The Implied Viewer
Comprehending the Categories
Speaking of Rosemary Baby, the cinematographer William A Fraker said that he knew Polanski was a "cinematic genius" when he set the camera up for a scene and the director asked him to move the camera to the left, leaving the actress Fraker was framing, Ruth Gordon, cut in half; "you couldn't see her legs, her shoulder, or her head." Months later, Fraker is watching the film in the cinema and fifteen hundred people are leaning their heads to the right trying to get a better look at Gordon in this moment. "Now, that's the power that Roman has." (Masters of Light) Polanski wasn't only making the film on set; he also had the imaginary viewer in his mind when filming. Not all filmmakers will quite have so clearly an implied viewer in their head when making a film, and filmmakers who do will be unlikely to have the same viewer in mind as Polanski collectively moved everybody's heads in the cinema by manipulating the image by a matter of inches.
We need to be careful about how we make such a claim; after all, film is both a collaborative medium and also an incremental one: it is an art form that goes through stages of production and distribution much greater than in most other forms of art. A painter may have to deal with a gallery and might not feel that the framing of the canvases and the lighting in the venue are ideal but a typical film would have a script that is then cast, a director who would add camera angles to turn it into a shooting script, a cinematographer with various assistants, a lab that would process the film, sound designers altering the sound levels, and a projection that could change the intentions of the filmmaker. William Friedkin speaks of how controlling a director might feel obliged to be even after his film has gone out to the public. With both The French Connection and The Exorcist, Friedkin says, he and a few others "took turns showing up in all the theatres...before the picture opens and setting the light level and the sound level in the theatre." "No matter what you here", Friedkin says, "the projectionist has final cut always." (Directing the Film) Steven Spielberg may be as manipulative a filmmaker as any but he altered the film's most famous line, you're gonna need a bigger boat, after preview screenings: "Between catching his first glimpse of the great white shark that gives Jaws its name and uttering the Steven Spielberg film's most memorable line, Roy Scheider's Martin Brody staggers in stunned silence for 17 seconds. That wasn't always the plan. The film's early cuts put the quote much closer to the big reveal. When howling test audiences didn't shut up in time to hear the line, though, editors reinserted footage of a stunned Brody stumbling backward to ensure crowds would quiet down by the time he made the quip." (Esquire) It is unlikely a painter will add a bit of colour to a painting after a gallery opening (no matter the red buoy Turner reputedly added to one painting at an exhibition), or a novelist go back and rewrite a passage after people didn't quite laugh as much as the novelist would have liked at a funny bit. But film is often the most pragmatic of arts, the one with many pressures placed upon it and the most compromise expected of it
Nevertheless, when we speak of an implied viewer this is where the filmmaker has the film more or less in their head and confident in how the viewer will later respond to it, and thus why we open with such a fine example of it in Fraker's anecdote about Polanski's craft. Yet we might also call this the categorical viewer, as opposed to the perceptive or the perplexed viewer. What we notice in these anecdotes about Polanski, Spielberg and Friedkin is the mastery of their craft but also the need to master the viewer. They are all decisive filmmakers but also in the best and occasionally the worst sense of the term manipulative ones. If we think of a scene near the beginning of Hal Ashby's The Last Detail, we may notice how only the perceptive viewer is implied. A couple of marines are taking a prisoner across the states and Meadows is handcuffed as they pass through the bus station and get on the bus. Meadows passes a sweet stall at the station and we see the prisoner from behind moving along and then see, once he is on the bus and after they have been travelling for a while, Meadows eating various items. The others ask where got them from and he says: "I had them with me." But if we look closely enough when they are at the bus station there is the briefest of moments where Meadows seems to pause and where he has presumably snatched the sweets. The film offers no close-up on the candy at the station and Meadows is seen throughout from behind. But we can say with reasonable confidence if we look closely enough that he has almost certainly stolen the sweets. It is for theft that he is being imprisoned: for stealing from a charity fund.
Such an instance is very different from the one in Rosemary's Baby even if both are giving us partial information. In Polanski's case he wants us to work very hard at seeking more info than he provides us with, but however perceptive we happen to be, we cannot infer more information based on the info Polanski provides. Polanski wants to control the viewer's perception; Ashby wishes to activate the viewer's observational skills. Ashby may have said of his denouements: " I like to leave a little bit of an enigma there about exactly what it is because I think that's what makes it not a totally down kind of an ending." (Cinephilia and Beyond) But it isn't only his endings that need be enigmatic; a given scene can contain its own ambiguity and thus leave the viewer room both to perceive carefully and surmise confidently, without the scene at all being categorical. Sometimes though this ambiguity can come about through a failed assertiveness on the filmmaker's part or a failed perception on the viewer's. Writing on Danny Boyle's Steve Jobs, a director and a film that would seem to have more to do with the assertiveness of a Spielberg than the open aesthetic of an Ashby, Kyle Barrowman sees the fault as his. In a scene where we see Jobs in a lift, "as it relates to Steve Jobs, I had correctly described the scene in question - namely, as a solitary moment of silence experienced by Jobs - but I had failed to correctly understand the scene in question - namely, as a solitary moment of silence the quickness of which Jobs was grateful for, as opposed to my misunderstanding of it as a moment of silence which Jobs was hoping would last for considerably longer." (Movie) Barrowman initially interpreted the scene in a way that indicated it was all about the quiet moment Jobs has to himself but according to Boyle and Sorokin, it emphasised all the more the internal noise in Jobs's head. Barrowman assumed it was about a few moments Jobs had to himself, Boyle and Sorokin insist that it is about the problem of Jobs' interior thoughts that he would wish to escape.
It is not for us to say whether Barrowman is right or not in realising he was wrong. As he says, he described the scene accurately but misinterpreted its meaning, and his more general point rests on why we should be wary of eradicating authorial intentionality from a work, utilising some ideas from Stanley Cavell that are resistant to intentional fallacies. "Thus, to Cavell's mind, contra Beardsley and Wimsatt Jr., first, the existence of artworks (that is, their being what and as they are) is by no means simple, and, second, artworks (insofar as they are intentionally made by individuals to communicate ideas) do not merely invite or allow for investigations of intention, they require such investigations." (Movie) Barrowman feels that without comprehending the authors' intentions, he would have continued to misunderstand the scene and while we might wonder whether the filmmakers should have made their meaning clearer, or Barrowman should have been more astute to the scene's meaning, Barrowman's general point is that intentionality has its place. That place as he notes, through Cavell, can be complex, and go beyond either the notion of a specific author, or may even seem contrary to what the author says about the work. Cavell notes that "everything depends upon how the relevance is, or is not, acknowledged. Suppose [Fellini] says, 'Of course! That's just the feeling I had about my character when I was making the picture. Odd the story never occurred to me'. Or: 'How ironic. I had tried to translate that story into a modern setting several times with no success. Here, without realizing it, I actually did it'. In such cases I am inclined to say that the relevance is intended [...] [as opposed to] unconscious. [The latter] may well describe certain cases, but its usefulness will have specifically to be made out." Cavell goes on to say, "what would prompt it here is the idea that intentions must be conscious - the same idea which would prompt one to deny that Fellini can have intended the reference if it hadn't occurred to him at the time, if he hadn't been aware of it. But [...] to say that works of art are intentional objects is not to say that each bit of them, as it were, is separately intended." (Movie) Barrowman also sees that intentionality needn't be specifically authorial. "...It is hard to imagine Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) being so profound without the 'underdog' character arc of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio). In particular, Dalton's breakdown in his trailer after a rough day on-set followed by his 'comeback' is one of the standout sequences in the entire film." (Movie) But the point is that this was Di Caprio's contribution. "The idea to have Dalton mess up his lines was DiCaprio's, not Tarantino's." (Movie)
Such comments are useful in escaping from the common-sensical assumption that if we want to know what a film means all we have to do is ask the director, and also, conversely, the perverse but well-established idea that to ask about a work's intentions, and certainly to assume that somebody can give us an answer to those intentions, is naive. From Monroe Beardsley to Roland Barthes, from intentional fallacies to the death of the author, the notion of distrusting the artist's perspective on their work is well-established. Our purpose isn't to take sides in a bun fight, however, evolved, but to be pragmatic about how assertive a creator may be in generating a meaning or affect they wish to convey. In the example from Rosemary's Baby, Fraker makes clear that Polanski's intentions were very intentional indeed, but we wouldn't be surprised to hear that Randy Quaid swayed his body in such a way that the viewer could infer that he had stolen the sweets. Clearly, we know Fraker followed Polanski's instructions rigorously because he tells us he did; while we are speculating over the depiction of the theft in Last Detail. But whether Fraker revealed this or not, we could see that the framing in Polanski's case is very deliberate it suggests a high degree of intentionality. In Ashby's it is less clearly so. This doesn't mean that Polanski was careful and Ashby sloppy; that Polanski insisted the viewers would crane their heads, while Ashby didn't care whether the audience noticed the theft, it is more that in Rosemary's Baby Polanski wants to control the viewer's response; Ashby allows, it seems, for a viewer to see the moment or to miss it.
Thus rather than saying that an artist's intentionality is validly incorporated into understanding the work or otherwise, one wonders how intentional a moment appears to be. If Polanski and Fraker were to say they didn't think too much about the framing in the film we would register far greater surprise than if Ashby said he wanted the viewer to be aware of Meadows's stealing. Ashby's work, like Robert Altman's and numerous directors of the seventies, wanted a looser style, influenced perhaps by Direct Cinema documentary films of the 60s, and none more so than Frederick Wiseman's. As Tom Grierson says, "Wiseman's fly-on-the-wall movies ask you to soak in the experience and learn the mores of the locale on your own...Of feature filmmakers, Robert Altman was perhaps most similar to Wiseman's style: Both men made movies that throw you into a foreign environment, trusting that you're smart enough to figure out the signposts as life went on as usual." (Paste) Hamish Ford discussing what he sees as the porous frame, in Altman's work, says, "this enlarged freedom, initially at least, tends to work against the kind of distinct cinematic style and "vision" celebrated in the work of other filmmakers marked by carefully composed images forged via fastidious lighting set-ups, precise framing and the careful control of mise en scene." ('The Porous Frame') Obviously, Altman hasn't pointed the camera randomly but he has created greater freedom within the screen space, with the often long lens picking out details or half-ignore them as a close-up cannot. Like Ashby, for all their differences (Ashby is far less inclined to use the zoom than Altman), Altman seeks a perceptive viewer attentive to the specifics of human behaviour.
In Altman's later 90s work, Short Cuts this is still evident. Focusing on twenty-four leading characters in Los Angeles, Altman never allows the space merely to tell the story. Focusing on characters across the social divide, from news readers to surgeons, from waitresses to cops, from painters to cellists, Altman is always at least as interested in the spaces he shows us for their sociological detail as for their dramatic content. While we might wonder if the couple in Rosemary's Baby can afford an apartment in an exclusive New York location, with the husband a struggling actor and his spouse a housewife, in Short Cuts you feel that Altman has given thought to every character's spending capacity and real estate possibilities. He also often shows characters entering or exiting apartments, not simply to move us onto the next aspect of the story but so that we can briefly dwell on their dwellings. This makes narrative sense with some characters and none more so than helicopter pilot, Stormy Weathers (Peter Gallagher), who returns to his former home and unable to cope with the impending divorce, starts to buzzsaw the furniture. But Altman offers the same interest in property whatever the character's story. Rather than adopting an establishing shot that leads to an interior shot, Altman frequently uses the telephoto lens to give us a sense of the character within their environment. In one shot he shows us Zoe (Lori Singer) playing Cello by her window; in another, he offers an interior shot that shows another character Honey meeting up with her waitress mum, Doreen. Doreen (Lily Tomlin) lives in a trailer park and her cramped home isn't captured externally as an immediate metonymic, sociological judgement, but as a limited space reflecting Doreen's limited options. The way she holds her cigarette shows that she has numerous things on her mind rather than a specific crisis to hand even if one of the key elements of the story is the child that she ran over the previous day. Yet she tells us this just after her daughter has insinuated Doreen's husband sexually abused her: an unfair claim Doreen thinks since it happened only once and that her daughter has told the story many times. At this stage of the film, we might assume that the apparent abuse is of more significance than the boy's injuries. The accident initially seems minor but by the end, the boy will die because of it. Altman's style indicates that time and space are murky, that a story of abuse can mingle with an anecdote about a car accident, and that visually he must capture this flow of existence in a camera style which needn't give a clear sense of priority: to mark a categorical narrative point. When Polanski shows us Gordon partially within the frame it is to register a shift in the story, to tell us this is literally the neighbour from hell. When Altman frames so casually, he does so to indicate the story is a constantly shifting thing, a sort of narrative tectonics that Altman, so often filming in California, gives narrative meaning to as he ends the film on an earthquake.
Like Ashby in The Last Detail, Altman asks us to observe the story as readily follow it. The implied viewer in this instance needs to be attentive rather than alert, to observe how much is going on rather than attempt to second guess the through-line of the plot. Polanski offering a partial view of the neighbour is consistent with foreshadowing but the director is such a master that he wants to make this as subtle as he can. "In real life, bad guys look like everyday peopleyour next-door neighbor, your co-worker, even the person sleeping right next to youwhich is terrifying in its own right. But in movies, filmmakers will often use cinematic tools to alert audiences to their character's hidden nefariousness, especially when it comes to lighting." V Renee adds as examples, "uplighting (lighting from the bottom of the face), skull lighting (lighting from the top to create a skull effect on the face), and silhouette (lighting behind your subject to put them in complete shadow)." (No Film School) But Polanski relies more on the framing over the lighting and creates greater disquieting villainy than we might expect. Yet a villain Ruth Gordon is. Polanski wants to convey this without doubt even if with some nuance, and the film remains disturbing as we cannot place the terror generically. Polanski wants to make a film that will scare us but that isn't simply a horror film and wishes to manipulate the audience assertively without doing so in a manner that would lead viewers to think of the genre over the terror.
Fraker says two of the ways Polanski achieved this was by creating a very mobile set and using only two lenses. The walls of the apartment were moveable to create a camera that could prowl wherever it wished, and Fraker and Polanski used 18mm and 25mm lens. These gave the impression of a weight on the audience's shoulder, something they couldn't quite notice but couldn't deny and Polanski, a master of oppressive environments and enclosed spaces, wanted the viewer to feel not just the presence of villainy but its encompassing presence. Lighting someone to look evil wouldn't have been enough; it needed to be in the choice of lens and camera movement especially. Yet all of this was to further the story, to make the audience feel something categorical. The implied viewer here is as categorical as Altman's viewer is observant. It isn't that we won't notice various details in the film like the food that seems almost aggressively presented, or the flowers Rosemary receives which seems an exaggeratedly large bouquet: it all but blocks her vision and crowds out the frame. These aren't details we observe as we notice or fail to notice Meadows' theft or Altman's insistence that we notice the spaces in which people live. In Polanski they are ferociously determined to create a subconscious sense of menace.
But what about the perplexed viewer; one that generates a filmic vision that leaves the viewer unsure what to make of the images created? Examples include films by Godard, Resnais, Bunuel and Lynch filmmakers who create worlds that break with the diegesis, create troublesome continuity and paradoxical psychology. The directors often place the camera inexplicably and offer a sound design that breaks with expected audio-visual coordination. Let us take the latter first. In Godard's Pierrot le fou, he shows us a part of the image of Van Gogh's Cafe Terrace at Night. In voiceover, we hear one of the characters saying "I saw the cafe where Van Gogh decided to cut off his ear. "You're a liar," the other says. "What did you see?" "I saw..." as the film shows us the two characters sitting on the side of the road, and the comment about Van Gogh seems a non sequitur. From a certain perspective it is: there is nothing in the narrative continuity to indicate it has a place but we might wonder if it reflects on the film rather than allows us immediately to comprehend it. The film has moved south and the characters are now occupying locations the impressionists made famous, and Godard's purpose is to show that any image he films has already been painted: that any recording of reality aesthetically also passes through the history of the image more generally. Moments before we hear Pierrot and Marianne arguing, we have seen them pass through the countryside in images that conjure up impressionist and post-impressionist works, ones we have seen on various walls in earlier scenes in Paris. It is neither quite sequitur nor non-sequitur but tangentially significant.
The music as they walk, skip and run isn't contrary to the freedom they may feel having escaped Paris after Marianne is chased by hitmen, but then the music cuts out suddenly as the film offers the voiceover. We may note too that while it looks like the sequence is one idyllic walk in the countryside, Marianne starts out wearing a dress and a cardigan but is then seen wearing a combat jacket, trousers and a cap. Throughout Pierrot has a book he holds on to that indicates this is a continuous sequence but the change of clothing makes us think it is a different one. Is this bad continuity or is Godard seeking a different relationship with the image than that offered by Polanski, or Ashby and Altman? Is he implying a different kind of viewer? We may well observe the shift in clothing but what are we then to make of it? If in The Last Detail we can infer that Meadows has stolen the candy, what inference are we to offer concerning the changed clothing? In a film that emphasises observational inference, the changed clothes would make clear that it is a different time, that hours or days have passed and we just need to be aware of the clothing to comprehend the shift. Godard implies a perplexed viewer because even if the viewer has been attentive to the clothing it doesn't clarify the temporality. Pierrot is still holding the book and also carrying the jacket we have seen him wearing a few moments earlier. It is as though he is in one continuous temporality but Karina is in another. Hence the perplexed.
Godard seems to be taking further the problem the image creates that Resnais offered in Hiroshima, mon amour. At the beginning of Resnais' film, the two leading characters discuss what she has seen in Hiroshima and her Japanese lover tells this French women, "you saw nothing in Hiroshima, nothing", while we watch what she did see in the Japanese city. She says she was hot in Peace Square and mentions that it was 10,000 degrees. But she would, of course, have been seeing it years after the nuclear explosion as we are offered images of the city that we don't doubt that she saw, even if we might wonder how much she witnessed. Resnais more than any director before him complicated the idea of reliability of memory and film's assumption about what it chooses to show. Usually, when a film moves into flashback or describes what a character claims to be seeing, the viewer takes for granted that what we see and what we are told are consistent. When in Citizen Kane, Leland Archer starts to discuss his friendship with Kane we might wonder if his perspective isn't a little skewed by the friendship that soured, but we don't distrust the images we are shown. When the audience sees Kane and Leland despondent after an election campaign, there is little to make us doubt that the event happened as it did. When a few years later in Stage Fright Hitchcock related a character's story and moved into flashback to show it, the viewer felt cheated when later in the film it was revealed to be a lie. Hitchcock allows the viewer to trust the flashback because there is nothing to suggest we should distrust it until late in the film, while in Rashomon, Kurosawa uses numerous flashbacks from different characters' perspectives to ask us to wonder which might be true which false since they can't be simultaneously true. If in Citizen Kane, Kane remains an enigma we needn't assume that the perspectives offered upon him are incompatible, as the flashbacks in Rashomon are, but that doesn't make Kurosawa's film a cheat and Welles' not, while Hitchcock's is usually taken to be, and by utilising the notion of an implied viewer we can offer some sort of answer.
In Citizen Kane, the viewer is given an enigmatic figure and in Rashomon an enigmatic event. The enigma of Kane is the purpose of the film and can contain different views upon him, just as in Rashomon the purpose rests on the various positions on a given situation it is a film about the ethical and epistemological problems of an event as the priest hears various versions and makes an assumption about the truth based on the behaviour of one of the characters at the end of the film. It is in this sense expecting an observant viewer who can sift through the unreliable narrations and seek some reliability, just as Citizen Kane expects us to make the best sense we can of this man who nobody quite knew or understood. We are expected to take a nuanced perspective on character (in Welles' film) and situation (in Kurosawa's). Hitchcock, though, creates a categorically implied viewer who needn't look out for the unreliability of an event since, in showing it to us in flashback without any suggestion that it ought to be read questionably, it must be true. Instead, it doesn't only suggest a character has lied but the filmmaker has lied also. It is our status as a categorical viewer that creates the problem. But just as in Rashomon, Kurosawa allows us to observe and make claims based on our observation, those claims aren't of much use in Pierrot le fou and other perplexing works even if we have to apply our perceptual categories nevertheless. When in Hiroshima mon amour, the female central character lists all the things she has seen in Hiroshima, and her Japanese lover says she has seen nothing in this city, it is perplexing because she has seen what she has seen, and we are viewing what she has seen as she makes the claim. But it is as though Resnais insists that seeing takes various forms and what she has seen is retrospective and partial, and cannot count as seeing in the eyes of her lover. In Resnais' next film, he retreated from affectivity and advanced epistemologically in other words, the emotion that is central to Hiroshima mon amour and casts only certain things in doubt, becomes all but absent in Last Year at Marienbad, where what is seen becomes troublesome indeed. When the man says that the woman turned aside to gaze down the boardwalk, again the man is speaking in voiceover but the image shows us no such thing. The camera is prowling through a room full of people. However, unlike Hitchcock, the film doesn't play unfairly within its fairness, like Stage Fright, but plays fair within its unfairness. Early on the film places us in a precarious relationship with its very images when we notice that a character who is standing against a painting as the camera passes from one room to the next, then shows up entering the frame as if he has been duplicated or can move through space freely. Resnais doesn't wrongfoot us near the end of the film but at the beginning as he insists the implied viewer remains constantly perplexed by the images they see.
By the time Godard made Pierrot le fou in the mid-sixties, the refusal of numerous filmmakers including Godard and Resnais to create images that can be completed by the categorical, or the observational, led to a freedom that left those, who were unwilling to acknowledge their role as perplexed, appearing naive. One may choose to see Karina's costume change as a continuity error since films are full of such mistakes, but this seems to be more than just poor continuity. It appears part of the freedom Godard insists in giving both to himself and to the viewer. In contrast, when in Pulp Fiction one notices bullet holes on the wall before the two hitmen fire at the kids in the apartment, we may assume a mistake since there is nothing in this most categorical of films to indicate we should read it otherwise. Sure, there are people online speculating over their presence, trying to find justification for the holes by proposing there have probably been other attacks in the place before. But as there are numerous other small errors in the scene (a briefcase the two assassins seem to leave behind, though in the following scenes they have it; a paper bag that is folded in one shot and standing up the in next) we can assume error. It is by becoming an observant viewer instead of a categorical one, and by understanding our viewing role, that we notice mistakes which aren't relevant to following the story. Part of the story in Godard's case is undermining the very diegesis we are following: that the categorical viewer who follows the plot, and the observant viewer who looks at the details, will find that the plot is constantly digressing. The characters pass through the South of France (hardly on the run at all but enjoying the Impressionistic landscapes in which they find themselves), and we note that the details are inconsistent. It isn't only that the viewer will notice if they notice at all that she has suddenly changed her attire one might wonder too where she got the clothing from. A little earlier they have burnt the car they were travelling in and rescued a couple of items but not a change of clothes. The more observational we become the more perplexed we become too, making clear that Godard's purpose isn't to have us following the story, however subtly, but constantly questioning the form and content. If a viewer wants to see error where Godard has created perplexity, the viewer can return to the certitude of the categorical spectator but consequently appear naive in their inability to become a perplexed one. Vital to the sort of problems Resnais, Godard, Bunuel and Antonioni were creating for film was to force the viewer not only to attend to the story, and not only to pay attention to details that make for a perceptually complicated experience. It was to insist that a film shouldn't be watched invisibly, as though the story and the mise en scene could be entered and the form they take ignored, but that one needs to be in a constant state of wariness over the filmic experience.
By starting with an anecdote by Fraker about Polanski's genius, we see how this is central to our notion, but one needn't assume Polanksi's undeniable brilliance is the only way to generate an implied viewer. Godard, Resnais and others are potentially interested in implied viewers as well, even if they aren't concerned with the categorical spectator Polanski creates. In Fraker's explanation of the director's choice, in the decision to frame Gordon partially, one can see why the authorial commentary and the intentional have their place why in some ways Barrowman is right to argue against Barthes and Beardsley and their resistance to trusting the author's intentions. However, if Polanski can explain precisely why he moved the camera a few inches in Rosemary's Baby, Antonioni can say: "When I see The Passenger now, I ask myself why I did a particular scene in that particular way. Only after the completion of the film could I explain why I chose that solution to a given sequence. However, while I am shooting, it is instinct that I follow." (Film Comment) The intentionality cannot be found by going to the director as one could with Fraker and Polanski.
It is the perplexed viewer that would the hardest of the three to incorporate into Julian Hanich's notion of "omission, suggestion, completion". "What is left out is not a mere lack here - it results from the conscious artistic act of leaving things open. At least, that's what viewers can reasonably assume because the film is structured around what looks like an intentional omission and suggestion. The triad of omission, suggestion, completion thus connects production and reception aesthetics." (Screening the Past) There is very much an implied viewer in Hanich's idea, and his purpose is to indicate that many films work with omission, suggestion, completion, thus making nonsense of film as an explicit medium. His argument "counters the widespread assumption that film is exclusively a medium of showing, presentation, appearing." However, our perspective examines the ways the viewer is shaped by the image to become a certain type of spectator. By failing to become the implied viewer the film seeks, the audience member misinterprets the film, seeing more than is there in some instances when an error seems most likely (as in Pulp Fiction); seeing only an error when surely the form itself is being questioned (as in Pierrot le fou).
Hanich reckons "our mental visualisations thus involve the mental conjuring of absent objects: we simulate how it would be if these objects were actually seen or heard. In other words, a visual or aural quasi-perception is directed at an absent object." In Rosemary's Baby (which Hanich invokes), and even in The Last Detail, we can see the importance of omission, suggestion and completion. Hanich mentions briefly the scene at the end of Polanski's film where Rosemary looks in the cradle and sees her devil baby. The viewer reckons they too have seen the child as Polanski omits the shot, suggests the horror, and the viewer completes the image. Hanich says that "in both cases [in Reservoir Dogs and Rosemary's Baby], some spectators say they saw things they cannot actually have seen because they are not displayed in the film, only alluded to suggestively: the severing of the ear and the face of Satan's spawn." In each instance one may say the viewers are imperceptive: they insist they have seen what isn't there rather than observed closely what is. One can easily imagine in each instance that the viewer was so unwilling to watch the ear being cut off, or the devil's child in the cot, that they looked away, and retrospectively insisted they saw what wasn't even shown that they paradoxically saw it because they didn't look. If they had looked they wouldn't have seen it.
The Last Detail is very different, even if without difficulty it might have offered the same image structure as Polanski and Tarantino: it could have given us no perceptual information about the likely theft. Ashby could have made clear that Meadows had no sweets on him and then shown him eating them as we worked out that he stole them on his way out of the bus station. But the brief swaying movement means we needn't only infer it; we can observe within our inference. It isn't pure reasoning but empirical too. In the first instance, someone might say that if Meadows had categorically no sweets on him before getting on the bus and then was eating sweets when he get on it, then we must logically claim he had to have stolen them at the bus station. There wouldn't be any scene we could refer to; only a reasoning procedure that means that he must have stolen them there. Instead, Ashby adds a hint of the empirical so that the viewer who says he stole the sweets can refer to this briefest of moments that heavily suggest he nicked them in front of our eyes even if it was a moment easy to miss. We have suggestion and completion but not quite omission. Ashby asks us to reason but to perceive as well. The implied viewer is quite different even if both Polanski and Ashby are interested in showing us images that aren't clearly in front of our eyes.
But usually, the perplexed viewer that Godard and others create cannot rely either on deduction or perceptive inference. We have not only to be alert to the ellipsis and vigilant about what we see, but also once having done the work that Polanski would expect, and that Ashby might hope for, wonder why the filmmaker has chosen to produce inexplicable images ones we find unreadable first of all because they do not fall into and cannot be understood by logical or empirical means. The perplexed viewer is forced back onto ontology in the twin sense of the term. First, there are the ontological properties of the image itself. What is film made up of as we think of editing, mise en scene, music, dialogue and so on? Then we have the problem of meaning that comes out of the crisis the rearrangement of the audio-visual field creates. Polanski and Ashby use implication differently and in the process suggest distinct implied viewers. But they use the form in a manner that needn't generate a crisis in the content, in the meaning of the image. What does it mean that Marianne's clothes change while Pierrot's don't? Once we have established that he is wearing the clothes he has been wearing in the previous shots and that she is wearing different attire, once we recall that they have taken from the car only a few items and no change of clothing, even once we have accepted Godard has played with the montage sequence that allows for a passage of time to be conveyed to the audience, what can we conclude? We have learned the cinematic language and observed the diegetic content and still we are perplexed. Yet this perplexity on the implied viewer's part isn't the same as confusion. Someone who notices the change of clothing but doesn't understand Godard's questioning of the form is simply confused. Yet perplexity comes from meeting the challenges and still accepting the impossibility of generating clear meaning. Perplexity is a state of inquiry and in a strict sense a higher one than that of the categorical or the observant. In Rosemary's Baby, Polanski wants us to be manipulated by the image and, in The Last Detail, Ashby wishes us to observe carefully and consciously the content. Godard in Pierrot le fou asks to observe the content and find ourselves aware of the form. The challenges are more manifold and these create problems in comprehending the work. However, anyone who dismisses the film without accepting its challenges hasn't achieved perplexity. They have too hastily arrived at dismissal. As Roger Ebert said, writing on Pierrot le fou when it came out: "Every time I review a film by Jean-Luc Godard, I receive outraged letters from readers who hated it. It is suggested that my reviews and myself join Godard on the trash heap of history; that the customers wuz robbed. A common complaint is that Godard 'made no sense.'" (RogerEbert.com)
In other words, the film doesn't make the sense that a viewer is used to assuming when form attends to content; content gives direction to form. In Godard's work, in Bunuel's, in Resnais', in Antonioni's, another question seems to arise that contains form and content into an intent that cannot quite be comprehended. In this, Raymond Bellour is more useful than Hanich when the latter says, speaking about the use of photographs in cinema: "their relative stillness tempers the 'hysteria' of the film". He also says, "the photograph enjoys the privilege over all other effects that make the spectator of cinema, this hurried spectator, a pensive one." (The Pensive Spectator) Yet Bellour also makes clear this isn't the only way a filmmaker can slow the hurried image of film, the temporal nature of a medium that rushes forward through time. It is only the most undeniable means: a moment of fixity within motion as he discusses Blow-Up, Shadow of a Doubt and Letter from an Unknown Woman. Quoting Barthes' Camera Lucida, Bellour wonders how cinema can create the sort of pensive spectator the photograph offers. As Barthes says: "I don't have time in front of the screen." If he closes his eyes, the image he will see once he opens them again will be a different image; in photography he opens them and the same one is in front of his eyes." We might also ask how pensive a filmmaker may wish his spectator to be. Godard's films are not slow but no less than a Tarkovsky or an Antonioni they seem to require time, even if Godard more provocatively insists on our faculties of observation that takes time, and then more than Antonioni, Tarkovsky or other 'slow' filmmakers, refuses to provide it. We have to move quickly with Godard's cinema; it requires more time than he gives us to make sense of his images.
Bellour, thinking of Godard's famous statement about cinema being truth twenty-four-time a second says there is: "something impossible, since cinema hides what photography shows: each image for itself, in its naked truth, succumbing to the defilement. Unless cinema could, through this very defilement, get near this truth through various means, the safest and in any case the most striking being, one would imagine, to tell a story made of frozen moments, as soon as they have been shot [. . .]. This is what La Jete does, two years after 'The Little Soldier' of the cinema revolution launched his formula." (Between the Images) Part of the difficulties Godard's films provide is that they demand the attention of much slower cinema but are paced quickly. We aren't given the time to dwell on the images even as those images make that demand. When in a typical montage sequence the film moves at the same pace as the one in Pierrot le fou, when the images follow a rigorous continuity, there is no reason for us to demand that what we see should be seen at a different pace. Godard's do, because we have to muse over Karina's clothes change and wonder if we have paid enough attention to what they have taken out of the car to see if the scene is plausible.
This might seem all very trivial but it contains an important point. Usually, when a filmmaker wants us to pay attention to something there are various available options. The most obvious is a close-up of the object as we find in a moment of foreshadowing. When in Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog the film zeroes in on a close-up of the novel Rashomon lying on the floor, we can expect the book will become an important aspect of the story and sure enough it does as it passes from various characters before returning to its original owner: the head gangster's daughter whose boyfriend has just been iced. An ostensibly subtler filmmaker (Jarmusch has always been obviously ironic rather than dramatically subtle) would give us more time to find what is important within the frame, or to assume that what is within the frame is of importance to the lives of the characters but not especially for the viewers. In Paul Cox's My First Wife, the central character's Melbourne family home is full of paintings and photographs but at no point does Cox pay great attention to any of them even if the life of his central character, a composer and classical music radio presenter, would seem a little different without these details, and the viewer would have become perplexed if suddenly a number of the walls became blank for no apparent reason except the assumption of failed continuity. Sometimes a filmmaker can fail to direct our attention to what is very important within the frame as they ask of us an acute observation so rarely demanded that the viewer may be surprised when called upon to scan the image. The lengthy and now famous closing shot of Michael Haneke's Hidden shows us two key, secondary characters who we assume don't know each other, discussing something within the shot. But in the frame there are many characters and we can miss this moment even if Haneke holds the shot for about two minutes before the credits come up. Often a filmmaker will give us the close-up after establishing the shot, or create a cue within the shot to guide our eye to it. Haneke does neither of these things which is why, like Godard but with different means and for different reasons, he creates a perplexed viewer. There may be numerous speculations online about what the film means and who was responsible for sending the tapes that cause central character Georges such consternation, but any attempt at an answer has to go through the expectations of the form, and the way it usually conjoins with meaning, to comprehend less the film's content than the work is an object of aesthetic experience.
Another way of looking at this is to see that the implied viewer can of course read the film against the director's intentions, and can muse over whether the intention has been antithetical to clear meaning, but that is part of the process of understanding the work. If one can simultaneously have problems with the DVD extras as an explanation of the film, as the director explains in detail why he made the film as he did, and with the sort of rejection of authorial emphasis Barrowman finds in Barthes and Beardsley, then it rests on the limitations involved in the former and the potential havoc at work in the latter. One can exaggerate Barthes' already provocative and exaggerated claims and say that, freed from the author's intentions, the work becomes an interpretive free for all, meaning whatever one wants it to mean. But even Jacques Derrida in radically deconstructing texts tends to pay immense attention to them: they might not say what people have assumed the author meant but that doesn't mean immense attention hasn't been paid to the words on the page. Derrida's purpose is to undermine structuralist assumptions about meaning that can be extracted from close readings, ones that suggest the author of a work isn't in charge of that meaning but that language and culture, working through binary division, bring it forth. Derrida, looking very closely at texts by Freud, Rousseau and others, attends to the text all the better to show how meaning can be undermined by working against the binaries. As Derrida says in an interview, he was interested in "undecidables, i.e., simulative units, false verbal, nominal or semantic properties, which escape from inclusion in the philosophical (binary) opposition and which nonetheless inhabit it, resist and disorganize it." (Diacritics)
Often in the first instance, in the author's intentionality, one finds pragmatic solutions to simple problems or at best motivations for a character's actions. It is the rare director who thinks through many of the implications of their work and sometimes, as with Peter Greenaway, this has its own set of problems turning the work into a lifeless thesis. But equally, it seems more than a little too counter-intuitive to deny the author any say in the work they produce. It is why Stanley Cavell offers intentionalities that needn't be fully conscious without being unconscious either, making a filmmaker more aware of his intentions than he realised. Barrowman feels that this isn't the unconscious play of forces at work but closer to something that was on the mind of the filmmaker though not fully articulated. It was intentional but not deliberate, we might say, as Barrowman gives an example from Collateral where he hypothesises a similar response to the film as Cavell hypothesises for Fellini. Speaking of two enigmatic looks the central character, hitman Vincent, gives to his driver, Max, Barrowman says that in these looks Mann is recognising that Vincent doesn't want to kill Max because he feels some emotional attachment to him. "Suppose that Mann accepts my interpretation but admits that it did not occur to him at the time, that at the time of filming he was solely concerned with the professionalism aspect of Vincent's character and was not thinking about the deeper emotional implications regarding the film as a whole. Rather than jump to a self-serving conception of 'unconscious intention' with reference to which intention can effectively be theorised out of existence and meaning can be asserted as wholly within the province of the critic..." (Movie) it is instead an insight of the critic credited to the creation of the filmmaker.
An implied viewer is implied by someone and so while we can see the benefits of the death of the author as a way of escaping the tyranny of enforcing meaning upon a viewer from on authorial high, we can see too a hypothetical usefulness to assuming with some confidence that filmmakers have certain intentions. The degree of assertiveness in these intentions will partly depend on whether the viewer is categorically placed in the work, observationally encouraged or left perplexed - and thus must work very hard on the combination of factors that make form and content, and consequently feeling and meaning, tentative. As Godard said, "People like to say, 'What do you mean exactly? 'I would answer, 'I mean, but not exactly.'" (Film Comment) Godard prefaces the remark by American people and while we wouldn't want to generalise a nation (Godard chuckles after his provocative claim), it seems that the type of cinema that demands a perplexed implied viewer comes from other filmmaking nations. Polanski may be Polish, but part of his genius rested on taking elements of European developments and refreshing them within a Hollywood assertiveness. "Polanski considers the Spanish director Luis Bunuel (who often uses black magic, fetishes and the supernatural in his films) to be his greatest influence." (Roger Ebert.com) But it was not for his quizzicality that Fraker so praised Polanski, It was for his ability to create a response in the audience en masse. Polanski means exactly and thus the categorically implied viewer. Ashby means less exactly, though we needn't puzzle over the scene where Meadows eats candy on the bus rewinding the footage will show however subtly that Meadows has stolen the sweets. But we can go back to the scene in Pierrot le fou where Marianne and Pierrot take their things out of the car and wonder how she managed a change of clothing with no apparent justification. Being observant won't help and thus the perplexity of this particular implied viewer.
By indicating an implied viewer, and by proposing three modes in which it operates, all we hope to achieve is a mild rescuing of intentionality, and more to the point, an acceptance that to apply a perceptual assumption about one type of film when its function is to emphasise another, leads to misapplication. If a viewer watching Pulp Fiction insists that there is a meaning rather than a continuity error to the paper bag that is crunched and then un-crunched, they are attending to the film in a way that isn't useful to its aesthetic intentions. It is surely just an error. Those observational skills however are very useful in understanding how Meadows is eating sweets on the bus in The Last Detail and necessarily applied but finally unamenable to a clear meaning in Pierrot le fou. The notion of an implied viewer may or may not help us to understand the meaning of the work but what it can do is help us to adopt a useful attitude towards it. This isn't to say a categorical film won't have ostensible errors that are deliberate: whether it is the stable doors opening outwards rather than inwards from dramatic effect in Troy or a door that is missing even as one of the characters appears to mimic opening it in The Birds, all the better so that the camera could capture the shot, films have pragmatically allowed for errors that are intentional but not meaningful. While the error in Pulp Fiction can be ignored altogether, the 'errors' in Troy and The Birds can tell us about what the filmmakers' priorities happen to be; making us even more aware than usual the intentionality as we realise that we are watching an error from one point of view (the way stable doors open in actuality) and deliberation on the other (that the stable doors opening outwards allows for greater dramatic effect). By understanding the intentionality we comprehend the purpose behind what might ostensibly seem a mistake. So categorical is the implied viewer in certain instances that we have to ignore the reality to accept the drama: a certain type of suspension of disbelief but clearly, an error that the filmmaker wants us to ignore while the error in Pierrot le fou is one that Godard wants to us to be aware of, all the better to be constantly alert to the way films can use form and generate meaning. This isn't to say there are no mistakes in Godard; many of them may or not be but the type of film Pierrot le fou happens to be, makes such claims harder to verify. Given that Godard's work has been an ongoing assault on the assumptions of narrative continuity and dramatic consistency, he wants to create the most complicated and convoluted of implied viewers, while Polanski, whatever his particular brilliance, wants to create usually not an individual viewer but a collective one. For Polanski's effectiveness to work, Fraker suggests, everyone needs to be leaning to get a better look of the neighbour. In contrast, Godard wants an individuated viewer. Polanski was hardly a typical audio-visual homogeniser but he was often a very effective manipulator, and Fraker saw that as essential to his particular craft. It is why we can see the scene Fraker invokes as a masterly example of the categorically implied viewer, one that allowed us to start the differentiation process that could distinguish between Polanski, Ashby and Godard, and the implied viewers they create.
© Tony McKibbin