Cinema and the Art of Looking

National Gallery artThis last New Year’s Eve I stood on a cliff above a beach in North Cornwall, England. The wind was up and wild, and it was cold, but I hardly noticed. I was transfixed by a pair of lesser black-backed gulls that were darting along the shoulders of a huge rolling wave, surf spraying above them. This was a moment of deep magic for me, a real leap of the spirit.

The guys I was with looked at but didn’t see the magnificent birds. They were talking about some work-related thing. I thought briefly of getting their attention, but by then the moment had passed.

Later I realised that what I wanted to explain to my friends was my experience of the birds, not the birds itself. How do you say something so personal? Can you, or should you even try?

The arts are one way in which we can communicate experience. In writing and perhaps also the visual arts, less is usually more. The artist describes or recreates a scene and in doing so they create a space in which something of the spirit of their response moves in to view. This lodges with the viewer or reader, if they are open to it. Much depends on the quality of the narrator/creator, of course, and also I think on their honesty.

Narration is more complex in the world of film. The screen has the advantage of apparent truthfulness, the ‘thing as it is’. But many (most) film makers distrust this and do their best to overcome it, to grab the attention, to control the point of view. They use camera angles, narration, montage, perhaps most importantly editing but also music. Music is often so crudely plonked in now as a shorthand for emotional tone. Interstellar would have had half the heft without Hans Zimmer’s spiralling, spine tingling score.

Point of view is central to filmmaking, precisely because interpretation is everything. Of course storytelling depends on selection, but when does it spill over into manipulation?

Great Expectations artIn these fractured times, when truth is relative and narrative is therefore untrustworthy, cinema often relies on cheap (though not necessarily fiscally restrained) tricks to tell the story. It can be fun to sit back a little from a movie and watch the camera at work: tracking, panning, zooming or just simply holding still (an ever more rare technique, it seems). This can give you an idea of what the film wants from you. It’s also a way of working out how deeply a film grips you. If you lose track of the camera quickly, yes, you’re hooked.

We shouldn’t forget the effects either: the speed of the action in scene, the sense of physicality it creates, the extent to which emotion is obvious. Nor CGI, which creates its own set of rules and expectations – after Guardians of the Galaxy, I’m sure I need a bigger TV, to see it properly.

Watching David Lean’s great Great Expectations on daytime TV recently, I was blown away by how simple the storytelling was, the steadiness of the camera. There was a confidence that, I guess, came partly with working from a great story but also partly from holding a known world view, an agreed perspective on how things are. We’ve lost this certainty in the half-century since that movie was made.

Is this loss why there aren’t so many films, at least in the mainstream, which have the confidence to let things be? Even documentaries often seem over-anxious to let propaganda through.

Off the broad way, Michael Haneke springs to mind as a storyteller who’ll let the camera’s gaze linger. But there’s a cruelty there, a forensic examination which doesn’t lift the spirits so much as it strips things down – and what it leaves behind is often perhaps of questionable value. There isn’t much room for love in Haneke’s lens, which is manipulation in itself.

guardians of the galaxy artSo where do you go to find that care, attention and respect for the thing as it is? For me, one film that I keep coming back to is Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery, a documentary about the inner workings of the gallery in London, England.

The film is a series of natural tableaux which the camera drinks in slowly, steadily and calmly. It’s carefully crafted, of course, but the film brings you into an art gallery’s working life with an ease and integrity that seems to dissolve the barriers between art and life.

National Gallery’s focus on ostensibly dull subjects such as boardroom meetings, guides discussing pictures, picture restorers at work, art classes and, simply and most movingly, people studying pictures, works its own patient magic. It’s a film about looking and as such is documentary as art, content matching form. There are dull moments, but that’s the point: the boredom is part of the gallery’s character – and character is the real drama around which all films circle.

If you choose to be at National Gallery (or even a national gallery), I suggest you do so fully and calmly. Let time pass, drop the need for something to happen, just watch, and something of the spirit will lift into view. The film itself doesn’t insist on it. But it creates a space where you might see it, if you’re looking.


Ed Rowe is a full-time dad reacquainting himself with cinema after an early love affair came to an untimely end. He has worked as a barman in a small cinema and was an extra in the drama A Very British Coup.

3 thoughts on “Cinema and the Art of Looking

  1. Thanks Pete. The light in Great Expectations is amazing. Visually and emotionally there’s a great contrast between harshness and softness that gets to the heart of the story, and I think John Mills gives a great performance as Pip.

    Thanks for the tips Jon – I was hoping that this piece would provoke some new film references. Perhaps the magic of cinema is precisely that at its best it can reach beyond our usual, everyday language?

  2. I find this aspect of filmmaking to be the single most difficult thing to understand, much less describe. The slow cinema experimenters like Tarr and Warhol have passages that I find subliminal amidst oceans of dullness, and I’ve never for the life of me been able to pinpoint why one shot works while others don’t. The director who seems to me to get this right almost every time, especially in his later mature work, is Ozu, whose simple lingering gaze almost never fails to capture my attention.

    Thanks for taking a shot at a largely ineffable subject.

  3. A very interesting and intelligent article, Ed. I haven’t seen ‘National Galley’, but now I want to.

    As for Lean’s ‘Great Expectations’, I reckon it is better than most films released since. The fact that I can watch it again and again, continue to be amazed by the light, the detail, and still find something new. That tells me it is a work of greatness.

    Best wishes, Pete.

Leave a Reply