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Psycho, 'Shower Scence', Alfred Hitchcock (1960)

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18 March 2024

Revealing the Hidden Gaze: Truths And Fictions of Image-Consciousness


'And finally there is the fourth category, the rarest, the category of people who live in the imaginary

eyes of those who are not present.'

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

  1. The Empty Gaze

The infamous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho presents us with a moment of true terror, and it isn’t when the curtain is flung open to reveal a faceless figure holding a knife aloft before the defenceless Marion Crane. The terrifying shot occurs after the brutal murder is committed and Crane’s screams subside. First, the camera pans to take in the bloody shower water as it trickles down a dark plughole. It zooms in until the plughole consumes the screen, then zooms slowly back out to reveal the pupil of a shining eye, and then out further still to reveal the limp, expressionless face that the eye belongs to. We are being stared at by the glassy eye of Marion’s corpse. 


The return of Marion’s empty gaze is the moment when the watcher’s illusion of itself as master is shattered. Until this point, we see images projected by a camera onto a big screen which takes up our entire field of vision. We can lose ourselves by snuggling happily into the comfortable seat of attention carved out for us by the lens, which gives us the pleasurable sensation of being fixed, all-seeing subjects of a world in motion. Because the faces we see on screen can’t see us back, they become objects to us. We are at liberty to perceive and judge and desire them as we please. And we feel a spasm of shock when they suddenly turn outward to meet our gaze.  


The paradox of spectatorship lies in the unidirectionality of the attention exchanged during watching. In a conversation with a friend, both parties might be involved in a mutual and dialogic act of visual communication. We read others by watching their facial expressions, hand gestures and body language, and respond accordingly. They read us in the same way. When we speak to each other, we are both talking and listening, looking and being looked at, paying and receiving attention. When we watch films, we are only looking and listening. Unburdened by the look of the ‘other,’ we become active verbs; unfettered ‘doing’ words. 


The gaze is not simply the look of the perceiving subject which grants it control over the objects in its field of vision. Instead, it is the external, invisible eye that constantly looks back at us, yet remains hidden when we watch films. As such, it is “[w]hen the gaze appears,” writes philosopher and film theorist Joan Copjec, “that vision is annihilated” (Copjec, Orthophysic). Once recognized, the gaze intrudes on our falsely secure sense that we are authoritative subjects, sutured by the seamless visual totality of the objects projected to us on screen. 


When we feel the sudden shock of Marion’s lifeless pupil staring directly at us, the frame which our illusion of control relies upon disintegrates. We become conscious once again of how we might look in the dark cinema, with our eyes wide and our jaws slack. The gaze is the hidden gap that lies at the centre of the pupil or camera lens which forces us to turn the direction of attention back on ourselves. It reminds us that we are objects of perception to an invisible eye whose judgement we cannot control.


2. Image Truth, Image Fiction


When we watch a movie we are watching a representation of reality that is both maximally accurate and superficial. Let’s use movie-actors as an example. On the one hand, we equate acting with pretence. An actor’s craft lies in the ability to convey a surface which is fabricated for the camera. To act is to purport an emotion other than that which is intrinsically felt. To act up, act out or play-act is to exaggerate, falsify or caricature. On the other hand, if we take it that actors must feel a degree of emotional implication in a part in order to truthfully play it, then it must follow that an element of performance, or exposure, is inextricably constituted in the realisation of truth. We see this to varying degrees in the social realm, and instantiated most profoundly and directly in the actor.


The knowledge that a pair of eyes or a camera lens is trained upon us grants the freedom of choosing how we present ourselves to the world, burdens us  with the responsibility of making the choice, and condemns us to the anxiety that the choice might not be ours at all. This contradiction is driven to its absolute endpoint in films, and the visual images that so strongly appear to truthfully represent the actor. The joy (and anxiety) of the cinematic experience lies in its profound superficiality. When we watch movies, we confront the fact that the truth lies plainly and inescapably on the surface. We see on the screen what we often struggle to accept in ourselves, which is that we are as we appear to the viewer. 


As such, the magic of the way that cinema makes us see the world is that it is at once the purest representation of reality that we have available to us, and the most illusory. Images are a vehicle through which to imbue the world with structure, in that they order the chaos and fragmentation of real lived experience into a single, static, visual totality. We might remember a particular time and place in our life through a vivid image, just like we recount stories to order and chronologize a disparate succession of events. In films, we infer less because we imagine less, for the image is already gifted to us. The camera decides the angle, perspective and the depth of field to provide the audience with a complete image. We believe we are watching reality captured as it really is. In fact, we are watching reality as it is imagined. On screen, we witness our fantasies, our idealized projections of experience, on screen. We are both ‘screened to’ reality and ‘screened from’ it.


3. Identity as Image


How does this way of seeing inform and influence how we construct our own identities? Like the screen, the mirror provides us with an idealised visual presentation of the world. However, the mirror differs from the screen in that it  puts us in the position of viewing ourselves as an image. We suddenly see form in the cloud of sensation that is direct experience, and witness ourselves as a definite shape which is uniform and wholly constituted.  As the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan writes it in his seminal essay, ‘The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I,’ 


The mirror stage is a drama whose internal thrust is precipitated from insufficiency to anticipation - and which manufactures for the subject, caught up in the lure of spatial identification, the succession of phantasies that extends from a fragmented body-image to a form of its totality… and, lastly, to the assumption of the armour of an alienating identity, which will mark with its rigid structure the subject's entire mental development. (Norton, 1115)


Lacan demonstrates that the fascination of the infant with the reflection it sees in the mirror lies in the ability of the image to unify the anarchic impulses and fragmented experiences of the primary self into an exteriority which is fully formed. The mirror, to Lacan, “freezes [the self] in a symmetry that inverts it, in opposition to the turbulent movements with which the subject feels animates it” (Norton, 1115).  By identifying with the unified self we see in the mirror, we aspire to an (id)entity which is always unattainably ‘over there,’ looking back at us.


Our reflections allow us to imagine ourselves as composed, controlled and put together, and the mirror becomes a register of power and mastery that we strive to possess. Once we encounter an image of ourselves that satisfies us, we don the ‘armour of an alienating identity,’ and, in doing so, surrender our originating selves to the power of those we can only witness externally. While our bodies and faces are turbulent and contingent surfaces in real life, subject to changes in emotion and light and movement, we arrange ourselves to appear at ease and in control before the camera. We smoulder photos. In front of the mirror, we (meta)physically ‘make ourselves up.’ We cringe from an unexpected encounter with our reflection on the street that reveals a face contorted with laughter or a ruffled head of hair, confronted as we are with a visual truth that appears at odds with the mirrored self we have some degree of control over. Our experience of the world passes through the medium of the image, and no image has more power over us than our own. 


4. Image-Consciousness

Concurrent with our increased ability to capture the moment is the commodification of the moment itself. Fifty years ago, a family photo, carefully arranged, framed and selected to sit on the mantel, might have served as the single artefact of a more significant time and place. Taking a photo was more often an event, requiring the photographer to step out of the frame of action whilst simultaneously assuming an active role in freezing and capturing it. Now, the boundaries distinguishing moment from image have dissolved.  A photo sits as one of many in a camera roll that has likely captured the majority of the significant events and experiences of a human life. Even while images have assumed primary importance as a medium through which we perceive reality and collect memories, the weight and meaning of the reality to which a photo refers has diminished. 


A photo is no longer a mediation of reality, but instead an end to which we strive in our lived experience. We imagine our lives in constant anticipation of a moment or event which might be worth capturing. We want to be ‘caught on camera,’ eternally posing for a candid photo or video which will capture, and remember, the moment for us. The ‘main character moment,’ like ‘acting natural,’ is the oxymoron of today, symptomatic as it is both of a modern hyper-awareness of the need to perform for the camera and a simultaneous longing for a state of consciousness which relinquishes itself from the grip of external perception. Too much watching, and we inevitably end up watching ourselves. 

Amidst the fractured image-consciousness of modern experience, there is a dialogic appeal of films like Psycho, and the weird dread that we experience when we witness the darkness behind Marion’s pupil, staring blankly back at us from the floor of the bathroom at the Bates Motel. This appeal is the simultaneous terror and relief of passively relinquishing the visual self to the gaze of that anticipatory ‘other’ that lies at a point beyond visual representation. Surrendering ourselves to its imaginary eye and finding strength in our powerlessness to its judgement might be the surest path to a more liberated way of seeing, acting and being in the world.


Works Cited:

Leitch, Vincent B. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism / Vincent B. Leitch, General Editor. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. Third edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2018. Print.

Copjec, Joan. The Orthopsychic Subject: Film Theory and the Reception of Lacan. The MIT Press. 1989. Online.


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