It occurs in virtually every film I watch, and I say we vigorously prepare for a well-organized rebellion of some kind. A main character reaches a critical point in their lives and they find themselves staring at their face in a dirty mirror, with a look of extreme focus and/or consternation, as if to ask “what have I become?” “Who am I really?” “What have I done?”…precipitating some plot-thrusting, decisive act that serves to finally define this character and clear up any narrative loose ends. The camera is typically positioned over the characters’ left shoulder, framing both the back of the head and the mirrored reflection of their face. Is it me, or has this become a cheap gimmick belonging to the common, learned film vocabulary; a devise relying on an implied meaning that is now so clichéd that it no longer has any meaning in and of itself? Has it become such a common fixture that we don’t even notice it anymore? Or perhaps we are to assume that all the characters who engage in this self-reflection are essentially thinking the same thing?
I only reference Five Easy Pieces here as an example because MUBI has chosen the OOTSMS (Obligatory Over-The-Shoulder Mirror Shot) as the profile photo for this film. They also used it for Scorsese’s Raging Bull and Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses. I was horrified to revisit my first feature and find the OOTSMS embedded in that damn film as well. And here’s a “keep quiet during the movie” PSA that uses it;
How do we cripple this debilitating cinematic cyst? Anyone?
“How do we cripple this debilitating cinematic cyst? Anyone?”
You are the scriptwriter. You need an elegant, short scene in which a character confronts themselves as if to ask “what have I become?” “Who am I really?” What have I done?". It will work better if it’s without dialog and gives the actor something to perform, but the character is confronting themselves alone, so you don’t have the reactions of the other characters. How does the character face himself and react to what he sees?
Genuine question, let’s come up with some other approaches.
Do you want to avoid all scenes of the protagonist looking in a reflection? No faces in a puddle either?
How about the protagonist hearing a recording of themselves, or reading their own diary or a letter they wrote.
Doesn’t it pose an awareness of self consciousness i.e. we know when we are thinking
Yeah, not sure what the alternative is….
Don’t tell me, show me…
Show me, show me, show me. Yes. No expository dialogue. Or, even worse, a monologue addressing the audience. Not sure what the answer is. What do you do when you confront yourself? In your actual life? I confront myself when I see myself in someone else’s actions and I don’t like what I see. How often do we actually confront ourselves, anyway? In a life-altering, almost third-person objective way? Not self-consciousness or self-awareness, but more like self-revision…the flipping of a personality light switch; “this is who I was, but I’m going to change, right now, and be the opposite…from now on.”
A puddle would be better, in terms of the visual cliche, but, on an emotional level, it might be saying the same thing…
There’s a great moment in A Woman Under The Influence when NIck (Peter Falk) is in the middle of perhaps the most monumentally hostile fight of his life, and it’s with his wife, and he’s desperately trying to find a way to get a hold of the situation, but he doesn’t know how, and he’s exhausted, and he takes a moment before re-entering the room…just one deep breath…and it doesn’t really help him, or shift his direction, or redefine who he is or what he’s doing, but I think, for a moment, something inside of him, something small, makes him take a step back, just for a moment. And that’s more interesting to me. More authentic, somehow.
the sci-fi time see into the future/past gizmo:
Can you think of a film where an absolute bastard looks in the mirror and likes what he sees? you know, smiles at the thought of all his atrocities?
They don’t really bother me, not a filmic pet peeve of mine.
edit: oops, i guess that’s not over-the-shoulder. maybe that’s what i like, mirror shots that aren’t directly o-t-s.
Not a movie, but the Twilight Zone where a mirror was used very specifically.
At the end of John Huston’s Fat City, there is a moment where the sound is cut and all we see is Keach’s face. It could be brain damage from getting hit so much in the head, or it could be a moment of self awareness.
Self awareness and self realization—if that’s what we are talking about— is a process that twists and turns and folds back on itself, no? Is looking into the mirror just a simple way to compress that process into a 2 hr. film?
I haven’t seen Apart from That in a while (and I think it has expired from Netflix), but aren’t there moments of a sort of self-awareness in your own film—how did you do it? I don’ recall any mirrors or rain puddles…maybe talking into a recording device and listening to it? (I don’t think that was your point with Ulla(?), but that’s what I thought of when I first saw her do it.)
“You have seen your self a thousand times in a mirror. Yet why is it when you see yourselves in a clothiers triple mirror—from side to side so to speak—it comes as a shock. Or the first time you saw yourself in a home movie: where you embarrassed? Where were you the first time you recorded your voice: did you recognize it? Clearly you should, since you’ve been hearing it all your life. Why is it that when you are shown a photograph in which you are present you always (and probably covertly) seek yourself out? To see what you look like? Don’t you know what you look like? Has this ever happened to you? You are walking along a street of stores. There are other people walking. You catch a glimpse in a store window of a reflection of a person. For a second or so you do not recognize the person. He, She, seems a total stranger. Then you realize it is your own reflection. Then a kind of transformation, the reflection does in fact become your familiar self.” Walker Percy
For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. James 1:23-24
Long live the mirror shot!
Seriously, I think this is a very important convention. It’s interesting to see how each director treats it. And I do believe you’re making a mistake in thinking that all films use mirrors in the same way.
I think the primary means by which the characters in Apart From That gain some sense of self-awareness is by way of banging themselves up against others and observing the results. When Peggy (the elderly lady) asks the DMV driver if he finds her attractive…when Ulla (Peggy’s roomie) asks Peggy “you don’t like me very much, do you?” These people so desperately want to be liked and admired by other people, insofar as those other people-even complete strangers-become their most intimate mirrors…
Oh, and Apart From That is still available on Netflix (streaming);
Love Walker Percy. Where did that quote come from?
I don’t think all films use mirrors the same way…but I do wonder why I see this shot so often. I honestly can’t remember the last film I saw that didn’t include it…The problem is, if a filmmaker is using it in a meaningful way, that’s wonderful…more power to ‘em…I’ll give em a hug…however, if it becomes appropriated and over-used as an emotional short-cut that implies a meaning that resides entirely on the surface, this is sloppy and lazy, and has a danger of contributing to the formation of a cliche and undermining those few times when it is used well…know what I mean?
Is there a single one of these shots in Tarkovsky’s The Mirror?
The Walker Percy book is Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self Help Book. It’s one my favorites; I’ve worn my little copy to pieces.
I don’t know how Netflix works, but for whatever reason it is unavailable for us: Why is this title unavailable? Oops! This title is unavailable at the moment; there might be a technical glitch, or we may have rotated it out of our entertainment catalog.Try searching for your title again; if you find it and are still not able to play it, please contact customer service.
We only have instant streaming, maybe that’s why.
Thanks. Gonna get Lost in the Cosmos right now.
The Netflix thing is odd and troublesome. I got it to work just fine, and I’m only a hop-skip west of you guys…