In the comments section of my post from last Monday about wide-screen cinematography, someone who signed off as “JM” opined that “the idea of perceptual freedom due to wide-screen/depth-of-field seems sort-of misapplied to [The Vikings] and a lot of other films (even [Otto Preminger’s] Bonjour Tristesse).I think that observation has become cliche in film criticism, not there isn’t ever any truth to it.” I’m glad to have read that comment; on numerous occasions I’ve fallen back on the cliche in question, and it was high time I examined my instincts.
If we’re getting technical, there’s no such thing as spectatorial freedom in movies. Even those shots containing multiple and/or contradictory pieces of visual information have been selected by the filmmakers; the same goes for any “spontaneous” behavior we may see on-screen. The great critic Robin Wood—who approached movies much like literary texts—once wrote something to the effect that a film was put together before he ever saw it, and thus he wasn’t responsible for any of its content. That’s a valid point, but it’s hard to overcome the appeal of saying you have some input into your entertainment. It makes you feel more like a grown-up and less like a passive consumer of sounds and images.