The History and Future of the POV Film

With the imminent release of Hardcore Harry and Pandemic, shot from the point of view of a character, Garry Westmore looks at the weird and wonderful history of extended point of view shots and films, and wonders what the future may hold for them.

When French director Abel Gance decided to wrap a camera in padding and it to breastplate of Jules Kruger, and film a snowball fight in his 1927 epic Napoleon, he inadvertently filmed the world’s first notable POV scene. Though it’s hard to attribute the invention of the shot to Gance and Kruger, it was certainly the first visceral use of the shot, the director consciously trying to bring the camera alive. In the technical scenario description, Gance wrote, “the camera defends itself, as if it were Bonaparte himself” and “as if it were human”.

It wasn’t until the 1940s though that POV, or ‘subjective viewpoint’ as it’s sometimes referred to, would be used for the entirety of a film, with Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake (1947) delivering the first ever first-person film. Based on the Raymond Chandler novel of the same name, the film attempted to take a first-person penned detective novel and place the audience in the shoes of Chandler’s classic noir detective, Phillip Marlowe.

A scene from Lady in the Lake

In the very same year Delmer Daves would experiment with extended POV shots for his film noir mystery Dark Passage (1947). Starring Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, much of the film’s first act is seen through the eyes of Bogart’s character Vincent Parry, the results of which were far more lauded than Montgomery’s efforts.

Regardless though Lady in the Lake provided a significant technical achievement, Montgomery even managing to show the Marlowe in a large mirror using clever blocking.

In both Lady in the Lake and Dark Passage, the POV shot aided the mysterious and dangerous mood of each film; providing an interesting tool to explore their respective noir worlds. The possibilities of the subjective viewpoint were seemingly not lost on the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock, who, despite never committing to POV shots for the entirety of any film, used the technique readily, often switching between the viewpoints of various characters.

Lauren Becall in Dark Passage

From Vertigo to Rear Window, Psycho to Strangers on a Train, Hitchcock had something to say about voyeurism yes, but more importantly the POV shots employed by Hitchcock didn’t necessarily bring us any closer to the characters. As filmmaker and critic Daniel Sallitt put it, Hitchcock’s “point of view shot is a means of putting the spectator in some relation, not to the character, but to the film universe”.

As horror films started to become more sophisticated, moving from B-grade schlock to effective thrill rides, they borrowed from filmmakers such as Hitchcock, reappropriating the POV shot to create a sense of dread, to see hapless victims from the point of view of whatever titular monster or killer was about to besiege them. Action sci-fi films or the 1980s like Terminator, Predator and Robocop too would use the technique quite heavily too, but mainstream experimentation of any prolonged use of the technique ceased.

A POV scene from Robocop

That was until Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, The Hurt Locker) made the semi-dystopian sci-fi thriller Strange Days (1995). In the film Ralph Fiennes plays an ex-cop who now deals in data-disc recordings of other peoples memories; and when characters were thrust into others memories, Bigelow made the bold decision to film said scenes from the perspective of the memory holder.

Technically these scenes are quite breathtaking and far more involved then anything that had been done prior. A an armed robbery, an execution and an assault were all shot in seamless and confronting first-person perspective, possible only due to a lightweight SL cine camera, a prototype Steadicam SK sled, and some incredible coordination between camera operator James Munro and the stuntman whose limbs appeared in shot.

Juliet Lewis from the POV of Strange Days’ Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes)

Though offering a clear tip of the hat to its video game roots, Doom’s (2005) five-minute first person shoot ’em up scene, with it’s frequent and obvious cut points and CGI additions, wasn’t quite as accomplished as Bigelow’s Strange Days. Her use of the subjective viewpoint wasn’t merely for action, the scenes designed to replicate the experience of someone experiencing another person’s experience — which is as meta as it gets.

It’s surreal in a way, and Bigelow’s pushing of the POV envelop arguably influence Gasper Noe’s hallucinatory and quasi-philosophical Enter the Void (2009). Shot from the perspective of Oscar, an American drug dealer living in Tokyo, Enter the Void is a technical masterpiece and at times, a visual assault. Whilst alive, we are in Oscar’s skin as he indulges in DMT, observing his hallucinations before joining his ‘spirit’ after he’s shot dead as it floats through Tokyo, scenes cutting away violently to traumatic events in his life.

Though Strange Days and Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002) (a film in which the camera acts as a ghostly narrator drifting through history) seem like obvious reference points for Noe’s film, it was in fact Lady in the Lake would plant the seed for Enter the Void after the director stumbled upon the film.

Divisive as Noe’s film maybe (it runs for 221 minutes, has gratuitous and surreal sex scenes, and hints at incest), it’s testament to the possibility of the subjective viewpoint in filmmaking. Whilst the upcoming Hardcore Henry (2015) and Pandemic (2016) bring the first person film experience back to the genres of action and sci-fi, they appear to be pushing the limits even further, particular Hardcore Henry which takes the staging of action in the first-person to video game extremes. That film has upped the ante and a is providing a timely reminder of how the logistics of mise-en-scene can still wow us, just like great long takes do.

But what place does the future hold for such films? If Doom and Hardcore Henry borrow from the world of video games, and video games incorporate the complexities of cinema storytelling and film language into their narratives, how viable is it to make POV films?

Anyone who has played the first person adventure game Firewatch (current in the updated Games Lab section of Screen Worlds) will attest that the experience was much like a film, but with the freedom to deviate from the linear storyline. By the end of 2016 there’ll be three Virtual Reality gaming systems on the market, which may well make any future POV films feel limited in scope.

So will the subjective viewpoint film become a thing of the past and be resigned to the annals of gimmick filmmaking like 4D cinema, or Sensurround? Or perhaps there’ll be further experimentation, and even more mind-bending possibilities for POV films as Virtual Reality comes into its own.

- @GarryWestmore

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Originally published at www.acmi.net.au.