A NON-NARRATIVE GAZE: The Snuff Between The Action

It is a popular video on the web at the moment; yet it is eerie and creepy since there is an actual murder that takes place off camera about two minutes in. In other words a police officer killed John T. Williams thirty feet off camera so we have a quasi snuff film. Whether by accident; it falls into a zone that could also be considered a clever experimental art film of reality in which there is no narration or director…..

Williams, a Native American woodcarver, was fatally shot by Seattle Police Department officer Ian Birk on August 30th. A preliminary Seattle police investigation has found that the shooting was not justified because their are discrepancies over whether Williams’s knife was open or closed, and whether or not he was facing Birk and heading toward him, as Birk, who says he felt threatened, says. Williams, who had drinking problems, was also partially deaf.

Have we become more cautious, even paranoid, about how we break a silence, less able to test our radical ideas in the open—all because there is a greater chance of the record of such conversations coming back to haunt us, even once we have changed our minds?

Just after 1:00 minute, the video shows Williams shuffling across the street—carrying a board and minding his own business—in front of Birk’s squad car. Birk jumps out and yells, “Hey, put the knife down.” Then Birk follows Williams out of the frame. After two more commands (audible while the men are off screen) there are shots fired that killed Williams. A woman is also shown crossing the street who appears to witness the whole thing from maybe 20 feet away.

After 2:00, Officer Birk says, “Ma’am, he had a knife and he wouldn’t drop it.”

At 2:30, backup cars arrive.

At about 3:00, a voice (probably Birk’s) says, “Yeah, I am okay. He had the knife open.” (The investigation has since said that police found the knife closed.)

At 5:10, another officer can be heard telling Birk, “You did the right thing. Hang in there, Ian.”

"Hackman plays a paranoid surveillance expert, who monitors other people’s conversations and phone calls. The twist in the tale comes, when he feels that the conversation of a couple, has a hidden meaning in it. He is obsessed with it, and begins to play the tape over and over again, to search for the meaning. "

What is odd is the camera angle; and the way all the ambient sound hangs on the listener without editing. Scenes of emptiness like ambient music of a repetitious tape loop. The question is the ambiguous nature between narrative, conversation and the space between.If, as Maurice Blanchot asserted, conversation can be defined as a series of interruptions—perhaps the most powerful of which being the neutrality of silence—then writing, which is a kind of silent speech, may itself constitute an interruption to the way conversation is imagined. Writing about the tragedy just adds poignancy to the event. The police video represents outtakes, being peripheral footage that gets edited out of narrative film or what could be called the emptiness between monumentality.

"Seattle street artist No Touching Ground uses narrativ

ages to write the natural world back into the urban landscape. This mural is but one chapter of a larger series the artist has created as part of the conversation on social justice in Seattle. The John T. Williams piece is more than a metaphor, it is a memorial, dedicated to those caught between conflicting worlds, living fully in neither. "---

One interpretation of “conversation” or narrative is the act of overhearing. Recall Gene Hackman in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. Hackman’s character—Harry Caul—is a professional wiretapper whose obsessive records of conversations are haunted by the possibility of fatal consequences. One job may have cost a man his life; another job, the one underway during the film, may prevent another man’s death. The film, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May 1974, was a fortuitous echo of the Watergate Scandal that came to a boil in the summer months of the same year—a political event that churned around the overhearing of conversations, thereby accentuating wiretapping as an invaluable political tool—provided that one does not get caught.

“Anyway, the car stops at an intersection and a couple of unremarkable people walk by. One is a shuffling man who is doing something with a wooden board he is holding. This is when the audio recorder of the camera is turned on – and the audio will prove to be the strangest and saddest part. The officer is listening to a sports radio station, and the smooth, jovial, faux-learned banter of the radio hosts continues right through the killing and the subsequent arrival of a fleet of police cars and anxious, posturing officers.

The officer walks in front of the car and then out of frame, drawing his gun. You hear him yelling at someone to drop a knife, and immediately five shots ring out. A passing woman, in the frame, jumps at the sound, but keeps on walking. The banal sports talk continues. We see nothing but asphalt and buildings The flow of traffic continues. Someone has just died, out of frame, and all we will see is the city’s reaction – which is almost non-existent. By the end of this curiously unemotional footage, the soundtrack has changed to the screaming, roaring live coverage of a football game. A politically-minded MFA student couldn’t have made a more heavy-handed commentary on life lived through multiple media streams.”

The Seattle police video is almost  a pure cinema of the gaze. . Further, the gaze introduces a stimulus to these immobilized bodies: it is not simply an abstracted vision, but one enmeshed in somatic responses; the public which must come into the film, or whose reactions must form an integrating part of the film: It is an ultimate explicit sense of suspense, since the spectator is the first to”know”.

"I call Psycho the mother of all audience manipulation movies not just to make a pun about the infamous mother figure in the film. I feel that this is a true statement. Hitchcock intentionally made the movie mess with his audience."

This ideal point provides a pure form of ideology insofar as it feigns to float freely in an empty space, not charged by any desire — as if the viewer were reduced to a kind of absolutely invisible substanceless witness of events which take place by themselves, irrespective of the presence of a gaze. By means of the shift from I to a, however, the viewer is always  forced to face the desire at work in his seemingly “neutral” gaze, which at best can be distracted. We may recall the well-known scene from Psycho where Norman Bates nervously observes the car with Marion’s body submerging in the swamp behind the mother’s house: when the car stops sinking for a moment, the anxiety that automatically arises in the viewer — a token of his solidarity with Norman — suddenly reminds him that his desire is identical to Norman’s, that his impartiality was always false. His gaze is de-idealized, its purity blemished by a pathological stain, and what comes forth is the desire that maintains it: the viewer is compelled to assume that the scene he witnesses is staged for his eyes, that his gaze was from the very beginning included within it.

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Williams, who came from a family of wood carvers, suffered from diabetes, deafness, seizures, mental illness, and drug addiction. He had been arrested over 100 times.

Photos released released to the public show the knife was folded in a closed position when it was recovered minutes after the shooting.

“Remember the very first thing that we saw was the picture of the knife wide open that the police department put out,” Tim Ford, attorney for the Williams family, told KOMO News. “And we know now that, as we’ve shown here, that the knife was closed.”

The Police Department’s Firearms Review Board found that the shooting was not justified.

Birk was ordered to surrender his gun and badge. An inquest into Williams’ shooting death is set to begin on Jan. 10.

…This neutral and even distracted gaze is what avant-gardists in all fields of narrative have been playing with for a century. And now we have a video that unintentionally achieves what so many artists have tried to contrive: this avoidance of conventional drama-making, this lack of direction and dramatic choice, actually add more layers of meaning and symbolism to this horrifying film. Here in practice is the principle of artistic minimalism: you take away to get more.

In her article Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Laura Mulvey explores the different gazes within film,

“that of the camera as it records the pro-filmic event, that of the audience as it watches the final product, and that of the characters at each other within the screen illusion. She describes the “male gaze common to several films made in the “classic Hollywood period. In discussion of how to create a new gaze, She articulates,

“However self-conscious and ironic Hollywood managed to be, it always restricted itself to a formal mise-en-scene reflecting the dominant ideological concept of the cinema. The alternative cinema provides a space for a cinema to be born which is radical in both a political and an aesthetic sense and challenges the basic assumptions of the mainstream film. This is not to reject the latter moralistically, but to highlight the ways in which its formal preoccupations reflect the psychical obsessions of the society which produced it, and, further, to stress that the alternative cinema must start specifically by reacting against these obsessions and assumptions. A politically and aesthetically avant-garde cinema is now possible, but it can still only exist as a counterpoint.

In the film Marie Antoinette, director Coppola is taking Mulvey’s ideas for a new avant-garde cinema. She creates a true post-Mulvey, post-classic avant-garde piece, one that questions the male gaze and creates an entirely new form of identifying and gazing amidst techniques that break with cinematic tradition. The film is ultimately about Antoinette—she is the character with whom we identify, her gaze is most important (aside from our own, as the audience). In making Antoinette and her desires the focus of the film, Coppola is giving us a female protagonist, and a film that’s a true embodiment of feminist counter-cinema.

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