The Illusion of Preference: Spectatorial Bias and the New Voyeurism in Modern Media

Pauline Kael once said that she abhorred the kind of “saphead objectivity” that so often permeated film critics’ ideas of how to write a review, opting instead to pepper her critiques with autobiographical anecdotes from her life and stories connected to the viewing experience of a particular film and its audience’s reactions. All of which begs the question: how objective can objectivity ever be? Who decided that that notion exists in the first place? Doesn’t everyone bring their own perceptions, desires and grievances to appreciation (or lack thereof) for a film?

The first example I can pinpoint is from January 2008, when I saw The Crucible (1996) on TV. Good gracious, what a horrid film (as I feel about all things Arthur Miller). Despite the mediocrity of the production, I found myself absolutely transfixed by Daniel Day-Lewis, whom I had never seen in a film before. Because this moment arrived in the midst of awards season, when Day-Lewis was winning a deluge of awards for There Will Be Blood (2007), I saw that film at a near-empty screening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. More followed: My Left Foot, The Last of the Mohicans, In the Name of the Father, The Ballad of Jack and Rose. Most of those titles were enjoyable but Ballad was deeply flawed, both in content and in form. Why does a spectator choose to keep watching a film, problematic as it may be, if not because of the bias attached to the love of an actor in it?

Continuing my teenage theme of romanticizing Brits with bright eyes, I developed a fixation on Ralph Fiennes after watching (of all things) Schindler’s List in my tenth grade global studies class in the spring months of that same year. (You can’t possibly loathe that uncomfortable truth more than I do; I’m still unsure how I was able to separate the actor’s unbelievably good looks from his character’s neverending onslaught of reprehensible actions without too much bother.) More healthy was the charm of Quiz Show, which paints Fiennes and all of the film’s actors in the golden light of ’50s-style retro cinematography. That infatuation was fun, but it also resulted in my watching a bunch of disappointing Ralph Fiennes movies. What a shame that I can’t ever reabsorb the two hours I lost while battling through the Fiennes-starring garbagefest known as The Constant Gardener.

Curiosity and obsession are two major vertebrae in the backbone of cinephilia, but how much are they supposed to factor into the job of film criticism? Lest you think me only concerned with theatrically-trained thespians (whew, what a phrase), this consideration is not restricted to critics/actors; A.O. Scott gave high marks to Laura Gabbert’s documentary City of Gold, a chronicle of Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold’s life and work which, for the record, I disliked. How much was Scott’s opinion of the film colored by the fact that it spins such a positive tale about someone working in the same profession? You never hear about the restaurants that Gold has trashed or lives he could have ruined with a single failing-score review.

Now we get to the heart of the matter. I really have to thank my brother for the latest and most cogent example, the subconscious implantation of a thought in my head that I didn’t even fully comprehend until a couple of weeks after it happened. In late November I found myself perusing the shelves of the Union Square Barnes & Noble, as I so often do, looking for the cheapest possible thrills in the sci-fi, horror and action/adventure sections. One title jumped out at me: Red Eye, a Wes Craven thriller from a decade ago. As a big fan of Craven’s work (I swear by the first two Scream movies as near-perfect horror/comedy hybrids), a growing admirer of Rachel McAdams and a devotee of silly but exciting B-movie thrillers, I figured Red Eye would be 85 minutes of deliciously absurd entertainment. And I was right, but the part of that viewing experience that really turned on a switch in my head was the performance by Cillian Murphy as the psychopathic villain terrorizing Rachel McAdams on her overnight flight from hell. Isn’t it strange for me to suddenly be hyperaware of an actor even though I have been watching him in films for years? Sort of like realizing that I’ve known another language for a long time but never before had a reason to speak it.

(It wasn’t until yesterday that I had my lightbulb moment: my brother had mentioned Cillian Murphy in passing while discussing different pop culture topics and the name must have stuck in my memory – et voilà, I was steered in the direction of Red Eye.)

Preoccupation with a pretty person: spectatorial bias in a nutshell. I could say that I chose to follow up Red Eye with 28 Days Later… (2002) and Sunshine (2007) because a) they were two Danny Boyle-directed films that I had never seen and b) they were two other genre flicks to easily get copies of, but they were also two of the most potent cases of actor objectification I could have asked for – Danny Boyle certainly did have a thing about extreme close-ups of Cillian Murphy’s eyes, didn’t he? (Then again Christopher Nolan felt that same fascination; he remarked in 2005, when interviewed for Batman Begins, that “I kept trying to invent excuses for him to take his glasses off in close-ups.”) 28 Days Later… is inundated with near-fetishistic imagery of Cillian Murphy’s body; there’s a symbolic purpose to our introduction to his character – awaking from a coma while lying naked on a hospital bed, simultaneously a rebirth into a newly zombified, post-apocalyptic world and a visual representation of vulnerability – but from what I have gathered in myriad reviews, apparently full-frontal nudity has the tendency to render untold numbers of viewers inarticulate regardless of context (says the woman currently writing her thesis on objectified bodies in ’60s sexploitation films, thank you very much).

I can’t claim to have any decent understanding of the other Danny Boyle film, Sunshine, but it certainly does have an overwhelming quantity of almost disturbingly flattering shots of Cillian Murphy, so those images fill in the gaps in your brain left by all the attempts to fathom the logic in Sunshine’s futuristic, interstellar story. Slow-motion turns, suffusions of brilliantly golden light fading into shadow – Tumblr users find a way to catalog every frame, like a new wave of digital librarians.

It’s a brave new world that we live in inside our glowing screens, where the nature of a person being a well-known actor means that potentially every image of the performer, whether posed for or not, can be framed in virtual photo albums on Tumblr and Pinterest, pictures uploaded to mainframes where they can be ogled by an infinite amount of consumers (and bloggers with an abundance of free time). At which point does a celebrity agree to the exchange that fame must transform their body into a spectacle that belongs to the universe? Or is it not supposed to be just a little bit weird that The Guardian once spun an interview with Cillian Murphy into a lengthy, kind-of-joking-but-kind-of-not paean to intensely blue eyes that might be “more famous than he is”? Should I not have cringed in secondhand embarrassment for the piece’s subject at the use of one of the goofiest words in the entirety of English, “peepers”?

The Internet has become our modern version of Rear Window, where fans, critics and those of us who own up to both labels can peer from a distance at the aesthetic pleasures of bright, shiny movie stars. No longer do you have to tape photos to bedroom walls that only you can see; Tumblr, Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter and wherever else images are disseminated have made the Web into one giant bedroom for all the planet’s dedicated fanboys and fangirls. I often wonder if there is something too voyeuristic in the posting, saving and reblogging of images of real people; we study them like artworks in a massive online museum. Should I pay so much attention to the melting boundaries between objective (insofar as it can be) cinematic criticism and the clearly subjective adoration inherent in cinephilia, and how these deliberations shape my writing? Or have I merely proved myself capable of writing an excess of text without substance?

Maybe you, my spectator, can tell me.

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