Out of Sight and the Self-Reflexive Cinema of the 90’s
The 90’s were a unique decade, especially in film. In comparison to films produced in the 20’s or 30’s we can see that films begin to change their relationship between the spectator and themselves. It was as if this relationship between the two prior to the 90’s cinema was a ‘pink elephant’ of sorts. The simple fact that movies were made to be watched was quietly understood and left simply to be just that however, in the 90’s film played on this quiet understanding by bringing it out to illuminate it and point at it. Films spoke to the spectator by speaking about themselves and this at times made the spectator uneasy, and at times gave them pleasure. Viewing was in this time a completely different act then in the generations previous because it insisted on the knowledge of the spectator, it insisted on the active participation of the viewer. Roland Barthes in his article “Death of the Author” talks about the newly bestowed right as well as challenge we as readers/viewers now have. We can no longer be satisfied with the views of even the author of a certain text on even what he himself has written. This forces us to continue to derive meaning using other texts, other authors etc. Barthes talks about how authors have subconscious influencers such as their political views, religion, ethnicity, psychology, or even biographical or personal attributes. "To give a text an Author" and give it one specific meaning or even one specific interpretation would "impose a limit on that
text." So we as viewers are left with this responsibility to interpret texts appropriately, and film makers play on this change of relationship by using specific narration wise or editing tactics to further speak out about themselves and even more on our interpretations of these films. The narration wise tactics used in 90’s cinema were not necessarily new, in fact 90’s cinema barrows many techniques from earlier era’s, however it is how film makers used these techniques that made 90’s cinema what it was. Along with the usage of these techniques in this specific way film began to now disrupt the typical conventions of narration structure. This disruption from usual conventions and (one might even say) pastiche of the former times are one of the characteristics of Postmodernism. Can we say then that the 90’s were the decade of postmodern film? In his book, “Postmodern Hollywood” author Keith Booker talks about characteristics that films now began to present to the viewer. He discusses how elements such as the absence of continuous narration and the prevalence of nostalgia, and claims that these or changes within Hollywood that tell us that indeed that postmodernist films exists. For the benefit of not having to prove that postmodern film exits I will agree only that films in the 90’s follow a certain postmodern paradigm. To better understand this postmodern paradigm present within films of the 90’s I will analyze the film Out of Sight (1998, Steven Soderbergh), by discussing how narration wise tactics such as self-reflexivity, self-
consciousness and irony comment on the films own subject. Also, I will discuss themes of memory and how the film disrupts normal narration conventions as this was also widespread in films of the 90’s.
Self-consciousness are a narration’s acknowledgement that a story is being presented to the viewer, if the viewer is reminded that they are watching a film then the narration of the film becomes self-conscious. However if the film while making the viewer conscious that they are viewing also comments on its own subject matter then the films narration is being self-reflexive. An example of self-conscious narration is the use of titles on screen such as in the film Pulp Fiction when we see “nine minutes and thirty seven seconds later” on the screen. We are reminded by the mere appearance of text that this is only possible because we are watching a film. An example of self-reflexive narration can be seen in the film “Husbands and Wives” when the character Gabe Roth is watching a documentary on TV as the film begins. This is self-reflexive because the film itself is a mocumentary (a fictitious documentary) and Gabe is watching a documentary, so it reminds us we are watching a film because we recognize Gabe’s act of viewing and also we recognize that Gabe is watching a documentary just as we are. In an article written by Cynthia Baron “The Player’s Parody of Hollywood: A different Kind of Suture” she discusses how techniques mentioned above can
alienate the viewer. This was not always films intention as she says, the goal as described by Baron in epic theatre of the 1920’s was not to create alienation. However alienation does not necessarily mean displeasure. As she talks about the film The Player she discusses how self-reflexive moments can sometimes be quite enjoyable. She says, “ The Player can be read as a film that seems to use strategies central to Classical Hollywood Cinema, but in fact shifts audience involvement to a different register, to the relationship between itself and its spectators” (Baron, 24). In the film The Player there are actors who play fictitious characters and then there are actors that play themselves. Because we are able to recognize these people as actors and they are addressed by their real name we feel two things: firstly an estrangement in that we know we are watching a film, specifically about Hollywood that now has actors acting as themselves. Secondly a sort of quite pleasure in that we were able to recognize them, our knowledge therefore is rewarded. The movie becomes a game of recognition and we feel pleasure of recognizing things from the non-dietetic world. This play on pleasure is not only accomplished using recognition. We can also feel a sense of pleasure by what films may empower us with. When films use voyeur – like camera shots we can feel an estrangement by the position we are put into. Robert Stam in his article “Allegories of Spectatorship” discusses this estrangement/pleasure within the Hitchcock film Rear Window. He comments on Jefferies, a character that spies on his neighbor, “Jefferies is our …double. We do not merely watch him performing
actions we perform the identical actions” (Stam, 48). This is what makes Rear Window so self-reflexive is not only because we are watching Jefferies be a voyeur, it is through the cinematic apparatus that we too become voyeurs. This allows us to feel pleasure of watching but not being watched. The distance that is necessary to be a voyeur allows us to indulge in this act, but the disruption of that distance can also create a poisoning sense of estrangement. However, estrangement is not necessarily required, it is often a result and sometimes placed into films intentionally. A self-reflexive moment in Out of Sight is the conversation between Jack Foley and Karen Sisco in the trunk of her car as Foley has her hostage while he escapes from Prison. As Jack begins to talk to Karen about movies he mentions Three Days of the Condor. Karen then says “I never thought it made sense though, the way they got together so quick.” The reason this becomes self – reflexive is because the film Three days of the Condor is a love story between Joe Turner and Kathy Hale that mirrors the love story between Jack and Karen. To further explain how this is a self-reflexive moment, I will illustrate the similarities between the two pairs of characters. Firstly their situation is similar in that Joe takes Kathy hostage in Kathy’s own apartment, and Jack takes Karen hostage in Karen’s car. Secondly both Joe and Kathy and Jack and Karen's relationships have a conflict of interest. Specifically in Out of Sight we know that the conflict of interest is whether
Karen should cuff him or kiss him. Finally, Karen by saying “I never thought it made sense thought, the way they got together so quick” is reflecting also upon her situation. Jack and Karen become ‘intrigued’ with each other by only this one moment. This situation becomes self-reflexive in that it reminds us we are watching a film because of its allusion to a similar narration in the non-diegetic world but also because that narration reflects on Out of Sight. What becomes Self-Conscious then is the scene that opens the movie where Jack robs the SunTrust Bank. This is another instance in which the viewer is rewarded for his knowledge of the non-diegetic world as we discussed earlier. In Quentin Tarentino’s Film Pulp Fiction, two characters discuss robbing and various places and methods of robbing. One of the characters describes a specific robbery in which the robber doesn’t even use a gun, he says “I heard about this guy, walked in to a federal bank with a portable phone, handed the phone to the teller, the guy on the other end of the phone says: ‘we got this guy’s little girl, and if you don’t give him all your money, we are gonna kill’er”. What the two characters are discussing is essentially the Jack Foley SunTrust Bank robbery, because the robber does not use a gun, instead he uses a unique type of threat to gain leverage. As Jack himself says, “Its amazing what people will give you, if you ask for it in the right way.” Again, this becomes self-conscious because we firstly recognize the non-diegetic reference, secondly we feel rewarded for this knowledge, and these ultimately remind us that we are indeed being told a story.
Films in the 90’s also used irony as a way to involve the spectator as well as depart from the traditional expectations that we as viewers might have about films. Irony can be a literary or rhetorical device that is incongruent between what is said and what is actually done, or maybe understood. Irony becomes postmodern in its respect to how it relies on the viewers knowledge to catch what is happening and what is said. Out of Sight. Claire Colebrook in her book titled Irony discusses authors such as Hutchenson, Rorty, Austin, and Carter. She talks about how irony functions specifically with or against community conventions. She says “One the one hand, irony challenges any ready-made consensus or community, allowing the social whole and everyday language to be questioned” (Colebrook, 150). Colebrook says it is this that disrupts norms and becomes constructive of higher ideals. This technique of disruption was used frequently in 90’s cinema and within Out of Sight, can be seen to function as a fortifier of the love story. Out of Sight operates very heavily on the irony of the love story between Jack and Karen. It is Karen who is insisting that she will bring Jack to justice however her actions go directly against what she declares to do. Karen is an officer and Jack a bank robber, the fact that these two people could be together is itself ironic. This ironic narrative causes tension which forces the viewer to read into the true relationship between Jack and Karen.
Just as we can see how self-consciousness, self-reflexivness, and irony function as narration wise techniques that cause the viewer to become more aware of themselves, as the film makes itself more apparent so also editing techniques such as disjunctive editing and flash backs can operate to do the same. One of the techniques that is used in film to do just that is parallel editing. Parallel editing are shots of the sequences which are given in parallel and belong to the same slice of time. The shots are continuous temporally but they are spatially discontinuous. What we as viewers are made to believe is that the simultaneous shots are actually taking place at the same time but occurring in different places. Parallel editing encourages us to make comparisons between the two present spaces. The scene where Jack and Karen are sitting in the bar and the following sequence in Karen’s hotel room illustrates how Out of Sight uses parallel editing. We see them first just talking but then the film intercuts small scenes from Jack and Karen in the hotel room. The dialogs become voice over’s until Karen suggests, “Lets get out of here” it is then the parallel editing ends and the film moves to Karen’s room to stay. This very interesting editing style is obviously self-conscious because of the break in continuous editing points out that we are in fact watching a movie. However it also engages the viewer in another way in that it teases the
spectator by giving them knowledge of what is going to happen before it happens, similar to foreshadowing but in an absolute sense. Although the spectator may have guessed that Foley and Sisco would end up in bed, the film intercuts it into their conversation. Essentially we are then denied of waiting to see what happens and are instead put in a position of knowing and the result is a charming love scene. Another technique that is used in 90’s cinema and more specifically in Out of Sight is fragmentation. In another film discussed above, The Player the opening sequence is a long shot in which two characters discuss the MTV music video phenomenon causing all movies to have such fragmented shots. The sequence is ironic because while they discuss how movies are just not like they used to be with their use of long shots we view them in a long shot. However, the author previously mentioned, Keith Booker suggests that this sequence specifically comments on the stylistic decisions within postmodern films. He says, “MTV is not the only fragmented form of popular culture in the late twentieth century, and this editing style also marks more general characteristics of postmodern culture. Booker discuses how the French New Wave films of Jean-Luc Godard actually employed these tactics far before MTV or the 90’s. It is in this same respect that the discontinuation of single form narration utilizes the technique of fragmentation. The breaking from invisible narration shows how Out of Sight specifically has postmodern paradigms.
Invisible narration is a technique used to tell a story without making the narrator, the director, or the viewer apparently visible in any way. What invisible narration tries to do is make the diegetic world as the real world. It can accomplish this in a number of ways including continuity editing that creates a smooth flow from shot to shot. All the rules of continuity such as 180-degree rule, eye-line matches, and match on action serve to make the editing invisible. However Out of Sight uses flashbacks as a way of breaking this invisibility. As I stated earlier films in this era work hard to speak about themselves and the use of flashbacks in this film speak about its subject matter as well as reflect on the general time period of cinema itself. The first flashback is actually the film’s opening. After he is caught we are then pushed back into the present where Foley attempts to escape with Karen as his hostage. The next flashback occurs when Karen is able to convince Glenn to drive off leaving Buddy and Foley behind, the freeze frame of Buddy and Foley dissolves into two years earlier at Lompoc Prison. The final use of flashback occurs after we see Karen in the hospital, another freeze frame which is dissolves into a close up of the character Maurice two years prior in Lompoc. The use of flashbacks in Out of Sight further reflects on the postmodern paradigm’s struggle against modernist conventions. Flashbacks are used in this film to disrupt its continuous invisible narration, something we have seen in films of the 90’s. The flashbacks mentioned above create moments of
self-consciousness as well as become slightly self-reflexive. They are selfconscious in that we as viewers are aware that we do not have the luxury of visiting the past whenever we please to do so, however film is a tool that empowers us with such a luxury, therefore we know we are being told a story. However, the flashbacks reflect on the films own subject matter in that its use illustrates the notion of being out of sight. If out of sight can be understood as I have understood it in its literal sense – being illusive from ones vision then use of flashbacks can be said to be self-reflexive. The plot deals with characters who are illusive not because they necessarily want to be but because that is the circumstances in which they are kept, so also are the circumstances of the narrative time line. It withholds certain images until the film feels best to display them. In this I say the use of flashbacks are self-reflexive. The film’s title ‘out of sight’ reflects on its own subject matter as well. We can understand ‘out of sight’ with the famous saying, out of sight out of mind. What this means is if one can keep something away from your visual that it will not occupy your thoughts, keep something out of sight and it will be out of your thoughts. That saying functions in this movie as well, alluding to the very way in which Jack and Karen’s love begins to emerge. For both of them they are truly out of each other’s sight however the attraction between them is nowhere out of mind. Just like the narration-wise tactics we learned that in this time period films took a concept and began to break it down, and almost mock it. I use the word mock lightly and mean that styles were
barrowed and emphasized. Just as styles have been used in Out of Sight, one could make the argument that even the title reflects on this ‘postmodern paradigm’. Using a title such as Out of Sight forces the viewer to use their own knowledge and read into the context. Most films may employ this tactic, however in the 90’s film used this tactic in a strategic way to reflect on the relationship between spectacle and spectator.
As I have discussed films of the 90’s uniquely change the relationship between spectator and spectacle. Out of Sight is one of those films. The self-reflexive, self-conscious narration engages with the viewer. This new engagement is quite different from films in prior generations that utilized the classical invisible narration. Out of Sight indeed has postmodern paradigms within it, and they function uniquely with the purpose of speaking to the viewers about itself as a subject. This expansive self-reflexivity could be said to expose the bankruptcy of cinema or show its maturity, either way the postmodern paradigms are prevalent.
Roland Barthes. "The Death of the Author." Image, Music, Text. Ed. and trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill, 1977.
Booker, Keith. Postmodern Hollywood: what’s new in film and why it makes us feel so strange. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007
Colebrook, Claire. Irony Routledge, 2004
Stam, Robert. “Allegories of Spectatorship.” Reflexivity in Film and Literature. Columbia University Press, 1992
Baron, Cynthia. “The Players Parody Of Hollywood A different Kind of Suture.” Postmodernism in the Cinema. Berghahn Books, 1998