VisRhet: Authority & The Gaze

One of my favorite movies, Hitchock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), starring Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day, tells a story about their son being kidnapped, which later leads to the unraveling of a greater plot to assassinate the prime minister of England. This scene, seen below, is of Jo and Ben McKenna (Day and Stewart, respectively) talking to their son’s kidnappers – and eventually their son — on the phone. ManWhoKnewTooMuch

The scene is interesting as the camera does not shoot straight on; rather, its angle tilts slightly upward, creating an ominous effect. The camera itself creates a position of authority, making viewers look at the couple’s powerlessness regarding the situation.  However, stepping back a bit, it is not only the camera that lends its power, but it is also the modern movie theater with its screen and images, displayed through lenses and angles, that create a modern Panopticon of sorts, allowing hundreds of eyes — remember, Panoptes is the many-eyed giant of Greek myth — to engage in voyeuristic behavior all at once.  As Foucault warns, “Visibility is a trap!”

Deconstructing the image a little more, we see that the McKennas wrinkled and worried foreheads take up the greater portion of the image. Their own gaze is nebulous, since the situation does not warrant visual focus but more of an aural one (the aural gaze, by the way, is another element to consider within a different context, especially since the song “Que Sera, Sera” plays so prominently in this film), as they await directions from their son’s kidnappers down the telephone line.  That said, viewers can tell that Jo is almost teary eyed, and Ben’s eyes show worry or maybe even the machinations of revenge. If “seeing comes before words,” as John Berger argues, then it takes little examination of the scene – few if any words at all — to note the grave concern on the McKennas’ faces.

Speaking of their faces, the lighting in this scene could be construed as one that depicts a sense of feminine submission, as Ben’s face possesses all of the color, while Jo’s is pale and perhaps symbolically her strength pales in comparison to Ben’s.  The traditional 1950s ideal of a man as the head of household and the more analytical gender play out here. Additionally, Ben’s profession as a physician lends to his authority over he wife, as, in one part of the film, he sedates her to help calm her down.  Ironically, however, it is the emotion of the song sung by Jo that helps them rescue their kidnapped son.

Altogether, it is both the power and authority of the visual, both conscious and subconscious, that move our society to think and to act (I think here of the recent news that images of deceased infants moved our current president to retaliate against Syria’s Assad).  As a derivative, film brings the visual to a new level because of its ability to not only depict a single image but also a moving narrative. When placed within a theatrical context, it makes me wonder if the idea of physical discipline, as seen in ancient Roman arenas (a theatrical spectacle of their time), differs much than the mental discipline of the modern movie theater.

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