Seeing and being seen:
shot reverse-shot in Carol and “San Junipero”
In contrast to Soloway’s female gaze, Mulvey’s male gaze depends upon specific formal strategies, particularly editing techniques. As a set of formal strategies, this gaze can be challenged and undermined because it is vulnerable to formal revisions, resistance, and reinterpretation. Although the films that we discuss here are much more conventional than the kind of oppositional filmmaking Mulvey called for, we are interested in examining whether visual pleasure is possible rather than asserting that the only resistant possibility is destroying visual pleasure. Here, we examine how two sequences from Carol and “San Junipero” complicate the conventional structure of the gaze—and expand upon Halberstam’s account of the significance of such interventions into shot reverse-shot structures—through a specific formal strategy: the direct look into the lens. This direct look interrupts those editing patterns that might otherwise establish the male gaze.
According to Mulvey, there are two broad tendencies of the male gaze, and each responds differently to the threat of castration posed by the image of the woman. On the one hand, fetishization responds to the threat of castration by fixating on parts rather than wholes, and this operation of the male gaze can be seen in sequences in which the woman’s body is broken up by montage into fragments. On the other hand, sadistic voyeurism grapples with the threat of castration by investigating the woman, punishing her, and subjecting her to a controlling gaze in which the looks of the camera, the spectator, and the male character are united. [open endnotes in new window] This latter effect is often accomplished through shot reverse-shot editing. As Halberstam describes it, shot reverse-shot editing “suture[es] the viewer to a usually male gaze,” producing both the oppressive effect of the male gaze—as well as the grounds where it might be contested.
For Halberstam, the film Boys Don’t Cry challenges the shot reverse-shot structure of the hetero- and cis-sexist male gaze. Within the film, there is a key sequence that Halberstam argues stages a transgender look through deconstructing hegemonic structures of seeing, especially shot reverse-shot structure. By doing so, he contends, the film “reveals the ideological content of the male and female gazes” and creates the transgender look as a look that grants access to an “alternative vision of time and space.” In this sequence, the trans character Brandon Teena is trapped in a bathroom, being violently interrogated, stripped, and sexually assaulted by two cisgender men who demand to know the “truth” about Brandon’s body. Amid this violence, Halberstam writes, “shots from Brandon’s point of view reveal him to be in the grips of an ‘out-of-body’ and out-of-time experience” in which he sees himself, spot-lit, standing just outside of this space of violence and terror. Instead of suturing the viewer to the looks of the two assaulters and thus establishing a male gaze, Halberstam describes how the scene drifts into slow motion and cuts between Brandon and his double, as each spot-lit Brandon looks at the other. Part of the moment’s power comes from its radical resistance to the voyeurism of the male gaze. By aligning our look with Brandon’s own look toward himself, the film refuses to interpolate us into the sadistic voyeurism of investigation and assault.
This moment is undoubtedly powerful, and Halberstam shows the significance of Brandon’s look toward himself, as well as the way that the film connects this look—and its vision of alternate times and spaces—to a female look that belongs to Brandon’s girlfriend. Nonetheless, this moment can never be separated from its profound violence. This violence lies primarily in the content of the scene, but it also extends to Halberstam’s attempts to claim Brandon’s look toward his double as a preliminary model for a transgender look in cinema. Because this instance of the transgender look emerges only through assault and, arguably, a dissociative response to trauma, this account of the transgender look is bound to violence. Moreover, it assumes that the transgender look always comes from a split or divided subject, reiterating the trope that transgender people are “half man, half woman,” and furthering the postmodern fantasy that transgender subjects are uniquely flexible and fluid, forever moving between or beyond stable subject positions.
Later in his essay, Halberstam abandons his attempt to locate the transgender look in formal structures like shot reverse-shot sequences, instead describing how the film By Hook or By Crook uses character, plot, setting, and other tools to present a queer world in which gender transgression is not spectacularized. Though much clearer than Soloway’s “feeling seeing,” this account still remains far from the actual activity of looking and does not address the cinematic tools that guide us, moment by moment as we watch, in how and where to look. This is unfortunate, as By Hook or By Crook features a number of sequences that do, in fact, work with and on shot-reverse-shot structures.
|This shot reverse-shot sequence shows Shy (Silas Howard) and Valentine (Harry Dodge) looking at each other and, simultaneously, into the lens during their initial meeting in By Hook or By Crook (2002). Interestingly, even though this sequence uses shot reverse-shot editing patterns to show the two characters as complements and inverted mirrors of each other, and even though it also takes place in response to transphobic/queerphobic violence, Halberstam doesn’t discuss this scene in his analysis of how the film produces a transgender look.|
Nonetheless, both of Halberstam’s examples of the transgender look feature an exchange between two trans or queer subject positions, rather than interactions that turn upon an unequal power dynamic. As such, Halberstam’s vision of the transgender look offers something distinct from accounts in which the dominant gaze can only be countered through interventions that seek to communicate the discomfort and pain of being subjected to this gaze, as opposed to producing an alternative that exceeds the mechanism of critique or reversal.
Although Halberstam is outlining a “transgender look,” the broader context of the chapter, which appears in Halberstam’s monograph A Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives, suggests that Halberstam’s theory of looking relations in cinema is less about a specifically delimited trans identity than it is an attempt to trace the power that emerges from encounters between queer and trans people, encounters that exist outside of (rather than in opposition to) the “straight world.” Both Carol and “San Junipero” offer vivid examples of such encounters, narratively and formally. Telling stories of queer women’s love, their use of the direct look builds an alternative form of looking upon the foundation of the shot reverse-shot sequence. No longer sutured to the position of one character looking at another, these sequences thrust the spectator into the circuit of the looks exchanged between queer lovers. Set in New York City in the 1950s, Carol (adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt) tells the story of a forbidden love affair between Therese, a department store clerk and aspiring photographer, and Carol, a wealthy older married woman. “San Junipero,” an episode of Netflix’s science fiction anthology series Black Mirror, narrates the love story of the introverted Yorkie and the extroverted Kelly, two elderly women who meet in a virtual reality world in which they can be young forever.
In Carol, the direct look into the lens represents the satisfying culmination of a sequence that repeatedly toys with the audience’s desire to experience the intimate reunion of the lesbian lovers Carol and Therese. Baited by false point-of-view shots and nearly direct looks into the lens, the audience anticipates the moment when these near misses will be superseded by true connection. As Therese arrives at a restaurant to meet her estranged lover Carol, the camera initially follows Therese in profile, panning along with her as she navigates the crowded room. Then, as she pauses to look for Carol, she turns and faces the camera. As she looks from side to side, glancing just past the lens as she seeks her lover, the scene cuts to a subjective camera that conveys Therese’s searching look, hesitating and jerking slightly as it pans, tilts, pauses, and moves on.
As this shot lands on Carol, talking to a friend, the sequence cuts back to Therese, with the camera pushing in slowly and shifting subtly until she is again captured almost head-on.
|... the camera moves to the left and moves in ....||... until Therese’s eyes almost connect with the lens.|
The music rises, a melody that expresses forward drive and longing, and the diegetic sound drops away as the scene drifts into slow motion. Therese looks just past the lens, blinks slowly, and then as if drawn by the soundtrack, begins walking forward, toward Carol and toward the camera. The following shot appears to recreate the subjective camera from earlier in the sequence, especially in its halting, stuttering movement forward and to the side.
However, then the camera drifts over a table, moving through space in a way that Therese never could.
|The camera is no longer literally capturing Therese’s point of view as it floats across tables, seemingly drawn toward Carol.||This impossible movement conveys the urgency of Therese’s desire and determination to approach Carol.|
Suddenly, it becomes clear that the audience is the third-party present in the scene, enabled by the camera to move and look in a way that the character cannot. Cutting back to Therese, who once again looks just past the lens, the camera tracks backwards before her, alternating between this shot and the forward tracking shot that continues to seek out Carol.
|As the sequence continues, the camera remains between Therese and Carol, retreating in front of Therese as she moves forward.||And so the camera pushes in on Carol to match Therese's movements.|
As the camera approaches Carol’s table, Carol looks just past the camera and past Therese as she turns her head from right to left and then moves her eyes from left to right, heightening our anticipation of the moment when Carol will notice Therese.
|Staging ensures that Carol does not see Therese even as she turns her head ...||... passing waiter creating a wipe that blocks Carol ...|
|.... from looking toward the lens and toward Therese.|
As the camera continues pushing in on Carol’s table, she shifts her eyes once more—and looks directly in the lens. Cutting almost immediately to Therese, who looks just past the lens, the sequence continues toying with the audience’s desire to see Carol seeing Therese. At last, the final shot of the film delivers this moment of recognition, as the camera pushes in on Carol who looks directly in the lens, smiling.
Rather than a shot reverse-shot sequence that aligns the camera and the spectator’s look with Therese looking at Carol or Carol looking at Therese, this sequence triangulates the look between Therese, the camera/spectator, and Carol, initially aligning our look with Therese’s searching gaze before disarticulating these looks through the false subjective camera. In the final shot, these positions once again coincide, but not in order to establish either Therese or Carol as the agent of the look.
|... Therese realizes she has been seen. The final shot of the film continues ...||... to align the audience’s position with Therese’s look, and her experience of being seen by Carol.|
Instead, this sequence uses a mobile camera and a fluidly shifting point of view to disarticulate the overdetermination of looking and objectification. As the fourth wall breaks down and we find ourselves face to face with Carol, this sequence solicits and then satisfies a desire that we may not even have recognized before this moment: the desire to be seen.
In “San Junipero,” the direct look reveals that shot reverse-shot sequences can defy objectification in favor of mutual recognition—of seeing and being seen—although in this case both characters look toward each other by looking into the lens and at the audience. The scene begins at a bar, as Kelly and Yorkie meet for the first time. A vivacious party girl, Kelly drags the shy and nervous Yorkie onto the dance floor. As they dance, initially captured in a medium long shot, the camera cuts back and forth between them, establishing a conventional shot reverse-shot sequence.
|... the camera moves closer to the dancing couple ...||... preparing for the intense intimacy of the direct looks into the lens.|
At each cut, the camera seems to move closer, until Yorkie is shown, at an angle, in medium close-up. The next shot, a medium close-up of Kelly, crosses the director’s line, placing the camera directly in front of Kelly. As she dances, snapping her head from one side to the other, her eyes briefly connect with the lens several times, and then they hold our gaze—and presumably Yorkie’s—for several flirtatious seconds.
|As each woman looks into the lens and at the other ...||... the camera and the spectator are caught in the middle of their looks toward each other.|
The following shot moves closer still, to a close-up on Yorkie who looks back, directly into the lens, as the sequence drifts into slow motion. At first, the image slows while the dance music remains at speed, but at the next cut, to a close-up of Kelly turning her head again to look directly into the lens, the sound changes. Slowing and distorting, the diegetic dance music is overwhelmed by a non-diegetic score as Yorkie once again returns Kelly’s look in close-up.
Then this moment of intense intimacy—of seeing and being seen by each other—breaks down as Yorkie looks away. Not yet ready for this kind of connection, Yorkie looks around her, and a subjective camera shows her fear: other women on the dance floor looking right at her, staring into the lens with their own flirtatious and knowing glances.
Although this moment of mutual recognition is thus tempered by a more objectifying structure of looking, conveying Yorkie’s deep discomfort with being the object of other women’s desire, Kelly’s and Yorkie’s exchange of direct looks produces the possibility for something more. Caught right between the two women, the camera and the audience look at and with both characters, deconstructing the subject-object binary and discovering a way of looking anew. In these moments, something happens that might well be described as “feeling seeing.”