Here’s a weird thing that probably means nothing:
So, one of my favorite movies of all time is Silence of the Lambs, the best Hannibal Lecter property by far because it’s the least interested in Hannibal Lecter (aside from Manhunter, which has other, Michael Mann-related issues). Silence is about seeing and being seen; it takes a fairly rote thriller novel and cuts down to the compelling, repellent core of misogyny and violation. It’s no surprise when the climactic conversation between Lecter and Agent Clarice Starling hinges on the idea of “coveting.” Every aspect of the film helps to demonstrate how desire can turn the desired into an object
The camera grapples with this theme, too. This has been discussed in more detail and with more clarity than I probably can here, but whenever Jodie Foster’s Starling talks to a male character in the film, the scene uses a shot reverse shot method, except that the actor stares directly into the camera while speaking to her whereas, in the reverse shots, Foster looks just off to the side of the camera while speaking. I’m sure I’ll bungle this explanation, but: The effect reverses the implicit gaze of the camera, forcing us to feel “seen” and exposed the way Foster is leered at by every authority figure or male counterpart she meets in the story. It’s really unsettling and brilliant, and it doesn’t feel like a gimmick because it’s so central to what the movie wants to explore.
A television show I caught up with recently also does the “staring into the camera” trick a lot: The Good Wife. Especially in its most recent season finale, which is bookended by characters staring directly at the screen.
I’m not sure it makes any sense at all to compare the two, but I can’t help but be a little fascinated by the contrast. The Good Wife, after all, just so happens to also focus a lot on the idea of being seen. Its main character, Alicia Florrick, has to wrestle with being “the famous politician’s wife” as she tries to create her own (private and public) identity. I won’t talk specifics because I don’t want to ruin the show for anyone (it is shockingly good; you should watch it immediately), but many plots and subplots revolve around Alicia reacting to public perception. The show loves playing with modern tools of social media and uses them, in part, to show how any public figure is fighting a desperate, losing game if they try to claim control over how (and whether) outsiders see, label, and judge them. (The show loves technology in general; the opening scene of the season 5 finale has all the characters staring at screens beyond the camera, because they’re all struggling to communicate via Skype-esque virtual meeting software.)
The Good Wife is also breathless, usually running two or three major, serialized plots alongside its case-of-the-week format. To that end, the “facing the camera” framing usually happens with a cavalcade of different faces, asking or responding to questions. (This is a lawyer show, so those questions are usually part of a deposition.) The effect is destabilizing and deliberately confusing; for a few moments the audience isn’t really sure who’s facing what or saying which thing to whom. It’s like the camera is a head on a swivel, whirling around to try to focus on the important thing before it really knows what that is. Even once you know where you’re supposed to be looking, the head-on look suggests aggression and intimidation, which fits nicely with the show’s Chicago-based, no-holds-barred aesthetic (and its characters’ preferred style of practicing law).
I’m not building to a greater, coherent point here; like I said, I just find the comparison fascinating, both as a reminder of Silence’s focused power and of how much smarter The Good Wife is than you’d think from its title and home channel.