love story of Khosrow and Shirin given a pulpish-sounding treatment. I say pulpish-sounding because we never actuallysee the film, we only hear its evocative soundtrack, and we only see these women who are watching it, enraptured, bored and everything in between. Kiarostami is a movie magician whose notorious misleadings of his viewers is an axiom all its own by now, and so we know that the “film” the women are watching doesn’t exist, and even the evocative soundtrack was assembled after the footage was shot. Where’s the there here?
Go ahead, characterize it – is it a “counter-movie”? Shirin focuses its corridor of vision 180 degrees from where it “should” be and trains it on the viewer instead, creating two movies in essence, one of them unseen and aural and suggested by the other. If cinema is voyeurism – and it is – what do we learn from all this spying on each other, or on ourselves? Where’s the “movie” in the middle of this Mexican standoff?
By training our gaze on the reactions of an audience standing in for ourselves, Kiarostami has, in his career-long fashion, forced us to face an uneasy mystery we’ve ignored since cinema began: that while we watch, we are vulnerable, brain-washable, tabulae rasae conduits of information, never suspecting that as we dream in the dark and sway to the light, we may be watched as well.
Buster Keaton knew it. In Sherlock Jr. (1924), as the daydreaming theater projectionist who nods off into the film he’s showing, he suffers the editing’s caprices, glories in the mise-en-scene’s matinee silliness, and, once awake, mimics cinema in his performance of love. It’s a beloved, serenely funny classic – but is Keaton suggesting we’re puppets jerking to the will of cinema’s strings? (Reversing the gimmick by having a screen hero step into real life, Woody Allen seemed to suggest as much as well in 1985’s The Purple Rose of Cairo.)
Movies that turn tables on the audience inevitably indict our relationship with film. Anthony Asquith’s A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929) opens that Pandora’s box with a spectacular 13-minute set-piece set in a moviehouse. Pointedly filmed without sound during the rise of synch dialogue, the screen isn’t visible, just the restless, bored and/or entranced moviegoers and orchestra (amid them, a psychotic killer and his clueless prey sitting not very far apart), as they enjoy a silent film and then, when the orchestra relaxes with big beers after the interim, struggle with how to watch (and listen to!) this newfangled thing called talkies. The unseen-sound-movie-within-a-silent-movie is only to be sparsely gleaned from the viewers’ faces. As if we care: the real action is the audience itself.
There are thousands of watching-movies-within-movies scenes, but certain examples get burr-caught in our brain pleats for a reason. In The Tingler (1959), where a murderous, spine-hijacking parasite menaces a movie theater and crawls over the projector, its silhouette creeps over *two* movie screens, the theater’s and ours. We are further confused with the audience-in-the-movie by pathologist Vincent Price, who breaks the fourth wall to tell us that the creature is under our seats, not in the movie, and that we should all scream to the rafters. With extra-cinematic carny showmanship, director-producer William Castle installed “Percepto” buzzers under the movie theater seats that sent shocks in sync with Price’s panic.
No serious cinephile will forget the theater scene in Godard’s My Life to Live (1962), wherein Anna Karina’s soul-withered heroine Nana views Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) in a pitch-black theater sans music, and openly weeps for the saint but also for herself, testifying to Godard’s belief that movies are not an alternative to life but part of its raucous flow. The moment is undoubtedly self-reflexively movie-conscious, yet we empathize totally, tenderly, tragically with Karina. Her tears are magically ours, in a triangulated suite of observed martyrdom.
Then there’s Malcolm McDowell’s act of moviewatching as Pavlovian torture in A Clockwork Orange (1971), except we do not share the character’s un infusion of nausea-causing drugs (maybe Castle would’ve come up with an answer). Still, what we see of the Ludovico Treatment’s cinematic aspect is not impressive; it’s Alex’s watching that’s arresting, the manner in which he watches (a perfectly Hitchcockian dream of an apparatus, clamping the eyelids firmly open), and his experience of cinema as a massively poisonous dynamic, capable of changing the viewer and reversing their inherent programming. How the Soviets would’ve approved of Kubrick’s film – or at least the third act, when Alex could be controlled by both Kuleshovian images and leather straps, long before the return to ecstatic hedonism.
So what does it mean to watch someone watch a movie? Sometimes it’s a dystopic nightmare (those shots of ‘50s audiences lined up watching 3-D movies with hundreds of identical white-rimmed glasses, oblivious to being photographed), sometimes a joke (the boys in Barry Levinson’s Diner parsing the medieval iconography of The Seventh Seal). Sometimes it’s ragged social commentary: is there a moviegoer-within-a-film as rueful and scabbed as Charlton Heston in 1973’s The Omega Man, roaming the empty streets of plague-devastated L.A., habitually dropping in to the Olympic Theater on 8th Street to run Woodstock (1970) for himself, over and over again, until he knows the “dialogue” by heart? There it is: moviewatching as a literal lament for the fall of civilization, the erstwhile America existing only as a movie utopia ringing hollow in the wasteland. Then there’s Woody Allen in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) finding salvation by watching the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup (1933), clearly and endearingly proselytizing for cinema as a vehicle for almost Buddhist enlightenment better found, I’d say, in the works of Marx than in the annals of Allen.
The scramble between movies and living, watching and being, can be disconcerting – Albert Brooks’s Defending Your Life (1991) had the temerity to propose an entire afterlife metaphysics dependent upon watching your own life replayed as a movie, and Brooks’s dyspeptic reaction to this horrifying process was as much a communal affirmation of cinema’s associative power over us as Karina’s tears. But amidst all of these postmodern slippages and their mainstream discontents, a hero emerges: Tsai Ming-liang, whose Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003) occupies the seats, halls, lobby, booth and bathroom of the Fu-Ho Theater in Taipei (since shut down) as it shows King Hu’s 1966 classicDragon Inn one more time.
We join the theater’s threadbare audience as we might compatriots in a summer park, often disregarding the movie and becoming whimsically engaged by life instead. Here, moviegoers are free to lazily chat, wander, screw, see ghosts, eat, doze and commingle, and we watch them, preferably in a like-minded Warholian state of flux and distraction, free of cinema’s gravity, and autonomous once again. Perhaps we arrive at Kiarostami’s point, in the end: it’s not just the screen that matters, it’s what happens in the seats.
Michael Atkinson is a film critic and author of two novels: Hemingway Deadlights and Hemingway Cutthroat.
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