Often when you watch a film you will see lens flare. It’s a peculiarly cinematic effect, and not one that you are likely to see with your own eyes in real life. Other times at the movies, say during an action sequence, you might see what looks like droplets of water or blood splash against the camera lens cover. In a film shot in a cinema verité style such as “Children of Men”, you might see the camera shift focus between foreground and background at odd moments, conveying the impression of a cameraman trying to work out the shot while we watch.
What all of these moments have in common is that they are deliberately placed artificial “mistakes” designed to create an illusion of heightened realism. What’s particularly fascinating about this is that we are clearly not supposed to be thinking about them literally, as in “Oh, somebody is on a set making a Hollywood movie, I just saw the lens flare, and something splashed onto the camera lens cover.” If people were to focus on those thoughts, a major goal of the film would be defeated – the goal of immersing you emotionally into a particular make-believe world.
I think what’s going on here is that we are supposed to think, on a subliminal level, that yes, there is someone behind the camera. Only we’re not supposed to think it’s the filmmaker – we’re supposed to think that it’s a fictional camera operator within the world of the film. By deliberately creating artifacts of a camera’s presence – under carefully controlled circumstances – the filmmakers are diffusing our innate resistance to the inherent unreality of films.
For example, there is something totally absurd about the well-known actor Tom Hanks standing around in what looks like the Vatican, a serious and gritty look on his face, while he faces down terrorists under strange and ominously gloomy lighting. After all, why doesn’t one of those nice older gentlemen dressed like a priest ever speak up and say “Hey, aren’t you that guy from Forrest Gump?” But when water splashes against the camera during a moment of heightened physical action, then the makers of “Angels and Demons” are inviting us in on the joke – making us complicit in our own tacit acceptance of this silly fantasy parading itself as something serious.
In essence, we are being asked to pretend that there is a make-believe world in which an invisible cameraman – a sort of meta-character – is magically taking movies that show us what is going on in this alternate world.
This is a tradition that stretches back to far before the invention of cinema. Shakespeare invites us in on the joke in “Hamlet”, by having his eponymous here stage a play within the play. In “The Tempest” Prospero engages us in philosophical discussion about the unreality of plays, and suggests to us that perhaps we ourselves are inadvertently living our lives within a play, for the temporary amusement of an unseen audience.
Charlotte Bronte is up to similar tricks in “Jane Eyre”. At one point the heroine breaks out of the story entirely to tell us; “Reader, I married him.” This is a remarkable statement. The character – not the author – is speaking directly to you, the person holding the book. Of course you know that the character of Jane Eyre does not actually exist. And yet she has spoken to you directly. The sheer affrontery of this act, and your acquiescence to this affrontery, puts you alongside the author, and makes you complicitous in her fantasy-making enterprise. By keeping the strings of the puppet show in plain sight, Bronte is essentially engaging in the deliberate production of lens flare.
I suspect that she would have made an excellent filmmaker.