Between the Eye and the World

The Emergence of the Point-of-View Shot

by Elena Dagrada (Author)
©2014 Monographs 246 Pages


The point-of-view shot is usually perceived as a «natural» device, yet its naturalness is illusory. This book provides an answer to the question: «Where does the point-of-view shot come from?» It investigates the emergence of this filmic form as the product of a culture and its history, unravelling the difference between a point-of-view shot and a character’s subjective viewpoint. In so doing, it shows that what would become the point-of-view shot developed from the interposition, between the eye and the world, of a prosthesis capable of modifying the conditions needed to access the visible, and thus to expand the potential of human vision. Moreover, the book offers inspiration for further research on modern (and postmodern) vision as a mediated vision, an important topic in contemporary debates in the digital media landscape.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: The Archaeology of a Filmic Form
  • 1.1. Early Cinema, Early Spectator
  • 1.1.1. The World As Spectacle
  • 1.1.2. Transformations of the Visible
  • 1.2. The Place of the Look
  • Chapter 2: Frontiers of the Visible
  • 2.1. The Eye and the World, or the Faculty of Sight
  • 2.2. Bigger, Not Closer: Grandma’s Reading Glass
  • 2.3. A History of Filmic Forms and the Historiography of the Cinema
  • Chapter 3: The Circle and the Keyhole
  • 3.1. Clues to a Paradigm
  • 3.1.1. Autonomy
  • 3.1.2. The Line of Vision
  • 3.1.3. Movement
  • 3.1.4. The Matte
  • 3.1.5. Alternation
  • 3.1.6. Gesture
  • 3.1.7. The Punitive Ending
  • 3.2. This Side of the Circle, the Other Side of the Keyhole
  • Chapter 4: Towards Linearisation
  • 4.1. The Look and the Story
  • 4.2. Parataxis and Hypotaxis
  • 4.2.1. Isomorphic Combinations
  • 4.2.2. Polymorphic Combinations
  • 4.3. Linearisation, Centring and the Match Cut
  • 4.3.1. The Match Cut and the Look
  • 4.3.2. From the Enlargement to the Insert
  • 4.3.3. Alternation and Linkage
  • 4.3.4. The Partial Line of Vision
  • 4.3.5. Reading and Writing
  • 4.3.6. The Diegetic Spectator
  • 4.4. With the Naked Eye
  • Chapter 5: The Inner Gaze
  • 5.1. Forms of Vision
  • 5.1.1. The Magic of the Eye Before the Cinema
  • 5.1.2. The Circle and the Focus
  • 5.1.3. Forms of the Dream
  • 5.1.4. Attractions and Apparitions
  • 5.1.5. The Memory Eye
  • 5.2. From Magic to Introspection
  • Bibliographic References
  • Index of Names and Film Titles
  • Series index


This study originates from a conviction and a question. The conviction – today a shared belief, common to most film scholars – is that the set of filmic forms dominating Western institutional cinema is the product of a culture and its history, rather than the expression of what was once presumed to be “naturalness”. The question concerns the emergence of one of the most fascinating filmic forms, commonly called the point-of-view shot, which represents on the screen the characters’ gaze, showing what they see from their own optical vantage point.

The relationship between this conviction and this question may appear quite unrelated. Actually, it relies on the fact that, even today, ordinary spectators perceive the point-of-view shot as a “natural” device, which everyone understands without necessarily realising that it needs to be understood. And yet, to claim that the set of filmic forms dominating Western cinema is the product of a culture and its history means precisely to question the apparent naturalness of its devices. This study, then, investigates the emergence of what we call today a point-of-view shot. It examines the first period in cinema history – generally referred to as early cinema – in which some films include images representing what a character sees, usually looking through an optical instrument or a keyhole, and thus showing some views mediated through the evidence of a gaze. It tries, therefore, to provide an answer to the question: “Where does the point-of-view shot come from?”, analysing early films in which the representation of the gaze makes its first appearances, so as to trace the driving forces which brought it about. That is, the forces which were conducive to the emergence of this form, rather than another.

In doing so, this study formulates three hypotheses.

The first is that the form assumed by the representation of the gaze in these films does not spring from nowhere. On the contrary, it derives from scientific, iconographic and performance practices which existed well before the advent of the cinema, and which converge in the cinema in the form of a trick, of an optical artifice, displayed as an exciting attraction. When examined in the light of their historical context, these early occurrences do not appear to be dominated by the urge to build a solid and linear set of film editing rules, nor a film narrative “grammar”. Rather, they seem to respond to the idea of showing spectacular views, autonomous and in movement, often magnified, mechanically reproduced and otherwise inaccessible to the human eye. Indeed, the main addressee ← 9 | 10 → of these views is not so much the viewing character in the film as it is the spectator in the audience, for whom they were actually conceived.

The second hypothesis is that this same form flows somewhere. More precisely, it feeds into the perfection of an editing practice capable of linking shots through a character’s gaze – among other things – in order to tell stories. It enables, then, the emergence of a pattern apt to establish a link between the subject and the object of a look, which, over time, is codified into a match-cut practice that will be called an eyeline match or a point-of-view shot, depending on its specific form. This editing practice, quite as much as those especially related to the articulation of space and time, will be of crucial importance in the process of elaborating that set of filmic forms mentioned above, which are indeed also key features in the development of cinema as a narrative system.

Lastly, a third hypothesis concerns the fact that, in spite of the name that the point-of-view shot will acquire over time, these early occurrences of the representation of the gaze are, at first, unrelated to either narrative purposes or to the expression of the characters’ “point of view” or subjectivity, for which specific forms are developed from the very beginning. In early cinema, in fact, the expression of a character’s subjectivity is a prerogative of those mental images – oneiric, visionary or fantastic – which constitute the representation of a kind of inner gaze, i.e., visions originating inside that character’s mind. In other words, since its very beginning cinema has elaborated specific forms for the representation of the gaze on the one hand, and for the representation of subjectivity on the other.

This study, however, also originated long ago. It started out as my 1982 graduation thesis for the University of Bologna, dedicated to the classical point-of-view shot from a formal and narratological perspective. It comes as well from my subsequent 1989 PhD dissertation, presented at the University of Bologna and devoted to the emergence of the point-of-view shot in early European cinema. Both studies generated several publications, which are partly merged in this book, updated and expanded with new data, and enriched with further in-depth examinations. This has given me the opportunity to “rethink cinema” – as this book series called “Rethinking Cinema” requires – in the light of the conviction and the question mentioned above.

The last three decades, in fact, have been of crucial importance for both cinema and film studies. The 1978 Congress of the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) held in Brighton, often considered as a turning point in early cinema studies, was responsible for more than renewing the interest in the first period of cinema history. Greatly to its credit, it brought together for the first time archivists ← 10 | 11 → and academics from different backgrounds, demonstrating the value of combining their knowledge and investigative perspectives. In this way, it showed academics that the results achieved by the theoretical and methodological surveys of previous decades could be fruitfully integrated with a philological and historical perspective, in order to contribute to a renewal of cinema history. And it showed archivists that theoretical and methodological knowledge could contribute to a profitable reconsideration of the historical and philological perspective. In short, it demonstrated to scholars that cinema history should no longer be undertaken without the contribution of theoretical research and, vice versa, that theoretical research should not be undertaken without an understanding of the historical context.

In a way, this study has converged with these dynamics. On the one hand, it encountered the wave of past theoretical film studies, in investigating a specific filmic form and in differentiating the filmic technique from subjectivity as a stylistic pattern, challenging commonplace ideas about equating the point-of-view shot with the “character’s point of view”. On the other hand, it encountered the forward-looking wave set up by the Brighton Symposium, in investigating the emergence of this filmic form as the product of a culture and its history, questioning its apparent naturalness and contrasting, on historical bases, the tendency to mistake the point-of-view shot for subjectivity (specifically, the viewing character’s subjectivity).

Of course, in the last three decades cinema and film studies have also shifted their main area of interest from textual to contextual issues, at times privileging the exploration of historically and geographically situated cinema cultures over the formal aspects of films. Thus, some of the topics investigated here could seem to be less urgent than before. However, the question at the heart of this study is still crucial, and addresses a topic that is very much alive in the field of textual analysis as historically conceived. Consequently, rethinking cinema in the light of this question – and of the hypotheses formulated to answer it – can provide new knowledge, as well as a stimulus to further research.

Notably, it can inspire further research on modern (and postmodern) vision as a mediated vision: an important topic in contemporary debates in the digital media landscape. In these debates, the point-of-view shot is often considered to be fundamental, especially for its innovative ways of overcoming the classical pattern and its diegetic anchoring, through recourse to a mediating machine that underscores its technological nature. The contemporary discussion, however, cannot make any real progress if it ignores the early period of cinema history; that is, it cannot really be pursued without a deep knowledge of the origins of the point-of-view ← 11 | 12 → shot and the peculiar features of its first appearances. As a matter of fact – and in spite of their reciprocal specificities – the on-going changes in point-of-view structure cannot be fully understood without considering the significant similarities between early representations of the gaze and contemporary digital media point-of-view-shot devices, themselves strongly affected by technological innovations at the turn of the last century.

This study can provide the proper instruments for such understanding. Tracing the emergence of the point-of-view shot at the turn of the previous century, which was marked by a true perceptual revolution thanks to immensely important optical innovations and scientific advances, it enables us to understand to what extent the above-mentioned similarities are probably not accidental. It shows, in fact, that what will become the point of-view shot has developed from the interposition of a prosthesis between the eye and the world – a not-yet-diegetic eye – capable of modifying the conditions needed to access the visible, and thus to expand the human potentialities of looking.

Likewise, this study can contribute to current debates on early film spectatorship as a situated experience, which needs to be historicised from a transnational perspective as well. That is, it suggests ways in which rethinking issues around transnationality can be a productive concept for early cinema history, while also legitimising the idea that some features of early cinema spectators exist outside national diversifications. Many recent studies on this topic have demonstrated the richness of studying spectatorship in its various concrete manifestations – along the lines of gender and ethnicity, or by focusing on instances of local, regional or national reception. However, this study considers early cinema spectatorship on a more general level, and in a broader cultural context, analysing the specific forms of early occurrences of the representation of the gaze in order to outline what makes them representative of a common, culturally and historically situated experience. That is, what makes them symptomatic of the above-mentioned experience of the perceptual revolution, modelled into a specific filmic form.

Last but not least, this study leaves me deeply indebted to several people that I would like to thank here. First of all, I want to thank all the professionals from the BFI National Archive and the BFI National Library in London, the Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek in Berlin, the Centre National de la Cinématographie in Bois D’Arcy (Paris), the Cinémathèque Française in Paris, the Institut Jean Vigo in Perpignan, the M.o.M.A. Archive in New York, the Cineteca del Friuli in Gemona, the Cineteca Nazionale in Rome, the Museo Nazionale del Cinema in Turin and the Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna, all of whom helped me ← 12 | 13 → very generously, efficiently and with the greatest competence, providing access to both film screenings and research materials.

Among colleagues and friends who helped me in various ways, providing aid and support at one time or another, I am extremely grateful especially to Carmen Accaputo, Silvio Alovisio, Rick Altman, Aldo Bernardini, Giorgio Bertellini, Giorgio Biancorosso, David Bordwell, Paolo Caneppele, Pierre Chemartin, Paolo Cherchi Usai, Paola Cristalli, Stella Dagna, Marta De Vincenti, André Gaudreault, Claudia Gianetto, Mauro Giori, Tom Gunning, Laurent Le Forestier, Jacques Malthête, Laurent Mannoni, Jordi Pons i Busquet, Sarah Pesenti Campagnoni, Isabelle Raynauld and Carlo Alberto Zotti Minici.

I would like to give my very special thanks to Frank Kessler, who read the manuscript at various stages and was always very generous with valuable indications and suggestions. I am extremely grateful to Janet Bergstrom, who read the manuscript in its final phase and was also generous with precious advice and support. I deeply thank Dominique Nasta, who welcomed this book in this series and was in turn most generous with suggestions and comments. Emilie Mentz from P.I.E. Peter Lang deserves special thanks, too, for her kindness and for her patience.

Finally, this book would not exist without the invaluable support of Elaine Burrows, who helped me first when I was doing research for my PhD dissertation, and who has helped me most recently to render this study in English, providing not only suggestions and essential clarifications, but also corrections in documentation. If these pages are clear it is thanks to her; all the errors are mine. I like to think of our precious collaboration between academic and archivist as being a special part of the Brighton legacy. ← 13 | 14 →

← 14 | 15 →


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (May)
cinema historiography of film interposition in view Contemporary debates in the digital media landscape filmic form Point-of-view shot Character's subjective viewpoint
Bruxelles, Bern, Berlin, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 246 pp., num. ill.

Biographical notes

Elena Dagrada (Author)

Elena Dagrada is Professor of Cinema Studies at the Università degli Studi di Milano. She was a member of the Executive Committee of Domitor (the international association for the study of early cinema) from 1993 to 1997 and wrote the second edition of its International Bibliography on Early Cinema (1995). Among her other books are La grande rapina al treno. The Great Train Robbery (Edwin S. Porter, 1903) e la storia del cinema (2011), and Le varianti trasparenti. I film con Ingrid Bergman di Roberto Rossellini (2005), winner of the Limina prize for the Best Italian Film Studies Book and published in a second enlarged edition in 2008. Since 2012, she has been in charge of Mimesis’ series, «Cinema/Origini».


Title: Between the Eye and the World
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
246 pages