Frans Zwartjes’ Spectator depicts seeing and its relation to cinema as an act of erotic voyeurism. While the McGurk effect established vision as the dominant sense over hearing, and Hollis Frampton’s Nostalgia examined the relation between sound and visuals, Spectator is about the very nature of cinematic observation and its sexuality—the film image as an object of the ultimate expression of desire. Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight sought to overcome our conventionally acquired sense of vision, and instead present a new visual language free of the shackles of language. Frans Zwartjes is more interested in the act of seeing and depicting images, as thematically expressed through the binoculars as the main object in Spectator. The short film from the 1970 seems very relevant to the present-day music industry and marketing age of sexually explicit content used to catch the modern spectators’ attention.
Frans Zwartjes’ Spectator: Cinema As Voyeurism
It would be exaggerated to say that Spectator is a self-referential film, or at least in the obvious sense that Funny Games or Poetic Justice are. Frans Zwartjes’ film is far more subtle, and if there is a reference, it is to the voyeuristic nature of cinema as the object of desire.
Spectator’s cinematography is mostly composed of extreme close-ups, with a particular focus on the eyes and the details of the faces of the two characters and the binoculars. The close-ups express the desire for proximity to the object of sexual interest—the other person. The field of depth is shallow with little to distract from the foreground. The camera movements, mostly pans, are abrupt, and so is the film’s editing: they parallel the characters’ anxious and curt movements guided by sexual desire. The lighting is dim, adding erotic connotations to the film’s look. The camera zooms in and out neurotically—as if it’s frantically searching and scanning for more images.
Spectator: Frans Zwartjes & Merleau-Ponty
The film manages to convey a lot through its minimal plot and complete lack of dialogue. The only linguistic clue to the themes of the movie is the one-word title of the movie, but that’s more than telling. The raw energy of the film comes from it’s expressive style and the enhancement of its ideas through cinematic elements. Chris Marker in La Jetee used still images to express its ideas of lifelessness and time travel, and similarly Spectator’s technical elements support the movie’s theme of observation, depiction, and sexual desire.
Spectator draws a parallel between seeing and touching. The two characters repeatedly alternate between observing each other and sexually touching each other. It is as if “seeing” is synonymous to touching and even co-existing.
It is a philosophical examination of the way we perceive the world reminiscent of phenomenological writers such as Husserl and particularly Marleu-Ponty. The latter wrote in The Primacy of Perception:
The perceived thing itself is paradoxical; it exists only in so far as someone can perceive it. I cannot even for an instant imagine an object in itself. As Berkeley said, if I attempt to imagine some place in the world which has never been seen, the very fact that I imagine it makes me present at that place.
This passage is very relevant to Spectator’s diegesis and the characters observing each other closely as the ultimate expression of intimacy. But it is also relevant to the outside non-diegetic spectator, the viewer of the film Spectator who is invited into this world of sexual desire through close-ups, zooms, and frantic camera movements. Thus the film’s title is ambivalent, as there are two kinds of spectators. And finally, Merleau-Ponty’s passage is ultimately relevant to cinema as an art form, particularly to its potency to induce the sense being “present at that place” through its realistic representation of images.
The Binoculars As A Sex Toy
The attempt to place the viewer inside the film action is most explicitly present in gonzo and point-of-view pornography. In a way, that’s the ultimate breaking of the fourth wall, as the genre not only calls attention to its filmness, but also invites the viewer inside its diegesis. Although also showing full frontal nudity, Spectator is far more sexually restrained. The film’s sexual tension comes not from action, but observation, and the main objects of interest are the binoculars and the eyes, not the genitals of the characters. The erotics of the image seen through the lenses substitute the flesh and capturing the image of sexuality stands for the ultimate sexual act. Instead of acting, the male prefers to observe the naked female with binoculars from the other side of the room. Thus the film does not conclude with a sexual climax, but with the symbolic turning off of the light in the room.