This is a complement to the most recent podcast Steven Attewell and I produced, on “Second Sons,” in which we discussed, among many things—some of them kitten-related—miscommunication and the wedding of Sansa Stark and Tyrion Lannister. I found my contribution to that part of the discussion lacking, so I decided to demonstrate what I meant about Tyrion coming to dominate a scene that possesses real potential for chaos. But first let me make two noncontroversial statements:
- Prior to acquiring language, mammals developed the ability to use their eyeballs to control others’ eyeballs simply by looking around an environment.
- Filmmakers have long taken advantage of our inability not to follow the eyeballs of characters as they glance around the screen.
So if you walk into a crowd and everyone’s looking up:
I don’t care who you are or where you’re from, you’re going to follow their eyes and look up too:
It’s just natural—even if you’re really not from around here. The same logic applies when you’re watching a film. If all the characters look at something, your eyes will follow theirs. It’s the quietest means a director has to move your eyeballs where he or she wants them. Noisier varieties include dramatic movement, the sudden appearance of a new object or character, a loud unexpected sound, etc. Clearly these attentive systems evolved hand-in-hand: the first person who notices the sudden appearance of a new object may make a dramatic movement, which catches the attention of everyone else and compels them to follow that first person’s glance.
For example, if four people are in dining room and one of them notices a giant fucking lion in the kitchen, that person’s likely to make a dramatic movement accompanied by a loud unexpected sound; everyone else will turn to that person and then follow their glance into the kitchen, at which point they’ll also notice a giant fucking lion and panic will happen. At this point in our social evolution, however, we don’t need dramatic movements and loud unexpected sounds to compel our eyes to follow others’ glances—we just do it.
When coupled with all the social strictures that regulate who can look at whom and in what way and when, the potential for a director to make an audience very uncomfortable should be obvious. They can make us look at things we shouldn’t be looking at, or at things we can be looking at but are doing so wrongly, or most powerfully, they can use the sympathy or enmity they’ve already established for particular characters to make us pity or praise them for the direction of their glances. The wedding of Sansa and Tyrion is a perfect example of exactly how this is done by someone quite talented at doing it, Michelle MacClaren, whose episode of Breaking Bad, “Gliding Over All,” was all about staring and following stares. (In fact that second link contains images strongly resembling those about to follow, except this time, for ease of reference I’ll keep everyone’s eyelines a consistent color: Joffrey’s yellow, Tyrion’s teal, etc.) So let’s start staring!