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Face to face with the killer: Silence of the Lambs

Vis-a-vis with the killer

By Hans BellerShot-reverse shot - About the classic assembly of a standard situation

Exchange of words as an argument in dialogue, exchange of eyes full of love or hate, exchange of fire at the final showdown: exciting situations in the narrative cinema for the audience. Standard situations for assembly in the dream factory: shot-counter-shot, cut-counter-cut. This interior-stage pattern has been used in film for 100 years. If it were only meant as a simple assembly principle with the bipolar pair of terms that became the norm in the film industry, it would be worth a reference in a manual on film assembly, but the secret behind its successful application would not be revealed. What is the constant fascination of this montage juxtaposition in the film?


On the one hand, there is the nimble change between two camera positions. Instead of swinging back and forth, whatever kind of »two-way relationship« is dynamized in the film through cut-counter-cut. Of course, you can also switch between two dialogue partners, which is done again and again in order to break away from the convention. Although this achieves an antithesis that differs from the working thesis shot-reverse shot as a common solution, it is nevertheless measured against the assembly principle that has become classic. That is, shot-reverse shot becomes the "norm even in absence" (Harun Farocki). The situation is different with documentary films, the panning becomes a criterion for authenticity, because the uninterrupted spatial-temporal reference guarantees that the scene is free from manipulation through montage, which can always conceal an uncheckable intervention in the course of events. Shot-reverse shot shortens the process in the feature film, in that the pan no longer has to be cut out because it is left out when turning.

In addition to the dynamics, the attraction of the variety in the shot-reverse shot is obvious. Exchange of words, looks and shots, the terms already refer to the tried and tested means of assembly. Montage has ensured variety for the audience since the beginning. The viewer never knows exactly what he will see after a cut. In short, his perception of the film is destabilized by the cut, because in contrast to the flowing everyday perception, the visual system, which is closely linked to the brain, has to readjust itself every time in order to get over a cut. This is why the shooting angle, the eyeline matching (line of sight) and the 180 ° action radius in front of the camera (camera axis) are also important in the case of a shot-reverse shot, so that there is no confusion in the spatial mediation of the scene, the eyes do not pass one another, the camera does not jump over the axis incorrectly (axis jump problem). All of this has been determined by a set of rules from the mid-30s in the Hollywood system that has become classic. The studios' industrial production method has therefore also established assembly principles which, once they have been tried and tested, are part of the repertoire that has been adopted by everyone and which, thanks to the routine, allow filming quickly and efficiently. This also made it possible to integrate the necessary economic aspect for the film industry into the shot-reverse-shot principle.

But the economy of the film industry alone is not a criterion for the audience for its constant affection for the paired arrangement through montage, which at the same time harbors the risk of monotony. The smell of ready-made goods stubbornly sticks to studio productions, mainstream films and Hollywood cinemas, because standardized cut film material does not obey artistic autonomy, but rather the law of value of a capitalist industry. Can shot-backshot now serve as a touchstone for the old controversy between art and commerce?

On the part of the makers (production, direction, camera, editing, etc.), the exemplary nature of shot-reverse shot has prevailed and proven itself. Because the directors can differentiate the proximity-distance relationships of the actors by varying the setting sizes. For example, the close-up traditionally has an intimate character as a close-up. The over-shoulder shot keeps the audience under cover because they can look over the actor's shoulder. And the point of view shot (POV) puts us identifying in the gazing protagonist. The starting material can also be trimmed again during assembly, the possibly poor performance of an actor can be cropped by shortening him and showing more of the better part of the partner. Establishing a causal relationship between the viewer and what is seen, between action and reaction shots and their length, is now at the discretion of the editors.

But why do the unpredictable viewers so willingly accept this constant film process in the micro area of ​​montage? The permanently unruly audience punishes the film industry by regularly allowing calculated films to flop despite all the ingredients (award-winning scriptwriters, star cast, professionals behind the camera, during assembly, etc.) and thus sabotaging the profit-making of the big industry. Shot-reverse shot should have reached a level of saturation and spread deadly boredom in the dark cinema, if it weren't for a strange, secret gratification connected with switching between shot-reverse shots.

An example. In the exposure phase of The Silence of the Lambs (1990, Jonathan Demme, S: Craig MacKay) finds the first meeting between FBI candidate Clairice Starling (Jodie Foster) and Dr. Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins). In this initiation of the duo, the direction and assembly play through the whole gamut of the audience's initial ambivalence towards the protagonists. The dialogue turns into a power play between the partly insecure police level and the cannibalistic serial killer. In the ping-pong of the dialogue, Hopkins first collects points after he was introduced by a POV Foster. He stands statuesque, soon asks her to sit down, thereby creating a gradient by looking down at her. Hopkins ’fixed gaze meets Foster's evasive gaze when he asks her about the obscene sentences of the cell neighbor and sniffed at her skin cream brand in his bulletproof glass cage. He also dominates with the close-ups of his face, while she can be seen in a half-close. The audience has meanwhile forgotten that the sovereign psychopath is locked away because the bullet-proof glass between the two is overlooked in the shot-reverse shot, the faces come so close with their eyes. This would not have worked with a normal cell grid.

The seemingly liberal attitude within shot-reverse shot forces the audience to switch back and forth equally between Hopkins and Foster. But there is more to it than a kind of equality between protagonist and antagonist in the case of shot-counter-shot, because that would mean seeing the matter outwardly only from the point of view of filmmaking. The relationship trap that viewers get into lies deeper in the effect, the psychological mechanisms triggered by shot-counter-shot: We change our identities at lightning speed, switch between good and bad, man and woman, perpetrator and victim, are so protagonist and antagonist! Hence our sympathy with Hopkins, not only with Foster, i.e. we identify without hesitation with a cannibalistic serial killer, because who doesn't have fun with the monster at the end of the film?

In the dark of the cinema, a shot-reverse shot enables the kick of an otherwise horrific change of identity in everyday life. At the same time playfully and without having to take responsibility for it, otherwise harmless viewers take part in the most monstrous crimes on the screen in their souls. During a film, thanks to the shot-counter-shot, they are alternately Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. An assembly convention invited her to get to know both sides of her innermost being. And that is always mysterious. 2003-07-01 15:11

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