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Some of Film’s Best (and Worst) First-Person Shots

Some of Film's Best (and Worst) First-Person Shots

With the advent of hyperrealistic video games and GoPro technology, there has been a sudden surge in attempting to recreate life as closely as possible, and with that, the subjectivity of it as well. Film’s freedom and ability to provide us with a variety of viewpoints is what makes the medium such an iconic tool. In its drive to showcase that particular perspective, film has the powerful potential to portray the wide spectrum of human emotions in an audiovisual manner.

READ MORE: Toronto Review: How ‘Hardcore’ Attempts a New Kind of Cinema

While point-of-view shots demonstrate film’s capability to create clear and cohesive character motivations, it’s the first-person perspective that best captures pure subjectivity. The viewer is forced to experience the action that is occurring in the diegetic world through the lens of the character, hearing and seeing just as they are.

This form of character perspective affords individuals an unflinching look into that character’s development, providing them with unprecedented access to their psyche. Enter “Hardcore Henry,” which promises to be an original, GoPro-helmed, first-person perspective film. But before “Hardcore Henry” came onto the scene, there have been numerous other productions that incorporated the same sort of camerawork and technology.

“Lady in the Lake” (1947)

“Lady in the Lake” has the distinction of being the first film to ever showcase first-person perspective in such an uncharacteristically prolonged fashion. Nearly the entire film–save for the few moments when the main character, Marlowe, addresses the audience directly–is shot from the perspective of a hardboiled private eye. Beginning with the first shot of Marlowe gliding towards the door, to his hand reaching down to turn the door knob, to lighting a cigarette, the late ’40s noir film was an unprecedented achievement at the time of its release.

But what made this use of camerawork so inspiring and ahead of its time, is its use inside a noir story. The genre’s conventions focus on multiple characters, intertwining storylines, and the oft-confusing “I thought he was a good guy!” moments. By anchoring the viewer to the perspective of the PI, “Lady in the Lake” shakes up noir’s customs and provides us with only one viewpoint: Marlowe’s. This unfortunately pigeonholes the viewer into only one perspective, a quality that doesn’t work well in the conventions of noir storytelling. Gone are the abilities to relate to the damsel in distress, or the corrupt district attorney. Instead the audience is forced to see, hear–and thus feel–what Marlowe is, a quality that quickly runs thin as the plot begins to thicken.

“Rear Window” (1954)

Hitchcock is a master of camerawork, constantly playing with viewpoint subjectivity in his films through the use of time and space. From “Rope” to “The Birds,” he always set his eyes on unsettling his viewers and providing them with the means of understanding a character’s development and personal psyche.

In “Rear Window,” through a clever use of space, Hitchcock was able to use first-person shots to showcase Jeff’s precociousness and subsequent fears. By shooting Jeff putting his binoculars–and later his giant telephoto lens–to his face, and then following with a first-person shot from his viewpoint showing his neighbors, Hitchcock’s spatial awareness allows him to elicit in his viewers that same emotional understanding. This camerawork incites in in the viewer the same sort of voyeuristic quality that many of his future films will also incorporate.

Being John Malkovich” (1999)

Spike Jonze’s surprise hit “Being John Malkovich” championed many fascinating aspects of filmmaking and cinematic storytelling, particularly its ingenious and hilarious inclusion of first-person perspective. In opening a service to experience the life through the eyes of famed-actor John Malkovich, John Cusack’s Craig allows his customers to dive into the subjective experiences of the Oscar-nominated actor. 

But at the same time, Jonze reminds us of the viewpoint that we’ve been given. As we watch the customers step through the magical small door, we’re flung down a mysterious burrowed hole, emerging with the perspective of the customer. We, as Malkovich, see him going about his mundane daily routines: ordering from a catalogue, talking to a cab driver or eating a piece of toast. We are thrust into the role of a viewer of a viewer, who has taken the perspective of yet another viewer: Malkovich. And in the end, we’re reminded of those multiple stages of viewership when those customers ultimately end up on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike.

Whether you see this as an anticipation of virtual reality lives like Second Life or a commentary on our celebrity culture obsessions, this play on perspective is what makes the film such a strong example of first-person point-of-view, allowing the viewer to correctly identity with each layer of viewership: Malkovich, the customer, and finally, you.

“Doom” (2005)

While “Doom” may be one of the worst video game adaptations of all time, it has one redeemable quality. In an attempt to pay homage to the eponymous ’90s classic shooter, director Andrzej Bartkowiak and cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts go on a wildly over-the-top first-person shooting scene that would make even Uwe Boll cringe. The outrageous sequence includes the unnecessary incorporation of “oops, not this hallway” moments, unbearably bad lighting and excessive, Verhoeven-esque violence.

But the video game tropes of discovering a map’s layout, gratuitous deaths, and wildly imaginative demon creatures through a first-person perspective sequence seemed fresh and original at the time. If anything, “Doom’s” first-person viewpoint scene is the closest companion piece that “Hardcore Henry” could ask for.

Cloverfield” (2008)

New York? Godzilla-like creature? Found-footage cinematography (before it became kitschy)? When “Cloverfield” was first being marketed with its ominous “1-18-08” title, some prepped for quite the cinematic journey. And it proved to be, mainly for its vomit-inducing shaky camerawork. But it also served to be a spiritual successor to the dozens of films (horror and otherwise) that incorporate this form of cinematography.

Enter the Void” (2009)

“Enter the Void” has one of the best uses of first-person perspective, showing a technical ability that few have been able to match. The bathroom sequence features a shot of our protagonist looking at himself directly in the mirror, yet we see no camerawork.

In the days of CGI and VFX, this is nothing out-of-the-ordinary. But it’s Gasper Noé’s innovative teasing of the audience that makes this subjective viewpoint such a powerful technical achievement. By having the main character swipe his hand across his face, and blacken the screen for a few frames, Noé is beckoning his viewers to question, “How?” But it’s more important to ask why Noé decides to include that split-second swipe. Perhaps it was to demonstrate the character’s presence or make the audience question his sense of hallucinogenic-inspired reality. Maybe it’s to remind us that we are not viewing this film from our perspective but the main character’s instead.

READ MORE: Watch: Explosive ‘Hardcore Henry’ Trailer Promises a Revolutionary Movie Experience

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