I’ve recently been re-watching M*A*S*H, as I have a tendency to do every few years. I was struck by how innovative it can be, particularly when watching the episode ‘Point of View’ – which is shot entirely from the point of view of a soldier under the care of the 4077th. Thinking back on the release of Peep Show, I remember a lot of talk about how new and original it was. But shooting from the point of view of characters within a film or TV series is hardly a new phenomenon (yes, I realise Peep Show is hardly ‘new’ at this point).
1927’s Napoléon, by Abel Gance, is considered the first example of the technique. The director used POV shots to convey what it felt like to be part of a fist fight. The technique grew in prominence as figures like Hitchcock began using it sparingly in many of his films. But these uses of the technique were mere blips within a larger presentation of ordinary third-person visual storytelling.
It wasn’t until 1947 that any real experimentation began: actor Robert Montgomery decided to try his hand behind the camera in an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Lady in the Lake. The noir thriller the film was based on was written from the first-person point of view, something Montgomery wished to emulate in the film. As a result, the film is shot almost entirely from the main character’s point of view (also portrayed by Montgomery). Chandler, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter himself, disliked the technique used in the film, despite it arguably being truer to the source material than a standard approach would have been.
While the technique certainly made the film stand-out for trying something different, critics at the time were less than impressed. The New York Times was dismissive of Montgomery’s efforts:
In making the camera an active participant, rather than an off-side reporter, Mr. Montgomery has, however, failed to exploit the full possibilities suggested by this unusual technique. For after a few minutes of seeing a hand reaching toward a door knob, or lighting a cigarette or lifting a glass, or a door moving toward you as though it might come right out of the screen the novelty begins to wear thin.
Has the technique been used in ways that haven’t felt gimmicky over the course of an entire film, episode, or series? We are, naturally, conditioned by what we know. Who is to say that if the first film weren’t done to look like a pov shot, we wouldn’t find third-person shots to be the gimmicky technique?
I would argue that, despite it only lasting 23 minutes, ‘Point of View’ from M*A*S*H proves this technique’s worth. It feels relevant and works very well to convey the emotional experience of being stuck in a bed with strangers in charge of saving your life. To make matters worse, the writers give the soldier a problem with his throat so that he is unable to speak for the duration of the episode. For a series that was ubiquitous by this point, most viewers would know exactly what they were in for – humour, war, and something heart-wrenching. But ‘Point of View’ kicked things up a gear: watching it, you can feel the panic of the soldier, the desperation. It is truly an arresting piece of television.
Peep Show took this technique and ran with it, having the entire series shot pov style. The series was highly successful, though I found its overuse of the shooting technique irritating. For the most part, the pov is used to make the viewer feel uncomfortable – an extension of the awkward humour that defines a good deal of British sitcom humour (for example, The Office). But Peep Show did change the game on another front: suddenly we had pov head-hopping. Instead of being given a single character’s perspective, the camera jumped from person to person for added comedic effect.
Peep Show popularised head-hopping pov to the point where the style showed up elsewhere, like 30 Rock. In the American sitcom, they further added to the textuality of the shots by augmenting the ‘view’ of each character to reflect their personality. For instance, peppy Kenneth sees the world as though it were The Muppet Show, while Jack’s vision is constantly overlayed with text as he judges every item’s (and person’s!) worth.
POV style cinematography may have been around for 90 years, but it still is far from common. The upsurge in first-person video games, especially with virtual reality’s growing popularity, may influence the usage of pov camera styles. It will be interesting to see what the next 90 years will bring in the use of this filmmaking technique.