*** (A must-see)

Directed by Babette Mangolte

Written by John Barth

With Kim Ginsburg, George Deem, Powers Boothe, Saskia Noordhoek-Hegt, Ella Troyano, James Barth, Maggie Grynastyl, and Valda Setterfield.

Cathy, a young painter living in New York, is the central character in The Cold Eye (My Darling, Be Careful). She’s present in every image–and yet we never see her. Each shot of this extraordinary 90-minute independent feature (showing at the Film Center next Thursday) is taken as if through Cathy’s eyes, so we see her hands, we hear her voice, we hear her thinking to herself, but we never see her face or body. Art-world inanities, gossip, and more serious thoughts and reflections pass before us. We observe them all through Cathy’s eyes.

Mangolte’s choice is rare in cinema. The point-of-view shot, intended to represent what a specific character sees, is common to most fiction films but generally used only for a moment, or at most a scene. In giving us a film that consists entirely of point-of-view shots, Mangolte encourages us to reflect on the nature of her central character’s consciousness, on the ambiguities of human subjectivity in general, and on the very nature of the movie-watching experience.

In the conventional fiction film, the camera shifts between various characters’ points of view and various forms of more “objective,” third-person imagery. This process encourages us to believe that we have an omniscient view of the action. We see what each character sees, and we also see things that no character can see. The viewer feels he has a certain mobility and power, and it is this feeling of mastery that provides some of the pleasure of an entertainment film.

The more singular view of The Cold Eye makes us immediately aware of how arbitrary the film image is. As Cathy’s attention wanders during a conversation, the image may shift from the face of her friend to a seemingly random part of the room–a book, a part of the floor. By including these images, and giving them as great a weight as the head shots, Mangolte reminds us of the arbitrariness of human attention. Further, as we look at a part of a rug, we reflect on the fact that all film images are arbitrary constructs. In a conventional feature, although the images that advance the narrative may not seem arbitrary, they are as much a product of a subjective consciousness–the director, or the group that made the filmas the images depicting Cathy’s wandering vision. But Mangolte’s first-person camera technique offers its richest rewards not as a general commentary on cinema but in its depiction of a specific consciousness, in the way the camera and sound help us come to know Cathy’s thought processes.

Mangolte has confessed dissatisfaction with some aspects of her film, particularly some of the acting. It is true that only one of her actors was professional, and at times one sees the woodenness of an amateur reciting lines. But The Cold Eye actually gives us a much deeper vision of an individual’s psychology, and of her reaction to her milieu, than most professionally acted features. What other films must present through narrative construction and a skillful actor’s performance, Mangolte presents cinematically, through editing, composition, camera movement, and sound. Rather than developing a feeling for a character, an empathy brought about by traditional acting techniques, in The Cold Eye we come to feel what it’s like to be inside a character.

Cathy has much in common with many recent art school graduates. She is both deeply involved with her art and deeply unsure of herself. She says she feels “fragile” in relation to her work. When there’s a scene of Cathy painting near the film’s opening, she discusses her work solely in terms of technique. One feels this as a kind of retreat–from the important, difficult, and personal issues that face the artist to the safe ground of the material facts of painting. Yet Cathy herself seems to know that technique is not enough. She discusses certain great painters with some passion, though without much specificity. More important, she says of her own recent work, “I am not in these paintings, they are like exercises, and it is not enough.”

In the rest of the film, Cathy’s life is presented as a kind of educational odyssey; a title at the end describes the film as “an education re-visited.” We see her in encounters with various New York art-world types: an older writer friend named Allan, an older and established painter, a critic, a painter friend her own age. Part of the film’s richness is that the art world is neither univocally praised nor condemned. We hear catty gossip; we also hear the reasonably intelligent probings of characters who may not have the answers but who haven’t given up searching. Near the film’s end, in a long scene of a gallery opening, it is remarked that no one looks at the art at such affairs. But the scene ends with a shot of the paintings in the now-empty gallery: Cathy has outlasted the party, in which she happily participated, in order to also have a chance to look at the art. Mangolte has acknowledged that Henry James is of great importance to her, and indeed the complex intersubjectivity of his writing, in which we of ten come to know a central character not through his action but through the way in which he observes others, is somewhat mirrored in the structure of The Cold Eye.

Some of the strangest and most original moments of the film occur when characters who are speaking to Cathy look directly at her, and consequently directly into the camera and directly at us. In the more conventional method of filming conversations, called the shot-countershot or reverse-angle technique, we see each party in the dialogue over the shoulder of the other. Such images invite us to be a silent (and implicitly omniscient) observer of each character’s point of view, but they also leave us outside, as free as the camera to leave these characters for others. Mangolte’s relentless first-person imagery instead makes us vulnerable, more exposed, and ultimately, I think, more human. As characters stare directly at us, we feel at risk, as if what they are saying might affect, even change, not only Cathy but ourselves. We come to feel the weakness of the young painter’s position: looking for answers, seeking at times to find them in others, she is open to whatever influences those others choose to exert. She must depend on others for advice, for approval, for her very sense of herself. She worries about her own vulnerability–at one point she repeats the film’s subtitle, wishing for someone to warn her: “My darling, be careful.”

Although we see everyone only from Cathy’s point of view, in a certain way we do come to know them as well. As they stare out at her/us, we feel their precariousness. They are looking into the eyes of someone they know but cannot enter, cannot control, can never be, who is nonetheless seeking to incorporate them into her still-evolving self. Those moments present quite beautifully, and in purely cinematic rather than literary terms, the personal risk taken by both parties in a serious conversation. One looks constantly to one’s partner–for reaction, for appreciation, for confirmation–all the while aware that one is ultimately alone. Where the conventional reverse-angle shots unite the conversationalists, Mangolte’s separate them, and we feel each person is an independent entity. Ultimately we come to feel that all the characters are in some way reflections of Cathy: every person in the film is in some sense seeking to find himself or herself partly in others.

Mangolte shows us not only Cathy’s interactions with others but also those moments when her eye wanders from the face of a friend. A group of images is cut together to convey this almost unintelligible visual meandering: it is as if she lacks her own inner alternative to the complexities of another’s consciousness. Mangolte represents Cathy’s shifting attention with nearly random views of nearly empty spaces. Just as she can define her painting only in terms of its materials, so she will often react to intelligent conversation in the same way she reacts to boredom, with a wandering eye.

These passages are among my favorite moments in the film, even though they seem to represent Cathy at her most vacuous. They are at least Cathy’s own, her first attempts to discover her own vision. Though these passages are as simply material and lacking in allusiveness as Cathy’s view of her painting, the camera movements and cuts in these sequences have a curious, rhythmic beauty that transcends the apparent banality of what is being looked at.

If I have a reservation about the film, it is that perhaps it doesn’t go far enough in relating–and in recognizing the fundamental mysteries of–its three levels, the portrait of Cathy’s world, the consideration of human subjectivity, and the meditation on movie watching. Ultimately the film seems tied to the first level, to its specific characters and milieu. Still, it richly rewarded my two viewings of it. Near the film’s end, Allan has Cathy read a final text, an allegory of suicide and rebirth that could also be a version of Cathy’s “education.” In this story, as in its entirety, The Cold Eye has much to say to anyone who has not yet decided, finally and certainly, all aspects of his or her own self.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Babette Mangolte.