Beyond Identification: Daniel Morgan & Kyle Stevens Discuss Point of View and Camera Movement

Kyle Stevens (KS): Thank you so much for this work. I can’t remember the last time a book challenged our habits of reading film form so powerfully. Your arguments apply to most of film history! The way you lay out so clearly how camera movement can express affective, aesthetic, or ethical positions (or all three at once) towards characters and worlds, even as it delivers them to us, is astonishingly compelling. But more than this, I appreciate how you show that we must always be open to revising how we see via camera movements, and how we think or know we see via them, such that our views may never be settled, but we will be maximally open to all perspectives, and, in turn, hopefully, maximally sympathetic to all. That is to say, in your view we are responsible for our responses to films. This feels like a huge shift to me, certainly away from recent emphases on, say, affect, where audience members are essentially acted upon by a film. But before we talk specifics, I want to ask about the tone here. It’s rare for a book that engages so deeply with philosophical aesthetics to be so damn readable! Did you have a particular aim to be conversational? 

Daniel Morgan (DM): I’m very glad that you found it so! I do of course want it to be readable, which seems to be a crucial point of writing scholarship within the humanities (and elsewhere, too). It’s not about simplification, ignoring complexity, or sidestepping theory (precisely the opposite), but to write with clarity and precision about complicated topics. I’ve tried to use the detailed descriptions of specific sequences from films as a way to give a reader—and my prose—something to latch on to. But it is also, as you say, about tone, about wanting there to be a voice within the book, one that is speaking, perhaps even conversationally, to the reader.

KS: The relatively casual tone certainly helps us understand your main project here: to unlearn the impulse to say that whatever we call “the camera” when we talk about a movie is an ersatz subject for the audience member, or that we de facto identify with the camera in terms of point of view. This simple recommendation, which you show through so many close readings to be necessary, undoes so much of how we have long thought about cinematic syntax. 

DM: I’m not entirely sure that the tone of the book produces that result, but the familiar ways we have of talking about films—and the importance of the camera to those are central to my argument. I’m not trying to dispel them, and insert a new terminology, but rather to think about why we talk about films in the way we do. Part of the reason that I was so interested in Serge Daney’s worry about his potential response to “the tracking shot in Kapo [1960],” for example, is that it seemed to me to be an extended reflection on a fairly ordinary—and very interesting—way of thinking about the moving camera, and its potential traps for a spectator. That’s not opposed to formal analysis, or to theoretical speculation; those three elements are woven together. So yes, in that way I think that my interest in the language we use to talk about film matters as a way to provide material for analysis, and hopefully I’m able to do the work necessary to use those vernacular or ordinary terms of criticism to open up new ways of thinking.

KS: The point of view of the camera isn’t just a matter of aesthetics, of course. The alignment of audience and camera is at the heart of discussions of the politics of representation. Questions of who we sympathize with, who we judge, etc. are often resolved by appealing to point of view. But you argue differently: “The logic I’m proposing runs counter to how we normally think of a ‘subjective shot,’ which binds the look of the camera and the look of the audience to the look of the character” (101). These are epistemic as well as aesthetic questions—why do they matter? 

DM: Well, this really is the big argument of the book, that much of film theory—and, implicitly, film criticism as well—has been caught on the idea that we relate to the world of the film by identifying with the camera in some way or other. One of the arguments I’m trying to make by focusing on camera movements, the formal technique where this identification seems at its highest point, is that we relate to the world of the film—and to the film image—in different ways. Of course our relation to the film can be by way of the camera: I’m arguing that it need not be, and that it indeed often isn’t, so that the presumption that our engagement with the film supervenes on identification with the camera not only mistakes the terms of that relation but in so doing artificially limits how we understand what spectators are doing.

Behind this point, which I try to show through careful analyses of sequences, and which I diagnose as the core “epistemic fantasy,” is a deeper argument against the concept of identification. There is a moment in Richard Wollheim’s essay “Imagination and Identification”—an essay that, along with related work by Bernard Williams, Richard Moran, and Christopher McCarroll, is a line of theoretical writing that helped me form the central ideas of the book—where he expresses a worry about the use of identification. It’s a passage where he’s talking about how Freud describes the formation of the adult out of infantile experience, and Wollheim notes that Freud designates two different ways this happens: object-choice and identification. “Identification,” Wollheim writes, “is the more primitive of the two—or, from the adult’s point of view, the more regressive.” His worry is twofold. First, that identification is such a dominant force that to treat it as primary will mean that it is impossible to separate something like imagination—and the act of imagining—from the terrain of identification. Second, that identification, in the technical sense, is something that is fundamentally infantile, about the earliest ways we form a sense of the self, and fails to get at the more complex mental or cognitive positionings that imagination captures.

I suppose you could adduce this argument in line with older challenges to psychoanalytic theories of art and film, which were often clustered criticisms of the use of infantile concepts to explain mature behavior. But that’s not what I mean here, and it’s also not what I think. My concern is with the limits of identification in cinema and media studies, and the way it is focused around a single relation that the viewer forms, one that is able to then dominate other modes of engagement. It makes it difficult to talk about the complexity of our response to films. You can see this in Metz’s work, where he talks about the way that our identification with the camera has to be primary. He of course knows that we identify with characters, or with emotional situations, but a couple of curious things happen when he starts to talk about this. First, he lapses into the colloquial use of identification—“As for identifications with characters…”—which stands in sharp contrast to the more technical uses of the term that he deploys in speaking about our relation to the camera. Second, he remarks that these relations “are secondary, tertiary cinematic identifications, etc.;… they constitute secondary cinematic identifications in the singular.” The casualness of the “secondary, tertiary… etc.” gets me. It’s as if these are not worth specifying, or marking out, as a distinct set of problems. As I argue in the book, the idea seems to be that once you have the relation to the camera figured out—and see it as one of identification—everything else is just taken to fall into place. (The prevalence of the subjective shot in thinking about camera movement, from film to video games, echoes this assumption.)

The model I develop in Chapter 3, and which underlies the entire book, is based instead on imagination. It’s a topic that has never quite caught on in cinema and media studies—explicitly, anyway—but it’s important to a lot of the questions that we ask about images. One of the central things that imagination brings into the discussion is the issue of visualization, that when we imagine something we picture a scene, a setting, a situation. And the way we do this runs together the epistemic and aesthetic questions that matter are so important to how we think about moving-image media: what kind of access to this scene do we have? from what perspective are we seeing? what does the mode of visualization tell us about what’s going on? (These are topics discussed in detail by the Williams/Wollheim/Moran/McCarroll line, which draws as well on Sartre’s Psychology of the Imagination.) In a sense, the argument is that imagination can account for our epistemic engagement with films, including but not limited to our relation to the camera, and also that our imagination can be mobilized by different expressive or aesthetic forms in a way that allows us to engage with films in a more complex and full manner.

KS: As is clear by now, throughout the book, you complain that camera movement has only been seen in terms of point of view. Yet, at the same time, you don’t abandon point of view entirely. Indeed, it is in many ways the subject of chapter 3. How is your concern with camera movement and point of view different than previous accounts?

DM: In some ways, my answer is similar to the previous one. I argue throughout the book that most accounts of the moving camera, whether explicitly articulated in theoretical arguments or implicitly assumed in critical discussions of films (or sequences), have privileged the idea of point-of-view, and especially the point of view of the camera. I argue that point-of-view is instead an effect of the way the camera moves, that it is not the a priori of the way we grasp the world through the camera but rather produced by the camera’s mode of expression. This means, I try to show, that our point-of-view, even though a camera is present—that is, even though we do see from the position of the camera—does not have to be at the camera itself. To be clear, my argument does not mean that point-of-view does not exist or is irrelevant; I’m concerned with explanatory primacy, and getting away from these models of thinking about our relation to the camera that artificially restrict what we can imagine the camera to be doing.

But your question does lead into another issue. For a long time, as I argue at the outset of the book, camera movement was the forgotten topic of cinema and media studies. Of course it existed—who could ignore it? But apart from important work by David Bordwell, Vivian Sobchack (especially), and Jennifer Barker, it was hard to find much sustained writing on it, a fact which came into sharp relief when compared with montage or sound (or film’s relation to photography, for that matter). Yet in between when I started work on this project and when it was published, there has been an immense explosion of amazingly good writing on camera movement, such that I now feel as though I am part of a wave. Patrick Keating’s The Dynamic Frame is the most obvious example here, along with his follow-up book on The Prisoner of Azkaban. But there is also fantastic work by many others: Kristen Whissel; Jordan Schonig; Katie Bird; Adam Hart; Ryan Pierson; Scott Richmond; Shane Denson; John Powers; and so on. I’ve learned greatly from them, and in many cases they seem to be anticipating some of the arguments that I’m making in The Lure of the Image. Hopefully these projects will continue to resonate, and we’ll wind up with much more supple theoretical models for thinking about what the moving camera can do.

KS: Another aspect of your positive argument that I find interesting is your idea that camera movement invites an epistemic fantasy, namely, that we want to be cameras that move throughout fictional worlds. We have, you write in the chapter that shares the book’s name, “an underlying desire… to identify with the camera, to be with it as it moves through the world” (45). Can you talk about how you came to this idea? Was there a lightbulb moment? An ur-text?

DM: ​​I’m not sure there was a lightbulb moment for me, but if there was it was probably in thinking about—and in teaching—Welles’s Citizen Kane. As I argue in the book, it’s a film that’s largely about the seductiveness of epistemic desires, how we want to know things, and about how aspects of style can make us forget—as spectators—everything that we already knew. That’s how I read that final great camera movement, anyway, as carrying us inexorably to the sled and in so doing making us forget everything we just learned about the irrelevance of one piece of knowledge (the sled, of course, tells us nothing we didn’t already know from the rest of the film, but it feels as though it does). But the shot that I kept coming back to is the second visit to Susan Alexander’s nightclub. The first time we go there, as you’ll remember, there is the bravura dissolve through the window that is (semi-)hidden by a flash of lightning. The second time, though, Welles just does a straight dissolve through the skylight with no pretense of continuity—yet the effect is basically the same. Trying to figure out why, and to think about how the camera functions in such sequences, was part of what led me to the idea of “epistemic fantasy” as a way of explaining how we think about the camera, especially the moving camera, as enacting a fantasy to move through the world in a particular way.

But there’s also a different way to answer your question, one that is less about the conceptual “aha!” than the practical revelation. In Fall 2011, when I was teaching at the University of Pittsburgh, I taught a graduate seminar on camera movement with the intention of preparing material to write a book on the history and aesthetics of the moving camera. I found myself fixed on questions about how we should think about the place of the camera within a fictional world, and of the spectator’s relation to the world by way of the camera. Is the camera constitutively anthropomorphic? What is at stake in thinking about the presence of a real camera (as opposed to a camera-effect)? Do we necessarily identify with the camera as it moves through the (fictional) world?

Eventually, this seminar would lead to Chapters 2 and 3 of The Lure of the Image—I think the basic ideas of those chapters emerged in the months that followed. But it also led to an impasse of a different sort. Since I had been meaning to write a wider history of the aesthetics of the moving camera—obviously, Patrick Keating’s book covers an important piece of that terrain, but I didn’t know he was writing it then, and anyway I can’t do the kind of research he does—it felt like I couldn’t make progress on the book. Every approach to the topic eventually led back to my uneasiness with the omnipresence of point-of-view. Eventually, a colleague at the University of Chicago—Jim Chandler—somewhat kindly reminded me that point-of-view and camera movement were in fact perfectly substantial topics, and that a book could be comprised of those two topics alone. So that was an “aha!” moment of its own, and really allowed me to see the ideas I had as a coherent project. The rest of the book flowed relatively smoothly after that.

KS: Often your close readings of examples show us how attending to camera movement yields insights into character’s thoughts, feelings, and desires. For example, you write that “The character psychology [Fritz] Lang creates, as far as it exists, is less a function of anything the characters do or say than of the formal means used to present them to us” (109). As you know, I’m invested in how rarely film theory has taken psychological realism up as a serious topic beyond considerations of dialogue and performance. Would you agree with me, that part of what you’re revealing here is the vital role of camera movement in conveying character interiority?

DM: Yes, absolutely. I think part of the issue is that we tend to treat characters in films as though they were real people. There are good reasons for this, and Robert Pippin (among others) has worked through the way that this tendency has important ethical (as well as aesthetic) implications. But I come back to the important fact of cinema itself in the display of characters. I don’t quite mean the sense that cinema is a transforming agent, that the face—or the voice, or what have you—is changed and made magical. It’s something more basic. The only access we have to a character is through the film, and that access is determined by how they are shown (or presented). What we take their interiority to be, the nature of their subjective experience, is not determined by immediate access to their mental state—as we often get, say, in literary fiction—but shown from the outside. (It’s part of the reason that Merleau-Ponty thought film was the art form most suited to a phenomenological approach.)

So we’re back to the point I made earlier. Identification envisions a direct relation to the character, at best filtered through a prior identification with the camera. With imagination, by contrast, it is a whole mode of visualization: from whose perspective—if anyone’s—are we seeing this person? what can we understand about them from the way they are shown? how do we imagine ourselves standing in relation to them? It’s not that identification, at least in a colloquial sense, is out of the picture, but rather that it is a secondary effect of the act of imagining—which is itself predicated on the mode of expression of the film. So, to respond more directly to your question, I hope that I’m providing a more flexible way of thinking about psychological realism, not to displace it from the way we think about film but to show how it is necessarily inseparable from wider considerations of film form.

KS: My last question for you is a bit more personal. You draw examples from such a wide range of movies. It’s a real cinephillic romp, and a reader senses your affection for Lang, [Max] Ophüls, [Terrence] Malick, etc. Yet there’s also an anxiety that we might be caught on their lure, and from Plato to Ovid to Barthes, you trace a history of thinkers who both love and fear the image. Do you place yourself in this lineage? Are you ambivalent about film?

DM: There are a couple of different questions here. One is my relation to cinephilia, and to the book’s use of films. As with most of what I’ve written, the book is born out of a love of film, and of watching films. An effect of this is the way I’ve tried to include a large array of examples in the book, whether in more sustained discussion or just, as in the catalog of perceptual games on p.83-84, to show the general prevalence of a technique or tendency. There are of course absences. One is experimental film, which means that I don’t think it’s as evident to a reader how important this body of work—especially the post-war American avant-garde—has been for my thinking about camera movement. Another is animation, not only familiar techniques but also more experimental uses such as the play with perspective in Caroline Leaf’s work or in Richard Williams’s The Thief and the Cobbler. (Ryan Pierson and Hannah Frank taught me a lot there.) And at some point I considered writing about what it would mean to think about the moving camera in virtual reality, especially in the final chapter where I talk about what happens when more than one camera is being used (here I’ve been thinking a lot about recent work by Ariel Rogers and Brooke Belisle).

But the issue of cinephilia runs deeper. The Lure of the Image is not a historical study, nor is it constrained by a national cinema or a specific set of filmmakers (despite the final part of the book). So I wound up choosing the films in a somewhat haphazard way. Some of them are obviously canonical, and they come with discourses attached to them—which is certainly helpful in my attempts to articulate the approach that has dominated thinking about camera movement. The choice of others was more contingent. They are films that I saw in theaters, or taught in classes, or even saw on late-night television—the ubiquity of the patterns of camera movement I began to see, going beyond the “spectator-as-camera” model, helped convince me that there was a different model at work. (I remember suddenly being shocked by a need to replay a moment in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift to note a surprising shift in point of view.) The book is an incomplete record of viewing, and an incomplete testament to films that I love and/or have found interesting.

The other part of your question is more personal, and about my own relation to the image—and to the film image in particular. “It’s complicated,” I’d answer. I think that, for many people, cinephilia is a natural state, our first step towards being film scholars. For others, and here I include myself, it’s cinephobia, not a hatred of cinema but the difficulty of coming to terms with the intensity of the cinematic experience and the emotions it generates (Sarah Keller has written well on this). I remember that as a child, the first theatrical film my parents took me to see was Superman, and the power of the sound and image just of the opening credits made me run out of the theater screaming (I fared better the next time with Stop Making Sense). Even today, I can still feel a bit of a thrill when the lights go down and the projector illuminates the screen, a sense of complex emotions around the loss of control over my perceptual field. It’s a feeling that’s also tied, I think, to my own anxieties around fiction films rather than documentary: there is nothing I could do, or could ever have done—or even that anyone could have done—to intervene in the unfolding of the events onscreen. One of the great things about cinema is that there’s a fluid line between phobia and philia, that cinephobia can become cinephilia—fear its own form of love, anxiety its own source of pleasure.

Read more about The Lure of the Image: Epistemic Fantasies of Moving Image Media (2021) on the University of California Press website.

<strong>Daniel Morgan</strong><br>
Daniel Morgan

Daniel Morgan is Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago. He is author of Late Godard and the Possibilities of Cinema (2013) and The Lure of the Image: Epistemic Fantasies of the Moving Camera (2021).

<strong>Kyle Stevens</strong>
Kyle Stevens

Kyle Stevens is Assistant Professor of Film Studies at Appalachian State University. He is the author of Mike Nichols: Sex, Language, and the Reinvention of Psychological Realism and co-editor of the two-volume collection Close-Up: Great Screen Performances. His work has appeared in Critical Inquiry, Cultural Critique, Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, Adaptation, Critical Quarterly, New Review of Film and Television Studies, World Picture, and several edited collections.