The Cinematic Role of Eyes

The Cinematic Role of Eyes

By Robert Braders

At first, I had all these grandiose ideas about how I would relate the eyes and cinema. I was going to talk about their use as imagery and all the different abstract concepts they might symbolize (trust, beauty, clarity, Godzilla). I was going to go on about the eyes' importance as a tool for framing a shot – wide angles and zooms and tracking shots, all that stuff. I was going to write pages and pages about Blade Runner because, according to a bunch of film geeks, it is pretty much the end-all, be-all of the eyes in film (That, and that Dali movie where it looks like they're slicing a chick's eye open).

Then, I stopped for a second and realized, "Well, wait... I don't really care about any of that stuff. And, I expect, neither do any of the readers." Well, maybe some of you film majors out there, but I'm sure you've probably beaten all that over-analytical stuff into the ground anyway.

The reason we watch movies is to enjoy ourselves. To think, yes, and maybe to broaden our horizons a bit, but we enjoy movies because they're entertaining. Why put them up on a pedestal when they should be down here partying with us? I'd be doing them a disservice writing this like a ninth grade English essay. Instead, let's just explore some of the more memorable ways in which the eyes have kept us entertained over the years.

A big part of why we watch movies is to see a slice of the human experience, and the eyes can play a big role in expressing that experience. In real life, the eyes are one of the most beautiful, telling parts of our faces, and the same thing can (sometimes) be true on the big screen. The best actors express just as much – or even more – with their eyes than what might show on their face.

Of course, on the opposite end of the spectrum, we have those actors and actresses with very lovely looking eyes, but with absolutely nothing behind them (I'm looking at you here, Jessica Alba).

But, despite some beautiful bad apples, the eyes, in celluloid and in the real world, really do reveal our innermost desires and thoughts. In a movie relatively light on dialogue, like Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, the eyes of the actors become absolutely crucial for expressing the real feelings of their characters, whether its love or sadness or depression.

We watch romantic comedies like When Harry Met Sally or Sleepless in Seattle just waiting for that moment when our two leads finally lock eyes and realize they're meant for each other. We see that moment, that click, and it reminds us of the times we ourselves have felt it, and we're sucked in.

But, at the same time, we also find ourselves intrigued by star-crossed lovers, romances that are doomed to fail. We watch in films like Titanic, Moulin Rouge, even Brokeback Mountain, as hidden or unspoken love can only be expressed through meaningful looks and quick glances aside. Perhaps the most famous instance of doomed love is between Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca. How appropriate then, that Bogart says, "Here's looking at you, kid." Sometimes looking is all you can do.

Clearly, the right set of eyes can hold a whole lot of emotion, but we've only scratched the surface of the plethora of roles the eyes play in movies. Eyes can represent everything from identity (Hugh Grant's Mickey Blue Eyes, Jennifer Lopez's Angel Eyes – although there are other parts she is far better known for), to connections formed and broken, to discovered realizations.

The Val Kilmer movie At First Sight showed us a blind man coming to terms with restored vision, and exploring a world not known to him – all but forcing him to relearn everything he'd ever known. Similarly, the film Vanilla Sky was a remake of a flick called Abre Los Ojos ("Open Your Eyes"), and both films explored the nature of reality and illusion, of things not always being what they seem. To come to their senses, the main characters (Tom Cruise in the American version) had to both literally and figuratively open their eyes to new experiences and to think outside of their common perceptions.

Oddly enough, sometimes the eyes even have a literal role in the movies. There are actually characters who are practically just eyes themselves. Mike Wazowski in Monsters, Inc. is little more than a big eyeball with arms and legs, and quite a few jokes in the movie are centered around his unusual ocular situation – not least of which is his lack of depth perception. The X-Men's Cyclops is a little better off, but he has to keep those goggles on all the time, which must be a bother during photos. And the figurative Eye of Sauron in the Lord of the Rings books is represented as an actual giant, flaming eye in the film series.

Eyes have made their presence known in horror – the drain segueing to Janet Leigh's eye in Psycho, the T-Rex's narrowing pupil in Jurassic Park – and in comedy – Steve Martin's cross-eye-inducing glasses in The Jerk or Marty Feldman's eye-bulging Igor ("It's pronounced EYE-gor!") in Young Frankenstein. Often, the eyes even combine the two genres: gross-out gags involving horrible things happening to the eyes. Frankly, I'm surprised just how often "eye gouging" came up in my hunt for the eyes in film.

It might seem strange, but once you start to think about it, eye buggery – my newly coined term for gross-out eye antics – is a pretty common occurrence in film. Just offhand, I came up with eyes being pecked out in The Birds, Uma Thurman's Bride plucking out Daryl Hannah's eyeball in Kill Bill, Tom Cruise's transplanted eyes rolling down a grate in Minority Report, and the famous scene in A Clockwork Orange where the eyes of Alex, played by Malcolm McDowell, are forced open for brainwashing.

I mean, I suppose these ocular shenanigans say something about our culture, and its obsession with horror and the macabre. But, in a way, these scenes are actually sort of flattering to our eyes. The little guys seem so crucial for almost everything we do, that an attack on them, that the loss of them, seems like an unthinkable taboo. And there's nothing filmmakers like more than pushing the boundaries of our taboos.

In the end, though, the thing that keeps bringing us back to the movies isn't sex, or explosions, or even wacky displaced eyeballs, but stories about real people with real feelings. If you ever watch people watching movies (and I must warn you against it, for fear of freaking them out a bit), you'll notice that the place our eyes tend to drift most is towards the eyes of characters on-screen. We want to understand what they're feeling and thinking, and the eyes are the best place to look. And that brings us to the most important role of the eyes in cinema: They allow us to watch and experience all the films out there, good and bad, meaningful or trite, serious or fun.

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